A Champaign, Ill., 18-year-old who admitted to having sex with a 13-year-old girl from Seymour has been sentenced to four years of probation and 489 days in the county jail.
“I’m sorry about everything that happened. I didn’t know what was going on. I just want to apologize for everything,” Roberto Nicholas-Simone told Champaign County Judge Randy Rosenbaum on Thursday.
Nicholas-Simone pleaded guilty in April to a single count of aggravated criminal sexual abuse, admitting that between March 3 and 6, 2020, he had sex with a girl he thought was 17.
Other charges alleging he kidnapped her, forced her to have sex and held her against her will in a Champaign home were dismissed as part of a negotiated plea agreement worked out by Assistant State’s Attorney Kristin Alferink and Assistant Public Defender Andrea Bergstrom.
In a hearing that lasted more than two hours, Alferink tried to prove those dismissed charges in hopes of getting Nicholas-Simone a heftier sentence, while Bergstrom did her utmost to cast doubt on what the victim told police.
Ultimately, because of what he described as “two diametrically opposed versions” of what happened, Rosenbaum settled on the sentence of probation for Nicholas-Simone, who came to the United States illegally from Guatemala to work, has no formal education, speaks no English, has no criminal history and has been locked up for more than a year.
The charges were initiated in March 2020 after the girl from Seymour contacted her mother via Facebook to say she was being held in a home — she wasn’t sure exactly where — by Nicholas-Simone, who had repeatedly had sex with her over several days.
Federal authorities became involved and by pinging the cellphone she used found her at a Church Street home March 6.
Seeing police outside, she ran outside screaming to the officers.
University of Illinois police Detective Tyrel Ledbetter said the teen told police she had met Nicholas-Simone through Facebook and got a ride to Champaign from a man who reportedly sold her to Nicholas-Simone for $600 and a 12-pack of beer.
She had had prior contacts with the driver, it was revealed.
She reported she had been held in an attic, forced to have sex, threatened with a knife and had her phone taken from her.
She was able to contact her mother, she said, when someone in the house gave her a phone to play games on that had an internet connection.
On cross-examination, Ledbetter said police were never able to confirm the identity of the man who dropped her off.
He said he did not interview Nicholas-Simone because a translator for his Mayan language, Q’anjob’al, could not be immediately located.
Ledbetter testified the FBI noted in its reports that the U.S. attorney’s office declined to pursue prosecution after learning the girl had a history of running away from home and lying to police.
Authorities also learned the girl had contacted other older adult men online.
Public defender investigator Steve Guess testified he learned the girl was able to communicate with Nicholas-Simone in Spanish.
He interviewed Nicholas-Simone’s brother, who said the girl was free to come and go from the home and his brother had given the man who dropped her off a 12-pack of beer.
He said he doubted his brother paid the man $600 because Nicholas-Simone had been working only a few days and had very little money. The brother did not know that man.
Speaking through a Q’anjob’al translator, Nicholas-Simone said he met the girl on Facebook and she told him she was 17.
He said she asked for his address, which he provided, but never invited her to Champaign or asked anyone to bring her.
“I don’t know who the person was who brought her. I gave him nothing. He asked for a 12-pack of beer. He didn’t tell me what for,” he said, adding he was surprised when the girl showed up.
Nicholas-Simone admitted he had sex with her, saying he hoped it would lead to a serious relationship and possibly marriage and reiterating he thought she was 17.
He denied ever kidnapping her, threatening her or stopping her from leaving the home. Further, he said she willingly participated in sex.
Alferink argued for a four-year prison sentence.
“The victim has issues. She repeatedly ran away from home. That makes her the perfect victim,” the prosecutor argued, saying Nicholas-Simone repeatedly brought up that he thought she was 17 because “he’s trying to cover for the fact he knew how old she really was.”
Bergstrom countered that her client was naive and the girl lied about what happened with Nicholas-Simone to avoid going back to detention in Indiana.
She further argued a veteran sex offender evaluator found Nicholas-Simone to be a low to moderate risk to reoffend.
“He came here to escape Guatemala, to work to make money to send to his family,” Bergstrom said, adding that if he were imprisoned, he would undoubtedly be deported.
“It’s days like today I wonder why I wanted this job,” Rosenbaum said. “This is not an easy case or an easy decision because I’m being told two diametrically opposed versions of what happened.”
Rosenbaum said he was forced to rely on the hearsay testimony of people who talked to witnesses and therefore was unable to judge their credibility.
“It is true the victim is the perfect target of someone in human trafficking,” he said, adding he had only her statement she was abducted.
“It’s not about witness bashing. The court has a hard time using the evidence in aggravation or mitigation. It almost appears to be a wash,” he said.
“It’s a terribly complicated case, but we have to take out the emotions and look at this case objectively,” he said, adding that in his 25 years of legal experience, he has seen plenty of cases where a teen defendant charged with a sex offense with no criminal history received probation. “It shouldn’t be different for this defendant.”
Nicholas-Simone will have to register as a sex offender.