BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Former Bloomfield High School teacher and coach Leo Donaldson, 32, received the maximum prison term of seven years from Judge Richard Sules in Newark Superior Court, on Monday, July 30.
Donaldson, who was indicted on 37 counts stemming from sexual contact with minors, had pleaded guilty to four counts and must serve 85 percent of his sentence before becoming eligible for parole. His criminal acts occurred between August 2015 and September 2016 in Bloomfield, including the high school, Jersey City, and Sussex County, and involved as many as four boys. He was arrested and incarcerated Oct. 27, 2016, and released on bail March 13, 2017.
It was an extraordinary sentencing, with the defense attorney pleading for leniency by detailing his client’s horrific childhood; Donaldson overcome by emotions and unable to speak; and the mother of a victim, and the victim himself, condemning the former coach before the court.
Donaldson had pleaded guilty to aggravated sexual assault, first-degree; aggravated sexual assault, second-degree; endangering the welfare of a child; and official misconduct. His victims were high school-age boys; some were BHS students. The official misconduct charge was levied because Donaldson was in a supervisory position as a teacher and coach.
Donaldson was represented by Wolodymyr Tyshchenko. Representing the state was Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Celeste Montesino.
Before the sentence was imposed, Tyshchenko asked Sules to be lenient. He requested that Donaldson be given a prison term of five years, the minimum under the plea arrangement. He offered his client’s childhood as an overwhelming mitigating factor.
“Arguing a sentence is never easy,” Tyshchenko told the court, “especially with sex offenses with children involved.”
He said that in his 20 years of practicing law, he had never seen a defendant more remorseful for his victims than Donaldson.
“He’s admitted to some terrible crimes, but he’s accepted his responsibility,” Tyshchenko said.
The attorney said the appeal he was making was difficult because he did not want the victims to misinterpret it; that it was not meant to lessen the harm done to them. He also wanted the public to understand his client.
Tyshchenko said Donaldson’s crimes were part of a cycle of abuse.
“He grew up in rural Sussex County in a family compound with his 15 sibling living in an isolated part of the state,” Tyshchenko said. “His sibling and mother were prisoners of his father and uncle. They were not allowed to leave the compound except for school. They could not interact with other children. It was rather strange.”
Within the compound were two homes, he said. In one home lived Donaldson’s parents and in the other lived the uncle. In the parents’ home, the girls lived and in the uncle’s home, the boys lived. His client, he said, was not permitted to spend time with his parents. Donaldson was the youngest of the children.
“To put it mildly, he had an uncle that was cruel,” Tyshchenko said. “He would torture them. He would beat them. He grew his fingernails long to scratch them. He had the boys fight each other.”
Tyshchenko said the uncle called the boys sissies and made his client wear diapers when he was beyond the years that a child should wear them. He said a person ordinarily did not expect to find living conditions such as this in the northeast part of the country.
“Many of his brothers ran away and Leo lost contact with them,” Tyshchenko said. “He was a victim of sex crimes by his brother who was 21 years older. That’s the tragedy we have here — that it has happened again.”
Tyshchenko said the brain of a sexually abused person does not develop normally and that is what confronts the court, that his client’s brain stopped developing when he was around 11 or 12 years old. It was also at that age that his client ran away from home. He said that because of this stunted brain development, his client identified with his young victims.
Tyshchenko said that people who perpetrate crimes against children are perceived as monsters.
“That’s not what we have here,” he said. “He didn’t appreciate the imbalance of power that made his behavior criminal. But he wasn’t a monster. He was committing crimes against, what he saw, as emotional peers.”
No one, he said, had a better understanding what the victims were living through than his client and his client’s family.
“He has been in their shoes,” he said. “There is no one more remorseful than Mr. Donaldson.”
Tyshchenko said Donaldson’s childhood was not an attempt to minimize what he had done, but Donaldson has been diagnosed as not being a compulsive offender and he was considered very low risk to commit the same crimes.
“The defendant has already spent his childhood in prison,” Tyshchenko said, asking Sules to impose a 5-year sentence.
He said that Donaldson had been given psychiatric tests and the results were “promising” because he had shown no interest in prepubescent children.
“Although this is not the age of his victims, the doctors say he’s unlikely to reoffend and will respond to therapy to break the cycle of abuse,” he said.
Another factor Tyshchenko wanted the judge to consider was that Donaldson was prohibited from working with children once he is released. He also appealed for the defendant’s safety.
“Because of the sentence, he is highly likely to be victimized again,” he said. “He’s a gay man and people that commit crimes against children are likely to be victimized in prison.”
He characterized Donaldson as a good man despite his crimes and someone that he respects.
“Most of us are better than the worst we’ve done and not better than the best we’ve done,” Tyshchenko said.
He said Donaldson suffered from depression, was bipolar and several times tried to commit suicide. He was also diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I’m not saying he was insane, but he wasn’t a well man when he committed these crimes,” Tyshchenko said. “He’s been in therapy half his life. He’s struggled to do the right thing.”
Besides being a coach and teacher, he said Donaldson was also credited with saving a BHS female student’s life after she had a heart attack.
“It’s hard to overcome a tragic childhood,” he said. “To victimize other children was the least he wanted to do. I don’t think anyone hates himself more than Mr. Donaldson. He understands what the victims will struggle with for the rest of their lives. He’s not upset because he’s going to prison. He’s upset because of the crimes he’s committed.”
Again Tyshchenko asked for the minimum of five years. He said because one of the charges was official misconduct, which carries a mandatory 5-year term, Donaldson would serve every day of a 5-year term.
Sules then asked Donaldson if he wished to say anything. The defendant said he did and rose. He wore a dark suit, light violet shirt and dark violet striped tie. Perhaps because a victim was present in the courtroom, he told Sules he would be afraid to look any of his victims in the eye. Fighting back tears, he said he knew whatever he said would not lessen his crimes. He said he did not feel he was worthy of being loved and then made reference to most likely either his uncle or the brother who allegedly sexually abused him.
“It kills me that the person who did this to me didn’t serve jail time,” he said. “Your honor, it might be confusing to you how I didn’t know what I was doing. I wanted to be loved. I tried to be a good role model and people were crushed because of what I did because of my selfishness.”
Donaldson covered his face with his hands and began to weep. He regained his composure after a minute.
“I know I need to atone for this,” he said. “The darkness inside me, I don’t want it in this world.”
He said he wanted justice done “for the young man here,” a reference to a victim in court.
After Donaldson retook his seat, Sules gave the mother of the victim the opportunity to speak.
She told Sules that she had listened closely to the defense attorney when he said that both Donaldson’s family and the victims’ families suffer similarly.
“Our families our nothing alike,” he said. “My son, my children, are the world to me. That makes our families different.”
She said her son was born premature at 3 pounds 3 ounces.
“He was a fighter,” she said. “You want the best for your kids. You send them off to school without fear.”
Her son wanted to be a member of the track team. At a team event, Donaldson introduced himself to her.
“I saw how people reacted to him because he had a good reputation,” she said. “Almost like a second parent.”
She said with Donaldson, she had to admit she let down her guard. “We trusted this man,” she said. “He was trusted with my child’s life.”
Saying she was not a vicious person, she wanted Donaldson to receive the maximum sentence.
“Character is who you are in the dark,” she said.
She came to the sentencing, she said, because her son had come forward to accuse Donaldson and she, too, had to make her own stand. Because he had come forward, she said her son was able to shake off the guilt. She said Donaldson always came up to her whenever they met to commend her son.
“Now it all makes sense to me,” she said. “You wanted to keep everything in a box. My son has a healthy future and it starts here. We’re making a stand for all the children. I commend my son for being brave.”
She characterized herself as a woman with a strong Christian background and because of this her son was initially afraid to tell her about Donaldson’s abuse.
“He was acting out and then the pieces started to fall together,” she said. “No more evil. You deserve the maximum and I think it’s a very lenient sentence.”
Sules expressed regret to the woman for what her family had endured.
Her son was then given the opportunity to speak. He read from a text and would turn to look at Donaldson who looked straight ahead.
“I was confused and angry and you saw this and said you wanted to help me,” he said. “Who would believe a gay kid against a pillar of the community? And you did this because of your past? I could never do what you did to me to anyone.”
The victim said he thought he was the only boy with whom Donaldson was having sexual contact.
“But one day you slipped and said you were doing it with other boys,” he said. “We’re not victims, but survivors. I hope the judge has no sympathy for you.”
Montesino then spoke.
“The language today speaks of tragedy,” she said.
Donaldson, she said, did not succumb to internal pressures: His acts were planned and deliberate.
“He was predatory in the guise of altruism,” she said. “He took them out, bought them pizza, bought one a bike.”
Regarding the tests conducted by doctors to determine whether Donaldson would commit the same crimes again, she said Donaldson told the doctors he did not think he was in a position of authority over his victims until he was arrested.
“That was self-serving,” she said. “Every single day he knew there was a power differential and he used it. That’s predatory.”
In imposing his sentence, Sules said he rejected Donaldson’s past as a mitigating factor.
“It’s not a justification or excuse for his behavior,” Sules said, “but a reason why he should know the harm.” But he told Donaldson that what happened to him was tragic, too.
“The perpetration of abuse ends here,” he said. “Hopefully, these boys, with help from family and therapy, will fare better than you did as a victim.”
Donaldson was taken from the courtroom in handcuffs. Following his October 2016 arrest, he was incarcerated for 140 days before making bail. This is considered time-served and will be deducted from his sentence. He has a right to appeal.
Outside the courtroom, Montesino referred all questions to the Essex County Prosecutor. Tyshchenko would not comment except to say that he had never seen anyone as remorseful as Donaldson for what they did.