A former Burnsville Swim Club coach is heading toward a second trial for sexual misconduct with a teen swimmer after his first trial ended with a hung jury earlier this year.
Alfred John “Rocky” O’Neill, 62, of Savage faces five charges of felony third-degree criminal sexual conduct after a former swimmer reported O’Neill coerced her into a sexual relationship when she was 17 while he was her coach and in his early 30s.
A pre-trial hearing is set for Oct. 28 in Dakota County District Court in Hastings, according to online court records. A jury trial is scheduled for mid-November.
O’Neill has denied the accusations, telling investigators nothing happened until the swimmer was 18; his attorney, Ryan Pacyga, didn’t return two phone calls requesting further comment earlier this month.
The case began more than a year ago after the U.S. Center for SafeSport, a nonprofit that aims to stop athlete abuse, received an anonymous report about O’Neill, Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom previously said.
The case went to trial in April but ended with a mistrial after jury members couldn’t agree O’Neill held a position of authority at the relevant times in the late 1980s, according to the trial transcript.
The victim, now a physician, testified that her relationship with O’Neill seemed positive until she was 17, when he kissed her and began touching her and initiating oral sex. Southwest News Media generally doesn’t publicize the names of sexual assault victims.
“I felt like I was a favorite,” the woman said at trial, adding she didn’t want the contact. “I wanted to please him. I felt afraid to tell him that.”
Robert Paule, then O’Neill’s defense attorney, conceded the relationship became sexual but said the case came down to timing: the accuser’s age and whether O’Neill was her coach at the time of the incidents.
The swim club’s season didn’t continue during school, which is when the woman said much of the misconduct happened. She said she nonetheless considered O’Neill her coach all along.
So Dakota County prosecutors are trying again.
They declined to answer questions for this article about the upcoming trial and whether they were taking a different tack, but at a hearing with District Judge Tim Wermager on Aug. 30, prosecutor Jake Barnes said he planned to call an expert witness to discuss grooming behavior sexual predators use on victims.
The mistrial came a few months after the county dropped other charges against O’Neill that were based on a separate victim’s account.
In interviews with Burnsville Police and Southwest News, the second victim described a series of events and assaults similar to the first victim’s.
But investigators believed she lost the needed credibility for the charges to go forward because of her interactions with police and other issues with some of her claims, according to several Burnsville Police reports and a statement from Backstrom.
“Criminal sexual conduct cases are some of the most difficult cases we prosecute,” particularly those reported years after the fact that mostly rely on victim testimony, Backstrom wrote in an email.
“We ethically cannot pursue a criminal case unless we believe we have sufficient evidence to prove the case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Lindsay J. Brice, law and policy director at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault, didn’t comment on the O’Neill case specifically, but she said credibility concerns often come up in cases like it, partly because society often doesn’t take sexual assault as seriously as other crimes.
“There are significant pros and cons for any survivor to sift through when making choices about when and if to report,” she said.