TAMPA — A professional puppeteer accused by federal agents of plotting to kidnap and cannibalize a child rejected a plea deal on lesser charges Wednesday, setting the stage for a protracted and exceptionally lurid criminal trial.
At a hearing before Magistrate Judge Mark Pizzo in U.S. District Court in Tampa, the lawyer for Ronald William Brown, 57, said Brown decided not to accept a tentative plea agreement he signed last week and wanted his case to go before a jury.
Sporting mussed white hair and blue prison garb, Brown sat at the defense table, blinking through thick eyeglasses, expressionless. He did not address the judge during the brief hearing.
The Largo resident's decision makes it likely that federal prosecutors will pursue more severe charges against him than the child pornography counts to which he would have pleaded guilty in exchange for a relatively short prison sentence.
It also opens the door to a scenario Brown's defense attorney and prosecutor had both tried to avoid: a sensational trial. Brown's case is rich in tabloid-ready details involving sex, religion, cannibalism and — yes — puppets.
"Obviously, we spent several months negotiating a plea, taking him from what would be tantamount to a life sentence to as little as six years," said Brown's attorney, Eric Kuske Leanza of Tampa, who appeared surprised by his client's last-minute decision Wednesday. He said Brown decided the plea deal would bring "too much time" in prison.
At the time of his arrest in July, authorities said that Brown — who performed his puppet shows for years on a Christian Television Network show called Joy Junction — told a Kansas man during Internet chat sessions that he wanted to abduct and eat a boy in his congregation at Gulf Coast Church in Largo.
A search of his house and computer files at Whispering Pines mobile home park yielded hundreds of images of dead children and pornographic shots of boys being tortured, according to court documents.
Under the terms of his negotiated agreement, Brown would have pleaded guilty to charges of possessing and receiving child pornography. He probably would have served between five and 10 years in federal prison, Leanza said.
Now, all bets are off.
Leanza said federal prosecutors told him that if Brown turned down the agreement, they would seek additional charges beyond the scope of those in the plea — including, perhaps, a charge of conspiring to kidnap a child that was lodged against Brown at the time of his arrest. That offense carries a life sentence.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda C. Kaiser declined to comment after Brown's hearing.
Clearwater criminal lawyer Chuck de Vlaming said Brown could be hard to defend, since prosecutors often marshal strong forensic evidence in child pornography cases. But the decision to go to trial isn't always dictated by sound strategy, he said.
"There are people who just want to roll the dice," de Vlaming said. "They know it is an uphill battle, but they just can't face the punishment they know they're going to get … and so they want their day in court. And they're entitled to it."
Staff writer John Cox contributed to this report.