A former Yellowknife gymnastics coach has been sentenced to one year in jail for the sending of explicit messages to a 17-year-old gymnast.
Chief Justice Louise Charbonneau sentenced Ricky Lee Sutherland in NWT Supreme Court on Tuesday. With time served, Sutherland has eight months and three weeks of his sentence remaining.
Sutherland was working at the Yellowknife gymnastics club when he sent explicit photos and messages to the 17-year-old in 2017.
Last month, defence attorney Stephanie Whitecloud-Brass revealed in court that Sutherland was not an accredited coach at the time and had initially been a volunteer, later hired as the recreation director before the club asked him to help with coaching.
Sutherland began with text messages to the girl, some of which included emojis such as kisses and hearts. He also made a screengrab of one of the girl’s Instagram posts and returned it to her with a message.
While at a sports conference in February 2017, Sutherland used Snapchat to send explicit photos of himself to the girl.
Although Snapchat images are only saved for a short time, the girl first made note of some of the messages and later took photos of some of the others using an iPad.
The messages detailed by Charbonneau were “entirely inappropriate,” she said, some of which included photographs of Sutherland lying in bed. One such photo showed Sutherland’s penis, the court heard. There is no copy of that photo and Sutherland said he has no memory of taking it.
In part of the exchange, Sutherland refers to himself as the girl’s “secret admirer.” After she sent a photo to Sutherland of herself, he told her to take off her clothes.
On returning from the conference, Sutherland admitted to sending the Snapchat messages, claiming he was drunk at the time. He was subsequently fired by the club.
Sutherland apologized to the 17-year-old via text message in October 2017.
‘I hate what you did to me’
In a victim impact statement read out to the court, the woman said her life had become a nightmare after receiving the messages from a coach she considered one of her “best friends.”
She said she had begun psychiatric counselling since the incident. “I blame myself for trusting you. You gradually built up my trust, just to take it away,” she said.
Under Canadian law, the woman is entitled to anonymity.
Sutherland pleaded guilty in May to one count of luring by communicating electronically with a person under the age of 18. Defence attorney Whitecloud-Brass attempted to challenge the constitutionality of the mandatory minimum one-year sentence for this charge in August. That charter challenge was dismissed by Charbonneau.
While Charbonneau noted Sutherland, who no longer lives in Yellowknife, was “genuinely remorseful” and his actions were “completely out of character,” she emphasized the gravity of the crime.
The judge said coaches are “often charismatic people, often admired, often revered by the athletes they are coaching,” She adding Sutherland abused the relationship of trust and caused harm to the woman.
Charbonneau relayed a portion of the victim impact statement where the woman stated she shudders when she hears Sutherland’s name. She suffers anxiety as a result of the incident that has her often wanting to stay in her bedroom.
The victim ended her statement with the following: “I would like to say that I do not hate you. I hate what you did to me and I hope you get the help you need.”
Alongside the one-year jail term, Sutherland faces three years of probation during which Charbonneau recommended he seek counselling or treatment. He must have no contact with the woman.
He must submit a mandatory DNA sample to the national databank and will be entered into the National Sex Offender Registry for 20 years.
The jail term is in line with the sentence Whitecloud-Brass sought. Crown prosecutor Morgan Fane had sought an 18-month term.
Sutherland was also previously employed as a bylaw constable for the City of Yellowknife. He has since relocated to Ontario. Charbonneau noted the case generated a lot of publicity in Yellowknife, something which brought shame to Sutherland.