Ex-foster parent gets 20 to 40 years in prison

Leroy K. Mitchell accepts plea deal, admits molesting five children

By Kathleen Brady SheaManaging Editor, The Times

Leroy K. Mitchell

Leroy K. Mitchell

For years, a respected member of the community molested various children in his care – until one “very courageous 10-year-old girl” broke the cycle, not only reporting the abuse but also agreeing to call the perpetrator, who apologized while police were listening, the prosecutor said.

Calling the case against Leroy K. Mitchell, 60, of West Bradford Township, “one of the most horrifying patterns of child abuse” in the county, Deputy District Attorney Deborah S. Ryan told Chester County Court Judge David F. Bortner that earlier victims had made similar allegations to no avail. Mitchell, a longtime foster parent who coached softball and baseball and was active in his church, had solidified his reputation as a selfless volunteer, Ryan said. Mitchell denied the accusations, and the children continued to suffer, she said.

On Tuesday, March 4, Mitchell pleaded guilty to 15 charges in three separate cases involving five victims: three foster children and two relatives. Under the terms of a plea agreement negotiated between Ryan and Assistant Public Defender David B. Miller, Mitchell will spend 20 to 40 years in prison. The charges ranged from involuntary deviate sexual intercourse to endangering the welfare of children.

In a courtroom that contained about a dozen supporters of Mitchell and half a dozen associated with his victims, Mitchell initially declined to make a statement before changing his mind. “The only thing I’d like to say: I just pray for God’s peace and healing for everyone involved,” he said.

Explaining the basis for the plea, Ryan said the 10-year-old girl was first molested during a swimming outing at the Brandywine Creek when she was 9; she reported the abuse months later after a school assembly on inappropriate touching. Other victims included a 23-year-old former foster child who was molested repeatedly starting at age 3 at the Mitchells’ former residence in Newlin Township, Ryan said, adding that Mitchell told the girl to keep quiet “and everything would be OK,” periodically plying her with lollipops. A 30-year-old man said he was forced to perform oral sex on Mitchell, abuse that began in Mitchell’s foster care when he was 6 or 7 and sometimes led to bribes at McDonald’s or Chuck E. Cheese’s, Ryan said.

Two women who lived with the Mitchells in foster care submitted victim-impact statements to the court, describing the lasting effects of the defendant’s molestation. One woman, who is now 24, wrote that she was 6 when Mitchell entered her bedroom and began accosting her. She said he backed off when she started screaming, but the single incident left her with troubling issues of betrayal and distrust. The second victim echoed those sentiments, adding that she experienced nightmares from recurring abuse. “I hated myself because of what happened to me,” she wrote.

Ryan said after the 10-year-old girl came forward and Mitchell was arrested, follow-up investigation led to additional victims. In some instances, though, the statute of limitations had expired, she said. Investigators were also hampered in their ability to identify potential victims because Chester County, where Mitchell worked as a foster parent from 1989 to 1997, was only required to keep records for five years.

Near the end of the proceeding, Miller objected to a summarizing statement that Ryan began, accusing her of trying to make “a closing argument to a negotiated plea agreement, which is inappropriate.” Although Bortner questioned the timing, he said that he “generally afforded wide latitude” in sentencings of this type and that she could continue.

Elaborating on the power that Mitchell had over his victims, Ryan noted that Mitchell rose in the ranks at Chester County Prison, where he worked as a corrections officer for 22 years before his termination after the charges surfaced. He also served with his wife as a foster parent to 50 children over the last few decades, Ryan said, giving him  “unfettered access.”

Because of Mitchell’s prominence in the community, even when allegations surfaced, the children weren’t believed, she said. “They were called liars,” she said, adding that “our system failed” them. But she said the commonwealth and the victims were satisfied that Mitchell would essentially spend his “remaining years locked away.”

Asked by the judge whether he wanted to respond to Ryan’s recitation, Miller declined. “I’ve made my comments, your honor,” he said.

As Bortner listed the additional conditions of the sentence, such as the lifetime registration with authorities and a sex-offender evaluation, the provision that Mitchell have no contact with any of the victims drew a question from the defendant about whether it included his two relatives, who are now 10 and 14.

As some of the victims in the courtroom shook their heads, the judge agreed to amend the wording to specify that the girls could contact Mitchell if they so choose once they turn 18. Mitchell, who has been incarcerated since June 1, will get credit for time served, the judge said.

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