A Prosser man will spend at least 20 years in prison for sexually abusing two Kiona-Benton City High School girls he befriended on Facebook, then giving them marijuana.
Jonathan E. Kuhlman, 42, pleaded for leniency Tuesday for the sake of his parents, his wife and his kids, including a 19-month-old daughter. He insisted he's innocent and said the truth didn't come out at trial.
Judge Carrie Runge explained that Washington judges have no discretion with standard sentencing ranges. Kuhlman could potentially die behind bars because the maximum term is life.
"I recognize this is a clearly very emotional time for everyone who is before the court, and Mr. Kuhlman for you, because ultimately you are the one being sentenced," Runge said. "I recognize though that the actions that brought you before the court have impacted so many others, including your own family."
A Benton County Superior Court jury in May took a little more than two hours to find Kuhlman befriended the girls through social media and text messages.
He was convicted of second-degree rape, communicating with a minor for immoral purposes and two counts of distributing marijuana to a person younger than 18. All of the charges are felonies.
The drug charges included allegations of sexual motivation, with each adding a one-year, six-month mandatory term to his final sentence. The rape is classified as a violent sex offense.
One of the jurors was so moved by the case and the evidence presented at trial that he attended Tuesday's hearing, said Deputy Prosecutor Anita Petra.
"The theme I had throughout this whole trial was a sexual predator," Petra said. "You look here at (Kuhlman) and he used himself and drugs to get to these kids, to get what he wanted from them. And when they wouldn't give it to him, he would use force to get it from them."
"It was very predatory. He would seek out children in the community, by Internet or by car," Petra added. "When it was headed toward trial I charged very aggressively, and I am satisfied with the sentence of 246 months ... It's going to hold him accountable for what he did to these girls."
Kuhlman was arrested in July 2013 after Benton County sheriff's deputies received a report that he had approached a teen girl who was walking home from school in Benton City.
Kuhlman started talking with her, then offered her a ride home. When he dropped the teen off at home he programmed his phone number on her phone and told her to give him a call.
The next day, they communicated via posts of a sexual nature on Facebook and text messages while the girl was at summer school, according to court records.
She agreed Kuhlman could pick her up from school, and he drove them to a secluded spot where he tried to sexually assault her, records show. A concerned friend of the teen sent a text to Kuhlman warning him to return her friend to school or she would call the police. He dropped off the girl a short time later.
While investigating that incident, a younger teen girl came forward and said she had a similar encounter with Kuhlman earlier in the year.
That Ki-Be student told authorities that Kuhlman began communicating with her through Facebook because they had mutual friends, and she agreed to meet him at a bus stop early in the morning to hang out.
Kuhlman drove the girl to an orchard, gave her marijuana and raped her, court records said. She screamed, pushed him away and ran, and Kuhlman warned the teen not to tell anyone.
Petra said when the first girl was on the witness stand, she tearfully admitted that Kuhlman did sexually assault her but she couldn't tell anyone before that.
That teen did not attend Tuesday's hearing, but her mother addressed the court, saying children should be enjoying life and not worrying about predators like Kuhlman.
"As a parent, we try our best to protect our children. It breaks my heart to watch my daughter go through this. She wants to ignore it and she can't," said the mother, who is not named because her daughter was the victim of a sex crime. "You took something from her and she can never get it back. You have problems and need help."
The other girl was in court surrounded by her mother, father and stepmother.
She cried as Petra recounted the details of the teen's rape.
Her family had Petra read a short statement saying Kuhlman is a "disturbed and disgusting man who has ruined many lives. What you have done will not be forgiven nor forgotten."
Defense attorney Ryan Swinburnson asked for the bottom sentence of 17 1/2 years without the additional three years for the marijuana distribution being sexually motivated.
"We have a gentleman here who has engaged in behavior that is undeniably filthy. There's certain parts of this that Mr. Kuhlman can't explain, and there's certain parts of it that he can't testify to," he said.
Swinburnson believes the prosecution's recommended sentence is punishment for the defense decision to go to trial, and the jury wanted to put away "the bad guy," he said.
The 20 1/2-year sentence is a lot "for somebody who has done very little jail time in his life," and isn't justified when you see murderers getting less time in Benton County, he said.
Kuhlman's felony history is four counts of aggravated burglary and one burglary count from 1992 in Tennessee. He can appeal the new convictions because they were jury verdicts.
Kuhlman addressed the judge for seven minutes, saying he could be negative and poke holes but that is his attorney's job.
"I'll say it only two times. I did not give them weed and I didn't rape her. I did not do that," Kuhlman said, adding that he was looking the judge in the eye while making the statement. He questioned why the parents' statements were read, but the girls did not get up in court.
Kuhlman said Lady Justice's blindfold was not on during his trial because the jury "listened to an emotional response and everything else went away."
"I don't pray to get out of jail, I pray for the truth to come out. (The prosecutors) are not looking for the truth, they're looking for a hash mark on the win column," he said.
Kuhlman then turned to his tearful wife and parents and said, "All I can do is ask for leniency, ma'am. Not for me, for them."
-- Kristin M. Kraemer: 509-582-1531; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @KristinMKraemer