District Court Judge Wade Waldrip declined to do so.
“It is Mr. Vanderford’s second felony conviction and the second time that he has willfully violated his conditions of probation and knowingly done so,” Waldrip said. “If the orders of this court are to mean anything — both in this case, but (also) generally — then at some point in time, it must be enforced. And I believe that it is this point in time.
“I believe that the sincerity and the promises of Mr. Vanderford that something like this would never happen again is directly related to the likelihood of incarceration in this case,” Waldrip said.
That likelihood became a certainty a moment later, as Waldrip ordered the former Clark resident to serve the full five- to seven-year prison sentence that had been suspended in favor of probation back in May.
Vanderford, who’d struggled through tears and sobbing when addressing the court earlier, showed no obvious reaction when the sentence was pronounced.
The bizarre allegations that led to Vanderford pleading guilty to three felony counts of child abuse were that he punished his teenage daughter for misbehavior by handcuffing and leashing her to her bed naked and later checked his pre-adolescent daughters’ genitals in the summer of 2010 because he was concerned they weren’t virgins.
The sentence of probation was a plea agreement reached between Vanderford’s court-appointed attorney, Bill Simpson, and the state, represented by Deputy Park County Attorney Tim Blatt.
Blatt said in May that he offered the deal because of the uncertainty of getting a conviction at trial, a desire to spare the children the ordeal of testifying against their father and ensure he was kept away from them. Having a guilty plea from Vanderford also gave the girls an apology they otherwise might never have heard, Blatt said.
Last May, District Court Judge Steven Cranfill accepted the deal for probation “with some reluctance,” but did so because it would avoid making the children testify.
On Tuesday, Simpson and fellow defense attorney Richard Jamieson of Casper argued that Vanderford should be placed back on probation.
Jamieson said the six months his client spent in jail awaiting Tuesday’s hearing was a fair sentence and that the re-imposition of probation and a continued no-contact order would serve the purposes of justice. Jamieson also argued a shorter prison sentence would be a better choice than the full five to seven years.
“I think that’s a real bad idea,” Jamieson said of the maximum. “That doesn’t do anybody any good. It doesn’t do this family any good, costs the state a lot of money, for what?”
Noting that the two young girls had reportedly wanted to see their father, Jamieson argued the only victim of the probation violation was the court. He said the violation was based on emotion, not on disrespect for the court.
Blatt’s argument centered on the fact that Vanderford violated the primary condition of his probation — the no-contact order protecting the children — within a week of the condition being imposed.
“There has to be some accountability for an individual who was given the opportunity for probation, violates that in the most serious way and then comes back before the court for re-sentencing,” Blatt said.
In imposing the full five to seven years, Waldrip ended up citing facts that had not been mentioned during the two-hour hearing: Vanderford’s 2010 conviction for stealing sales data and other materials from his Cody employer to start up a competing business and a subsequent probation revocation when he missed a court-ordered payment in the case. Vanderford had received probation for the computer crime conviction and it was reinstated after the revocation.
On Tuesday, Vanderford gave a lengthy explanation for why he’d met with his wife and daughters at a Montana motel just a week after being ordered not to in the more recent abuse case. Vanderford said he’d been separated from his family for roughly a year and a half at the time of sentencing, and learned only shortly before the May 25 hearing that they would not be allowed to get back together.
“It was very disturbing to me that I could be separated from my family that much longer. It was extremely devastating to my young daughters when they found out,” he said.
When the two girls remained distraught after a week, Vanderford decided to meet them and his wife in Columbus, Mont. Probation and parole agent Sharon Moore later discovered a phone number for the Columbus motel among Vanderford’s possessions and learned of the rendezvous. Vanderford was arrested June 14 and has been jailed since.
“I’ve had six months of days to realize how stupid I can be when I let my emotions govern my decision making,” Vanderford said. “I satisfied myself at the time that I was doing what was right, because my children were crying and as a father, there’s that gut reaction towards stopping your children from crying — in this case myself too.”
Mendy Vanderford testified on her husband’s behalf at the hearing and said she would not give in to her children’s cries and make the same mistake again.
Mendy Vanderford said the two girls had no fear of their father — prompting Judge Waldrip to jump in and ask about a report from a Yellowstone Behavioral Health counselor.
Mendy Vanderford acknowledged one daughter had reportedly expressed fear, but said those issues have since been resolved.
Ken Vanderford told Waldrip he’s not a bad man.
“I proved that I can be a stupid man, but I’m not bad. I love my family, I love my children,” Vanderford said. “I’ve made mistakes. I’ve made mistakes raising them, obviously, but more importantly I made the mistake of prolonging their pain which is probably the worst of it.”
Vanderford’s family in Mississippi testified that they had a home and job waiting for him there if the court let him go back on probation.
Randal Jones, a cousin, said he’s seen very prudent parenting skills from Vanderford and Billy Vanderford, Ken’s father, said “We’ve never seen anything out of the ordinary, anything other than a normal family.”
The unusual abuse case has drawn unusually strong interest from the general public.
After the Powell Tribune and then the Cody Enterprise wrote about Vanderford’s sentence last summer, many residents savaged the plea deal as too lenient.
Last month, Jamieson asked to have Judge Cranfill removed from the case, in part citing concern the judge had been influenced by the public attention. Rather than have another judge hold a hearing on the request, Cranfill chose to assign the case to Waldrip.
The attention came up several times at Tuesday’s hearing.
The parties repeatedly sought to dispel a public misperception that Vanderford sexually abused his children. Blatt said the possibility of sexual abuse was specifically investigated by law enforcement and the answer was “a resounding no.”
Jamieson described the case as an emotional one that had been “completely blown out of proportion” in press coverage.
Simpson complained that the allegations were wrongly being cloaked in a “mantle of sexual abuse and some type of cruel, deviant behavior.”
Rather, “It was a form of punishment by a parent that was frustrated with his children. Did it go too far? It probably did, and Mr. Vanderford has admitted it did,” he said, adding, “It doesn’t diminish it, but I think it is helpful to put it in this context that Mr. Vanderford did not randomly go out and attempt to administer discipline on some innocent third party. He was trying to do the best he could within his family framework and it did not go as intended.”
Simpson said one of the disturbing elements of the case was the “great deal of foment” from citizens upset with the sentence — including anonymous letters to his office.
Waldrip, of Rawlins, said the public interest played no role in his considerations.
For his part, Blatt restated the rationale behind the plea agreement, noting the primary goal was to ensure protection of the three children.
Waldrip said he respected the attorneys in the case and respected Judge Cranfill’s reluctant acceptance the plea agreement in May.
“I believe it was done appropriately and for the right reasons. And it was done to avoid and spare a minor victim the trauma of testimony in a courtroom — a problem that we’ve all seen ... — and it was done to protect minor children for a five-year period, hence that term of probation,” Waldrip said.
The judge said in closing he was “very sorry that he (Vanderford) chose to willfully violate that probation.”