UW-River Falls music professor Thomas W. Barnett has had the best year of his 18-year marriage during a time that could have easily been his worst. Through faith, family and friends, Barnett is counting his blessings instead of cursing his circumstance.
“Last year brought our family together. It was the best and most peaceful, even though it was the scariest,” said Barnett.
On Aug. 15, 2011, Barnett took his 13-year-old son and a friend to a movie theatre in Hudson. During the movie, Barnett dosed off, and as he woke, he noticed two teenagers in the row behind him engaging in inappropriate activity.
“They were messing around,” Barnett said.
Following the movie, Barnett said, he approached them and told them that they were crazy, other people could see them, and besides there were other families with kids that may have seen them.
Little did he know this confrontation would change his life.
The next afternoon, the Hudson Police showed up at Barnett’s house. Barnett and his wife Chris were left perplexed about why they were there.
“We complied and answered the questions as best we could, but we quickly realized that I was the one under suspicion,” said Barnett.
It was on Aug. 16, 2011, when Barnett was accused of sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl at the Hudson Theatre. Tom was detained for about a day by the Hudson Police and was later placed on paid administrative leave by UWRF.
Eight months later, a jury in the St. Croix County Circuit Court found Barnett not guilty of sexual assault and false imprisonment. If convicted, Barnett could have faced up to 50 years in prison.
“An $8 nap turned into an eight-month nightmare for Tom and his family,” said Timothy O’Brien, Barnett’s attorney.
The criminal complaint stated that Barnett had touched the girl inappropriately.
While Barnett would have every reason to be angry and hurt, he found strength in his religious convictions.
The next eight months would be long and arduous for the Barnett family. A preliminary hearing held Oct. 4 was one of a dozen hearings of the lengthy process, and included testimony from the teenager, her former boyfriend and employees of the theatre. More than 30 days later, on Nov. 10, Barnett pleaded not guilty during the arraignment. Even though Barnett’s attorney asked Judge Eric Lundell for a speedy trial, Assistant District Attorney Francis Collins urged otherwise. The request was granted and Barnett’s trial, by law, would take place within 90 days. However, extenuating circumstances would prevent this from being anything but speedy. The trial date of Feb. 28 was postponed by Lundell due to weather concerns. It wasn’t until April 11 that Barnett’s trial began in the St. Croix County Court.
The turning point seemed to be at the final pre-trial hearing on Feb. 13.
The judge granted a motion to include discovery that the complainant and her boyfriend admitted to lying about what happened, and even though Barnett’s DNA was not present on any of the tests from the Wisconsin Crime Lab, the trial was still scheduled and the charges were not dismissed.
“As Christians we believe in prayer, so we prayed. Our fear of circumstances turned into faith,” added Barnett. “We went to God and he showed us the joy of putting him first.”
“Our faith is what got us through this. If we kept dwelling on the anger, hatred and blackness there was no way we were getting out of the gloom,” Chris said. “We always thought, ‘God’s going to pull us through this’-and he truly did.”
Although Barnett was acquitted, he said there were doubts about how he could ever recover.
“Working at a public institution and seeing the initial explosion made public, I was overwhelmed and fearful about what would happen to my family,” Tom said. “How would my kids get treated at school? I was worried for their safety. It was terrifying to leave the house.”
However, the community of Baldwin, Barnett’s church, family, friends and wife stood by him throughout the trial.
“God was working overboard for us. People all the time came up to us and said, ‘you’re in our prayers, God is there,’” Tom said. “The people who knew us, they protected us. Our friends were there and had no doubt that the allegations were not true.”
“People dropped off cookies, lasagna and cards,” said Chris. “And it wasn’t just friends, it was complete strangers who would say they were thinking of us. During some of the darkest days, we were comforted by an unexpected phone call or email that offered words of encouragement and support.”
That support was needed as the trial continued. Although confident about the outcome, the jury deliberation pushed Tom to the tipping point.
One, two, even three hours, passed, and still there was no decision. During the first day of deliberations, the jury met for seven hours and still had not rendered a decision.
Barnett said it was during the fourth or fifth hour when he started to break down.
“We always knew that the truth would prevail, but after a while we started to realize that there was uncertainty on what they could decide,” said Tom. “Were they going on gut reaction instead of facts? But then I realized that all the pain came from looking at worldly circumstances. We had to have faith in God’s will. He would not give me more than I could handle. For when I am weak, then I am strong,” said Tom, referring to a Bible passage from 2 Corinthians 12:10.
During deliberations the Barnetts went to relax at a friend’s house, but when they were called back, they were not ready for the deliberations to continue until the next day.
“I tried not to look at the jurors’ faces as they entered, but it seemed like you could tell by the look on their faces that they were either remorseful of what happened or empathetic to what I had been through.”
But on the morning of April 14, the jury met for only moments before rendering the not guilty verdict for Tom, thus ending eight months of agony.
Life has not returned to normal, Tom said. He said it is better than normal.
“We are different people with a different focus. It has improved our marriage as we are choosing to see the blessings. Although one of the most difficult parts was being on leave away from the University, I got to take part in family traditions that I otherwise would have missed. I got to greet my kids as they came off the bus, I got to help them with homework more than I normally did and I got to see them off to school. Before, I never got to do that.”
The Barnetts have three boys, ages 6, 9 and 14.
In the middle of summer, UWRF notified Tom that he would be offered his position back teaching music even though the trial had ended in April.
After UWRF placed him on leave for the entire 2011-2012 school year, Blake Fry, the special assistant to the chancellor, said that the administration had to conduct its own investigation that was separate from the courts.
Tom was notified by Chancellor Dean Van Galen that UWRF would offer him his job back, and now he is in his 12th year of teaching at UWRF. For the fall 2012 semester, he has four classes.
“Teaching’s been great,” said Tom. “I’ve been busy preparing lectures. I always wanted to come back. I didn’t want to be on leave, but I respect the decision of the administration.”
Tom said he has since received an outpouring of support from faculty and students.
“Barnett went through a very difficult time being away from UWRF for an entire year, and we are happy to have him back in the department,” said UWRF Music Professor Kristin Tjornehoj. “The music department faculty and staff managed to keep their energy and focus on creating a positive environment with educationally strong objectives for students through the year.
Student reactions are hard to judge, and I cannot speak on behalf of others, yet I have not seen any negative outward response by students or staff.”
One of the biggest surprises for Professor Barnett has been the number of people who have come up to him and shared similar stories of having a friend or family member being wrongly accused of a crime and had to endure a similar trial.
He said that around 15-20 people have shared their stories.
“No one wants to talk about it, but when they see that you’ve been through it too, we can find comfort in knowing that we can make it through it,” said Tom.
Student Elliot Novak, who has had several classes with Barnett, said his initial reaction to the accusations against Barnett was to not have any opinion, and to believe that Barnett was innocent until proven guilty because the same thing had happened to someone he knew. Novak is a music major and former student of Barnett’s and has known Barnett for two years after taking several music classes with him.
“It hits you hard when it is someone you know. It isn’t Hollywood; he is a member of our community. It can be a critical distraction when you look to allegations versus the truth,” said Novak. “But Tom’s a good guy and I applaud the music department and UWRF for not being subject to unfound suspicion.”
Barnett said he hopes that if anyone takes away anything from his story, it is to stay strong in your faith and to enjoy the blessings of today.
“We have today,” said Tom. “We have today to hold each other’s hands. We have today to see that each day is a blessing. So why is our situation so bad?”