Sex charges stand in school trip to Germany, New Jersey judge says

Two New Jersey high school employees charged with having sex with students they were chaperoning on a class-sponsored trip to Germany can be prosecuted in New Jersey, even though the alleged encounters occurred overseas, a New Jersey judge ruled Tuesday.

State Superior Court Judge James Guida found that although the alleged acts took place in another country, the two suspended employees of Paramus Catholic High School had exercised supervisory or disciplinary power in the state of New Jersey over the children they had agreed to chaperone.

"The court finds that "conduct" in New Jersey constitutes an anchor, to which jurisdiction in this state is tethered," Guida wrote in his 22-page decision issued Tuesday.

Whether or not that conduct would meet the burden of a criminal offense was a fact for a jury to decide, he added, in deciding the case could proceed.

The suspended employees, Artur Sopel, who was vice president of operations at the school, and Michael Sumulikoski, a substitute teacher and assistant football coach, have denied any wrongdoing.

The two were arrested last year and charged with having sex with students while chaperoning a school trip to the town of Werl in Germany in February 2011.

According to grand jury testimony, one of the students confided in a teacher that she had sex with Sopel during the trip. The teacher contacted the state Division of Youth and Family Services, which then contacted Bergen County authorities.

Prosecutors allege that Sopel, 32, and Sumulikoski, 28, had sex with at least three teenage students during the trip. A fourth student later came forward with similar allegations.

Defense attorneys said in court papers that some of the students gave conflicting statements about having sex with the two men. One student said that she tried to flirt with Sumulikoski, and that he did not flirt back and told her that she and her friends should not come to his hotel room, according to defense attorneys.

Sopel and Sumulikoski are charged in a 25-count indictment with multiple counts of sexual assault and child endangerment. Most of the charges carry a maximum of 10 years in prison, followed by lifelong parole and Megan's Law registration requirements.

Their attorneys had argued state authorities were contemplating an unprecedented reach beyond their legal jurisdiction because the alleged acts took place in another country and the alleged victims were from Bergen County.

Both attorneys said Tuesday they planned to challenge the judge's ruling.

"Having supervisory authority is not `conduct,"' said Philip De Vencentes, an attorney for Sumulikoski. "The implications of this ruling are considerable; because if this is found to be `conduct,' it opens up the door to offenses that didn't happen in New Jersey being tried in New Jersey."

Guida addressed that notion in his written decision, saying out-of-state jurisdiction had been affirmed in cases such as the enforcement of alimony and child support payments, while emphasizing that his decision focused narrowly on the conduct of defendants with supervisory roles over minors, who were accused of sexual assault involving those minors.

"The State of New Jersey has a substantial interest in regulating the conduct of supervisory personnel to ensure the safety and protection of its children," Guida wrote. "Likewise, parents entrusting their children to such supervisory personnel justifiably expect that their children will be cared for as if they were in their own homes."

Prosecutors had argued that a permission form signed by parents for the trip had given the school significant responsibility for the students.

Bergen County Prosecutor John Molinelli said his office was pleased with Tuesday's ruling.

"We applaud the court's courage, as well as the legal reasoning," he said. "We feel the appeals division will see it the same way."

The parties are due back at the Bergen County courthouse in Hackensack on September 10.