Ex-police officer sentenced for sex crimes against minor
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A former Ripley police officer who had a sexual relationship with a teen girl let out a sob as a federal court judge ordered him to prison for one year and one day.
U.S. District Court Judge John Copenhaver could have sentenced George Michael Puskas II, 32, to the maximum 10 years in federal prison and a lifetime of supervised release on Monday, but instead, saying the case was "not the usual child pornography case," the judge opted for a lower sentence.
"This relationship was consensual though it seems to have been largely induced by you," Copenhaver said Monday afternoon.
Puskas' sentence will be followed by 10 years of supervised release. The former Ripley police officer will also have to register as a sex offender. Wearing a dark-colored suit, Puskas and a woman sitting with his family cried when the judge mentioned the sex offender registry.
"I'm sorry for my involvement in taking and receiving these pictures," he said, his voice soft. "I'm sorry to my family for the pain and stress this has put them through."
Puskas, who resigned from the Ripley Police Department in May 2012 after nearly four years on the force, pleaded guilty in July to possession of child pornography by way of information.
State Police began investigating him in September 2011 when the girl, then 18, came forward with claims that Puskas threatened her after their sexual relationship ended months before.
The victim was not identified in criminal court documents, but she identified herself as Katelyn Sleboda, 20, in a civil lawsuit filed last week in U.S. District Court against Puskas and the Ripley Police Department. Sleboda initially sought restitution in the criminal matter but withdrew her claim before filing a civil lawsuit.
She alleges the Ripley Police Department failed to supervise Puskas and that he "sexually and physically" abused her while he was on duty and used department-issued equipment to video and photograph her in sexually explicit positions and activities.
She is seeking damages and reimbursement for attorneys' fees and costs. Copenhaver will also hear that case.
Sleboda did not attend Monday's sentencing.
David Bungard, Puskas' attorney, argued for the judge to sentence Puskas to time served for the two weeks he spent at South Central Regional Jail last year upon his arrest and 15 years of supervised release. He worried about Puskas' safety in prison because of his status as a former police officer.
He argued the sexual relationship between Puskas and Sleboda was consensual and a matter of "sexting," the act of sending sexually explicit photos or messages via text message.
"The heart of this case comes down to both the victim and Mr. Puskas taking sexually explicit pictures and sending them between each other," Bungard said. "There was no evidence that Mr. Puskas transmitted or posted them anywhere. They were private."
Sleboda sent photos of herself nude and semi-nude to Puskas, Bungard argued.
"It was her decision as much as his to participate in a sexual relationship," Bungard said after pointing out that the sexual aspect of their relationship didn't begin until she was 16 years old, the age of consent in West Virginia.
Bungard said she continued sending him photos of herself from April 2011 through December 2011.
"Clearly these two remained interested in one another," he said.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Lisa Johnston rebuffed Bungard's claims about the case being about sexting.
"This is not a teenage sexting case," Johnston said. "This defendant was not a teenager.
"This isn't just a typical sexting case. This is so much more."
She said the girl looked up to Puskas because of his position as a soccer coach in her youth league and as a police officer and instead of upholding the law, he used his position to abuse the girl.
Sleboda told troopers she first encountered Puskas when she was six or seven. He was a youth soccer coach in the league she and a sibling played in. The two didn't have sex until she was 16 but the relationship began years earlier.
At one point in her youth (criminal court documents allege she was 14 while civil documents say she was 12) she was serving as a referee during a youth soccer game when she injured her leg. She told troopers Puskas picked her up and carried her to a shed where he told her he loved her, kissed her and asked for her phone number, which she provided.
Johnston said she believed Puskas was a "predator."
"The defendant clearly began grooming her when she was 14," Johnston said. "They were sending pictures then. It's not just that she turned 16 and they began sending sexual images.
"He groomed her to trust him and to care for him."
"That's the victim's claim," Bungard told the court. He added that Puskas, who he said has been cooperative with authorities from the beginning, has maintained the sexual relationship began after she turned 16.
Johnston conceded that there was no forensic evidence to show that the two were sending explicit pictures before the girl turned 16.
They were first intimate a month before her 17th birthday in a motel near Ripley. Puskas showed up to the motel on duty and in uniform.
She told troopers that they had sex nearly every day from then until their relationship ended. She said they met behind her high school on several occasions and had sex in and on his patrol car.
Puskas used a department-issued digital camera to take explicit photos of her and also to record a video of them having sex.
She left the area with her new boyfriend later that year after Puskas began harrassing her, according to court documents. She said he followed her and sent her the photos and video.
In August 2011 he threatened to kill her and himself if she dated anyone else. She told troopers she reported the matter to Ripley police but that Puskas told her it wouldn't go anywhere.
She fled to Virginia but the harassment continued. Puskas showed up outside of her job in September 2011 and asked her to lunch, which she refused. He showed up again days later outside of her home.
Her then-boyfriend contacted Ripley police to alert them to Puskas' actions. The police chief then contacted the State Police to investigate.
Johnston told the court if Puskas hadn't harassed Sleboda "we wouldn't be here today." Bungard said Sleboda contacted Puskas after she spoke to State Police and warned him about the investigation.
Puskas told authorities that he deleted the images and video from the hard drive at his desk at the Ripley Police Department before it was seached in April 2012. A video and multiple images of the girl, and other women who were believed to be of legal age, were on a flash drive in his possession.
"It appears to the court Mr. Puskas that you were the prime mover, the prime instigator here," Copenhaver said. "You were the one arranging for the video to take place. You engaged in this relationship with this girl at a very young age. There is some evidence there of grooming."
Puskas asked to be sent to a prison close to Ripley so that his family would be able to visit. He has been living at his parents' home for several months with his wife and young daughter while on home confinement. His wife is expected to give birth to their second child this week.
Puskas was allowed to turn himself in to serve his sentence and will have to do so by Jan. 17. The judge said he would recommend that Puskas serve the second half of his sentence in a community confinement center but said that decision would lie with the federal Bureau of Prisons.
Contact writer Ashley B. Craig at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-4850.