Jerry Harris, who rose to fame on reality TV on the Netflix show “Cheer,” pleaded guilty Thursday to federal charges related to soliciting images of child sexual abuse and illegal sexual conduct with a minor, overturning his previous plea. back.
More than a year ago, Mr. Harris, 22, pleaded not guilty to the seven charges against him in Chicago. But in a remote hearing on Thursday, he told Judge Manish S. Shah that he had reached a plea deal with prosecutors and pleaded guilty to two of those charges, accusing him of coaxing a 17-year-old to give him sexually explicit photos in front of him. money and traveled to Florida “for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct” with a 15-year-old.
The plea deal provides that after conviction on the two counts, prosecutors would request that the remaining charges be dropped, Judge Shah said during the hearing.
Mr Harris’ lawyers released a statement saying that Mr Harris “wanted to take responsibility for his actions and publicly express his regret for the damage he caused to the victims.”
Harris, whose enthusiastic encouragement from his teammates made him a viral star after debuting “Cheer,” had himself been sexually abused as a child in the world of competitive cheerleading, the statement said.
“There was no safe haven to talk about his exploitation, Jerry instead masked his trauma and put on the bright face and infectious smile that the world got to know,” the statement said. “As we now know, as an older teenager, Jerry became a perpetrator himself.”
Kelly Guzman, a prosecutor in the case, said at the hearing that one of the charges Mr Harris was pleading for was for receiving and attempting to receive child pornography. In the summer of 2020, she said, Mr. Harris repeatedly requested that a 17-year-old send him sexually explicit photos and videos, in exchange for a total of about $3,000.
The other count involved the journey of Mr. Harris from Texas to Florida with intent to engage in illegal sexual behavior with a 15-year-old, Ms. Guzman. Harris ordered the teen to meet him in a public bathroom in Orlando, Florida, where he sexually assaulted him, the prosecutor said.
Mr Harris said he understood the nature of the charges and possible jail time before pleading guilty.
Mr. Harris was arrested and charged with child pornography production in September 2020, months after the release of “Cheer,” which follows a cheerleading squad of national champions from a community college in a small Texas town.
Around the same time, he was sued by twin brothers who said he had sent them sexually explicit messages, requested nude photos, and solicited sex from them. (Mr. Harris befriended the boys when they were 13 and he was 19, USA Today reported.)
In a voluntary interview with authorities in 2020, Mr. Harris admitted that he exchanged sexually explicit photos on Snapchat with at least 10 to 15 people he knew were underage and had sex with a 15-year-old during a cheerleading contest in 2019. , according to an indictment.
After federal agents interviewed other minors who said they were in a relationship with Mr. Harris, they filed additional charges against him. The charges for which Mr Harris pleaded not guilty Thursday included four charges of child sexual exploitation and one charges of solicitation. Five underage boys are involved in the seven charges.
mr. Harris has been incarcerated at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago since his arrest.
An episode of the second season of “Cheer,” which was released last month, centers on the case against Mr. Harris and features interviews with the teenage complainers, Mr. Harris’s former cheerleading teammates, and the team’s coach, Monica Aldama. about the charges. †
Mr Harris will be sentenced on June 28. The plea deal noted that the sentencing guidelines may recommend “50 years in prison” for the violations, Judge Shah said, adding he can rule otherwise.
The statement from Mr. Harris’ lawyers says he has attended therapy while in prison and “will spend the rest of his life making amends for what he has done.”
Robert Chiarito reporting contributed.