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Plea deal offered to Two Harbors man charged in child sexual assault case

A former North Shore Community School bus driver accused of sexually assaulting five preteen girls is pondering whether to accept a plea offer rather than leave his fate in the hands of a jury despite maintaining his innocence, his attorney said Monday.

Jimmy Jerome James, 63, of Two Harbors is charged with five counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct for allegedly molesting five students between the ages of 6 and 10. A trial is scheduled for June 21.

Defense attorney Joanna Wiegert of Cloquet is representing James. She told Judge Sally Tarnowski that in a last-ditch effort to settle the case short of trial, the St. Louis County Attorney's Office has given her client 36 hours to decide whether to enter a guilty plea to an undisclosed charge or charges. Another hearing was scheduled for next week.

After Monday's hearing, St. Louis County prosecutor Nathaniel Stumme declined to publicly comment on the plea deal his office has offered James.

Wiegert said James absolutely asserts his innocence. He's free on $100,000 bond.

"It's totally out of his character,'' Wiegert said outside the courtroom. "I have a client who is 60-plus years old, who has no criminal history whatsoever. This isn't a situation where somebody wakes up one day and says, 'I think I will be a pedophile.' It just doesn't happen. So it's an

extraordinary case from that perspective."

The allegations were made in March and April of last year. The alleged victims were interviewed at the First Witness Child Abuse Resource Center in Duluth. The complaint says one girl told an interviewer that the bus driver let kids sit on his lap so they could open the bus door. She said James touched her in a way that made her feel sick and that she knew several other girls who were touched in the same way. She provided the names of six female students.

North Shore Community School is a charter school in St. Louis County sponsored by Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, with 261 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

The defendant had been a full-time employee of the Lake Superior school district for the past 38 years and most recently was head janitor at

Two Harbors High School. He worked part time as a school bus driver. North Shore Community School is within the Lake Superior school district but is separate. They share bus services. James retired from the school district on June 30.

"Anytime you have children making allegations like this, it's a Catch-22, because if my client did it or whoever did it they should pay the consequences that go with it, but if these kids are not telling the truth and they are lying, then they should be subject to consequences, and that's why it's so difficult," Wiegert said. "Nobody wants to do anything that might discourage kids from coming forward. If it's happening, people need to know, kids need to say it and it needs to be dealt with. But if these kids are lying -- it's all the marbles."

James faces a guideline sentence of between 7½ years and nine years in prison if convicted.

Wiegert said the evidence against her client is less than compelling.

"There are really squishy points in the ways these stories came down," she said. "There is no smoking gun here. These are all squishy and gray. Things change a little bit from telling to telling, and there are some unusual circumstances."