We are taught in this country that an individual is innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.
Maybe in the court of law, but Genoa native Joe Bergman says the same is not necessarily true in the court of public opinion.
Bergman, a U.S. Army officer, was acquitted on May 16 of this year in Wood County Common Pleas Court of a sexual battery charge that was brought against him just over a year ago.
It's surprising that something so casual as meeting with someone in a busy movie theater parking lot to say goodbye for 10 minutes could turn into so much more, but Bergman says that is what happened to him.
On the night of March 30, 2012, Bergman met with a female Genoa High School student in his car at the parking lot at the Levis Commons RAVE Movie Theater to say goodbye before he was to leave for military training the next day.
Even though Bergman insists that nothing more than words were exchanged between the two, an anonymous letter sent to Genoa Superintendent Dennis Mock brought about a felony charge against Bergman, a former high school wrestling coach, in early May, 2012.
From that point, the situation drastically changed as one thing led to another.
“It went from being characterized as an inappropriate relationship to an inappropriate sexual relationship,” Bergman said, “to being reported that I was caught in a compromising position by Perrysburg city police at Levis Commons.”
Requests for interviews were made to Mock, Wood County prosecuting attorney Heather Baker, and Perrysburg detective Pat Jones, but all three parties declined.
Bergman understands that it's reasonable for someone without knowledge of the case to have doubts about his innocence. He says there are three things that should overwhelmingly convince a skeptic about the case.
First, Bergman says there was no physical, DNA, or medical evidence that supported the charge.
Second, Baker admitted during the trial that there were inconsistencies in the accuser's story.
Third, the jury took just one-and-a-half hours to reach a verdict, a relatively short period of time that often indicates the case was open and shut.
Arrested at Fort Leonard
Bergman says there is even more to the story — that it will continue to play out in his life as a soldier and in his finances.
He says the most embarrassing moment of Bergman's life came 13 months ago when he was arrested by U.S. Marshals at Fort Leonard Wood Army Base in Missouri. Bergman was taken into custody in front of an entire formation of soldiers and then sat in jail for 21 days awaiting extradition back to Ohio.
Now, Bergman says he can put the trial behind him and regain his military career. He knows that in some people's eyes, he will never be exonerated. For some, he was guilty the minute his name and picture were paraded on television with the story that he had been charged with sexual battery.
Add that he has tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills yet to be paid, and you get a better idea of what he's going through.
And that's why he's speaking out — he wants to set the story straight.
“I enjoy so many things that I took for granted before, and that is not easy to say because I didn't take much for granted,” Bergman, a 2002 Oak Harbor graduate, said. “After I came so close to having my freedom taken away, I enjoy things that might have been stripped from me so much more. Face to face, people have been pretty supportive. But the rumor mill says otherwise — that the Army bailed me out or there was some lawyer trick, et cetera.
“Public perception seems to dictate reality in our society today,” Bergman continued. “A not guilty verdict in the court of law means I'm acquitted and exonerated of the charge. I've been cleared completely in a legal sense. However, in the real world, the damage is already done. There will forever be a shroud of skepticism and doubt around me. It tears me up because I've done more for most people than they have done for themselves or this nation, and yet they can stand in judgment of me, glare at me and talk behind my back. But they don't have the integrity or courage to address me face-to-face.”
Bergman says he cannot trust just anyone any more,
“Only those who are close to me,” Bergman said. “It has made me less open and more guarded. I don't trust law enforcement like I used to or approve of the amount of unchecked power a county prosecutor has and the unbelievable reality that they can ruin someone's life knowing there is no evidence that supports a charge, and then walk away without suffering any consequences whatsoever.
“Until it happens to you, you really don't realize how the system works — the uphill battle you face once you are indicted and charged with a felony offense and the massive amounts of money you need to fight a state or federal government with almost unlimited resources.”
Bergman believes that Baker and Jones, the man who conducted the investigation, knew there were problems with the accuser's account.
“Heather Baker and Detective Pat Jones knew from the very beginning there were major inconsistencies with this case and yet they still pushed it forward,” Bergman said. “They knew the OCSD reports didn't match the Perrysburg police reports. Once Perrysburg police detective Pat Jones took over, he conducted multiple interviews with students and yet there was only one report and zero audio recordings. That means we really don't know what was actually said, only what Detective Jones put in his report,” Bergman said.
Mock stated in testimony that what started the investigation against Bergman was the anonymous letter he received from a parent. Mock added that the parent wanted to be kept anonymous in fear of retaliation from Bergman himself and that he never handed the letter over to Children’s Services or any law enforcement agency during the investigation.
Additionally, Mock testified that he had lost the anonymous letter until three weeks before the trial and that was the reason Bergman's defense team had never seen it for nearly a year. Despite this and the fact that there was no physical evidence, DNA, or medical evidence, Baker chose to continue prosecuting the case.
Bergman wonders why they continued pursuing a case.
“It's not what I fought to protect and defend,” Bergman said. “It's not what (former Oak Harbor wrestler killed in military service) Keith Kline and thousands of other men and women died to uphold, and it certainly is not the vision or intent our forefathers had when they forged our nation.”