Judge gives the max to molester

In a rare move, Island County Superior Court Judge Vickie Churchill set aside a recommended sentence for a child molester and threw the proverbial book at him Thursday.

“I’m somewhat surprised this was agreed to by the family,” she said of the plea bargain, which the victim’s family approved.

Churchill sentenced John Cowan, a 61-year-old Oak Harbor man, to 11-and-a-half years to life in prison, adding a year-and-a-half to a sentence recommendation worked out in a plea bargain. It was the maximum time she could give him.

Cowan had pleaded guilty last June, as part of a plea bargain, to charges of child molestation in the first degree, unlawful possession of a firearm in the second degree and possession with intent to deliver methamphetamine, with a firearm enhancement.

Under the agreement, both the defense and prosecution recommended that Cowan received a sentence of 10 years to life in prison.

Deputy Prosecutor Eric Ohme made it clear that everyone involved in the case — including the victim, her family and detectives — agreed with the plea bargain and recommended sentence. He even contacted a woman Cowan had molested as a child more than 20 years ago in Utah; she was pleased with the deal.

Ohme speculated that Cowan will never be a free man again, noting that a sentencing review board will probably not agree to let him out after he serves 10 years. Also, Cowan’s health was suffering after a lifetime of drug abuse.

“Probably he will never survive the minimum 120-month recommended sentence,” he said.

The victim’s mother, Kathleen Gonzales, spoke on behalf of her 12-year-old daughter, who was in court Thursday.

“I would like you to consider that this isn’t his first victim and if he gets out, it won’t be his last,” she said to the judge, but she didn’t advocate a particular sentence.

Cowan’s attorney, Jennifer Bowan of Coupeville, pointed out that Cowan had admitted to molesting the girl after he was arrested and has expressed remorse.

“He recognized very clearly that what he did was wrong and that he hurt this family and this young woman,” she said.

Cowan spoke briefly, appearing nervous and emotional. He said he was truly sorry.

“I make no excuses for acts I’ve done against this family,” he said.

Still, Churchill wasn’t persuaded that justice would be done with the recommended sentence. She said Cowan committed a “very long and lengthy type of abuse” against the victim. Cowan molested the girl multiple times when she was 9 and 10 years old.

“This is something that will stay with her during her entire life,” Churchill said.

The judge said she was at a quandary as to what to do, but ultimately opted to hand Cowan the maximum indeterminant sentence. The indeterminant sentence means that he will have to serve 11-and-a-half years, with possible time off for good behavior, and then go before a review board that will determine if he still poses a risk and should be set free.

Cowan’s case became high profile after he didn’t appear at a court hearing and was wanted on a $500,000 warrant. He was found the next day at an Anacortes motel. Seattle-area media reported on the case and KIRO TV news appeared in the courtroom Thursday.

In court, Ohme described how detectives from two offices pursued different parts of the case. Not only did Cowan molest his friends’ child over a three year period, but he sold methamphetamine out of his Rolling Hills home.

“The case would not have reached this point without the outstanding job by the Island County Sheriff’s Office and the Oak Harbor Police Department,” he said.

The presentence investigation report by the Department of Corrections describes Cowan’s crimes and the impact they had on the little girl. It also paints a very sad picture of a man from an unfortunate upbringing who destroyed his life with drugs.

Gonzales, the girl’s mother, wrote a moving letter for the investigation, describing her own guilt at not preventing her daughter’s abuse. She wrote that the girl’s personality has changed, she has trouble making friends and “cries about every little thing.”

“She is not the little girl she was before this happened and I am afraid I may not ever see that little girl again,” she wrote.

You can reach News-Times reporter Jessie Stensland at or call 675-6611.

We encourage an open exchange of ideas on this story's topic, but we ask you to follow our guidelines for respecting community standards. Personal attacks, inappropriate language, and off-topic comments may be removed, and comment privileges revoked, per our Terms of Use. Please see our FAQ if you have questions or concerns about using Facebook to comment.
blog comments powered by Disqus

Read the Oct 26
Green Edition

Browse the print edition page by page, including stories and ads.

Browse the archives.

Friends to Follow

View All Updates