A Missouri man who pleaded guilty to molesting an 11-year-old girl has evaded jail time, instead getting just five years of supervised probation.
Joseph Robert Meili, 22, was sentenced in Greene County Court on Friday after pleading guilty in March to third-degree child molestation as part of a plea deal.
In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors agreed to dismiss the child kidnapping and first-degree statutory rape charges he also faced.
Under Missouri law, third-degree child molestation is considered a class C felony punishable by up to three to 10 years in prison or a shorter term coupled with a $10,000 fine.
Prosecutors recommended Meili serve 120 days in a sex offender treatment program and up to seven years in prison. But Judge Calvin R. Holden sentenced him to just five years of supervised probation.
Police say Meili picked up the girl near her home in Republic, Missouri, in July 2017 after the two met on the dating app MeetMe. He drove them to his apartment in Springfield, roughly 15 miles away, according to police.
The girl, whose identity has not been publicly released because she’s a minor, was reported missing for several hours until Meili dropped her off at her home later, police said.
She told authorities she had fallen asleep at Meili’s apartment and woke up feeling as though something sexual had happened, reported The Jefferson City News Tribune. A few weeks later, she told investigators that she and Meili had engaged in intercourse, Greene County Senior Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Elizabeth Fax told HuffPost.
Investigators found semen in the girl’s underwear, USA Today reported. She subsequently tested positive for chlamydia, according to the outlet.
Meili told investigators that he had agreed to meet the girl because her profile said she was 18. His attorney, Scott Pierson, told HuffPost that the girl had reached out to his client online and “catfished” him by claiming to be older than she was.
“He felt horrible about the entire incident,” Pierson said. “He’s going to be required to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life ... It’s a tough case. Neither side is really going to get justice here.”
But Fax said it’s “absolutely” not possible that Meili believed the girl was 18 years old and that she believes “willful ignorance” led him to have sex with the 11-year-old.
“I think dating apps make it easier to get into these types of situations, to be sure,” she told HuffPost, “but to actually see her in person ... He knew and just decided to go along with it anyway.”
She added: “It’s just really hard for people to wrap their minds around the fact that these are children. They might wear makeup and be on dating apps and try to hook up with older men but, at the end of the day, these are children.”
It’s not uncommon for child molestation and statutory rape cases of this nature in Greene County to result in probation for the offender rather than prison time, both Pierson and Fax said.
Earlier on Friday, Fax appeared in court for the sentencing of another confessed child abuser: Avery Genovese of Bolivar, who was 21 years old when he was charged with the statutory rape and statutory sodomy of a 12-year-old girl he met online.
He pleaded guilty to both charges in January. Holden sentenced him to five years of supervised probation on Friday.
“The victim’s family was there and they were literally just crying,” Fax said.
Holden has faced backlash in the past for handing down light sentences to child molesters. In 2016, he sentenced a 24-year-old man convicted of sexually abusing an 8-year-old child he was babysitting to 30 days in jail and five years of probation. The decision sparked a Change.org petition calling for Holden’s removal from the bench, which garnered hundreds of signatures.
Holden outraged community members again in February after he sentenced a twice-convicted rapist to five years of supervised probation.
Beau Maurice Gormley, 33, of Republic, received the sentence after raping a woman a month into his probation, which he’d received for previously committing statutory rape against a 16-year-old employee who worked at a restaurant he managed.
“We strongly believe that one of the best ways to lower the rates of sexual assault is to punish perpetrators,” Me Too Springfield said in a statement at the time. “Rulings like this send a strong message to rapists that they can get away with it.”
Holden did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.