Cowan sentenced to seven years for online enticement of a minor

Dusty Cowan, 41, of Wrangell, was sentenced to seven years in prison last week for online enticement of a minor and distribution of indecent materials to a minor. His crimes included “soliciting sexual photos from a minor as well as sending photos of his (genitals) to the minor,” according to a statement from the Alaska Department of Law.

The victim was 14 years old when Cowan began initiating sexually explicit conversations and video chats with her via Facebook Messenger. He had known the victim since she was in kindergarten and was a “father figure” to her, according to Assistant Attorney General Bailey Woolfstead, who argued on behalf of the state at the sentencing hearing Dec. 12 in Wrangell.

Though he did not physically assault the victim, she had spent four summers in his home prior to his criminal behavior. “Everybody knew that she was headed back to live with the family,” said Sitka Superior Court Judge Jude Pate. “The meeting was preordained, it was just a question of what was going to happen,” Pate said.

The victim’s mother had found evidence of his crimes on her daughter’s phone and contacted the authorities before another meeting could take place.

Cowan was arraigned in April 2019 but was not tried and convicted until June 2022 due to state court pandemic delays. A Ketchikan jury found him guilty on both charges. He has been incarcerated since summer.

The sentencing range for his crimes was between five and 15 years. The judge weighed the legitimacy of mitigating factors and aggravating factors — circumstances that could lessen or increase the severity of punishment — to determine the length of the sentence.

The victim and her mother spoke at the sentencing hearing about the lasting impact the case had on their family and the emotional damage the victim had suffered. The state emphasized that Cowan held a position of trust and authority with the victim.

The defense sought a reduced sentence on the grounds that Cowan had “extraordinary” chances for rehabilitation and that his crimes were among the least serious instances of enticement and distribution. Wrangell community members submitted 25 letters of support to the court, highlighting his role as the only auto mechanic in town and asserting his value to the community.

Michael Heiser, the counsel for the defense, read Cowan’s prepared statement for him at the sentencing hearing. In the statement, he wrote that he “didn’t handle the situation like an adult” and that he had “had the chance to find God again” after studying the Bible. “All I can do is let God guide me and divert the demons that trespass against me.”

The prosecution contended that his chances for rehabilitation were “somewhat guarded” due to his age, lack of acknowledgement of the victim, and victim-blaming tendencies.

Woolfstead also addressed the community members who had written letters of support.

“It’s hard as a community member and as a family member to … hear about these messages and think, ‘this is not congruent with the person I know,’” she said. But “I also can’t help but think to myself when you have this much of the town showing up to support a sexual predator and where the victim in essence comes into town and is treated as a pariah, what impact … that has on victims in the future coming forward to report … Does this show victims of future sex crimes in Wrangell how they’re going to be treated?”

The court rejected the defense’s requests for a reduced sentence, which would have allowed Cowan to serve less than five years. Pate concluded that Cowan’s crimes were in the mid- to high-range of severity due to his position of authority in relation to the victim and the fact that he was over 10 years her senior.

“The abuse of trust, it makes it more serious … as opposed to a stranger or someone who is many miles away,” said Pate. “The text messages that were read by Counsel Woolfstead indicate grooming,” he continued. “A plan to go further than simply online activity. It seemed to be ramping up. It seemed to be getting more serious.”

“Counsel Heiser (the defense) argues that it’s ‘least serious’ because Mr. Cowan didn’t actually touch (the victim) — that’s not required by this law,” he added.

Pate also rejected the defense’s suggestion that Cowan had sent lewd images to the victim by accident, given the context of their text exchanges.

The court denied the defense’s request for sentencing referral to a three-judge panel.

Cowan may serve as little as 4.6 years of his seven-year sentence. Once his sentence is complete, he will serve 10 years probation and will be required to register as a sex offender for life.

Though the court cannot control where he will be incarcerated, Pate recommended that he be sent to a facility that offers a sex-offender treatment program. If he completes the program during his sentence, he would be able to return to Wrangell for probation upon release.

 

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