Des Moines Register, Saturday, 3/14/2009
Creston, Ia. — The town of Creston breathed a collective sigh Friday, hours after two former police officials were convicted in the rape of a country club bartender nearly a year ago.
But it wasn't necessarily a sigh of relief.
Residents said they are happy that the saga is finally over, but many are more than disgusted by the fallout.
Lawyers for the officers, meanwhile, said the story isn't over. Both men plan to fight the convictions, which could mean up to 25 years in prison for each.
"To say we're disappointed in the verdict is an understatement," said Paul Scott, attorney for former Police Chief James Christensen. "We are planning to file a motion for a new trial. Depending on what happens with that, we'll either have a new trial or an appeal."
Christensen and his former assistant, John Sickels, spent the day in the Woodbury County Jail, where they were being held without bond for second-degree sexual abuse.
Thursday night's verdict capped a contentious eight-day trial that peeled back small-town secrets, pitted police department supporters against detractors, and hinged on secret recordings and memories fogged by alcohol.
The trial had been moved to Sioux City to assure an impartial jury could be picked. Christensen, 41, and Sickels, 39, will be sentenced in Union County. They must serve at least 70 percent of the prison term to qualify for parole. A sentencing date has not been set.
Jurors — nine women and three men— deliberated for eight hours before they agreed that Sickels raped the woman after closing time at the Crestmoor Country Club on April 18. A smiling Christensen, they concluded, watched the act and tried to quiet the woman by stroking her hair.
Assistant Iowa Attorney General Andrew Prosser said the accuser, who was not in the courtroom for the verdict, had been informed of the decision. He declined to describe her reaction. The Des Moines Register does not identify sexual assault victims without their permission.
"Obviously, we're pleased with the verdict," Prosser said. "The jury worked hard, and we were very appreciative of their efforts."
Jurors contacted Friday declined to comment; others did not return telephone calls. One juror, who said she did not want to speak about the case or see her name in the newspaper, said: "It wasn't a hard decision."
But it was hard for many of the people of Creston to see two of its highest-profile citizens be the subject of lurid headlines for nearly a year.
Steve White, a lifelong resident who called the officers his friends, was in a sour mood Friday as he sat in the student center at Southwestern Community College.
The case "ruined a lot of people's lives, just for one drunken evening," he said. "A lot of kids' lives ruined, too. There's nothing good about this situation."
Many of Christensen's and Sickels' supporters — wives, parents, siblings and friends — embraced one another when the verdicts were read. Their wives sobbed; moments later, their screams could be heard from outside the courthouse.
At the Garden Cafe and Coffee Shop, a popular Creston cafe, longtime resident Francie Ahrens voiced approval of the verdict Friday afternoon.
"I'm really relieved," she said. "I'm relieved for the woman. My trust in the courts was reaffirmed."
The trial had worn on the town. Friendships were strained as people took sides, Ahrens said. She said she hopes the emotional damage will fade with the long winter.
"I think that with spring coming, and a new police chief, healing will happen soon," she said. "People are ready for it to be over."
Residents have said the new chief, Paul Ver Meer, has made a positive impression in his first few months on the job.
It seemed Ver Meer was already trying to move on Friday. Any statement on the trial would be made by officials at City Hall, according to a receptionist at the police department.
Defense lawyers, meanwhile, were ready to talk. Sickels' attorney, Richard McConville, said the former chief plans to "pursue the remedies we do have, as far as motions, before an appeal."
Christensen's attorney, Scott, said several moments from the trial could be used to mount an appeal. He declined to elaborate.
Both defense attorneys angrily protested statements made by prosecutors in their final arguments on Thursday. At least one statement, they said, attempted to shift the burden of proof from prosecutors to their clients.
At one point, Scott called prosecutors' arguments "deliberate misrepresentations of what was done in this case" and added that "I have never seen anything like this in my life."
Neither had Brenda Sickels, a custodian at Southwestern Community College and a distant relative of John Sickels.
She said Friday that she felt worst for the children, those of the police officers and of the victim, a divorced mother of three who her lawyers have said plans to become an elementary school teacher.
"It's such a sad situation," Brenda Sickels said. "Now for the rest of their lives, they're going to have that in their lives, especially in this small town. ... I figure with the kids, they'll have to move somewhere else. Especially in a town this small.
"Something like that, it makes you not trust people," said Sickels, who's lived in Creston for a decade. "Something in your stomach, just gross. Just a bad situation all around. You're supposed to feel safe with the police."
Click to view image: 'Convict1'
Click to view image: 'Convict2'
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