"Poppa Love" skips out on incest rape trial, convicted anyway

TAMPA — John J. Speights Jr. asked to use the bathroom Wednesday and never came back, fleeing a courtroom minutes before he was to stand trial in the incest rape and impregnation of a 13-year-old girl.

The trial went on without him. By afternoon's end, Tampa police were chasing a convicted rapist — because the girl, now 16, took the witness stand and said all the things he told her not to say.

And the jury believed her.

The girl in the heart-shaped earrings cried hard that morning, while relatives who sided with him glared in her direction. She had heard they didn't want her in the family anymore.

But they left just after he did, following his hand gesture, and the courtroom was almost empty when she took the stand. Her voice was so soft, a judge had to remind her to speak up.

She did.

"Do you know John Speights?" the prosecutor asked.

She responded, "Yes, ma'am."

The 45-year-old longtime felon goes by "Poppa Love" and has been arrested 28 times in Florida on charges from battery to bigamy to aggravated assault, domestic violence and cruelty to a child.

She was staying at his home, where he lived with 14 of his children, when he stirred her from a bunk bed one night, saying he needed to talk.

It was August 2006. She was 12. He raped her on the floor of her living room and didn't stop when she said it hurt. He told her it was going to be okay.

Afterward, she was in the bathroom when he slipped $20 under the door. He told her she couldn't tell anybody.

"I was so scared," she said.

It happened another time, on the bunk bed.

And again, on a lounge chair cushion outside.

Once, he fondled her while his 6-year-old son slept in the bed.

In November 2007, her grandmother noticed changes in her body and family took her to a clinic. She learned that she was six months pregnant. Her baby was born that following January, and she kept him. He's 2 now.

A state DNA expert later said there was a 99.99 percent chance that Speights fathered the boy. No experts contradicted that.

The girl left the jury with her story and sat outside for the rest of the testimony, with a victim advocate's shawl draped around her shoulders and a bottle of strawberry Crush at her side.

In his closing statement, attorney Jorge Chalela asked a jury to consider why no one in the house heard the rapes.

He offered this defense: There was no doubt Speights was the father, he said. But aren't there other ways someone could get pregnant?

"A needleless syringe," he said. "A catheter.

"Is there someone with another motive to impregnate a young girl with John's sperm?"

Assistant State Attorney Brandon Kuhn called the theory "great dramatic television."

The jury would deliver a guilty verdict on five counts: two counts of sexual battery by a custodial authority, lewd and lascivious molestation, incest and child abuse by impregnation.

The girl wouldn't get to see that. She had to leave because her mom needed to get to work.

She said she was happy this was all going to be over. She hoped her testimony would stop this from happening again.

"It's going to protect a lot of people," she said. "A lot of kids."

Meanwhile, a detective fielded leads in the courthouse lobby as police searched for Speights on the street.

Inside the courtroom, a prosecutor asked the defense attorney, "Have you heard from him?"

He responded, "Not a word."

Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

How to help

John "Poppa Love" Speights is 5-foot-10 and weighs about 250 pounds. Anyone with information may call Tampa police at (813) 232-6800.

"Poppa Love" skips out on incest rape trial, convicted anyway 04/28/10 [Last modified: Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:57am]

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