NEW PORT RICHEY — A jury on Wednesday convicted a New Port Richey man of raping a woman who didn't live to tell her story in court.
James Christian Cregger, 38, was charged with sexual battery three months after the July 4, 2008 incident. Authorities said he assaulted the woman he had met earlier that night at a party.
Cregger testified at his trial and insisted the sex was consensual, but prosecutors presented witnesses who encountered Cregger and the woman soon after the incident. They said she begged for their help.
The woman, then 36, reported it to authorities and underwent a physical exam. But three months ago, she died of a drug overdose.
The state was left to try to prove rape without the victim.
The jury deliberated about 2 1/2 hours before accepting the state's version of events.
Cregger wept as Circuit Judge Michael Andrews sentenced him to the maximum — 15 years in prison.
"Your story doesn't make any sense," the judge told him.
Cregger testified that the woman had just had a fight with her boyfriend when they met.
"One thing led to another," he said. "We both made poor decisions. I had a girlfriend at the time. She had a boyfriend at the time."
Soon after, they ran into a van full of people, including his ex-wife and her new husband. Cregger said he had frequent conflicts with them over his delinquent child support. He couldn't understand how they knew where he was in the middle of the night and decided it was a conspiracy.
Deena LaRossa, Cregger's former wife, and her friends testified that they did go looking for him after a night out dancing in Clearwater. Heading north on U.S. 19, they decided to detour into New Port Richey to look for him. LaRossa said she had been talking to him about him getting "clean and sober" and reuniting with his children.
When they saw him walking down Adams Street, a woman was next to him.
"Her eyeballs were humongous," LaRossa said. "She looked very frantic, very nervous, visibly shaken."
Then, something strange happened, LaRossa said. The woman, whom LaRossa had never seen or met, called out to her, "Is that you? I haven't seen you in a long time. Let me come give you a hug."
The woman walked around the van and LaRossa got out to meet her. As they hugged, LaRossa said, "She said into my ear, 'Please don't leave me, he just raped me.' ''
Cregger, who initially denied to police having sex with the woman, was arrested about two months later after authorities matched his DNA to fluid samples taken from the woman during a rape exam.
She and her boyfriend died together on May 15 of "multiple drug toxicity," according to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner's Office.
After the verdict, Cregger's mother, Deborah Leder, collapsed in wails and tears and had to be carried out of court by her family. His aunt, Judy Thomas, said the family believes Cregger is innocent and plans to appeal.
"He's a good boy. He is," Thomas said. "Deena is so wicked."
During sentencing, Cregger asked the judge, "Why has it been a constant with her and her husband to make my life ... a living hell to concoct this whole thing against me?"
Prosecutors, in arguing for a stiff sentence, pointed to Cregger's criminal record, which included a lewd act in front of a child under 16 and two violations of a domestic violence injunction.
LaRossa, for her part, said that regardless of the bad blood between her and Cregger, she had no doubt the woman had been raped that night.
"It's a woman's intuition — I just knew that something was wrong with her," LaRossa said.
Molly Moorhead can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 869-6245.