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In a hushed, crowded courtroom, former high-school teacher Tom Ellison admitted yesterday that he had a series of sexual encounters with his teenaged female students during the 1970s and early 1980s.

Taking the stand in his own defence on a total of 16 sex-related charges based on evidence from a dozen complainants, Mr. Ellison was asked by lawyer Bill Smart whether he generally accepted the women's descriptions of what happened.

"Yes, I do," Mr. Ellison replied, his voice dropping from the loud, forthright tones of his testimony up to then.

The trial of the trim, lanky defendant with greying locks has captivated the city, as a parade of now middle-aged women recounted in graphic and often lurid details their sexual encounters with Mr. Ellison while he was a teacher and they were students at Prince of Wales high school.

Most of the incidents, which normally involved breast massages, digital penetration and oral sex, took place on Mr. Ellison's live-aboard boat moored in the city, or on summer sailing trips to the Queen Charlotte Islands.

The students, who told how they were captivated by Mr. Ellison's good looks and his courting of them as "special," were participants in a once-lauded, landmark outdoor adventure program at the school known as Quest. Mr. Ellison, who turns 63 in December, was one of Quest's three teachers.

While accepting the bulk of the former students' evidence, Mr. Ellison denied point blank the story of one complainant who said she had an ongoing sexual relationship with him when she was just 15.

"There was never, ever, ever one time when I was with [her in a sexual way]" he said. "Never. Not once."

Earlier, he recounted his version of an incident that ended up with the ripped panties of a female Quest student in his hand.

He said he was repaying the student for trying to give him a "gonch pull" by giving her one during a high-energy time in the Quest classroom around Christmas.

"She was fighting and laughing. In my mind, it was not a big deal. I remember getting hold of her gonch, and she fell down on the floor and I had her underwear in my hands . . . I didn't expect that," Mr. Ellison said.

The former student had testified that Mr. Ellison pulled her underwear off and she wound up sobbing in the washroom.

"It just didn't happen that way," Mr. Ellison said. "I gave her a wedgie, a tug [of her underwear] and it ripped off in his hands.

Asked by Mr. Smart whether he pulled her underwear down, the former teacher replied in a strong voice: "Never, never, never, never."

Mr. Smart began his client's defence by telling the court that the complainants "are not children. They are young adults."

He referred to one witness's evidence that she was already on the pill, at 16, when Mr. Ellison made unwanted sexual advances to her.

"She was expecting to have sex with her boyfriend. . . . She was old enough to make that kind of a decision. They are students, not adults. But they are not children. And they are able to make decisions such as [she]did, Mr. Smart said.

The court then heard from a number of former Quest students testifying on behalf of Mr. Ellison.

For the most part, they sketched an idyllic picture of the outdoor adventure program, with students being challenged to think for themselves and embrace the environment, while going on overnight winter hikes, snowshoeing, long canoe trips and sailing expeditions.

"I have had confidence to pursue dreams I would not have had, if I hadn't done Quest. . . . It was a very positive experience for myself and many others," said Cindi Cowie, now 38.

"It was a chance to be empowered, a chance to make decisions for yourself. When you are 15, a lot of decisions are made for you."

Brian Broeke, who spent the 1980 fall semester in Quest, described the program as "an absolutely wonderful experience."

Both said they never witnessed anything of an untoward sexual nature between Mr. Ellison and any of his female students.

However, they agreed that ribald jokes by Quest teachers were not that uncommon.

And Mr. Broeke agreed with prosecutor Ralph Keefer that there might have been jokes about the size of female students' breasts.

"I can't remember a specific instance, but it might have been something that was said, but not in a demeaning way," he told the court. "There was a familiarity [among the kids]"

Proceedings were not totally without levity.

The courtroom erupted in laughter when Mr. Keefer asked Mr. Broeke if his parents would have allowed him to go on a sailing trip if they had known there was co-ed skinny dipping and nude sunbathing.

"I don't know," he replied, "but my mother is in the courtroom. You can ask her."

Even Mr. Keefer laughed.

Mr. Ellison continues on the witness stand today.