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Soccer Coach Gets Six Years in Prison

Two things came sharply into focus, Friday afternoon, during former soccer coach Ralph Shipler's sentencing for producing child pornography. One was that he's been a voyeur of children for most of his life, and the other was the extent of the damage he's done to the local community.

And when he stood and cried while saying, "I did wrong, terribly wrong" — adding that, if there was any way he could undo it, he would — his audience was largely unsympathetic. Said Assistant Commonwealth's Attorney Toni Fay: "I'm not convinced he's sorry he did it — I'm convinced he's sorry he got caught."

Unbeknownst to the girls he coached on the Herndon Force — a travel soccer team for girls 13 and under — Shipler, 61, photographed several of his players while they were nude or only partially clothed. When his crime later came to light, the young victims were mortified and their parents were stunned and shocked.

"He was a master of disguise," explained Fay to head Circuit Court Judge Michael McWeeny. "Not only did people see him as a coach, but as a friendly grandpa, a good husband and father and a good member of the community. He's been manipulating them for years."

An Oak Hill resident, Shipler first caught authorities' eye in early September. Det. Lewis Barrickman presented details in an affidavit for a warrant to search his Chantilly Highlands house for possible evidence. He'd obtained his information from FBI Special Agent Marc Dinardo.

Barrickman wrote that, on Sept. 7, police in Pennsylvania's South Beaver Township received a complaint about a disorderly person at the White Thorn Lodge — which was hosting a nudist camp at the time. The complaint alleged that someone was videotaping children from a van parked nearby.

A LOCAL POLICE officer contacted the van's occupant — who turned out to be Shipler. "After initially denying that he had a video camera, Shipler produced a camera and several videotapes," wrote Barrickman. "A review of those tapes revealed images of nude children."

Several segments of the video also showed a residential bathroom. It was soon revealed that Shipler had created a peephole leading from the garage of his Oak Hill home into a bathroom so he could see and photograph his soccer players in secret while they changed clothes — some donning bathing suits.

Wrote Barrickman: "The footage indicates the camera operator is in an area behind a wall of the bathroom and is filming through a portion of the bathroom mirror where the painted backing has been scratched away."

On Sept. 29, police obtained warrants for Shipler's arrest, charging him with three counts of producing child pornography. He pleaded guilty, Dec. 10, in Circuit Court, and returned Friday for sentencing. Besides his wife, several of his victims and their parents were in attendance.

Defense attorney John Boneta called Dr. Jerome Miller to testify. Miller founded and is clinical director of the Augustus Institute in Alexandria, which diagnoses and treats sex offenders. After Shipler was arrested, he saw him five or six times.

Miller said he diagnosed him with voyeurism and ongoing, long-time depression. He also said Shipler would only have between a 3 and 7 percent likelihood of recidivism in the future. And he noted that, after age 45, the recidivism rate is very low.

"He has no prior history of sexual contacts with children," said Miller. "There's no indication that he'd repeat this again or do something worse."

FAY THEN CALLED Marion Valcourt to the stand. Her daughter, 13, wasn't among those photographed, but was once on Shipler's team.

"She felt increasingly uncomfortable with the coach, so we pulled her off the team," her mother explained. "This has greatly affected all the girls in Herndon who were involved, as well as a girl who heard him make an inappropriate comment to his daughter, in the car. Whatever the risks of him doing it again, it's too much."

Testifying next was a mother of a 13-year-old who was photographed. (Centre View is not identifying the mother, to protect her daughter's identity). She said Shipler always offered to take her child to and from practices.

"When she tried to leave the team, he sent e-mails to urge her not to, and we felt pressured," said the mom. "I wanted her around good, male role models — and he was another disappointment. Now, she doesn't enjoy soccer like she used to; it's a constant reminder. [Shipler] was a person we trusted, and he betrayed it. I don't want another child to go through what she had to — it's just devastating."

Another victim's mother said her daughter, 13, asked her to speak in court. "She and the others were exploited by Ralph Shipler," she said. "As a physician, I've seen the effects on children who've suffered betrayals in their lives. [Now], I don't know if I can protect my child like I thought I could."

She said Shipler had many opportunities to change his mind and not do what he did. "I find it most disturbing that there were no clues," she said. "[His wife] told me he's been doing this since he was 14, and I know that anything this long-standing is difficult to stop and to treat." Addressing the judge, she said, "I fear for my children and my community, and I'm asking you to protect us."

Fay told McWeeny that, after reading a few of the victim-impact statements, she couldn't continue. "This is one of the most egregious cases I've seen here in Fairfax County," said the seasoned prosecutor. "What really is tragic is that these parents got together and put their daughters in an organized, team sport with someone in their community they thought they could trust — someone they respected, a parent himself."

SHE SAID these young girls looked up to their coach to teach them fairness, teamwork and self-esteem, as well as how to trust and rely on their judgment. "Everyone thought he was a good role model — and he turns out to be the man on the other side of the mirror when you change to go swimming," said Fay. "They may never recover."

And since their mothers and fathers never saw any signs that anything was amiss, she said, "They now question their own ability to keep their children safe. It affected the whole community — everyone who thought this guy was who he seemed to be."

Fay noted the doctor's report saying that Shipler "liked looking up skirts and looking at magazines of little girls." But, she emphasized, "He did nothing about it, except to put himself in the position of being able to look at little girls walking in and out of his bathroom. Judge, I'm asking you to sentence him to a substantial period of incarceration."

Attorney Steve Merril, who attended high school with Shipler and has known him for 45 years, pointed out that he has no criminal record and didn't touch or expose himself to the girls. "It's a criminal act, but it's not indecent liberties with a minor," said Merril. He also acknowledged letters written by some of the parents, saying Shipler needs treatment, not jail time.

Defense attorney Boneta said the people who know Shipler best came to court Friday to support him. "He's been in custody four months," said Boneta. "Give him probation so he can be treated. He's accepted responsibility and is as remorseful a person as I've ever met in my life."

BEFORE MCWEENY pronounced sentence, a sobbing Shipler said the "adversity" woke him up to the fact that he has a serious problem. "The big mistake I made was letting my actions dictate what I did, without thinking," he said. "I will never do it again because I wouldn't want to cause [further] pain to the community. I care about these kids."

The judge then told Shipler that he'd struggled with this case. "On the one hand, there appears to be a fairly blameless life," he said. "On the other hand is the image of a girl being videotaped while she's in the shower — and of later on not being able to change in a department-store dressing room because someone might be watching her."

"Those were real injuries that you caused — and one thing you said disturbs me," he told Shipler. "You said you didn't think. But what you did created a pretty predatory situation that took some thinking. It deserves punishment — and measured punishment."

McWeeny then sentenced the former coach to six years in prison (five years, with three suspended, for each of his three counts, with the sentences running consecutively).

He also placed Shipler on 10 years active probation upon his release and ordered him to continue sex-offender treatment. In addition, Shipler will join Virginia's registry of convicted sex offenders.