A former Arapahoe High School teacher charged with sexually assaulting a student withdrew his guilty plea in early December, after a Colorado Supreme Court ruling rendered the terms of his plea deal illegal.
Ian Ahern, 42, faces two counts each of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust in a pattern of abuse, and sexual exploitation of a child. The alleged assaults took place in 2014, but weren't reported until 2019.
Ahern pleaded guilty to the charges in September, and was scheduled for sentencing on Dec. 4.
However, just four days after Ahern pleaded guilty, a ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court rendered Ahern's plea agreement, which included both a jail term and a period of probation, illegal. Ahern is now scheduled for a jury trial in April.
The state high court ruling, which arose from an identity theft case called Allman vs. Colorado, mandates that courts cannot sentence offenders to both a jail term and probation.
“It's very frustrating,” said deputy district attorney Chris Gallo, who heads the 18th Judicial District's Special Victims Unit and is overseeing Ahern's case. “We thought this case was done, and the victim was promised a form of closure, and now we have to reexamine things we thought were finished.”
Gallo stressed that he accepted the court's decision.
"You get changes like this every so often in the law, and we're ready to deal with them," Gallo said. "Nobody's going to be let loose from prisons or anything."
Ahern is accused of grooming and manipulating a 17-year-old student over the course of months in early 2014, and repeatedly fondling and groping her before sexually assaulting her, according to an affidavit.
The student, whose name is redacted, told investigators that she became close to Ahern, her drama and theater teacher, in the weeks after the murder of fellow student Claire Davis by another student in December 2013.
Ahern told the student he was attracted to her, and the student said she felt pressured to reciprocate in order to receive Ahern's emotional support after the trauma of Davis' murder, the affidavit says. It adds that Ahern told the student he was frustrated with his wife, saying she loved their children more than him.
In the following months, the affidavit says, Ahern sent the student pornographic images, surreptitiously groped her in the presence of other students, and pressured her to sleep with him.
Ahern sexually assaulted the student on the last day of the school year, according to the affidavit.
The student's friends noticed she became sullen, withdrawn and anxious in following months, according to the affidavit, and eventually dropped out of the drama program she was once passionate about.
The case came to light in early 2019, after the former student told her boyfriend that she was still tormented by what happened and was afraid Ahern would abuse other girls. The boyfriend then made an anonymous report through Safe2Tell.
Ahern, when informed of the charges against him, told school officials that he had been accused of similar crimes while a teacher at Cherokee Trail High School in the Cherry Creek school district, leading to his firing, but said the claims were unfounded.
Investigators were not immediately able to determine the veracity of Ahern's claims, or whether there may be other victims, according to the affidavit. A Littleton Public Schools spokesperson declined to comment on the case, and did not immediately respond to a question about how Ahern was vetted before being hired.
The case may not end up in a trial, Gallo said, if the sides reach an agreement.
In the Allman ruling, the Colorado Supreme Court determined that sentencing a defendant convicted of multiple counts to both jail and probation is illegal on several grounds, including wording in state statute says that probation is to be used when a jail term is not appropriate, and a law stating that sentences are to be determined based on the totality of a case rather than individual charges.
Plea agreements that included both a jail term and a probation term were useful for prosecutors, Gallo said.
“There are plenty of cases where we say maybe somebody's not going to prison for the rest of their lives, but maybe they should be stringently monitored,” Gallo said.
Ahern's attorney declined to comment.
Probation is similar to parole, Gallo said. Both mean a convicted offender can be jailed again if they commit other offenses, but probation terms may be longer and require offenders to complete rehabilitative programming. The length of parole terms, however, are determined by statute and not a judge.
Ahern's case is one of hundreds that must be reevaluated in light of the Allman decision, Gallo said.
“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Gallo said. “For every Ian Ahern you've heard of, I've got a half-dozen cases you haven't.”
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