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May 28, 2004

Former Austine staffer gets jail

From: Brattleboro Reformer - Brattleboro,VT,USA - May 28, 2004

(Please see this article: Austine counselor's conviction reversed)

Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- A former staff member of the Austine School for the Deaf, who was convicted of molesting a 13-year-old student, was ordered to serve a lengthy prison sentence.

After hearing nearly eight hours of testimony, Judge John P. Wesley handed Dolph "John" Rehkop, 34, three consecutive three- to eight-year prison sentences, Thursday evening in Windham District Court.

In total, Rehkop will serve a minimum of nine years in prison before becoming eligible for parole. If Rehkop continues to maintain his innocence, he will likely serve the maximum sentence of 24 years.

On three occasions between the spring and fall of 1999, Rehkop, who is deaf, molested a 13-year-old while employed as a behavioral specialist at the Austine School.

On two occasions, Rehkop performed sex acts with the student in other staff members' offices. On other occasions, he sent passes excusing the student from class, so that he could perform sex acts at various locations throughout the school.

Following a five-day trial in January, a jury convicted Rehkop on three counts of sexual assault on a minor. In bringing the case to trial, court officials encountered numerous obstacles, due to Rehkop, the victim and most of the material witnesses being deaf.

Similar problems were encountered at the sentencing, which occasionally prompted Wesley to stop the proceedings in order to afford the four sign language translators a short break.

Twice during the session, Wesley needed to warn people sitting in the galley to not communicate with people on the stand using sign language. At one point, he was informed that a person seated in the courtroom had repeatedly signed to a witness that she was a liar.

Citing Rehkop's continued failure to admit guilt, Parole Officer Gary Stevens originally recommended a combined sentence of 15- to 45 years to serve. Stevens said Rehkop had violated a position of significant trust, having been in a disciplinary role at the school, which made him seek a fairly steep sentence.

"He's denied his involvement in these incidents and maintained his innocence," he said.

During pre-sentence investigations, Stevens said he had been contacted by twin sisters, who informed him of prior sex offenses that Rehkop had allegedly committed while he was a student at the Florida School for the Deaf and at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C.

Stevens also noted that Rehkop had a prior domestic assault conviction, which he served probation for and attended a batterer intervention program.

Individually calling both twins to the stand, Deputy State's Attorney John Lavoie argued that Rehkop had exhibited a pattern of significant threatening behaviors earlier on in life.

One twin alleged that Rehkop had attempted to force her to perform sex after a football game at the Florida School for the Deaf during the mid-1980's.

Her sister said Rehkop had forced his way into her dorm room at Gallaudet and had allegedly attempted to rape her.

Public Defender Joanne Balz called many character witnesses to Rehkop's defense, who argued that he is a compassionate man who doesn't belong in prison. Many of the witnesses portrayed Rehkop as the caring father of an 8-year-old boy with a mental impairment, who would be better served in a community-based program.

Balz also argued that the Department of Corrections lacked the necessary facilities to handle a deaf prisoner for a lengthy period of time. While incarcerated, Rehkop would lack the ability to communicate his needs to corrections staff, she said.

In her statement to the court through a translator, the victim said she knew of at least five other Austine students who had been victimized by Rehkop, but were too terrified to come to court. Although she admitted that Rehkop has an amicable personality, the victim refused to excuse his conduct with young girls.

"I feel like he should be punished up to the maximum," she said. "I know he may be a good person, but I don't think what he did to me is right."

Since stepping forward about the abuse, the girl said the affair had become the focus of attention around the deaf community, which made it difficult for her to move on with her life.

During his closing statements, Lavoie classified Rehkop as a "sex abuser in deep denial" and requested an even greater sentence of seven- to 20 years to serve per count. He said Rehkop's inability to admit to his crimes would prevent any sort of rehabilitation in prison.

Balz argued for a sentence that would incorporate both punishment, treatment and rehabilitation. She said the sentence presented by both Stevens and Lavoie were "extremely hefty" and would only serve the punishment side of the equation.

"I understand the need for punishment," she said. "But the recommendations by the state come as close as you can to punishment only."

In his statement to the court through a translator, Rehkop said he was already suffering from the effects of a crime he did not commit. From losing many of his friends to riding a roller coaster of emotions, Rehkop assured the court that justice had not been served.

"The only facts I know at this point is that the truth will come out," he said. "I've denied (this crime) from the beginning because it did not happen."

Prior to issuing his sentence, Wesley said there was likely no punishment that he could attribute that would rectify the crime.

"There is no amount of punishment that will ever give (the victim) her childhood back," he said.

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