Michael Stavris, the ex-Bunnell cop who impersonated his girlfriend’s daughter through a Facebook page he created in her name and used it to solicit sexually explicit pictures from minors, was sentenced this afternoon in Bunnell to three years in prison followed by five years’ probation. He was arrested in 2014.
Stavris, 32, had faced up to four years in prison. His defense attorney had asked for probation, and that his 10 years’ service as a cop should count in his favor, though the prosecution argued that precisely because he was a cop, he should be held to a higher standard.
Stavris himself pleaded for “mercy” before Circuit Judge Matthew Foxman at the end of a 90-minute sentencing hearing. He asked not to be sent to state prison in what amount to a plea for his life: “It’s known that cops and pretty much if anyone finds out you have a conviction for hurting children or anything, you’re pretty much not going to make it out,” he told the judge. He asked to be sent to the county jail. That would have been possible if he’d been sentenced to less than one year. (The Florida Department of Corrections makes provisions for ex-cops serving time, to ensure their safety.)
Though Foxman earlier quipped derisively and surprisingly about the prosecution making this “the crime of the century,” when he himself sees such impersonations “all day, every day,” he was ultimately unmoved by Stavris’s and his attorney’s pleas. “Mr. Stavris, let me tell you this, bottom line,” Foxman said. “There is no place for this behavior in decent society. It’s that simple. There’s no place for it.”
The sentencing hearing revealed in more detail than ever before the extent and motives of Stavris’s impersonations, including an apparent streak of bigotry: when his girlfriend discovered that he was behind the fake Facebook page that impersonated her daughter, she confronted him. He told her that he’d created the page to protect her daughter, because her daughter, 16 years old at the time, was dating a boy he didn’t like, and he wanted to break them up. The boy was black. That was one of the reasons he wanted the break-up, he told the girl’s mother, though he would later claim that the boy was suspected of burglaries and gang connections.
But the sequence of events undermined the claim. The Facebook account was created in November 2013. The girl and the boy started dating only the following January. And Stavris, the hearing revealed, had been disciplined while at the Bunnell Police Department for twice doing the very same thing previously, creating accounts that impersonated adult women, until complaints were lodged with the department.
It’s not known to what extent or what ends Stavris used those accounts. (Stavris, the department later acknowledged, also improperly used police databases to conduct background checks on city commissioners. He was not disciplined.) But a Florida Department of Law Enforcement investigation revealed the details of Stavris’s use of the account impersonating the 16-year-old girl. Investigator Veronica Edwards, a special agent with FDLE, testified today that Stavris used the account to portray the 16-year-old girl as sexually licentious, telegraphing the looser morals to her classmates at Flagler Palm Coast High School. The girl was in turn traumatized by the changed reception she’d get at school, the stares and assumptions about her reputation, to such a point that she quit school and continued her education online.
Patterns of fabrications online and misuse of a law enforcement database were not admitted as part of the sentencing.
“Put yourself in her shoes for a minute,” the girl’s mother was heard telling Stavris in a controlled phone call—the FDLE had arranged it during the investigation, Stavris was unaware—that the prosecution played at today’s hearing. “She’s a 16-year-old girl in the 10th grade of high school, and she’s walking around every day now, she goes to school, and she looks around, and she’s got to be looking at every guy, thinking in her mind, did ‘she’ talk to him, did ‘she’ ask him for a picture of his penis, did ‘she’ tell him that ‘she’d’ give him head behind the high school?”
The 14-minute phone call showed Stavris to be remarkably self-centered, less worried about the girl than about his fate. Immediately after his ex-girlfriend had told him to put himself in the girl’s shoes, his reaction was not about the girl, about whom, he claimed to be concerned and for whom he professed love. Rather, he said, hardly pausing: “Have you told anybody else what happened after we broke up, other than your mom?”
Moments later, he asks the woman: “Do you hate me?”
“I don’t hate, I don’t have that emotion in me, but I very well could,” she tells him. He then presses her to find out who had tipped her off about his fabrication. She doesn’t tell him, worried, she said, about what he might do to that person. (The two briefly reconciled after the investigation, the hearing revealed.)
The FDLE investigator testified that Stavris used the Facebook account to get in contact with “multiple” under-age individuals and solicited them for images of their genitals, at times getting into sexually explicit live messages with under-age boys. Her investigation detailed Stavris asking to see a boy’s “dik” or see him in his underwear, and alleging himself to be “bi.” He got the picture of one person’s penis, but that person had just turned 18, so it did not result in a charge against Stavris. Stavris asked an underage boy to send him his picture “giving head.” The boy did not. In one case, Stavris sent the pictures of a pair of breasts to one of the people he was communicating with. They were the breasts of his own girlfriend at the time, now 36—the victim’s mother.
Stavris was originally charged with three felony counts: two violations of the computer pornography and child exploitation prevention act, and criminal use of personal identification information, all third-degree felonies. In a plea deal, the charges were amended to two counts of felony child abuse, and the criminal use of personal information—still all third-degree felonies, with one key difference: the new charges would not expose Stavris to being a sex offender the rest of his life, a substantial concession by the prosecution. But he would still face jail or prison time, as proved to be the case in Foxman’s final judgment.
Both the girl’s mother and the girl, now an 18-year-old woman, were in the courtroom today. Both made a statement to the court.
“It was as if a bomb went off in my life,” the girl, now in college and preparing for a career as a veterinarian, told the court, standing at a podium in front of the judge and speaking in a faint voice. “It started in school with people talking about me and saying nasty things behind my back. It got to the point where I was no longer comfortable going to school.” She broke down, paused, then resumed. “Or anywhere. I left school and finished the rest of high school online because I wasn’t comfortable.” For at least the first year, she said, she stopped talking or going anywhere for fear of being recognized. “I avoided any possible social activity.” She developed anxiety and on the edge of depression. “I felt as if my own life was out of my control and there was nothing I could do to get back in control of it.”
Her mother, a supervisor at a 911 center, echoed her daughter’s statement. She asked that Stavris be sentenced to four years in prison. It was after that statement that the puzzling exchange prompted by Foxman unfolded.
“I don’t know how to say this the right way,” Foxman said, “but just about everybody I know in my personal and my professional life has had some sort of computer file or identity hacked in some way. Why did this have to be so traumatic for your daughter. I don’t understand it. I’m not at all defending what’s been pled to. My question is why did this go off the rails on that level?”
“Because,” the girl’s startled mother replied, her voice quivering, “she was a 16-year-old girl and having people she goes to school with think that she’s giving them blow jobs behind the school during their lunch break, and females for attacking her believing that she’s offering their boyfriends this stuff, and these boys thinking that she’s spreading her stuff all over town, when she’s had one boyfriend, and he’s here.”
“I don’t minimize what your daughter went through,” Foxman said. “My point is ma’am, if you sit through juvenile court, and you want to use FPC for an example, because I hear about it every day, every single student is dealing with this on some level or another. It doesn’t make it right. I know it’s awful. It’s awful. But I mean, why did this become so uniquely bad—I mean that she had to leave school?”
“Would you want her to continue and kill herself like a lot of teenagers do? I feel like I’m being—I don’t know, I feel like I’m being challenged, I don’t understand why.”
“I’m trying to understand. I mean, we’ve all been bullied in our lives,” Foxman said.
“This was done by a police officer. You’re supposed to look at these people as respected person that takes an oath to protect and—”
The judge said he was just trying to understand the process of how the case happened. The girl’s mother said she wasn’t going to tolerate what her daughter was going through, or tell her to “suck it up,” but that there should be consequences.
Whatever discomfort the exchange might have caused vanished not long afterward, when Foxman pronounced sentence.
Foxman gave Stavris a chance to speak. Stavris said he was sorry. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everything that happened, everything that went on,” he said. “I Can’t take back anything that happened.” But that was it as far as his atoning words. The rest was turned back onto himself. “I’m afraid, my mother she’s dying, I’m the only one who takes care of her,” he said, before pleading for special treatment: “I’m afraid if I go to [prison] that I’m always going to have to look over my shoulder, being that I’m a law enforcement officer. I probably wouldn’t make it out of state prison, and I’d much rather feel safer in one of the county jails than in one of the state prisons, your honor. I just can’t reiterate how much I’m sorry. Since I was a kid, all I wanted to do was be a cop. That’s done with.”
Mother and daughter leaned into each other when sentence was pronounced, clearly approving of the punishment.