Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Princeton Times

November 4, 2011

Tennessee man convicted of attempting to buy, abusing Mercer children

PRINCETON — A Mercer County jury deliberated almost two hours before finding a Tennessee man guilty of attempting to buy two grandchildren and sexually abusing others.

The panel convicted Mark Lynn Jeffrey, 55, of Mt. Juliet, Tenn., of 10 felony charges, including attempting to purchase two children, first-degree sexual abuse, first-degree sexual assault and sexual abuse by a custodian.

This week’s trial marked the second for Jeffrey. An August jury reported members were hopelessly deadlocked and could not reach a unanimous verdict, prompting both sides to review their information and try the case again with a different panel of peers.

The case involved two different sets of grandchildren.

In December 2006, Jeffrey reportedly approached the Kegley mother of two of his grandchildren, offering to purchase one or both children for a sum of $20,000 cash. The girls’ mother testified that she did not see the cash or touch the briefcase Jeffrey carried; instead, she contacted authorities.

The children’s mother alleged that Jeffrey only wanted to buy custody to her oldest daughter, who has autism and has great difficulty communicating her thoughts. The state alleged that Jeffrey’s intent in purchasing that child was so that he could abuse her at will, without concern that she would disclose the inappropriate sexual contact with her grandfather.

“He never once filed for legal custody,” Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Janet Williamson told the jury in closing arguments. “He had the money to hire a lawyer to look into this. He had the money to hire an investigator.”

West Virginia State Police Cpl. J.C. Long questioned Jeffrey about his attempt to purchase the child the mother reported he tried to buy. During that questioning, Jeffrey allegedly confessed to attempting to purchase both girls.

During his August trial, Jeffrey told the jury he was proud of his actions, because he tried to buy the girls to protect them. He alleged that the mother lived in substandard, potentially dangerous conditions and exposed them to pornographic material.

State Police and Child Protective Services officials investigated those allegations and found that there was no harm being done to the children at their mother’s hands.

Still, Jeffrey’s counsel, Robert “Bob” Holroyd told the jury this week that his client acted out of his love for the girls.

“He wasn’t the best witness in the world, but he’s who he is,” Holroyd said. “... He didn’t do the brightest thing in the world when he tried to buy these children, but I submit to you that he did it out of love for them and out of the right heart.”

•••

The sexual abuse allegations against Jeffrey involved another set of granddaughters — ones who Jeffrey routinely baby-sat during trips to visit his son in Mercer County.

Both of the granddaughters testified during both trials against their grandfather. The more severe abuse focused on the older granddaughter, who said that Jeffrey kissed her inappropriately and fondled her breast and genital areas, at her home and in the car during shopping trips.

She said she held the secret because Jeffrey warned her parents would get divorced if she accused him of wrongdoing.

The abuse was reported as the granddaughters’ parents prepared to take an anniversary trip. Jeffrey was slated to baby-sit the children during the trip, and the youngest granddaughter disclosed the alleged abuse to her mother.

“He was her caregiver, her custodian,” Williamson said. “He was going to baby-sit again.”

The assistant prosecutor said the younger child “had had enough.”

Both of the children were treated by Phyllis Hasty, a local counselor and registered play therapist. While the girls and their families failed to keep several of their appointments, Hasty testified that she saw no inconsistencies in their actions and their reports of abuse.

The sisters could not recall specific dates or times of their abuse, but they both reported that it occurred between March 2007 and February 2008.

•••

Because the offenses that sparked Jeffrey’s charges occurred between 2006 and 2008, and involved allegations of child sexual abuse, Holroyd said preparing a solid defense was all but impossible.

The time lapse between the alleged abuse and the children’s disclosure prohibited the collection of any physical evidence, and Holroyd said the time between the accusations and the trial complicated matters further.

“He said he wanted to buy both of those children, because he wanted to get them out of that circumstance. There you are. That was his motive and his intent,” Holroyd said. “They have to prove to you that he did not try to buy these children because he was trying to protect them.”

The defense’s case rested primarily on Jeffrey’s denial of the charges and character testimony from his friends and family members, all of whom said the defendant was a kind man who loved children. Williamson told the jury that didn’t prove anything.

“Sexual offenders usually don’t offend in front of people. They don’t do it in front of their wife. They don’t do it in front of their son. They don’t do it in front of their victims’ parents,” she said.

She clarified Holroyd’s question regarding why the state indicted Jeffrey on two counts of attempting to purchase a child, when Williamson said his goal was only to get the 4-year-old.

“We indicted him on both, because he confessed to both,” she said, telling the jury she remained convinced Jeffrey just wanted “the autistic child who couldn’t talk about what happened after he bought her with $20,000 cash and took her to Tennessee.”

As she finished her case, Williamson pleaded with the jury, “Find him guilty. Use your heart and your common sense.”

The jury of nine men and three women got the case at approximately 2:49 p.m. Wednesday. By 4:43 p.m., they had alerted the court members had reached a unanimous verdict.

One by one, as the jurors were polled, they all told Circuit Judge Derek Swope that they found Jeffrey guilty on all counts.

Despite the state’s request that Jeffrey be incarcerated immediately, Swope allowed him to remain free on $5,000 surety bond. The judge also ordered Jeffrey to avoid all contact with the grandchildren involved in the case.

Holroyd notified the court that he would file a motion asking the judge to overturn the conviction and slate yet another trial.

Swope set a hearing on that motion for Dec. 19.

In the meantime, he ordered Jeffrey to register as a sex offender and comply with the requirements of a presentence investigation by the Mercer County Probation Department.

— Contact Tammie Toler at ttoler@ptonline.net.

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