By Mike Heine/The Week
(Published Feb. 14, 2007, 9:38 a.m.)
"There is no reason in the world Michael Becker should be before this court except he made a real bad mistake," Walworth County Judge John Race said at a sentencing hearing for the 47-year-old Washington County Farmers Bureau member.
Michael W. Becker, of 6931 County S, Hartford, did make a mistake that has emotionally scarred a Whitewater family.
After talking with a 17-year-old boy for more than two years through Yahoo Instant Messenger, Becker got in his car one day, drove more than an hour to Whitewater and met the boy at a hotel, where they agreed to meet to have sex.
He pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of having sex with a child age 16 or older and a single charge of disorderly conduct. On Friday, Race sentenced him to serve 30 days in a Huber Dorm with two years probation and no unsupervised or intentional contact with minors except relatives. Becker cannot look at Web sites where he can meet young people.
While the sentencing is one step in the healing process, the boy, who is now 18, and his family are still coping with the stress of the situation that occurred last April, the boy's mother said.
The boy has had to undergo hours of counseling, hospitalization and even suicide watch. His grades have suffered and he is having feelings of depression and humiliation, the mother told Judge Race.
"None of these behaviors were observable to him before this experience with Michael Becker," the mother said.
The family and its insurance company are seeking more than $17,000 in restitution.
After the hearing, the mother spoke with a Week reporter and explained how the Internet was to blame.
The boy met Becker through a Yahoo personals ad and the two communicated through the Yahoo chat service and Myspace.com, a site where people can easily share information about themselves, according to court testimony.
"My generation grew up in a time where we had to be afraid (of strangers). We were taught to look out for strangers that were physically there," she said. "(With) our kids, there's no limit to how a stranger can cause them harm. They can be anywhere."
Including sitting at the other end of a computer.
The boy's parents told him and his sisters of the dangers of Internet predators and expected them not to chat with them, the mother said. The family even kept the Internet out of the home to minimize exposure their children's potential exposure to online predators.
"The ironic things is we don't have the Internet at home because of both of us (parents) working and feeling like we couldn't keep a close enough eye on it, so we didn't want to take that step (and get the Internet)," the mother said. "He was using it other places and we were unable to protect him."
If children want to use a computer and the Internet, they will find a way, the mother said.
That's why it's important to educate children about the dangers of sex predators looming in cyberspace, District Attorney Phil Koss said.
"We are trying very hard to get that message through," Koss said. "People, kids have been schooled for generations--don't get into a car with strangers, don't talk to strangers, don't accept candy from strangers. That's what the Internet does. It opens you up to strangers in a whole new way."
Parents need to be aware of their children's Internet activity and should take steps to do so, such as putting Web site filters on their browser, checking browsing history or using programs that track Internet use.
Defense attorney Lisa Moore said society doesn't need to worry about Becker being a threat to other minors online. He learned his lesson.
"I don't think he needs jail time to show what he did was wrong," said Moore, who noted Becker had an absolutely clean criminal record up until this incident. "I think he gets it.
"(Police) searched his computer. The state admits he's not a pedophile. Two years probation and having to come back in front of the court if he screws up on that is enough."
Becker apologized to the court and told Race about his good character--continuing to run a dairy farm and take care of an ill mother.
The boy's mother wouldn't call Becker a bad man, just one who didn't think of the consequences of his actions.
"I'm not going to second-guess the motives of the defendant," the mother said. "When you're 47 and you're looking for gay relationships (on the Internet), why are you looking at even 20-year-olds when there's a chance you might end up with a 16-year-old? He's taking a chance. He's making that choice to take a chance that he could be screwing up."
As Race said, Becker certainly did.
"He's a good man, but he made a mistake," Race said.