DADE CITY — Former U.S. Army recruiter Bruce Thomas Roberts faced a difficult choice:
He could fight allegations that he had sex with a 17-year-old girl he was recruiting.
But what if a jury didn't believe him?
After he got out of prison, he could spend the rest of his life as a sex offender.
Or he could cut a deal. He could plead guilty to a lesser charge, hope for leniency and move on with his life after living the past 16 months under a cloud.
He chose the latter on Monday.
Roberts, a 30-year-old married father of two, pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa withheld adjudication, sparing the Iraq war veteran from having a criminal conviction on his record. The judge sentenced him to six months of misdemeanor probation.
Roberts had been charged with unlawful sexual activity with a minor, a second-degree felony punishable by up to 15 years in prison.
"It's a relief to him to have this whole thing over," defense attorney Randall Grantham said on behalf of his client. "Especially when you face a sentence of prison and the loss of everything you have.
"But he also maintains he was innocent."
A group of teens — potential recruits — were camping in woods off Quail Hollow Boulevard on Nov. 14, 2006, according to the Pasco County Sheriff's Office. But the teens were also partying, the Sheriff's Office said, and witnesses told deputies that Staff Sgt. Roberts entered the 17-year-old girl's tent. He was 29 at the time.
After his January 2007 arrest, Roberts told the St. Petersburg Times he never went inside the tent and never had sexual relations with the girl. He said he was called out to give two girls a ride home, and he didn't tell the girls' parents because he didn't want to upset anyone.
He conceded then, as his lawyer did again on Monday, that he showed poor judgment in becoming involved with teens and alcohol.
"He put himself in a position where the accusation could be made," Grantham said.
But the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office stands by the original accusation. Assistant State Attorney Stacey Sumner declined to comment on the case.
In Iraq, Roberts' lawyer said, his client received the Bronze Star, which is given for bravery or merit, and the Purple Heart for being wounded in combat.
But Monday's plea bargain came too late to save Roberts' military career. In February he was given a general discharge with honorable conditions, according to his lawyer.
Roberts' general discharge is one step below an honorable discharge, indicating he left the U.S. Army after 14 years under negative circumstances. But it is not the same as a dishonorable discharge, and Roberts kept his military benefits.
But he also lost a stripe. Roberts was demoted from E-6 to E-5, from staff sergeant to sergeant.
Roberts lives in Pasco County with his family and is self-employed as a car detailer. If the plea bargain had come earlier, Grantham said, it might have allowed him to remain in the military.
But the lawyer said the highly charged nature of the case — and recent cases in which adult teachers have been accused of having sex with minor students — made a court fight that much riskier.
"This is a very difficult atmosphere for cases like this," the lawyer said, "but this is a totally different situation."
Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.