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Police interviews allowed as evidence in former teacher’s trial for sex abuse charges

A judge denied a motion to suppress the interviews Lukis Nighswonger had with officers before he was arrested.
(KTUU)
Published: Sep. 14, 2020 at 2:42 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) -A Palmer judge has ruled that interviews a former Wasilla teacher gave to police can be used as evidence in his trial, which has been delayed until December.

Lukis Nighswonger, 38, is charged with several counts of sexually abusing minors after allegations that he inappropriately touched some of his students at Iditarod Elementary. He has been in jail since September 2018.

Three recordings with police officers were the subject of an evidentiary hearing at the end of July. During his conversations with authorities, Nighswonger admitted to being a pedophile.

Nighswonger’s attorney, Neal Ainsworth, filed a motion to suppress the evidence that requested the judge to throw out the interviews before trial.

Ainsworth said his client was sleep deprived from sleeping in his car days before the interviews and was not in the right state of mind to waive his Miranda rights. In his ruling denying the motion, Judge Jonathan Woodman said Nighswonger did the interviews voluntarily and was free to leave at any time because he was not under arrest.

“Thus, this court concludes that Mr. Nighswonger was not in custody for the Sept. 24, 2018 interview, and as a result, Miranda warnings were not required,” Woodman wrote.

Woodman said several factors led to his decision including how the interviews were conducted and whether Nighswonger was allowed to leave afterward. Woodman also found Nighswonger “knowingly and intelligently waived his Miranda rights.”

He noted Nighswonger may have been sleep deprived, but “nothing in the record indicates that it was to a level that would preclude an intelligent waiver of Miranda rights, especially considering Mr. Nighswonger’s level of education.”

EVIDENTIARY HEARING

The three recordings were played in their entirety during an evidentiary hearing.

In the first interview, Nighswonger is at the Mat-Su School District office in Palmer where he met with now-retired Palmer police officer Kristi Muilenburg. There are video and audio from Muilenburg’s body camera.

Nighswonger said he touched a female student down her pants in his classroom with other kids present many years prior. He told the officer he knew he was under investigation by the school district.

Muilenburg did an initial interview then drove Nighswonger to the Wasilla Police Department.

“He didn’t display any kind of mental health behaviors that I was concerned with. He seemed to articulate himself well,” Muilenburg said.

The second interview is an audio recording made with Wasilla police investigator Daniel Bennett. Nighswonger said he was “in a bad state of mind” but was not self-destructive. Bennett interrupted to read Nighswonger his Miranda rights. About 10 minutes into the conversation, Nighswonger said, “I’m a pedophile.” Nighswonger said he had been placed on administrative leave several days before and had been living in his car for the past three nights.

He wanted to be locked up in jail after the interview.

“I don’t care what amount of time it is, but it’s something that needs to be real. It needs to be a decent length of jail term, it needs to be a stamp that goes on my file forever. It needs to be — if I have poor impulse control, this will curb my impulses by getting me registered,” Nighswonger said. “I would prefer to be locked up tonight. I don’t feel like I’m in a very good state of mind.”

Bennett testified Nighswonger was not arrested that day.

“He made it clear right off the bat that he wanted to go to jail and I advised him that I understood that. I even said, ‘You don’t know really what you’re asking for. It’s not going to be as dreamy as you think,’” Bennett said.

The third interview took place on Sept. 26, 2018, and was recorded at the Wasilla Police Department.

Bennett again read Nighswonger his Miranda rights then the two had a lengthy discussion to see if Nighswonger wanted an attorney. He did not.

“I don’t think I’ve had a single person that hasn’t said it’s time to get a lawyer. I’m going to be honest with you, I’m not going to deny a single thing I did,” Nighswonger said.

Ainsworth said his client was exhausted from sleeping in his car for days and it had impacted his judgment. It’s one of the reasons why he filed a motion asking the judge to suppress the statements Nighswonger made to police.

“That coupled with 12 times throughout the interview, Nighswonger’s talking about — it’s almost like he’s having out-of-body experience — how he’s hearing voices, he’s on the precipice. He does that 12 times throughout the whole interview,” Ainsworth said.

Deputy District Attorney Melissa Wininger-Howard argued that Bennett made it clear Nighswonger didn’t have to make any statements and was legally allowed to have a lawyer present if requested.

“I believe he made a point to say he’s very proud of his school teaching career. He was teacher of the year, I believe. So this is a person who is certainly aware of his rights and knew what he was doing and knew what the consequences were because he wanted to be held accountable at that time,” Wininger-Howard said.

TRIAL POSTPONED

The coronavirus pandemic has delayed jury trials across Alaska, including Nighswonger’s.

“The state, as well as the victims, want this case to go to trial as soon as we’re able,” Wininger-Howard told the judge.

Woodman tentatively scheduled Nighswonger’s trial for the beginning of December but said that may change depending on COVID-19 restrictions.

Copyright 2020 KTUU. All rights reserved.

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