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Bus driver charged with sexual assault

By Mark Stodghill, Duluth News Tribune

A 62-year-year-old school bus driver with no apparent prior criminal history was charged Monday with sexually assaulting four preteen girls.

Jimmy Jerome James of Two Harbors is charged with four counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. According to the criminal complaint, James placed his hands under the girls' clothes and touched the girls on their buttocks, chests and "private parts."James' colleagues said they found the allegations hard to believe.

A boy was interviewed at the First Witness Child Abuse Resource Center last week and told an interviewer that he and his sister were on the school bus on their way home recently when the bus driver called his sister to the front of the bus. He said the bus driver, referred to as "Jimmy,'' had his sister sit on his lap.

He said he saw James put his hand on his sister's buttocks and on her private parts.

He said when he saw that he began to feel very sad and thought he was going to cry. He said a few days earlier he had seen the same thing happen to another girl, the complaint alleges.

In his bail memo to the court, St. Louis County prosecutor Nathaniel Stumme said at least one woman has alleged that James sexually assaulted her when she was a juvenile. The allegation was reported but not prosecuted, according to the memo. The woman and other alleged adult victims she has identified are being interviewed by investigators.

Stumme asked that James' bail be set at $500,000, citing the gravity of the charges and that the defendant is a risk to leave the area because of the stigmatizing nature of the charges.

Cloquet defense attorney Joanna Wiegert argued that James is a not a flight risk. She said he is a lifelong resident of the area, his wife is employed here full time and he had made no attempt to leave the area after the sexual assault allegations surfaced and he was suspended from his job as a part-time school bus driver for the North Shore Community School.

Judge Mark Munger set bail at $100,000 bond. James was released from jail later Monday after posting bond.

Wiegert was critical of law enforcement for arresting her client after he had talked to them on the phone and made arrangements to meet with her. She also said she was "very uncomfortable'' by reports suggesting that there are other victims. She accused authorities of going on a "fishing expedition and trolling for victims."

North Shore Community School is a charter school in St. Louis County sponsored by Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center, with 261 students in kindergarten through sixth grade.

James has been a full-time employee of the Lake Superior School District for the past 38 years. He is the head janitor at Two Harbors High School. He was placed on administrative leave on March 19.

James worked closely with law enforcement when he led the Two Harbors Fire Department in the 1990s.

James' wife and a group of his supporters declined comment outside the courtroom on the advice of Wiegert.

Some of those who know James find the charges hard to believe. Lyle Northey, a former Two Harbors mayor who also served as school district superintendent and school principal before retiring, was the principal at Minnehaha Middle School in Two Harbors when James was the school custodian.

"I, too, am surprised,'' Northey said. "I found nothing in my memory bank or anything that was ever brought to my attention that would lead me to suspect him of something that he has now been accused of."

Northey said it's important that school officials and law enforcement investigate allegations and protect kids, but he had no inkling that James ever did anything inappropriate with kids.

When James was arrested last week, Lake Superior School District superintendent Phil Minkkinen also expressed surprise that James could be accused of such crimes.