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Teen tells of rape terror as trial begins

DADE CITY — The 18-year-old was lying on a friend's sofa when she awoke to someone tying her legs up. Her wrists were already bound by a plastic zip-tie.

But her first thought was not for herself.

"Please stop," she begged. "Don't hurt my baby."

She was four months pregnant.

Steven Van Wart tied her up and twice raped the pregnant teen anyway, authorities say, in the early morning hours of Aug. 2, 2007.

And he did it while wearing a Halloween mask and threatening her with a stun gun, the victim, now a 19-year-old mother, testified at the start of Van Wart's trial on Wednesday.

Van Wart is charged with two counts of sexual battery, false imprisonment and aggravated assault.

The 42-year-old Land O'Lakes man faces up to 40 years in prison if convicted by the jury.

"You're going to hear about the odyssey that this 18-year-old lived through," Assistant State Attorney Stacey Sumner told the jurors.

Van Wart's attorney denied the allegations. He told jurors that his client's relations with the 18-year-old were consensual — and that both she and the defendant were involved in something sordid that night.

Then the defense attorney put the victim through another odyssey on the witness stand.

• • •

The woman's identity is being withheld by the St. Petersburg Times because of the nature of the case.

The victim described Van Wart as an "acquaintance." But one she often confided in. She once even spent the night at his place with another friend.

She wasn't speaking to her boyfriend at the time and had a fight with her mother the night of the incident. Van Wart was calling her constantly.

That led her to walk more than an hour to his trailer near the Land O'Lakes towing company where they both worked.

They watched a movie. She had two sips of a beer, she said, took a drug prescribed for nausea from her pregnancy and fell asleep. Then she described for the jury what awaited her when she woke up.

"Why did you stop resisting?" Sumner asked.

"I didn't want to take a chance that he might kill me or my son," the victim said.

She said he told her: " 'You just need to stop or I'm going to hurt you.' "

After she said he assaulted her, the victim said Van Wart freed her, apologized and offered her a ride home.

She turned him down. She didn't tell anyone what happened for hours. She took a nap before reporting it.

"I was just so upset," she said, "and I cried myself to sleep."

• • •

The state says it's not just the victim's word against Van Wart. There's the defendant's inconsistent statements to deputies, the prosecutor said, and 25 pieces of physical evidence backing her story.

Assistant Public Defender Dillon Vizcarra's job was to get the jury to doubt that story.

"This case is not about sexual battery," he told the jury in his opening argument. "This case is about a trade. Steven Van Wart gave (the woman) cash. (The woman) gave Steven Van Wart sex."

"They traded that night. They had traded before."

The victim denied it. But the defense's cross-examination would leave her in tears.

"So four months pregnant you walk 2 miles to get to Steve Van Wart's one-bedroom camper trailer at midnight?" the lawyer asked.

"Uh … yes," the victim said.

"You let him tie your hands?" he asked.

"Absolutely not," she said.

"And you let him bind your feet?" he asked.

"Absolutely not," she said.

"And you let him have consensual sex?" he asked.

"No, I did not," said the victim, now crying.

The attorney grilled her again and again. The prosecution had enough. Then the judge did.

"Come on up," Circuit Judge Pat Siracusa told counsel, his hand on his jaw. "Both of you."

The trial will resume Friday.

Jamal Thalji can be reached at thalji@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6236.

Teen tells of rape terror as trial begins 07/23/08 [Last modified: Friday, July 25, 2008 9:58pm]

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