PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — It could have been much worse for Aaron Thomas.
The former North Kingstown high school coach for months has been publicly accused of getting scores of underage student-athletes to strip completely naked with him alone behind closed doors for so-called naked “fat tests” dating back to the early 1990s.
This week, he was charged with with second-degree child molestation and second-degree sexual assault. And if convicted, Thomas faces several years in prison. But his circumstances could be far worse if the timing of his alleged behavior and the age of many who say they had inappropriate interactions with Thomas were different.
As part of the criminal probe into Thomas, investigators said they interviewed more than 30 former students associated the ongoing scandal that’s rocked the North Kingstown community for the past eight months.
Despite the large number of former students interviewed, however, R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha’s office only filed two criminal charges: one count of second-degree child molestation and one count of second-degree sexual assault.
Both charges carry hefty sentencing guidelines, including mandatory minimums, but the laws are somewhat limited in how they can be applied.
For example, the second-degree molestation law — which has no statute of limitations — only applies to people who are 14 years and younger.
The second-degree sexual assault law, meanwhile, has a statute of limitations of three years. Meaning anyone 14 years and older who alleges inappropriate sexual contact under the law’s definition couldn’t see a would-be perpetrator criminally charged unless the case is filed within three years of the incident.
Neronha has declined to comment on whether the limitations on both laws hampered his ability to bring additional criminal charges in the Thomas case, which largely involved students who attended North Kingstown high school between the early 1990s and 2020.
But the attorney general is clearly frustrated with how little time would-be victims, who are 14 years and older, have to come forward with allegations of traumatic events from their past.
“Sometimes it takes years or decades for someone to come forward and that’s perfectly understandable,” Neronha said Friday during a taping of Newsmakers. “But when you have a three year statue of limitation for sexual assault … that makes it very difficult to bring those charges.”
It’s unclear how many — if any — of the 30 former students interviewed by Neronha’s office had experiences that would translate into criminal charges if their ages and timing were different. But Target 12 — which first reported about the naked fat tests last October — has interviewed several former students who said they attended school more than three years ago and were older than 14 when they were subjected to the tests with Thomas.
For those former students, the sexual assault charge doesn’t apply because of the three-year window. And the second-degree child molestation charge — which doesn’t have a statute of limitations — doesn’t apply either because they were older than 14 at the time.
Tim Conlon, a private attorney representing several former students in ongoing civil proceedings, said the age and timing limitations mean the two statutes apply to only a “tiny sliver” of high school students who were subjected to naked fat tests.
“The vast majority of the kids who underwent some type of fat testing, or other so-called tests or procedures by Thomas, would be outside of the scope of the statute of limitations or outside of the age limits,” Conlon told Target 12.
The Thomas case isn’t the first time the issue has come up. Neronha estimates his office has charged 400 sexual assault cases against children over the past five years — and he suggested his office may only be scratching the surface because of the statute of limitations.
“Those are the ones we’ve been able to charge,” Neronha said. “We know this is an ongoing problem and sometimes the statute of limitations gets in the way.”
The attorney general championed legislation this year that would have eliminated the statute of limitation for second-degree sexual assault. The bill passed the R.I. House of Representatives. But it failed to garner enough attention and support in the R.I. Senate, as the end of session was unexpectedly dominated by gun-reform debate amid a spate of mass shootings across the country.
Had Neronha been successful in his push to change the law, however, it would not have impacted the case against Thomas, as the new statute could not have been applied retroactively.
“We have to get this fixed,” Neronha said about the sexual assault law, noting that he plans to try again next year to get the legislation passed.
“We know that children don’t come forward always in the immediate aftermath in a sexual assault against them,” he added. “If that incident happens you are shut off from justice if we don’t get there in three years.”
And he’s not alone in his frustration.
“Laws, especially in situations like this, should be changed and worked on to make sure there’s no little things that you can get away with,” one former student said recently during a televised interview with Target 12.