Tech Sgt. David Helm will spend the next 25 years in prison. Helm, 35, was sentenced by a military judge Monday following a day-long court martial trial. Helm pleaded guilty to charges of desertion, rape of a child, assault of a child, indecent filming of a woman’s private area and indecent broadcast of that image without her consent.
Helm’s court martial took place more than two months after he was apprehended in Nevada after becoming the subject of a national manhunt.
Col. Vance Spath, the Air Force’s chief trial judge, also sentenced Helm to reduction in rank to E-1, or airman basic, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge. The 18th Air Force commander must still sign off on Helm’s sentence.
The punishment meted out to Helm mirrored the pre-trial agreement he had signed before Monday’s all-day hearing. Although Helm faced a potential sentence of life in prison, the plea agreement capped his potential prison term to 25 years.
Helm pleaded not guilty to the charge of placing a capsule into the woman’s mouth, and the charge of sexually penetrating her with his finger without her consent. Those charges were dismissed as part of the plea agreement.
The woman whose image Helm had photographed while she was asleep, and then uploaded to an Internet porn site, told Spath that Helm had struggled with an addiction to pornography throughout the time they knew each other. When she discovered his return to pornography, “I was incredibly hurt and I feel I had been deceived.”
The nadir occurred last autumn, when investigators with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations showed her a color photo of the image Helm had secretly taken of her and uploaded to the website, the woman said.
“I felt sick to my stomach,” she said. “He betrayed me. And now he used me as an unwilling participant in the very thing I hated.”
Perhaps even more poignant was the statement written by the 15-year-old girl Helm pleaded guilty to raping in May 2014 in La Follette, Tenn.
The girl, who knew Helm, said the ordeal left her feeling “like a slut” and led her to want to take her own life. The girl recounted she had locked herself in a room one day determined to do so.
“I had a knife,” the girl wrote. “I was going to work my way up my arm and I only stopped because they opened the door,” according to the girl’s statement, which was read in court by Capt. Amanda Snipes, the special victims’ counsel.
Before Spath handed down the sentence, Helm read a statement in which he expressed regret for his actions.
“In a situation like this, simple words cannot even express my emotions, and especially the deep remorse for the pain this situation has caused everyone,” Helm said.
Turning to the woman victim, Helm looked her in the eyes for a moment.
“Even though you don’t believe me,” he said, “I never meant to cause you any pain.”
As for the girl he pleaded guilty to raping, Helm said “my heart will forever be broken by the horrors you feel.”
Facing the judge, Helm said in a voice choked with emotion that he never wanted to hurt anyone.
“You never know what you did have until it’s gone,” Helm said. “I do believe in God and I do believe there is a path to redemption. The demons I have fought against are not anything I would wish up my worst enemy.”
Capt. Aaron Jones, a member of the prosecution team, in the run-up to Helm’s sentence did all he could to demolish Helm’s image as a sympathetic figure.
“Your honor, there is a child rapist sitting there,” Jones said. “He wears a mask of trust. And his true intentions are hidden behind that mask.”
Jones zeroed in on how Helm’s rape of the 15-year-old girl had left her psychologically devastated.
“She is a shell of her former self,” Jones said. “She is a broken, broken young woman.”
Jones sought to undermine Helm’s professions of remorse. Jones noted that in the days before Helm disappeared in late May, Helm had taken out a personal loan for $12,000 from a credit union and headed for Nevada.
“He went skydiving. He drove a McLaren race car. He took a helicopter ride to the Grand Canyon,” Jones said.
Jones pointed to a pair of photographs of the girl projected on a flat screen monitor in the courtroom. One photo showed the girl when she was a toddler. The other was more recent; it showed her smiling and holding a guitar.
“This little girl was thinking of ways to kill herself,” Jones said, “while this man thought of things to tick off his bucket list. That’s the real David Helm....He needs a significant sentence to show we will not tolerate rapists, deserters and when you run from the Air Force you will be brought to justice.”
Capt. Crystal Wong, one of Helm’s defense lawyers, sought to show that her client was remorseful for his crimes and had taken responsibility for them.
By pleading guilty, Helm took the action that would keep the girl from the witness stand.
“He spared her from that,” Wong said.
Helm has the potential for change, Wong told the judge.
“And he’s taking those steps,” she said. “Help him, your honor. Help him toward the path of redemption.”
A two-hour recess in the trial was called Monday afternoon when Helm objected to the wording in the stipulation of fact regarding specifications of the first charge, that he had raped a female child known to him.
The Air Force charged Helm with desertion on June 18, or 10 days after police arrested him in Reno, Nev.
He was arrested the same day he was set to face a court martial at Scott on charges he sexually abused two females, one of whom was younger than 16. Helm is also accused of videotaping “the private area” of one of the females.
Helm, a member of the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, disappeared on May 5. A few days before, he had told friends he planned to ride his motorcycle from Scott to LaFollette, Tenn., where his parents live. Instead, Helm headed west to Nevada.
During a short stay in Las Vegas, Helm knocked two items off a personal “bucket list” — skydiving and driving a McLaren P1 race car around an oval track — according to the Nevada Highway Patrol officer who arrested Helm outside Reno after stopping the airman for a broken tail light.
Return to BND.com for more on this developing story or read Tuesday’s print edition of the News-Democrat.
Contact reporter Mike Fitzgerald at firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-239-2533.