Updated May 22, 2013.
A teacher at Torah Day School of Seattle pleaded not guilty to four counts of first-degree child molestation on Monday, May 20. If convicted, Jordan Eareckson Murray, 32, could face from 149 to 198 months in prison with an indeterminate sentence of up to life following that, according to the King County prosecuting attorney’s office. If a jury finds predatory intention, the sentence could start at 25 years.
Murray was jailed briefly before being released on $100,000 bail on May 3. His next hearing will take place June 18.
In a statement filed in King County Superior Court, police detective Michael Moore wrote that according to statements from the victims, two girls who attend Torah Day School, Murray touched them under their clothing as they stood by him in front of the class. He appeared to focus elsewhere as the desk shielded his actions from view, Moore wrote.
“The defendant is a clear danger to children given the circumstances of this crime…secretly molesting these girls in class in front of others,” wrote deputy prosecutor Carol D. Spoor in court papers.
Murray, a married father of three, declined to make a statement to police. His attorney, Brad A. Meryhew, who specializes in defending clients charged with sex offenses, did not return telephone calls to his office for comment.
Murray, known to his students as “Rabbi Yaakov,” is not an ordained rabbi but was allowed by the Orthodox school’s administration to call himself one as a “merely honorary” title, Moore wrote.
He has no known criminal convictions, said Dan Donohoe, the press secretary to the prosecutor’s office.
Murray moved to Washington State 20 months ago and began teaching at the school in the Columbia City neighborhood at the start of the 2011–12 school year, according to Moore’s statement.
“By promptly reporting this matter to the appropriate authorities, TDS has taken the necessary action to ensure the safety of our students,” said Randy Kessler, the school’s executive committee president, in a statement.
Murray has since been fired.
Rabbi Sheftel Skaist, head of the school, urged parents in a post shared on Facebook Friday, May 3: “We are diligently working to find an appropriate safety program that will assist our community to move forward and further ensure a safe school environment for our students. We are researching programs that provide updated safety protocols, specialized staff training, parent workshops, and classroom presentations for students.”
Kessler said in a telephone interview he has two children in the school, which is in its seventh year.
“It has been a wonderful experience for us,” he told JTNews.
He also said he had met Murray but would not comment further.
About 130 youngsters from kindergarten to 8th grade, almost all from Seattle, attend TDS classes in a former public school building, Kessler said.
“We did a thorough background check,” Kessler told JTNews, but said that though Murray’s references checked out, the school did not perform a criminal check. Kessler added that a criminal check wouldn’t have been of help, as Murray’s record is apparently clean.
Going forward, however, all staff will be screened more closely.
“That policy has been changed,” he said.
As for the current staff, Kessler said, “my understanding is that they have all been criminally background checked.”
TDS notified parents the day after the school received reports of the investigation of Murray. Kessler would not release the notification letter sent to parents, and the school’s website was taken down after the matter came to light.
“We just want to not provide anyone with information that they could use in a detrimental fashion,” Kessler said. “There’s just so much going on right now.”
After Murray’s arraignment on May 20, Kessler told JTNews the school is stepping back and letting the authorities take it from here.
He said he knew of no falloff thus far in enrollment, attendance or interest among families with children who might attend the school. He would not say whether the children described in court papers were still going to class or enrolled at the school.
David Chivo, executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, said he was told of the matter while it was under investigation, before Murray posted bail, but said he had heard nothing from the school since then.
“The Federation supports strong and immediate action by law enforcement and the courts to bring the individual in question to justice. Keeping children safe at all times and in all places is of paramount importance,” according to a statement released by the Federation. “Our thoughts are with Torah Day School families at this difficult and painful time.”
Kessler said he had not heard from any other Jewish schools in the area except for a call of support from Rivy Poupko Kletenik, head of school at the Seattle Hebrew Academy.
“I honestly don’t think that this has anything to do with the fact that this is a religious school or an Orthodox school,” he said.
Det. Moore, in the charging papers, wrote that the investigation began April 23, following two referrals from Child Protective Services, a state agency.
A relative of one of the assaulted girls told Moore she had noticed a pattern that began early in the current school year: Her relative, the other girl who said she had been molested, and four other 1st- and 2nd-grade girls in Murray’s classes complained frequently of “stomach aches, headaches and general nervousness,” but “appeared fine and acted normally” after going home early.
Moore wrote that one of the two girls listed in the complaint talked to the other about Murray. Both then told the second girl’s sister, who had babysat for Murray’s three young children, and eventually they told the girls’ mother.
“The [two] girls mentioned a book they have seen and read called the ‘Let’s Be Safe’ book,” the detective wrote of the book “Let’s Stay Safe!” by Bracha Goetz and Tova Leff, which deals with keeping children safe in a Jewish context. “The book deals with safety rules and is used at the school and in [the sisters’] home.”