ST. GEORGE — A Southern Utah judge’s sentence for a man who sexually assaulted three neighborhood children is sparking outrage. The family of the children said they are in shock over the lenient sentence handed down to the man Tuesday in 5th District Court.
Sarah Tichinel recounted a phone call she received from her sister – the mother of the three children – following the sentencing hearing for 19-year-old John Benjamin Gehrich of Cedar City.
“I just about fell over,” Tichinel said. “My sister, she called me crying yesterday and said, ‘You wouldn’t believe it – he only got 210 days.’”
Gehrich’s hearing was held before Judge Keith C. Barnes, who was appointed to the 5th District Court in February 2014.
Gehrich was arrested in May after he told investigators he committed what he described as an “impulsive act” when he touched the genitals of the three children, who range in age from 3 to 8 years old.
Gehrich, who lived in the same apartment complex as the children, had gone to the family’s residence to introduce himself, Tichinel said, adding that is when her brother-in-law invited Gehrich into the home.
“He had come over just to meet the family, and he came and was visiting with my sister’s husband,” Tichinel said. “My sister also has a small infant who was asleep in the next room, and he started to fuss so my brother-in-law got up and went into the next room to see if he could just maybe rock the baby for a second. He said, ‘I’ll be right back. Let me just go grab the baby.’”
When the children’s father briefly left Gehrich unattended, the sexual assault occurred, according to court documents.
“That is when (Gehrich) got up and actually walked into the kids’ bedroom where the kids were,” Tichinel said. “See, my brother-in-law didn’t leave him alone with the kids. He actually got up and walked into a separate room. I can’t even tell you – I can’t even go into detail what this guy did, but it was so traumatic that my niece, who is four now, talks about it every time I see her. It wasn’t a small thing. It was very traumatic for these kids.”
After Gehrich left the home, the children told their parents what had happened.
As the case began to unfold, prosecutors learned of multiple other sexual misconduct incidents reported to police involving Gehrich.
“As they go back, they found that he has been in somewhat of a sex offender rehabilitation center,” Tichinel said. “He is a repeat offender. And in addition, it came out that he is actually facing two other charges for sex offenses against minors in Oregon.”
Gehrich was arrested for the offense against the three children in May and later charged with three first-degree felony counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child. Under a plea agreement with prosecutors, his charges were reduced to three second-degree felony counts of sexual abuse of a child.
“I intentionally touched the genitalia of three different children with the intent to arouse and gratify my sexual desire,” Gehrich admitted in his statement in support of his guilty plea filed with the court.
Under the agreement, Gehrich would serve a maximum of 15 years in the Utah State Prison.
“The prosecutor, who was amazing, came to the table with a plea deal because this guy was willing to plead guilty, and he said, ‘Trust me, we’re going for prison time – nobody in their right mind is not going to give him prison time,’” Tichinel said.
“So, the family agreed to this plea deal because we knew he was facing 15 years for what he did, mostly to the 3-year-old, because that was the most violent assault.”
At sentencing, the outcome was nowhere near what the family was expecting, Tichinel said. Gehrich would serve no prison time. Instead, Barnes ordered Gehrich to serve 210 days in the Iron County Jail followed by 36 months of probation.
“My outrage here is the light sentence,” Tichinel said. “For them to then turn around and say, ‘Well, we know the plea deal we offered, but we’re going to give him the lightest sentence on the end of that plea deal,’ we were in shock. My whole family is just devastated. It’s really heartbreaking.”
The sentencing outcome was, however, what Defense Attorney Jeremy Snow had been aiming for.
Snow told St. George News that his focus was getting Gehrich help versus prison time, which he said would only lead to his client’s issues getting worse.
“I can say unequivocally that being placed on probation and having access to better treatment is going to greatly reduce the chances he re-offends in the future,” Snow said. “Had he been sent to prison, the reality is, he would be at a much higher risk to re-offend.”
As a result of the light sentence handed down by Barnes, the family said they are starting a campaign at Change.org, a platform where users can start online petitions.
“We really, really feel like something needs to be done to change how this was handled,” Tichinel said. “Now that sentencing has been complete, I don’t think there’s anything we can do specifically to change this case, but obviously there’s a problem. There is a broken system somewhere down the line where this was able to happen so many times, and he only gets a 210-day sentence.”
The Iron County Attorney’s Office did not immediately respond to request for comment.
St. George News Reporter Mori Kessler contributed to this report.
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