Jury finds ex-Fruitland High principal not guilty of sexual battery of school employee

A Canyon County jury on Friday found the longtime coach and principal of Fruitland High School not guilty of sexually battery and one other misdemeanor in a case that involved claims by a female school employee.

Mike Fitch’s trial lasted four days, and a jury of three men and three women in Canyon County reached its verdict on Friday after about three hours of deliberation.

Fitch, 44, resigned in April after he was charged with two counts of misdemeanor sexual battery and one count of patronizing a prostitute. Patronizing a prostitute, by state statute, is when someone “pays or offers or agrees to pay another person a fee for the purpose of engaging in an act of sexual conduct or sexual contact.”

The prosecution and the defense painted starkly different pictures during closing arguments before the jury on Friday morning. The prosecution claimed that Fitch took advantage of his position and inundated the victim with unwanted sexual material. The defense claimed that the woman was mutually interested in the relationship and blamed the woman for not vocalizing her disinterest in Fitch.

The Idaho Statesman does not name alleged victims of sexual assault.

Fitch’s charges came out of Payette County, but the trial was held in Canyon County due to a change of venue request. Magistrate Judge Matthew Bever presided.

Payette County Prosecutor Ross Pittman focused on Fitch’s position as principal and his power over the employee. The sexual battery charges stemmed from incidents that allegedly occurred on school property.

“This case is all about an imbalance of power,” Pittman said.

The prosecutor said the victim was afraid of losing her job and was so traumatized that she was her unable to find a way out.

Defense attorney Mistie Bauscher shifted her argument away from Fitch’s actions and focused on the woman’s personal history, her relationship and her lack of transparency early on about her interactions with Fitch.

Fitch sent the woman multiple emails with erotic stories and graphic language about fantasies, some of which the woman responded to. Fitch testified that he was under the impression the woman liked the explicit content. The woman said she felt pressured to “play along” with Fitch’s dialogue.

Pittman noted that the woman did tell a counselor at the school, Wendy Stoker, as well as the former athletic director, Beth Holt, about her interactions with Fitch. Both Holt and Stoker testified at trial about how the woman confided in them about her concerns.

“If this is a consensual relationship, why is she telling people about it?” Pittman suggested to the jury, trying to dismiss the defense’s allegations of mutual interest.

Bauscher argued that the case was largely a “he-said, she-said situation” and that there wasn’t enough evidence to convict Fitch. She focused on some of the explicit messages and a photo that the woman sent to Fitch, and noted that no money was ever exchanged, in reference to the accusation of Fitch offering to pay the woman for sex.

Bauscher detailed some of the explicit things the employee sent to Fitch, saying she was sending mixed messages.

I know no guy that is not going to flirt with a woman that says these things to him,” Bauscher told the jury.

Pittman questioned why the defense was going to such lengths to make the woman look bad, when Fitch testified that he never sexually or physically touched her.

“They are blaming the victim for this, even though they’re saying it didn’t happen,” Pittman told jurors.

Bauscher argued that the woman had a motive to lie because she was in a committed relationship when the interactions with Fitch happened. Pittman dismissed that claim, noting that the woman was subjected to personal, embarrassing questions and still testified for six hours this week against Fitch.

What happened to her was wrong, what happened to her was demeaning, and what happened to her hurt her,” Pittman said.

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Reporter Ruth Brown covers the criminal justice and correctional systems in Idaho. She focuses on breaking news, public safety and social justice. Prior to coming to the Idaho Statesman, she was a reporter at the Idaho Press-Tribune, the Bakersfield Californian and the Idaho Falls Post Register.