The arrest of a Cooperstown Central School physical education teacher last week on charges he received and distributed child pornography online has brought concern, confusion and anger to the school’s community, but some people said they were not completely surprised.
Justin Hobbie, 41, taught gym and health classes at the school for 13 years and coached girls soccer and track. He was arrested at his home in Springfield Center on Thursday and is being held in a county jail near Syracuse pending a detention hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
Monday, several students told The Daily Star they suspected Hobbie of spying on them changing in the locker rooms.
However, authorities said there was no evidence to suggest Hobbie had manufactured any of the child pornography which he allegedly possessed and traded, or that it involved any local students or residents.
The case remains under investigation by Homeland Security Investigations in Albany.
United States Magistrate Judge Thérèse Wiley Dancks will decide whether Hobbie should be held, or released under certain conditions, to assure the safety of the community and his appearance at future court meetings. Such conditions could include a house arrest, according to Michael Barnett, Assistant United States Attorney spokesperson in Albany.
The school will hold a forum at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday to share information on the arrest and hear from parents. Representatives from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the National Center of Missing & Exploited Children are expected to attend, and will be sharing resources for parents and caregivers.
Superintendent William Crankshaw sent audio messages to the school community on Sunday and Monday nights to inform parents of the meeting and ensure to them crisis response teams will have a plan and “the necessary staff is in place to discuss students’ feelings during this most unsettling time.”
“We are galvanizing in-school and external resources for staff and students immediately and into the future to be sure students have a safe learning environment,” he told The Daily Star via email, without getting into particulars. He said students can go to their trusted teachers, staff members and counselors if they wish to talk.
Crankshaw declined to discuss whether Hobbie had any allegations of misconduct made against him in his time at the school. He said he has been contacted by investigators “with periodic updates, which have been routine to date,” but did not disclose whether investigators are conducting any interviews at the school.
Students told The Daily Star that Hobbie was known for being overly personal with students. They also said he had a Snapchat account he may have shared with certain students.
A federal search warrant could grant investigators access to a log of previous Snapchats, which are picture messages that automatically delete after both users have seen the content. The log is only meta-data, not the actual content of the messages. It would include the time a message was sent and to whom, but not the photos or messages.
Students who wished to remain anonymous also said Hobbie was known to watch girls changing in the locker room through the reflection on a trophy case.
“A lot of girls are extremely uncomfortable with finding that out, the fact that people knew about it and acting like it was a thing that was just known, and feel very unsafe now,” said one junior girl.
“Also a few students, he was way too touchy with," she continued. "One student in particular would run up to him and jump into his arms, and wrap her legs around him, and it’s just completely inappropriate for a teacher-student relationship. A lot of students witnessed it, and it made everyone uncomfortable, and as a teacher he should not have let that happen.”
Keith Barlow, a 2018 CCS graduate who played football, said Hobbie would also do things that made boys feel uncomfortable in the locker room, such as staring at them when they changed clothes. Hobbie would ignore them when they told him to leave them alone, Barlow said.
“Now we’re all like ‘Oh God did he enjoy it?’” he said.
Barlow said Hobbie routinely commented on students’ personal business, including accusing them of smelling like marijuana or tobacco, or saying he knew what they were up to on weekends.
Other students discussed inappropriate touching, such as snapping girls’ bra straps or letting his hands linger on peoples’ backs.
However, as the community processed the news, many people pointed out good things about Hobbie, including his work as a volunteer EMT — he is credited with helping save several lives in that role — as a Planning Board member for the town of Springfield and the positive relationship some students had with him.
“I can tell you that (my daughter) liked him and enjoyed his class,” said Susan Jastremski Austin. “He is a well liked teacher. He’s a Cooperstown graduate; my husband went to school with him. This is a huge shock to all of us.”
Connie Herzig, the former chair of the physical education department who retired in June, said she had never heard any complaints of Hobbie acting inappropriately.
“Being the department chair I certainly would have been informed of anything untoward that would have happened,” she said. “In his teaching and his coaching his behavior seemed absolutely appropriate.”
Hobbie previously worked for Pathfinder Village and Otsego Northern Catskills BOCES, and holds a master’s and bachelor’s degrees in physical education from SUNY Cortland.
Otsego County Board of Representatives Chairman David Bliss, who is a softball coach at Cooperstown High School, also said the charge against Hobbie came as a surprise.
“It certainly shocked me,” said Bliss. “This is not anything I was expecting to hear.”
According to the federal complaint, the investigation into activity involving Hobbie’s computer began in June after a covert law enforcement computer detected child pornography being shared by a computer with an IP address later linked to Hobbie’s home. He is accused of using a peer-to-peer file sharing program to receive and distribute the illegal images.
Those files were found by State Police Investigator Matthew Burkert, who assisted in the search.
Investigators also noted that an interview with Hobbie’s wife determined she had found child pornography on one of his computers 13 years ago. She said he agreed to delete the objectionable files at that time.
Hobbie’s wife, who was not named in the complaint, also advised in an interview conducted at the State Police barracks in Richfield Springs that her husband was the only person who used the Alienware computer that was seized from the couple’s home on Thursday.
In a subsequent interview, according to the report, Hobbie maintained he did not know how the child pornography had turned up on his computer 13 years ago. Of the files that he allegedly distributed recently, he contended they were downloaded onto his computer after he typed in the word “teen” in a search in a file-sharing program he installed several years ago.
Hamilton’s complaint states the investigation began after a covert law enforcement computer detected child pornography being shared by a computer with an IP address later linked to Hobbie’s home.
Much of the sexual activity depicted in the video files involved naked girls believed to be 8 to 12 years old. One file showed an adult male wearing a clown mask raping a masked girl, according to Hamilton’s complaint. The complaint also notes another child pornography video was found on Hobbie’s Samsung cell phone.
The document notes investigators gained access to records related to Hobbie’s internet activity by sending a summons to Time Warner Cable, now doing business as Charter Communications/Spectrum.
Hobbie, according to the complaint, waived his right to have a lawyer before responding to questions from the investigators. A search warrant allowing investigators to search Hobbie’s home and vehicle was issued Nov. 29.
Hobbie, if convicted, faces at least five years and up to 20 years in prison, a term of post-release supervision of at least five years and up to life, and a fine of up to $250,000, officials said. If convicted, he will be required to register as a sex offender.
Erin Jerome, staff writer, may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7221. Follow her at @DS_ErinJ on Twitter. CNHI New York Reporter Joe Mahoney contributed to this report.