“‘I can’t wait until you’re 18,’” Hanover-Horton teacher and football coach Johnnie Stewart told her in the high school gym, “because of all the things he could legally, physically do to me,” the young woman recalls. It was 2015. She was his 16-year old student.
The former student, who has asked not to be named because the incident happened when she was a minor, says she reported Stewart’s comments to school adminstrators that very day. But Stewart wasn’t suspended or fired; ultimately, administrators told her it was a “he said, she said” incident, she says.
Four years later, her father (who we’re also not naming, to maintain his daughter’s privacy) got a text in the early morning hours of June 20th this year: Hanover-Horton Superintendent John Denney was addressing newly-public allegations against Stewart. This time, a woman named Angela Sturgill was accusing Stewart of initiating a sexual relationship with her 20 years earlier, when she was 16.
In a letter to the district, Denney defended the decision to keep Stewart on the job, despite knowing of a Michigan State Police investigation into Sturgill’s allegations:
“At this time, no formal/informal complaint has been provided to the District relative to Mr. Stewart nor have any charges been filed against Mr. Stewart. As such, no action has been taken by the District relative to Mr. Stewart’s status as an employee of the District.”
Denney says he was only referring to Angela Sturgill’s complaints in that letter. But to the father of the young woman who complained about Stewart in 2015, it felt disingenuous.
“It’s a CYA, cover-your-ass situation if I ever saw one,” the dad says.
“We’re going to take care of it”
There were always “whispers” about Stewart, the young woman who reported Stewart in 2015 says. “Just that he was like, creepy, or that he was inappropriate, or just different. That he was like, not professional with students on certain levels, and he had been that way for a long time…[but] I’d always seen it as high school rumors, people talking, not much behind it.”
At the time, she says she saw Stewart as a “role model.” A member of Hanover-Horton’s class of 2016, she loved strength and fitness training, and took several of Stewart’s conditioning classes.Stewart even filmed her for an instructional video he said he was making, to teach other students proper form. Their families went way back, too, her mom went to high school with Stewart’s wife, and Stewart’s step-kid was in her class.
So when she wanted to join the National Honor Society her junior year, she asked Stewart to sponsor her. During the induction ceremony, after the lights were dimmed and candles lit to symbolize the program’s “core values,” Stewart handed her the official certificate. She was in.
In the spring of that same year, she says she was sitting on the bleachers in the high school gym, when Stewart approached her. He told her he “couldn’t wait until I turned 18, because of all of the things he could legally, physically do to me."
She froze. “I just remember that the tone of his voice was very direct.” At that moment, a friend walked into the gym, “so I basically just motioned her over, and we went outside and sat at a picnic table. I told her what had happened. Like, was I crazy? Or was that, was the way I was feeling really justifiable? That it’s not ok, that it’s inappropriate.”
That same day, she reported Stewart’s comments to her math teacher. Eventually, the report made its way to high school principal Isaac Cottrell.
“It was brushed under the rug as, ‘We’re going to take care of it,’” the former student recalls. “I was told by the school that he [Stewart] would be talked to. He would be told he would no longer be able to talk to me and to just avoid me... They said things like, along the lines of only being able to do so much. That there wasn’t anything specific that happened beyond that incident, and that the two of us were the only ones who heard that conversation.”
Word got out around school, she says. People talked. “I just didn’t want to be in that situation [with Stewart] anymore,” she says. Her senior year was starting soon, and she just wanted to move forward. So she asked the district to remove Stewart as her sponsor and give her a new one. They agreed. She was ready to let it go.
But her father wasn’t. “I was not happy,” he says. “And they were very aware that I was not happy.” He threatened to complain to the school board, he says. Eventually, he got a phone call with Superintendent John Denney in 2015.
“I was on the telephone with him for a good half hour...He knew I was upset, and quite honestly, he empathized with me. ‘I understand where you’re coming from, I’ve got kids too,’ these types of reassurances. [I was told] it was gonna be handled, he’d already been talked to, and [I was] given the impression that it was taken care of as an internal matter,” the dad recalls.
He didn’t know what else to do. No one in the family wanted this to “define [my daughter's] senior year.” So they dropped it.
In an email to Michigan Radio on Friday, Superintendent John Denney said the following regarding this incident:
“I have spoken with the HS principal in order to gather his recollections of the situation and he does remember handling it. There was an issue raised during the summer of 2015. The high school principal met with the student and had follow up conversation with her dad and then with the teacher. Class schedules were changed and a few other steps were taken.
“I remember the comment being ‘I can't wait until you are 18.’ There were different versions of the context of the comment that could not be reconciled. The parents and student did not want to pursue the issue further and felt that the situation had been addressed.”
Four years later, another woman comes forward
She was calling on the district “to investigate claims that football coach and Hanover-Horton teacher, Johnnie Stewart, groomed and became sexually involved with her when she was a student at age 16-17, approximately 20 years ago.”
Back then, Sturgill says, she was a “mess.” Her home life was rough. Her parents had split up. And Johnnie Stewart was this young, charming teacher who made her “feel special.” He’d buy her beer, take her driving in his truck. And soon he initiated a sexual relationship, she says.
The district learned some details about these allegations in late 2018, when Angela Sturgill’s husband, Kevin, wrote threatening emails to Stewart that were turned over to a school resource officer. That’s according to documents obtained by Michigan Radio through a Freedom of Information Act request.
In the June 19th press release, Sturgill said she had previously “reported the matter informally to school officials, hoping an investigation would follow. ‘When that didn’t happen, I filed a complaint with the State Police on December 3rd of last year,’ Sturgill explains.” She had no plans or desire to sue the school district, the release said, she just wanted the school to take action.
The next day, June 20, Superintendent Denney sent out that public letter, denying any such complaints had been made.
“I have been asked why Mr. Stewart has been allowed to continue teaching and coaching based on these allegations. At this time, no formal/informal complaint has been provided to the District relative to Mr. Stewart nor have any charges been filed against Mr. Stewart. As such, no action has been taken by the District relative to Mr. Stewart’s status as an employee of the District.”
But to the father of the student who complained about Stewart in 2015, it felt infuriating. “I was outraged. I was like, wait a minute, what about my conversation with you? You’re telling me [that never happened?]” So he called Denney’s office at 8 am that day.
Denney returned his call later that afternoon.
“His comment to me was, ‘I know, but what was going on with Angie Sturgill was a lot more serious in terms of what happened to [my daughter…]’” the dad recalls. “And my response was, ‘Well, not if it leads to other things. If the trail of [Stewart’s] behavior pattern is he makes these comments, then that leads to buying them alcohol and sleeping with them or something. I told him that flat out. And he said, ‘Well we have to presume everyone is innocent until [proven] guilty, it’s out of my hands, the state police are doing their investigation.’”
For his part, Denney tells Michigan Radio:
“I did talk to the dad this summer after your article ran; in fact, we have supplied our [school] investigator with the name of the father and the daughter. That investigation is ongoing.”
As for his letter saying the school hadn’t received any complaints about Stewart, Denny said:
“The letter dated June 20th was addressing the Sturgill's situation. It was in response to many of the comments in the initial press release.”
Allegations suggest a pattern
Meanwhile, the Michigan State Police had already turned over its investigation to the Jackson County Prosecutor’s office. Apparently unbeknownst to Angela Sturgill or the school district, the prosecutor declined to charge Stewart in May 2019, citing an expired statute of limitations and “insufficient evidence.”
Then, on June 23rd, Hanover-Horton Superintendent John Denney sent out yet another letter. By this point, the district had received a formal complaint from Sturgill, he said. They placed Stewart on “non-disciplinary paid leave” pending a school investigation.
On June 28th, Michigan Radio reported additional allegations against Stewart: one woman, Sara Pienta, said she’d seen Stewart making out in a hot tub with Angela Sturgill at a high school party, when Sturgill was still underage.
Another former student, Nate VanEpps, said his senior year of high school, a female classmate told him she was in a romantic relationship with Stewart, and that the teacher had gotten a hotel room for them and taken “modeling” pictures of her.
VanEpps says he confronted Stewart, who in turn “threatened to kick my ass” if VanEpps told anyone.
Michigan Radio has repeatedly emailed and called Stewart’s attorney, Al Brandt, for comment regarding the allegations made by Pienta, VanEpps, and now the former student who says she reported Stewart in 2015. As of publication time, he hasn’t responded.
But superintendent John Denney says he is “not aware of anything being brought forward involving [Stewart] behaving inappropriately with a female student” beyond what’s now been reported.
For her part, the young woman who came forward in 2015, says she wasn’t surprised to see these other allegations against Stewart. “But the pattern that seems to have been kept in place for so long - I was just shocked that it’s been going on for so long, and that nothing was done to take him out of the position to be able to do that to students,” she says.