An Arlington County jury recommended a 22-year sentence for Falls Church Democratic activist Michael Gardner after convicting him of three child molestation charges.
Gardner was convicted of two counts of aggravated sexual battery and one count of object penetration for molesting two of his daughter's friends when the girls attended a birthday slumber party last June at the Gardners’ home. Gardner's wife, Robin, is a Falls Church city councilwoman and the former mayor there.
The jury deadlocked on a fourth charge.
"I'm just glad it's over. We're exhausted," said the father of one victim. "There's really no victory. This is just a bad business that had to be done, and we're thankful for the jury's decision and how things turned out."
The parents and prosecutor Nicole Wittmann said they are satisfied with the recommended sentence.
"We're very happy for the victims and their families," said Wittmann. "We're very proud of them (the girls) and we think this is a great moment for victims of sexual assault and especially for children who have had the courage to come forward as these children did."
The almost year-long case divided families that had once been close and shattered relationships between a group of 9- and 10-year-old girls. Two of the victims considered Gardner's daughter their best friend.
With graphic detail, the now 10- and 11-year-olds testified that Gardner came into the basement full of sleeping girls several times around 4 a.m.
One girl said she was awakened when Gardner unzipped her sleeping bag and began touching her "girl parts." She said he then walked toward the other girl, only to later return and molest her again.
Perhaps the most powerful piece of prosecution evidence was the fact that DNA with a high probability of being Gardner's was found on that child's underwear.
The second victim said Gardner knelt down next to her mattress several times and touched her vaginal area. She said at first she pretended to be asleep.
"I didn't know what to do," she testified. "I was nervous and scared."
But she says the last time, when Gardner lifted her pajama waistband, she let him know she was awake. She said he asked if she was okay, then left.
The next morning, as the two girls were hiding together during a game of hide and seek, one asked the other, "Do you feel anything on your girl parts?" The other girl replied, "Yes, yes it was Mr. Gardner."
Both girls told their parents shortly after they were picked up from the slumber party. Falls Church police were called soon after, and the investigation began.
Gardner had maintained his innocence since the beginning and took the stand earlier this week to deny improperly touching any of the girls.
Today, immediately after the guilty verdicts were read, Gardner was taken into custody. Extra deputies were dispatched to the courtroom in case there were any outbursts or violent reactions, but Gardner showed no emotion as he learned his fate. His wife and several relatives burst into tears, and the courtroom was cleared of spectators as his wife continued to sob.
Later, when she testified during the sentencing hearing, several jurors also wept as she talked about the difficult talk ahead: Telling her twin 10-year-olds their father is headed to prison.
Judge Benjamin Kendrick will give Gardner his final sentence Sept. 7. He can't increase the jury's recommendation but he can reduce the sentence. If he follows the jury's recommendation, Gardner would be nearly 70 when he’s released.
"All I wanted was an end to the violence and safety for us and our children, for others and so we have that until the man is about 70 years old,” said one victim's mother. The child's father added, "We really wanted our kids to be able to grow up without any fear of him getting out and worrying about that, and the sentence does that."
Prosecutor Wittmann called the girls "heroes" and said, "We'll ask the judge to impose the sentence of the community. We think it’s a good one and a fair one and we'll ask him to impose this sentence."
At the Sept. 7 sentencing hearing, prosecutors intend to set a date to retry the remaining aggravated sexual battery charge that resulted in a deadlock. The charge stemmed from the allegation of a then 9-year-old who says Gardner molested her during a sleepover with his daughter a day before the birthday party.
The father of that child told News4, "It's three of the bravest young citizens in Falls Church but really in the capital area, and they are going to continue to be amazing, brave young citizens because of this verdict today."