On the evening of the accusation, before the police came, Austin Holcomb walked to his neighbors’ house to get his son.
The boy, who was almost 4, had been playing there all afternoon.
The neighbors’ house was a wreck. That Saturday, they had been moving furniture, rearranging rooms. "Can you help me for a minute?" the husband asked. "You want a beer?"
Four kids were upstairs. Holcomb’s son and his friend’s two boys were playing computer games in a loft. The neighbors’ daughter, 4, had a fever and was huddled in her parents’ bed.
Holcomb drank a couple of beers, then helped his friend remove a large mirror from a white dresser. He carried the mirror upstairs, turned on the light in the master bedroom and saw the girl sleeping. He set it by the door, flicked off the light and came back downstairs.
But his friend wanted to put the dresser by the door, so Holcomb ran back up to make room. His friend heard the mirror move.
Both times, the neighbor later told police, Holcomb was back downstairs in less than a minute.
"Come on," Holcomb, 27, called to his son. "It’s time to go."
A while later, as he was tucking his boy into bed, the neighbor’s wife banged on his back door, screaming, "What the hell did you do to my daughter? How could you do this?"
"What are you talking about?" he asked.
Spitting out the words between sobs, the woman said her daughter had just told her he "licked my tee-tee — and asked if I liked it."
Holcomb reeled. "I would never do that! I didn’t do anything," he insisted. "I swear on my life I never touched her."
• • •
Officers picked him up and drove him downtown on March 11, 2017. They swabbed his hands, his mouth, his belt buckle. They asked him to take a lie detector test.
Sure, Holcomb said. Whatever they needed.
He thought he knew what had happened.
Days earlier, his son had walked in on him and his wife having oral sex. He wasn’t sure how long the boy had been watching. They didn’t talk to him about what he had seen, just put him back to bed.
Maybe the boy had been doing what he saw his dad do.
Earlier that evening, Holcomb told police, after being confronted by his neighbor, he had woken his son and asked, "Did you touch her?" The boy had looked away and started to cry.
"Which is what he does when he does something wrong," Holcomb said.
He said his son had been caught with his pants off with other kids twice, and he told police about his own past, about an incident while he was in the Navy. After a night of drinking, a 23-year-old sailor said she woke up to him pulling down her tights. She confronted him, and he stopped. An officer cleared Holcomb of any wrongdoing, and he’d never been convicted of a crime.
St. Petersburg police let Holcomb go home the next morning, without charging him.
More than a year later, two families remain wrecked by what happened on that day.
The girl’s family is still sure it was Holcomb who pulled down her Pull-Up. They didn’t want to be interviewed for this story. Their statements come from police reports and court documents.
Holcomb’s family never believed he could do something like that. They stood by him, even as he lost his career, his home and his freedom.
• • •
Holcomb grew up in rural Pennsylvania, with three siblings.
He met his wife in high school, worked at a grocery store and tried college. But after a close friend was blown up in Afghanistan, he enlisted.
Between deployments, he and Jodi got married. He was away when his son was born and for most of the boy’s first three years.
"He thought I was in a laptop," Holcomb said. "That’s the only way he knew me."
After five years and four deployments — mostly chasing cocaine smugglers — Holcomb got an honorable discharge. He and his wife bought their first house. They knocked down walls, sanded floors, re-stuccoed the outside. He enrolled at St. Petersburg College, where he was training to be a firefighter. He took his son to the beach, taught him to play baseball.
And he hung out a lot with his back-door neighbors. Barbecues. Fishing trips. Splashing with the kids in their pool. They joked about their kids having crushes on each other and caught them kissing in a tree house.
For 10 months, Holcomb lived the life he had longed for. "Then in one minute," he said, "everything changed."
• • •
The neighbor’s wife filed an injunction. Holcomb had to keep at least 50 feet from her property and family.
A couple of weeks later, when he and his wife went to court, the woman asked that the buffer be increased to 500 feet. She said she and her children didn’t feel safe. The judge granted her request.
That meant Holcomb couldn’t go home.
"Jodi packed me a bag," he said. "And I went to my parents’ house. When she came over later that night, I just cried and cried. I couldn’t defend myself. And I could see that this had completely crushed her."
Holcomb’s wife said she never once doubted her husband. But she worried about the depression that took hold of him. "He was listening to our wedding songs, reminiscing, holding onto me," she said. Then he started talking about life and death. "We’ll get through this," she promised.
That night, Holcomb lay awake. He kept seeing his wife’s fallen face, thinking that, somehow, he had let her down, and their boy, too.
"Why?" he shouted in his head, angry at God. "All I wanted was to be with my wife and son."
He knew what happened to people accused of sex crimes, knew they were seldom exonerated and became targets in prison.
Even if he had a trial, and could convince a jury he didn’t do anything, would the sex offender label linger?
He decided his family would be better off without him.
Early the next morning, he sent his wife a text:
"I want you both to have the best life this world has to offer. I can’t give u that, this world keeps s------- on me….we could fight, spend 10s of thousands on lawyers, play the game as they call it. But I don’t want to play games … u can sell the house and start over with money to spare. I want to be relieved of the ugliness of this world … I love you, Forever and a day. Only God can judge me. Plz forgive me, I just don’t know what else to do."
• • •
Jodi Holcomb messaged back, "Babe no!!!" Then, "I’m looking for u." And "I love you." She sent him a photo of them. She called her father-in-law, who called the suicide hotline, then police.
At War Veteran’s Memorial Park off Bay Pines Boulevard, an officer discovered Austin Holcomb’s white Subaru parked in a clearing. The keys were on the front left tire. A cellphone was on the passenger seat.
Two more officers soon arrived and as they were talking near the car, they heard a branch break in the woods. They looked up.
They ran to Holcomb, about 150 feet away. One officer grabbed his feet, another cut the thick rope noosed around his neck. The third officer performed CPR.
When Holcomb came to, the right side of his face drooped. His right arm was numb, as if he’d had a stroke. He looked up and said, "I didn’t mean to hurt anyone."
He insisted he didn’t want a doctor. He just wanted to go home. But officers handcuffed him to a stretcher, and an ambulance carried him to Bay Pines VA Hospital.
There, he got angry.
"Why am I still alive?" he yelled. "God, did you just keep me alive to spend the rest of my life in prison?"
Doctors held him for a week, to make sure he wouldn’t hurt himself or anyone else. When he got out, he and Jodi went to pick up a pizza. They were a speed bump away from his parents’ house when they heard sirens, saw red and blue lights. A pack of police dogs and a SWAT team surrounded them.
Holcomb was charged with lewd and lascivious molestation and sexual battery on a child under 12, a capital felony. The judge denied bail.
• • •
Deputies took Holcomb’s cellphone, his flip-flops, sweat pants, T-shirt and undershorts. They locked him in a solitary cell in the psych ward, naked. For three days, he didn’t see a window or clock. He lost track of time. He shivered and paced and screamed at God in his head.
He kept reading the words someone had scrawled in his cell: Guilty until proven innocent.
Jodi Holcomb knew her husband needed an attorney, so she asked co-workers at the dental office: Who would they recommend? The next day, she called Lee Pearlman, and put their house on the market to pay him.
The first time Pearlman met his client, Holcomb was still naked.
"The state took your suicide attempt as an admission of guilt," the attorney told him. "And the DNA came back. Which is why you are here."
In addition to testing Holcomb, police had taken items from the girl’s bedroom: the elephant in a pink dress, a baby doll holding a turtle, the green lollipop from the bed.
They had swabbed the diaper she had been wearing that night and found male DNA. There was almost no chance that it could be anyone other than Holcomb — except for his son.
The facts made no sense to Pearlman. How could Holcomb have done that in less than a minute?
The lawyer told Holcomb he would do his best. "But now, more than ever, these kinds of accusations have so much weight," he said.
He explained there would be no middle ground: Holcomb would get out and try to rebuild his life. Or he would die in jail.
• • •
The story of Holcomb’s arrest spread across the internet. His charges were read on the TV news.
St. Petersburg College kicked him out of the firefighting program. If he was found not guilty, he could reapply. In the meantime, with two weeks left to finish the course, he had to pay back $3,000 from his GI Bill.
Most of Jodi Holcomb’s friends, and her sister, told her she was foolish to believe her husband. She should get on with her life.
But the man she had fallen in love with was always kind and helpful, almost to a fault. He loved kids. She refused to listen.
She cut off all social media and moved in with her in-laws. His folks have two small dogs, so she had to give their golden retriever, Copper, to her parents — who live in Pennsylvania.
"When is Copper coming home?" their son kept asking.
"When we get our own house again," she would answer.
"When is that?"
"When Daddy comes home."
"Why can’t he come home?"
Four times a week, she drove to the jail and talked to her husband through a video screen. At least once a week, she brought their son. She let him believe Daddy was back in the Navy, just gone on another tour. Like when he was in a laptop.
• • •
By summer, Holcomb had been in jail for three months — and lost 25 pounds. He got to know the other guys in his pod, Reuben and Chester, Jersey and Carlos, all charged with sex crimes. He sketched pictures of handcuffs, chains and broken angels, wrote long letters to his wife.
He requested Popular Mechanics and Time magazines, but the only thing he found to read was a Bible. He had thumbed through one before, years earlier when his parents made him go to church. Unlike his siblings, he had never been baptized.
He flipped through most of the Old Testament in one day, started in on the New Testament the next.
"I was so desperate," he said. "It seemed like it was speaking right to me."
He began going to chapel three times a week. He wrote Bible verses in tiny print, all capital letters, on slips of notebook paper, then slid them into his socks.
"We felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God."
"I can do all things through him who strengthens me."
His wife also had been drawing on faith, going to church with his sister and talking to the minister privately. The pastor, Phil Lewis, went to see her husband, too. "Focus on what is going to happen," he told him. "Not why something already did."
At summer’s end, a jail chaplain asked if Holcomb wanted to be baptized. He said no, he wanted to wait, so Lewis could do it at the beach — with family.
It was the first time he let himself believe that he might get out.
• • •
Holcomb’s lawyer asked Jodi Holcomb to let a psychologist talk to her son. They met Douglas Ramm at his Clearwater office, where she told him the same thing her husband had told police: Twice before, their son had been caught with other children, without their pants on.
And just a couple of days before the accusation, he had walked in on them having oral sex.
Interviewing the boy was almost impossible. He couldn’t sit still, wouldn’t focus, the psychologist said later.
He asked the boy to point to a picture of a pencil. Instead, the boy pointed to a nail. And smiled. "You know that’s not the pencil," said the doctor.
Throughout their meeting, Ramm kept saying, "I know you’re kidding."
Each time, the boy would smile and say, "I’m teasing you."
Ramm asked if he had ever seen his parents without clothes on. The boy looked at his mom and said, "Yes."
The doctor gave him a Ken doll, then a Barbie, and told him he could take off their bathing suits to show him what his parents were doing when he saw them naked. "He began to put them together face to face," Ramm wrote, "and then began to move them in a variety of positions."
Later, he handed the boy an ice cream cone and asked, "How do you eat it?"
"Lick it," he said. And he did.
"Has anyone ever licked you?" asked the psychologist. The boy shook his head no. "Have you ever licked another kid?"
He smiled and giggled, then said, "No."
"I know you’re joking," said the psychologist.
This time, he said, "Yes."
"So you did lick another kid once?"
Eventually, Ramm got the boy to name the girl, and show, on a diagram of a child, where he licked her.
It’s not unusual, Ramm said later, or even alarming. Between the ages of 3 and 6, children often show off their bodies and touch each other, he said. "And even act out things they’ve seen."
"It doesn’t mean he’s going to grow up to be a pervert," said Ramm, who has worked with kids and court cases for 44 years. "It just means parents should lock their doors. And talk to their children about appropriate behavior."
Ramm also visited Holcomb in jail. He asked about family, education, marital history and mental health. He asked about sexual background, preferences and pornography.
Holcomb said he had never been molested, never been interested in children sexually or into pornography.
Ramm knew from the defense attorney that Holcomb’s computer had been confiscated, and it had no evidence of child pornography.
Holcomb didn’t fit the profile of a pedophile, Ramm said later. "It was clear to me that he was a decent guy, falsely accused of one of the worst things you can be accused of in America today. That was my gut feeling. My objective findings were he wouldn’t have done that."
• • •
Lots of the guys in Holcomb’s sex offender pod were taking deals. Even the ones who swore they didn’t do anything. They figured they’d probably be convicted anyway.
In fact, only 3 percent of the 2017 cases resolved to date have ended in acquittal.
Holcomb’s lawyer had asked the state for three years’ probation, with time served, if he’d plead guilty to a lesser felony. But the state refused. And Holcomb refused to plea.
He’d still be labeled a sex offender, unable to go to his son’s school or coach his baseball team.
Holcomb took the lie detector test. And passed.
A trial date was set for November. Then December.
On Jan. 9, when his case finally was called, Holcomb had been in jail 10 months — longer than any of his Navy deployments. That morning, in his cell, he wrote a psalm on a slip of paper. "The Lord is my light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?"
The courtroom was crowded. His family and a buddy from Pennsylvania had come to support him. Since his wife and son were going to testify, they were sequestered.
The girl was one of the first witnesses called. She stated her name. And her age: Now, she was 5. She named her school and her parents, knew their jobs. A lawyer quizzed her about truth and lies.
She was asked to point out her former neighbor and did.
"Okay," the lawyer said. "When you last saw Austin what happened?"
"He licked my private."
Holcomb’s dad started praying. He thought, then, he would lose his son for good.
The next day, the girl took the stand again, going back and forth about whether she was awake or asleep when it happened, whether her eyes were open or closed.
How do you know it wasn’t the boy who licked you? a defense lawyer asked.
For the first time, the girl hesitated. "Because … because it was … because he never would want to get in trouble."
Pearlman put Holcomb’s son on the stand, but the boy kept twirling in his chair, tapping the microphone. He said he remembered playing at the neighbor’s house, jumping on the bed with her …
"Do you remember ever playing alone with her?"
"Yeah," the boy said.
"How did you play with her? What did you do?"
"I didn’t do nothing."
"What was it?" asked the lawyer. "What happened?
"What happened? I just got in trouble. I got caught."
He wouldn’t say what he did. He wouldn’t answer any more questions.
The judge later instructed the jury to disregard the boy’s testimony, because he didn’t seem to grasp the difference between a truth and a lie. He also refused to admit Ramm’s report, questioning the psychologist’s methods.
On the fourth day, after closing arguments, the jury adjourned.
The two families waited in the hall outside the courtroom, in separate huddles, while Holcomb sat in a cell, reciting the psalm in his sock.
• • •
Whatever the verdict, Holcomb’s lawyer told him, don’t react.
Not if they label you a sex offender and lock you up for life. Not if they believe you and set you free.
Whatever happens, one family will walk away feeling wronged.
So when a deputy came to lead Holcomb back into court that afternoon, he kept his head down, jaw set, eyes focused on his feet.
After two hours, the jury agreed with what Holcomb had been saying for almost a year: "The defendant is not guilty."
Everyone in the courtroom, on both sides of the aisle, began to cry. Holcomb wrapped his arms around his attorney and hugged him so hard, he lifted him off the floor.
That night, at his folks’ house, he gobbled a carton of strawberries, the first fruit he’d had in months.
He prayed hard before bed, thanking God. He thought everything finally was behind him.
• • •
On a bright afternoon in late January, a couple of weeks after the acquittal, the Holcombs drove to the lawyer’s office.
They needed something to prove the jury had found Holcomb not guilty. They needed to figure out how to erase the charges.
And clear his name.
"You can’t expunge these cases in Florida," the lawyer told him. "All we can do is seal the case."
That will cost about $950, Pearlman said. And it will take eight months, maybe a year.
Until then, every time anyone ran a background check, the charges would come up. "It will show ‘Not Guilty,’?" Pearlman said. "But it’s still there."
Holcomb left with a copy of the verdict form, printed from the court file. And a letter from the lawyer, saying the charges were being "fully removed from the system."
• • •
"They’re in here somewhere," Jodi Holcomb said, sliding between suitcases in storage unit 3104. "I think I threw all that stuff in together."
She had packed so fast when she sold their house, she didn’t remember where she had put things. Strollers, mattresses, tools and TVs were stacked as high as her head. For so long, their lives had been on hold.
Now, on this warm day in March, they were trying to find her softball glove and his cleats. T-ball season had just started.
Holcomb had always wanted to coach his son’s first team. Now that he was out of jail, he knew he should fly under the radar. What if he filled out that volunteer form and Little League officials backgrounded him? What if they saw that charge? Who would want him around their kids?
But by the second week, no one had stepped up to run the Golden Rays. "I’ll do it," Holcomb heard himself say.
He still hadn’t filled out the form.
"I sent the college letter today," he told his wife, who was digging through duffels. "I put in the jury’s not guilty document and the letter from Lee."
In his note to St. Petersburg College, he hadn’t said what had happened, just that he had been unable to finish the program. And he would like to continue.
"I’ll probably have to meet with the provost," he said. "I hope they let me re-enroll next month."
At the ballfield that night, Holcomb ran laps around the bases, cheering the kids. He plopped next to his son on the grass and showed the team how to stretch, crab walk and alligator crawl. "Okay, we’ve been having a lot of fun out here. But now it’s time to get down to business and learn some basics," he said.
Lesson No. 1: Tying your shoes.
• • •
For a couple of months, the Holcombs’ son talked to a counselor, at school and at home. The therapist was supposed to help him understand the difference between "good and bad touch," Jodi Holcomb said. But the boy often was distracted.
His parents weren’t worried about him. "He was just acting out stuff he saw," Austin Holcomb said.
Holcomb’s sister, Jessica Cummings, was concerned. She had noticed that, since the incident, her nephew "isn’t the same little boy. I want to say he’s just curious." But if he did lick that girl, would he try to do that to her children? Her kids were 5 and 2. She started making sure, when the cousins were together, an adult always was in the room.
When the boy turned 5, insurance stopped paying for that counselor, so his parents had to search for a therapist certified for school-age children. With everything they had going on, they didn’t call.
"We’ll get him back into counseling," Holcomb told his sister. "And I know he and I need to have some conversations. Later."
Holcomb was overwhelmingly upbeat these days. Positive that "God’s got this. So it’s all good."
"He’s so optimistic, it makes me sick sometimes," his wife said.
He answered, "How much worse can it get?"
But he admitted he was more withdrawn, afraid to be open and affable. He used to strike up conversations with strangers.
The prosecutor insists that police charged the right person. She called it "preposterous" that Holcomb would pin this crime on his son.
The psychologist told Holcomb that he should move. Make a fresh start. "That cloud of suspicion is always going to be above you," Ramm said.
Jodi Holcomb was ready to leave Florida. Right away.
But her husband wanted to stay near his family.
He wouldn’t go out much, except to church. When he did, he kept close to his wife. Once, when he lost sight of her in the grocery, he had a panic attack.
Three months after getting out, they were still living with his parents and without their dog. He wouldn’t look for work until his case was sealed. And he hadn’t heard back about the firefighter program.
He was grateful to everyone for believing in him, and for all they had done. But he was getting tired of people telling him how lucky he was.
Veterans Affairs sent a social worker. The woman’s first question: "So you’re not down as a predator?" Holcomb said no. Three times. A jury had cleared him. Did she want to see the paperwork? Shouldn’t that be in his file? "Well, in case you are a predator," she said, "just so you know, we don’t discriminate against those people."
The VA also sent Holcomb to a counselor, because of his suicide attempt. They talked about the case and his time in the Navy, when he saw friends kill themselves and fishermen caught in the drug war.
But the best help he said he got was from the minister who had visited him in jail. After 20 years at Park Place Wesleyan Church, Phil Lewis had left his congregation to become a full-time counselor. He also was renovating a house and hired Holcomb to help.
By early spring, Holcomb had earned his first paycheck. Soon, he was talking about his next fixer-upper: a home of his own.
"We talked to Navy Federal. We can get a VA loan," he told Lewis one afternoon as they were painting a bedroom. "This job has helped more than you know. Just being around you, knowing you’re listening. ... You showed me how much energy it takes to hate, and how to let that go." Holcomb put down his roller and wiped his eyes.
"God can use the good and bad in our lives," said the pastor. "Does he allow bad things to happen? Yes. But he can also use the hell of our lives to bring about really good stuff."
Holcomb nodded. The minister went back to painting. "You know, I almost thank God for all this," Holcomb said softly. "A lot of people wouldn’t have this relationship with God unless they’d gone through something really awful. So maybe I am lucky?"
• • •
The Holcombs skipped their 10-year high school reunion. Their classmates up in Pennsylvania had heard about his arrest, but afterward, few had bothered to ask about the verdict.
So in early May, instead of reliving their past, the couple planned their future.
The firefighting program refused to reinstate Holcomb. He would have to apply and start over. "Maybe that wasn’t meant to be," he told his wife.
He decided he wanted to be a counselor. To do that, he had to go to college.
His wife booked a tour at the University of South Florida, which winds around St. Petersburg’s waterfront. They stood in a circle with high school students and their parents, looking across Tampa Bay, listening to a sunglassed guide talk about boat races. "These trees have been planted perfectly for hanging hammocks," the guide said.
They stopped at Davis Hall, where psychology classes are held. Holcomb elbowed his wife and raised his eyebrows. The next building was the Military and Veterans Success Center. "We have special mentoring for vets," said the guide.
Holcomb saw that as a sign.
• • •
Their new house is smaller than the first: two bedrooms, a one-car garage and a little backyard.
It’s too close to the old one, Jodi Holcomb kept telling her husband. She didn’t like driving near all those memories.
But he had found this one-story near his parents, a place they could afford. He spent three weeks knocking down walls, refinishing floors, gutting the bathroom.
In late June, they finally got their furniture from storage. Her parents drove down from Pennsylvania and brought their golden retriever.
She had enrolled their son in kindergarten. But not in counseling.
"I still need to do that," she told her husband. "We just need to get into our own routine again, open a drawer instead of a suitcase. Nothing’s normal."
"What’s normal?" he asked, as he was hanging the bathroom door. He stopped, looked down from the ladder.
"You know Rod, from the VA?" Jodi Holcomb shook her head no. "My counselor? Anyway, he’s mostly geared toward military combat vets. But since I’m also married, and have a kid, Rod thinks we should do couples’ counseling."
She stared at him. "Well, that’s what he said," her husband said. "I told him we’d both been under a lot of stress."
She couldn’t deny that. The only thing she had splurged on for their new home was a cream-colored pillow, with gray lettering: Pray more. Worry less.
"Until you get into college," she said, "I’m going to be stressed."
The GI Bill will help with housing expenses, but Holcomb can’t use it unless he is enrolled. So until then, money is tight. In a recent rain, their side yard already had flooded, rivulets running from beneath the neighbor’s fence, pooling around their garage. They will have to fix that, figure out a way to split the cost.
But neither of them wants to meet the new neighbors.
• • •
On a July morning, on the way to pick up a cake, the rain suddenly stopped and a double rainbow arched over Walmart.
Jodi Holcomb took pictures. "It’s literally light after darkness," she said to her husband.
They had asked Lewis to baptize them together, in the gulf. So on that steamy Sunday, an hour before sunset, they pulled on new swimsuits and drove to the picnic shelter at John’s Pass. They spread turquoise cloths over the tables, carried in coolers and set out Play-Doh for the kids. They put the cake on the center table. The frosting declared: "God’s Not Dead."
"Can we eat cake now?" their son asked, weaving between them and other family members. "Can we go in the water?"
"In a few minutes, buddy," Holcomb said. "Just hold tight."
As the sky was starting to turn salmon, the minister called everyone to pray.
Fishermen streamed by, pulling carts filled with poles. A boy wearing a blowup elephant ring danced past. A Chevy Suburban, whose owner had been trying to get it to cough back to life, suddenly started.
"Some people call baptism an entry into a watery grave," the pastor said. "Then you’re brought back to new life. That’s your resurrection."
Holcomb thanked everyone for sticking by him, for coming to be with him today. In the last 18 months, he said, he had lost his ability to trust. But he had found faith.
When it was his wife’s turn, she broke down. He had to hold her. "This is the next step," she said. Holcomb kissed her head. "It’s about believing. And being renewed."
They followed the pastor across the wide stretch of sand, into the shallow surf. The water was warm and glassy. They waded out until it swallowed their shoulders.
"You ready?" the pastor asked.
Holcomb closed his eyes and held his breath.
Contact Lane DeGregory at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @LaneDeGregory. Senior news researcher Caryn Baird and data reporter Connie Humburg contributed to this report.