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Blind man's attacker draws five year prison sentence

Kris Scheppe, left, gets a hug from friend Dave Williams after the man who attacked him two years ago got five years in prison on Wednesday. Scheppe is legally blind.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Kris Scheppe, left, gets a hug from friend Dave Williams after the man who attacked him two years ago got five years in prison on Wednesday. Scheppe is legally blind.

TAMPA — Kris Scheppe, a blind man who doesn't need your help, wanted to see justice served.

So on Wednesday he climbed off a Greyhound bus downtown, tapped his cane on concrete and walked to the County Courthouse, to Courtroom 11, to a seat beside a Hillsborough assistant state attorney.

The defendant, 17-year-old Michael Watts, stood before him, in an orange jumpsuit and shackles, biting his lip.

Watts' mother spoke to the judge: "He's a very respectful child," she said. "I just want my son home."

Then his brother: "He is a good brother. He keeps us in line when we act up."

Then Watts himself: "All I ask for is just one more chance."

Did he deserve another chance?

Scheppe looked toward Watts, who grew up in Central Park Village, a public housing project, with his mother and five younger siblings. He had been waiting for this.

Nearly two years ago, Scheppe was on his way to the National Federation of the Blind state convention when he asked a man for directions to the bus stop. The man punched him in the head, dragged him to the ground, kicked him and took his belongings.

His cane. His phone. His duffel bag, and with it his clothes, cash and digital camera.

Then the bandit fled, clutching a bag containing $190 that was meant to pay for a pizza party for blind children.

He did not know Kris Scheppe was a power lifter and a sailor, or that the 29-year-old from Fort Myers has retinitis pigmentosa, an inherited eye disease that left him with no peripheral vision but central vision just good enough to pick out the kid from a photo lineup.

Nor, we must assume, did he think the police would track the first phone call he made from the stolen cell to his mother, a mere 57 seconds after the attack.

Confronted with these facts, Watts pleaded guilty to robbery by sudden snatching with force and adult abuse and faced up to five years in prison and five years' probation. Scheppe felt this was merited, that it would send a message for him and for blind people everywhere: We're not vulnerable.

"I would really like to see justice done," Scheppe told the judge. "I would really like to see him get five years in prison."

The judge turned to Watts and asked him if he wished to address Scheppe.

"All I got to say is, I mean, I'm sorry for whoever did it to you," he said.

Circuit Judge Daniel H. Sleet cut him off. "You're sitting here telling this court that you did not beat up this young man?"

"I'm just letting him know that I'm sorry for whoever did that to him," Watts said.

The judge reviewed Watts' record. A 2005 battery charge. A 2006 charge of possession of a firearm by a minor. The 2007 arrest for the attack on Scheppe. And 2008 charges — while Watts was out on bail — of resisting a police officer and assault.

"I don't believe you want to change your life," the judge said.

"This is egregious. This is despicable."

The judge sentenced Watts to five years in prison and five years on probation. He demanded that Watts spend 250 hours in service to his community and that 150 of those hours be spent working for the Florida Division of Blind Services.

Watts' mother ran from the courtroom wailing. His stepfather and brothers followed her.

Bailiffs escorted Watts out a back door. Television cameras crowded around Scheppe.

What did he think of the verdict? What message did it send? Did this change him?

"Blindness is just a bit of a hindrance that makes you do things different," he said. "I can't let it stop me from doing things. If I live in fear, it's just going to keep me back."

He told them that he has begun to trust people again and that it was nice to see justice served and that his next goal is to board a sailboat alone and circumnavigate the globe.

David Gardner, a University of Florida journalism student, contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Blind man's attacker draws five year prison sentence 03/11/09 [Last modified: Thursday, March 12, 2009 6:42am]
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