tampabay.com

Girl picks out alleged molester

By CARRIE WEIMAR
Published February 14, 2007


TAMPA - The 9-year-old girl wore a yellow tunic printed with flowers and a concerned look as she tried to answer the prosecutor's question Tuesday.

"Do you want me to point him out or something?" she asked in a small voice.

"Yes," answered Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Kaiser.

That's when the girl extended her small finger toward Ronald Mays, the man she said sexually abused her during Southwest Airlines flight 2281 from Tampa to Nashville last June.

"That's him," she said, crossing her arms and hunching down in the witness stand.

Mays, 46, a Palm Harbor businessman, is charged with one count each of abusive sexual contact with a child, assault and obstruction of justice. If convicted, he faces a maximum penalty of 25 years in prison.

Mays' trial began Tuesday in federal court before U.S. District Judge Steven Merryday.

In her opening statement to jurors, Kaiser said Mays was not only guilty of sexually abusing the girl, he also used a software program to destroy files on his computer after the government had requested it. Some of the files were recovered and show scenes of child pornography, Kaiser said.

But Mays' attorney, Frank Louderback, said there were major flaws in the government's case against his client. He said the flight attendants never asked the name of the person sitting next to the girl. Later, several of them had difficulty identifying Mays.

He also noted the girl's parents have filed a civil lawsuit against Southwest Airlines. They are asking for $1.5-million.

The girl, who was 8 at the time of the flight, was one of the first witnesses to testify Tuesday. She told jurors she lives in Largo and was flying by herself to "Michigan Detroit" to visit her grandmother. She sat in the second row by the window; Mays sat down in the same row by the aisle and began making small talk, she said.

"He commented on my nail polish," she said.

After she pulled out a portable DVD player and a copy of The Pink Panther, he slid into the seat next to her and began touching her legs, the girl said.

"He pulled up my legs and put them on his lap and asked me if I was comfortable," she said.

When she said no and drew back, he pulled her leg toward him and placed his hand on her left thigh.

She said she tried to squirm away, but the man continued putting his hand on her leg. Finally, she drew her legs to her chest to avoid him.

The girl said the man also reached across her to touch the plane's window and placed his forearm against her chest. The man touched his pants frequently throughout the flight, she said.

Later, he took a napkin with a drawing of the United States on it and placed it on his crotch. He asked her to locate states on the map but she refused. He also put a fruit bar on his crotch and asked her if she wanted it. She said no.

Mays left the plane during a stop in Nashville, where his business headquarters is located. The girl continued on to Detroit.

During cross examination, Louderback asked the girl why she didn't use her cell phone to tell her parents about the abuse when the plane stopped in Nashville.

The girl said she needed time to think about "what just happened and why did it happen to me," she said.

Also Tuesday, a FBI agent described how Mays became the target of their investigation.

Because Southwest Airlines doesn't have assigned seating, Special Agent Adalberto Rivera said he had to gather driver's license photos of all 37 men who were on board the flight that morning.

Rivera said he had 23 of the pictures when he went to the little girl and asked her to identify the man who touched her.

She reacted immediately when she saw the picture of Mays, Rivera said.

"Her shoulders dropped down, her cheeks grew red," he said. "She even made a fist."

Another woman on the flight, who was sitting directly in front of the girl, also identified Mays.

But Louderback noted two of the flight attendants selected another person in addition to Mays. And one flight attendant didn't pick Mays at all, he said.

Later, the girl's mother testified about the effect the abuse had on her daughter.

She had been a free spirit with no fear of strangers. But since the flight, her personality changed dramatically. She is constantly worried about whether the doors are locked and can't fall asleep or shower unless one of her parents is in the room.

She also has asked her parents not to make any new friends.

"She's just not the same little girl," her mother said, tearfully. "She doesn't enjoy life the way she used to."

Carrie Weimar can be reached at 813 226-3416 or cweimar@sptimes.com.