Ricky Lee Sutherland was not an accredited gymnastics coach – but had assumed that role – when he sent a 17-year-old gymnast explicit photos and messages over social media in 2017.
Stephanie Whitecloud-Brass made that revelation during an hour-long Supreme Court hearing on Monday regarding Sutherland’s charge of luring by communicating electronically with a person under the age of 18.
Sutherland has pleaded guilty and is awaiting his sentence. Arguments about the length of that sentence were presented on Monday.
Until now, the 50-year-old had been referred to as a former Yellowknife bylaw officer and gymnastics coach with the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club.
“Mr Sutherland explained that he was actually hired as the recreational director – he wasn’t hired specifically to be a gymnastics coach – never mind to be the coach of the complainant in this matter,” Whitecloud-Brass, the defence counsel, told the court.
“Mr Sutherland advised me he does not have any certification to be a gymnastics coach; he took the training but never actually obtained formal certification.”
The gymnastics club asked him to first help out coaching the boys’ team, then eventually the girls, said Whitecloud-Brass.
“This comes across as part of Mr Sutherland’s character. If they asked him to do anything, he would be there to assist in any way he could.”
Whitecloud-Brass called for a 12-month sentence – the mandatory minimum – plus three years’ probation, to include counselling and treatment, alongside a mandatory DNA sample for the national databank and entry in the National Sex Offender Registry.
Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane, by contrast, called for an 18-month term, with the same probation period and a 20-year entry on the national registry. He would also have no contact with the complainant, whose identity is protected by court order.
“The goal is to protect children from online predation,” said Fane. “There is a need for this court to strongly deter and denounce this form of criminality.”
Fane noted Sutherland did plead guilty in May and has expressed remorse, but only after a preliminary inquiry at which the victim had to testify.
A charge of sending sexually explicit material to a person under the age of 18 was also dropped in exchange for his plea.
“It is always beneficial … particularly in a case of these sorts of gender dynamics and power dynamics for an admission of guilt and an acceptance of responsibility,” said Fane.
Stress, anxiety, scrutiny
Whitecloud-Brass noted her client has sought counselling while on bail. On July 30, however, Sutherland decided to void his bail and spend the rest of his pre-trial time in custody at the North Slave Correctional Complex.
During counselling, Sutherland explored boundary issues and discussed cognitive behavioural therapy, Whitecloud-Brass said. It was also revealed he was sexually abused as a child, aged four or five.
Sutherland is the sole financial provider for his family. He is a father to a 27-year-old son and stepfather to two daughters, aged 25 and 16.
He was fired from his gymnastics job immediately after the allegations came to light and has had to move to Ontario to find work.
“Mr Sutherland understands that his actions have had harmful consequences,” said Whitecloud-Brass. “Mr Sutherland has had his matter published in local media and, as a result, his family have had to deal with stress, anxiety and scrutiny.
“Mr Sutherland will have to deal with the matter long after this matter is dealt with by the court.”
Earlier this month, Chief Justice Louise Charbonneau denied Sutherland’s charter challenge to the mandatory one-year minimum.
City of Yellowknife records show Sutherland was hired as a constable in February 2015. It’s not clear when he left the City’s employ.
Sutherland was taken on by the Yellowknife Gymnastics Club in July 2016. When attending a sports conference in Toronto in February 2017, he used Snapchat to send an explicit photo of himself to a 17-year-old girl he coached. He also used other electronic means to communicate with the girl, violating the gymnastics club’s staff policy.
In a victim impact statement, the girl described her life becoming a nightmare after receiving the lurid material from her coach, who she considered one of her “best friends.”
She said her “heart shattered” when she realized what Sutherland had done.
Charbonneau will hand down her decision on sentencing at 10am on September 24.