Former Virginia School Board member found guilty of felony sexual conduct

VIRGINIA -- Former Virginia School Board member Donovan Strong was found guilty of two counts of felony sexual conduct on Tuesday evening after a two-day trial in 6th District Court in Virginia.

Donovan Strong
Donovan Strong

VIRGINIA -- Former Virginia School Board member Donovan Strong was found guilty of two counts of felony sexual conduct on Tuesday evening after a two-day trial in 6th District Court in Virginia.

The six-man and six-woman jury found that Strong, 36, of Tower was guilty of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and solicitation of a child to engage in sexual conduct. Both charges stemmed from a July 2 incident during a boat trip. Jurors found Strong not guilty of attempted first-degree criminal sexual conduct. Judge Gary Pagliaccetti heard the case.

Jurors essentially had to choose between two versions of what happened during a Fourth of July boating trip on Lake Vermilion this summer - one told by Strong, the other by the girl he allegedly assaulted.

The girl testified on Monday. On Tuesday, jurors also heard a recorded statement the girl gave to St. Louis County Sheriff's Deputy Jill Oja a short time after the incident.

On the recording, Oja asked the girl why they were having this conversation.


"Because one of my parents' friends tried to do something to me," the girl answered.

The girl said she and Strong were alone on her father's boat when Strong asked her to get him a beer from the small cabin below the boat's deck. The girl said she was sitting on a couch in the cabin, and that Strong was blocking the cabin door. She said he reached out with one hand and tried to pull down the bottom of her bikini swimsuit, and that his actions were "kind of" forceful.

Then Strong made a suggestive comment, she said in the statement.

"I yelled 'No!' and slapped his hand away," the girl said. "Then he said, 'Please forget about all this.' "

The girl said Strong got her swimsuit bottom "a half-inch down," and that he didn't attempt to touch her anywhere else.

On Tuesday, Strong testified that the group of boaters, including his wife, the girl's parents and other relatives, were having a great time as they boated around the lake. Both Strong and his wife, Sarah Strong, testified that all the adults in the boat had been consuming alcohol during the boat trip, and Donovan Strong said the 12-year-old girl had repeatedly fetched beverages for the adults.

Strong also said the group had a number of ongoing jokes during the day; one included references to the mini-Tootsie Rolls Strong liked to eat.

"It was playful banter, all day long," Strong said.


When the group joined a number of other boaters at the Trout Lake portage on the north side of Lake Vermilion, the girl remained on the boat while the other members of the party gathered on the beach. Donovan Strong said he returned to the boat twice for a beverage; on the second trip, after he asked the girl to fetch him a beer, Strong said he was checking messages on his phone with one hand and holding some Tootsie Rolls in the other when he thought he saw the girl's mother on board.

"I said, 'Hey, do you want to lick it?'" Strong said, adding that this was a reference to the Tootsie Rolls.

When he saw the only person on the boat was the 12-year-old girl, Strong said he realized his remark was inappropriate.

"I said, 'Can we forget about that?' " Strong testified.

Attorney Todd Webb from the Itasca County Attorney's office later hammered Strong on that point, asking repeatedly if he knew that the 12-year-old girl was the only one on the boat.

The girl "had been passing you beers all day long, and you're saying you didn't know" it was her on the boat, Webb asked.

"There were people going back and forth all day long," Strong answered.

"And when [the girl] gave you a beer, you said, 'Can I lick it?' " Webb said.


"No," Strong answered.

"But you did say the word 'lick,' " Webb said.

Strong acknowledged that he did, adding "when I realized it was (the girl), I realized it was a bad thing to have said."

A melee quickly ensued among the boaters gathered at the Trout Lake portage after the girl reported the incident to her father, both Strong and his wife testified.

"I saw Donovan getting off (the boat)," Sarah Strong said. She described a scene where the girl's father and mother were yelling and screaming, her husband was walking toward the crowd to find out what was going on, "and then there was a cloud of men coming towards Donovan, to hit him," she said.

Donovan Strong was punched in the eye, Sarah Strong said she received a blow to the shoulder, and then she punched her husband in the mouth in the confusion. "There was a lot of screaming," Sarah Strong said.

Donovan Strong said he didn't feel safe in the area, so he began moving away along the largely undeveloped lakeshore. Wearing just his blue swimming trunks, Strong said he first walked into the woods, then began running through the woods.

Webb asked why Strong didn't contact authorities. Strong said he attempted to, but was unable to find a telephone. He was apprehended by St. Louis County Sheriff's deputies about four hours later.


In the weeks after the incident, Strong was suspended from, and then resigned, his position on the Virginia School Board. He also was suspended from his seat on the Lake Country Power board of directors.

In their closing arguments, both attorneys told the jury that they must decide which party to believe.

"There is only one reasonable conclusion," Webb said. "The evidence shows you that (the girl) told you the truth. ... Why do children lie? Do they lie to get into trouble, or to get out of trouble?"

Wesley Martins, executive director of the Indian Legal Assistance Program, represented Strong.

"This is a black-and-white situation, as far as believability," Martins said. "Twelve-year-olds are impressionable; they don't always get it right, and they don't always get it wrong."

Jurors deliberated for about four hours before delivering their unanimous verdict late Tuesday night. Strong was taken into custody shortly after the verdict was read. Sentencing is tentatively scheduled for Nov. 21.

What To Read Next
Get Local