The father said it was still difficult to believe that his daughter and another girl were molested during a slumber party, even after the former head of Falls Church’s Democratic Committee was sentenced to 22 years in prison Friday for the crime.
Michael Gardner was a “pillar of the community,” as a prosecutor put it — a civic activist, newspaper columnist, and husband of a city councilwoman and former mayor — the very type of person to which a parent would feel safe entrusting their child.
“If it didn’t happen to my daughter,” the girl’s father said after the hearing, “I would probably be writing a letter on his behalf.”
The sentencing in Arlington Circuit Court followed a contentious spring trial that pitted a defiant Gardner against the testimony of the 10- and 11-year-old girls, one of whom wore sparkly pink sunglasses on the stand because she was nervous.
Gardner testified in his defense, denying the allegations. Before his sentencing Friday, he maintained he had been “falsely accused and wrongfully convicted” and said he disdained the law after his experience.
“A cry for help from one distressed girl has been hijacked and that has cast us into darkness,” he told a packed courtroom.
Prosecutors said Gardner went into his basement, where eight of his daughter’s friends slept during her 10th birthday party in June 2011, and molested two of the girls. They said tests showed Gardner’s DNA was found on one victim’s underwear and another’s pajamas.
After a week of testimony, Gardner was convicted of two counts of sexual battery and one count of object sexual penetration. The jury recommended a 22-year sentence.
A mistrial was declared on another charge he had molested a third girl in the days before the sleepover. Prosecutors said Friday they will not pursue a new trial on the last count, saying the girls and their families had been through enough.
Defense Attorney Peter Greenspun said he would appeal Gardner’s conviction, saying there were inconsistencies in the girls’ testimonies and prosecutors had failed to thoroughly investigate sperm from one of the girls’ fathers, which was found on her pajamas. Prosecutors said it might have seeped into the pajamas during the wash.
Gardner had no previous record of abuse, and the defense submitted 60 letters from family members, friends and business associates that detailed his character and his work in the Falls Church community. His wife, Robin Gardner, remains active in politics and sits on the Falls Church City Council.
“We will stick by my husband,” she said after the hearing. “We will continue on our road of life.”
Prosecutor Nicole Wittman said Gardner’s crimes were particularly pernicious because he had exploited the good standing he had built over the years. She said Gardner had shown “zero expression of remorse” for what he had done.
“How do these little girls go anywhere and trust anyone when they couldn’t trust the Gardners, who are the pillars of the community?” Wittman asked.
Wittman said the girls had suffered recurring problems since the molestation. One family was forced to install an alarm in their home because their girl was scared of another attack. The other feared being alone with her father.
“We are completely disoriented,” the parents of one of the victims wrote in a letter to the court. “We had hoped to make Falls Church our permanent home.”
Judge Benjamin Kendrick said the case was one of the most difficult he had ever seen, but the jury had not erred.
“They did not believe you,” Kendrick told Gardner.