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Markham camp counselor guilty of child sex abuse

Thursday, Apr. 28 | By Michael Melkonian
Michael Sanders-Price, mugshot courtesy of Fauquier County Sheriff's Office
After a two-day trial that started Wednesday, a Fauquier jury found a Maryland fifth grade teacher guilty of two child molestation charges from an incident with an 8-year-old at a Markham summer camp in 2015.

Michael M. Sanders-Price, 26, of Laurel, Md., faces up to 25 years in prison and roughly $100,000 in fines for the two convictions stemming from the July 22-23, 2015, incident at Camp Moss Hollow in Fauquier. Jurors found him guilty of one count of aggravated sexual battery against a child less than 13 years of age and one count of taking indecent liberties with a child by a person in a custodial or supervisory relationship.

The jury arrived at the guilty verdicts Thursday after about two and half hours of deliberation that began the previous afternoon. After another 90 minutes, they recommended a sentence of six years in prison and a $10,000 fine for the combined charges.

The sentencing hearing is scheduled for July 25.

“It’s hard to simply fathom that somebody would do something like this to a child,” said Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Jamey Cook in her closing arguments of the guilt-phase of the trial.

Cook told jurors they only needed to decide on the evidence if the abuse happened, not how or why this could have happened.

“The reality is, you will probably never understand,” Cook said.

On July 29, 2015, the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office revealed they were actively investigating “inappropriate behavior involving unwanted touching” of a child by a camp counselor at Moss Hollow, operated by Family Matters of Greater Washington, a nonprofit social service organization based in D.C.

Sanders-Price turned himself in to detectives after he was charged in August 2015.

The victim, an 8-year-old from D.C., first came forward about the abuse to his mother the weekend after the camp was over, according to witness testimony. He was then taken to a hospital for questioning, to Fauquier Social Services and eventually to Detective Candyce Shaw of the Fauquier County Sheriff’s Office.

Finally, the boy told his story to 12 jurors, half men and half women, in the Fauquier County Circuit Court Wednesday morning.

Each time he was questioned, the child told interviewers that Sanders-Price had squirted lotion on the boy's genitals and told him to rub it in. Then he exposed his own genitals to the young boy.

Shaw, a trained forensic interviewer who specializes in sex offenses, said the child was very nervous and wouldn’t make eye contact when they first spoke.

“He was very embarrassed about the situation,” Shaw said on the witness stand. And though he didn’t have a firm grasp of dates and times of the abuse, she eventually found out more facts from witnesses who saw the boy in the counselor’s bed.

After prosecutors rested their case, defense attorney Huntley Thorpe called his own client to the stand. Sanders-Price denied any wrongdoing.

On Wednesday July 22, 2015, Sanders-Price said he returned from a safety watch to find the child asleep in the counselor’s bedroom instead of his own bunk in the main room of the cabin and that he had wet the bed. He admitted to squirting the boy with lotion, but only after trying a water gun to wake him up. He said the boy changed his own clothes because of the accident.

He also said the camper was back in his bed the next night, and had wet himself again. Other than these two incidents, he said the two didn’t have much interaction.

“I don’t recall spending much time with him at all,” Sanders-Price said to prosecutors during cross examination.

Defense attorney, T. Huntley Thorpe, argued that jurors could find a number of reasonable doubts with the case against his client. He said children do sometimes lie, especially if they are embarrassed about something like wetting the bed. He also questioned why the boy would crawl back into the counselor's bed if he had abused him the night before and wondered why he waited so long to talk about the abuse.

“This is a kid making stuff up,” Thorpe said to the jury. He said the child can't change his story now that he has made it this deep into court proceedings.

After the initial allegations, Sanders-Price was placed on administrative leave by the camp, who asked for a written statement. Prosecutors used the differences between this July 2015 statement and his April 2016 testimony to try to poke holes in the defense. Under oath, Sanders-Price said his initial statement was incomplete and rushed because he was worried and upset about the charges.

After finding Sanders-Price guilty, the jury heard more witness testimony before deciding on a recommended sentence.

The Commonwealth called the victim’s mother to the stand. She said her son hasn’t been the same since the abuse, refusing to be alone or even sit near most people anymore.

“He wants to be with me and my mother only,” she said. Her son now goes to counseling every other week and hers starts soon, she said.

The defense then called Sanders-Price’s mother to the stand, who said “Michael’s been a good son” who never got into trouble at school or with the law. She said her son hasn’t had a chance to live his own life yet because he helped her, a single mother, raise his two younger sisters while focusing on school and work.

After the prosecution rested their case early Wednesday, Judge Designate Herman A. Whisenant denied a defense motion to strike certain charges on the grounds there was “no evidence of sexual gratification,” according to Thorpe. Later in the case, he said he would take the motions under advisement.

After the verdict, Whisenant set June 9 as the date to hear any motions before sentencing.

With the guilty verdicts, Whisenant also revoked Sanders-Price’s bond and he was taken into custody by the bailiff.

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