Dennis Mischler spent decades working with children as a Scout leader, teacher and trusted family member, but the testimony of nine witnesses at his trial in 22nd Judicial District Court in Covington persuaded a 10-woman, two-man jury that he also spent the past 40 years sexually molesting young boys.
Mischler, 65, was found guilty Friday evening of two counts of oral sexual battery, one count of molestation of a juvenile and 54 counts of possession of child pornography. The jury deliberated for 58 minutes before returning its verdict.
He will be sentenced Feb. 22 by Judge August Hand.
"A wolf in sheep's skin is able to mingle among the lambs,'' Assistant District Attorney Bruce Dearing said in closing arguments Friday. "Some of the lambs have tried to pull the sheep's skin off, but the adult sheep turned a blind eye. The wolf fed his hunger ... the lambs became his sacrifice."
But some of the victims "bravely told their stories," Assistant DA Collin Sims said. The fact that they were not successful in convincing people at the time was a "system failure" that enabled Mischler to continue his pattern of abuse, Sims said.
The nine men who testified against Mischler, at times tearfully, included two who had been Boy Scouts.
“This case is tragic, not only because of what the victims suffered, but also because the system failed them for 40 years,” District Attorney Warren Montgomery said after the verdict. “The guilty verdict reflects the hard work of the investigators, prosecutors, the jury and judge.”
In closing arguments, defense attorney Rachel Yazbeck reminded the jury that her client was charged with abusing one victim, not nine.
The counts of oral sexual battery and molestation stemmed from acts that Mischler was alleged to have committed with a family member, now 25, in St. Tammany Parish. Yazbeck described that victim's testimony as lacking in detail and contradictory.
The defense, which put Mischler on the stand, also called two family members on Friday. Mischler's sister, Darlene Smith, and a great-niece, Amber Giardano, both testified that they never saw Mischler behave inappropriately with any boys.
They testified extensively about a young boy in Arkansas who said Mischler had touched him inappropriately after his family gave shelter to Mischler's extended clan while they were evacuated after Hurricane Katrina.
Both women insisted that Mischler never lay in a bed with children while in the house and said he was not alone with the boy for extended periods.
During her closing, Yazbeck returned to a frequent theme in Mischler's defense: that many of his relatives and their friends were in and out of his home and that any of them could have used his laptop computer and the thumb drives on which images of child pornography were found.
But Sims told the jury that Mischler's only defense had been to call everyone else who testified a liar. Sims said his claims of innocence hinged on the notion that there was a vast conspiracy that began in the early 1970s, before most of those claiming to be molested had even been born.
The prosecution's final witness, forensic pediatrician Scott Benton, testified that it is common for child victims of sexual abuse to delay disclosing it, in part because they believe they are to blame.
The doctor also testified as to the likely age of boys in 54 images that were found on the thumb drives, again screening them before the jury. He said 29 of them were likely under 13.
The images, which came from a Russian site, were downloaded on the thumb drive in Mischler's bedroom at 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30 a.m., Sims told the jury. No one else could have done that, he argued, and as recently as three days before police showed up at Mischler's house in Covington, fresh images of naked, prepubescent boys had been downloaded.
Mischler testified extensively about his illnesses and surgeries, Sims said, showing the jury a graphic that indicated no images were downloaded onto the drive during the two years when he was struggling with health problems.
None of the nine victims had anything to do with police showing up at Mischler's home, Dearing told the jury. The U.S. postal inspector who came to investigate deliveries of child pornography didn't even know that those victims existed.
But Mischler blamed the pornography on a gay family member who happened to be in jail at the time, prosecutors said. Investigators went to interview him, and what began as a pornography case then grew into a molestation case, he said.