Vandalia man found guilty of repeatedly abusing minor

Published 8:00 am Thursday, March 31, 2016

A Cass County jury declared a Vandalia man guilty as charged Tuesday for molesting of a young girl over a seven-year period at a rural farm, according to a release from the Cass County Prosecutor’s Office.

Leon Watson

Leon Watson

Leon Watson, 67, was found guilty of two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of third-degree criminal sexual and two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. The two first-degree criminal sexual charges carry a mandatory 25-year minimum prison sentence, with a maximum limit of life in prison.

The verdict came at the conclusion of a nearly weeklong trial at the Cass County Law and Courts Building in Cassopolis, which began on Tuesday, March 22. Following two days of testimony and presentation of evidence, the 12-member jury began deliberations Thursday, adjuring for Easter weekend before resuming on Monday.

Representing the people during the trial was Assistant Prosecutor Kirk Metzger, who called several witnesses to the stand to testify about the series of sexual assaults, which occurred from 2007 to 2015.

On the stand, the victim, who is now 15 years old, described being sexually assaulted repeatedly at the defendant’s farm in Vandalia. She said the abuse would occur whenever Watson would pick her up from her home to perform chores around the farm, with the defendant assaulting her inside the home or in a distant pole barn.

The first episode occurred in 2007, when she was 7 years old, after she and her family moved from Arkansas to live with Watson. She added that the sexual abuse continued on several occasions when she was between the ages of 12 and 14.

The victim indicated that she was frightened of Watson and was told by him that no one would believe her if she disclosed the crimes.

Approximately two weeks after the final assault, however, she revealed the abuse to her friends, a school counselor and, when questioned, to Cass County Sheriff’s Department deputies.

A sexual assault nurse testified that her examination of the then 14-year-old victim supported her claims of abuse.

Watson also took the stand during the trial, where he denied any wrongdoing.

In his closing remarks, Prosecutor Metzger emphasized that Watson’s actions were predatory and secretive in nature, hidden from the rest of the world. Metzger also argued that Watson was banking on his threat that no one would believe the victim if she told about the sexual assaults.

The jury returned their guilty verdict at around 10:50 a.m. Tuesday.

“This verdict brings true comfort to a brave young girl,” said Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz about the verdict. “She suffered through the loss of her childhood, through worry, panic attacks and the continuing fear of the next episode.  The jury has given her back her future.”

Fitz also noted that the 15 year old wished to thank the deputies and jury for “making her feel safe again.”

Watson is scheduled for sentencing on May 13 in front of the Circuit Court Judge Michael Dodge, where he is expected to receive a statutorily mandated 25-year prison sentence.