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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

WHQR Interview: NC Attorney General Josh Stein on the Peter Michael Frank trial

Bladen County Court in Elizabethtown, NC, where Peter Michael Frank was tried, convicted, and sentenced.
Rachel Keith
Bladen County Court in Elizabethtown, NC, where Peter Michael Frank was tried, convicted, and sentenced.

On Tuesday, former New Hanover County teacher Peter Michael Frank was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison for abusing students. WHQR’s Ben Schachtman spoke to North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, whose office prosecuted the case.

Former Roland-Grise Middle School teacher Peter Michael Frank was arrested in January of 2020, facing allegations of inappropriate and criminal sexual behavior towards students dating back two decades.

The scope of the allegations renewed concerns over the New Hanover County Schools district (NHCS) handled — or failed to handle — sexual harassment and assault committed by its employees. The district was already facing intense scrutiny after being accused of negligence by a prosecutor during the sentencing of former teacher Michael Earl Kelly, who told investigators that the school had looked into allegations of sexual misconduct against him but hadn't notified authorities. On July 1, 2019, District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon called for an investigation into possible negligence, failure to report, and obstruction of justice by NHCS. That investigation has been ongoing for nearly three years.

Shortly after Frank's arrest, an 'independent civil investigation' into allegations of a cover-upwas launched by two law firms that were already litigating a civil case against the New Hanover County Schools district on behalf of the victims and alleged victims of former teacher Michael Earl Kelly. By April of 2020, those firms hadfiled a second suit against NHCS, this time on behalf of two Jane Does, allegedly victims of Frank. A third Jane Doe plaintiff was later added.

Prosecution of the case was handed over from the New Hanover County District Attorney's office to Attorney General Josh Stein's office, because of a potential conflict of interest; according to David, one of the victims contacted a DA's office employee, with whom she had gone to Roland-Grise, with the original complaint against Frank. Special prosecutor Boz Zellinger handled the case, which was presided over by Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Douglas B. Sasser.

Benjamin Schachtman: Alright, Attorney General Josh Stein, I want to thank you for spending some time with us and ask right at the top, how does the AG’s office feel about today's outcome?

Josh Stein: I feel gratified that the judge issued such a substantial sentence, 50 years for these [29 separate] criminal counts. Mainly, I feel happiness for these victims, the three victims were incredibly courageous to be willing to revisit, in a public fashion, the trauma that was inflicted upon them. But they did it because they wanted to hold this man accountable and make sure other children were not similarly abused. And I pray that this helps them in their healing process, and that they believe that they saw some justice served today.

BS: Can you say a little bit about how difficult it is to prosecute a case like this, where you've got some time has passed since the alleged and now convicted crimes?

JS: It is challenging, the longer in the past a crime occurred. But these three women were so compelling and clear, and being able to explain what happened to them, and how he groomed them and then assaulted them. And they were able to persuade the jury, in just 30 minutes, of [Frank’s] guilt. And as a result, other children will not be abused by this teacher.

BS: Another question we've had has been, during the trial and of course leading up to it, there were allegations about how the school district handled or didn't handle possible ways to stop Peter Michael Frank. Can you say anything about that part of the trial?

JS: I can't. Those investigations are ongoing. But what I can say is, there's nothing more important [to] any of us than keeping children safe, no matter where they are, if it's at home at summer camp, or of course at school. And so I worked with the legislature a couple of years ago to modernize our child sex abuse laws. So that, now, any adult who knows that a child has been sexually abused has a legal duty to report that to law enforcement. We have to ensure that events like this that happened in New Hanover County do not happen to other children in this state anywhere.

BS: And just for the record, I will ask you about the ongoing SBI [State Bureau of Investigation] investigation into the New Hanover County School district. Is there anything you can say about that beyond the fact that it is ongoing?

JS: No, there isn't.

BS: There's no ETA or anything along those lines?

JS: Nothing.

BS: It takes as long as it takes?

JS: Our obligation is to not give up on any victim and to do whatever work is necessary to hold criminal wrongdoers accountable. And I'm incredibly proud of the professional work that was done by Sheriff McMahon and the New Hanover County Sheriff's Department, the deputies did a tremendous investigation. And the prosecutor, from my office, Bob Zellinger, who had my special prosecution section, he's a professional, a consummate professional, and did a tremendous job. And finally, I also want to thank Judge Douglas Sasser, he presided in a very honorable fashion. And we appreciate that.

BS: The last thing I wanted to ask you is that, as a journalist, I've spoken to an unfortunately large number of men and women who were abused as children and did not come forward and have not yet come forward – because they are concerned that the prognosis for getting justice in the criminal justice system is not good. What would you say to people who still feel that way?

JS: That we care. That if you were victimized as a child by some sexual predator, that was wrong, you are absolutely not to blame, and we need to hold that person accountable. And my office and criminal justice offices, law enforcement offices across the state, share that passion and we will do everything we can, no matter how long ago it happened to you to try to deliver justice to help you heal and to ensure that other children aren't similarly victimized.

BS: All right, well, Attorney General Josh Stein, we thank you so much for your time.

JS: All right, Ben. Appreciate your interest.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.