Jerry Harris, who shot to reality-TV fame in the Netflix show “Cheer,” pleaded guilty on Thursday to federal charges related to soliciting child sexual abuse imagery and illegal sexual conduct with a minor, reversing his earlier plea.
Over a year ago, Mr. Harris, 22, pleaded not guilty to the seven felony charges brought against him in Chicago. But in a remote hearing on Thursday, he told Judge Manish S. Shah that he reached a plea agreement with prosecutors and was pleading guilty to two of those counts, which involved charges that he persuaded a 17-year-old to send him sexually explicit photos for money and traveled to Florida “for the purpose of engaging in illicit sexual conduct” with a 15-year-old.
The plea agreement stipulates that after sentencing on the two counts, prosecutors would ask for the remaining charges to be dropped, Judge Shah said at the hearing.
Mr. Harris’s lawyers released a statement saying that Mr. Harris wanted to “take responsibility for his actions and publicly convey his remorse for the harm he has caused the victims.”
Mr. Harris, whose enthusiastic encouragement of his teammates made him into a viral star after the debut of “Cheer,” had himself been sexually abused as a child in the world of competitive cheerleading, the statement said.
“There being no safe harbor to discuss his exploitation, Jerry instead masked his trauma and put on the bright face and infectious smile that the world came to know,” the statement said. “As we now know, Jerry became an offender himself as an older teenager.”
Kelly Guzman, a prosecutor in the case, said at the hearing that one of the counts to which Mr. Harris entered a guilty plea was for receiving and attempting to receive child pornography. In the summer of 2020, she said, Mr. Harris repeatedly requested that a 17-year-old send him sexually explicit photos and videos, in exchange for a total of about $3,000.
The other count involved Mr. Harris traveling from Texas to Florida with the intent of engaging in illegal sexual conduct with a 15-year-old, Ms. Guzman said. Mr. Harris directed the teenager to meet him in a public bathroom in Orlando, Fla., where he sexually assaulted him, the prosecutor said.
Mr. Harris said he understood the nature of the charges and possible prison time before entering his guilty plea.
Mr. Harris was arrested and charged with production of child pornography in September 2020, months after the release of “Cheer,” which follows a national champion cheerleading team from a small-town Texas community college.
Around the same time, he was sued by teenage twin brothers who said he sent sexually explicit messages to them, requested nude photos and solicited sex from them. (Mr. Harris befriended the boys when they were 13 and he was 19, USA Today reported.)
In a voluntary interview with the authorities in 2020, Mr. Harris acknowledged that he had exchanged sexually explicit photos on Snapchat with at least 10 to 15 people he knew were minors and had sex with a 15-year-old at a cheerleading competition in 2019, according to a criminal complaint.
After federal agents interviewed other minors who said they had had relationships with Mr. Harris, they filed additional felony charges against him. The charges that Mr. Harris did not plead guilty to on Thursday include four counts of sexual exploitation of children and one count of enticement. The seven charges involve five minor boys.
Mr. Harris has been held at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in Chicago since his arrest.
One episode of the second season of “Cheer,” which was released last month, centers on the case against Mr. Harris and includes interviews with the teenage plaintiffs, Mr. Harris’s former cheerleading teammates and the team’s coach, Monica Aldama, about the charges.
Mr. Harris will be sentenced on June 28. The plea agreement noted that sentencing guidelines “may recommend 50 years in prison” for the offenses, Judge Shah said, adding that he may decide differently.
The statement from Mr. Harris’s lawyers said he has been participating in therapy in prison and “will spend the rest of his life making amends for what he has done.”
Robert Chiarito contributed reporting.