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WITH VIDEO: Winfield found not guilty on most counts, guilty of accosting a child

News Photo by Julie Riddle Heather Winfield, center, reacts to the jury’s verdict in her sexual assault trial, announced today in Alpena’s 26th Circuit Court.

ALPENA — Jurors on Thursday found former Alpena Public Schools teacher Heather Winfield not guilty on most charges after 17 hours of deliberation at the conclusion of Winfield’s sexual assault trial.

Jurors found Winfield guilty on one count of accosting a child for immoral purposes. She faces a possible sentence of up to four years in prison and 25 years on the Michigan sex offender registry.

Winfield faced accusations she engaged in a two-year sexual relationship with a former student when he was 11 to 13 years old. Jurors determined the prosecution did not provide sufficient evidence to prove the boy’s claims she had sex with him hundreds of times between the summers of 2016 and 2018.

The News does not identify alleged survivors of sexual assault.

“While this is not the outcome that we had hoped for, the credit for this conviction can only be given to the victim, who has shown great courage and strength throughout this entire process,” Alpena County Prosecutor Cynthia Muszynski said. “My hope is that, with this conviction, the victim can finally start the healing process.”

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Winfield maintained her innocence since the beginning of the investigation, defense attorney Matt Wojda said after the jury’s verdict, announced at about 6 p.m. Thursday.

“We want to thank the jury for paying close attention to the evidence,” Wojda said. “We’re very pleased with the result, and it proves the system works. As she testified, Heather made some mistakes and is owning them. We hope that this verdict allows all parties to begin moving forward.”

During jury deliberations, Judge Roy Hayes dismissed one charge, that of using a computer to commit a crime, determining it did not apply to Winfield’s case.

Hayes will sentence Winfield at a date yet to be determined.

RELATIONSHIP BEGINS

During the trial, which spanned most of three weeks, the prosecution depicted Winfield as a predator who won the trust of the boy, his family, and the community to allow her to carry on a sexual relationship with him, beginning when he was 11.

Her accuser actually held the power in the relationship, Winfield’s attorneys countered, saying the boy abused and threatened his one-time teacher and sexually assaulted her when he was 13.

As a sixth-grader with severe disciplinary struggles and a traumatic past, the student improved under Winfield’s instruction, by most accounts. Taking the troubled student on as a special project, Winfield invited him on family vacations and gave him expensive gifts, eventually allowing him to stay at her home for days and weeks at a time.

According to Winfield, who testified this week, she developed an addiction to helping the boy and would not give up on him — even, she said, when an early affection for her turned violent and he began hitting her and her children, at one time allegedly holding a gun to Winfield’s head.

When a jilted girlfriend in October 2016 showed suspicious social media messages between Winfield and the boy to school officials — including Winfield’s reply of “cheater pants” when the then-12-year-old implied he had a male bodily fluid on his hands — Winfield resigned from her position at Thunder Bay Junior High School.

Documents obtained by The News in 2019 through Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act suggest APS had confirmed Winfield at least communicated inappropriately with a student and that she resigned from APS before the board could vote on whether to fire her.

At the time, the alleged victim denied any assault by Winfield.

A few months later, Winfield booked a flurry of hotel nights — eight in the space of three weeks, and as many in the three months following — at Alpena hotels. Winfield said the rooms were for parties, pool use, and escapes from fights with her husband.

The alleged victim said he and Winfield used the hotel stays for sex.

ALLEGED ENCOUNTERS

According to the boy, sexual encounters began months earlier, in the defendant’s home. He testified that, once encounters began in July 2016, he and Winfield had sex every time he stayed at her house, often three to seven times a day.

During their first hotel stay, he said, they had sex 12 times in one night.

The jury could not believe the words of the now-17-year-old, defense attorneys said — especially allegations he and Winfield had sex while in bed with her other children, on a couch while her husband was in the same room, and, more than 100 times, in a public Alpena park.

Such outrageous assertions could be true, an FBI expert in the sexual assault of children testified.

Sexual predators, who often hold positions of authority over children and have the trust of their community, target vulnerable children and win them over with gifts, time, and attention, she said.

Such offenders often engage in sexual activity with their victims in unexpected places, such as in the presence of others and sometimes even with others in the same bed, the expert testified, with no knowledge of the specifics of the Winfield case.

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DISCLOSURE AND INVESTIGATION

In July 2018, two years after the alleged victim later claimed the sexual encounters started, the boy told police Winfield had sexually assaulted him.

According to the boy, he disclosed the relationship because he was tired of it and wanted it to stop.

According to Winfield, he went to police following a stormy encounter between the two several days after he choked, hit, and raped her.

The alleged victim testified he remembered nothing about the night of the alleged rape.

After a six-month investigation, police arrested Winfield in January 2019.

At least 36 witnesses testified in the trial that began Sept. 7 with jury selection held in Alpena’s APlex to accommodate the large jury pool required for a sexual assault trial.

Originally scheduled to last until Friday, the trial spilled over into this week as attorneys entered more than 100 pieces of evidence and debated numerous points of law.

Winfield remains free on bond until her sentencing.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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