WEST JORDAN — A former Utah corrections officer convicted of forcible sex abuse more than a decade ago before going into hiding to avoid sentencing was sent to prison on Monday.
Even though William Lawrence, 41, has not committed any new crimes while on the run and the sentencing guidelines called for jail time, 3rd District Judge Heather Brereton said the fact he ran and hid using a false identity for a decade was troubling. And it victimized the real victim in the case a second time, she said.
Because of that, Brereton sentenced Lawrence to up to five years at the Utah State Prison rather than giving him another year at the Salt Lake County Jail.
Lawrence pleaded guilty to forcible sex abuse, a third-degree felony, on Dec. 6, 2007. He had been with the Utah Department of Corrections for a short time when he handcuffed a woman in his apartment near 9300 S. Redwood Road and demanded sex acts.
In exchange for his guilty plea, a charge of forcible sodomy was dismissed.
But when it came time for sentencing on April 7, 2008, Lawrence didn’t show up for court and a warrant was issued for his arrest.
It wasn’t until last November, after nearly 10 years on the run while living under a fake identity, Lawrence was arrested by U.S. marshals at a McDonald’s restaurant in Hawaii. The break in the case came when the home of Lawrence’s girlfriend was burglarized, and while searching the home for fingerprints, investigators ran a pair of Lawrence’s prints and discovered his true identity.
Lawrence ran off with his girlfriend and her young daughter to Kauai after being convicted in Utah so they could raise the girl together. The girl is now almost 13 and Lawrence has full custody of her.
In court on Monday, Lawrence was apologetic to both his victim for his actions, and to the court for running away.
“I’ve regretted my actions every day for nearly 12 years,” he said, while expressing his desire to someday apologize in person to the woman he assaulted. “I feel terrible for how I hurt her and how the situation went way too far.”
But he knew, “Once I made the move, I couldn’t undo what I’d done.”
Still, as Lawrence stood before the judge, he acknowledged, “I knew this day would come.”
Lawrence said it has been “truly heart-wrenching” knowing he hurt another person. He said watching his own stepdaughter grow up has changed him and how he interacts with women.
Lawrence explained to the court that his first attorney — who has since had his license to practice suspended by the Utah Bar — gave him bad information.
“I believed I would be sent to prison for five years with little to zero chance of survival,” he said.
Lawrence’s current attorney even drafted a motion for him to withdraw his guilty plea after he was returned to Utah because of problems with the orignal plea deal.
But Lawrence said he didn’t want to do that. He said he wanted to accept responsibility for what he had done and help his victim find closure.
Before being sentenced, Adam Elmore, Lawrence’s attorney, pointed out to the court that since fleeing from Utah, Lawrence has had no other arrests, has opened his own business in Kauai and participates with nonprofit groups. He urged the judge to make his client pay his dues by sentencing him to one more year in jail followed by automatically being placed on the sex offender registry for 10 years.
“He’s low risk because he’s not a risk. And I think his actions over the past 10 years shows that,” Elmore said. “This is a person who did not violate the law, not once.”
“I’m not a bad person,” Lawrence said. “I’m eager to be part of the community again.”
But the woman who was assaulted by Lawrence pleaded with the court in tears to not give him any special treatment.
While Lawrence has been able to avoid incarceration for a decade, “I’ve been in prison since this happened,” she told the court.
The woman, whom the Deseret News has opted not to name, said Lawrence threatened her young son when the assault happened years ago. Ever since then, she has been afraid to even drive through the area where the attack happened for fear Lawrence would find her.
“Now he’s crying because he wants to be put in protective custody,” the woman said in disbelief and disgust. “It’s not OK.”
For the past 10 years, she said she has had to worry about where Lawrence was, and whether he would come after her again.
“I don’t think he’s sorry. I don’t think he cares. I think he’s sorry he got caught. I think he’s sorry he’s back here,” she said.
Lawrence looked away as the woman tearfully asked the judge to sentence him to prison.
Ultimately, Brereton sided with the state, telling Lawrence that his fleeing was very telling, and resulted in “double victimization.”
“Obviously we’re disappointed. We felt like this was a difficult case. He’s clearly done really well over the past 10 years. And he obviously broke the law and there’s consequnces for that,” Elmore said after the sentencing.
Prosecutors declined comment after the hearing. The woman who was assaulted by Lawrence left the courthouse through an alternate door to avoid reporters waiting outside the courtroom.