After a six-month inquiry, Burleson police have decided not to pursue a criminal case against a high school coach alleged to have engaged in an improper online relationship with a 16-year-old student.
The Tarrant County district attorney's office determined that investigators lacked enough evidence to pursue a charge, with a key question left unresolved: With whom was the student actually talking?
The student never saw the person she was having sexually explicit conversations with, but she believed that he was Centennial High School coach and teacher Bryce Benekos. He has denied involvement and said he was on his honeymoon in San Diego when the conversations took place last summer.
However, Burleson school officials are continuing to investigate the complaint against Benekos, who has been on paid administrative leave since August.
Superintendent Richard Crummel said the district is investigating out of concern for student safety, saying that it waited until the Burleson Police Department's inquiry was finished.
"Burleson ISD takes very seriously the safety of our students and conducts its own investigations related to employee conduct," Crummel said.
He declined to elaborate, and police declined to comment.
Benekos, 28, was in his second year at Centennial, where he was an assistant football and baseball coach. He previously taught at Franklin High School in El Paso for four years. He said that he wants to keep his job and that he misses his students and friends in the district.
"The whole thing is bogus," Benekos said in an interview from his Arlington home. "This all happened two weeks after I got married."
Chats but no video
In early August, Burleson police were told that a 16-year-old girl had been having inappropriate conversations with a high school coach via the Skype chat service and that the girl's stepfather had found the conversations on her laptop, according to police reports.
The girl identified the coach as Benekos.
The conversations mostly took place in late June through mid-July, according to the documents. They began on Stickam, a chat website, and then moved to Skype.
While Stickam and Skype offer video services, users can also chat by text or audio. So it is possible for someone to chat on either service without being seen. The girl never saw Benekos via video.
In the police reports, a person identified as Benekos asks to see pictures of the girl wearing a sports bra and a bikini.
There is also an exchange about having a liaison in a janitor's closet at school. The 16-year-old told police that she never undressed for the Skype messages but did show photographs of herself in a striped bikini. She also pulled down her shirt to show a tan line near her breasts, according to the reports.
The girl said she ended the conversations because she feared getting into trouble, reports state.
Police searched the coach's home and school computers, according to documents obtained by the Star-Telegram.
A Secret Service examination found evidence of the conversations on the girl's computer, but nothing was found on the Skype account that Benekos' wife had on their devices. The Secret Service agent told police that Benekos could have had the conversations even if no record exists. But the agent also said someone could have impersonated him on Skype.Matthew Wright, a computer science professor at the University of Texas at Arlington, noted that chat services don't ask for proof of your identity or the identities of your chat partners.
"It is definitely possible to impersonate someone else in chat rooms," he said. "With a program like Skype, though, it's harder. You would have to guess that person's password or find some other way to hack into his account."
In late January, a Burleson detective met with a representative of the Tarrant County district attorney's office. Spokeswoman Melody McDonald said, "The detective consulted with our office, and she determined that she didn't have enough evidence to pursue the case."
A few days later, police told the Benekos family that the case was closed, reports indicate.
'Nothing to hide'
Benekos has continually professed his innocence, and in police reports, he claims to not even know what Skype is. Benekos said he voluntarily took a polygraph test, which he passed, according to police reports.
"I was completely open with them. I had nothing to hide," he said.
Benekos also said he believes that someone impersonated him on Skype.
He pointed out inconsistencies in the allegations. The reports state that the girl talked to his nephew or cousin from Australia. But Benekos said he is an only child.
Benekos described how he and his then-fiancee, Kaitlin Morrow, left Arlington on June 28 and drove to Southern California for their July 9 wedding and their honeymoon.
They drove back to Arlington on July 15.
They had credit card transactions at gas stations, a grocery store and a hospital in California, where Kaitlin was treated for an allergic reaction. Other transactions showed the couple at resorts on their honeymoon.
The couple said their lives have been a "nightmare" since the investigation began. They were told not to have any contact with employees, students or parents in the Burleson district during the investigation. Most of their friends are from the district, they said.
"We don't know why someone would do this," Bryce Benekos said. "They've ruined our lives. They've taken away from me what I love most, teaching and coaching. I was living my dream."
Elizabeth Campbell, 817-390-7696, Twitter: @fwstliz