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Teen facing sexual assault charge in custody after dad leaves him in court

By Karen Florin

Publication: The Day

Published April 08. 2013 4:00AM   Updated April 08. 2013 11:29AM

In early February, the father of a 15-year-old being tried as an adult on charges of sexually assaulting a 5-year-old boy escorted the teen into the New London courtroom where the case was being heard and asked the judge to take the teen into custody.

Air Force Capt. Jason L. Straw, a critical care flight nurse from Fairborn, Ohio, said he would be deployed for a year and would be unavailable to care for his son, Zachary.

"I have talked to my command and we have decided that I am going to request the court take custody of my son while I am deployed," Straw told Judge Susan B. Handy.

The judge told the father she had no authority to do that and that going to prison was "clearly not in your son's best interest."

"I am certainly not going to incarcerate him because you are being deployed," Handy said, according to a court transcript.

Straw departed the courthouse during the next recess, leaving his son behind.

The case provides a rare glimpse into how the court and mental health systems deal with juveniles accused of sex crimes and the frustration felt by parents who are trying to get them treatment.

While The Day does not usually identify juveniles accused of a crime, an exception is made when they are tried as adults.

In phone interviews and emails in recent weeks, Jason Straw said that he has not given up on his son, for whom he has been fighting all his life. He said he left Zachary at court that day because he felt he had run out of options.

After Jason Straw left the courthouse, Judge Handy addressed the boy.

"The only thing I can say to you, Zachary, is I apologize for your father's behavior," Handy said. "I have been on the bench 20 years, and I have never seen a parent abandon a child as I did, and certainly not in a public forum. He should be totally and completely ashamed of himself."

Zachary's attorney, Peter D. Catania, called the state Department of Children and Families, which obtained an Order of Tempory Custody. Zachary was taken to a shelter in Stratford and eventually transferred to the Boys & Girls Village in Milford, a home for children with psychiatric and behavioral problems that has recently opened 12 beds for adolescents with problem sexual behaviors.

In phone interviews and emails from Ohio, Jason Straw told of years of struggles with his troubled son and said it had been his intention all along to get Zachary into inpatient treatment.

Straw said he hopes Zachary, who turned 16 in February, can get the help he needs, attend college and fulfill his dream of becoming a veterinarian.

In 2011, Zachary moved to Ohio to live with his father and stepmother while police in southeastern Connecticut were investigating the allegations of sexual assault. He exhibited jumpiness and other signs of post traumatic stress disorder "like the guys I'd worked with downrange who had been blown up by IEDs," his father said. He said his son would flinch when somebody said his name and that he isolated himself in his room.

Finally, he started talking, the father said.

"He told us, he said, 'I'm a bad kid,'" Straw recalled. "I said, 'You're not a bad kid. You've done bad things. Everybody does bad things. But you make up for it. You just bounce back. Like it says in the Bible, we've all sinned, fallen short. That's OK. It's what you do with that that sets you apart.'"

Zachary was 14 years old and living in Navy housing in Groton with his mother and stepfather, Beckie and William "Tim" Coker, in the spring of 2011 when he was accused of sexually assaulting the 5-year-old son of family friends.

Most juvenile crimes are prosecuted confidentially so that young offenders can get help and avoid a criminal record. But under state law, due to the serious nature of the allegations, Zachary's case was transferred automatically to the adult docket.

He was charged with two counts of first-degree sexual assault and two counts of risk of injury to a minor, which are class A and B felonies that could land him in prison for decades if he is convicted.

Under a custody agreement on file in an Indiana Superior Court, Zachary's mother had primary custody during the school year from December 2006 to June 2011. His father took him for a month during the summers. In June 2011, the father got primary custody for one year, and then Zachary was to determine who he wanted to live with.

As a condition of Zachary's release while his case was pending, he could not have contact with children under the age of 16, which meant he couldn't live with his father and stepmother or with his biological mother in Groton because young children were living in both households. That condition was not enforceable while Zachary was living with his father in Ohio, however.

Connecticut's Department of Children and Families has custody of Zachary now.

Plea deal on table

Jason Straw brought Zachary back to Connecticut when he was arrested on Nov. 16, 2011. Released on a written promise to appear in court, Zachary returned to Ohio, where he attended school and took part in group therapy for juvenile sex offenders. He was excused from several pretrial court dates in New London while his case was pending.

New London prosecutor Theresa Anne Ferryman eventually offered a plea deal in which Zachary would receive a fully suspended prison sentence and five years of probation in exchange for a guilty plea and felony conviction. Zachary would be required to register as a sex offender.

The victim's family told court officials they were willing to have the child testify because they feel that Zachary is a danger to other children and they want him to be registered as a sexual offender.

Zachary's father and other relatives, including his uncle, Andrew Straw, who is an attorney in Indiana, wanted to reject the plea offer and take the case to trial.

The Straw family also wanted the case returned to the juvenile docket, but were told by their attorney, Catania, that would not be happening. The state has the option of returning a case to juvenile court but often does not in serious cases.

"If it can't be in juvenile court, have the trial and have it over with," Andrew Straw, the attorney, said in a recent phone interview. "There's no way my brother (Jason) is ever going to agree to a plea agreement."

Jason Straw said his son is willing to stand trial.

"Zach wanted a trial," Jason Straw said. "The way Pete Catania had explained it was, you're going to get a B felony and sex offender registry. That would mean he couldn't become a veterinarian and his life would be ruined."

Zachary's mother, Beckie Coker, did not respond to requests for an interview. Nobody answered the door at the Coker home in Navy housing one afternoon last week.

But on Feb. 10, four days after Straw left his son in Connecticut, Beckie Coker sent Straw an email where she denounced his "decision to give up custodial/parental rights and leave our son without clothes, medication or even a good-bye ...," according to a copy of the email provided The Day by Straw.

Straw has been in touch with the DCF workers who are handling his son's case and has recently learned his son's whereabouts. He said he had sent Zachary a card and would be mailing the teen some of his belongings.

Ferryman, the New London prosecutor, said sexual assault cases involving juveniles often are resolved with a suspended prison sentence and placement at an out-of-state facility for children with problem sexual behaviors, such as the Stetson School in Barre, Mass.

But Zachary was living in Ohio, and in Connecticut, DCF Commissioner Joette Katz had restricted the number of children placed in out-of-state care. Until October 2012, there was no in-state option for children needing treatment for problem sexual behavior.

In October, with funding from DCF, the Boys & Girls Village, a Milford facility for children with behavioral problems, opened a 12-bed unit for boys with problem sexual behavior. All of the beds are full, a school official said. Most of the children are in their early to mid-teens and are able to attend an on-site day school. Older children, like Zachary, usually are sent to classes off campus, to clinical educational settings or to public schools.

Dr. Steven M. Kant, president and chief executive of Boys & Girls Village, said the facility has been treating children with problem sexual behaviors for years on an outpatient basis. With the new program, he said the length of stay for boys with problem sexual behavior is expected to be nine months to a year. He said the staff uses a number of different treatment approaches, including cognitive behavioral treatment and, because most of the youth have been abused themselves, trauma-based therapy.

The program would not accept registered sex offenders, Kant said, because they would not be able to be around the other children.

New London court officials have continued Zachary's case to May 6, when they expect to have more information about his recommended plan of treatment. Eventually, the case will be resolved, either with a guilty plea or a trial.

Zachary's father, it turned out, never left for his deployment and continues to work in the hospital at the Wright-Patterson Airforce Base near Dayton, Ohio. Straw said his commander decided, with all the pending legal issues, to "pull" him from the deployment.

Even though he is not deployed, Straw has not attempted to regain custody of Zachary because he thinks Zachary belongs in an inpatient setting. He said that is what he wanted all along for his son.

k.florin@theday.com

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