A former Escambia County deputy has been found guilty of sex offenses against a juvenile victim.
After a two-and-a-half day trial, jurors unanimously convicted Walter Michael Thomas, 45, of the three counts of “unlawful sexual activity with certain minors.” Thomas’ bond was revoked immediately following the verdict, and he was scheduled for sentencing Sept. 6. Thomas faces a maximum of 45 years in state prison, according to prosecutors.
The allegations against Thomas were that he and spouses Douglas and Leah Manning joined in a “foursome” with a 16-year-old female victim during the fall of 2014. Thomas denied the charges, but the Mannings and the victim took the witness stand and swore to Thomas’ involvement.
The Mannings — who testified to dallying with numerous sexual partners including two juveniles in their “open marriage” — are former paramedics who are both facing more than 100 years in prison for sex offenses. Thomas, one of the couple’s adult sex partners, was a SWAT team member at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office who was preparing to test for sergeant rank.
The verdict ultimately came down to which of the parties the jury found more credible.
Thomas’ attorney, Patrece Cashwell, suggested to jurors that Leah Manning and the victim lied about Thomas’ participation in the 2014 sex act to earn brownie points with the State Attorney’s Office prior to Manning’s sentencing. Cashwell argued there had been inconsistencies in statements from the Mannings and the victim, including details such as what the participants were wearing the night of the foursome, what order the sex acts occurred in and what everyone did after the incident.
“They may have had enough contact to work out the big details,” Cashwell told jurors in her closing argument. “It’s the little details that are killing them.”
Cashwell claimed evidence showed that Leah Manning and the victim had communicated while Manning was in jail — in violation of a court order — and the victim’s testimony had begun to shift slightly to align with Manning’s.
Assistant State Attorney Anne Patterson countered that there was no evidence Manning and the victim ever spoke about the case in their communications, and said the minor details of the case were just that: minor details.
Patterson suggested to jurors it was not inconceivable that a teen-aged victim of horrific sexual abuse would forget something like whether one of her abusers was wearing shorts or pants the night she was assaulted. Patterson said “so what” if a few minor details of the victim’s testimony changed a bit, “What didn’t change is what she said Mike Thomas did to her.”
The prosecutor added that no one promised Manning anything in exchange for her testimony. Patterson described Leah Manning’s actions as “despicable, unbelievable and horrible,” but said in the end Manning decided to confess and protect the victim instead of herself.
“It was her choice to step forward and take the stand and humiliate herself in order to save (the victim) from any further trauma,” Patterson said of Manning.
Patterson told jurors there was no conspiracy to frame Thomas, no ill will toward him from the Mannings and no secret deals to implicate him from the state. The prosecutor said Thomas was simply paying the price for his own poor decision.
“In his swirling world of his disgusting life with the Mannings, he got carried away,” Patterson said to jurors.
Thomas was largely impassive as the verdict was read, though he occasionally cast glances back at his sobbing family before he was led away.
Thomas’ case is the first of four cases involving the Mannings to go before a jury. The Mannings are expected to plead to numerous charges for their alleged crimes involving minors, though they have not done so yet.
A second former deputy, Mark Gene Smith, is also accused of committing sexual offenses on a juvenile during his association with the Mannings. Smith has pleaded not guilty to the charges. His trial date has not yet been set.