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Arrested St. Pete gym teacher posted child porn to Snapchat, deputies say

The 24-year-old taught two tumbling classes at Bayside Sports Academy in St. Petersburg.
Elijah Sowers was arrested in Illinois in December. He worked at Bayside Sports Academy as an instructor for two tumbling courses for a year and a half, the gym's owner said.
Elijah Sowers was arrested in Illinois in December. He worked at Bayside Sports Academy as an instructor for two tumbling courses for a year and a half, the gym's owner said. [ Logan County Sheriff's Office and Google Maps ]
Published Feb. 19

RIVERVIEW — A Riverview man was arrested in Illinois in December on charges of predatory criminal sexual assault and several counts of predatory criminal sexual assault of a victim under 13, according to local news reports.

Now local agencies are seeking permission in Hillsborough District Court to search 24-year-old Elijah Sowers’ house for digital devices that may contain evidence of similar crimes in Florida.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office received a tip in April that a “pornographic photo” was uploaded to a Snapchat account linked to Sowers. Further investigation revealed several inappropriate photos of young boys on another account owned by Sowers, the Sheriff’s Office described in a petition for a search warrant.

The owner of Bayside Sports Academy, a St. Petersburg gymnastics gym for children, said Sowers taught two tumbling classes for children ages six and up. He was employed there, as well as with the City of Tampa as an environmental technician, until his arrest.

“Everybody loved him while he was here and there were no complaints,” said Shell Tatro, the owner of Bayside Sports Academy. “Looking back, I can’t think of a single red flag that would suggest he was that type of man.”

Sowers, like all employees of the gym, had to be fingerprinted and pass a background check ahead of his hire, said Tatro, 45. He had no past criminal record, was enthusiastic about the job and had a work schedule that enabled him to teach evening classes.

That made Sowers a perfect fit at the time, Tatro said, so he was hired. He survived temporary layoffs brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and became friends with the staff at the academy.

Tatro said she worked with deputies from both Hillsborough and Pinellas counties related to the investigation. To date, there has been no indication that Sowers had an inappropriate relationship with any child at Bayside Sports Academy, she said.

The gymnasium has an open floor plan that enables parents to be able to watch their children the entire practice, Tatro said, so Sowers did not have opportunities to be alone with children. The building also has single-person bathrooms only.

It’s a requirement that there must always be two adults present with students at all times, Tatro said.

“We’ve done everything we can to make it impossible for something like what he did in Illinois to happen here,” Tatro said. “After we found out his arrest and charges, I told my staff: ‘This is why we do what we do. You never know who people really are.’”