McCONNELSVILLE -Sobs broke out on both sides of the courtroom Thursday evening as a Morgan County jury returned guilty verdicts on 21 of the 22 charges against former Stockport mayor Michael “Shane” Shuster.
Shuster, 39, of 1800 South St., Stockport, showed little emotion as the jury foreman read through the list and stooped to scribble down notes as the verdicts were read aloud-guilty on eight counts of gross sexual imposition, seven counts of sexual battery and six out of seven counts of rape.
Shuster, who was elected as Stockport mayor in November 2011, was arrested just two months after taking office, after a female relative told friends at school that Shuster had been engaging in sexual relations with her. The allegations stemmed back to 2006, when the victim would have been 10 years old.
Shuster has been incarcerated since his March 7, 2012 arrest, said his defense counsel, Athens-based attorney Rick Hedges.
Hedges argued throughout the trial that Shuster is a good man. But he was also an authority figure to the victim-a strict disciplinarian, whose rules were a source of contention for the victim.
“She admitted she didn’t like his rules. She was mad at him. She went to school and she made some unfounded accusations,” said Hedges during closing arguments Thursday.
Her motive, argued Hedges, was “16-year-old freedom” from the authoritative role Shuster played in her life.
Hedges also pointed to the lack of physical evidence on the case. One witness, a nurse practitioner from Children’s Hospital in Columbus who examined the victim after the allegations came to light, testified that there was no physical evidence of rape. However, she also testified that a lack of physical evidence is not uncommon in cases of sexual abuse.
The first count, one of gross sexual imposition took place sometime between October and December of 2006. The final allegation, which carried charges of gross sexual imposition, sexual battery, and rape, took place sometime between Dec. 26, 2011 and Jan. 23, 2012, when Shuster would have begun serving as mayor.
Attorney Marianne Hemmeter, a prosecutor with the state Attorney General’s office, said during interviews with deputies from the Morgan County Sheriff’s Office Shuster never denied the abuse.
“You can read through these transcripts. He doesn’t make one denial,” she said.
Rather, Hemmeter and Morgan County Prosecutor Mark Howdyshell painted Shuster as someone who manipulated the victim into silent submission and continued to try to manipulate deputies and his wife after the charges were made.
Several letters Shuster wrote to his wife while incarcerated were submitted into evidence. The correspondence included love letters, proving Shuster had never harbored feelings or attraction for anyone else, let alone the victim, said Hedges.
The prosecution countered that they were filled with sly attempts at manipulating his wife into providing bail money or talking the victim out of her allegations.
“Are you trying to spare all this?” read Hemmeter from one letter Shuster wrote to his wife, going on to ask what she was doing in order to stop the case and any discomfort it was causing the family.
“Let’s say something happens to me,” it read. “You really want (the victim) to have to live with that?”
In another, he wrote that he had planned to buy her pearls for their next anniversary.
However, Shuster’s wife filed for divorce in June.
Shuster was indicted in March 2012 on 30 charges-10 each for rape, sexual battery and gross sexual imposition-but eight of those charges were thrown out by the court for insufficient evidence, said Noble County Common Pleas Court Judge John Nau.
Nau took over the case for Morgan County Common Pleas Court Judge Dan Favreau who recused himself in October.
The four woman, eight man jury returned the verdict Thursday after four days of trial and after five hours of deliberation. The final not guilty verdict was in relation to the last rape allegation, the one which was said to have taken place while Shuster was mayor.
Hedges said he and Shuster have not discussed plans for an appeal.
The 21 guilty verdicts mean Shuster could face life in prison. A sentencing date has not yet been determined.