BELLAIRE — Terry Starr seemed in good spirits as he met each of his supporters with either a smile, a handshake, a hug — or all three — as they filed into the Antrim County courtroom.
The spirits of the suspended Kalkaska Public Schools superintendent dampened when a motion to stop the case against him in its tracks was denied Monday.
Judge Thomas Power, of the 13th Circuit Court, dismissed a motion from Starr’s defense team to quash the bindover from 86th District Court Judge Bob Cooney. Power said in his decision to uphold Cooney’s ruling that there was enough probable cause evidence to justify sending the case to trial and that Starr’s guilt or innocence should be decided by a jury of his peers.
“I was hopeful,” Starr said. “I was hopeful we’d be able to finish this today, but it wasn’t meant to be finished today. We’ll move on to the next stage and hope that whatever purposes have been designed for this will be revealed.”
Starr has maintained his innocence from the outset in April, but he remains charged with two felonies — one count of false report of a felony, one count of intentional false report of child abuse — and one misdemeanor count of falsely and maliciously accusing another of a crime. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges, and he also rejected a plea bargain offer Monday.
Donald Passenger, Starr’s attorney, said Starr passed on the deal because it would have forced his client to perjure himself and admit guilt to crimes he did not commit.
Michigan State Police investigators claim Starr, in January 2018 when he was the principal at Cherryland Middle School in Elk Rapids, sent a batch of anonymous letters to several Elk Rapids Public Schools officials, including himself, accusing Elk Rapids High School Principal Mike Travis of actions that would constitute felony criminal sexual assault against a now-graduated student in 2013.
Cooney, during the Sept. 19 preliminary examination, determined there was enough evidence to meet the probable cause burden of proof that Starr committed these crimes. He pointed to language used in the letters, a soon-to-be vacant superintendency at Elk Rapids that Starr and Travis likely would vie for, testimony of a handwriting analysis expert and several other factors.
Passenger and Jonathan Moothart, Starr’s co-counsel, argued the charges hold no water because no false report was ever filed with a government agency or law enforcement. They also provided their own handwriting expert who outright eliminated Starr as the possible person who addressed the envelopes in which the letters were sent.
Arguments between Starr’s defense and Antrim County Prosecutor Jim Rossiter also revealed another anonymous letter Rossiter claims Starr authored and sent four months before the batch in 2018. DNA test results of the envelope, however, excluded Starr. Rossiter said he plans to send the envelope and letter for fingerprint analysis. Starr’s fingerprints were not found on the previous four letters nor was his DNA.
Rossiter declined comment on the matter, citing it as an open case.
Starr continues to wonder how he even ended up in this situation.
“That is the $64,000 question,” he said. “I’d love to ask those directing this at me, ‘Why? What’s this about? What’s behind this?’ It sure makes me wonder. It’s baffling.”
Rossiter asked Power to delay the trial further — it was set for Dec. 10-12 — in light of the new evidence. Passenger argued the prosecution has dragged its feet on providing evidence, saying “it’s been like pulling teeth,” and that any further delay is unfair to Starr, who has been on unpaid suspension from Kalkaska since late June.
Kalkaska Board of Education President Rachael Birgy said previously she and her fellow trustees are waiting for the justice system to run its course before making a permanent decision on Starr’s future with the district.
“I love that district and want to go back there,” Starr said. “You try to live your life the right way, and all of a sudden you’re faced with something like this. I don’t know why.”
Power granted Rossiter’s request and set the trial for Jan. 8-10, 2020. A status conference is scheduled for Dec. 16.
“We are going to vigorously defend this case,” Moothart said. “We believe in this case. We believe in our client.”