Cass County man given 25 years for sexual assault

Published 9:51 am Monday, May 16, 2016

The victim of more than seven years worth of sexual abuse by a Vandalia man didn’t mince words with her feelings about her attacker in a statement read aloud in the courtroom Friday morning.

Leon Watson

Leon Watson

As recited by her grandmother, the victim asked her assailant, 68-year-old Leon Watson, why he chose to abuse her, someone who once looked up to him.

“You are a devil,” she wrote. “You are in jail. That’s where you belong, in jail. I’m free from you.”

While the victim may be free from Watson, his own freedom is now over, as he was turned over to the custody of the Michigan Department of Corrections for his actions.

Cass County Circuit Court Judge Michael Dodge sentenced Watson to a minimum term of 25 years to a maximum of 45 years in prison Friday, on two counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct and two counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct. Watson was found guilty on the five charges by a jury’s verdict at the conclusion of his trial March 29.

According to her testimony during the trial, Watson began abusing the victim, who is now 15, when she and her family were temporarily staying with the Vandalia man in 2007, when she was 7. The abuse continued several more times when she was between the ages of 12 and 14, when she would visit his farm to perform chores, with the acts occurring inside the home or in a distant pole barn.

“[She] clearly was a vulnerable victim, based both on her age when this first started and some developmental disabilities we heard about during her trial,” Dodge said during Friday’s sentencing hearing. “You took advantage of this situation and her, and those weaknesses she had.”

Cass County Prosecutor Victor Fitz told the court that for those seven years, Watson “visited an evil” upon the victim and her family through his abuse. As a result of his actions, the teenager now suffers from anxiety, requiring medication and psychiatric care, and believes that “she can’t go to heaven now,” Fitz said.

“She says she just wants to be like everyone else,” he said. “She wants to be an innocent child. She cannot escape what has happened to her.”

Fitz asked Dodge to impose the state’s recommendation for 25 years prison, even though he believed that, given the defendant’s age, the man would likely die before his release, Fitz said.

Watson’s attorney, John Beason, maintained that his client was innocent of the charges he was convicted of, with the only evidence presented at trial pointing to Watson’s guilt being the testimony of the victim, Beason said. The attorney added that the victim’s testimony didn’t make sense, and that rape shield laws prevented him from presenting evidence that would have supported Watson’s case.

Echoing the prosecutor’s statement, Beason said that a 25-year stint in a penitentiary would be a “death sentence” for his client.

“His wife is present, and she’s going to be without a husband,” Beason said, pointing to the courtroom gallery. “His family is present, and they’re going to be without a brother.”

Watson also spoke to the court during the hearing, telling the judge he didn’t abuse the victim, and also arguing the jury didn’t have enough evidence to rightfully convict him.

Dodge rebuffed these claims, saying that often in these types of criminal sexual conduct cases there are no eyewitnesses nor is there an abundance of physical evidence due to the time gap between when the abuse occurred and was reported. Instead, the jury is tasked with determining the creditability of the victim’s account.

“The bottom line is, the jury found her [the victim] to be believable,” Dodge said. “I agree with the jury’s verdict. Having heard all of her testimony, she was very creditable and believable. Obviously the jury came to that conclusion as well.”

Watson was given credit for 49 days already served behind bars.

Also sentenced Friday:

• Dennis Michael Corey, 60, of Dowagiac, to 90 days in jail and 18 months of probation for delivery/manufacture of cocaine, possession of a firearm by a felon and possession of marijuana.

• Tara Beth Callahan, 25, of Dowagiac, to two years of probation for methamphetamine-related charges, breaking and entering a building with intent and possession of marijuana.

• Theodore William White, 34, of Dowagiac, to 180 days in jail for possession of a firearm by a felon.

• Carol Lynn Reigler, 50, of Middleville, Michigan, to 365 days in jail for possession of methamphetamine.