Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Convicted Stalker Manages to Wiggle Out of Serving Jail Sentence

At least for the moment.

I spent most of the day yesterday in Judge Kenneth Barlow's courtroom yesterday for State v. Gabriel Rhenals (2009MM231E).  Mr. Rhenals, age 23, was arrested April 30, 2009 for stalking his UCF professor after Judge Theotis Bronson had granted an injunction to her earlier that month.

The victim testified that Mr. Rhenals had been disruptive in class, behaved aggressively, followed her, hovered outside her classroom and office, slammed her door when he became enraged, said he was obsessed with her, and admitted to stalking her. He told her he was jealous when she spoke with anyone other than him.  He was ultimately removed from her class and UCF.

When he was served with the temporary injunction, a UCF police detective interviewed the defendant. He told the detective that, in his mind, he thought there was a sexual relationship with the victim.  The defendant admitted he knew it was inappropriate and said he felt she paid more attention to him than other students. He apparently did not feel it was inappropriate to violate the injunction and send the victim three emails, however.

As a result of Mr. Rhenals' behavior, the victim chose to quit her job and move out of state because she feared for her safety. It was a job she loved and worked hard to earn. In this day and age of jobs that are tough to find, I think that alone speaks volumes about the level of terror this woman was subjected to at the hands of her perpetrator. She has yet to find a comparable position in academia.

The defendant chose to testify in his own behalf, admitted his obsession, and was quickly convicted. The judge sentenced him to serve 30 days in jail, 1 year probation, 75 hours of community service, undergo psychiatric evaluation and counseling to address obsessive compulsive behaviors, and to have no contact with the victim.

Not a bad sentence for a first offense.

This morning there was an emergency hearing by defense counsel Alicia Peyton.  The victim and her family were not present. The defendant's parents were. Mr. Rhenals appealed his sentence, although the motion did not enumerate the grounds for appeal.  Judge Barlow granted bond in the amount of $5,000 with conditions of release that include a psychiatric evaluation with his current psychiatrist in Miami (who must present the Court with a report within 10 days), have no contact with the victim or anyone at UCF involved in the case, and return to Dade County where his parents live.

CourtWatch is concerned that Mr. Rhenals has managed to avoid being held accountable, at least at the present time. He goes home with mom & dad and goes back to the psychiatrist he's already seeing. It will likely be several months before this matter is resolved. By then, I wouldn't be surprised if he figures out some way to avoid doing his jail sentence.

As a parent, I understand the desire to take care of and help your child in any way you possibly can. We don't want to see our children suffer. But sometimes we get in the way of allowing "the world" to teach them lessons they need to know. I have no doubt that Mr. Rhenals' parents love him dearly. But helping him avoid accountability is not going to help him in the long run. He is 23 years old and needs to learn that "no" means no. "No contact" means no contact. Stalking someone is not acceptable behavior.

Appeals can take a long time to go through the process.  At times this case moved as slowly as molassas because the attorneys and judge were picking through the evidence with a fine-toothed comb in order to make absolutely certain all the bases were covered. In order to give Mr. Rhenals his due process, his motion for bond was granted (the judge even noted that his sentence would be served by the time the appeal was resolved) even though the motion did not clearly indicate what the grounds were. What about the victim's right to see her perpetrator held accountable?

Oh, I forgot. The law doesn't seem to give victims that right.

For more information about stalking and to see how much you know about it, check out this quiz.

11 comments:

  1. Unbelievable, this guy admits to doing something dangerous and "crazy", but gets out. Mr. Ward is accused of shooting his wife, but gets out, then in Seiminole County a judge jails a father for 90 days because he doesn't have the income or means to pay his wife's attorneys' fees! Unbelievable! THANKS COURTWATCH FOR KEEPING US INFORMED ABOUT THESE JUDGES!

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  2. Victims have no rights, that's the sad truth. Until the violence leads to murder...but then again look at the Ward murder. Shot in the face and the rich husband is out on bail. He'll probably be out trick-or-treating tomorrow night with his sister-in-law...you know the one that advised him to say it was an accident. The same sister-in-law that visited Ward in jail--laughing, joking and having a good ole time.
    Mr. Rhenals is very dangerous--he violated an injunction, terrorized his victim and minimized his own behavior. The court confirmed his crime was "no big deal".

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  3. I am a former student to the victim and former classmate of Rhenalds.

    While he was a student at UCF both me and the rest of my peers considered him a credible threat to our saftey. I honestly still do not feel safe knowing that he is still walking the streets. I thought that maybe him going to jail would be the last we hear about that black mark in our lives, but apparently not.

    This makes me sick; a dangerous man can bully and terrify an amazing professor and never see the repercussions of it.

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  4. PART 1/2

    On January 16, 2012, I submitted the letter below to the CourtWatch Board of Directors. Despite reiterating my request on January 29 to the Board of Directors' Chair, Ms. Laura S. Williams, so far I have not received any response.

    LETTER TO THE COURTWATCH BOARD OF DIRECTORS

    I request that Laura S. Williams' CourtWatch article, "Convicted Stalker Manages to Wiggle Out of Serving Jail Sentence," (dated Wednesday, October 7, 2009) be taken down from the CourtWatch blog. The article presents a biased representation of my trial, it is damaging to my reputation - as it is one of the top items to appear in a Google search of my name - and there are a number of other issues with this article.

    To begin with, Ms. Williams’ article violates the principles stated on the CourtWatch website. CourtWatch reporters are supposed to be “impartial observers of the judicial system”. As I demonstrate below, her article is not the report of an impartial observer. In addition, the mission of CourtWatch is “Empowering the community to positively impact the court system’s handling of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse cases.” My case does not belong to any of these categories.

    Ms. Williams makes the mistake of totally siding with the plaintiff, completely ignoring the defendant's testimony or the points made by the defense. This is not fair and objective reporting. The essence of being just and fair is to allow the conflicting parties equal opportunity to express their point of view. A flagrant example of how biased this article is can be seen in the use of the phrase “wiggle out” in the title of the article when referring to my right to appeal the case on perfectly legitimate grounds.

    Ms. Williams fails to separate facts from allegations. As this trial dealt primarily with opposing testimonies alone, it's not an easy job, but a very delicate one, to label what is said as fact. I would like to respond to some of the "facts" cited by her:

    1) In my testimony, I said that my behavior in class was "occasionally boisterous," not disruptive or aggressive.
    2) I did not violate any injunction. The final injunction, after the initial 15-day temporary injunction, was never served, though it was thought by the plaintiff and the detective assigned to this case that it had been.
    3) One of the more egregious statements made at the trial came from the detective. I did not say that, in my mind, I thought there was a sexual relationship with the plaintiff. The statement by the detective doesn't even make any sense. Obviously, if something takes place in your mind, it's happening for real. No one who truly believes something in their mind would make the distinction.
    4) I never followed the plaintiff. There was an instance where we left a building at roughly the same time. But once out of the building, I did not follow her. In fact, we briefly smiled at each other when we encountered each other in the building’s lobby.
    5) I never hovered outside her classroom or office.
    6) I never slammed any door.
    7) I never admitted that I was obsessed with her in the way someone who has romantic intentions would. I was simply lauding her work and achievements in the field of film theory.

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  5. PART 2/2

    Furthermore, the state of Florida defines stalking as "any person who willfully, maliciously, and repeatedly follows, harasses, or cyberstalks another person…" During the trial, the prosecution failed to prove that my actions were in any way malicious, a critical component of the legal definition. There was no evidence of maliciousness. I never intended to do any harm to the plaintiff. Even the plaintiff stated, in a document she submitted to the court summarizing our interactions, that "the student has not crossed any lines in his behavior."

    I was never accused of stalking by the plaintiff. The term was used for the first time upon my arrest, which happened because of the belief, by the detective and the plaintiff, that I had violated an injunction. I had not violated any injunction. The injunction charges would later be dropped.

    I would also like to address a major lie by the prosecution. During the trial, the prosecutor stated that I had been expelled from UCF, and implied that I had been expelled due to stalking. This is grossly untrue. I was suspended for a year from UCF for harmful behavior/disruptive conduct.

    Considering the above, let me reiterate my request that Laura S. Williams’ CourtWatch article, “Convicted Stalker Manages to Wiggle Out of Serving Jail Sentence," (dated Wednesday, October 7, 2009) be taken down from the CourtWatch blog because it is damaging to my reputation, it is a biased description of the trial and it fails to separate facts from allegations.

    Sincerely,
    Gabriel Rhenals

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  6. Ms. Williams-

    Are you a watchdog, or an attack dog? Your opinion is undermining your legitimacy.

    I know the blog depends heavily your identity as a victim's advocate - it would not exist at all without your traumatic experiences, I assume - but I think you'd get a larger and more diverse audience by simply letting the facts speak for themselves.

    The only problem with that path is the possible realization that, in some cases, it may be best to simply write nothing at all. The only excuse I could see for this behavior is if you were paid to write these blog posts, paid to take this ideological position, and had quotas and deadlines and a livelihood to earn. But I don't think that's the case. Lucky you.

    I'd love to see you take this blog beyond the bloated realm of self-righteous ideologues, upwards into the underpopulated region of tactful reporting.

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  7. I am one of Gabriel Rhenals’ past educators and I feel highly qualified to report on his character, his potential, and his talent.

    I have known Gabriel for more than a decade and he is in every manner an excellent young man, a leader, a creator, a thinker, a communicator, and a person who cares deeply about others and our world. Gabriel was an exceptionally bright student, responsible, personable and positive. He was truly outstanding and exceptional. Gabriel’s creativity, his sharp intelligence and his straightforward effort to grow and learn inspire all lucky enough to associate with him. He was a pleasure to teach and is now an inspiring colleague and good friend.

    Gabriel is thoughtful and reflective; his notions and assertions are surprisingly original and insightful. Gabriel’s emotional maturity is evident in his writing, his speaking, and his thinking. His effort and his work continually demonstrate a high standard of quality. Gabriel clearly stands apart as a leader and a thinker. His work continually demonstrates the high standard that he holds himself to in all endeavors. He works to better himself with new challenges and has always been a courageous person, willing to take creative risks to grow and learn.

    Additionally, his ability to create interest in creative projects, and influence and motivate his colleagues, and offer new insights was a gift that he has continually provided over the years. Gabriel can inspire and motivate. His comments in discussion groups both as a student and a peer demonstrate an understanding of difficult matters, and intricate concepts. This ability distinguished Gabriel as an exceptional student and a leader.

    Gabriel’s ideas, coupled with his kindness and his spirit, benefits our community. His pleasant nature, positive attitude, and resourcefulness made Gabriel a pleasure to teach and a positive influence in our lives.

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  8. This is so biased and unfair against Gabriel! He's no criminal and he's been up to a lot since 2009. See for yourself at www.gabrielrhenals.com

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  9. I went to school with Gabe. His behavior inside and outside of class was disturbing and caused much stress among the students and teacher he was harassing (there was a police officer positioned outside the classroom for months for a reason). I'm commenting on this because after the Parkland shooting, Gabe was the first person to pop up into my mind, so I wanted to see what he was up to. It freaks me out that he is teaching students and is still minimizing and making excuses about his actions and behavior back then (which proves to me he is still not in a stable and healthy state of mind). For more context on his misjudgment- he made a film one time about a school shooting (which is fine), but in order to make the film, he brought a real fire arm onto campus to shoot his scenes (the proof is in the film and was screened in UCF's film club). This upset many of the students and was never properly dealt with among the faculty. It also disappoints me that there are past instructors on here that are defending his past actions, as it is just more proof that the faculty was dropping the ball when it came to knowing what was 'really' going on. I myself am afraid for saying anything right now, hence my anonymity.

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  10. PART 1/2

    To begin with, let me explain some facts few beyond those close to me may be aware of. During the Spring semester of 2009, I began to experience symptoms of what would later be diagnosed as schizoaffective disorder. These symptoms included delusions, paranoia and ideas of reference along with manic and depressive mood turbulence. These symptoms caused me to exhibit erratic and concerning but innocuous behavior toward the plaintiff in the case, Professor Theresa Scandiffio. Again, by Scandiffio's own words in a statement submitted to police recounting our interactions, she stated "the student [had] not crossed any lines in his behavior." In any case, my behavior ultimately led to the involvement of UCF campus authorities. Under-medicated and left to my own devices, my psychosis persisted and I was eventually arrested and charged after and only after sending a single harmless e-mail to Professor Scandiffio, foolishly requesting amnesty in order to attend my friends' end-of-the-year showcase of their work.

    Upon returning home, my psychosis reached a fevered peak and I attempted to end my life. In a paranoid and delusional frenzy, I believed that my life was under an imminent threat of torture. Luckily, I did not succeed in killing myself and I was subsequently hospitalized for two weeks. After returning home, sane but under the debilitating effects of a new regimen of psychotropic medication, I was fully expected to attend to the remainder of the legal situation I found myself embroiled in. It was a waking nightmare on a scale I'd never experienced. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as they say.

    As the blog post correctly states, I was already seeing a psychiatrist back home. This was the reason.

    Now, why didn't I invoke an insanity defense or mention any of this during my trial? My lawyers strongly advised against it. The penalty for claiming insanity or mental illness as a factor was far worse than not doing so, guilty or otherwise. So, this absolutely critical dimension to my actions was completely suppressed and not referenced in any way during the trial. I had to answer for actions that were carried out while I was not in my right mind.

    In the years following my trial and conviction, I have lived a most orderly and productive life. I have dutifully abided by all treatments prescribed by my doctors who I continue to see regularly. I have not had any symptoms in nearly a decade. In 2014, I returned to the university setting at Florida International University to continue my undergraduate career. And in 2016, I graduated with my Bachelor of Arts in Communication Arts with a pristine 4.0 GPA among all 16 courses in the program. I have also executed five complex short film productions as writer, producer, director, cinematographer and editor. Many of these short films have seen exhibition at film festivals, both domestic and international, as well as national distribution on PBS. One of the short films, titled 'Semester of Madness', is actually based on that experience of psychosis in early 2009. It is used by doctors at a local mental health hospital.

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  11. PART 2/2

    Beyond my passion for filmmaking, teaching in the substitute capacity has been a near-equal joy in my life. I pursue this exciting new calling with great enthusiasm and dedication. As a result, I have enjoyed a stellar reputation among my students and fellow faculty and staff. I can assure anyone that my role as a teacher is nothing to "freak out" about as such a crude phrase suggests.

    Surely, it is well within my right to defend myself against behavior which bore the mark of illness and not who I am. It is not minimizing or excuse-making. It is that rare pursuit of someone able to overcome a cruel twist of fate and return with his head intact to salvage what he can from the cruel machinations of a seeming imposter. Anyone can plainly see that the accomplishments, triumphs, accolades and relationships that have since followed my mental illness and grave legal woes would be greatly incongruent in my life were I not of a stable and healthy mind.

    With regard to my apparent "misjudgment" related to a short film I made at UCF about a school shooting, the short film was an exercise in impromptu filmmaking, titled '12:03', that I made with my friends and that I am proud to share here: www.vimeo.com/1916205. The supposed "real fire arm" (first time I've heard of this falsity) mentioned was, in fact, a harmless replica provided by my then-roommate who acts in the film. My primary contribution to the film, besides having my arm show up in the opening shot, was imbuing the film with a salient anti-establishment message about U.S. defense companies' ties to the university system; an issue I stood with fellow sds'ers (members of Students for a Democratic Society) to have addressed by our own university administration around the time this film was made. '12:03' had such an impact on its premiere audience at UCF's film club that it prompted Professor Barry Sandler, the club's faculty advisor, to say he was pleased my friends and I made a film "with something on its mind." I am proud of all of that!

    Now, what was 'really' going on? Who can really say? From my perspective, a powerful and merciless university and legal system double-teamed a lone student far away from home who got sick in the mind and was subject to the stigma associated with mental illness before his family or anyone close enough could properly intervene. As a mental health advocate in my community (something else I do), I am all too aware of the role that stigma plays in perceptions of and attitudes toward the mentally ill. It's well-documented and any perfunctory online search should quickly yield what one ought to know about the issue.

    Lastly, there's no need to be fearful of me. I'm just your friendly neighborhood filmmaker. I invite you to keep up with my adventures at www.gabrielrhenals.com. I'm currently writing my first feature-length film with plans to shoot it over the summer. Exciting times afoot!

    With all that said, I hope you'll take into account what I've written here and change accordingly. Thank you, eh?

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