University of Minnesota admits student with criminal sexual history

University of Minnesota student Alec Cotter (not pictured) pleaded to one count of disseminating child pornography, but was admitted to the school anyway. (Photo by Jim Gherz/Star Tribune.)

University of Minnesota student Alec Cotter (not pictured) pleaded to one count of disseminating child pornography, but was admitted to the school anyway. (Photo by Jim Gherz/Star Tribune.)

Alec Cotter, the 19-year-old son of a tenured professor at the University of Minnesota, was allowed to enroll as a student this year after the school determined his plea to a felony charge of disseminating child pornography does not make him a threat to campus safety.

Cotter, who has also gone by the name Benjamin A. Scheffler, initially was denied admission to the Twin Cities campus, but a committee overturned that decision on appeal, according to court records.

Cotter said he provided the U copies of psychosexual evaluations that showed he was not a threat, and gave officials results of a polygraph exam which indicated he had never harmed anyone.

He now lives in a dorm where residents and dorm employees were not told about his criminal sexual history, according to a housing and residential life employee, which Cotter confirmed.

Before admitting him, Cotter said, the U wanted to ensure he’d moved on from his crime and did not pose a threat to campus safety. He said officials primarily were concerned about the possibility he could come into contact with high schoolers attending classes on campus.

The Plymouth Police Department started investigating Cotter, then age 16, in 2016 after receiving tips from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, according to the criminal complaint.

Police searched his home in June 2016 and found more than 45,000 images and videos found on his laptop, cell phone, thumb drives, and memory cards, according to the criminal complaint filed in Hennepin County District Court. After review, police could only confirm that about 1,000 of the images contained child pornography. According to the criminal complaint, the images depicted children from ages of around 6 and up.

A University of Minnesota spokesperson, citing federal privacy laws, said the university could not address Cotter’s specific case but told City Pages “applicants with past criminal convictions are thoroughly reviewed" and “individuals who pose a threat to the campus community are not admitted to the University."

According to the school's website, "family employment or attendance at the University of Minnesota" is a factor that is considered after a student is seen as "academically admissible." Cotter said his father, tenured law school professor Thomas Cotter, had no role in his admission. The university did not respond to questions about whether Cotter's father influenced his admission.

Thomas Cotter did not respond when asked to comment.

At the urging of student leaders, the U dropped from its application a question about felony convictions starting with this year’s freshman class, but the school said it still asks prospective students about sex crimes.

According to its admissions website, the priority in admissions is if the student meets academic standards before things like past criminal sexual history, community service,  military service or family connections to the University are considered.

The U's admissions website spells out its policy in these terms:

“Applicants reporting scholastic dishonesty, prior sexual offense convictions, or pending sexual offense charges, are never automatically barred from admission to the University,” and “the case details are reviewed by a campus-wide committee."

That committee is made up of representatives from the Office for Community Standards, the Office of the General Counsel, Housing and Residential Life, the Police Department, the Office for Student Affairs, the Office of Undergraduate Education, University Counseling, Office of Equity and Diversity and the Office of Admissions.

The committee considers factors like the severity, nature, and recency of the crime, age at the time of the offense and evidence of rehabilitation when making its decision.

Instances of student applicants having a past criminal sexual history is rare, a school spokesperson said, and in those cases, students can be denied if their behavior raises concerns about “the overall safety of the campus community.”

The U has admitted four students with a past sexual criminal history in the past three years. Cotter is one of two students who are current campus residents with a past criminal sexual or felony history, according to the University.

In a written statement to City Pages, Cotter says he developed post-traumatic stress disorder after another boy tried to rape him at a summer camp when he was 13.

Cotter told a judge that viewing the pornography "gave me a relief, that they gave me a good feeling and a feeling of control,” according to court transcripts.

He discovered people exchanging child pornography through Twitter -- sexually curious teens trading images of themselves, but also users sharing “truly horrific and disturbing images and videos that were clearly child pornography” he told City Pages.

Cotter has said he was collecting the more troubling images in hopes of reporting the activity to police.

“Doing this made me feel like a vigilante, and it made me feel like I had power over my abuser, even if it wasn’t the most well thought out plan. But the police got to the flash drive before I could leave it with them anonymously,” he said.

In response to Cotter's statement, the Hennepin County Attorney's Office said, "The evidence developed in this case gives no indication that Mr. Cotter was collecting the child pornography to help investigators catch other predators. He never mentioned this until after he was caught and put into treatment. Video evidence collected by investigators showed Mr. Cotter enjoying the images for his own sexual gratification. As for his submission to a polygraph test, it is irrelevant because courts do not allow them as evidence because they are unreliable."

Cotter received a stay of adjudication for one charge of disseminating child pornography. If he fulfills the terms of his three-year probation, the charge will be dropped. Twelve other felony charges of possessing child pornography were dropped, according to court documents.

Because Cotter was 16 when he committed the crime but almost 18 when he was formally charged, prosecutors offered a deal: If he agreed to be charged as an adult, prosecutors would authorize a stay of adjudication in exchange for a guilty plea. That means his felony will be dismissed if Cotter follows the terms of his probation. Had he been tried as a juvenile; court supervision would have been limited based on his age.

Hennepin County Attorney Leah Erickson, who represented the state in the case called the case "exceptionally unique" and said, "in similarly situated case, the state would not make such an offer."

A stay of adjudication in a child pornography case is “extremely rare,” probation officer Carole Tauer said during one of Cotter’s court hearings. According to Minnesota state statute, the maximum sentence for disseminating child pornography is seven years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

Between 2013 and 2017 in Minnesota, 42 people have been given stays of adjudication for the same crimes charged to Cotter. Of those, 10 have been dismissed or had conditions met, five have been convicted and 27 are still ongoing, according to a Hennepin County Court spokesperson.

Under a formal conviction, Cotter would have needed to register as a sex offender. Because he was granted a stay, he is not required to register, according to the Hennepin County Attorney's Office.

Chuck Laszewski, a spokesperson for the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office, said authorizing the stay of adjudication was a “unique but well thought-out decision.”

The three-year probationary plea agreement prohibits unsupervised contact with minors at least three years younger than him, certain uses of the internet, pornography, drugs, and alcohol, among other restrictions. Cotter is also mandated to complete a sex-offender treatment program.

Weeks after his sentencing, Cotter violated his probation by having sexually explicit content on his cell phone. (Cotter says the people in that pornography were adults, and not underaged.) He also violated probation by using an “Internet-capable device” without permission, and by not complying with the computer use terms of his probation, according to a court transcript from Cotter’s probation violation hearing.

After violating his probation Cotter was sentenced to serve nine days in jail over the summer and 60 more days starting around January. In early January, the judge of his case ruled he would not be forced to serve those 60 additional days.

Cotter said he wants people to know that he is not a “monster” and that he hopes parents who learn about his story will have an honest conversation with their kids about the dangers and impacts of child pornography.