Former sheriff's lieutenant sentenced to 30 years in sexual attack

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Also designated sexual offender, 15 years probation

By Lou Elliott Jones

The former Levy County Sheriff's lieutenant who attacked and held his ex-girlfriend prisoner for 10 hours, beating and raping her, will spend 30 years in prison followed by 15 years sex offender probation with electronic monitoring.

It was an ordeal that the victim told the court had left her filled with shame, guilt, self-loathing; unable to look at a 9-mm gun and unable to be around crowds; robbed of her spark and desire in life.

“I feel I cannot trust anyone,” she said.

The sentencing of Zachery Knight for the Nov. 10, 2011, attack at the home he once shared with the victim  near Willisoton came after the rejection of a plea deal made by State Attorney Bill Cervone's office with Knight's attorney Gloria Fletcher and two recesses.

“I am not willing to accept a negotiated plea,” said 8th Judicial Circuit Judge Stan Griffis III. He told Fletcher to tell her client he could have a bench trial — before Griffis — or a jury trial later in the month. The plea deal called for sentencing Knight on only two of the original five charges filed against him.

Fletcher asked for a recess to talk to Knight. When court reconvened, it was recessed again for a longer period.

Once court reconvened, Assistant State Attorney Glenn Bryan, who returned from duties in Bradford County to wrap up the case, said three charges — aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, kidnap/false imprisonment and sexual assault with a weapon/ sexual battery — would be nolle pros, meaning no further prosecution, while another charge, sexual assault/sexual battery with special conditions would be amended to sexual battery and the obstructing justice by intimidating or threatening a witness, victim or informant, would be kept intact.

The changes in the charges were the same as those in the plea deal — except that Knight would have to enter a plea on the record. While Bryan did not make a verbal recommendation on sentencing in court, Fletcher said she and Bryan “both of us believe a 10-year sentence is appropriate.”

He pleaded guilty, waived being arraigned and waived having a pre-sentencing investigation done despite facing up to 45 years in prison. His voice was breaking, and he was obviously tearful as he acknowledged his attorney had counseled him on what he faced.

Fletcher told Griffis that Knight was only 39 years old and had done good at his job with the sheriff's office, rising to the rank of lieutenant and, while incarcerated in the Bradford jail the past 454 days, had been housed with younger at-risk inmates to help them turn their lives around and even saved the life of an inmate who tried to hang himself.

When the tall, slightly built victim spoke, Knight, who no longer has the muscular, bulky body of his mixed martial arts competitive days, stood by the jury box and hung his head as he did throughout the hearing.

The tall, slightly built woman said his attack left her “disgusted by the way I look and I cannot look at myself naked in the mirror.”

“I'm afraid for my daughter,” she said. “Because of that ordeal that occurred in the dark  I fear going to what should be my one safe haven.”

She said she retained one thing after that night when Knight lured her to the home, attacked her, destroyed the communications equipment in the county vehicle she drove and then held her prisoner for hours before leaving.

“I have not lost my courage,” the victim said, looking at Knight, “though I feared retribution. … I will be free and he will be in prison the rest of his life. He's a boy. He's a boy because a man would never have done to me what he did.”

She went on: “He will never be trusted. He will be a rapist and sexual offender and a former law enforcement officer.”

She said the night of the attack Knight said she had led a charmed life with nothing bad ever happening to her, then spit on her and asked: How does it feel now that something bad has happened to you?

She said, “I reported it. I faced him. I'm no longer a victim.”

Before being sentenced Knight apologized to the victim. He said, “nobody's perfect and I'm not a criminal at heart.” He said while in jail he had found God. “I know the Lord forgives me and I hope (the victim) forgives me.” He said he prayed the judge would have mercy on him.

“This is a sad case,” Griffis said, adding that the facts showed a serious crime had occurred. "This will haunt (the victim), you and her family, and there is nothing I can do that will soften, mitigate or erase what happened.”

While some witnesses would ask that Knight's life before and after be considered in handing down the sentence, “This is about one incident in your life,” the judge said. He then pronounced Knight guilty, sentenced him and wished him “good luck.”