A teen girl faces a sex offender in a long-delayed case. ‘He has not won.’ | #childpredator | #kidsaftey | #childsaftey

WARRENTON — The 16-year-old girl sat in a chair in the middle of the courtroom, facing St. Charles County Senior Judge Richard Zerr. The judge had been brought to Warren County to help clear up a backlog of cases, including this one, which had languished for more than 7 years.

The girl didn’t tremble. She spoke with a strong and commanding voice. She owned the room.

“I am not a statistic,” she said. “I am a survivor.”

When the girl was 9, she was sexually assaulted in her home by a man who was now on the other side of the courtroom, John K. Wilmes Jr. Last month, in a plea bargain, Wilmes pleaded guilty to two felony charges of child molestation. On Friday, the judge sentenced Wilmes to 24 years in prison.

“The crime you committed is much more reprehensible than the sentence you will receive,” Zerr told Wilmes. “There is no amount of time that will undo the harm you have done.”

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That harm — evil, Zerr called it — was compounded by an inexorable wait for justice, caused by a broken system.

Last year, I wrote about the causes of the Warren County delays, including a prosecutor who was clogging the court docket with overcharged cases and then refusing to plea bargain with defense attorneys. The girl’s mother called me at that time to tell me about her daughter’s case. The prosecutor, Kelly King, quit her job before the girl’s case went to trial. (King accepted a job working for Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey.)

The Wilmes case was set for trial multiple times but kept getting delayed. For the past couple of years, it hasn’t been uncommon for several trials to be set on the same day in Warren County. Maybe one of them would go forward. But sometimes all would be delayed, to the detriment of victims, as well as the people charged with crimes as a cloud of accusations followed them for years.

The girl’s mother had complained about the delays in a letter to Warren County Presiding Court Judge Jason Lamb. She explained the pain it was causing family members, who were forced to move away while Wilmes was free.

“We are angry, in turmoil, and suffering greatly because of Warren County,” she wrote in 2022.

The state victim’s compensation program helped at first, but it only provided help for therapy and other expenses for the first two years — a time by which most serious cases like sexual assault would typically go to trial.

Not long after I wrote about the case, Lamb asked another judge, Zerr, for help. Zerr has taken on dozens of cases in Warren County, pushing prosecutors and defense attorneys to work together to speed up the process and clear the backlog. Lamb also asked for help from the Missouri Office of Prosecution Services, and a prosecutor from that office took over the Wilmes case.

It all led to a resolution on Friday, with mom lamenting the damage the delays in justice had caused.

“This is every parent’s worst nightmare,” the mother told the judge. “The amount of time it took to get to this day has had a devastating impact on our lives.”

She then told the court what everybody there was about to discover in person. “My daughter is the strongest person I know,” she said.

The daughter, 7 years removed from the abuse that led to thoughts of suicide, walked to the center of the courtroom, sat in a chair and faced the “monster” who was responsible for the evil she was subjected to. She was backed by a crowd of friends and family as she spoke.

“I stand here today reliving that hell,” she said, reading from a statement she had prepared. “I remember what he did and how he hurt me.”

She was told by her perpetrator to keep quiet and not tell anybody about the abuse. But she found the courage to tell her mother. Together, seven years ago, they made sure Wilmes was charged for his crimes.

On Friday, his freedom was taken away, and he will be forever labeled the awful thing that he is: a sex offender.

“I was deeply underestimated,” the girl said, before the judge announced the sentence. “He has not won. … His dream is over, and I am ending it. I choose to win.”

Appointment of senior judges, and help from Missouri Office of Prosecution Services is helping.

Messenger: Mom of sex assault victim begs Warren County judge to bring 7-year-old case to trial

Massive delays caused by prosecutor are affecting crime victims, woman says. 

Messenger: Showing up for court? In this Missouri county, trial dates ‘don’t mean anything.’

Rural Missouri court is so backed up that seven trials were scheduled for one day but none of them took place. 

Messenger: Defendants in a Missouri county wait years for justice. It can ruin their lives.

Clogged up court dockets in rural county near St. Louis leave defendants hanging with no justice for several years. 

Messenger: A Missouri county's broken system kept him free. Now he's an accused cop killer.

In rural Warren County, west of St. Louis, a clogged court system means serious problems for people facing charges and for public safety. 

St. Louis Post-Dispatch metro columnist Tony Messenger discusses what he likes to write about.

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