published Tuesday, March 6th, 2012

Hamilton County Schools JROTC leader, deacon charged in sex abuse

  • photo
    Thomas McConnell, 65, is charged with aggravated sexual battery after he reportedly fondled a 5-year-old girl while sitting at a restaurant Sunday. Contributed photo

The head of Hamilton County schools' Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program faces charges of aggravated sexual battery after he was accused of groping a 5-year-old girl in a restaurant Sunday.

Thomas C. McConnell, 65, of Hixson, a retired Army colonel, runs the school district's junior ROTC program, which has about 25 instructors at about 10 local high schools.

Hamilton County school district officials said McConnell has been placed on suspension pending the outcome of the case.

McConnell also is a deacon at St. Jude Catholic Church in Chattanooga. Since his arrest, the Diocese of Knoxville issued a statement that McConnell will be suspended from the ministry pending the outcome of the investigation.

The incident took place while McConnell was eating at a restaurant and was holding the child. A couple told police they noticed him inappropriately touching the girl.

The woman, who had an iPhone, recorded video of the incident that shows the girl shoving McConnell's hand away several times as he continued to touch her, according to the arrest report.

A waitress also noticed McConnell's actions and told her manager about the incident, according to the arrest report.

The child was taken to the Child Advocacy Center where a forensic interview was conducted. The girl said she was embarrassed by McConnell's actions and did not want to talk about it. When police interviewed McConnell, he said he was "unconsciously touching" the child and "was not aware what he was fully doing," according to the arrest report.

He also told police, "in no way does he believe he did anything wrong."

McConnell's case is rare.

It's seldom that child sex abuse cases are caught on video, witnessed in public or brought to light the same day, said Chattanooga police Sgt. Jerome Halbert, who oversees five detectives who work family investigations.

"When you get video with the statement to corroborate, it's a lot easier," he said.

Witnesses may be challenged in court, but video captures the event.

"You can question all you want about me, but what can you say about this video?" Halbert said.

The challenge detectives face working child sex cases is that they are often reported after time has passed. The department often sees cases that are 6 months old and occasionally works cases that are 13 to 14 years old.

Interviewing a child about those details to establish a timeline can make it difficult to prosecute, he said.

"A lot of child abuse cases we do work are old. Since they are old, that's when you run into issues with a timeline. You don't know the time. You don't know the date, the address and all that other stuff," Halbert said.

In McConnell's arrest, he described it as a "solid case."

"It's very rare that we get footage," he said. "You had people who witnessed it first hand who also recorded it. It made it sort of cut and dry."

The junior ROTC program that McConnell oversees is funded by the Department of Defense and Hamilton County.

McConnell makes an annual salary of $108,455.10, according to records. He did not return a phone message seeking comment.

His next court date is set for March 20 before General Sessions Court Judge Ronald Durby.

Staff writer Kevin Hardy contributed to this report.

Contact staff writer Beth Burger at bburger@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6406. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/abburger.

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