LANCASTER — The four Grant County Circuit Court cases against Robert VanNatta of Platteville reached an unexpectedly quick conclusion Friday morning.
VanNatta was sentenced to 15 years in prison and 10 years extended supervision after he pleaded to 44 of the 105 charges he was facing.
VanNatta pleaded no contest to two felonies — kidnapping and exposing a child to harmful material — and 41 misdemeanors — 40 counts of having sex with a child age 16 or older and one count of resisting or obstructing an officer. He entered an Alford plea to a charge of solicitation of first-degree intentional homicide. In an Alford plea, the defendant does not admit guilt, but admits there is enough evidence for a conviction.
Five charges were dismissed but used as read-ins — three counts of felony bail jumping, possessing explosives for an unlawful purpose, and false imprisonment. The other 56 charges — 27 counts of child enticement — expose sex organ, 27 counts of exposing genitals to a child, solicitation to resist or obstruct an officer with intent to mislead, and solicitation of harboring or aiding a felon by falsifying information — were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
Circuit Judge Robert VanDeHey assessed the sentences on the four series of charges — 15 years prison and 10 years extended supervision on the kidnapping charges, 7½ years in prison and five years extended supervision on the solicitation of intentional homicide charges, nine months in jail on the resisting an officer charge, and four months jail on each of the 40 sex-with-a-child counts plus 1½ years in prison on the charge of exposing a child to harmful material — concurrently.
“The kidnapping particularly is egregious,” said VanDeHey. “It comes down to the question of your dangerousness and what is the minimum time to protect society from you.”
On the sexual offenses, VanDeHey said to VanNatta, “You took advantage of a young lady; you took advantage of someone who trusted you.” The charges were “a continual effort on your part of taking advantage of somebody. It makes you to be a despicable person, but it doesn’t command the same type of response as kidnapping and perhaps solicitation” of first-degree intentional homicide.
VanDeHey ordered that VanNatta have no contact with his wife, the victim in the kidnapping charge, and that he undergo testing for sexually transmitted diseases. VanDeHey did not require that VanNatta register as a sex offender, contrary to what the Grant County District Attorney’s office had requested.
VanNatta initially faced 907½ years in prison had he been convicted of all 105 charges and sentenced to the maximum penalties. A trial date had been set on the largest group of charges before the sudden plea agreement Friday.
“Bob admits what he did and is sorry for it too; he did not want yet more hearings,” said Christopher Van Wagner, VanNatta’s attorney. “Why is this happening so quickly today? Because Bob is healthy mentally and physically today for the first time since I’ve represented him.”
At his competency hearing Jan. 10, VanNatta was brought into the courtroom in a wheelchair, having conducted a hunger strike, according to Van Wagner, since Dec. 26. VanNatta walked into the courtroom Friday.
“I’m really sorry for what I’ve done,” said VanNatta. “My mental state was very bad at that time, and yes, I’m back on my medications, and yes, I would like to be a better person.”
Van Wagner argued that VanNatta’s actions were the result of mental illness that started with hospitalization in the former Boscobel psychiatric unit 20 years ago.
“He tried to kill himself,” said Van Wagner, mentioning five suicide attempts, including two hunger strikes in the Grant County Jail, over the past 20 years. “That is mental illness,” set off by “the end of a marriage he did not want to end.
“This wasn’t some gun-toting wild-eyed lunatic … it was a latent but as we know treatable condition. … That’s what will protect the community the best, treatment of that.”
VanNatta was arrested in late March after the parents of a juvenile female learned about a relationship between VanNatta and their 16-year-old daughter. The Grant County Sheriff’s Department investigation reported that VanNatta had used a cellphone to send sensitive materials to the girl.
District Attorney Lisa Riniker said the girl wanted VanNatta imprisoned for life, and “Certainly he was taking advantage of her — there’s no other way around it.”
“The greatest offense element … was the betrayal that was engaged in,” said Van Wagner, who argued against sexual offender status for VanNatta. “This is not a man who was ever engaged with kids in a pedophilic sense, and yet the rules are one-size-fits-all.”
The second set of charges stem from an incident that took place at VanNatta’s home on Jones and Vaassen Lane April 19.
“It is hard for me to see any mitigating factors,” said Assistant District Attorney Anthony Pozorski. “Think about the sheer terror that she goes through for that period of time.”
The remaining charges were the result of an investigation at the Grant County Jail in which VanNatta was accused of soliciting a jail inmate to kill his wife, and accused of soliciting a former inmate to plant drugs in VanNatta’s wife’s car.
“He’s in jail, and he’s talking to people about having [his wife] killed,” said Pozorski. “How much fear does that cause? … How long should she be afraid? … She’s going to wonder if he’s talked to somebody else. How long should she worry about that?”
Pozorski said VanNatta tried to get a Grant County jail inmate to stage his wife’s death as a horse-riding accident.
Van Wagner termed the solicitation attempt “almost comical” and “could be viewed as loose talk. … That’s not the way that a criminal figure would act.”
Pozorski said VanNatta then tried to have another man plant drugs in his wife’s car to discredit her possible testimony in a potential trial on the kidnapping charge, and so “she’d get locked up and be put in jail for a while, and then she’d know what it’s like” to be in jail.
“We’re talking about a man who’s very selfish, very vindictive, very mean, and most importantly who’s very dangerous.”
Van Wagner said the man VanNatta’s sister, Sally VanNatta-Ladd, 52, Dodgeville, hired to plant drugs in VanNatta’s wife’s car “just took the money and they ran.” Van Wagner called it “as undangerous and as inchoate as you could imagine for that crime.”
VanNatta-Ladd was fined $1,894 after she pleaded no contest to a charge of resisting or obstructing an officer Oct. 11.
VanNatta will receive credit for his 288 days in jail since his arrest.