A Jasper County judge today assessed a Wheaton man 15 years in prison for sexually abusing a 12-year-old Sarcoxie girl.

Circuit Judge Gayle Crane sentenced Francisco J. Santiago to the prison term at a hearing in Jasper County Circuit Court.

Santiago, 36, pleaded guilty Sept. 22 to a count of first-degree statutory sodomy in a plea agreement capping the prison time he might receive at 15 years. He had been facing the possibility of up to life in prison for the offense.

The charge was brought against Santiago in March following an investigation by Sarcoxie police and the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services. The investigation was prompted by a call to the state's child abuse hot line. The girl subsequently disclosed details of the abuse to a school counselor and was interviewed at the Children's Center in Joplin. A probable-cause affidavit filed with the court states that the defendant admitted sexually abusing the girl during a taped interview conducted by investigators.

Jeff Lehr is a reporter for The Joplin Globe.