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Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010 02:33 pm

Former Springfield firefighter sexually abused granddaughter

Case brings justice for long-standing abuses

Her voice faltered and her arm shook slightly as she identified in court the man who touched her inappropriately and betrayed her trust. The 19-year-old college student wiped away tears as she described how, at age 12, her grandfather had fondled her breast after she confided in him an intimate and embarrassing secret.

It was a painful case for a Springfield family struggling with multiple incidents of sexual abuse at the hands of one of their own. On Sept. 29 in the Sangamon County Circuit Court, a jury of eight women and five men found William A. Gray, a 64-year-old former Springfield firefighter, guilty of one count of aggravated criminal sexual abuse. The defendant admitted to touching his victim, but claimed it was without sexual intent. The jury also heard testimony from Gray’s family about sex crimes in his past to which he had admitted and apologized.

In September 2009, after several years of silence, Gray’s granddaughter told her parents about the abuse. Gray had driven his granddaughter to a school event on the day of the incident, and she shared with him a secret concerning an act of which she was ashamed. She says Gray fondled her breast and told her she couldn’t tell anyone because he could go to jail and he would reveal her secret. Gray’s attorney, Bruce Locher of Springfield, told the jury Gray had meant it to be a pact between them to ensure Gray wouldn’t share her secret. Gray did not testify. The granddaughter’s name is withheld at her family’s request.

“I confided in him,” the granddaughter testified with tears streaming from her eyes. “He made it seem like I could trust him.”

The case also brought to light Gray’s past sex crimes against other members of his family, offering justice and closure for long-standing abuses.

Heather Westfall of Springfield, Gray’s niece, testified in graphic detail how Gray had sexually abused her as a child for as long as she could remember until age 11, when she says she finally got the courage to let the secret out. Westfall told her grandmother about the abuse, but told her parents it only happened once because, she says, “I felt once was enough. There is a lot of shame and humiliation in something like this. I thought it would rip my family apart.”

Westfall’s father, Tom Little of Springfield, testified that the family didn’t pursue legal action against Gray because they thought it was only a single incident and Gray had been put in the care of a mental health doctor. Little said the case is more disturbing because Gray’s status as a firefighter should have meant he was a trustworthy figure.

“You hear so often, ‘Go to a person in uniform,’ not just a police officer, but a person in uniform,” he says. “You can trust that person in uniform, but as we saw in this case, you couldn’t.”

Current Illinois law allows prosecution of sex crimes against children for 20 years after the victim turns 18, but the law at the time had a shorter statute of limitations, so Westfall’s testimony couldn’t be used to charge Gray with other crimes.

Westfall, now 32, says the conviction is a relief.

“It’s been a long 20 years, and it’s finally done,” Westfall says, adding that she got justice for her case through the case at trial. Though she did not testify about it in court, Gray’s daughter said after the trial that she, too, had been sexually abused by him. Gray’s daughter’s name is withheld to protect the identity of his granddaughter.

Gray will be sentenced Nov. 5. He will have to register as a child sex offender, and he faces the possibility of between three and seven years in prison or four years of probation.

Westfall says others going through such abuse need to work through the shame and humiliation to tell someone.

“Know that at the end of the day, it’s not about you; it’s about power,” she says triumphantly. “It’s more empowering to be able to take that back, to be able to look someone in the eye and say, ‘You may have done this to me, but this isn’t who I am.’ ”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.
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