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Stephen J. Lee, Forum News Service, Published April 02 2013

Grand Forks man accused of sexually abusing stepdaughter

GRAND FORKS - Wearing pigtails, smiling and holding a stuffed puppy, an 8-year-old girl took the stand to be the first witness against her former stepfather Tuesday in his trial on a charge he sexually abused her for months in their Grand Forks home.

Her testimony — given in short answers, including several of “I don’t know,” but also talk about body parts — could help put Justin Yarbro in prison for life.

Yarbro, 32, faces a possible sentence of life in prison without parole if convicted of the Class AA felony charge of continuous sexual abuse of the girl from April 2010 to October 2011, when she was 6 and 7.

Yarbro has been in jail more than a year waiting for this trial in state district court in Grand Forks since he was arrested in February 2012. He has never changed his position that he’s innocent, said his attorneys Tuesday.

It took more than a day to select a jury of eight women and six men, including two alternates, from a pool of 64. The trial continues Wednesday.

Yarbro’s former wife, Nickole, who filed for divorce about the time he was arrested, testified after her daughter. She and Yarbro grew up on the same block and started a relationship in 2006, she said. They have three children together and got married less than three years ago.

She said her suspicions about Yarbro abusing her daughter began when she walked in on them in bed under the covers in October 2011 in their apartment near downtown Grand Forks. Although both of them were clothed and Yarbro denied doing anything wrong, she began to worry, said Nickole.

(Her last name was Yarbro during their two-year marriage; the Grand Forks Herald is not publishing her current last name to avoid identifying the alleged victim.)

Nickole testified that a few days later, on Oct. 15, 2011, her daughter told her that Yarbro had been touching her sexually. Yarbro denied it. But the same day she took the girl to Altru Hospital, where the girl told nurses and a police officer in some detail that Yarbro had sexually abused her 10 to 16 times over several months.

Under questioning Tuesday from Meredith Larson, assistant state’s attorney for Grand Forks County, the girl said Yarbro threatened her if she told about the abuse.

Why hadn’t she told anyone sooner, Larson asked.

“I was worried something was going to happen,” she said.

Larson: “What kind of thing?”

“I was going to go to a foster home … Justin told me that.”

Kerry Rosenquist, defense attorney, cross-examined the girl for a few minutes, carefully trying to raise questions about the girl’s account without pressuring her.

How many times had Yarbro abused her in her bedroom, he asked.

Silent a few moments, the girl shrugged, “I don’t know.”

How about in the living room, he said, following her testimony about the places it happened.

“Only twice.”

“In your Mom’s room?”

“Three times,” the girl said.

She was on the stand about 15 minutes.

The ordeal of her testifying in court about such things seemed more difficult for the attorneys, the jury and family members of both sides in the court room than the girl, who smiled as she walked out with a friend, still holding the stuffed puppy.

According to court documents and Nickole’s testimony, she and Yarbro worked at the American Crystal Sugar plant in East Grand Forks and were locked out with other union-member employees since Aug. 1, 2011.

Yarbro’s employment, or lack of it, became part of this case when he was charged late last year, separately, with felony attempted theft. He was scheduled to go trial on that charge later this month in an unusual case of alleged fraud by a defendant seeking a court-appointed attorney by claiming he can’t afford to hire his own lawyer.

On his application a year ago for a court-appointed attorney, Yarbro listed his only income as $281 per month in unemployment payments from the state of Minnesota and he was ruled to be indigent.

Prosecutors say he actually had been collecting four times or more the income he had claimed: $281 per week, not per month. Locked-out workers at American Crystal’s Minnesota plants qualified for such unemployment.

Yarbro also faces 10 felony counts of burglary in Polk County, filed in December 2011 and a warrant was issued for his arrest in early 2012 when he failed to appear in court on the charges.

From court motions as well as what was said in court Tuesday, it’s clear Yarbro’s defense team is challenging the girl’s testimony and accounts she gave investigators.

On cross-examiniation, Rosenquist asked the girl’s mother if her child’s reported “behavioral problems” at school involved lying. Yes, the mother said, she got in trouble for hiding things at school and lying about it, so she wouldn’t get in trouble.

In her opening statement, defense attorney Jessie VanCamp told the jury the evidence this week would show the girl changed her story “drastically,” … and will show a very troubled young girl … with a history of lying and behavioral problems.”