After hearing Robert Sells apologize to the Frett family and the St. John community, V.I. Superior Court Judge Brenda Hollar sentenced the St. John businessman to four months in jail on Tuesday afternoon, August 22.
Sells, who faced up to five years in prison after being convicted of aggravated assault and battery and racial intimidation in a bench trial in June, was sentenced to two years of incarceration with all but four months suspended. Sells was granted credit for 23 days which he served in jail after his bail was revoked on July 31.
The businessmans sentence included three years of supervised probation, during which time he must receive anger management counseling.
Hollar also ordered Sells to write guest editorials in local newspapers regarding racial discord on St. John and pay $75 in court fees.
Feuding Business Neighbors
Sells, a caucasian 51-year-old Michigan native, owns Close Reach Imports which was located at Meadas Plaza before the Cruz Bay building was torched in an apparent arson. He was found guilty of assaulting a neighboring business owner at the time, Esther Frett.
Frett, a 45-year-old native of Guyana, owns House of Dolls which had been located at Meadas Plaza until her lease was not renewed by the native property owner shortly before the building was set ablaze in September 2005.
After years of verbal confrontations between the two, Sells bumped into Frett on June 3, 2005, and he was arrested via citizens arrest. Sells originally faced two misdemeanor charges assault and battery and disturbance of the peace stemming from the June 2005 altercation.
Felony Charges Added
Two felony intimidation charges were added to the misdemeanors in October 2005, which accused Sells of committing the crimes because of Fretts race.
During the one and a half day trial, a number of witnesses testified that they heard Sells repeatedly call Frett racial slurs and derogatory names. Sells took the stand and admitted to mooning Frett and her daughter, but denied using racial epithets.
Hollar, who handed down her ruling on June 20, 2006, found Sells guilty of aggravated assault and battery and the accompanying racial intimidation for that charge, but not guilty of disturbance of the peace and the accompanying racial intimidation charge.
Bail was set at $25,000 which Sells posted after spending a night in jail. His bail was revoked on July 31, after Hollar heard testimony from the prosecution which alleged that Sells harassed Frett during the St. John Fourth of July Celebration.
Sells spent 23 days in the St. Thomas Correc-tional Facility before his sentencing hearing.
First, Id like to ask Esther and Jerry for forgiveness for my unthoughtful acts and disrespect, Sells read from a prepared statement during the trial. I am sorry for my lack of understanding and pray that you will be able to forgive me.
Sells painted a picture of himself as an over-worked businessman whose stress overwhelmed me in many situations and followed me out the door.
He accepted responsibility for his actions, which were way out of line, but denied being a racist.
I know from the bottom of my heart that my disrespect did not come from racial hatred, said Sells. I ask the community to forgive me and hope that St. John can come together to heal. Keep the title Love City flying high over St. John.
Fifteen St. John residents attended the hearing in support of Sells, five of whom took the stand and asked Hollar for leniency in her sentencing.
Testifying on Sells behalf were Winetta Stapleton, Deborah Williams, Gary Moses, Gail Geiger and Rosemund Dane, the mother of Sells two younger sons.
One-sided Sympathy Questioned
Esther Frett was not present at the hearing, but her husband Jerry took the stand and said that no one understands the pain he and his wife have experienced.
I hear this sympathy for Mr. Sells, but I havent heard anyone sit here and have respect for Esther or myself, Frett said. None of the supporters of Mr. Sells said they understand the pain that me and my wife went through.
Esther is afraid and has trouble sleeping as a result of the trouble with Sells, Frett explained.
Even me, I have to choose the words I speak to her, he said. She doesnt trust people anymore.
Anonymous Friends of Bob No Help
After Sells conviction, a group of St. John residents launched a Friends of Bob campaign call ing for his acquittal and asking people to write letters in his support. Although a Web site was established, there were no names attached to the group, organizers of which remained anonymous throughout the campaign.
Hollar pointedly dismissed the volume of anonymous letters written to the court on Sells behalf.
I am supposed to listen to people who dont even sign their names, the V.I. Superior Court Judge questioned. Everyone is anonymous no one wants to come forward. Those people werent sitting here those two days to hear the evidence in this case.
They call themselves concerned citizens, Hollar said. I dont want to hear about those people.
The racial animosity raised in this case was quite disturbing, Hollar explained before reading Sells sentence.
The events leading up to this sentencing no doubt started a firestorm of racial unrest, this from the normally tranquil island of St. John, known ironically as Love City, the judge said. Sweeping things under the table in the name of racial harmony is not how you heal.
Racial animosity can not exist in the Virgin Islands, she continued. I can not trivialize this case the way many think this court should.
Sells apology to the Fretts was a major factor in Hollars sentence decision. Mr. Sells went a long way in extending his apology, the V.I. Superior Court judge said. Denial is a bigger problem. He apologized for his actions and this goes a long way.
After the sentence was announced, Assistant Attorney General Brenda Scales, who prosecuted the case, expressed disappointment.
I have no comment, she said. I do have strong feelings, but I dont want to add to the divisions which already exist.
Sells defense attorney, Treston Moore, said he was satisfied with the sentence, but not with the conviction.
I am very disappointed with the conviction, but I respect Judge Brenda Hollar, he said. The sentence imposed reflects that she carefully considered the evidence and the sentence appeared to be balanced and well-reasoned.
The defense will appeal the conviction, on grounds of constitutional rights and whether the elements of the offense were supported by the facts of the case, Moore said.
Sells was remanded to the St. Thomas Correctional Facility.