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A former Mesa gymnastics coach was sentenced to 23 years in prison and lifetime probation after pleading guilty to charges that he engaged in sexual acts with one of his student athletes for two years, starting when the boy was 13. 

Nolan Craig Knuckles, 31, was sentenced Thursday in Maricopa County Superior Court. He pleaded guilty in May to one count of sexual conduct with a minor and two counts of attempt to commit sexual conduct with a minor.

Knuckles will get credit for the 433 days he has already served, and upon his release from the Department of Corrections, he will have to register as a sex offender, court officials said. 

Judge: Coach ‘preyed’ on child

Judge Justin Beresky said he gave Knuckles a harsher sentence than the presumptive 20 years because of aggravating factors, including the fact Knuckles “preyed” on the child over an extended period of time. 

Prosecutors argued that Knuckles used his position of power as a coach to manipulate the victim in the most heinous ways and violated his trust.

Defense attorneys mentioned several mitigating factors, including Knuckles’ abusive childhood, his lack of criminal history, overwhelming family support, his substance- abuse issues and mental illness. 

Knuckles, his voice shaking, read a letter he wrote to the court explaining his remorse and that he had no intention of harming anyone, even though he did just that. He said that he started attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and thought each day about his actions and the pain he caused the victim and his family.

Both families of the defendant and the victim were present in court, although Knuckles was the only person to address the judge.

Records:  Boy in 7th grade when sex acts began

Court records show that the boy told police that he was a seventh-grader when Knuckles engaged in the first sexual act with him, and many of the acts occurred at Knuckles’ apartment in east Mesa, though one happened in Fountain Hills near a canal.

Knuckles was arrested shortly after he instructed the victim to lie about the relationship if questioned in a recorded phone call, according to police.

The minor also mentioned to police that Knuckles gave him marijuana on two separate occasions before they had sex, but Knuckles did not address that claim, according to court documents.  

Police say they first learned about the situation after the boy told a teacher he was in a sexual relationship with his coach back in March 2016.


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