LARGO — The man once chosen to lead and reform Clearwater's Fire Department was convicted Friday of sexually abusing a teenager for nearly half of her 19 years.
Former fire chief Jamie Geer, 58, dressed in a business suit for perhaps the last time, was found guilty of sexual battery, lewd or lascivious battery and unlawful sexual activity with a minor.
Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Philip Federico immediately sentenced Geer to life in prison. There was no need to delay because the sexual battery charge carried a mandatory life term.
Federico praised lawyers on both sides and said the evidence was sufficient to convict Geer. The judge also complimented the victim, saying, "It took a lot of courage for her to come forward."
The victim, who testified for 2 ½ hours about the abuse she endured, offered only a few words as she left the courthouse: "I'm just relieved it's over."
Assistant State Attorney Kelly McKnight said she was pleased with the verdict and also praised the victim. "Like the judge said, it takes a lot to come forward."
The young woman gave a detailed account in court of sexual abuse that she said lasted from age 8 well into her teenage years. She said Geer got her to dress in lingerie as a young girl, taught here what sex was, and had her watch him masturbate. She said he manipulated her into oral sex and intercourse. He worked out a system of "trades" with her, giving her presents such as notebooks and school clothes in exchange for sex acts. As she grew older, the gifts evolved to include cell phones, a Coach purse, even beer and cigarettes.
Geer himself testified for two hours, insisting he "did not, never, ever" molest her.
The long and detailed comments from both the victim and the accused meant that much of the trial amounted to a case of she-said, he-said.
But prosecutors said there was one "crucial" piece of evidence. That was a secretly recorded phone call which the girl — she was then 17 — made to Geer in November 2010.
On this call, which jurors heard, the girl talked about how she and Geer had sex. Geer did not deny it during the call, though he didn't acknowledge it. But he did say he was sorry and that he didn't know how troubled she had been.
Assistant State Attorney Michael Marr focused on this call during closing arguments Friday, saying, "It's not just her word, it's his words, and his words remove reasonable doubt."
When the girl pressed Geer during the phone call about the abuse, Marr said, Geer responded by saying, "Little things started early and I don't think anybody meant anything by them."
Also, Geer told her, "I never thought that you did anything against your will." At the point in the conversation where the girl said she had sex with Geer, Marr said, Geer made an actual "heartfelt" comment.
"What does he say? 'I'm sorry, I didn't know you were struggling,' " Marr said.
Overall, Marr said Geer's comments and denials indicated that he knew exactly what he was being accused of, even though no one had come right out and said so. And Marr said there was a reason Geer understood this: because he was the abuser.
Federico said the phone call was part of what made the evidence sufficient to convict Geer. Another thing he cited was a receipt for lingerie from Dillard's in International Plaza.
The victim had said Geer made her dress in the lingerie and pose in it when Geer took her to a fire chief's convention in Jacksonville about six years ago. FDLE agents later found the receipt, which matched up with the time of the convention.
Geer said he bought the lingerie because he had a girlfriend he was going to meet in Jacksonville, and that the girl must have learned about it because she found it in his briefcase.
During defense attorney David Parry's closing argument, he reminded jurors that "You must presume or believe him to be innocent" unless that presumption is "overcome by evidence."
Parry said there were inconsistencies in the victim's statement. He also said he found it hard to believe that when the girl reported the abuse to her mother in 2008, the mother "decides the best thing to do is to tell nobody."
The allegations, he said, came at a time when union firefighters were fighting Geer over changes and investigations he made in the Fire Department.
After the verdict was read and Geer was led out of the courtroom, he looked back with a stony expression. He did not appear to have any family or friends in the room for support.