Sangamon County Circuit Court Judge John Schmidt called a tough one last week.
Before him stood Robert A. Nika, a former Southeast High School teacher who committed an awful crime and had already gotten a big break from the Sangamon County state’s attorney’s office.
Nika, 27, had sex with a student as many as 10 times. She was just 14 when a two-year illicit relationship began. He gave her jewelry and an anniversary card. After the girl last year told her parents about her teacher-turned-lover, Nika sent her flowers at school. He said that he loved her.
Nika could have been charged with sexual assault, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of four years. It’s a charge typically filed when an offender held a position of trust over the victim. Instead, assistant state’s attorney Sheryl Essenburg, known for her aggressive prosecution of sex offenders, charged Nika with aggravated criminal sexual abuse, a lesser offense.
Potential punishment ranged from probation to seven years in prison. Nika, who had no criminal record, confessed and cooperated fully with investigators, sparing his victim the ordeal of a court proceeding. With the blessing of the victim’s family, Essenburg agreed not to seek prison time.
Both families wept during Friday’s sentencing. Nika’s former colleagues at Southeast High School wrote letters of support, urging mercy. Sex offenders are typically banned from any contact with children, but Nika has joint custody of his three-year-old son, and the boy’s mother in a letter to Schmidt asked that her ex-husband be allowed to continue seeing the boy as always.
“Not a day goes by when (the boy) doesn’t mention his dad and how much he loves him,” the boy’s mother wrote.
Nika spoke for one minute before sentence was pronounced, turning to apologize to the victim’s family, then to his own family.
“I know there’s nothing I can do to take away the pain,” Nika said.
Then it was Schmidt’s turn.
“You abused what I would call a sacred trust,” the judge said. “Every day in this country, we send our children to school, and we expect them to be cared for. Our children are our children. At some age, they don’t think they’re children anymore, and that’s when they really need us. They need their parents, and they need their teachers.”
The judge spoke for more than five minutes.
“The pain in this room is palpable,” Schmidt said as spectators wept. “I don’t know if you feel it, but I do. I can see it.”
Figuring out aggravating circumstances and mitigating ones is relatively easy, the judge said. It’s the human side of sentencing that’s hard, he said.
“I hope I’ve impressed on you the tragedy, the absolute tragedy,” Schmidt said. “First and foremost, the first victim in this case is the young lady and her family. The other is that child of yours. Someday, you’re going to have to explain this to him. I can’t imagine that.”
In the end, Schmidt settled on 60 days of work release, with Nika freed each day to work at a car dealership. He will then serve four years of probation and register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Essenburg said that the victim’s family was satisfied.
“They felt very strongly that he had to serve some jail time,” the prosecutor said after the proceeding. “I talked to some family members, and they were very glad to have it over and seemed to feel good about it.”
Schmidt flatly rejected a request from Dan Fultz, Nika’s lawyer, to delay imposition of jail time for a few days.
“No,” Schmidt said. “He’s lucky he doesn’t go today. Tomorrow morning at eight o’clock, Sangamon County jail.”
Contact Bruce Rushton at email@example.com.