At first, Mark William Ackett couldn’t bring himself to look at the dozens of former students, friends and colleagues who filed in to a Hillsborough County courtroom on Monday.
For a few moments the 52-year-old former teacher met their gaze while addressing the court at the start of his sentencing hearing. But then he would swallow hard and look down at his long-awaited apology - reading aloud for roughly 10 minutes in the clear, steady voice of a life-long educator.
Judge Laura Ward sentenced Ackett to 15 years in a Florida prison on Monday evening, and sex offender probation for the rest of his life.
“There’s so much suffering in this case by so many different people due to the actions of the defendant. There’s very little I can say today to make any of that better,” she said.
He stayed composed, head bowed on his chest and eyes closed, for the two hours his friends, fellow church members, neighbors and wife of nearly 30 years begged Judge Ward to be merciful and lenient in her sentencing decision. Prosecutors pointed out that, under state law, the sentence for pleading guilty to 324 counts of video voyeurism - which Ackett did in an April Zoom hearing - would equal roughly 366 years in state prison. In a sentencing memorandum filed ahead of Monday’s hearing, his defense attorneys asked for a maximum of three years and time on probation, promising Ackett would continue seeking treatment for a diagnosed “voyeristic disorder.”
But when his victims had their turn to speak, Ackett crumbled. He sobbed in his chair.
Eva Applebee was the first victim to speak. She’s a longtime teacher at Bloomingdale High School who worked alongside Ackett for 12 years, when he was an assistant principal at the school and then, after a stint working in the district offices, when he returned in 2017 as the girl’s track coach and the school’s fashion design teacher.
In the roughly 20 months after Ackett returned to the school in January 2017 he collected, cropped and edited hundreds of nude and partially-nude videos and photos of 125 victims changing in the fashion design class dressing room. All were students except for Applebee.
Applebee spoke Monday of the shock and disbelief she felt when she learned she was the only adult employee at the school in Ackett’s videos. It felt like she had been punched in the stomach, she said, when she realized his cameras were discovered in the classroom they shared, which students now call the “room of horrors.”
“What Mark did was not an isolated lapse of judgement but calculated and deliberate criminal acts,” Applebee said. “Mark groomed and chose his victims - gaining their trust and then taking advantage of them.”
The court heard tearful testimony from a parent whose daughter was 15 when Ackett recorded her changing in his classroom.
“I can’t trust the school system, I can’t trust the teachers or the coaches, I can’t trust anyone anymore,” she said.
Five former students identified in Ackett’s images read letters in court describing the the anguish they felt in the days since his arrest. Prosecutors didn’t read their names aloud in court because they were minors when the sexual abuse charges occurred.
Anything less than life in prison would be a “free pass,” some victims said. They spoke of how angry they were when they learned that Ackett’s mother bailed him out of jail two days after his arrest and spoke of how nervous they were of bumping into him after learning he was allowed to stay home with his family while awaiting trial.
Some of the students said they struggle with depression and anxiety. One victim went from being a standout on the girl’s track team to quitting completely. Another, who was only 12 when she began attending devotional Bible studies at Ackett’s home, no longer goes to church.
“When I found out what you had done I was filled with disgust, but when I found out I was a victim I was filled with hate,” she told Ackett on Monday. “I hope you can get the help you need, because you need help, and I hope that one day I can see you in heaven. But I think you need nothing less than the maximum sentence for everything you’ve done to us.”
One victim told the court that she spent her father’s birthday sitting with two sheriff’s deputies, identifying pictures of her naked body. Another victim said Monday’s sentencing was also the first day of her senior year of college - a time forever darkened by Ackett’s criminal case. She identified herself in 18 different videos, she said.
“I went back to my dorm feeling disgusted and violated and as if someone was watching me,” she said. “I remember I felt like I had to take a shower, but when I entered the shower stall in my dorm I was still fully clothed. That’s how I shower now - sitting on the ground in my clothes until I can build up enough courage to undress.”
The victims’ testimonies rattled those who came to speak of Ackett’s character. They described Ackett as a good neighbor, a good coach, a volunteer for his kids’ marching band, a trusted Sunday school teacher and a loving husband to his wife Jennifer.
“I wish I could go back and change what I did, or do something to make amends but I know that I cannot,” Ackett said to the court. “I feel especially ashamed of what I did because you treated me with such care. Some of you confided in me your fears and problems, and many of you consider my classroom a safe place to escape the problems that you face. I will never forgive myself for turning something that should have been a fond memory for you into something that you would rather forget.”
Ruben Drake, cognitive behavioral therapist told the court that in his 53 counseling sessions with Ackett since his arrest, his clinical opinion is that Ackett is not a threat to the community, is not a pedophile and is committed and capable of recovering from his compulsions. His fantasies weren’t about having sex with underaged students, but were triggered by the thrill of secretly watching them, Drake said, and Ackett’s shame and remorse is “overwhelming.”
“It’s a mental disorder and it can be treated,” Drake said. “People can be benevolent in one area and then have a disorder in another. He’s not a bad person, but he certainly had some bad behaviors.”
Childhood trauma led Ackett to develop voyeuristic disorder, Ruben said. He knew he needed help, but didn’t know where to go without risking his job, his freedom and his family’s reputation.
If it wasn’t for one of Ackett’s 17-year-old fashion design students, he would have never been caught, Applebee said. The girl was changing clothes in a dressing area inside a fashion design classroom and noticed a box on a shelf with a light coming from it. Inside, she found a cell phone that appeared to be recording. She found a second cell phone and told the school principal, who notified the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office.
Ackett told deputies he had been recording students without their knowledge. The recordings began in January 2017.
“He is an excellent actor, having fooled us and his very own family for years,” Applebee said. “Acting like he cared, like he respected us. But instead we found out it was a big act.”