Judge regrets lenient sentence for ‘predator’ softball coach in sex assault case
Sep 7, 2023, 12:11 PM | Updated: Sep 19, 2023, 2:04 pm
PROVO, Utah — A Lehi woman who pleaded guilty to a first-degree felony sex crime involving a 14-year-old she coached in softball was ordered Wednesday to spend 180 days in jail, to be served on weekends, and 124 months of probation as part of a plea deal.
But the victim and her mother — and even the prosecutor and the judge — all say the plea bargain may be too lenient.
Kayla Kehaunani Atkin, who is an owner of Sunset Therapy according to its website, was charged with having inappropriate sexual contact with the girl she coached on a summer softball team in 2014. Two girls from the team spoke at her sentencing, including the one who brought the case forward who said Atkin groomed and sexually abused her.
Atkin, 30, was charged in 2022 with three counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child, a first-degree felony. But under the plea deal, she pleaded guilty to one count of attempted object rape, a first-degree felony, and the other charges were dismissed.
Fourth District Judge Robert Lunnen opened the hearing by saying he “was not particularly happy” with the case. The judge said he agreed to a Rule 11 plea, which binds him to the sentence proposed as part of the plea bargain, while he was under the impression that the victim was supportive of the deal because she did not want to testify at a trial.
Lunnen said he later learned that even though the victim agreed to the deal, she was not happy with it and felt rushed.
“I feel like almost like I’ve had a bait and switch here. I’m a little upset about this whole case,”the judge said.
He sentenced Atkin to a term of 15 years to life in prison for the charge, but suspended that sentence in favor of the 180-day jail sentence agreed to by prosecutors and Atkin’s attorney, a deal that also puts Atkin on the sex offender registry for the rest of her life.
‘A complete bungled mess’
The victim said as a young girl she did not have attention at home, but now she realizes Atkin took advantage of her, taking away her first sexual experience. She said her softball coach talked about marriage with her and told her she loved her.
She said she later felt like she was just somebody Atkin used to explore her sexuality. “Looking back, you were baiting us,” the woman said in court Wednesday. “You’re dangerous because you were and still are unexpected.”
She added, “This was not a weekend thing, this was an any day of the week thing.”
The woman said her greatest fear now is that Atkin will not understand what she did wrong. She said Atkin “painted (her) as the bad guy” and said Atkin should be held accountable not just for sexualizing her, but for sexualizing others on the team as well.
“I may have been desperate and scared of you back then, but I’m not now,” she said.
The woman said she felt rushed into the plea agreement, and she believes Atkin should be held to the same standard as any man who commits the same crimes. She said she hopes the plea agreement will be enough to protect other children from Atkin.
“I hope you never have a normal life again, because you took that from me. … I hope you are treated like the threat you are,” she said.
The victim’s mother called the plea deal “ridiculous” and “a complete bungled mess.” She said being on the sex offender list is not any guarantee that people will be protected from Atkin.
She said it was devastating to her daughter to keep that secret, and it took her seven years to have the courage to stand up against it.
“I don’t understand how you could let a criminal dictate her own sentencing,” she told the judge.
‘It makes you a predator’
Lunnen said when sentencing for sexual crimes, one of the most important considerations is the victim, and he was frustrated to realize the deal was not really what the victim wanted, although she did agree to it. He wished someone had brought it up earlier.
“I couldn’t guess; I should have asked,” he said. “I feel ashamed myself for having not inquired further into this case.”
He said knowing the facts of the case now, he thinks the plea deal was “inappropriate” and the better sentence would be a prison sentence.
He cautioned Atkin that if she misses one weekend in jail, or is found to be alone with anyone under 18, that will violate her “zero-tolerance probation” and she could go to prison. He said the sentence doesn’t lessen the crime and told Atkin she knew better.
“It’s disgusting to me that you would tell a minor that you love them and you want to marry them. And I believe her in this case, that that’s exactly what you told her and that doesn’t make any excuse,” he told Atkin.
“It makes you a predator.”
Serving time only on weekends is not available in Salt Lake County, according to Atkin’s attorney Susanne Gustin. She said the Utah County Jail permits weekend service; it will cost Atkin $150 each weekend to be book into and out of jail.
Although it is allowed, the sentence is unusual. Deputy Utah County attorney Julia Thomas said in her 15 years in the county she had never heard of a weekend jail term.
Thomas said cases like this are tough, because there is a line to tread between causing more trauma to a sexual assault victim and finding a plea the defendant agrees to. But after the hearing, she said of the plea deal: “Maybe we missed the mark.”
Another woman who played on the same softball team and was friends with the victim said she had no idea her coach was sexually abusing her friend, but later said she saw signs, like Atkin and the victim sharing a bed in hotels during tournaments, the two of them holding hands, and the victim was always dropped off last.
“I felt immense guilt for not helping,” she said.
The woman said Atkin was physical with other girls as well, and paid specific attention to those who had harder lives at home. She told investigators that Atkin “would have the players, including the victim, take off their shirts so she could massage them. She also confirms that the defendant had them take off their pants so she could put cream on their mosquito bites,” according to charging documents.
“I speak on behalf of the girls who are not here today in saying we remember,” she said.
“The defendant also gave the players candy for performing well in games. This evolved to kisses as a reward for good sports performance,” the charges state.
Thomas said it is troubling to the family that Atkin is a therapist at a practice owned by her and her wife and could potentially have similar opportunities in that position to take advantage of children.
She told the judge she is still troubled that Atkin has not taken responsibility for her conduct.
Atkin apologized to the victim and her family at the beginning of the hearing.
“I feel very apologetic for my actions,” she said.
Correction: An earlier version incorrectly said Atkin did not make any comments at the hearing.