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Stolen innocence: Family outraged over light sentence for molester of young girl

STORY BY EILEEN KELLEY, (Week of September 5, 2013)

She pulled her legs to her chest, curled into a tight ball, and hoped he would just leave.

Eventually, Tyler Ofner, older brother of her closest friend, did remove his hand from her body, but still stood close by, watching the frightened girl in the bed she shared with his sister and his mother during a Christmas week sleepover last year.

As the minutes ticked away, the girl was too scared to utter a word until she was certain he was gone. In the hours after midnight in late December, a 13-year-old girl lost her innocence. The older brother of her best friend, eight years her senior, stripped it away.

Eight months later, a judge reopened the wounds when he announced that with one life damaged, he didn’t want to ruin another by finding Ofner guilty.

Prosecutors had asked Judge Robert Pegg to give Ofner 10 years for molesting the teen, and the family had hoped for the maximum 15 years, especially in view of Ofner’s admission to police that he’d done the same thing before, and in view of Ofner’s disturbing comments about pedophiles on social media websites.

Pegg gave him just nine months and held off a guilty verdict, meaning Ofner’s record will be cleared in three years if he behaves.

The victim’s family thought the judge’s demeanor at sentencing was insensitive to the victim and her family, especially when he threatened to jail anyone for an emotional reaction.

“If you don’t think you’re emotionally equipped to handle the sentence, your chance of leaving through this door is zero and your chance of leaving through that door is 100 percent,” Judge Robert Pegg said, referring to door used for prisoners. “I don’t care how old, what your health condition is. I’m giving fair warning.”

Vero Beach police first arrested Ofner, 21, a University of Florida junior, on charges of sexual battery and lewd and lascivious behavior. He was cooperative, admitting he crept into the room where his mother, sister and the girl slept, lifted the covers and fondled the girl. He also said he’d fondled her before as she slept at his family’s Sunset Drive house.

Ofner initially asked for a jury trial, but changed his mind in May, pleading guilty to the lesser lewd and lascivious charge. Although the sentence was not a plea bargain deal, prosecutors agreed that a guilty plea instead of a trial was in the victim’s best interest and agreed to drop the more serious sexual battery charge.

Even so, Pegg departed from Florida sentencing guidelines with the light punishment. Some lesser crimes allow judges to withhold guilty findings, but such discretion is rarely used in sex crimes.

The State Attorney’s Office is studying an appeal against the lenient sentence. “Because of the possibility of further proceedings, I cannot comment at this time,” Assistant State Attorney Bill Long said.

Ofner admitted in an apology letter, used by police as a written confession, that he had feelings for the girl. He’d known her since his family moved to Vero Beach 10 years ago for his mother’s medical job. The girl and the Ofners’ youngest child, Shannon, struck up a friendship immediately, and for years were inseparable. Now, they don’t speak.

At his Aug. 20 sentencing, Ofner called his own behavior naïve and harmful. “I cannot imagine what they have felt, and what they will be going through in time to come,” he said. “I promise I’ll do what is necessary to solve my issues.”

Asking for leniency, his father Howard Ofner said his son was socially awkward in high school, but in spite of being stricken with two rare blood diseases, maintained a straight-A average last year in college.

“Our son has not had a fair shake,” the father said. “Health issues still threaten his life. He has the maturity of a 17-year-old. He did not consider it a crime or that it could be hurtful. His actions, although illegal, were that of an awkward developing teenager rather than that of an adult.”

Also pleading for mercy was Ofner’s defense attorney, Andy Metcalf, who found the nine-month sentence fair. “Everyone’s heart is broken and everyone is upset. But to throw away the key – to just say your life is worthless …” The courtroom was closed to the public for the sentencing to protect the identity of the minor victim, but on a recording obtained by Vero Beach 32963 through a Florida records request, Judge Pegg is heard to agree.

“If I adjudicate, does it make the victim feel any better? I’m certainly not going to make the victim feel any better or make the family feel any better,” said Pegg. “I can, of course, ensure that Mr. Ofner never has a chance to make amends and to live a lawful and productive life. I am not going to do it.

“It’s a very unusual situation,” the judge said. “The victim’s family sent their daughter to an overnight, something we’ve all done. They’d expect she’d be safe. You’d expect the Ofners would protect her from outside folks. However, they did not protect her from their own son and this awful thing happened to a 13-year-old. They have every right to be furious. I probably would, too, if this was my daughter. All of us would be.”

Pegg’s comments didn’t ease the pain of the victim or her family.

It was supposed to have been her first day in a new school – and a chance to put her eighth-grade year behind her – but right after school she had to go to court for the sentencing.

“As long as possible,” the girl cried out when the prosecutor asked her what she thought a fair sentence would be. “I didn’t know how to stop him,” she said through tears.” I didn’t want him to continue because I was scared.”

The girl was especially shocked by Ofner’s admission he’d done it to her before without her even being aware. “They can always do it again,” she said, “because they have the guts to do it.”

To this day she is terrified to fall asleep. “I’ve seen her right here on the floor curled up in a little ball,” said her mother, gesturing from the kitchen table to the family room’s hard floor.

The night of the molestation turned both families upside down in chaos and confusion.

“This is an emergency. If you get this text soon, please text back,” the teen wrote her mother at 1:42 a.m. on Dec. 27. “I’m scared. Please text back.  Sorry to wake you, but it is important. Extremely important.”

More frantic texts followed, along with phone calls between the households. There was yelling and she was called names. Her phone was yanked from her hands and flung across the room before she was packed up in the Ofner family car and driven through darkened island streets back to her mother.

“I’m angry at the family, I’m angry at the system, I’m angry at this,” the girl’s mother said a few days after the sentencing as she sat in front of a laptop and looked at comments Ofner made on a Facebook page dedicated to the documentary: “Are All Men Pedophiles?”

“You have to accept the fact that they will always exist,” wrote Ofner in a discussion thread. “If they are attracted to prepubescent children but never commit a crime, how are they evil? Clearly their difference would be classified as a disorder. Are psychopaths bad people because they are psychopaths? Or because they commit psychopathic actions?”

Ofner also participated in an Indonesian Facebook group dedicated to people who are considered weird or different, speaking of prepubescent pornography and a website dedicated to it.

“I wish this would have been out there,” the victim’s mother said. “This could have influenced the judge.”

For now, the mother and her family worry, hoping one day the child they love will again be able to sleep soundly.

“It may be a long time coming,” the girl’s grandmother said in court. “I have watched this happy, loving child become fearful, anxious, angry. She is deeply hurt. Her innocence in believing that all in the world is good has been taken away by a predator she thought was a friend. The tears start to well up and the day is lost in sadness. We all have cried many times and had many sleepless nights.

“Some days I am unable to work, full of anxiety hoping (she) will not grow up resentful. How can we help empower her to regain the self-worth of not feeling damaged? This crime was not her fault. She needs to know that justice is blind and that punishment will be swift and severe no matter if it is a stranger or a monster from within the confines of her trust.”