Jerry Harris, former star of the Netflix documentary series ‘Cheer’, was sentenced on Wednesday to 12 years in prison for soliciting sex from minors and for pressuring young boys to send him nude photos and videos.
The 22-year-old pleaded guilty in February to two charges for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old in the bathroom during a cheer contest and paying a 17-year-old to send him sexually explicit photos and videos via Snapchat, court reports show. . Harris also admitted to engaging in similar conduct involving other minors, although prosecutors agreed to dismiss those charges as part of the plea deal.
Harris’ conviction marked a stunning fall for the former star who captivated fans when he appeared in “Cheer.” His arrest in September 2020 sparked a backlash in the world of competitive cheerleading, prompting others to share their own stories of abuse and pressure the sport’s governing body to implement reforms.
“Jerry Harris’s guilt has been firmly established,” said Sarah Klein, a Texas family attorney who was the first to report allegations against Harris to authorities. “The sentence he received reflects the gravity of his crimes and the lifelong pain his victims will suffer.”
After a nearly seven-hour hearing, U.S. District Judge Manish Shah also sentenced Harris to eight years of supervised release after being jailed. The judge told Harris the verdict was a “expression of the seriousness of your crimes, tempered with some hope that not all is lost for you or your victims, and that some healing may take place in the future.”
In court on Wednesday, Harris apologized to his victims, saying he is “not a bad person.”
“I am deeply sorry for all the trauma my abuse has caused you,” he said. “I pray deep down that your suffering will end.”
Harris’ lawyers had argued for a six-year prison term. In court documents, they quoted Harris’s troubled childhood as saying he had a “warped” view of relationships because he himself was sexually assaulted at age 13 by a 19-year-old from his cheer gym. The attorneys, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, have submitted character reference letters and videos from more than 80 people, including Navarro College cheerleading coach Monica Aldama, other “Cheer” castmates and members of the wider cheerleading community.
US assistant attorney Kelly Guzman had demanded 15 years in prison. In court documents, she acknowledged Harris’s traumatic upbringing, but said it was “not a blank check to commit sexual offenses against minors.”
“Harris used his celebrity and wealth to continue his exploitation of children and expanded the means available to manipulate them to satisfy his seemingly insatiable sexual desires,” Guzman wrote in her sentencing memorandum.
Kristen, a Texas mom, and her twin sons Charlie and Sam were the first to report allegations against Harris to authorities. USA TODAY agreed to withhold the family name because the boys are underage and allegedly abusive.
In interviews with USA TODAY in 2020, they described a pattern of harassment from Harris that started when the boys were 13 and Harris 19. The family said it continued for more than a year.
On Wednesday, the now 16-year-old twins made statements in federal court detailing the lasting impact of Harris’s abuse, including the loss of friendships and their struggles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Charlie said he became so afraid of public toilets after Harris pressured him into having sex in a toilet that he stopped eating at school so he wouldn’t have to go to the toilet there.
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“I knew in my heart and soul that what Jerry did to me and Sam was bad,” Charlie wrote in his statement, “but everyone told me that Jerry is exactly like that and that if I ever told him EVERYONE would turn their backs on me because I would have ruined the life of such a wonderful person that everyone loved.”
Sam said he and his brother decided to speak up after realizing Harris was abusing others. “It made us realize that we couldn’t keep quiet — that we had to speak up, no matter how much it cost us,” he said in his statement. “And it cost us SO much.”
The FBI investigation into Harris was first reported by USA TODAY in September 2020, at a time when Harris’s celebrity status was growing. It was sponsored by Starburst, Cheerios and Walmart. He had worked on the red carpet for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show.” And he still spent time in cheer gyms, despite the charges against him being reported to the sport’s governing body in May 2020.
USA TODAY found officials from that governing body, the US All Star Federation, who waited four months to suspend Harris, only after the news organization published an article about the allegations. USA TODAY has since reported on ubiquitous child protection flaws in the sport of competitive cheerleading, including how USASF delayed investigations and failed to prevent those accused or convicted of misconduct from working with young athletes.
When USA started reporting TODAY, only 21 people had been suspended or banned from the sport. Today, the names of more than 200 people are on the list.
USASF officials could not be reached for comment on Harris’s sentence on Wednesday.
USASF, Harris and others are still facing a civil lawsuit filed by Kristen and her sons.
In a statement Wednesday, Kristen said the “entities that control the cheerleading of all stars were eager to ride his jacket,” as Harris’s celebrity status grew and brought positive attention to the sport.
“Now is the time for those same organizations to show an unequivocal commitment to the transparency, accountability and substantive change needed to prevent this from ever happening again,” she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Marisa Kwiatkowski and Tricia L. Nadolny are reporters for the USA TODAY National Investigation Team. Marisa can be reached at [email protected], @byMarisaK or by phone, Signal or WhatsApp at (317) 207-2855. Tricia can be reached at [email protected] or @TriciaNadolny.