Until his arrest last December on charges of raping and molesting two children, Michael Bowling, 47, lived in a trailer with his wife and teen-age step-daughter in the Mondex. He’s been at the Flagler County jail since. He’s denied all charges.
His first of two trials began today in circuit court in Bunnell, on charges that he molested his step-daughter’s then-15-year-old friend during a sleepover in the summer of 2017. His second trial is scheduled for early next year, on more severe and numerous charges: that he raped and molested his step-daughter for almost half her life, since she was 8.
The jury in the case that started today will not be told about the second trial, or about the charges Bowling faces in the case related to his former step-daughter. (Her mother divorced him.) But it heard both alleged victims testify, with the step-daughter’s friend detailing the events of that sleep-over, which was supposed to last two nights. The alleged victim cut it short the next morning, imploring her grandmother to come pick her up.
In their opening arguments to the jury this morning, the prosecution and the defense were blunt. Assistant State Attorney Melissa Clark portrayed Bowling as a man who ingratiated himself with his daughter and her friend, played games with them, and made them “earn” a bottle of champagne by giving him a back-rub and having the 15-year-old closet herself alone with him twice during a game of “Seven Minutes in Heaven,” where he allegedly molested her–touching her, and masturbating within inches of her.
The defense portrayed the two girls as liars who contradict each other and speak one inconsistency after another, and Bowling as a caring father who’d lived for years in a variety of houses with the family and, almost always, with other family members who lived under the same roof. The defense cast doubt on the claim that inappropriate behavior could have taken place with so many pairs of eyes all around. “This is a case that’s going to be full of lies, and half truths, and poor police work,” said Bill Bookhammer, the defense lawyer, later referring to “at least 10 major inconsistencies between themselves and lies as to what really happened.”
But the prosecution’s evidence is not reliant only on the girls’ testimonies. There is DNA evidence: when the Flagler County Sheriff’s crime scene investigator processed the large closet where Bowling is alleged to have molested the 15 year old, an ultraviolet light picked up evidence of bodily fluids on a wall. It proved to be semen. DNA analysis tied it to Bowling beyond all reasonable doubts. Bowling was asked about the semen at the end of a two-hour interrogation by a detective. He did not have an explanation. Bokhammer told the jury that the semen “has nothing to do with alleged molestation.”
There were two surprises in Bookhammer’s opening arguments. The first was that he revealed up front that Bowling would testify. Defendants rarely testify in their own defense: it’s too risky, it can seem desperate, but if the defendant projects well, combining sincerity with forcefulness, the gamble can pay off.
The second surprise was Bookhammer himself opening the door to allegations from the second, more grave case, though he had previously filed a motion asking that all information about that case be kept out of the jury’s view.
Clark barely skirted around the matter: “She’s also going to describe to you her relationship with her stepfather,” Clark said of the second girl. She did not make any allusions about that relationship. Bookhammer made it explicit: Bowling’s stepdaughter, he said, “is going to say he’s been inappropriate with her, over years,” going back to their years living in Kentucky, before the move to Florida in 2015. “She will claim that this sexual abuse was everything from touching up to intercourse.”
Bookhammer than said the girl was “physically examined” after she came forward with claims about her stepfather, “and the physical exam was absolutely normal,” Bookhammer said. “There is nothing about that physical examination that would suggest sexual abuse at all.” The exam, court records indicate, was performed four days after the last alleged rape.
It isn’t clear what an “absolutely normal” test means: during a break, outside the jury’s view, Clark told the judge she almost objected to Bokhammer making allusion to the girl’s sexual history, calling it “inappropriate,” and said no such suggestions or lines of questioning should be allowed. The judge and Bookhammer agreed.
The jury did not see an outburst by Bowling today, just before lunch, when he was upset that the alleged victim of the molestation in the closet asked for a break at 15 minutes to noon, after being on the stand for 70 minutes and emotionally struggling through her testimony at several points. She was being cross-examined by the defense at that point, having for 60 minutes endured questions clearly, painfully revealing from the prosecution. The judge granted the break and dismissed the jury for lunch, only to hear Bowling complain to him that the girl had asked for a break “just as we were starting to get somewhere,” in Bowling’s words. His implication was that the girl was trying to break the defense’s momentum. There was no hint in the girls’ testimony or demeanor, visibly shaken throughout and spoken in a reed-thin voice, that she was being that strategically wily.
In her testimony, the girl had described how Bowling, her friend and she had been playing cards in her friend’s room when someone suggested that the loser of each turn would have to carry out a dare. When Bowling lost, the girls made him eat a spoonful of hot sauce. When the visiting girl lost, Bowling at first told her she’d have to lift her shirt. When she lost again, he told her she’d have to take her pants and underwear off. When the girl told him she couldn’t, claiming to be on her period, he allegedly said she’d have to lift her shirt again and take off her bra. The prosecutor asked the girl why she eventually complied.
“I sat there, trying to get out of it,” she said but Bowling would keep hurrying her. “I don’t know I just wanted to get it over with, I guess.” And when he asked her again: “I guess I felt I should, because they were all sitting there waiting for me to do it.” When it came time for the closet game, Bowling reportedly said that it would be weird if he ended up in there with his own daughter, so he suggested he go in there with her friend–twice. The alleged assaults over, the girl did not speak of the incident to Bowling’s stepdaughter then, nor to anyone for months.
“One of the reasons was because I had to go to a mental institute for being depressed,” she said. In a conversation with a cousin’s friend, she was told she’d keep being upset every day if she did not speak to someone. She finally spoke to a school counselor, and was subsequently interviewed by the Child Protection Team, triggering the legal case against Bowling, and the additional charges involving his stepdaughter.
The trial is expected to last all week.