Sides rest case involving former teacher

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SANDPOINT — A Bonner County jury could start deliberations today in the case of a former Lake Pend Oreille High School instructor accused of having a sex with a former pupil.

The state and defense rested their respective cases in chief on Wednesday in the trial of Nichole Noel Thiel. Bonner County Prosecutor advised 1st District Judge Barbara Buchanan that he will be calling rebuttal witnesses today, clearing the way for jury instruction and closing arguments.

Thiel, 48, is charged with sexual battery of a teen for allegedly having sex with a 16-year-old student in December 2015, when he was 16 years old. At the time, Thiel taught culinary arts and other courses at LPOHS, where the teen was enrolled as a student.

The teen testified of the sexual encounter on Tuesday and admitted that it was something he sought after. He also reiterated on the stand that his account of the rendezvous at Thiel’s rented Sandpoint condominium was truthful.

Bonner County Prosecutor Louis Marshall called three additional state’s witnesses on Wednesday.

Sarah Wood, a student support official at LPOHS, testified that the teen disclosed the sexual contact after he was sent from class for being disruptive. She also told jurors that the teen began the conversation by inquiring if she was interested in younger men.

Wood reported the disclosure to Principal Geoff Penrose, which was then forwarded to Sandpoint Police for investigation. Although the alternative high school’s staff and students are encouraged to have one-on-one relationships inside school, Penrose said there are boundaries. Hugs are acceptable, but Penrose said teachers are encouraged to employ shoulder-to-shoulder embraces.

Students aren’t allowed to ride alone in a teacher’s vehicle or to be in phone contact with them. The teen alleged that he had engaged in both of those activities with Thiel.

Thiel was also briefly placed on leave after she was seen allegedly kissing the teen prior to the sexual encounter. Thiel was reportedly distraught and students were consoling her.

Thiel denied kissing the boy, although Penrose determined the physical contact was inappropriate.

“Her description of it would be outside our professional standards,” said Penrose.

Thiel was placed on leave for a day and ordered to take a six-hour course online. She was reinstated and finished out the school year. She was later hired as vice principal and athletic director for the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, but was placed on leave when the sex abuse allegations surfaced.

Sandpoint Police Det. Michael Aerni told jurors that they subpoenaed Facebook records and discovered messages offering a letter of reference and praise as one of her favorite students, although it wasn’t clear who the recipient was.

Thiel’s counsel, Michael G. Palmer, then called current and former LPOHS staff who found the teen to be unaware of personal boundaries and in some cases “creepy.”

Former English teacher Kim Woodbridge said he made her feel uncomfortable, while another teacher, Brenda Woodward, said he was manipulative and appeared to see teachers as his peers.

“I wouldn’t take his word alone on anything important,” said art teacher Randy Wilhelm.

Palmer also called former classmate Hailey Shropshire to testify to the teen’s openness about recounting past sexual exploits, which drew objections from the state. Marshall said the teen’s sexual past was irrelevant, but Palmer disagreed.

“I think that it’s relevant to his character,” said Palmer, who described the teen as “hypersexualized.”

Buchanan ruled that testimony about the teen’s sexual past was protected by a rape shield law, but did allow Shropshire to testify about the teen’s community reputation for truthfulness.

Shropshire disputed the teen’s testimony that he had often sat on Thiel’s lap in class and testified that she never saw anything untoward between the teen and the defendant.

Shropshire told jurors she did not trust the teen and said his disclosure about the sexual conduct was boastful and even flirtatious.

Thiel’s husband, Brian Baumgaertner, took the stand to dispute the teen’s testimony about his wife’s personal grooming habits and sexual tastes.

Thiel herself took the stand to explain that the Facebook messages were actually sent to a former female student who was in the process of buying her first home.

“Did you engage in sex?” asked Palmer.

“No. Not at all,” Thiel replied.

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