DA irked with groper sentence
A judge Monday sentenced Samuel Johnson Lyons, the 37-year-old Sonoma man arrested Aug. 14 in connection with a string of sexual assault “gropings” in Sonoma Valley and Petaluma, to 10 months in jail and four years probation. He is scheduled to report to county jail on Jan. 25.
District Attorney Jill Ravitch was not happy.
“We thought he should be remanded (Monday). And we did not agree with the sentence that was imposed,” she said.
According to Ravitch, Deputy District Attorney Rosanne Darling, who prosecuted the case, was seeking a longer sentence. Darling was unavailable for comment and Ravitch was unsure of the exact jail time she was seeking, but, said Ravitch, “She was certainly asking for more than 10 months in jail.”
The August incident that led to Lyons’ arrest occurred in the Sonoma Safeway parking lot, where he brushed past a woman getting into her friend’s car after following her out of the store. While doing so, he squeezed her buttocks and then put his hand up her skirt. The victim snapped a photo of his license plate when he jumped in his car and drove away. The photo led police to Lyons’ residence, where he was taken into custody.
“You’re talking about four separate victims. You’re talking about egregious misconduct of a sexual nature,” said Ravitch.
Lyons pleaded guilty to four counts of lewd and lascivious behavior, one of which was a felony (because the victim was 14 years of age).
The other charges were misdemeanors. In the so-called “open plea” arrangement, he could have been incarcerated for as long as three years, but the ultimate sentence was up to the court. With good behavior, Lyons may be released by the summer.
“The court made the decision to place him on probation. The court made the decision to impose county jail. And the court made the decision not to remand him into custody,” said Ravitch. “We asked that he be taken into custody at sentencing.”
Superior Court Judge Jaimie Thistlethwaite, who made the sentencing decision, had no comment. The judge had the probation department’s presentencing report on which to base her sentence as well as the arguments of the district attorney’s office and the defense attorney Stephen Gallenson.
The presentencing report recommended 10 months in county jail and three years probation. The probation officer who filed the report interviewed Lyons, one of his victims (though he attempted to contact all of them), reviewed the police reports of the crimes, the report of a licensed therapist who treats Lyons, and more than a dozen letters of character reference filed on behalf of the defendant, including letters from former employers, charitable organizations he did volunteer work for in the past and colleagues who served in the Peace Corp with Lyons.
According to the police reports and interviews, Lyons’ typical behavior was to follow a woman on his bike or in his car – their ages did not matter to him he said, just what they looked like and if he thought he could get away with it – and wait for his chance to touch them. He’d then grab or touch their breasts or buttocks and run away, either jumping back on his bicycle or getting back into his car.
On a couple of occasions, he touched women while on his bicycle. He began doing this beginning in 2006, he said, and estimated he’d completed roughly 10 sexual batteries on women who varied in age from early adolescence to their mid-40s in the Sonoma Valley area, though he has only been charged in four incidents.
Incidents described by Lyons to the police involved him grabbing a young girl’s breast while riding past her on his bicycle near the Taco Bell in Sonoma; grabbing the buttocks of a woman in her 40s running around the track at Maxwell Park, who subsequently became angry and threw her water bottle at him; and attempting to put his hand down the shirt of a woman holding a real estate sign outside the Barking Dog, though she backed away and he was unsuccessful.
Both the presentencing report and Judge Thistlethwaite stated that Lyons “terrorized the women of Petaluma and Sonoma.”
The probation officer found “it is likely that the defendant inflicted emotional injury on the minor victim,” and wrote, “what is clear is that all of the defendant’s sexual acts are appalling and wholly outside the values of this community.” However, in suggesting what he called the “low-term sentence,” the probation officer cited several factors, starting with the fact that Lyons was found to be a low-risk according to the Static-99, an actuarial measure of risk for sexual offense recidivism.
A therapist who treated Lyons indicated that his “prognosis remains favorable,” and took as a positive sign that the defendant had enrolled himself in the Safer (Sex Offenders and Families in Effective Recovery) Program immediately following his arrest. As part of his sentencing, Lyons will need to remain in treatment for the duration of his probation and will also need to register as a sex offender.
The presentencing report painted a picture of Lyons as a lonely man, who had been single for 11 years and had trouble even talking to women, suffering from depression and living in isolation.
“I can see positive changes I’ve made in my life. I’m optimistic about leading a healthy life in the future,” Lyons told the probation officer, who found the defendant to be remorseful. When asked to consider the effects of his actions on his victims, Lyons said, “I put them through tremendous stress, trauma and anxiety, because what I did violated their sense of personal safety in the community. I know that it is really wrong. I’m a good person. I never want to hurt anyone again.”