By Virginia Black South Bend Tribune Posted on May 18, 2015
When the Niles girl came down the stairs early one December evening all made up and her hair looking especially nice, her mother said, “Dang! Where are you going?”
The girl, who struggles with epilepsy, didn’t answer. Her mother assumed she was merely heading down the street, so the mother decided to give her daughter space.
Outside the house, the girl climbed into a car with 19-year-old Zachery Anderson.
The two first met on the Facebook-hosted Hot or Not website, in the over-18 section. When they were communicating online and in text messages, she told him she was 17. They went to a nearby school and talked a while before having sex.
Zach recalls dropping her back at home later, where he gave her a hug before he drove back to his parents’ Elkhart home.
But the girl was only 14, on the cusp of 15.
After she had not quickly returned, her mother worried about her daughter missing a dose of her medicine and possibly having a seizure, so she called police. Officers were at the house when the girl returned, not even an hour after the girl left.
The next time the teens would see each other was in a Niles courtroom, where Zach would ultimately be ordered to spend 90 days in the county jail, five years on probation and 25 years on Michigan’s sex offender registry. He would lose the work he’d completed toward a computer-related degree this semester and be forced to give up his field of study — and, as part of his sentence, even the use of a smartphone or being around anyone else with one.
A longtime Michigan law often applies in cases like Zach’s, calling for lenient sentences and, perhaps more importantly, allowing first-time offenders to avoid the sex offender registry. The victim and her mother even pleaded for leniency. But the judge in Zach’s case chose to not give the first offender a break, even after false information about the 19-year-old in a pre-sentence report was flagged. The judge’s sentence came with a lecture about the dangers of the Internet.
And, critics say, cases like Zach’s raise questions about sex-offender laws that are meant to protect the public but sometimes have unintended consequences.
‘How old are you really?’
Zach Anderson is wearing dark green scrubs now, in a dorm of the Berrien County Jail in St. Joseph.
The girl was the first he met in person through Hot or Not, he said. The Tribune is not identifying the girl or her mother to protect the girl’s identity as a sex crime victim.
Anderson doesn’t remember which of them proposed sex, although he said he wasn’t pressing the girl. She also had not mentioned having epilepsy, he said.
Shortly after their Dec. 19 meeting, he traveled with his family to Florida and, he said, the first he knew trouble was brewing was when the girl sent him a message saying “something like, ‘Oh, we’re in a lot of trouble.’ “
Why, he asked?
“I asked, ‘How old are you really?’ and then she told me,” Anderson said.
In early January, two detectives visited him while he was working as a lube tech at Auto Village Service Center in Goshen. He cooperated. They confiscated his phone.
He turned himself in Feb. 24, posted bond and was released on house arrest, living in his parents’ home. Anderson began to work for their small business as he attended his first semester on scholarship at Ivy Tech Community College in Elkhart.
He was aiming for a computer-related degree, because “I’ve been building computers and stuff since I was 12,” he said. “I’m a technology-type guy.”
His defense attorney, John Gardiner, had advised that if he pleaded guilty to criminal sexual conduct 4th degree — a “high-court misdemeanor,” according to Michigan law — he would be a suitable candidate for Holmes Youthful Trainee Act status. HYTA is meant for first-time offenders older than 17 but not yet 21. It allows a defendant to avoid harsher penalties and, in the case of more minor sex crimes, not be subject to a state-mandated 25-year listing on the sex offender registry.
But Berrien County District Court Judge Dennis Wiley decided against leniency.
‘Out of whole cloth?’
At Anderson’s original sentencing hearing on April 13, the girl and her mother pleaded with Wiley in his Niles courtroom.
“I feel that nothing should happen to Zach,” the girl said, according to transcripts of the hearing.
Her mother elaborated, telling the judge the girl’s emotional state over her epilepsy “plays a role in what she has done, and she feels guilty about what happened and she says, ‘Why can’t I be in trouble for what happened?’ … I hope you’ll really consider the fact of just dropping the case.”
Gardiner took issue in open court with the pre-sentence investigation, which a document a judge considers when issuing a sentence. Gardiner pointed out what he called incorrect information that was not attributed to any source.
The April 7 report describes, for instance, a police investigation about a suspect named Zach who had been targeting underage girls on the site.
“Zach was asking victims sexual questions, asking if they were virgins, asking for them to show him pictures of their private parts and indicating to them if they don’t play his games or show him naked pictures of themselves, he will send naked pictures of them to all of his contacts,” wrote the pre-sentence investigator, Joseph Tourangeau, recommending against HYTA consideration. “This information strongly suggests that this defendant has engaged in pre-offense, predatory conduct.”
Police later said they determined Zach Anderson was not that perpetrator.
Tourangeau also wrote that Anderson had mental health and substance abuse problems and recommended a long list of suggested sentencing conditions “to punish the defendant, deter others from committing like offenses and for the protection of the community.”
When Gardiner, the defense attorney, challenged the accuracy of the report on April 13, Wiley responded, “You mean what you’re saying is that Mr. Tourangeau created this out of whole cloth?”
The investigator was summoned to the courtroom, and, according to the transcript of the hearing, Wiley postponed the sentencing “until we get additional information.”
On April 27, Tourangeau did not attend the rescheduled hearing, nor had Gardiner or Assistant Prosecutor Jerry Vigansky received a new or amended report.
“Apparently the DOC (Department of Corrections) is not prepared to meet that challenge, so it’ll be stricken,” Wiley said, according to a video recording of the hearing. “Apparently there was some report somewhere that (the investigator) received, but apparently it has disappeared from the face of the earth, so …” The judge did not finish the thought.
Vigansky clarified during the hearing that police told him Anderson was not a suspect in any other crimes.
Officials in Berrien County’s probation office did not respond to requests for comment last week, but DOC spokesman Chris Gautz acknowledged a section of the pre-sentence report — particularly the part about Zach Anderson having a history of seeking out 10- to 14-year-olds and threatening them — came from an incorrect reference to another case in a police report.
Gautz said a regional administrator will meet with the judge as soon as Monday, to see what, if anything, a corrected pre-sentence report would have on his decisions in the case.
The DOC spokesman also said he was told the information in the report was “upheld by the prosecutor and the judge” during the April 27 hearing. Yet the court recording of that hearing shows differently.
‘No excuse for this, whatsoever’
Gardiner recommended the judge grant his client “youthful training” status under HYTA, citing Anderson’s clean record, the fact the girl had lied about her age and even that the girl and her mother had asked for leniency. The young man had cooperated with authorities and had been engaging in weekly counseling with a pastor of Granger Community Church, where the family attends.
Gardiner pointed out the 4th degree offense to which he pleaded guilty is not eligible for expungement should the court deny his recommendation for leniency.
Vigansky did not recommend against using HYTA but reminded the judge of other cases just this year with the same factors in play, and that Anderson’s sentence should be similar.
Those “two or three” other cases, Vigansky told a reporter later, also involved men between 17 and 21 who met younger girls who had lied about their ages on Hot or Not, also had sex with them and and also had previously clean records.
“I apologize sincerely and this won’t happen again,” Anderson told the judge. “In the last couple of months, I’ve changed a lot.”
But Wiley, without giving a reason, said, “I’m not going to place you on Holmes Youthful Training status…And Mr. Gardiner, contrary to your belief, it is an expungeable conviction..So we shall see how he does.”
But the judge was apparently wrong. Michigan lawmakers recently passed legislation that, as of Jan. 12, now includes Anderson’s offense among those that are never expungeable.
The judge did not respond to a request for comment.
“The Internet’s wonderful, thank you, Al Gore. But it also is a danger,” Wiley told Anderson, according to the recording of the sentencing. “You went online, to use a fisherman’s expression, trolling for women to meet and have sex with. That seems to be part of our culture now: meet, hook up, have sex, sayonara. Totally inappropriate behavior. There is no excuse for this, whatsoever.”
Then the judge, despite having thrown out the earlier pre-sentence report, read his sentencing conditions, which appeared to be the same as those recommended by the pre-sentence investigator.
Despite Gardiner’s appeal, Wiley refused to reconsider the ban on computer usage. Anderson was two weeks away from finals for his semester’s classwork at Ivy Tech, but the judge ordered him to serve his 90 days immediately.
As deputies escorted Anderson out of the courtroom, the girl wiped tears from her eyes, and her mother gasped and was so overcome with emotion she left the courtroom.
‘I don’t think they’re pedophiles’
Anderson’s parents say they will appeal the case.
“I can’t think of a better case for (HYTA) than Zach’s,” Gardiner, the defense attorney, said last week. “He will forever in current Michigan law have this on his record, the rest of his life.”
The attorney said most pre-sentence reports he has seen include a victim impact statement or information from an interview with a victim, and refer to specific police reports.
And Gardiner is still puzzled by some of the terms, such as forcing Anderson to change his college major: “What did happen was the punishment so grossly outweighed the crime.”
Miriam Aukerman, an attorney with ACLU Michigan, said legislators have reacted out of “fear and not facts” when it comes to sex-offender laws. She is involved with a case where a federal judge recently ruled that many of the stringent requirements for those on the state’s sex offender registry are unconstitutional.
“Whenever we make legislation in response to horrible crimes, we run the risk of making bad law,” Aukerman said of increasing requirements for listing offenders on the registry, which is now the fourth-largest in the country and includes nearly 42,000 offenders. “We don’t think about all of the other people who are caught up in these laws.”
That includes cases like Zach Anderson’s, she said.
“HYTA recognizes you don’t want to tar somebody for life because of the stupid things we do at that age,” Aukerman said.
Legislators have argued that stringent sex-offender laws and registries are meant to protect children and the community. After the recent ruling on Michigan’s sex offender registry, State Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was quoted in the Detroit Free Press last month saying, “This is one judge’s ruling and the law will soon be changed.” He told the newspaper he is already drafting a legislative fix to “protect our children from sex predators.”
Vigansky, the assistant prosecutor, was involved in all three recent Berrien County cases involving young men meeting underage girls on Hot or Not. He said HYTA was not invoked in any of them, all plea agreements, although he did not recommend one way or the other.
He wouldn’t comment specifically on the cases or the judge’s decision, although when pressed a bit, he acknowledged, “I don’t think they’re pedophiles.”
‘It’s hurt our families greatly’
Zach’s parents, Lester and Amanda Anderson, acknowledge their son made a mistake. They recalled always teaching their four boys that sex is for marriage.
“But he’s only been on earth 19 years, and his punishment is longer than he’s been alive,” his father said.
Amanda called the judge’s comments in court “vicious.”
” ‘Learn from it’ — that’s what he should have said. Is the law supposed to cripple people, or is it supposed to correct people and rehabilitate their lives?” she said.
“This really did no justice to anybody.”
The girl’s mother is still distraught over the ruling and says her whole family has sought counseling.
Anderson, the mother has learned, is “very nice. He’s concerned about you. He’s just different. He’s not a jerk.”
She’s still outraged that neither the prosecutor nor judge took into account her daughter’s wishes in pressing forward with the case. “It’s hurt our families greatly,” she said.
Meanwhile, Anderson is spending his time in jail sleeping, playing cards or watching TV. He’s hoping for a successful appeal.
He says he’s grown closer to God in the last few months and is grateful for his family’s support.
“I wouldn’t use any of those different apps at all,” he would tell other young people. “They’re not safe.”
Virginia Black: 574-235-6321 firstname.lastname@example.org