A Duluth teacher is accused of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old former student numerous times over the course of at least two weeks.
Karla Jean Winterfeld, a 33-year-old Lincoln Park Middle School teacher, was charged Wednesday with felony first-degree criminal sexual conduct - the highest level of sex crime under Minnesota law.
A criminal complaint alleges that Winterfeld confessed to multiple sex acts with the alleged victim between May 4 and May 19. Investigators said they also recovered video recordings, photographs, text messages and other evidence supporting the allegations.
Sixth Judicial District Judge David Johnson set Winterfeld’s bail at $100,000 during her arraignment in State District Court in Duluth on Wednesday morning.
“We have a violation of the public trust,” Assistant St. Louis County Attorney Jon Holets told the judge. “It’s a violation of the trust placed in her by the school district and by the public as a whole.”
Winterfeld, who has held both health and special education teaching positions in the Duluth school district since 2007, has been placed on paid administrative leave by district officials, who called the allegations “shocking and disappointing.”
Winterfeld, wearing an orange jail jumpsuit and standing behind protective glass in the Duluth courthouse’s arraignment room, recited her date of birth and answered several questions from the judge about her employment and income level.
Johnson denied her initial request for a public defender, but said she could later qualify if she loses her job. Her current salary is $72,926.
Winterfeld started at Morgan Park Middle School in 2007 and moved to Lincoln Park in 2012, according to the district. Most recently, she's split her time between Lincoln Park and the Area Learning Center's Academic Excellence Online, where she teaches health.
She has received numerous accolades during her tenure, including the 2016 Greg Irons Teacher Award, two nominations for the Goldfine Gold Star Teacher Award and a spot on the News Tribune’s 20 Under 40 list in 2016.
Winterfeld has not been the subject of any previous work complaints, according to district human resources director Tim Sworsky, who added that she will remain on paid leave pending further action by the School Board.
The criminal complaint does not reveal how police initially became aware of the relationship, but the charging document states that investigators later executed a search warrant to locate evidence from the cellphones of the defendant and the alleged victim.
Holets told the judge that the evidence, along with Winterfeld’s reported confession and concerns that she could be a flight risk, justified the $100,000 bail.
The prosecutor noted that Winterfeld, if convicted, is facing significant prison time. Minnesota sentencing guidelines call for a presumptive 12-year prison sentence for an offender with no criminal criminal history convicted on a first-degree criminal sexual conduct charge.
Public defender J.D. Schmid, who was allowed to represent Winterfeld for the limited purpose of her arraignment, cited the defendant’s extensive ties to the community and lack of any criminal history in seeking a referral to supervised release.
Johnson, however, said he found it appropriate to set cash bail given the nature of the charges. The judge noted that while Winterfeld was initially arrested on a third-degree charge, it was ultimately upgraded to first-degree.
He set Winterfeld’s next court appearance for June 12, allotting her time to seek a private attorney.