ST. GEORGE — A warning given during a plea hearing in June was carried out by a 5th District Court judge during a sentencing hearing held Tuesday – a ruling that surprised both sides in a case that was wrought with delays, continuances and postponements since it was filed in 2017.
Warren Leonard Black, 43, appeared before 5th District Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox for a sentencing hearing on two second-degree felony counts of sexual abuse of a child.
The case was filed more than three years ago following an investigation into a report received by the Division of Child and Family Services involving a 5-year-old girl who had disclosed details of suspected sexual abuse involving the suspect, who was later identified as Black. The defendant was subsequently charged with two first-degree felony counts of aggravated sex abuse of a child.
Under the terms of the settlement agreement, Black pleaded guilty to the charges that were amended to second-degree felony sexual abuse of a child during a hearing held last month. As part of the plea deal, both sides agreed to recommend the defendant be placed on supervised probation and that prosecutors would not include a prison sentence in their recommendation, a settlement agreement Wilcox did not support, according to his comments during the plea hearing held in July, when he said he “wouldn’t be bound” by the agreement.
Prior to sentencing Tuesday, defense attorney Michael Lastowski addressed the court by saying that his client has taken responsibility for his actions, worked very hard to repair the damage to the family and “done everything asked of him,” as he has continued working toward reunification with the family.
Prosecutor Ryan Shaum said it is “extremely troubling” when an individual who is in a role to protect a child does the exact opposite and “in such a horrible manner.”
Shaum went on to say that the state’s hands were tied during the investigation, since the child’s mother refused to work with investigators. In fact, he said, once the police interview took place and Black was arrested, all contact with the family ended, and prosecutors have had no access to the child and had never spoken to the little girl. He added that with the Division of Children and Family Services being involved, they had no way to force their hand in the matter.
However, he said, Black should be held accountable for his actions, and while the state agreed to not recommend a prison sentence in exchange for the guilty plea, they were not opposed to the defendant serving time in jail, as recommended in the presentence report.
Shaum closed by saying the sentencing report and many of the discussions were focused on “how is this going to affect Mr. Black,” when instead, he said, the focus should be on how the offenses have affected the child, who did nothing to bring this upon herself.
“It’s time for the focus to be where it should be – on this little girl.”
Lastowski said the prosecutor’s comments were untrue and that the focus over the last three years has been “completely” on the little girl. He went on to say that Black is involved in treatment, the child and the family are in counseling and the defendant has followed all of the requirements and guidelines as set forth by the Division of Children and Family Services.
“They’ve done everything that has been asked of them,” Lastowski said, adding that any period of incarceration would only delay the reunification process that has been ongoing for the last three years. He also said that his client has taken responsibility for what happened and has worked hard to repair the damage and to be reunited with his family.
“I would hate for all of that work to be for nothing,” he said.
Wilcox referred to Black’s statements that were included in the presentence report, in which Black said “it was a crime of opportunity” and that the case “has completely ruined my life.”
The judge went on to say that unlike many cases that come before the court involving sexual crimes against children, the defendant in this case has worked hard and has the support of his family and others.
Wilcox went on to say that in a series of letters sent to the court, including one from a treatment center the defendant is currently involved in, Black has made great strides in his efforts to repair the family. In another letter, the defendant’s wife explained that Black’s absence has caused great hardship on the family, and the defendant’s children “miss him terribly.”
Wilcox said the efforts of the defendant and the support from the family “weighs heavily upon this court.” However, he said, addressing Black, “this isn’t your first brush with the law.”
The judge then referred to a previous case that was filed in 2015 after Black was arrested and charged with misdemeanor sexual battery involving sexual misconduct with a 16-year-old that investigators found took place on at least two occasions in St. George between April and August 2013, and the following year the defendant pleaded no contest to the charge.
In June 2016, he was placed on 18 months supervised probation, which he violated when he was arrested one year later on the charges relating to the 5-year-old. His probation was revoked for failing to abide by the terms of his probation.
The fact that Black admitted to the sexual battery of a 16-year-old in 2016 and then admittedly abused a -5-year-old one year later “is very concerning for this court,” Wilcox said.
“I believe it is the duty of this court to not only help your family and to help you,” he said, “but it is also to protect society.”
True to his word that he was not bound by any agreement between the state and the defense, “or anyone else for that matter,” Wilcox sentenced Black to serve 1-15 years in Utah State Prison on each count to run concurrently during Tuesday’s proceedings, a sentence the defendant would begin on Sept. 1, giving him time to get his affairs in order.
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