Victims: Shifflett Guilty Plea Bittersweet
By Liz Mitchell
Star Exponent [Culpeper VA]
December 15, 2006
It was a yearlong fight for validation, protection and justice.
And now it's over.
The victims in the Charles Shifflett case, bonded by their life changing experiences kept secret for 15 years or more, feel a bittersweet sense of relief.
In Circuit Court Thursday, Liz Bailey, Woody Leake and Robert Hammonds quietly sat in the courtroom watching their former preacher plead guilty to child abuse charges.
While Shifflett will carry the designation of a convicted felon for the rest of his life, the victims wish a harsher sentence had been imposed.
But ensuring a conviction with a compromise was better than risking a jury trial and a possible not guilty verdict, they said.
Recalling vivid memories
Robert Hammonds, 27, had not seen Shifflett since he was a boy. He was one of the only black students at Cavalry Baptist Academy. He says, Shifflett shot at him and called him racial slurs when he didn't walk up a hill fast enough. The felony charge involving him was dropped to a misdemeanor as part of the plea.
Now a Yorktown resident, Hammonds came to the Culpeper courthouse for the plea hearing. He arrived early and parked his truck down the street. He saw Shifflett sitting in his van, looking at him and saying, "That's that Hammonds boy."
"I acted as if I didn't see him, as though I was looking through him and I kept walking," Hammonds said. "But that stare sent a lot of feelings and thoughts back through my mind - all in that one instant. I could remember the yell, the growl, the harshness of his speech, his almost slave master ways - like he is cracking a whip on every move. Everything was a hustle; it must be now, snap to it. It doesn't matter what his command was - pick up horse sh**, you pick up horse sh**. And all of those things began to come into my mind. I began to remember how he carried himself – the mask he put on when people were around."
Hammonds, Bailey and Leake felt the mask was still evident even with Shifflett standing before a judge in a courtroom.
When Judge J. Howe Brown Jr. asked Shifflett if he could be on good behavior for a two-year probation period, Shifflett chuckled and replied affirmatively.
All three and victim Chad Robison, who was not in court, said they would have preferred Shifflett receive jail time but they will take what they can get: 700 hours of community service and no contact with children again unless another adult over 21 is supervising.
Robison, 30, was involved in the felony charge Shifflett pleaded guilty to Thursday. It entailed Shifflett requiring Robison to stand close to a falling tree. This was a standard practice Robison said Shifflett used on all the boys taken out of school to split wood - which they came to call the tree game. To this day, every time Robison sees a chainsaw or a stack of wood, he is reminded of Shifflett. He also says Shifflett sexually abused him. Originally Shifflett was facing charges of sexual abuse against children but by virtue of signing the plea agreement, the commonwealth amended the charges to misdemeanors of assault and battery.
"I think he got off really easy but I waited 15 years to see something come of it so I have to be happy with what he's got," Robison said. "I definitely would have gone forward with the trial but knowing that he would accept the plea agreement and be a convicted felon for the rest of his life, with no chance of getting off, kind of proves everything we said before was true."
"I do feel some closure for myself," he added. "I feel some closure but for my purpose in doing everything, which is him never being allowed to touch another kid again, I think I've won on that one."
Hammonds, Bailey and Leake agreed that they do feel some closure and can move on but their purpose was never about them. It was about standing up for the children who were too afraid to reveal their secrets and to prevent other children from experiencing what they went through as students at Shifflett's school.
"I hope that we didn't fail them," Robison said. "And I hope that we put up a fight they were looking for."
"I hope I made a difference," she said.
Bailey, 35, was a student at Shifflett's school in 1988 and said he rubbed his privates against her arm with lascivious intent.
This original felony charge was also amended to a misdemeanor of assault and battery. Her 28-year-old brother, Leake, says he was also a victim of the tree game.
He hopes the community learns a lesson from this case.
"It doesn't matter if you are a preacher; it doesn't matter what your job title is, you can still be guilty of something," he said.
"When a kid says something to you, don't just say, 'you are lying.' Believe them on the off chance that this person is doing something. Protect the children."
Hammonds agrees and says parents need to pay attention to their children and be active in their lives at all times, to know who they are with and what they are doing. As a child, he felt his experiences would only burden his family so he never told.
Leake tried to tell church members but they quieted him and called him a liar. Robison did not tell anyone until the investigation started and Bailey only told her dad the day she got the warrant.
All have participated in the case on behalf of others: their friends, their peers and future generations. Hammonds hopes they can all remain in contact because the bond they share is something that could have been kept a secret forever.
"I think we all came together today for a common purpose and that was to ensure that other children would not be injured by Mr. Shifflett," Hammonds said. "Over the years, I've tried to suppress what has happened to deal with day to day life but we will not ever forget that day and now we will never forget this day. There will always be a bond and I hope we will always keep in touch."
Liz Mitchell can be reached at 825-0771 ext. 110 or email@example.com.
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