Judge, dismayed by deal, gives ex-youth pastor 33 months in sex-abuse case

A former youth pastor in Little Rock and Denton, Texas, accused of molesting young girls under his charge two decades ago was sentenced to 33 months in federal prison in a dramatic hearing Tuesday and ordered to spend the rest of his life under federal supervision once he is allowed out of prison.

Robert Shiflet, 50, formerly of Little Rock and now of Denton, Texas, was indicted last year on charges involving sexual contact with children. In sentencing him, U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky expressed his dismay as he handed down the most severe sentence he was allowed under a plea agreement Shiflet had reached with the government.

"You are a terrible person," Rudofsky told Shiflet as he announced the sentence. "I don't believe that you are sorry in the slightest. I don't believe you have rehabilitated yourself. I believe you haven't been caught again but I don't believe you have rehabilitated yourself.

"I don't think you are a good person and I don't think you stand a chance of becoming a good person," the judge continued. "If it was up to me and you had been found guilty after a trial, I would have sent you away for 25 years."

Shiflet was charged in a June 2, 2020, indictment with three counts of transporting a minor across state lines to engage in sexual activity and one count of coercing a minor to cross state lines to engage in sexual activity. He was arrested by the FBI at his home in Denton 10 days later.

On Nov. 30, , Shiflet pleaded guilty to two charges of transportation of a minor to engage in illegal sexual activity.

The first incident occurred in 1997 when Shiflet, then a youth pastor in Denton, lured a 15-year-old girl away from her group during a camping trip near the Buffalo River in Arkansas and sexually assaulted her, authorities said.

The second incident happened in 2002 while Shiflet was a youth pastor in Little Rock, according to the indictment. During that incident, he had sexual contact with a 16-year-old girl during a charter bus ride to a church event in Panama City, Fla., according to the U.S. attorney's office. Investigators said Shiflet continued to sexually abuse the same victim during the rest of 2002 and part of 2003.

Shiflet had asked the girl to ride with him on his bus to Panama City instead of on the bus with her friends, investigators said.

"This is a very difficult case in my view and a difficult call I'm going to have to make," Rudofsky said at the beginning of the sentencing hearing. Rudofsky expressed displeasure with the plea agreement, which bound him to a sentencing range of 27 to 33 months in prison on each count -- to run concurrently -- well below the sentencing guidelines of 41 to 51 months, and far below the statutory maximum of 10 years on one count and 15 years on the other.

Under federal rules governing the plea agreement between Shiflet and the government, if Rudofsky rejected the agreement, Shiflet would have been allowed to withdraw his guilty plea and go to trial before a jury.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Bryant explained that the potential guideline sentence was initially miscalculated, which led to the sentencing range in the plea agreement falling so far under the guidelines.

"Unfortunately, we were wrong but that was the agreement we reached based upon our understanding at that time," Bryant said.

"I am extraordinarily concerned about this plea agreement," Rudofsky said. "I'm not sure I've ever been as concerned about a recommendation the government has made. I have sat in this chair and sent people to prison for five years, six years, seven years, eight years, and sometimes on the government's recommendation, nine and 10 years for simply owning a gun and being a felon."

Rudofsky said he has sentenced drug dealers to prison terms of that or longer during his time on the bench and he confessed to being troubled by the lenience of the plea agreement.

"I don't know how I'm going to sleep at night if what Mr. Shiftlet gets for the conduct that is in the presentence report that I read, if Mr. Shiflet has to serve 33 months on both together -- concurrently -- maybe you all will explain to me under the statute how that makes sense but that does not strike me as a sufficient sentence," the judge said to Bryant and to Shiflet's defense attorneys, Kevin Ross and Kristen Beckman of Denton, describing himself as "flabbergasted" over the plea agreement.

"I agree with you," Bryant said. "Quite frankly, it pains me to have to advocate for a sentence like this."

Bryant said the time that had elapsed and the sentencing guidelines that were in place at the time of the offenses were the primary factors that drove the agreement.

"If Mr. Shiflet had committed these offenses two years ago he would be looking at no less than 10 years in prison," she said. "So I agree with you, it is incredibly low. I don't know if there is an appropriate prison sentence for what he did."

Bryant said the victims were consulted in the matter and all had agreed that it would be a fair resolution.

During testimony from three of Shiflet's victims, all three told Rudofsky that they would testify at a trial if he rejected the deal Shiflet had with prosecutors but that they all would rather the 33-month prison sentence in the plea agreement stand than run the risk that he might be acquitted by a jury.

"That we are even here today is a miracle," one told the judge. "We never thought he would ever have to face what he did to us."

Reluctantly, Rudofsky agreed to accept Shiflet's plea under the terms of the plea agreement despite his misgivings.

"What I am most concerned about here is the victims getting justice," he said. "Thirty-three months is not justice but reading between the lines I have to believe the government has some concerns about this case if it went to the jury. I have a feeling that although these women have all said they would testify -- which makes them more brave than you are on a single day of your life -- they don't want to and they want this to be done and that they are scared if this case goes to trial you will get off completely.

"So I'm going to accept the plea agreement but not in any way, shape or form having anything to do with you or anything anybody has said positive about you," Rudofsky continued. "But for them because they deserve some justice, even if it's not the justice they or society should get completely."

Using the limited discretion he had under the plea agreement, Rudofsky also fined Shiflet $7,500 and ordered him, upon his release from prison, to be subjected to supervised release for the rest of his life, to include psycho-sexual counseling and periodic polygraph examinations.

"I think you are dangerous," Rudofsky said regarding the supervised release term. "I think you are a danger to the public, I think you are a danger to society and I do not think you should have any room to do this again."

Information for this article was contributed by Tony Holt for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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