The former member of Boulder’s Shambhala Center who pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a child in the late 1990s was sentenced to 20 years in prison Tuesday.
Michael Smith, 55, pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and attempted sexual assault on a child in March, with attorneys agreeing on a sentence of 15 to 25 years in prison.
Smith was originally set for sentencing on June 5, but at the end of that hearing Smith asked about trying to withdraw his guilty plea, leading Boulder District Judge Bruce Langer to delay the sentencing.
Smith ultimately decided not to ask to withdraw the plea, and reaffirmed the decision Tuesday when asked by Langer.
Prosecutors asked for 25 years in prison while Smith and his defense attorney Steve Louth asked for 15, but Langer ultimately split the difference and issued a 20-year prison sentence on the first-degree assault count followed by five years of mandatory parole.
Langer also issued a three-year prison sentence on the attempted sex assault charge that will run concurrent to the 20-year sentence.
“Our office appreciates the victim’s strength in coming forward and disclosing what this defendant did to her when she was a child,” Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty said in a statement. “The trauma inflicted upon children who are sexually assaulted can often remain with them for their entire lives. It is because of this victim’s courage, and the excellent work by the Boulder Police Department, that this outcome was reached.
“The Boulder Police Department worked hard and put together a very strong case, which led to the defendant’s guilty plea and today’s sentence. Justice was delayed, but not denied. For other kids, and for our community, this is the right outcome.”
‘I was a child, and the adults around me failed’
Prosecutors allege Smith sexually abused a girl multiple times starting in 1997.
According to an arrest affidavit, the girl lived in Boulder and her family was heavily involved in the Shambhala community. Her parents took her to a Shambhala retreat in Vermont every year, which is where she said she first met Smith when she was 9 or 10 years old.
Police said the girl’s family often rented out rooms in their house to other Shambhala members, and Smith lived at the house for two to three years. During that time, the woman told police Smith sexually abused her numerous times, performing oral sex on her, forcing her to touch his privates, and kissing her breasts.
The girl first told a family friend about the abuse in 1998 and then told her parents, according to a police report.
According to the report, a Buddhist teacher told the girl’s family to have Smith enter a “restorative justice” program rather than go to police. Smith entered treatment and also paid for the girl to go to therapy.
The family told police in 1998 they did not want to pursue charges.
Langer said that while it is not unusual for sex assault allegations to come out after the actual incident, he did say this case was unusual in that Smith already admitted to some of the conduct and went through treatment without a criminal case.
Louth has repeatedly said he wished the case had been prosecuted in 1998 and that Smith would have been sentenced differently back then, but Langer said he was not sure that would be the case.
“We don’t know what the real effect is on the passage of time,” Langer said.
But the victim, who listened in on the June 5 hearing but on Tuesday chose to address the court, said it was not her fault that a case was not filed 25 years ago.
She said it was disappointing to hear members of the public speaking on Smith’s behalf, many of whom said the knew about the incident at the time and some of whom made comments about the victim’s looks and behavior.
“I heard character witnesses say they knew and didn’t do anything,” she said. “I was a child, and the adults around me failed.”
The victim said she came forward not for herself or to see Smith punished, but to protect other girls who might be victimized.
“It is clear to me the defendant takes no responsibility for his actions,” she said.
Langer also said he was worried about Smith’s level of acceptance.
“I do have significant concerns that Mr. Smith, even now, after his treatment, doesn’t fully get it, and isn’t fully owning up to what happened,” he said.
Langer said he watched an interview Smith gave to police in which, “the general sense that one gets is Mr. Smith was minimizing this conduct, that he was victim blaming.”
The judge pointed to two statements in particular in which Smith said there was “no stopping (the victim)” and about the victim never using their “safe word.”
“I just don’t know what to say about that,” Langer said. “It’s hard to imagine anyone saying that about sexual contact with a child.”
Boulder Senior Deputy District Attorney Laura Kinde also pointed out another woman has come forward since the sentencing hearing and accused Smith of similar conduct in Pennsylvania eight years ago.
Prosecutors said information on the Pennsylvania case was sent to local authorities so they could make a decision on charges.
This is in addition to another woman who accused Smith of inappropriate conduct in Vermont in the 90s, though local authorities did not pursue that case.
“We want to thank the survivor for coming forward and reporting what happened to her over 20 years ago,” Kinde said in a statement. “In doing so, we were able to discover other young girls the defendant had victimized and stop the defendant from perpetrating sexual abuse on any additional young girls. The Boulder Police Department did an outstanding job with this investigation and because of that we were able to secure a conviction and sentence that will protect the community for years to come.”
While neither case has resulted in charges, Langer said the law does allow him to take the allegations into account when sentencing.
“They’re strikingly similar, and that’s very concerning,” he said.
While Langer limited comments at this hearing because of the June 5 hearing, he did allow Smith to address the court again. Smith again pointed out he had already gone through treatment in 1998 and said 15 years was “a tremendous amount of time for something that happened 25 years ago.”
“I am deeply regretful,” Smith said. “I did admit what I did back then, I feel a tremendous amount of remorse that is tearing through my heart, and that is the truth.”
But in response to Smith’s repeated plea of, “What more could I have done?” the victim had a response.
“He could have taken responsibility, he could have really gotten help,” she said. “He could have never hurt me.”
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