Photo by Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
From left, Charles Ringer with attorneys Mari Doerner, center, and Christon Skinner.

Child rape trial begins; complicated by COVID safeguards

A retired Navy pilot from Oak Harbor has been accused of sexually abusing his stepdaughter.

A young woman who testified that she was sexually abused by her stepfather for much of her childhood had an emotional breakdown under cross examination and left the courtroom in Island County Superior Court Friday afternoon.

The trial was set to resume Tuesday morning.

Charles Ringer Jr. is on trial for child rape in the second and third degrees; the counts were charged as domestic-violence crimes and included allegations of aggravating circumstances.

The complex trial was further complicated by COVID-19 precautions. The jury was seated in the gallery with the defense and prosecutor’s tables perpendicular to the jury and facing each other. Plexiglass shields were placed in front of the witness stand and the court reporter. Everyone in the courtroom wore masks, except the witness, and attorneys were allowed to remove them while speaking.

Ringer is represented by Oak Harbor attorney Christon Skinner and Mount Vernon attorney Mari Doerner. The case will likely be Skinner’s final trial before taking over as the elected superior court judge next year, replacing Judge Alan Hancock.

Hancock, coincidentally, is the judge in the trial.

Island County Chief Criminal Deputy Eric Ohme laid out his case in brief opening statements Friday morning.

“This is a case about secrets,” he said. “Dark secrets held down deep.”

He described how the alleged victim grew up in Thailand without a father and with a mother who was often away working as a flight attendant. As an elementary-aged girl, she was at first excited when her mother started a relationship with Ringer because she wanted to have a father in her life.

She and her mother moved to Oak Harbor and lived with Ringer when she was in fourth grade, but then they had to move back to Bangkok for more than a year. It was there that the sexual abuse started, Ohme said.

The family then moved again to Oak Harbor when she was in sixth grade and the abuse escalated, the prosecutor claimed.

Ohme focused on a night in November 2015 when the alleged victim, who was then 15, “couldn’t live with the secrets anymore.” He said she went into her bathroom and wrote in her diary about the years of abuse and then took pills, “hoping to never wake up again.”

The girl, however, woke up in her bed with Ringer in her room. He promised he would never sexually assault her again, but she became even more upset when she realized her diary had been shredded, according to Ohme. She quickly threw some items into her backpack and struggled with Ringer while trying to leave the house.

“She fled from Mr. Ringer’s home in the night, never to return,” Ohme said.

In his opening statement, Skinner described a much different story, arguing that the alleged victim was desperate for attention from a mother who had largely abandoned her.

“This is a case about parental attachment disorder,” he said, “and a girl who has serious mental problems.”

Ringer is a longtime Oak Harbor resident, Skinner said, who was an accomplished Navy pilot and the comptroller of Naval Air Station Whidbey Island before retiring from the military and becoming a commercial airline pilot.

Skinner made the unusual announcement that Ringer will in his defense testify in the trial.

Skinner harshly criticized the police investigation. He said it took a detective with the Island County Sheriff’s Office three weeks to contact the girl after she made an initial report to police.

He said the detective violated the prosecutor’s protocols for sexual assault cases by not having the girl get a medical exam. No search warrants were sought until four years later, he said.

“His response was OK, we’re understaffed,” Skinner said of the detective. “Her case went to the bottom of his pile.”

Skinner claimed the case was revived after the alleged victim’s mother filed for divorce and then contacted the sheriff’s office.

After a short interview with a deputy who took the initial report, Ohme called the young woman to the stand and questioned her about her childhood and relationship with Ringer. She became emotional many times as she described the rape and other sexual abuse she testified occurred on a regular basis for years.

The young woman testified she confronted Ringer several times about the sexual abuse, but he told her it was OK because they weren’t blood related. He told her that it would destroy the family if she told anyone, she said.

Several times he promised not to abuse her anymore, she testified.

“He promised me so many times,” she said, “and I don’t know why I was so stupid.”

The young woman testified that Ringer rarely allowed her to spend time with friends or have friends over. She said he made her “negotiate” with sexual favors in order to go out with friends.

On cross examination, Doerner asked the young woman about all the different activities she was involved in, which included two school sports, violin lessons and voice lessons.

The woman also testified that she traveled for school activities and that she went to camps in the summer.

When the woman testified that Ringer wouldn’t let her out of the house without monitoring her, Doerner countered that didn’t make sense to her because of all the activities she was involved in. The woman became upset and tried to talk about an incident, but she wasn’t allowed to because it was not responsive to the attorney’s question.

Clearly frustrated, the young woman then fell apart on the stand and was unable to continue answering questions. She walked out of the courtroom wailing and could be heard in the hallway.

Since there was only a short time left until the end of the court day, Hancock excused the jury for the week.

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