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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Former youth minister to hear sex abuse verdict

Thomas Clouse Staff writer

The parents of a 14-year-old girl pulled her out of the Youth Group led by James D. Ritter after her brother intercepted a phone call from Ritter where he was talking about his favorite body parts.

But the parents kept their daughter in Spokane Lutheran School where Ritter, who is on trial for eight sex crimes against minors, taught a class called “Choices.”

“It was basically preteens learning to make the right choices in their lives … about how to grow up as a responsible person,” testified the girl, who is now 17.

Ritter, 33, could learn as early as today how much time he will spend in prison. His own defense attorney conceded Ritter’s guilt to most of the charges levied against him.

“The court is going to find Mr. Ritter guilty on quite a few counts … because it’s true,” defense attorney Chris Bugbee said in his closing argument. “Almost nothing has been disputed by Mr. Ritter. He did abuse a position of trust. It was wrong, and he knows it.”

Ritter faces five years in prison for each of six counts of first-degree sexual misconduct with a minor. Those charges stem from at least six times he met and had sex with a 16-year-old girl after Youth Group at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, 7307 N. Nevada St.

Ritter also faces up to a year in prison for communication with a minor for immoral purposes. And he faces up to 10 years in prison for one count of sexual exploitation of a minor. In both instances, Ritter chatted suggestively with the girl and used a Web cam as she stripped per his instructions.

The attorneys chose to hold a bench trial, in which the judge serves as the jury. Superior Court Judge Neal Rielly said he will decide the case either today or Friday.

Ritter, who throughout the trial has been supported by his wife, Shannon, chose not to testify before the trial concluded Wednesday. Shannon Ritter quit her job as an elementary teacher at the church after the allegations surfaced in 2005.

The church fired James Ritter, who is not an ordained minister but worked full time as the director of Christian education, a week before he turned himself in to face the charges in December 2005.

One of the victims testified Monday that her mother confronted church officials in 2004 after her brother intercepted Ritter’s suggestive phone call in 2004.

Based on those family concerns, Mark Benning, a pastor, confronted Ritter about the conversations, which he admitted, and sent him to counseling at the Genesis Institute in Spokane.

Asked why he didn’t contact law enforcement at that time, Benning told The Spokesman-Review in 2005 that it didn’t seem appropriate.

“That was something discussed with the family and some of our church leaders. That communication, at the time, was nothing like” the later discovery that Ritter was having sex with the older girl, Benning said.

After five sessions, counselors assured Benning that Ritter was not a danger, Benning said. Ritter was reinstated as the leader of the Youth Group.

However, he had daily contact with the girl in his class, and he suggested they start communicating over the Internet.

That’s when the communication turned criminal, according to court records.

Transcripts show Ritter told the girl to delete those messages where he suggested that she expose herself on the Web cam.

During one truth-or-dare game, “Ritter lowered his pants and showed some of his pubic hair, and his dare was that she do the same, which she did,” Spokane County sheriff’s Detective John Grandinetti wrote.

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