Winfield bound over on sexual assault charges

ALPENA –A former Alpena Public Schools special education teacher accused of having sex with one of her students for nearly three years has been bound over to 26th Circuit Court after a preliminary examination that lasted almost three days in 88th District Court.

Heather Winfield, who taught at Thunder Bay Junior High School, is charged with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct with child younger than 13 years old and individual counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct during the commission of a felony, third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a child aged 13 to 15 years old, second-degree criminal sexual conduct with a child younger than 13 years old, acosting a minor for immoral purposes, and using a computer to commit a crime.

On Friday, Judge Thomas LaCross said there is enough evidence for the case to proceed to trial.

If convicted, Winfield faces up to life in prison.

On Friday, investigators took the stand and explained how they questioned and verified many of the alleged victim’s claims. The boy, who is now 14, said the affair began when he was 11 years old and that he and his teacher had intercourse more than 100 times, including in many hotel rooms in Alpena.

The News does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.

Michigan State Police Trooper Robert Mitchell was the lead investigator on the case and took the stand Friday. He said police collected evidence that included hotel receipts and bank and credit card statements for rooms purchased on the travel website Priceline.com. In total, Winfield rented 16 rooms in a three-month span, where it is alleged she had sex with the boy, Mitchell said.

In court on Thursday, Winfeild’s accuser provided details, such as watching the Detroit Lions play on Jan. 1, 2017 and a time Winfield was forced to check into a small motel near Starlite Beach because other hotel rooms were filled because of a hockey tournament in Alpena, that Mitchell said police were able to use to corroborate parts of his story.

Receipts and bank records also corroborated the boy’s recollection of one of the encounters at the boy’s grandma’s house. He said Winfield came over after making a purchase from Fantasies Unlimited in Alpena and used the purchases with him. Mitchell confirmed to the court that he learned Winfield made the purchase and matched the item numbers with the boy’s description of the products.

The prelim had its fair share of tense moments Thursday when the defense questioned the boy about some of the claims he made. He claimed he had had sex with Winfield in the presence of other people in the room or nearby and he also admitted that he told police they’d had sex “maybe 1,000 times,” though he later said 100.

On Friday, the defense told JLaCross the case should be thrown out because the boy lacks credibility, as proven by some of the outlandish claims he made. The defense also pointed out that, besides the hotel stays, there was little other physical evidence.

The boy’s three smartphones and Winfield’s phones were sent to the MSP crime lab and there were only three pieces of potential evidence found: A partially nude photo of Winfield that the defense believed was doctored by the accuser, a short video that shows the boy lifting Winfield’s shirt and bra, and an ultrasound image the boy said Winfield sent him indicating she was pregnant but which the defense said was likely downloaded from the internet because the image includes a portion of a Google search bar.

There was also no DNA evidence found in tests done to blankets, pillows and cushions from places the boy claimed to have had sex in the Winfields’ home. One of the test results did show the materials were recently cleaned.

Before announcing his decision Friday, LaCross recessed the courtroom for about an hour to sort through the evidence and testimony.

“If I only had to judge on the boy’s testimony and nothing else, I would toss this case and have no problem doing it, because of the exaggeration he indicated,” LaCross said when he returned to the courtroom. “But we have evidence that substantiates and corroborates his circumstantial evidence that there was an improper relationship between two troubled people. Are his exaggerations to be believed? Absolutely not. But does that mean we aren’t to believe anything? No, no, no.”

A date in circuit court has not been scheduled.

Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at sschulwitz@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com.