An ex-Phillipsburg police officer raped four women while in uniform on the job, a Montgomery County Common Pleas Court judge ruled Wednesday.
Judge Steven Dankof announced guilty verdicts for Justin Sanderson after last week’s bench trial on 19 counts including rape and kidnapping related to three separate incidents involving four women during May and June 2017.
Sanderson, 33, was found guilty on all 19 counts considered by Dankof after he waived his right to a jury trial. Dankof said he found testimony from all the witnesses — including all victims referred to in court only by initials — “credible in every material respect.”
Sanderson is scheduled to be sentenced Sept. 12 and could face decades in prison.
“We’re obviously very happy with the verdict,” Montgomery County Assistant Prosecutor Kelly Madzey said. “I think (Dankof’s) statements even at the beginning that he found each and every one of these women credible in all accounts speaks volumes to their ability to come forward and their willingness to stand up to this person who was in a position of power.”
Defense attorneys Anthony VanNoy and Kimberly Melchor said they will file a notice of appeal after Sanderson’s sentencing.
“We’re discouraged by the verdict, obviously, and we don’t agree with it,” Melchor said. “He has a very supportive family (Sanderson has a wife and children) here and they are standing behind him. … They are just heartbroken by the verdict.”
Madzey, who said during the trial that Sanderson was a predator who used his gun and badge to shield him from crimes, that there may be other injured parties.
“We believe there could be more victims out there who were scared to come forward,” Madzey said, and that prosecutors will ask for “maximum consecutive sentences.”
Sanderson’s trial wrapped up last week after he declined to testify.
During closing arguments, assistant prosecutor Dylan Smearcheck recapped the charges related to each allegation, starting with a 21-year-old woman stopped for suspicion of drunk driving whom Sanderson took back to Phillipsburg’s village office.
VanNoy had argued the sex was consensual.
“I suppose consent is the only argument you can make when your semen is on the floor of the council chambers building next to the DNA of a 21-year-old girl who is in your radio log but has no reason to be there,” Madzey said during her rebuttal close.
Smearcheck also reviewed the allegations of a woman Sanderson picked up on an active warrant and two prostitutes whom Sanderson visited in a Vandalia hotel under the guise of a human trafficking investigation that was not known about by Phillipsburg’s police chief.
Sanderson admitted to investigators that he briefly put on a condom but said there was no sexual activity.
VanNoy told Dankof each of the women had motivation — criminal consequences or monetary gain — to change their stories. He pointed out that one victim (actually two) has filed a federal civil lawsuit against Sanderson, Phillipsburg police Chief Mark Wysong and the village.
Other than the two women in the hotel, testimony showed the victims didn’t know each other and were frightened to tell law enforcement even though friends and families urged them to file a complaint.
Asked why she didn’t call police, the 21-year-old woman said, “I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I didn’t even believe me.”
The now-22-year-old woman testified that a friend called police after he saw Sanderson’s photo associated with a media report that he was being investigated for sex crimes.
Similarly, the woman Sanderson took into custody on an active warrant said she didn’t want to report Sanderson and that it took her husband contacting a police officer friend to go forward.
“I knew as soon as told my parents and husband they would want me to report it,” the woman said. “I was afraid that is was his word against my word. … I thought they would sweep it under the rug or cover it up.”
Madzey said the verdict is a powerful message to victims scared to come forward.
“We trust law enforcement officers to protect us,” she said. “His actions in this case are just that must more chilling and that much more terrifying for the victims and for the community.”