Robert Ferguson</I>

PROVO — A man who spent 12 years in prison for sexually abusing a child and is now accused of abusing another young girl should be sentenced as a habitual violent offender, Utah County prosecutors say.

Robert Ferguson, 47, was arrested by Alpine officers March 13 after a mother reported that he had touched her 5-year-old daughter's genitals, according to an affidavit of probable cause in support of a warrant filed in 4th District Court.

"He's maintained his innocence," said his attorney, Lisa Estrada. "He's consistently told me he is innocent."

Estrada said her client also believes that his confession to police was coerced.

Ferguson was convicted in 1980 and 1983 on separate counts of forcible sexual abuse, both with children, said prosecutor Donna Kelly.

In 1987, Ferguson was convicted of sexual abuse of a child, a second-degree felony, and sentenced to prison in early 1988, according to the Utah Department of Corrections.

He was released in 2000 on parole and off by 2002, according to the Department of Corrections.

The current charge of first-degree felony aggravated sexual abuse of a child is the first new charge since then, Kelly said. It carries the potential of 15 years to life in prison.

Based on Ferguson's history, the Utah County Attorney's Office filed a notice to seek an enhanced sentence under the habitual violent offender statute, Kelly said.

"(These types of) individuals deserve an enhanced sentence because they have shown an inability to refrain from committing these crimes," Kelly said. "It wasn't the facts of the crime itself, it is his previous convictions that are making this very concerning to the state."

Should a potential jury or the judge convict Ferguson of the crime as well as being a habitual violent offender, the Board of Pardons would consider that label as an aggravating factor when determining how long he should serve.

"Anyone with an up-to-life sentence ... the board can order them to stay in prison for the rest of their life," said Jim Hatch, spokesman for the Utah Board of Pardons and Parole. "The board (has) the ability to keep them in prison for life but also the discretion to parole them at some point."

Estrada argues that there wasn't enough evidence presented at a recent preliminary hearing related to the enhancement option.

She has since filed a motion to quash Judge James Taylor's ruling to send the case to trial. Ferguson will be in court Thursday to enter a plea.

"I just hope he gets a fair trial," Estrada said. "Sometimes the crime itself is so startling, instead of looking at the evidence, (juries) want to convict just based on the nature of the crime. I just want him to get a fair trial."

On Feb. 25, the child's mother was working at the Alpine Arts Center while her three young girls played in the room with her, Kelly said. When it was time to leave, she began packing the car, making several trips while the kids continued playing in the building, Kelly said.

Ferguson, who was a janitor at the arts center, separated the 5-year-old girl from her sisters and allegedly stuck his hands down the girl's pants, touched her genitals and asked if she needed to go to the bathroom, according to the affidavit.

He left and the girl ran to find her mom, who recognized the description of the janitor and called police.

The girl also clearly described Ferguson during a police interview, noting he was a larger man with big glasses, according to the affidavit.


E-mail: sisraelsen@desnews.com