COLUMBIA CITY — Dustin Shenberger burst into tears when the verdict was read.
A jury of nine women and three men deliberated two and a half hours Thursday before returning not guilty verdicts on charges of child molestation and sexual misconduct with a minor against the 36-year-old Pennsylvania man.
Shenberger was accused of having a sexual relationship with a girl, now 19, when she was between 13 and 15 years old.
The trial was the second in the case after a jury in August couldn’t reach a verdict.
In that trial, the jury deliberated six hours before becoming hung with a 6-6 tie in voting.
The short deliberation time had prosecutors feeling confident and the defense a bit anxious before the jury’s surprise verdict was read by Whitley County Circuit Judge James Heuer.
“I didn’t think that was a good sign,” said Defense Attorney Michelle Kraus. “But we’re happy.”
Shenberger left the court room and said “I’m just glad it’s over.”
Al Anzini, Shenberger’s other defense attorney, was equally short and to the point in his comments.
“It was very emotional,” said Anzini.
Kraus said she felt the alleged victim’s credibility was key in the acquittal.
“I think it was the unreasonableness,” she said, referring to the testimony of the woman that said Shenberger had a sexual relationship with her for more than two years when she was a teenager.
In closing arguments, Prosecutor Matt Rentschler cited testimony by witnesses hostile toward the alleged victim who swore to seeing the two lying in a “romantic” position on a couch when the girl was 13.
“You’ve heard the expression, where there’s smoke, there’s fire?” Rentschler asked the jury.
“(The alleged victim’s) testimony was the fire. If you don’t believe the fire, just look around for the smoke.
“Her story is consistent, it’s detailed and it’s real,” Rentschler said.
“In most child molesting cases, the only two witnesses to the crime are the victim and the accused because adults have sexual contact with a child in private. This is not that type of case though,” he said, referring to the witnesses who saw and reported what is now being called the couch incident.
Rentschler also pointed to the testimony of a man connected with the Whitley County 4-H Fair who saw the two walking shoulder to shoulder around the fair and sitting close together near the stall where the girl tended to 4-H animals.
“Look at the fire, but don’t ignore the smoke,” said Rentschler to the jury.
“Dustin Shenberger was a poor witness for the defense and a good witness for the prosecution.”
Kraus took closing arguments past the allotted 45 minutes given to the attorneys, causing Heuer to call Rentschler and Kraus to the bench. Kraus finished several minutes later.
In her statement, the Fort Wayne-based attorney questioned the believability of the alleged victim’s testimony.
“Everybody in this courtroom wants to believe her,” said Kraus. “But you have to go on and look at all her testimony.”
Kraus pointed out that details of the alleged two-year-plus affair kept surfacing and she used that as the basis for her argument against the prosecution’s witness’s credibility.
“How reasonable is it that her memory gets better as time goes by?” Kraus said.
“Rentschler’s rebuttal reiterated his assessment of the witness’s story, but he added a word.
““Her story is consistent, it’s detailed, it’s real, and she was corroborated,” Rentschler said.
“The way we act when we’re together in public is indicative of how we act in private,” said Rentschler.
(The alleged victim’s step-grandfather) nailed it when he called that (the couch incident) a ‘romantic’ position.”
Rentschler wrapped up by calling on the jury to act on behalf of society.
“You have the opportunity today on behalf of all of us, to point at someone and say ‘child molester,’” said Rentschler, aiming his forefinger at the defendant.