A Blaine man spent seven months in the Anoka County Jail, and even after he posted bail he still had to face the fact that he was accused of having improper sexual relations with a then 14-year-old girl.
Damian Burkhalter, 48, said he knew he was innocent. And an Anoka County District Court jury June 14 acquitted him of all six felony criminal sexual conduct charges he was facing.
“I had faith all along that that’s what was going to happen,” Burkhalter said. “I knew the truth had to prevail.”
Burkhalter was charged in June 2011 with three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and three counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
The case was handled by Assistant Washington County Attorney Karin McCarthy instead of the Anoka County Attorney’s Office because of a potential conflict of interest.
Assistant Washington County Attorney Steve Povolny issued a statement saying, “While we of course are disappointed with the verdict, we do accept the jury’s decision.”
According to the criminal complaint, the girl told a therapist that she had been sexually abused by Burkhalter, who at the time was a youth pastor for Glen Cary Lutheran Church in Ham Lake.
Kandiyohi County Child Protection reported this to the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office on June 7, 2011. She alleged the incidents had taken place between June and November of 2010 and included inappropriate contact, comments and attempted intercourse.
Burkhalter said he refused to take a deal offered by the prosecuting attorney, instead facing the prospect of a lengthier jail term if convicted.
“I just told my attorney and I told my mother and my son all along that I’m not pleading guilty to something I did not do,” Burkhalter said.
Seven months after he was arrested Burkhalter’s mother was able to covering his $50,000 bail, which came with conditions such as he could not have contact with girls under the age of 18 including his own daughter.
Burkhalter said his mother believed he was not guilty and could not stand watching him arrive in the courtroom in shackles, handcuffs and a prison outfit. He plans to pay his mother back as soon as possible.
Burkhalter said he and his mother had not been communicating for about nine years due to some family issues. She was the last person he expected to see visit him in prison, and yet she was the first to visit him.
He is thankful for his mother and son for the strong support they showed and knows this whole situation has been tough on them.
His attorney Jill Brisbois and several friends from the church who were at the trial almost every day to show support also meant a lot to him, Burkhalter said.
Fallout from the accusations
Burkhalter and his wife are now divorced. He lost his job as the youth pastor at Glen Cary Lutheran Church.
Even though he will not have a felony criminal sexual conduct conviction on his record, he also wants to make sure the June 14 arrest is expunged.
But even if all these criminal records are clear, Burkhalter said he would still have to account for his whereabouts for a year in future job interviews.
He lost his vehicles and his pension through the divorce, is paying attorney fees and trying to pay back his mother. Burkhalter said most of his neighbors have been wonderful and he loves his Blaine home, but he put it on the market because he can no longer afford to live there.
“It makes me sad, this whole thing and how it has ruined lives,” Burkhalter said. “Even being found not guilty, lives are still ruined by this. There’s going to be people that are still not going to believe me, and that’s fine. That’s their problem.”
Burkhalter said it is sad that people can say what they want and not prove that it is true and there are no consequences.
He said even after he was found not guilty there was no apology from the prosecutor, the detective or anybody else. Burkhalter said they can chalk it up to doing their job, but he thinks that is sad. Burkhalter added that he believes there was less media coverage of his acquittal than after he was arrested and charged.
Burkhalter said he will not go back into youth ministry, but not because he doesn’t want the job. He misses the kids and adults he worked with and said he knows he made a difference at Glen Cary Lutheran Church, but he believes some find it is odd that a man in his upper 40s wants to work with kids.
“I don’t want to put myself ever in a position again to even be questioned about what I am doing,” Burkhalter said. “Not that I don’t care about the kids and not that I don’t care about the ministry because my faith is probably stronger now than it was a year ago… I don’t ever want to put my family through anything like this ever again.”
Eric Hagen is at firstname.lastname@example.org