VAN WERT — Even as he prepared to head to state prison, Erik Lehmkuhle asserted his innocence.
Lehmkuhle’s assertion came Wednesday morning as he stood, dressed in an orange county jail jumpsuit, in Van Wert County Common Pleas Court, his hands shackled at his waist.
“My life started spiralling out of control after my divorce. I should have identified the signs and acted appropriately,” said Lehmkuhle, 31, of Van Wert. “The Alford plea allows me to maintain my innocence, which is the absolute truth. Hopefully, between me and [the victim] we can find a way to get past this.”
Lehmkuhle was in court after having entered the Alford plea in October to one count of gross sexual imposition, a third-degree felony. An Alford plea allows a defendant in a criminal case to maintain his or her innocence while admitting prosecutors likely had enough evidence for a conviction had the case gone to trial. Lehmkuhle originally faced multiple counts of rape of a child under 13 that could have sent him to prison for the rest of his life, if he had been convicted on those charges.
Judge Charles Steele ordered Lehmkuhle to spend four years in prison, serve five years probation after his release and ordered him to register as a sex offender for 25 years after his release from prison.
Lehmkuhle’s attorney, Joe Benavidez, said his client never sexually assaulted the victim, a young girl. The girl made up the accusation as a way to get attention, he said.
“The investigation started with an accusation made by a parent of a friend of the victim,” Benavidez said. “If you read the letter sent in by [the victim’s caretaker], she indicates [the victim] needs a lot of attention. She seeks attention. The things she does ... she has trouble understanding why she does those things.”
Before issuing his sentence, Steele said the court, too, was troubled by the case.
“The court is a little bit troubled by this case. I guess this is what happens when you have an Alford plea. You were facing several potential life sentences versus pleading to a third-degree felony. An Alford plea gives you the right to say I’m taking the third-degree felony because I can’t pass up such a good deal,” Steele said. “It’s clear the victim in this case is a troubled girl.”
Lehmkuhle told Steele he was determined not to let the case determine the rest of his life.
“I refuse to let this hold me back,” he said.