Family of Elkhart teen fighting to reduce sentence

Published 9:25 am Thursday, July 9, 2015

When Zach Anderson gets out of jail today, he will be outside of a cell, but he won’t be free.

The 19-year-old Elkhart, Indiana, man must live with the stigma of being a registered sex offender — possibly for the rest of his life — because he had consensual sex with an underage Niles girl who misrepresented her age.

Zach Anderson

Zach Anderson

Anderson must also abide by a five-year probation term that requires him to live far away from public parks and schools, not use the internet and to stay in contact with authorities, among other things

Zach’s parents, Amanda and Lester, said they believe their son is being punished unjustly, especially considering the victim’s mother said in court that she wanted the case dropped.

“The restrictions are so severe that it will make it impossible for him to live a normal life,” Lester said. “This shouldn’t happen to anyone.”

Scott Grabel, an attorney representing Anderson, said they have filed a motion to withdraw Zach’s guilty plea. A hearing has been set for Aug. 5 in Berrien County Trial Court in Niles.

Earlier this spring, Zach pleaded guilty to fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct, and was sentenced to 90 days and five years probation in Berrien County Trial Court in Niles.

Grabel said part of the plea agreement stipulated that the prosecutor would not take a position on whether the judge should grant Holmes Youthful Trainee Act — a program that allows young offenders an opportunity to erase the conviction if they successfully complete a probationary term.

Grabel said he is confident the motion will be accepted because Assistant Prosecutor Jerry Vigansky did take a position on HYTA during a sentencing hearing in April.

“He wasn’t supposed to comment as far as what the judge should do in reference to granting or denying HYTA — he did take a position and by doing that he violated the plea agreement,” Grabel said. “I’d be shocked if the court denies the motion.”

If Judge Dennis Wiley grants the motion, the plea would be thrown out and the case would essentially start over, allowing both sides to work out a new agreement or go to trial.

If Wiley denies the motion, Grabel said they would appeal the decision and appeal the sentence.

Grabel and the Andersons said they don’t believe the circumstances of the case warrant the sentence that was received.

Zach and the victim met through an online dating website that requires users to be at least 17 years of age. The victim was using it, despite being 14 years old.

After meeting online, Anderson drove to Niles where he picked the girl up. They then had sex at a Niles playground. Police only found out about it because the girl’s family contacted police when they couldn’t find their daughter.

The victim’s mother asked Judge Wiley to show leniency on Zach during a hearing in April.

“I don’t want him to be a sex offender because he really is not,” she said, according to a court transcript. “I’m very sorry and I hope you’ll consider the fact of just dropping the case. I can’t say anything more than that, I hope you really will for all our families.”

However, Judge Wiley denied HYTA, saying that it was “totally inappropriate” for Zach to go online for the purpose of meeting women.

“There is no excuse for this whatsoever and I can’t think of — how anybody can engage in that type of situation, particularly with all of the sexually transmitted diseases out there, violent people out there…,” he said, according to a court transcript. “The fact of the matter is that you, you violated this young woman. And you are darn lucky the prosecutor gave you the deal that they did.”

Wiley went on to say that the charge of fourth degree CSC could be expunged after five years, meaning Zach could have petitioned the court at that time to remove his sex offender status.

However, Grabel said that is not true anymore because Michigan changed the law in January — just a few months before Zach’s sentencing.

“I can’t get into the judge’s mind, but I would think that he probably thought that was important,” he said. “If not, I don’t know why he would mention that. Unfortunately he was incorrect when he said it was expungeable.”

Zach’s father sad his son is scheduled to get out of jail today, but because of the probation requirements he won’t be able to live at their home.

Lester said they had to buy a house for their son.

He also said the probation requirements would not allow Zach to continue in college, where he was studying computer science.

Lester said the sentence has essentially ruined his son’s life.

That is why, he said, their family is fighting so hard to get it changed.

“I want my kid to be able to live a normal life,” Lester said.

A secretary in Judge Wiley’s office said it would be inappropriate for the judge to comment on the case at this time.