FARGO — A former West Fargo teacher has been found guilty of a felony charge of luring a minor by computer.
A Cass County jury returned the verdict for 59-year-old Ronald Jeffrey Thompson on Friday, Oct. 15, after about 4 hours of deliberation.
He faces up to 10 years in prison. Judge Tristan Van de Streek granted the defense's request to release Thompson on bail while he awaits sentencing.
A date for sentencing wasn't set Friday, as a presentencing investigation and risk assessment must be completed first. That could take several weeks.
Prosecutors argued during a three-day trial that Thompson initiated an online conversation in late October 2019 with a detective who claimed to be a 14-year-old Florida girl named Gabi. He was in an online chatroom titled "Adult women looking for sex," according to the defense.
Thompson requested "Gabi's" email before moving the conversation to Google Chat. Using an email with his real name, he started requesting photos of the girl, asked if she had a microphone so they could chat and initiated a video chat the detective never answered.
Thompson then inquired about what the “girl” fantasized about and talked about sex. In one online conversation that Thompson had while working at a West Fargo high school, he told the detective what he would do to “Gabi,” seemingly roleplaying having sex with her.
After finding out Thompson was a career and technology education teacher in West Fargo, the detective contacted the West Fargo Police Department, saying he was concerned about Thompson’s access to students.
Thompson resigned immediately after a Feb. 2 interview with police about the investigation. A teacher for eight years, Thompson taught at West Fargo and Sheyenne high schools.
West Fargo Public School administrators wanted to remove Thompson from his position when they learned about the investigation shortly before Feb. 2, West Fargo Police Detective Derek Werner said in court. Police asked them to wait to act so officers could obtain a search warrant and preserve evidence, Werner said.
Police determined he did not target local students.
Officers found an image of a nude young girl in Thompson’s possession, Cass County Assistant State's Attorney Ryan Younggren said. A possession of certain materials prohibited charge was dismissed ahead of the trial. Younggren said his office is reviewing the case, and he may refile the charge.
Defense attorney Jeff Bredahl argued Thompson didn’t commit a crime as laid out in North Dakota law. The former teacher did not set up an in-person meeting with a minor.
The conversations were morally offensive but not illegal, Bredahl argued. Claiming Thompson was entrapped by a fantasy, Bredahl painted his client as a lonely, broken man looking for companionship online after not having sex with his wife for 10 years.
Thompson didn’t have to meet a child in person to be found guilty, Younggren said. The prosecutor argued the act of encouraging a child to perform for Thompson over messaging qualified as luring.
Thompson used his real name, occupation, age and location when talking to the detective, Younggren said, arguing it was not fantasy but real for the defendant.
Thompson lives in Valley City and is employed, but not as a teacher, the defense said.
He doesn't pose a risk to the community, Van de Streek said in allowing Thompson to be released on bail. Part of his conditions include not having contact with children and staying off the internet.
West Fargo Public Schools declined to comment on the verdict, noting Thompson hasn’t been employed by the district for eight months.