‘He made a choice’: Wrangell mechanic sentenced for grooming teen girl

Dusty Cowan
Dusty Cowan is fingerprinted after his sentencing hearing on Monday. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Editor’s note: The following story contains references to crimes of a sexual nature carried out against a minor. It may be distressing or inappropriate for some readers and listeners.  

Wrangell mechanic Dusty Cowan has been sentenced to seven years in prison for two felony sex crimes against a minor, who was 14 years old at the time.

In late June, Wrangell’s sole auto shop announced it was closing its doors for good after Cowan, 41, was found guilty of two felony sexual offenses at a three-day trial held in Ketchikan.

The jury found Cowan guilty of online enticement of a minor and sending explicit materials to a minor — in this case, a photo of his genitals. Both crimes are felonies. 

Cowan, who was 37 at the time, sent the sexual messages to a 14-year-old girl over a period of about a month in fall of 2018.

Superior Court Judge Jude Pate explained the online enticement charge at a Monday sentencing hearing. 

“The jury found that the state had proven beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr. Cowan was over 18 years of age, that he knowingly used a computer to communicate with another person, that other person was a child under the age of 16, and the defendant Mr. Cowan did so with a deliberate intent to entice, elicit or encourage the child to engage in sexual penetration, masturbation, or lewd exhibition to the child’s genitals,” Pate said. “Basically, what it describes is a grooming process.”

State prosecutor Bailey Woolfstead said the girl, Trinity Thedford – who asked to be referred to by name, rather than initials – had a close relationship with Cowan’s family, was best friends with one of his daughters, stayed at their home for weeks at a time during the summer, and saw Cowan as a father figure.

“This wasn’t stranger danger, this wasn’t ‘To Catch A Predator,’” Woolfstead said. “The person who sexualized Trinity – the person who asked her for photos of her vagina, the person who sent her photos of his penis – is someone who she asked to be the father on her birth certificate, a person she went to for guidance in her life, a person she went to for comfort, telling him that her life was hard, only to have him respond and say: ‘The only one who’s supposed to be hard here is me.’”

She continued: “[He] asked her for incredibly sensitive photos, engaged in simultaneous two-way video communication showing himself masturbating, and sending her pictures of his penis.”

Defense attorney Michael Heiser argued that Cowan accidentally sent photos of his genitals to the girl, calling the sexual felonies a quote “drastic mistake.” But the prosecution pushed back.

“Dusty Cowan didn’t make a mistake, he made a choice,” Woolfstead said, “And he made that choice over and over again. He made that choice to take a child who was his own daughter’s best friend, who literally in the text messages is sending photos of herself with his own daughter, and sexualize her and groom her and use her for the purpose that he wanted to use her for.”

According to testimony given by Thedford during the trial, Cowan told her to regularly delete messages.

“So,” Woolfstead concluded, “This idea that he accidentally sent this photo of his penis is a flaccid excuse.”

Trinity Thedford is 18 now, and made a statement to the court at the sentencing hearing. She said she chose to be identified because she doesn’t want to feel like a victim any more.

“It hurts to say,” Thedford said, sitting in Woolford’s seat to address the judge, “But I hate seeing everyone so mad at me for something I didn’t do. The only reason why I’m here is because I would never want my daughter to go through this – my baby is only one. I just don’t understand how someone can do that when they’re a parent. I didn’t have a dad. My mom was a single mom.”

Honey Lewis, Thedford’s mother, was also given time to speak to the judge. 

“She was a child at the time, a child that was supposed to be able to look up to a father figure to be able to raise her and teach her right or wrong,” Lewis said, “Not for me to find this and see how much my daughter changed.”

“You’re not going to have to pick up the pieces and tell her that she can still trust people,” she continued, “that she doesn’t have to hate people for what they’ve done to her.”

Around 30 members of the public came to the sentencing hearing. The judge noted between 20 and 25 Wrangell residents wrote letters of support for Cowan. Although the court made those letters of support confidential, quotes read at the sentencing by defense attorney Heiser focused on Cowan’s essential business and reputation as a “family man.”

Woolfstead asked the judge to consider the show of support as a factor in determining Cowan’s sentence. 

“When you have this much of the town that’s showing up to support a sexual predator, and when the victim in essence comes into town and becomes – is treated as a pariah […] what impact that has on victims in the future coming forward to report, particularly here in town like Wrangell?” Woolfstead asked. “Does this show victims of future sex crimes in Wrangell how they’re going to be treated? Does it send a clear message to those victims: ‘Suffer your indignities in silence, lest we turn on you, too?’”

In addition to seven years jail time and a decade of probation, Cowan will have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life. His only prior offense was a driving-related infraction. 

With good behavior, he will be eligible for parole after one-third of his sentence. 

The sentence is less than what the state was seeking, but above the mandatory minimum for the two felonies. 

Pate explained his reasoning.

“I think Mr. Cowan has potential for rehabilitation,” he said. “I think that the fact he doesn’t have a prior criminal history, that this demonstration – the good character that he’s demonstrated for many years in Wrangell as a central character or service provider – is he does have potential. He was on release for almost four years and there weren’t any violations.”

The court recommends Cowan be incarcerated at Goose Creek Correctional Center in Wasilla. That’s in part because sex offender classes are available there. Completion of those classes is a requirement of probation. Classes aren’t offered in Wrangell, so Cowan wouldn’t be able to return to Wrangell directly after completing the classes if he didn’t complete them while imprisoned. 

Pate rejected arguments by Cowan’s lawyer to have his conduct sentenced as “the least serious” in the definitions of his offenses and “consistently minor.”

The effect of Cowan’s actions on a young person were not minor, Pate said. Beyond Thedford’s clear distress at trial and during the sentencing, Pate pointed out: “My common sense tells me that when a person, a young woman, who’s looking up, vulnerable, to a father figure and is subjected to this sort of grooming behavior by person she looks to as a father figure – I can tell you that has a great effect on and harm on the young person.”

Pate also rejected a request for Cowan’s sentencing to be heard by a three-judge panel because of “extraordinary prospects for rehabilitation.”

Cowan didn’t speak at the sentencing hearing, or look toward Thedford, her mother or the state’s attorney. 

Cowan’s attorney read two brief statements on his behalf.

“I’d like to start by saying how sorry I am or what has happened and for what I have done, I understand that people got hurt. I’m sorry,” began the first.

Both statements referenced how Cowan states he began studying the Bible in the six months he has spent in prison since his conviction. 

“Studying the Bible has opened my eyes to a lot of things like showing remorse isn’t complicated,” Heiser continued reading. “It’s also showed me I can’t go back and change anything I have done. All I can do is ask for forgiveness, and let God guide me and divert the demons that trespass against me. The past six months have been extremely hard on me. I’m a proud father, husband and son. I can’t be any of those things locked away. I swear from deep in my heart, I have learned from my mistakes. All I want to do is go back to being a father, husband, son, and son of God.”

Neither of Cowan’s statements mentioned Thedford by name.

He will have 30 days to appeal his sentence. Heiser, his attorney, did not respond Tuesday to an inquiry about whether he plans to appeal.

The state will have 90 days to seek additional financial restitution on behalf of Thedford, which, according to the terms of probation, could potentially come in part from Cowan’s future Permanent Fund dividend checks.

Alaska’s hotline for reporting child abuse is 1-800-478-4444 or by emailing  reportchildabuse@alaska.gov. In addition to contacting the Office of Children’s Services , the state requests reports of child abuse to also be made to local law enforcement. In Wrangell, the police can be reached at 907-874-3304 in non-emergencies. If it is an emergency, please call 911.

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