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Trial of former Akiachak school teacher accused of sexual abuse begins

Judge Terrance Haas swore in 15 jurors on July 24 at the Nora Guinn Justice Complex in Bethel. He went over jury instructions and read all 15 charges against John Mark Hammonds. Hammonds is accused of sexually abusing several young girls who lived in Akiachak where he worked as a teacher.

“This is a case about betrayal. A betrayal of trust, a betrayal of the most sacred responsibility in a relationship between a father and a daughter, and the betrayal of a teacher, a coach, and a self-proclaimed pastor to the community of Akiachak," said Assistant Attorney General Bailey Woolfstead, the state's prosecutor, in her opening statement. 

Woolfstead listed the children who say that they were victimized by Hammonds. Some are minors, and some of the victims’ family members will testify; KYUK does not name victims of sexual assault and will not be identifying any of them without their consent.

Woolfstead laid out a timeline of Hammonds’ life leading up to his arrest. He was married and has two biological kids with his then-wife. They also adopted three children. The family moved from Utah to the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Then Hammonds moved to the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta by himself when he got a job teaching in Tuluksak in 2017. He transferred to Akiachak about a year later.

The couple divorced in 2018. Four of the children were adults and no longer living with them, but the youngest was a minor at the time. The couple’s custody agreement required that the child live with each of the parents for a year at a time. During the summer of 2021, the child was sent to live in teacher housing with Hammonds in Akiachak before he was arrested.

Woolfstead told the jury about a time that Hammonds was accused of molesting one of his child’s friends during a sleepover. But she also went into detail about modifications he made to his apartment.

“He changed the doorknob to the bathroom door. He physically took out a fully functional working doorknob that had a lock on the inside and put on a new doorknob that could not lock the bathroom,” Woolfstead said.

Woolfstead said that Hammonds got a bunk bed with an added trundle bed so that he could have more young girls over for sleepovers. She told the jury that Hammonds installed a shower curtain that had an image of a topless mermaid. She said that he also drilled a peephole through the bathroom door.

“You're going to hear from some of these children about what those sleepovers looked like. You're going to hear that he made the children who came into his house take a bath. He thought they were dirty. And they couldn't just take a bath on their own or shower on their own. They were all required to be together, three 11-or-12-year-old, pubescent-age girls being required to get naked and get in the bathtub and bathe together,” Woolfstead said.

And in an incident many of the girls repeated during their testimony, Woolfstead said that Hammonds would purchase underwear for them. Woolfstead said that each young girl would pick out their own pair, and Hammonds would put it inside a zip-close bag with their name written on it with a Sharpie.

Hammond’s public defender, Nathaniel Hainje, pushed back against Woolfstead’s narrative.

“These kids are going to talk about how sleepovers went much like Miss Woolfstead said: there was a routine. The kids would come. They would take a bath. They would be provided with other clothes,” Hainje said.

But Hainje said that Hammonds gave the girls underwear because there was a known hygiene issue with one of them. He asked jurors to keep a few things in mind while the trial progressed.

“A delayed report. No physical evidence of a sexual assault. Lack of direct corroborating evidence. Inconsistent timelines. Misinterpreted parental behavior. Ladies and gentlemen, this is going to be a long trial,” Hainje said.

Hainje also said that there were inconsistencies in the testimonies of the girls who Hammonds is accused of abusing. And he reminded jurors of their obligations.

“I anticipate what you're going to hear is that some of these children are gonna say that Mr. Hammonds made them uncomfortable. Keep in mind that this uncomfortability is not any of the allegations that Mr. Hammonds is on trial for,” Hainje said.  

During his opening statement, Hainje asked the jury to do three things:

“Keep an open mind. Don't jump to any conclusions just because one witness has testified. Listen carefully to everything before you decide anything about this case,” Hainje said.

Hainje reminded the jurors that if Hammonds has committed a crime, the state has to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. He said that Hammonds must be presumed innocent.

“Carefully analyze all of the evidence that's presented to you. Your job is to be critical about the evidence. To analyze it. You're not solving a mystery, you're to hold the state to its burden,” Hainje said.

There are up to 30 witnesses scheduled to testify against Hammonds. The trial is scheduled to last three weeks.

Francisco Martínezcuello was the KYUK News Reporting Fellow from November 2022 through January 2024. He is a graduate of UC Berkeley School of Journalism. He is also a veteran of the United States Marine Corps.
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