There were sensational headlines, overblown charges and a reasonable resolution in the case of Jeremiah Bessolo-Marsh this week. The problem is that, because the original press coverage and charging was so sensational, many in the public instinctively reacted with outrage when a very reasonable plea agreement was reached.
I watched a good portion of the preliminary hearing last month and quickly realized that this case was not what the prosecution had trumpeted upon the defendant’s arrest back in May when the DA’s office and the Winters Police Department held a joint press conference.
At that time they were talking about human trafficking, he was being charged with pandering and pimping, and they alleged she was coerced into dropping out of school and forced to sell nude photos and videos of herself on social media to earn money.
In the end, Mr. Bessolo-Marsh, who importantly had no priors, plead to the charges that seemed reasonable after watching her testify. He was charged with sex with a minor – he was 21, she was 16. He was charged with furnishing drugs to the minor – bear in mind though, she testified that she was using drugs prior to meeting him. And he was charged with dissuading a witness.
The preliminary hearing held in July put this case into perspective.
There was enough evidence to hold the defendant to answer for the charges, but, having watched the girl’s testimony, a different picture emerged.
What happened was that they met a party and she fell in love with him. She was 16. He was a 21-year-old who had been in the military.
She ended up dropping out of school and spent nearly all her time with the defendant. This occurred even after he became homeless and lost his job.
The couple used drugs together – cocaine, acid, and meth. In order to support this drug habit and cover other expenses, they begged for money, sold drugs, and sold nude photos of her and videos on Snapchat.
She acknowledged in her testimony that the photos were her idea and something that she had contemplated before she even met Mr. Bessolo-Marsh. She said that after a few days she didn’t like doing them, however, she had fallen in love. He did continue to sell the photos and videos on social media without her permission.
The drug use that began prior to their meeting each other intensified during the course of their relationship, as he became homeless and she left her home to be with him.
Deputy Public Defender Lisa Lance noted that the girl admitted to having abused drugs and dating older men prior to meeting the defendant in this case.
“Ms. C came to the relationship trying to get away from her parents and her home life. … She was looking for a sugar daddy,” Ms. Lance argued in the preliminary hearing.
The question is, where the human trafficking? These days, human trafficking is a real problem that society is going to have to grapple with. There are many young girls who end up either forced or coerced into becoming prostitutes. That is not what this case was about.
Judge David Rosenberg, in upholding the charges, really clarified what this case was about and what it was not about.
He said, “It’s clear to the court that C was often the instigator of the conduct and was a willing participant. But Mr. Bessolo is an adult, and the victim in this case is a minor, and that reality overrides everything.”
In a way he was correct. But he was upholding charges, not determining whether Mr. Bessolo-Marsh was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. A jury looking at this case and looking at these charges objectively, and not through the lens of sensational news headlines, would probably come to the same conclusion that I came to, and probably the prosecution and defense as well.
Mr. Bessolo-Marsh was the adult – although the age difference is not huge here – and he is the more responsible party. But what did he actually do? As such, the sex with a minor, the furnishing a minor with drugs and the dissuading a witness charges seem appropriate.
In this case, he is given a chance to turn himself around. He gets five years of formal probation. He has to undergo drug and alcohol treatment. He has to register as a sex offender for the next ten years. And he is required to refrain from contacting the alleged victim in this case.
That gives him a chance to use better judgment and a chance to turn his life around.
Here’s the other thing – there is a big stick at the end of this leniency. If he messes up – if he violates the terms of probation, if he commits another crime, or if he contacts the alleged victim, that eight-year and eight-month suspended prison sentence could and likely would be imposed.
All of this seems reasonable if you let go of the notion that this was a human trafficking case and understand that this was really two young people using bad judgment – but one of them was an adult and legally is supposed to know better.
—David M. Greenwald reporting