Jessica Seckman, age 27, of Alma, who pleaded guilty to one count, felony concealment of a child from a person entitled to visitation on April 2, appeared Thursday in Tyler County Circuit Court before Judge David W. Hummel, Jr., for sentencing.
Mrs. Seckman was charged with the crime after fleeing the state with her minor child in early September, 2011. She and her husband, Joseph Seckman, were apprehended in Flagstaff, Ariz., in October, 2011.
The Seckmans were the target of a nationwide manhunt which prompted law enforcement searches up and down the east coast and ended with the arrest in Arizona. The children were taken into the custody of child protective services and later returned to the custody of family members.
Jessica Seckman was sentenced toto not less than one nor more than five years in prison according to the statute, with credit for time served, and was ordered to pay restitution to the county for extradition costs, as well as one hundred percent of costs for counseling, should her child require treatment. She received the maximum sentence for the crime.
Appearing with her attorney, John Gainer, Seckman was given the opportunity to speak on her own behalf by Judge Hummel, who informed her is was her opportunity to state what she believed would be the most appropriate sentencing for her behavior.
Hummel noted that the victims in the case would also be allowed to speak to the court, as well as character witnesses who could speak on Seckman's behalf.
Mrs. Seckman told the court, "First of all, I want to say I'm sorry for all of this. I want to say I'm sorry to (father of the victim) Mr. Howard and his family, to my family, and to the state."
Defense counsel John Gainer then spoke to the court, saying "My client hasn't been in much trouble before. She's already served 31 days in jail, and 157 days on home confinement."
"She's not a criminal," said Gainer, who was corrected by the Judge. "Oh, yes, she is," said Hummel. "She is a convicted felon."
"She's not a criminal in the usual sense of the word," amended Gainer. "She knew she was violating the court order, but not that it was a felony. If she'd realized that, it never would have happened." He then requested probation for his client, citing her lack of a criminal record.
The father of the young victim, Thomas Howard, spoke to Judge Hummel next. He was visibly upset as he spoke of his fear and anguish during the ordeal, saying, "A child's trust is precious, and the ability to trust a parent is the basis of all trust. My daughter's trust was broken when her mother took her away from her home."
Howard told the court the Seckmans were under investigation by Child Protective Services at the time of the incident.
"On the day I got the phone call from school, I knew the thing I had been dreading had finally happened," said Mr. Howard. "My daughter was gone, and I had no idea where she was, or if she was all right."
"The next 30 days were a blur. I couldn't sleep. Our family worried and prayed for my daughter's safety," he continued. "Even though she was eventually returned safely to us, my daughter is still trying to recover from this. I fear her struggle will be lifelong. She has lost the ability to trust anyone."
Character witnesses for the defendant included her aunt by marriage, Paula Seckman, who stated she had known Jessica Seckman for three years. "She's a good mother. She's a good family member," said Paula.
William Seckman, father-in-law of Jessica, also spoke on her behalf. "She's a good girl, a good wife, a good mother, and basically a good citizen," said Mr. Seckman. "I'm respectfully asking she not be placed in jail, and be reunited with our family."
Following the statements, Jessica Seckman again addressed the court and said, "I talk to my children every week, and my daughter says she is looking forward to seeing me."
"I am very sorry for what I put Mr. Howard through," she added. "I considered calling him several times, but I just didn't want the argument."
In pronouncing sentence, the court denied the request for probation and sentenced Seckman to not less than one nor more than five years in prison according to the statute, with credit for time served. Seckman was also ordered to pay restitution to the county for extradition costs, as well as one hundred percent of costs for counseling, should her child require treatment. Seckman received the maximum sentence for the crime.
"I can't think of a greater nightmare than having a child taken away by such a selfish act," said Judge Hummel. "This was a reprehensible, selfish act on your part," Hummel told Seckman, "one that can not be over-stated. You did not call, did not advise anyone of the child's safety, which compounded the seriousness of the act."
"We see oftentimes on television where a parent abducts a child and the incident doesn't resolves itself so well," said Hummel. "Children are precious, and I can't imagine losing one in such a manner. Short of homicide, the court thinks there is no more serious crime than the taking of a child."
Attorney for the State, D. Luke Furbee, commented, "Once again, I would like to thank everyone - the State Police, the Arizona State Police, the US Marshals Service, and CPS - who worked so hard in getting the kids back here safe. That was the most important thing."
"Mrs. Seckman has been held accountable for her actions, which were indeed selfish. Mr. Howard's testimony was powerful," said Furbee, "and in this case, far more important than anything I would have to say."
"I hope this prosecution serves notice that the orders and rulings of family courts are not a game," added Furbee. "Too often, parties there seem to feel free to flaunt parenting orders and use them as weapons for purely selfish reasons. The family courts do a good job sorting it out, but when one absconds with children in violation of an order, that is a crime. That's what Mrs. Seckman did, and the fear and doubting Mr. Howard suffered is unimaginable."
"It's a crime, and it will be prosecuted," Furbee concluded.
Seckman was immediately remanded into custody to beginning serving sentence in the WV Division of Corrections prison system.