David Thrift of Vineyard Haven will serve 10 to 13 years in Walpole State Penitentiary. Mr. Thrift pleaded guilty Wednesday morning in Dukes County Superior Court to a total of seven criminal charges, including rape of a child under 16 by force, and rape of a child under 16, aggravated by age difference greater than 10 years. He also pleaded guilty to intimidating a victim, assault and battery, and violating a restraining order.
The charges stemmed from a July 23, 2011 incident at the house in Vineyard Haven where Mr. Thrift and his family lived. While police searched for Mr. Thrift after he assaulted his wife, he returned to the house and raped a live-in babysitter, left alone in the house with the couple’s three children.
In addition, Mr. Thrift pleaded guilty to two charges of solicitation to commit a felony. In November, while incarcerated in the Dukes County House of Correction, he attempted to contract with a fellow inmate to murder Cape and Islands Assistant District Attorney Laura Marshard and the teenaged rape victim.
Mr. Thrift stood with head bowed, hands clenched behind his back, sobbing quietly and sighing audibly as Superior Court Judge Cornelius J. Moriarty reviewed the charges and asked him to state whether he wished to plead guilty. Mr. Thrift had previously plead not guilty to all charges and was expected to begin a jury trial this week. In each case, when asked if he was guilty, he said, in a low voice but promptly, “yes” or “yes, sir.”
Dukes County Superior Court in Edgartown was quiet and empty, except for Mr. Thrift’s former wife, Erika Johnson, who sat on the far side of the room, accompanied by Marnie Edwards, victim advocate for the Cape and Islands District Attorney’s office, and a woman friend. Ms. Johnson also sobbed quietly during the proceedings.
“Although this is an agreement between the counsels, I’m not bound to accept it,” Judge Moriarty said. He said he could call for maximum sentences and order them to be served consecutively.
“I could sentence you to life imprisonment and run those sentences consecutively,” the judge told Mr. Thrift about the two rape charges. “Do you understand?”
Judge Moriarty said that, in addition, he could sentence him for up to 10 years for intimidating a witness, and could impose sentences of up to 2 and a half years each for assault and battery, violating a restraining order, and the two charges of solicitation, and that he could order all of these to be served consecutively.
“I could sentence you to two consecutive life sentences,” the judge said.
“Do you fully understand the consequences of what you’re doing?” Judge Moriarty asked Mr. Thrift, telling him he could speak with his lawyer further or tell the judge if he had any questions about the details or consequences of his guilty plea.
He cautioned Mr. Thrift that by filing guilty pleas, he would be giving up a number of important constitutional rights, including the right to a jury trial, a trial before the judge alone, the right to confront witnesses for the prosecution or to call witnesses or produce other evidence in his own behalf, and the privilege against self-incrimination.
Judge Moriarty said he will order Mr. Thrift to submit saliva or hair samples for DNA analysis, to be included in the state’s database, and order him to register as a Sex Offender.
Kate MacDougall, Assistant District Attorney from the Essex County District Attorney’s office in Salem, read a brief but dramatic summary of the case beginning with July 23, 2011, when Mr. Thrift, his then-wife Erika Johnson Thrift, and their three young children were living in Vineyard Haven, having moved from their native Arkansas. A teenaged relative of Ms. Thrift was living with them as a baby-sitter.
Ms. MacDougall related that after a day at the beach the family had come home to eat dinner, watch a movie, and go to bed. The teenager, 15 at the time, awoke to find herself naked from the waist down with David Thrift performing oral sex on her. One of the children who had been sleeping nearby alerted Ms. Thrift, telling her the baby sitter was crying or sick. Finding Mr. Thrift assaulting the teenager, Ms. Thrift pulled him away, at which point he assaulted, beat, and threatened her, saying if she called police he would kill her.
Meanwhile, one of the children called 911, and the teen-aged relative joined in on the emergency call. But Mr. Thrift took the phone from them and misled police by telling them there was a disturbance at an address far from the actual location of his house, at the other end of the Island.
When officers did arrive at the house, thanks to Caller ID, they found Ms. Thrift injured from the assault. They transported her to the Martha’s Vineyard Hospital. The teen-aged baby sitter was left alone at the house with the three young children. The girl made cell phone calls to her mother and a teenaged friend in Arkansas, her home state, recounting the events of the night. She also called 911, reporting that she was scared and had armed herself with a knife, fearing that the defendant would return. The cell phone call ended abruptly with the teenager screaming. The defendant had returned, forcing her to her knees.
The teenager was able to again call her friend in Arkansas, who heard Mr. Thrift say, “Shut up, or I will stab you in the neck,” before the call ended. He then raped the girl while his three young daughters witnessed the assault.
Meanwhile, the teen friend and his mother in Arkansas called their local sheriff’s department. Law enforcement personnel there were able to alert the Tisbury Police Department that sent officers back to the Thrift’s Tisbury house. Finding the teenager with her clothing torn off, they transported her to the hospital, where a rape kit was administered. Analysis showed sperm in her vagina and on her leg, with DNA later matched to that of Mr. Thrift.
Ms. MacDougall also detailed the solicitation charges, explaining that while in jail, Mr. Thrift had approached another inmate, Joseph d’Amelio, attempting to convince him to arrange for the murder of Ms. Marshard and the teen rape victim. Mr. d’Amelio and a second inmate who was privy to the requests brought the information to authorities.
In a statement to the court, Ms. MacDougall said the teenaged rape victim simply wanted the case to be resolved. “She wants it behind her.” But, she said, the Commonwealth had some handicaps affecting the prosecution of the case, since the young victim would not be present to testify.
She added that Erika Johnson would prefer to see a longer sentence, which would have lasted at least until all her young children were adults. But, she said, Ms. Johnson understood the handicaps on the Commonwealth’s case.
Before the sentencing took place, Erika Johnson came forward to make a victim impact statement. Dressed neatly in black short-sleeved blouse, pleated beige skirt, and black sandals, her blonde hair pulled into a ponytail, Ms. Johnson spoke softly but clearly with a slight southern accent.
“I’m glad this is over, for myself and my children,” said Ms. Johnson. “I’m grateful for the next 10 years of security, but I’m afraid it will be worse after that. I’m really glad this is over,” she repeated, crying gently.
“Mr. Thrift is remorseful,” said Robert Hoffmann of Barnstable, the defendant’s attorney. He said the sentence had been agreed upon. “It is a significant sentence.” He said Mr. Thrift understands the serious nature of case and the significance to the victims, their families, and the community.
“The court views this as heinous to the extreme,” said Judge Moriarty, as he prepared to hand down the sentences, saying he would adopt the recommendations of the agreement. “But the Commonwealth is handicapped in its case due to the reluctance of the victim to come forward.”
The judge sentenced Mr. Thrift to 10 to 13 years in prison for rape of a child under 16 with force; 10 to 13 years for rape of a child under 16, aggravated by an age difference greater than 10 years; for intimidating a witness, three to five years; assault and battery two years; violating a restraining order, one year, plus a $25 fine. For solicitation to commit a felony, he sentenced Mr. Thrift to two and a half years in prison for each of the two counts. All sentences are to be served concurrently.
“The victim was very reluctant to return for trial,” said Carrie Kimball Monahan, director of communications for the Essex District Attorney’s Office, recounting a statement by Ms. MacDougall. “The Commonwealth’s handicap was a risk we faced, potentially going to trial without her testimony.”
Detective Mark Santon of the Tisbury Police Department told The Times in a phone interview Wednesday that he had traveled to Arkansas last week and met with the teenager. He said he wanted to discuss the case with her, the significance of her potential testimony, and what the impact on the case would be if she did or did not testify. He wanted her to understand fully, and to make a commitment as to whether she would testify or not.
“She was on the fence as to whether she was able to face him face to face,” said Mr. Santon. “I had a commitment that she would come back and then as time grew closer….we had arrangements made for them to come, but at the 11th hour she said she just couldn’t do it. We ended up being handicapped in the prosecution of the case without her physically there.”
Mr. Santon had high praise for the law enforcement officials in Arkansas and said he was extremely grateful for their assistance and cooperation. Along with meeting with the young victim, he had contacted others connected to the case. He said that distance was no problem, thanks to the helpfulness of everyone in Arkansas, and that despite the eventual outcome it had been worth it to go there.
“It’s difficult for everybody across the board, you’ve got to live with it,” said Mr. Santon, adding that it was helpful to know everyone had done as much as possible.
“She was unwilling to come into the courtroom, testify, relive the experience. That’s what she did not want to do,” Mr. Santon said. “As much as you want more years, you also want to spare them, spare them the re-traumatizing the victim.”