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Rice pleads guilty to sex charge

November 01, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE and JULIE E. GREENEs

ROANOKE, Va. - Martinsburg, W.Va., businessman Thomas D. Rice pleaded guilty Monday in U.S. District Court here to crossing state lines to have sex with an underage "boy" he met on the Internet.

Rice, 59, pleaded guilty to traveling in interstate commerce with the intent to engage in sexual relations with an individual under the age of 18.

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Rice drove 190 miles from Martinsburg to Bedford County, Va., after arranging a meeting over the Internet with a sheriff's deputy posing as a 13-year-old boy. He was arrested Feb. 20 at an elementary school in Bedford County, where the two had arranged to meet.

The case was later transferred to federal court.

Rice, wearing a rumpled gray suit, said little during the 20-minute hearing. No family members or friends were in the courtroom.

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He was taken into custody and will be held without bond until a sentencing hearing Jan. 18.

U.S. District Court Chief Judge Samuel G. Wilson asked Rice if he was pleading guilty because he was, in fact, guilty.

"I am, your honor," Rice answered.

By entering into a plea agreement, Rice likely will avoid the maximum penalty of 15 years in a federal penitentiary and a $250,000 fine. He will not be eligible for parole.

As part of the agreement, Rice will forfeit his yellow 1994 Cadillac SLS, worth between $11,000 and $12,000, and his computer.

He will keep his Martinsburg home.

Rice's attorney, Randy Cargill, said outside court that Rice was taking unspecified prescription drugs at the time he was arrested and recalls little of what happened.

"He admitted what he did when he was interviewed and it's the sole blemish in an otherwise exemplary professional life," Cargill said.

Richard Watson, president of the Charles Town Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, said Rice did a good job when the two served together on the West Virginia Racing Commission.

"I'm sorry to see the whole thing happen," Watson said.

Former Berkeley County Sheriff William "Shug" Kisner, who worked for Rice four years ago as director of maintenance at the Blue Ridge Outlet Center in Martinsburg, was less sympathetic.

"There's an old saying, if you can't do the time, don't do the crime. I don't care what your position is in life, if you do something like this you have to pay for it," Kisner said.

The U.S. Attorney's Office began plea negotiations with Rice about six weeks ago, Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Giorno said.

Giorno said he would not have accepted an Alford plea, under which a defendant does not admit guilt but admits prosecutors have enough evidence to prove their case.

"I felt the evidence was very strong from our standpoint," he said.

Giorno's office has had success with Internet stings.

"Our office tends to take a real hard line with these cases. We gave up nothing," he said.

Giorno said that Rice communicated with the undercover officer by phone and e-mail between Feb. 8 and Feb. 20.

Using the computer screen name "EPMentor," he told the "boy" that he wanted to perform sexual acts on him, Giorno said.

"The conversations were very explicit. There was no doubt about what the intent was," Giorno said.

The two arranged a meeting and investigators were waiting to arrest Rice when he arrived at a Bedford County elementary school Feb. 20.

After the arrest, police searched the Super 8 Motel room Rice had checked into under the name "EPMentor" and found K-Y Jelly, a pack of condoms, baby wipes and a robe, Giorno said.

Rice told investigators his sole purpose for traveling to Bedford was to meet with the 13-year-old "boy," Giorno said.

Rice told the officers he was concerned that the young man might be suicidal, but he didn't contact any social service agencies, Giorno said.

When questioned further, Rice admitted he intended to have sex with the person he was meeting, Giorno said.

Shortly after Rice's arrest, attorney Harry Garrett, of Bedford, said Rice knew he wasn't speaking with a juvenile.

"Mr. Rice had several telephone conversations with the officer and had a clear understanding that the voice belonged to an adult," Garrett said.

Garrett, who doesn't handle federal cases, was later replaced as Rice's attorney by Cargill of Roanoke.

Giorno said he didn't know if the undercover officer tried to disguise his voice.

Rice had been an aide to former West Virginia Gov. Gaston Caperton. He resigned as general manager of the Blue Ridge Outlet Center in Martinsburg days after his arrest.

In late February, Rice said he was running a consulting firm out of his home.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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