Rockford man guilty of two counts of battery

Corina Curry

One family was relieved and four were heartbroken after a Rockford man was acquitted on all but two counts of battery today.

The two-and-a-half week jury trial of Ryan Gaertner, 22, ended with the reading of the jury’s verdict.

Gaertner, a former Rockford Christian High School student and member of Temple Baptist Church, was on trial for criminal sexual assault and sexual abuse. Gaertner’s attorney, Dan Cain, requested that the battery charge be added for the jury’s consideration during his closing argument Wednesday.

Gaertner, the women who accused him and family members and friends sat still and silent in the packed courtroom as Judge Joe McGraw read the jury’s verdict.

The women and their supporters left quickly. Outside the courtroom, tears fell.

‘Happy as can be’

Gaertner showed little emotion as he walked arm-in-arm with family members until they reached the elevators on the fourth floor where he received a hug and smiled broadly.

“We’re as happy as can be and relieved,” Cain said on his client’s behalf as scores of attorneys congratulated Cain, thumping his back and shaking his hand.

The women, who were between the ages of 15 and 19 at the time of the alleged offenses, testified at trial that Gaertner, then 17, sexually assaulted them by forcing them to have sex with him. The women knew Gaertner through school or church. A fourth woman, a classmate of Gaertner’s in fall 2003 at Guilford High School, came forward two days after the trial started. She testified Gaertner forced her to have sex, too. Through his attorney, Gaertner denied having sex with the two 15-year-olds and said sex with the 19-year-old was consensual.

Gaertner, who did not testify, was found guilty of battery, a misdemeanor charge, against two of the three women named in the complaint.

According to the Illinois Criminal Code, “a person commits battery if he intentionally or knowingly without legal justification and by any means, (1) causes bodily harm to an individual or (2) makes physical contact of an insulting or provoking nature with an individual.”

“The jury clearly believed in the facts that he touched the girls in some way,” prosecuting attorney Geannette Wittendorf said. “The only conclusion I can come to is they came to some kind of compromise.”

January sentencing

Gaertner is due back in court for sentencing at 1:30 p.m. Jan. 25. He faces a range of punishment from probation to a year in jail. He could get court supervision, Cain said.

If convicted of sexual assault against all three women, he would have faced up to 45 years in prison.

“I’m going to wait and see what the outcome is at sentencing,” Cain said about how he’ll proceed. “We’ll file a motion for new trial before the sentencing. ... An appeal also is possible.”

Wittendorf said the women plan to seek orders of protection against the defendant.

“They’re concerned about repercussions,” she said.

‘The girls were on trial’

The parents of the three women in the case and the fourth woman who testified later said they supported their daughters’ willingness to testify, to hold Gaertner accountable for his actions and protect other women.

“As parents, our hearts are breaking as we have watched our girls through the last five years struggle with their pain that this young man has caused,” the parents said in a statement following the verdict. “These young ladies came forward and stuck through the painfully slow legal process so that this type of assault would not happen to anyone else. ... The verdict in this case is exactly why women do not come forward. The girls were on trial. Not the defendant.”

Staff writer Corina Curry can be reached at 815-987-1395 or ccurry@rrstar.com.

Parents' statement:

The following is a statement written by the parents of the four women who testified at the sexual-assault trial of Ryan Gaertner:

“As parents, our hearts are breaking as we have watched our girls through the last five years struggle with their pain that this young man has caused. These girls had absolutely nothing to gain by coming forward. When we are growing up, we are taught that we are accountable for our actions. Where is the accountability here? These young ladies came forward and stuck through the painfully slow legal process so that this type of assault would not happen to anyone else. The verdict in this case is exactly why women do not come forward. ... The girls were on trial, not the defendant. We stand behind our girls 100 percent, and we are very proud of them. They are very courageous.”