A federal judge in Jacksonville on Monday afternoon sentenced Sean Patrick Farrelly, the former Palm Coast resident and previously convicted felon, to 30 years in prison for having enticed with money, alcohol, drugs and gifts a girl to have sex with him between March 2018 and February 2019 in an L-Section house in Palm Coast and in a trailer. The girl was 16 and 17 at the time.
The federal charge is sex trafficking, but it is, in fact, a misnomer. The case has nothing to do with sex trafficking as it is generally understood–as a commercial enterprise that involved the actual trafficking and pimping of a child through such abusive and dangerous pipelines as prostitution rings, in which children are usually held captive or find themselves unable to free themselves of the abuse. There are no such cases in Flagler County.
The girl was the adopted daughter and granddaughter of Farrelly’s long-time girlfriend, she lived in the same house as Farrelly and her adopted mother, as she had since she was 2, and was never confined or restrained, though she was unquestionably abused and raped, and because she was in Farrelly’s custodial charge, the offense was more grave. But identical cases are commonly prosecuted locally and never called “sex trafficking.”
The Flagler County Sheriff’s Office’s Frank Gamarra investigated Farrelly, developed over innumerable hours a solid case and initially charged him in February 2019 with the charges that the State Attorney’s Office soon ratified: raping a minor in familial custody, a first-degree felony, and unlawful sexual activity with a minor, or statutory rape. Had the case moved from there, it would have likely unfolded like a dozen like it every year, and given the incontrovertible evidence Gamarra had gathered, resulted either in a trial or a plea with similar results–a punishment that, for the nearly 50-year-old Farrelly, amounts to a life sentence.
But in a routine meeting with a federal task force created to fight sex trafficking, federal prosecutors snapped up the case, took over Gamarra’s files, and opted to prosecute it federally as sex trafficking. The case fit the definition in the strictest way possible: since Farrelly had given the girl cash for sex and bought her one gift on Amazon–a Calvin Klein thong–which, however dubiously, checked off the box of “interstate commerce,” the case could be categorized as trafficking a minor.
So it was.
From there on, federal prosecutors only had to fill in a few blanks, since Gamarra and the Sheriff’s Office had done all the work. Given the particularly distasteful nature of Farrelly and his history of violence toward women, it was just as well: a federal sentence is served day for day, so Farrelly will not get to leave prison after serving just 85 percent of his sentence.
The Department of Justice today was happy to advertise in a release the sentence as a win for its Project Safe Childhood, “a nationwide initiative launched in May 2006 by the Department of Justice to combat the growing epidemic of child sexual exploitation and abuse.” The crisis is real, particularly online, but prosecutions conflating cases of familial, community abuse with cases of actual human and sex trafficking as understood even by federal definitions risks diverting awareness and diluting the issue while sensationalizing local cases by creating the false impression of rampant, local trafficking. That is simply not the case in Flagler County.
There was no context or nuance in the Justice Department’s release, leaving readers with the impression that the case rated as sex trafficking as usually understood, and creating the grossly misleading impression that Flagler County had closed its first “sex-trafficking” case in history.
The Justice Department’s release cited court documents to summarize the Farrelly case by saying how he “recruited, enticed, and solicited a 16-year-old child to engage in commercial sex acts, by texting the victim, sending her pictures of money, and providing her with alcohol or marijuana. Farrelly paid the child victim $30 to $40 each time that they engaged in sexual intercourse.”
But an examination of the same court record paints a more accurate picture of a standard-issue predator and brutal man who found a weak victim under his roof–family members or acquaintances of the abused account for 85 percent of child sexual abuse cases–and cultivated her as he dated her grandmother/adopted mother.
One of the more startling parts of the case unraveled during a hearing before federal Judge Patricia Barksdale on April 23, 2019, in a Jacksonville courtroom. Farrelly had filed a motion to be released on bail. Where was he asking to live, and with whom? Back at the Llovera Place house in Palm Coast where the sexual assaults had taken place, and back with the victim’s adopted mother and grandmother, who was herself seeking to have him freed. She was in court, ready to testify.
The motion was denied. But the hearing brought to light details of the case both lurid and shocking that nevertheless put the lie to the charge of “sex trafficking”–terms not once uttered by the judge or the defense and only once by the prosecutor, when she quoted the indictment:
Farrelly, federal prosecutor Ashley Washington said, “would provide payment in exchange for sex. Payment was made in cash and also included alcohol, marijuana, cigarettes, and Amazon items.” (Actually, just the one thong, though Farrelly took the girl to Target, had her wait in his truck, and bought her a vibrator.)
“There were controlled calls between the victim and the defendant where she told him that she was worried about getting pregnant, even though they used a condom,” Washington continued, essentially reading almost word for word the investigative report by Gamarra, the Flagler sheriff’s detective. “She told him he’s the only person she’s ever been with. He assured her she could not be pregnant, and they would discuss it at home.” The girl was experiencing morning sickness. “He then immediately called her back and asked her to promise she was not recording the conversation. He said he didn’t want to talk about it and go to prison. Throughout the rest of the conversation, he kept voicing these concerns about being recorded.” He asked the girl if he was going to jail and told her he was scared and nervous.
Washington outlined the text messages that were the relationship’s currency. “He asked her things like, ‘Want to play?’ which the victim explained meant did she want to have sex, and when she said no, he sent her a text saying, ‘Cash $$$.’ The victim said the defendant typically paid her for sex in the amount of 30 to $40 each time. In another text message exchange, the [Farrelly] asked the victim if she would be ready when he got home, and she said, ‘Maybe.’
He asked, ‘What? Really? You gonna make me wait longer?’ And in response the victim said, ‘Only if you bring me cigarettes home.’” He then told her: “You have to take shots before I get home so you’re primed up.”
At that point Washington was just trying to impress on the judge that releasing Farrelly on bail would be a bad idea. Since he was 33 in 2005, Farrelly had 17 domestic-violence related cases, the prosecution told the court–violation of domestic violence injunction, domestic violence, aggravated stalking after injunction, and battery–though several were dropped or reduced. “As we’re all aware, it is common in domestic violence cases for the victim to have a change of heart or be intimidated into dropping the charges or not cooperating with the prosecution,” Washington said. “Despite his time in prison, [Farrelly] is undeterred and continues to harm women.”
Washington summarized what turned into a litany of violent acts by Farrelly against his ex-wife or girlfriends. The prosecutor also played the tape of a phone call from Farrelly to his girlfriend, from jail, where he clearly showed he had no scruples about violating pre-trial restrictions if allowed out.
And yet it was to his girlfriend of nine years, Vicky Cole–who worked at Kid City USA, a day care center, at the time, and whom he had been charged of assaulting on at least two occasions and convicted on one of those occasions, and who was the victim’s grandmother/adopted mother–that he was seeking to be released.
Farrelly’s own lawyer–his first, Maurice Grant, thought it was a bad idea. “Mr. Grant didn’t feel like I was probably in a good position to do that, so I backed off,” Cole testified of an earlier attempt to get Farrelly released. She claimed he’d been misunderstood.
“He’s just not that same person that you all presented to the Court this morning,” Cole told the court.
“And the victim in this case is both your adopted daughter, and your granddaughter, correct?” Washington asked Cole on cross-examination.
“Correct,” Cole said.
“So given these allegations, you’re comfortable with the defendant living in your home.”
“Because I love him,” Cole said. “because we’ve been together for nine years, because we had built something really good as far as a relationship. We had plans. We had made plans for retirement. And then one day somebody just knocked on the door and shattered everything for me. And once again, I am trying to pick it up again.”
Cole told the judge the victim was 17 at the time of the hearing, and had moved to be with her 25-year-old sister in Bunnell–20 minutes away.
“So fairly close?” Judge Barksdale asked.
Barksdale later asked Cole: “So you would say, if you assess your loyalties, for lack of a better word, they’re more toward Mr. Farrelly than to your granddaughter/daughter?”
“Yes. At this point it is because I think that’s what they have chose,” Cole said, referring to the victim and her sister. She told the judge she had a relationship with neither of them.
“Ms. Cole,” the federal prosecutor asked her at the end of her testimony, “Judge Barksdale just asked you if there’s ever been similar allegations. Isn’t it true that your other daughter did tell you that the defendant actually had sex with her when she was a minor as well?”
“She stated that in your reports and, no, ma’am, she had never told me that. I don’t think I’d be living with somebody that would do that,” Cole said.
Washington said she had no further questions at that point.
“Ms. Cole,” the judge told her, after explaining why she was denying Farrelly’s motion to be released pending trial, “thank you for your willingness to be a third-party custodian, but ultimately I’m not — I don’t find you suitable in this case, under the circumstances, given the history of your relationship.”
Farrelly pleaded guilty two months later and was originally scheduled for sentencing on Sept. 23, 2019. The charge was punishable by a minimum mandatory sentence of 10 years in prison, a maximum sentence of life in prison, supervised release of from five years to life, and a $250,000 fine.
But in early September that year, after Farrelly got a new attorney–Jacksonville’s Ronald Maxwell–Farrelly filed his first delaying motion as Maxwell needed more time to prepare for sentencing. The prosecution granted the delay. The sentencing was moved to January 6, 2020.
On Nov. 14, 2019, Farrelly filed a motion to withdraw his guilty plea. “I advised him that I did not think that that would be in his best interests,” Grant, his first attorney, told the court, but the court agreed to hear the motion, acknowledging that Farrelly had realized the sentencing guidelines “to be significantly more than he might have anticipated,” in the judge’s words.
That started a series of hearings, with further delays prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. Washington during one of the hearings asked Grant why Farrelly wanted to withdraw the plea. Maxwell objected, citing attorney-client privilege, though the judge herself cited previous testimony explaining his reason: “his claim is that his plea was not free and voluntary. That he felt he had no choice,” the judge said at a January 2020 hearing. “He only pled guilty because he needed to protect his family from the harassment — the harassment and threats he was getting.” More to the point, that Grant had not given him “clear advice as to the maximum term of imprisonment that he was facing.”
Grant himself acknowledged in court that he “made a mistake. I mean,” he testified, “I did not anticipate a five-level enhancement for more than one victim when there was actually one victim, but the guidelines provide that if it’s more than one time with a single victim that you can still get the enhancement. I missed that.”
“I take it he was upset?,” Maxwell asked him.
“Correct,” Grant said.
“And you weren’t happy yourself?”
“I was surprised,” Grant said.
“Surprised. OK,” Maxwell commented wryly.
It wasn’t until last December that the court held another hearing on the matter, itself delaying a decision pending further briefs it requested. Last Feb. 9, the court finally ruled, denying Farrelly’s motion to withdraw his plea, so his original guilty plea stood.
Sentencing was set for March 15. Farrelly then filed another motion to delay the sentencing. The court agreed, resetting the hearing to last Monday. “However, the Court is not inclined to grant further continuances absent exceptional circumstances,” the judge ruled. It did not, and Farrelly was finally sentenced.
Farrelly’s judgment orders that he be imprisoned at a federal prison “located as close as possible to Flagler County,” that he receive mental health treatment, and that he “enroll in any educational and vocational programs available.” He will be on probation for 10 years after his release, and require to register as a sex offender for life.