MANKATO - Fighting back tears and pausing to catch his breath, a Mankato football coach expressed relief Friday that an agonizing three-month legal fight to clear his name of child pornography charges was finally over.
"I'm thankful to be waking up from this nightmare," head coach Todd Hoffner of Minnesota State University, Mankato said after a judge dismissed two felony child pornography counts against him. "The last 102 days have been long, painful and a nightmare. Our lives have been turned upside down."
Hours earlier, Blue Earth County District Judge Krista Jass dismissed the charges after determining that cellphone videos Hoffner shot of his children dancing naked and touching themselves showed nothing lewd, sexual or exploitative, but rather, images of children "dancing and acting playful after a bath."
In a 24-page ruling, Jass wrote that the children didn't engage in "touching of an overtly sexual nature," behave in a sexually inviting manner or perform acts that "could reasonably be construed" as sexually stimulating or gratifying.
"At no time," she wrote, did Hoffner instruct or direct the children, ages 5 to 9. "All of the children's actions are acutely spontaneous."
Blue Earth County prosecutor Mike Hanson declined to discuss Jass' ruling, but issued a statement.
"Our office was trying to enforce a statute enacted to protect children," Hanson wrote. "No matter what the prosecutor does in a controversial case with a high-profile suspect, they will be criticized. We do not go looking for cases like this, they are brought to us."
He added that while he didn't agree with Jass' decision, he accepted it.
Hoffner, 46, has been head football coach at Mankato since 2008. He was suspended with pay in mid-August.
Hoffner said Friday that he hopes to "get back to his life, job and family." He hopes to return eventually as coach of the Mavericks, who under the guidance of an assistant coach are 12-0 and nationally ranked heading into Saturday's NCAA Division II quarterfinal playoff game against Missouri Western in Mankato.
He won't be on the sidelines this weekend, however, because of an continuing university investigation into the matter. School spokesman Dan Benson declined to elaborate, but said Hoffner remains on paid leave.
"His status here at the university remains the same," Benson said. "From our standpoint, there hasn't been any change."
A long ordeal
Hoffner's legal battle began Aug. 10 when he took his malfunctioning campus-issued cellphone to the school's IT department.
While transferring data to a new phone, an IT official spotted three videos, two of which were shot in June and lasted 92 and 10 seconds.
They showed Hoffner's children dropping towels and jumping around nude while performing a skit after bathing in the family's whirlpool.
A week later, university officials escorted Hoffner from the practice field.
Hoffner said in a court hearing that he didn't have a clue as to why, and was told only that he was being put on "investigative leave."
Four days later, deputies showed up at his home in nearby Eagle Lake as he was watering his lawn and arrested him.
He was charged with two felony counts of child pornography.
The arrest captured immediate national attention, coming months after a child sex scandal rocked Penn State University, costing football coaching icon Joe Paterno his job and sending a former assistant coach to prison.
From the start, Hoffner, his wife and his attorney maintained his innocence, saying the videos -- the only evidence submitted in the case -- were merely private family moments shot while his children performed their skit.
A search of computers and other equipment taken from Hoffner's home when he was arrested turned up no evidence. County social workers also found no evidence that the couple's children had been mistreated after interviewing the children and viewing the videos.
Three universities where Hoffner formerly coached also found no wrongdoing after reviewing computer and cellphone records.
In her strongly worded ruling, Jass rejected Hanson's argument that the videos crossed the line between private family moments and lewd behavior. In one video, Hanson said, Hoffner's son grabs his penis and his daughters spread their buttocks.
Hanson, in a brief filed earlier this month, said: "This is not a case about nudity, but about masturbation and the lewd exhibition of genitals; acts that constitute sexual conduct" by Minnesota law.
But Jass said the videos did not show a "lewd exhibition of the genitals" or fit the legal definition of obscenity.
The naked images, she said, "are not aimed at portraying the children's genitals in graphic focus or at portraying the children in a lewd and erotic state of nudity."
"At no point," she wrote, does Hoffner's son "touch his penis in a sexual manner."
As news of the judge's ruling spread, Mankato residents and fans of Maverick football reacted strongly.
"It's like Christmas," said Kristine Schimek, a friend who organized a candlelight vigil in October to support the Hoffners. "It's nothing we didn't already know. It all just got so misconstrued."
"Justice is slow, but it looks like they got it right," said Steve Woehrle, a retired accounting professor at Minnesota State.
Casey Lloyd, the football team's longtime play-by-play announcer, said he was pleased with the outcome, but frustrated by the charges.
"I think a lot of this could have been avoided," he said.
Hoffner wondered that, too. "I'm sorry for using my phone to videotape innocent family moments," he said Friday. "It was 102 seconds. I thought I was just being a good dad."
Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425
David Chanen • 612-673-4465