Posted 12:57 p.m. Updated 2:35 p.m.
A Highland County jury on Friday found a Hillsboro man guilty of two counts of first degree felony rape of a child under the age of 10, setting up a likely sentence of life in prison.
Vernon Ellison Jr., 45, was found guilty of the charges after jurors deliberated for a short time, and after they heard Ellison deny the allegations in testimony Friday morning. Jurors heard the victim, who is now an adult, testify tearfully on Thursday.
Before and during the trial, Ellison admitted having sexual encounters with the victim when she was 15 or 16. But he denied her allegations that he had engaged in sexual contact with her beginning when she was as young as 5.
Ellison’s defense attorney, James Boulger, asked Ellison about various places he had lived over the years and how often the victim was in his care. Ellison testified that during relationships or marriages there were often other children living in his homes while the victim was with him. He said at one trailer where they lived, the girl often slept on the floor of a bedroom with other children.
The defense painted a picture of a girl who grew up to become a troubled teenager and spent time being treated for emotional issues, and who was making allegations in order to retaliate against Ellison for being fired from a job she had with his company.
Until then, Ellison said through testimony, the girl had a loving relationship with him that included sending him handwritten letters and homemade cards expressing her appreciation for him.
Ellison admitted having sex with the girl when she was a teenager. He said there was “nothing when she was a child. I did admit to (having sex with her) later on. I never denied that.”
Last December, the girl texted him and the two met and had a conversation that was recorded. Ellison did not deny the girl’s accusations about molestation as a child and simply apologized, according to testimony regarding the recorded discussion.
Prosecutor Anneka Collins drove that point home when she cross-examined Ellison, saying, “You never said, ‘What are you talking about?’”
In closing arguments, Boulger told jurors that the prosecution had offered no physical or forensic evidence, and that the victim had changed her claim of her age when she said the abuse started. He said she had filled out hospital forms over the years stating she was not sexually active even after the age when she said the abuse had happened.
Boulger said it was a “massive ugly fact” that Ellison had sex with the girl when she was in her mid-teens. But he said Ellison wasn’t charged with that crime “for whatever reason,” and jurors had to look through the victim’s “veil of tears” on the stand Thursday and consider only the evidence and testimony related to the allegations that she had been molested as a little girl.
But Collins told jurors that Ellison had “decided to prey on (her) innocence,” and “laughed at her” when she reacted negatively to his first sexual encounter with her. She said the victim “finally found the strength” years later to confront Ellison about his deeds.
“The practice of attacking the credibility of the victims of rape is as old as the crime itself,” said Collins. “It flies in the face of common sense that (she) would put herself through this.” She said the letters and cards the victim gave to Ellison reflected the fact that she loved him despite the abuse, and asked, “What is the right way to act when you’re the victim of repeated rapes?”
She said that when he was confronted by the victim, Ellison’s response was, “This is how I showed you I loved you.”
As reported in Friday’s Times-Gazette, the victim testified at length Thursday, saying that Ellison had molested her beginning at age 5 and began having sexual intercourse with her when she was “11 or 12.” She testified that she did not come forward earlier because she was scared and ashamed, and did not realize until she was older that the abuse was not her fault.
After about an hour of deliberation, jurors returned with guilty verdicts on both counts of first-degree felony rape. As the guilty verdicts were read by Highland County Clerk of Courts Ike Hodson, Ellison showed no change in his demeanor. The victim, who was present in the courtroom, was visibly overwhelmed by emotion.
On each of the two counts, the jury further found that the victim was under the age of 10 when the offenses occurred, meaning that Ellison will receive no less than a life sentence.
Ellison, however, was not sentenced on Friday. According to Highland County Common Pleas Court Judge Rocky Coss, there is “an anomaly in sentencing” on the charges.
The judge said there are three different laws under which Ellison can be sentenced with three different sentences possible, including life without parole, life with parole, or life with the possibility of parole after a certain number of years.
Ellison will be sentenced later this month, giving the attorneys time to submit memoranda, and the court time to research the “complex issue,” Coss said.
Defense attorney Jim Boulger declined to comment on the case’s outcome other than to say it was “emotional” for all involved.
Collins thanked the jurors for their time and consideration of the case. “This was a tough case with hard evidence to listen to,” she said. The prosecutor further lauded Det. Jennifer Swackhamer with the Highland County Sheriff’s Office for her investigation and her testimony.
“I want to commend the victim,” Collins said. “She had the strength to come forward and tell her story. What a courageous woman.”
Just before the trial began, 15 felony counts against Ellison of pandering sexually-oriented material involving minors were dropped, although Collins said she plans to indict him again on those charges.
Reach Gary Abernathy or Angela Shepherd at 937-393-3456.