SALT LAKE CITY — When William Estell entered the courtroom Friday to be sentenced after pleading guilty to sexually assaulting young boys, the small group there to support him saw one more victim: Estell himself.
Estell, 41, stayed quiet as Judge Deno Himonas told the court that the trauma of Estell's sexual abuse when he was a child was not lost on him.
"I would be remiss if I didn't note that society failed Mr. Estell," Himonas said before announcing a sentence of 25 years to life. "This sentence is appropriate for the crime that has been committed, but I understand you were the victim. There was a tremendous breakdown in the system and that led to other victims."
Estell was charged with multiple counts of forcible sodomy, sexual abuse and aggravated sexual abuse of a child in two different cases, pleading guilty in November to one count of sodomy of a child.
"There's no excuse for what I've done," an emotional Estell told the judge. "I have to live with what I've done for the rest of my life. I'll look back on it every moment I'm in prison."
Investigators believe there were more victims who hadn't been identified and that Estell could have been sexually abusing children for as many as 20 years, targeting parks, concerts, sleepovers and other places where he might likely find young boys, according to court and jail records.
Though all but one charge had been dismissed in Estell's plea deal, it had been decided that victims from other cases would still have a chance to speak in court, if they chose. Estell selected his victims carefully, prosecutor Coral Rose-Sanchez said, choosing boys who spoke English as a second language, were poor and whose parents knew little or nothing about navigating the legal system.
None of the victims were present, including one young man who testified in a preliminary hearing last May, but Sanchez-Rose said they and their parents had told her that Estell should go to prison for as long as possible.
"Although I understand there are some issues with the defendant, he was savvy enough to know which kind of victims to target," Rose-Sanchez said. "These kids already have a lot of hurdles to face. This is another one that has been thrown at them."
One of the victims felt law enforcement didn't take an interest when he tried to report the abuse because he was a "poor, Hispanic kid," Rose-Sanchez said. Now he harbors a deep mistrust of law enforcement and society in general. Another is behind bars himself, facing charges in another state. A third struggles with sexual identity and blames himself for the abuse.
Defense attorney Nick Falcone said it was identified early on that Estell was sexually abused by his father, and that abuse was allowed to continue, leading to problems in his adult life and his own illegal actions.
"The system here in this state has completely failed, not only the victims against this case, but Mr. Estell," Falcone said.
Pete and Maxine Peterson, who knew Estell as "Billy" as he grew up and regularly mowed their lawn, felt he had been "shanghaied" by the long sentence.
"He's a 10-year-old kid. He isn't a 40-year-old man," Pete Peterson said. "I think it was way too much. All he can do is be good. He's got to toe the line and hope that he gets out before 25 years."
Estell's sister, Holly Birich, wept quietly after her brother left the courtroom.
"The whole thing is a tragedy," Birich said. "As they expressed, the system has let everybody down, including Bill and his victims. Prison isn't a place for people with mental disabilities."
Birich said she believes her brother meant it when he apologized.