published Wednesday, March 21st, 2012

Former substitute teacher pleads guilty to non-sexual charges in Catoosa County

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    Tonya Craft speaks to the media in her parents' East Ridge home after a jury found her innocent on 22 counts of child molestation, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery.
    Staff File Photo by Angela Lewis

RINGGOLD, Ga. — A Chattanooga man who claims he was falsely accused of child molestation in the same judicial circuit that unsuccessfully prosecuted Tonya Craft on similar charges pleaded guilty Tuesday to nonsexual charges.

James Combs, 64, was accused of touching three fifth-grade boys inappropriately when he was a substitute teacher at Boynton Elementary School in Ringgold, Ga., in February 2010.

  • photo
    Staff photo by Dan Henry/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Tonya Craft's defense attorneys Clancy Covert, left, and Scott King prepare to file a motion for child custody at the Hamilton County Courthouse on Wednesday morning.

After the four counts of child molestation were lodged against Combs in Catoosa County, he contacted Scott King, the attorney for Craft.

Craft is the former Chickamauga, Ga., schoolteacher who gained national attention after she was accused of molesting three girls, one being her own daughter. She was acquitted of 22 charges of child molestation, aggravated child molestation and aggravated sexual battery in 2010.

Combs said he planned to fight the charges, but he was convinced to take a plea deal on nonsexual charges to avoid the risk of losing a trial. His maximum sentence for the child molestation charges would have been 40 years in prison.

"There's a small risk of losing, but a great consequence," Combs said. "You do what you have to do."

Combs was offered a plea deal that King said was rare -- lowering the charges to three counts of cruelty to children in the second degree and serving six years on probation. Since Combs is a first offender, his record will be expunged at the end of his probation as long as he isn't arrested again for a felony.

Since the charges were non-sexual, he will not have to register as a sex offender.

Combs said the child abuse allegations have hurt his family, and he's thankful the case didn't destroy his life.

Lookout Mountain Assistant District Attorney Alan Norton said he believed the boys' testimony that Combs had touched them inappropriately at the school, but because he didn't want to put the boys through more trauma, he offered a plea deal.

"I believe my kids," Norton said.

There was conflicting testimony between the boys and Combs, Norton said, but he declined to say what that testimony was.

The lowered charges allege that Combs got too close to the boys when he taught their class, Norton said in court.

"He came in close physical contact with all three boys," he said.

But after Tuesday's hearing, the parents of one of the boys said they were upset Combs didn't have to go to trial and won't have to register as a sex offender.

"It's not fair," said the boy's mother. "He needs to be hung."

Under Times Free Press policy, the families are not being named to protect the boys' identities.

Similarities

When Combs, a 24-year Air Force veteran, was indicted on child molestation charges in July 2010, he said he decided to contact Craft to get her advice. Just two months before, he had watched her case and the claims she had made against the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit.

During her five-week trial, Craft's attorneys contested parts of the legal system was broken, claiming children were being led to answer questions. They also brought in state experts in the field of child abuse, who backed up their allegations.

King said the way the boys were interviewed in his case was similar to what happened in Crafts' case.

Court records show that, if Combs had gone to trial, King was going to call Dr. Nancy Aldridge -- an Atlanta psychologist -- to testify that the boys weren't interviewed under appropriate state standards. Aldridge also testified in Craft's trial that the girls in the case weren't properly interviewed.

Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit District Attorney Herbert "Buzz" Franklin, who prosecuted the Craft case, declined to comment about whether Combs' case was similar to Craft's.

After Craft was acquitted in May 2010, Franklin released a typed statement that said the media had caused them to lose the case.

Substitute teacher

On Feb. 4, 2010, Combs was substitute teaching in a fifth-grade class at Boynton Elementary for the first time. When boys in the class began to act up, Combs said he had to discipline them by changing their behavior status on a board in front of the class.

But halfway through the day, school officials asked Combs to leave the school. They told him that he had made some of the girls uncomfortable by talking too close to them. Combs said he is hard of hearing and must lean in close to hear.

A few weeks later, he was contacted by the Catoosa County Sheriff's Office for an interview, Combs said, but he didn't think anything of the interview until he was arrested on child molestation charges the next week.

Combs' original indictment said that, while he was in class, he touched three boys on the backside in a sexual manner. Combs claims he didn't touch any boys in his class and he doesn't remember which fifth-grade boys were chided for disobeying.

about Joy Lukachick...

Joy Lukachick is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press Since 2009, she's covered breaking news, high-profile trials, stories of lost lives and of regained hope and done investigative work. Raised near the Bayou, Joy’s hometown is along the outskirts of Baton Rouge, La. She has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication from Louisiana State University. While at LSU, Joy was a staff writer for the Daily Reveille. When Joy isn't chasing ...

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