Former teacher Stephanie Ragusa was sentenced to 10 years in prison Monday for having sex with two teenage boys, a punishment far more severe than that given to other teachers guilty of similar crimes.
Most others got probation and house arrest. But Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe felt Ragusa, 31, deserved more. His decision partly came down to what he called Ragusa's "arrogance," as embodied in her notorious mug shot smile.
"I've seen you come into this courtroom time and time again," Tharpe told her. "You had a very lackadaisical attitude on your face, smiling, jovial. ... I don't know as we stand here today that you truly appreciate the harm that you've caused."
Ragusa listened, holding in tears. She wasn't smiling.
The courtroom was packed Monday. Television trucks lined the streets, broadcasting the hearing live. Even the judge's family came to watch.
It was the culmination of a story that captured national attention in the spring of 2008 for more reasons than such cases usually do. There were all the standard elements: outrage at a teacher's abuse of power, talk of double standards with female suspects and male victims.
But there was also the Ragusa factor. Out on bail after her second arrest, she returned to one victim's house to have sex again.
From prison, she wrote a letter of advice to Hulk Hogan's incarcerated 17-year-old son.
At the sentencing, Assistant State Attorney Rita Peters portrayed Ragusa as a master manipulator who believed she was above society's rules, sexually preying on the most vulnerable teenage boys.
Defense attorney Robert Herce presented a remorseful woman struggling with mental disorders she didn't know she had. She has bipolar and borderline personality disorders and is on antipsychotic medication.
For the first time ever, the mother of one of Ragusa's victims took the stand to discuss the effect the case has had on her son's life.
He was 14, suffering from depression and taking special classes, when he was assigned to push Ragusa's wheelchair around Davidsen Middle School after she broke her foot. She told him he seemed shy and she could help him overcome that, authorities said. They had sex that afternoon in her apartment, the first of three sexual encounters.
The mother said Ragusa called her, expressing a special interest in her son's needs.
"She had access to their charts as far as their emotional behaviors," the mother said. "I feel that she was very conniving in picking these boys out and preying on them. She used that to manipulate them and seduce them."
The case has weighed on her son.
"He has dealt with a lot of guilt," she said. "He blames himself. ... He even got to the point where he became aggressive with everything, just wanting this all to go away."
That victim would have been prepared to testify, prosecutors said, but Ragusa pleaded guilty in April to three counts of lewd or lascivious battery in his case. Neither he nor the second victim went to the sentencing.
The second victim was 16 when he and Ragusa had sex. It happened about 20 times, authorities said, in encounters that continued even after she had been arrested and told to stay away from him.
As part of a deal, prosecutors dropped seven counts against her in that case. She pleaded guilty to two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor.
Hillsborough County sheriff's Detective Travis Valles said that boy was living without electricity and air-conditioning, and with no family to count on for rides. Ragusa bought the boy clothes, named him executor of her will and professed her love in a letter that the state obtained.
"They relied on each other emotionally," Ragusa's attorney said of that relationship. "God knows what would've happened to this boy had he continued to live in a place where no one cared about him."
The judge shifted in his seat.
Ricardo Ragusa spoke in defense of his daughter, describing her as a devoted sister to her autistic older brother and asking for mercy so she could return to his home to help care for him.
She got most emotional when talk turned to her brother. The month before her initial arrest, his care managers started the process to have him live with her.
Herce cited the 2003 death of Ragusa's mother as a contributor to her state of mind, but he said he didn't want to give excuses.
Ragusa said she was sorry.
"I never intended to harm anyone," she told the victim's mother. "I realize that those words do not suffice. Please know that I pray earnestly for some measure of peace in your lives."
Ragusa would have faced 22 to 45 years in prison had a jury found her guilty of all the charges. Instead, the plea deal capped her sentence at 10 years in prison. Herce asked for probation or house arrest, but prosecutors pushed for the maximum.
And Tharpe gave it to them.
After serving the 10 years, with credit for the two years she has already served, Ragusa will serve a total of 15 years of probation.
The sentence labels her a sex offender for life.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.
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- Debra LaFave, a Greco Middle teacher, got three years of house arrest and seven years' probation for sex with a 14-year-old boy.
- Jaymee Wallace, a Wharton High basketball coach, got three years in prison and three years' sex offender probation for a sexual relationship with a student on the girls basketball team.
- Ronald Lewis got one year of house arrest and nine years of sex offender probation for unlawful sexual activity with a girl he coached in soccer at Newsome High.
- Christina Butler, a former Middleton High teacher, got five years' sex offender probation for sex with a 16-year-old male special education student.