The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Crime & Courts

March 26, 2013

Jury acquits Neosho man on forcible rape charge

NEOSHO, Mo. — A young woman explained to jurors Tuesday why she lay down on a bed two years ago with the man she later accused of raping her.

She was 16 years old at the time. She was with her girlfriend, who was drunk. They went with Bobby Phelan to his camper trailer outside his father’s home in Neosho to keep the girlfriend’s mother from knowing that she had been drinking.

She had been around Phelan on previous occasions. He was about 10 years older than they were, but he had never tried anything inappropriate with her, she said. Once they got to his trailer, her friend passed out and she lay down on the only bed available, where Phelan soon joined her, she said.

“I thought it was kind of awkward, but I didn’t really have anywhere else to sleep,” she testified.

At first, they were just talking, but then he began trying to get her “to roll over and kiss him and stuff.” She told him to stop “quite a few times,” but he wouldn’t, she said.

“Somehow he got on top of me,” she testified.

Her testimony regarding an ensuing sexual assault, however, apparently failed to persuade jurors to convict Phelan, 27, of forcible rape at the conclusion of a single-day trial in Newton County Circuit Court. A jury of eight women and four men acquitted him after 21 minutes of deliberation. Circuit Judge Kevin Selby presided at the trial.

The alleged sexual assault the night of July 11-12, 2011, was not reported to police until more than 36 hours later, when the girl told her father what had happened. He took her to Freeman Neosho Hospital, police were contacted, and she was interviewed by investigators at the Children’s Center in Joplin.

Detective Mike Barnett of the Newton County Sheriff’s Department, the primary investigator assigned to the case, testified that the defendant denied assaulting the girl in any manner when he was arrested July 15, 2011.

“He said that he did not rape the victim,” Barnett said. “He said that he did not even have sex with her.”

The girl’s friend told the detective that she was too intoxicated to remember what happened that night. All she knew was that they had run some errands together with the defendant the next morning.

The defendant also had a female acquaintance who told the detective that she was at the camper trailer with him the night in question. Barnett said the woman told him that she argued with Phelan briefly and then stayed up drinking with him until almost 6 a.m.

Public defender Renee Gotviagehya emphasized a lack of forensic evidence in the case. Investigators collected the girl’s clothes, performed a sexual abuse examination on her, and swabbed the bed for evidence of semen, she said.

“They didn’t find anything,” Gotviagehya said. “Not one hair. Not one drop.”

The girl testified that she did not know if the defendant actually ejaculated, and she explained her delay in telling her father or anyone else about the alleged rape as a consequence of her shock and uncertainty about what to do.

Assistant Prosecutor Kathleen Miller called the girl’s father to testify about the manner in which his daughter eventually disclosed what had happened.

The father told the court that he believed his daughter was staying at her friend’s home. He said she sent him a text message late that night indicating they had gone to Phelan’s trailer to wait until her friend’s mother got back home. The father said he was not aware that they had been drinking, or he would have gone and gotten his daughter. The girls being in Phelan’s company did not alarm him, he said.

“I was led to believe that he was a caring adult supervising where they were and what they were doing,” the father said.

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