TAMPA — The man who calls himself Poppa Love entered the courtroom Thursday with a plan.
He would blame his attorney for bad representation. His family would testify about what a great father he was to his more than 30 children. He would ask for two years of house arrest for raping and impregnating his 13-year-old niece.
John Jerome Speights Jr., 45, did all of the above. He even threw in an offer of 80 years' probation.
But Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe had something else in mind.
"This court is convinced, sir, that you are devoid of any moral values," he said. "As a result, this court is going to exercise its discretion. … I'm going to sentence you to life in prison."
The defendant's distraught family members erupted in such a display that deputies had to escort them out an emergency exit and down the block.
In the end, the man with paternity claims from more than a dozen women faces life in a state prison system that doesn't allow conjugal visits.
To it all, the victim's mother replied, "Thank you, Jesus."
For decades, Speights has had access to many young girls, including his daughters and other relatives.
The niece's mother remembers the day she learned her daughter was pregnant. She asked her daughter who did it to her. The girl replied, "Uncle Pop."
Then came the stories: The night when she was 12, and he pulled her out of a bedroom, raped her on the floor and gave her $20. The time he touched her as his 6-year-old son slept beside them. The year she endured in silence.
The mother broke it down for Speights on Thursday.
"You touched my baby over and over, taking her childhood, telling her you would hurt her and even me if she told anyone," the woman said. "I am so proud of her. She told anyway."
Minutes before his April trial, Speights left a courtroom and never came back. His victim, now 16, still testified.
In his absence, a jury convicted him of two counts of sexual battery by a custodial authority, lewd and lascivious molestation, child abuse by impregnation and incest.
As a U.S. Marshals fugitive task force searched for Speights, his victim saw him in her sleep.
They caught him in a Tampa parking lot last week. He blamed his attorney, Jorge Chalela, for his flight. The lawyer said he couldn't comment about that, citing attorney-client privilege.
But Speights had avoided police before.
It took a manhunt to bring Speights into custody after he was charged with the rape.
And when one of his daughters accused him in 2005 of raping her repeatedly for two years, a charge prosecutors did not have enough evidence to pursue, Speights denied the allegations and hurried away from the home where detectives went to interview him. He later ditched an interview with them.
When it came time to test for the paternity of his niece's baby, Speights said two of his other sons were possibly the father.
His own DNA did him in.
But the scientific proof didn't keep his children from writing dozens of letters to a judge proclaiming their father's innocence. It didn't keep his cousin, aunt, mother and wife from testifying about how much his kids love him, how he goes to their ball games, helps with their homework, puts food on the table and gifts under the Christmas tree.
Reached later at home, his mother, Ruby Speights, was asked how she reconciles the image she portrays of her son with DNA that incriminates him.
"I have no way of commenting about that or knowing of that existence and that type stuff," she said. "He's my child. He's going to always be my child."
When offered an opportunity to comment from jail after his sentencing, Speights declined.
Before the judge delivered his sentence, he said he was sorry.
"I do apologize for what I've taken my family through," he said. "It is embarrassing to my family. I do apologize to my victim's family for all the things that have occurred. And I ask the court for mercy, please."
Assistant State Attorney Brandon Kuhn asked for the maximum, 80 years. The judge said he could have given that, but based on Speights' actions and testimony of all who spoke, the more appropriate sentence was life.
On Speights' side of the courtroom, a woman wailed. A teenager shot up from his seat. The judge left the bench for his protection and deputies rushed the victim's mother to a back room. They opened an emergency exit, and Speights' family flooded out. A young man took off his shirt. Another paced in anger.
After some approached a St. Petersburg Times photographer in a threatening manner, deputies escorted them down the block. Then, deputies quickly took the victim, her son and her mother out the same emergency exit and held them in a secure facility until they could be escorted home.
As she waited, the victim's mother said she wasn't worried about Speights' family.
"Somebody tries to do anything to me or daughter," she said, "they're going to jail."
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3354.