Defendant faces a minimum of 25 years in prison
Article updated at 5:04 p.m. Thursday, May 5:
“Good God where to start, it sounds really bad,” began the police interview of a Lawrence father and former foster parent who was found guilty on Thursday of lewd fondling and sexual intercourse with his biological daughters beginning when one was 14 and the other was 10.
The now 47-year-old man faced a jury in Douglas County District Court this week on four charges of aggravated indecent liberties with a child, and one count of indecent liberties with a child. One of the charges, lewd fondling of a child under the age of 14, is an off-grid felony that carries a minimum sentence of 25 years in prison.
In addition to his daughters, the defendant had also been stepfather to two estranged sons in their 30s, and three adopted children ages 5, 6 and 7.
The defendant and his wife, who became a licensed professional counselor in January 2019, also took in approximately 90 foster children between 2010 and 2021. There are currently no allegations of abuse associated with the other children.
The Lawrence Times is not naming the man, even though he has been convicted, to protect the victim-survivors.
During trial, the man said he began “cuddling” with his daughters when they were 5 or 6 — lying in bed with them and talking or sometimes reading a book. The practice continued as the girls got older, and wasn’t curtailed if the girls were sleeping partially or fully nude.
During the trial both daughters testified that their father had encouraged “skin-to-skin” cuddling, in which they would often be nude and their father would wear only underwear. The father said the notion of skin to skin was an extension of holding his daughters’ hands when they were very young. Eventually that evolved into putting his arm around them while sitting on the couch or resting their feet in his lap as they lay down.
“That was skin on skin,” he said. “Any interaction with the girls or [his wife], it was always touch to bring them into the moment.”
During testimony, the older daughter, now 21, detailed one specific incident that occurred when she was 14. She said her father had gotten into bed with her while she was asleep and asked if she wouldn’t be more comfortable taking off her shirt to cuddle. She did so, and after several minutes he touched her breast. She said she could feel that he was becoming aroused and placed a pillow between the two of them.
“He kind of explained that he’d gotten an erection,” she said. “He didn’t really say much after that.”
Later in the trial, defense attorney Michael Clarke asked the defendant how he would characterize the incident.
“I believe that happened prior to 2017,” he said. “Normally we would spoon. That night she was doing homework on her laptop, so I got in around her and straddled her. I kind of dozed off, and then I got an erection. My hand was resting on her breast – my left hand on her left breast. Like I said, I was dozing.”
During questioning by Douglas County District Attorney Suzanne Valdez, the younger daughter, now 19, said her sexual abuse began when she was 10 years old and continued periodically until she was 15. She testified that her father said skin-to-skin contact made him “feel closer” to her. In one of her earliest memories of abuse, she recalled straddling her father and “nuzzling” each other until she realized he was aroused.
“It felt weird and uncomfortable, but it didn’t necessarily register as wrong,” she said.
Clarke later asked her to clarify why, if she didn’t believe the behavior was wrong, did she eventually characterize the behaviors as abuse when talking to high school friends.
“I didn’t understand the severity,” she said. “I understood it was wrong, but I was raised with absolutely no boundaries.”
The younger daughter also said that during an incident when she was 15, her father had fondled and kissed her breast, and then penetrated her vagina with his finger.
During his testimony the defendant said he didn’t consider the action of kissing his daughter’s breast to be sexual. Clarke asked the defendant that if it wasn’t sexual, why did he do it?
“I really don’t know,” he said. “She presented it to me.”
The defendant testified that after that incident he had felt ashamed. Deputy District Attorney Joshua Seiden asked him to elaborate.
“It’s wrong,” the man said. “It is absolutely wrong. It’s my job to protect my child and I failed to do so.”
In their testimonies, both daughters also recalled instances of physical, verbal, and emotional abuse by both their mother and father. The younger daughter said she was frequently criticized for her hair, weight, clothing, music, and friends.
“In almost every interaction, my father said things to me that were hurtful,” she said “I’m not mad at them. I still love them, but they are not good people.”
During closing statements, Clarke outlined his client’s defense. He said that by not calling additional witnesses or submitting the daughters’ journals, the state had failed to produce evidence to corroborate their testimony.
He also said that cuddling was not a crime, which explained why the defendant, who was a former juvenile corrections officer, had freely admitted what he had done not only to police, but also in court.
“[The defendant] is responsible for what he did, but should not be found guilty of crimes he did not commit,” Clarke said to the jury. “The state is trying to go way too far with this.”
Seiden, in his closing statements, discussed how sexual abuse in the household had been “normalized over the course of years.” He also called it “sexual abuse disguised as affection.” He said the defense was faulting the victims for not reporting.
The mother of the two victims, who in February said she was working “in retail,” was also charged in connection with the abuse. Based on a separate investigation, she faced two counts of aggravated endangering a child, one count of intimidating a witness or victim, and one count of failure to report as a licensed professional counselor.
Her case proceeded through the preliminary hearing and was scheduled to go to trial in February. However, a January status conference raised questions about the failure to report charge, and the DA’s office requested a dismissal “for necessity.” Prosecutors filed an intent to appeal on Feb. 23.
Regarding the mother, Seiden said in closing, the sexual abuse was “not only normalized, it was enabled.”
The defendant said the family always worked together to select the best foster children to take in based on information provided by agencies. He said they usually chose female children who were “car seat” aged – meaning about 5 and younger. The defendant said the family preferred female children because a mix of genders necessitated rearranging room assignments to satisfy regulations requiring that boys and girls have separate sleeping quarters.
The defendant said the family usually had four foster children along with the two biological daughters and three adopted children in their six-bedroom home. Foster children usually stayed between nine and 18 months, and they were visited monthly by caseworkers, who inspected the home and interviewed the parents and foster children.
The older daughter testified that once she and her sister had reached driving age, much of the care for the foster children — including feeding, bathing, school and childcare dropoff, and putting the children to bed — fell upon their shoulders.
“It seemed like [the younger sister] and I were more their parents than my mom and dad,” she said.
Although the sisters, who call each other “best friends,” had similar traumatic experiences with their father, the two didn’t discuss the abuse until the older sister had moved away to college in 2019. Still, neither reported to authorities what had happened.
“I don’t think our first thought was to go to the police,” the older daughter said. “We discussed how we would parent our kids differently and how our lives would be different.”
The parents weren’t charged until January 2021 when the LPD received a call from Carbondale Chief of Police Shannon Seals. Seals relayed allegations made by one of the girls’ older brothers, who is also related to the Carbondale chief by marriage. He had heard the information after reconnecting with his younger sisters.
Outside the courtroom on Thursday, the sisters and their half-brothers said that their mother had filed for divorce from the defendant in early 2022, and the two had been living apart. Neither has had foster children in their care since January 2021, and they said the mother’s therapy license had been revoked, though the state Behavioral Sciences Regulatory Board website still showed her license to be active. The adopted children are still together but have returned to foster care, where the mother continues to have weekly visitation. The defendant has no contact with any of the children.
The sisters are now building relationships with their brothers, who had a fractured relationship with their mother and stepfather after leaving home. Despite their trauma, both sisters appear to be moving forward with their lives, continuing in school and working full-time jobs.
“Even sitting here now I don’t have resentment toward that man,” the younger daughter testified Wednesday as she glanced at her father. “He is sick, and he needs help.”
The trial was overseen by retired Judge Gunnar Sundby. Appointed a senior judge in 2018, Sundby hears cases across Kansas where there might be a conflict of interest. In this case, the defendant was a network security administrator at the Judicial and Law Enforcement Center from January 2017 to January 2021.
The jury deliberated for about four hours Thursday. After the verdict was read, the defendant was allowed to remain out of custody on bond, despite Seiden’s request to the judge.
“The defendant was just convicted of five felony child sex offenses. He is guilty, so there is no longer any presumption of innocence. Each count carries a presumptive prison sentence, and one carries a mandatory life sentence,” Seiden said via email Thursday. “The State believes the defendant is a public safety concern as well as a flight risk. Apparently the Court disagrees.”
The man’s sentencing is scheduled for June 23.
“These brave survivors of sexual assault made their voices heard,” Valdez said in a news release after the verdict. “Today, they finally got to see the perpetrator held accountable for these heinous acts.”