Ex-wrestling coach pleads guilty to lesser charge

YORK -- A former Rock Hill High School wrestling coach charged with sexually assaulting two students in May, pleaded guilty to a lesser charge on Friday.

Ira Bernard Durham, 37, of Charlotte, pleaded guilty to contributing to the delinquency of a minor during a hearing at the Moss Justice Center. Visiting Judge Michael Nettles handed down a three-year sentence suspended with three years' probation.

"If he violates probation, he could be required to serve the full three years in prison," Assistant Solicitor Lisa Collins said after court.

In May, Durham was charged with two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct and three counts of assault of a high and aggravated nature in connection with assaults involving two female students, ages 16 and 19. Those charges will be dismissed, Collins said.

The 19-year-old victim did not pursue her charges against Durham, Collins said during court as the 16-year-old victim looked on. The Herald does not report the names of sexual assault victims or juveniles.

"The defendant was allowed to plea to a reduced charge in order to spare the victim from having to testify at a trial," Collins said.

Peggy Payne, executive director of Safe Passage that offers victim assistance in York, Chester and Lancaster, said she wasn't surprised by the reduced sentence.

"Many times the family will request and say, 'We've been through enough. Our child has been ostracized. We don't want her to go on the stand,'" Payne said. "That's the hard part."

The judge ordered Durham to receive mental health counseling, to refrain from working or volunteering at schools while on probation and to complete 400 community service hours. He also cannot be alone with females younger than 18 without adult supervision.

Durham, the father of four and a member of the National Wrestling of Hall of Fame, did not comment during or after court. He had been a wrestling coach and in-school suspension monitor at Rock Hill High prior to the incidents. He has not been employed with the Rock Hill school district since the end of school last year, said Elaine Baker, district spokeswoman.

The 16-year-old victim tearfully read a prepared statement about the assault, which happened during school hours on May 7. "He sexually assaulted me," the girl read. "Once I was back in his classroom, he touched me more."

An arrest warrant notes that Durham inserted his hand inside the pants of the 16-year-old.

The Herald previously published that another arrest warrant states that Durham on two occasions trapped female students in a closed area of the campus and sexually assaulted them.

After the assault, the 16-year-old girl said she confided in a schoolmate, who encouraged her to tell school officials. She reported the incident the next day setting off retribution, she said.

"I received threatening messages," she read. "I'm not sure about the future. I have flashbacks. Seeing people with dreadlocks sets off flashbacks because that's what Coach Durham has."

Finding the courage to speak up cost the girl, her grandmother said.

"She paid the price for snitching," the girl's grandmother said. "She doesn't attend Rock Hill High School anymore. She won't go to movies in Rock Hill. It's such a heavy load for someone to carry and try to work through."

But Chief Public Defender Harry Dest disputed the girl's claim.

"There was no physical evidence of a sexual assault," Dest said, as Durham's mother sniffled and dabbed at her eyes.

Durham, a Rock Hill graduate, previously worked with mentally challenged adults and children as well as in group homes and at an alternative center, Dest said. A former mentor and volunteer, Durham was hired as a wrestling coach at Rock Hill High in 2006.

"This man has given back so much to the community," Dest said.

A former wrestling student and a parent agreed.

"I still look up to him because he taught me how to be a man," said Tyvonne Dunham, 19, a former wrestling student. "He showed me things my daddy hadn't shown me."

Elizabeth Charrette added, "He made my son feel like he was No. 1. He has given my child such compassion, love and support."

Yet, the girl's family said Durham failed their teen.

"Students place their trust in teachers and coaches," the girl's grandmother said. "That trust was destroyed."