Second trial would have been 'foolish idea’ for priest accused of sex abuse, prosecutor says
By Cole Waterman
March 27, 2019
The day after a Catholic priest pleaded no contest to sexual assault and drug charges, prosecutors said it would have been foolish of him to have gone before a jury with the audio recordings they had.
The afternoon of Wednesday, March 27, Saginaw County Chief Assistant Prosecutor Mark J. Gaertner and Assistant Prosecutor Melissa Hoover convened a press conference in the Saginaw County courthouse to address the prior day’s developments for the Rev. Robert J. “Father Bob” DeLand. He pleaded no contest March 26 to second-degree criminal sexual conduct, gross indecency between two males, and manufacturing or distributing an imitation controlled substance. The most serious charge is second-degree criminal sexual conduct, a 15-year felony.
“Rolling the dice against tape recordings that we had probably would have been a foolish idea,” Gaertner said. “The tapes, that’s Robert DeLand talking. That’s not somebody saying what he said; that’s him saying exactly what he said. That’s powerful evidence.”
The tapes were recorded by a teenager who filed a police report against DeLand in November 2017, then went undercover in other interactions with the priest, equipped with a recording device provided by investigators.
“I can’t get into the mind of Robert DeLand,” Gaertner continued, “but I think, finally, when he realized — and this is just my opinion — that those tapes were going to be played, when his feet were put to the fire, and he knew those tapes were going to be played in court, he decided to make his decision.”
Tuesday, DeLand’s attorney, Alan Crawford, declined comment. He could not be reached immediately for an opportunity to comment Wednesday.
Gaertner described Tuesday’s developments as “the culmination of a lot of hard work by the police agencies and our office.”
DeLand’s second of three trials was scheduled to begin Tuesday.
“We worked over the weekend in consultation with Mr. DeLand’s attorney, Alan Crawford,” Gaertner said. “Miss Hoover was in contact with him both Saturday and Sunday. A possible plea agreement was discussed and it was finalized late Monday.”
Even so, prosecutors remained ready for trial Tuesday morning, Gaertner said.
DeLand’s first trial ended Thursday, March 21, with a jury finding him not guilty of attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct and second-degree criminal sexual conduct.
The two other cases that were to proceed to trial “were stronger, evidentiary-wise, than the first case that resulted in a not-guilty verdict,” Gaertner said. “The reason being is … we did not have corroborating evidence in the first trial. It was a traditional he said, he said-type of case. There was no electronic surveillance, we did not have tape recordings. The events that happened to those victims happened in an isolated part of school and a church.
“This trial that would have started Tuesday,” he continued, “and the (third) trial had tape recordings and they were going to be admitted into evidence. They were going to be quite substantial evidence of his guilt, is what we believed.”
Tuesday was the second time DeLand has pleaded no contest. He pleaded no-contest to all seven charges he faced in September. DeLand withdrew his plea several weeks later after Circuit Judge Darnell Jackson indicated he was not going to follow sentencing guidelines that ranged from 12 to 24 months behind bars.
Hoover said Wednesday DeLand’s new sentencing guidelines have yet to be calculated, though they’re “very likely” to include prison time.
Gaertner said he believes Jackson will give an appropriate sentence.
“The sentencing is in his hands,” he said. “He knows what the case is about. He’ll have a presentence investigation report that he’ll rely on.”
As to which side approached the other with a possible plea, Gaertner said it was a mutual negotiation.
“We reach out before every trial that we have to see if someone is interested in plea agreement,” Gaertner said. “That doesn’t mean we’re going to follow through with it, but it’s a step that you always take into consideration. There was a lot of dialogue back and forth.”
The plea agreement saw Hoover agreeing to dismiss single counts of attempted second-degree criminal sexual conduct and furnishing alcohol to a minor.
By pleading no contest, DeLand did not state his guilt, with defense attorney Crawford saying he was doing so for reasons of civil liability. A lawsuit had already been filed against DeLand, the Saginaw Diocese, and since-deceased Bishop Joseph R. Cistone by one of DeLand’s victims. That suit is still pending in Saginaw County Circuit Court.
Judge Jackson relied on transcripts from victims’ prior courtroom testimony to enter convictions on the record.
The prosecutors on Wednesday were joined in their press conference by Saginaw Township Police Chief Donald F. Pussehl Jr., Tittabawassee Township Police Chief Dennis Green and Michigan State Police Lt. Brian McComb. Gaertner lauded Hoover and the three police agencies, saying their investigation was instrumental in the case’s resolution.
“We kept our eye on the goal line,” Gaertner said. “We just hung in there and the police did a good job of following up on everything we asked them to do. We didn’t ask for this case. Everybody who’s up here, we have lot of other business to do in Saginaw County, as far as serious and violent crime. We have a lot of gun offenses that we’re trying to tackle. We didn’t go looking for this; it came to us. Everybody here did their job. We’re duty-bound to follow through and child abuse is child abuse.”
In early 2018, police formed a task force to investigate allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Diocese of Saginaw. That team since dissolved, after the Michigan Attorney General’s Office launched its own investigation into the state’s seven Catholic dioceses.
“They now are in charge of the case,” Gaertner said. “I’ve spoken with them recently, as (recently) as yesterday. They will be in touch with us from time to time.”
The prosecutors said the victims are content with the plea agreement.
“I have conferred with both of the remaining victims,” Hooever said. “They are satisfied with the outcome. Talking about a trial is a lot different than going through with a trial, and at least one of them got to experience what that was like, in terms of just the pressure and everything else that goes along with it.”
“The victims in this case, all along, have been willing to testify,” Gaertner also said. “They’ve never wanted to back off. They were wholeheartedly into it.”
During last week’s trial, one teen testified DeLand on May 14, 2017, had attempted to grab his penis in a coatroom within St. Agnes Church in Freeland during a memorial service for a classmate who had committed suicide. A second teen testified DeLand pulled him from class in Freeland High School on Nov. 16, 2017, took him to another room, gave him $20, then slid his hand down his back and touched his left buttock.
DeLand himself took the witness stand Thursday morning and professed his innocence in both alleged instances.
The jury deliberated about two hours in the case before acquitting DeLand.
The second teen was set to testify in DeLand’s second trial and is the one who went undercover and obtained audio recordings of their interactions. In a prior court hearing, the teen said DeLand gave him multiple cigarette packs and eventually asked him to acquire ecstasy for him. The teen, who was 17 at the time, testified DeLand gave him $100 for the illicit drug.
The teen in February 2018 stayed at DeLand's Saginaw Township condo and pretended to take an ecstasy pill, then faked the drug's effects, he said. At the time, he was equipped with a recording device provided by police, who were monitoring him from nearby. The priest massaged the teen’s feet, chest, and back and put his hand on the teen’s buttocks for a minute or two, the teen testified.
The third trial DeLand was set to face related to a man had claimed DeLand had assaulted him in the summer of 2017.
In an April hearing, the then-22-year-old man testified he’d accepted an invitation to visit DeLand at his Saginaw Township condo on Aug. 7, 2017. The two drank tequila before the man lost consciousness, he said. He went on to testify he regained consciousness several times, once to DeLand kissing him and another to the two of them standing and facing each other with their pants down as DeLand moved his hand toward the man’s penis.
DeLand remains free on bond pending sentencing, which is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. on April 25.