‘Party House’ Rapist Gets No Jail Time

A really strange case.

A strange report from the Washington Post, “Man who raped four teenagers gets no jail time, judge says: ‘Incarceration isn’t appropriate,’” surfaced near the top of one of my news aggregators. And it’s strange in a number of ways.

First, the headline is misleading.

A New York man who pleaded guilty to rape and sexual abuse for assaulting four teenage girls during parties at his parents’ home will not face jail time after a judge Tuesday sentenced him to eight years probation.

Niagara County Court Judge Matthew J. Murphy III said he “agonized” over the case of 20-year-old Christopher Belter, who was accused of committing the crimes when he was 16 or 17.

So, yes, Belter is a man. But he’s being sentenced for crimes committed at 16 or 17 (they don’t know?). So it makes no sense to promote the notion that this was a case of a grown man raping teenagers; he and his victims were contemporaries.

Second, the sequencing of the case itself seems unusual, indeed.

Belter pleaded guilty in 2019 to felony charges that included third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse, as well as two misdemeanor charges of second-degree sexual abuse.

[…]

The crimes took place between February 2017 and August 2018 at Belter’s parents’ home in a wealthy neighborhood of Lewiston, a few miles outside Niagara Falls. During that time, three 16-year-old girls and a 15-year-old girl were assaulted in four separate incidents, according to the judge.

[…]

In 2018, Belter, then 17, was charged with first-degree rape, third-degree rape and sexual abuse for the assaults. As part of a plea deal, Belter pleaded guilty in 2019 to lesser felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse. The judge at the time, Sara Sheldon, placed Belter on two years’ interim probation and gave him the chance to apply for youthful offender status in his sentencing, which would have lessened the maximum prison time and allowed him to not register as a sex offender.

Sheldon, who has since retired, predicted Belter would struggle to comply with the restrictions placed on him in his initial probation — and she was proved right. Belter acknowledged in court last month that he had violated his probation by installing software on his personal computer that allowed him to view pornography, which was restricted. Belter had told his probation officer that he had been watching porn since he was 7 years old, the News reported.

When Murphy denied him youthful offender status and ruled last month that Belter would be sentenced as an adult, the judge wrote that the 20-year-old had “recently been treated with medication to lessen his libido.”

“The assumption when Judge Murphy denied youthful offender status was that Chris Belter would receive prison time,” Cohen told The Post. “There were absolutely no consequences for the defendant’s repeated violations of Judge Sheldon’s terms of probation.”

No explanation is given for any of this. He pled guilty to felonies in 2019 but was put on “interim probation” under bizarre terms out of the medieval era that the judge quite reasonably presumed wouldn’t be followed? Two years later, he’s denied youthful offender status even though his offenses were committed when he was a youth? And then the same judge decided prison would be inappropriate?

No explanation is given for that, either:

Although Belter faced a maximum sentence of eight years in prison, Murphy concluded that jail time for the man “would be inappropriate” in a ruling that shocked the courtroom.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case because there was great pain. There was great harm. There were multiple crimes committed in the case,” Murphy said, according to WKBW. “It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate, so I am going to sentence you to probation.”

Belter, of Lewiston, N.Y., will have to register as a sex offender as part of his sentence. Murphy told Belter in court that the probation sentence would be “like a sword hanging over your head for the next eight years.” The judge did not elaborate on why he did not impose jail time.

So, apparently, the judge is a religious nut that makes sentencing decisions based on superstition rather than the law. Yet, he simultaneously denied youthful offender status. It just makes no sense.

Further, we’re given no context at all for how this sentencing compares to that in the same jurisdiction for comparable crimes. Instead, we’re given this special pleading by an interested party:

Steven M. Cohen, an attorney for one of the victims, denounced the judge’s sentencing, saying to reporters Tuesday, “Justice was not done here.” He told The Washington Post on Wednesday that his client, who was joined by some of the other victims in the courtroom, was “deeply disappointed” in the sentencing.

“My client threw up in the ladies room following the sentencing,” Cohen said. “If Chris Belter was not a White defendant from a rich and influential family, in my experience … he would surely have been sentenced to prison.”

Is that really true? It’s possible, not least of which because a poor, Black defendant wouldn’t have access to high-quality legal counsel. But it’s a spurious charge to put into a news report without further reporting.

And, perhaps the strangest thing of all is this:

The “party house” label at Belter’s family home was fueled by his mother, Tricia Vacanti, now 50; his stepfather, Gary Sullo, 56; and Jessica M. Long, 42, a family friend, who allegedly supplied teen girls with alcohol and marijuana, according to state police. The three adults, who police say helped groom the women for sexual assaults by Belter, have pleaded not guilty in Lewiston Town Court to misdemeanor charges of child endangerment and unlawfully dealing with a child. None of them responded to requests for comment Wednesday.

So, three middle-aged adults not only supplied a “party house” for a teenaged boy but helped drug his victims? And they were allowed to plead to misdemeanor charges after multiple rapes?

UPDATE: To be clear, my main frustration here is with the reporting. This is essentially a local news story that I’m seeing for the first time because it’s in the Washington Post. If it’s important enough to be elevated to national coverage, it seems reasonable to expect treatment that answers obvious questions.

In terms of the legal system itself, aside from the long-established fact that wealthy defendants tend to get better results, some recent cases have indirectly shone a light on just how odd judges can be. A lot of them seem to be genuinely strange human beings. Which is problematic given their outsized power in our system.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. CSK says:

    If it matters, Tricia Vacanit is a real estate lawyer and Gary Sullo is president and CEO of Tramec Sloan, which manufactures truck and trailer components.

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  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Boys will be boys, James. Especially rich white ones. Add in the misdemeanor charges against the adults for aiding and abetting the youngster, and I detect a strong whiff of people who know people. I don’t know much about Niagara County but my time in Crawford Co taught me a lot about how justice can get perverted in small town/county courts.

    (just out of curiosity, I compared the populations of the 2 counties. Niagara is about 7 times larger. Still the stench of small town connections is strong here. Maybe I’m just prejudiced)

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  3. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: That seems as good an explanation as any.

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  4. wr says:

    I’m not sure why you get so discomforted by the notion that a wealthy white kid is treated better by the courts in a rape trial than, say, a poor Black one. We’ve seen this movie before — remember the Stanford student who (as I recall) drugged and raped a girl then threw her in a dumpster, and the judge let him off because he had such a promising future?

    And having been critical, allow me to try to be helpful — I suspect the “sixteen or seventeen” in the article was not meant to say the writer couldn’t figure the math, but used “or” to mean that the assaults were committed over a six-month period during which time the accused had a birthday, and thus some happened when he was the one age and some the other…

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  5. James Joyner says:

    @wr:

    I suspect the “sixteen or seventeen” in the article was not meant to say the writer couldn’t figure the math, but used “or” to mean that the assaults were committed over a six-month period during which time the accused had a birthday, and thus some happened when he was the one age and some the other…

    That makes sense to me but one would think a reporter for an elite newspaper or one of his editors could have figured out how to write it in a way that conveyed that!

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  6. gVOR08 says:

    In these threads we talk a lot about the biases of the press. One of them is simply that they’ve got column inches to fill. No one’s going to invest a lot of time on this local Niagara County story. Write up what you’ve got, let someone slap a clickbait headline on it, and move on to the next story.

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  7. CSK says:

    According to the Buffalo News-Gazette, Belter committed the four assaults in 2017 and 2018.

    I think it was Belter’s attorney who claimed that Belter had been viewing porn since age 7 as “a coping mechanism.”

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  8. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: Coping with what?

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  9. CSK says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:
    That was not revealed, as far as I can determine. I would be interested to know why and how a 7-years-old would resort to porn to cope.

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  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    just how odd judges can be.

    Yes, quite odd. I had two felony cases against me. One was dropped gratuitously because the judge who presided over my indictment was, apparently, nuts. I actually had some affection for the guy since he’d called me a master criminal with an all girl gang.

    BTW, not all white kids get off easy. My bail was $60,000 which is a quarter million in today’s money. The murderer and the other thieves I was in with, Black and White, all agreed it was excessive.

    In this case, though, I think I trust @OzarkHillbilly’s: nose. A definite fishy smell.

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  11. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    So, apparently, the judge is a religious nut that makes sentencing decisions based on superstition rather than the law. Yet, he simultaneously denied youthful offender status. It just makes no sense.

    It does to me–provided that the judge perceives himself to be wrestling with the same demons that the probationer is.

    But the overall sense of “if you’ve got the right lawyer, we have the best justice system in the world” that Ozark alludes to is strong here, too.

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  12. CSK says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    The kid’s mother and stepfather are obviously very well connected, although mom appears to have shut down her law office in the wake of the charges against her.

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  13. wr says:

    @James Joyner: “That makes sense to me but one would think a reporter for an elite newspaper or one of his editors could have figured out how to write it in a way that conveyed that!”

    That was my thought, too, and then I tried to come up with a way to say it succinctly. I agree that it’s not great writing, but this turns out to be a surprisingly difficult idea to convey!

    And having said that, I have no doubt that multiple posters will have sentences that do exactly that. I promise to bang my head against my desk at least once for each!

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  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @CSK: She probably doesn’t want to have to try to sell the client list in the wake of a disbarment. Close it now for a better outcome overall.

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  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @wr: I didn’t see the statement as particularly cumbersome or unclear. Too many years of reading writing by students just out of high school, I suppose, but yeah, rewriting it would be difficult.

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  16. Kathy says:

    I don’t see any particular reason to look at the judge’s bank balance or spending habits of late, but I don’t see any particular reason not to.

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  17. Mister Bluster says:

    But he’s being sentenced for crimes committed at 16 or and 17.

    (if that’s what happened)

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  18. James Joyner says:

    @wr: @Mister Bluster: I would have gone with something like “who was accused of committing the crimes between 16 and 17” OR “who was accused of committing the crimes during a period when he was 16 or 17.”

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  19. wr says:

    @James Joyner: Yeah, number two works. Probably an over-zealous copy editor here…

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  20. CSK says:

    Belter is a serial rapist. He committed the crimes during his sixteenth and seventeenth years. He was aided and abetted by his mother and stepfather.

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  21. de stijl says:

    @wr:

    When he was sixteen he sexually assualted two women. When he was seventeen he later assaulted two more women.

    Over the course of two years when he was 16 and 17 x assaulted 4 women.

    Connected rich white privilege is a hell of a thing.

    Up until recently if you had 2 out of the 3 you would never even get charged. 3 out of 3? Forget about it. Boys will be boys.

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