Jerry Harris, former star of the Netflix docu-series Cheer, was sentenced to 12 years in prison on Wednesday for soliciting underage sex and pressuring boys to send him nude photos and videos.
The 22-year-old pleaded guilty to two counts in February of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old during a bathroom cheer contest and paying a 17-year-old to send him sexually explicit photos and videos via Snapchat, court filings show. Harris also admitted similar behavior by other minors, although prosecutors agreed to dismiss those charges as part of the plea agreement.
Harris’ conviction spelled a stunning fall for the former star, who captivated fans when he appeared on Cheer. His September 2020 arrest sparked a reckoning in the competitive cheerleading world, prompting others to share their own accounts of abuse and putting pressure on the sport’s governing body to enact reform.
“Jerry Harris’ guilt is established,” said Sarah Klein, an attorney for a Texas family who was the first to report allegations against Harris to authorities. “The verdict he received reflects the seriousness of his crimes and the lifelong pain his victims will endure.”
After a nearly seven-hour hearing, US District Judge Manish Shah also sentenced Harris to eight years of supervised imprisonment after serving his sentence. The judge told Harris the verdict was an “expression of the seriousness of your crimes, tempered with a certain hope that all is not lost for you or your victims and that healing can take place in the future.”
In court, Harris apologized to his victims and said he was “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’s attorneys had recommended a six-year sentence. In court documents, they cited Harris’ difficult childhood and said he had a “distorted” view of relationships because, even at age 13, he was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old from his cheer gym. The attorneys, who could not be reached for comment Wednesday, 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 broader cheerleading community.
Assistant US Attorney Kelly Guzman had asked for a 15-year prison sentence. In court documents, she acknowledged Harris’ traumatic upbringing but said it “is not a blank check to commit sex offenses against a minor.”
“Harris used his celebrity and wealth to continue his exploitation of children, expanding the tools at his disposal to manipulate them to gratify his seemingly insatiable sexual desires,” Guzman wrote in her sentencing note.
Kristen, a Texas mother, and her twin sons, Charlie and Sam, were the first to report allegations against Harris to authorities. USA TODAY agreed to withhold the family’s last name because the boys are minors and allegations of abuse.
In interviews with USA TODAY in 2020, they described a pattern of harassment by Harris that began when the boys were 13 and Harris was 19. The family said it lasted for more than a year.
On Wednesday, the twins, now 16, made statements in federal court detailing the lingering effects of Harris’ abuse, including the loss of friendships and her battles with anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. Charlie said he became so afraid of public restrooms after Harris pressured him into having sex in one that he stopped eating at school so he wouldn’t have to use the restroom there.
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“I knew in my heart and in my soul that what Jerry did to me and Sam was bad,” Charlie wrote in his statement, “but everyone told me that Jerry is like that and that I should ever report him that EVERYONE.” would turn my back for ruining the life of such an amazing person that everyone loved.”
Sam said he and his brother decided to speak out after realizing Harris was abusive to others. “It made us realize that we couldn’t remain silent — that we had to speak our minds, 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’ fame was rising. He had sponsorships with Starburst, Cheerios, and Walmart. He had worked on the red carpet for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. And he was still spending time in Cheer gyms despite the allegations against him being reported to the athletic federation in May 2020.
USA TODAY noted that officials at that governing body, the US All Star Federation, waited four months to suspend Harris and only did so after the news organization published an article about the allegations. USA TODAY has since reported on pervasive failings in child protection in competitive cheerleading, including how the USASF delayed investigations and failed to prevent those accused or convicted of misconduct from working with young athletes.
When USA TODAY began reporting, only 21 people had been suspended or banned from the sport. Today, more than 200 names appear on the list.
USASF officials could not be reached Wednesday for comment on Harris’ sentence.
USASF, Harris and others are still facing a civil lawsuit filed by Kristen and her sons.
In a statement Wednesday, Kristen said that “the companies that control all-star cheerleading were eager to ride his coattails” as Harris’ celebrity status grew and drew positive attention to the sport.
“Now is the time for those same organizations to show an unequivocal commitment to transparency, accountability and the significant changes 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 on USA TODAY’s 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.