Christopher Speights (Prince George’s County State’s Attorney’s Office)

The mother didn’t know what to do when she caught her son taking inappropriate pictures of himself in their home bathroom, so she turned to Coach Speights for advice.

With Speights in the passenger seat of her car, the mother wept as she explained that someone had been leaving voice messages for her 7-year-old, threatening to beat him up if he didn’t send sexually explicit images through social media. The mother believed Christopher Speights, a well-loved and trusted elementary school basketball coach, could help unmask the person preying on her son.

“I asked him, ‘Who could this have been?’ ” the mother recalled.

Two years later, the stunned mother got her answer when Speights was arrested on child pornography charges.

At his sentencing Tuesday, Speights turned to her and the rest of a row of tearful parents in a courtroom and apologized for betraying them.

“They trusted me,” Speights said. “Parents trusted me. None of what happened was their fault.”

A federal judge in Maryland sentenced the former basketball coach and substitute teacher to 35 years in prison on child pornography charges in a case that prosecutors say could involve as many as 59 children.

Speights admitted earlier this year to secretly recording children during game trips and blackmailing them to solicit inappropriate pictures. Speights took advantage of children while they were on field trips, while they were sleeping and through social media, prosecutors said. The 35-year-old coach coerced children, groomed parents and manipulated the community to victimize children across Prince George’s County, Assistant U.S. Attorney Timothy F. Hagan said.

“He had ingratiated himself in the community so much that the person [parents] trusted to go to to report these type of things was the perpetrator,” Hagan said. “That is what makes him so dangerous.”

Speights appeared in U.S. District Court in Maryland for the first of two sentencing hearings this week in connection with the child sex abuse case. He also faces sentencing at the state level.

In a letter to the judge, Speights said he takes full responsibility for his actions and said he was sexually abused as a child by the 19-year-old son of his babysitter.

Speights found many of his victims through working as a substitute teacher and coach, prosecutors said. He taught at Bradbury Heights Elementary School and John Eager Howard Elementary School for 13 years. He also coached sports at Bradbury Heights and for the South County Steelers through the South County Sports Academy in 2015 and 2016.

Speights was arrested in 2017 after Maryland State Police investigated a tip about “sexually exploitative images” involving children and his Dropbox account, charging documents state.

Investigators discovered more than 100 files containing graphic images and children performing sexually explicit acts after seizing several of his electronic devices, police said.

Speights’s victims were between 10 and 12 years old, prosecutors said.

The sentence in federal court involves child pornography charges and six victims. Speights pleaded guilty to secretly recording two 11-year-old boys without their knowledge during a trip in North Carolina, court documents state. He placed a backpack with an iPad in a mesh pocket to record boys in a hotel bathroom while they were on travel for a basketball game in March 2016, according to his federal plea agreement.

Speights also posed as a teenage girl to contact at least 20 boys through a social media application, federal court documents state. He then solicited inappropriate images and threatened that if the boys did not comply with his demands for sexually explicit content, he would “tell ‘Coach Speights,’ ” his federal plea agreement said.

Before sentencing Speights, Judge Paul W. Grimm spoke to the “sense of betrayal and hopelessness” parents felt after learning the man they trusted had taken advantage of them and their children.

“Coaches are special people,” Grimm said. “Those are the folks that we teach our children to look up to, and they do things for those coaches.”

Speights is also awaiting sentencing in Prince George’s and Worcester counties.

Earlier this year, Speights pleaded guilty to child abuse and pornography charges related to recording inappropriate images of himself with students on a basketball trip in Ocean City, at his Capitol Heights home and during a fifth-grade overnight field trip to the William S. Schmidt Outdoor Education Center, prosecutors said.

The Washington Post generally does not name abuse victims, and the mother who relayed her experience going to Speights for help in 2015 asked not to be named, to protect her children’s identities.

The mother said that three years after she initially went to Speights for help, her children are in therapy, suffering from the bullying and abuse they faced.

“They are not the same children,” the mother said. “He deceived us for many years.”