CANTON John Sohar bowed his head in visible anguish when he learned jurors had found him guilty of sexually assaulting a 14-year-old girl during his job as a school-based therapist at Marlington High last year.
A jury of seven women and five men took roughly 90 minutes to reach the verdict late Friday afternoon on a third-degree felony count of sexual battery.
The charge stemmed from sexual touching and conduct the student said occurred during multiple counseling sessions at the school office Sohar kept while employed as a counselor for an outside agency.
The girl, huddled in the back of the courtroom, and her parents shared hugs and expressed quiet emotion following the verdict in Stark County Common Pleas Court.
Judge Chryssa Hartnett scheduled Sohar’s sentencing for 11 a.m. Tuesday. The 52-year-old Lexington Township man faces up to five years in prison.
Testimony ended earlier Friday with Sohar repeatedly denying he sexually assaulted the girl or convinced her the sexual conduct was part of her therapy.
Sohar testified his frequent and sometimes two to three-hour counseling sessions and repeated text messages and phone calls with the girl were an effort to help her cope with depression and mental health issues and not hurt herself.
Sohar’s testimony, coming the day after his accuser took the witness stand, preceded closing arguments.
“My goal was always the same,” Sohar said. “To keep my clients alive.”
And under intense questioning from Stark County Assistant Prosecutor Daniel Petricini, Sohar continued his denials.
Petricini had told jurors Thursday that Sohar manipulated a “lonely teenage girl” who had become infatuated with him.
The girl had pre-existing mental health issues and a strained relationship with her mother prior to enrolling in therapy, he said during closing arguments Friday.
Petricini asked Sohar if it was proper for a therapist to exchange more than 300 text messages over the course of three days with a student client outside of their regular therapy sessions.
The defendant admitted he communicated with the girl “above and beyond” what he did with other patients.
Following Sohar’s denials, the prosecution and defense made impassioned arguments to jurors.
Citing the earlier testimony of Carrie Schnirring, a mental health professional with Lighthouse Family Center, Petricini said the girl’s testimony was convincing because of details unique to the sexual abuse from Sohar.
Petricini called Schnirring as a witness in making pyschological asessments of children who make allegations of sex abuse.
He said the details and sequence of events were consistently told by the girl multiple times and were not “the things you would expect from someone making up a story.”
Schnirring testified Friday that following multiple sessions with the girl, she found her account to be credible.
Petricini said that during her testimony on Thursday the girl sometimes took deep breaths, closed her eyes and paused to recall details of the sex abuse as if she was reliving it in her mind.
Petricini said the girl’s testimony, phone call and text records and Schnirring’s testimony combined to give jurors ample evidence to convict.
Defense attorney George Urban, however, told jurors Sohar was a professional, dedicated and caring therapist who didn’t stop trying to help the girl when regular therapy sessions were over.
Urban emphasized the student had twice become upset when Sohar stopped being her therapist, referring to it as “detachment.”
And although the prosecution cited records of more than 300 text messages between the student and Sohar over the course of a few days, Urban said that only about 10 or 12 texts were produced at trial through cellphone screen photos the mother had taken.
“He’s no groomer,” Urban said of Sohar. “He’s trying to help this young girl. As repayment for that — here we are.”
Sohar was not an employee of the Marlington district; at the time of the allegations in the fall of 2019, he was an employee of Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health, also referred to during testimony as Child & Adolescent Services.
Asked by Urban about the amount of time he spent texting and talking on the phone with the student outside of scheduled counseling sessions, Sohar responded: “It’s difficult to put a timeline on trying to save someone’s life.”
During testimony, he usually spoke in a firm, direct voice but displayed visible emotion when telling his attorney that three of his clients over the years had committed suicide.
In October 2019, the girl wrote a 12-page letter in which she described Sohar’s sexual misconduct, prompting an investigation by the Stark County Sheriff’s Office.
The girl had given the letter to Sohar at school in front of another counselor, according to testimony. Petricini told the defendant that Sohar had turned over the letter only because the school employee inquired about it.
Sohar denied that was the case.
Urban said in the letter the girl sought revenge because she didn’t want Sohar to stop being her counselor permanently. “She wanted to zing Mr. Sohar,” he said in closing arguments. “This was her way.”
Petricini said that Schnirring found the letter not to be written by someone seeking revenge.
“She blames herself,” the assistant prosecutor said, referring to the writings in the pages of her school notebook as a love letter from a girl infatuated with the adult counselor. “This is a cry for help,” he said.
Petricini told jurors Sohar clearly groomed the girl for his own sexual gratification, playing on her vulnerabilities, gaining her trust and pitting the teenager and mother against one another.
He cited the girl’s testimony of how Sohar began by rubbing her shoulders during a therapy session before fondling and sexually assaulting her at later appointments.
Under direct questioning, Sohar described the girl’s letter as “the ramblings of someone with some serious mental health issues.”
He also said he still wanted the girl to receive the mental health help she needed.
The student also testified on Thursday that she had seen two tattoos on Sohar’s body during therapy, a cross on his chest and song lyrics on his stomach area.
The defendant said on Friday that his tattoos would have been known to some of his clients, including high school students.
Petricini countered that the defendant’s explanation was not believable, calling it “totally inappropriate to talk about your body tattoos to relate to your teenage clients.”
Also during his testimony Friday, when explaining his educational background and employment history in counseling, Sohar noted that in addition to having a degree in pastoral counseling, he’s a former councilman and mayor of the village of Marshallville in Wayne County.
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and email@example.com
On Twitter @ebaintREP
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