AIKEN -- Kristen Thompson faced a possible 120 years in prison after a jury convicted her Wednesday of kidnapping a North Augusta family in a scheme to take their unborn baby to sell for $10,000 or more.
Circuit Judge Alexander Macaulay gave the Beech Island teen-ager only seven years, though. The sentence angered the assistant solicitor and sent the victim's family out of the courtroom near tears.
"I was basically in shock. I expected more time," victim Karen Chiera said outside the courthouse. "I'm afraid when she gets out, she may retaliate."
Assistant Solicitor Bill Weeks was too upset to comment.
Ms. Thompson, 19, will be eligible for parole in 2004. She also will have the benefit of mental health counseling and educational programming to help her obtain a general educational development diploma.
Judge Macauley ordered the jail time and counseling, saying he was holding Ms. Thompson responsible for the kidnapping while recognizing that she let the Chieras leave her Beech Island mobile home unhurt.
"As bizarre, as unreal as the event was, you did not actually harm anyone physically," the judge said. "The point is, you did not carry through."
The sentence came after a two-day trial in which witnesses testified that Ms. Thompson lured the family to her home in August 1998, thinking their want ad for a crib comforter meant they had a baby. She meant to snatch the baby to sell to a Utah buyer for $10,000.
Once she realized Mrs. Chiera was still pregnant, she invited the family back the next day, intending to kill them and cut the fetus out of the woman's womb.
Nicholas Hall, the defendant's 20-year-old ex-fiance, was the star witness in the trial. He told jurors that Ms. Thompson, his old high school classmate, manipulated him through sex to participate in the scheme. He admitted he pointed a gun at the family and ordered them to lie face down inside the trailer.
After hearing Tony Chiera beg for his family's life, Mr. Hall said, he couldn't go through with the killings.
On Wednesday, after about 90 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned guilty verdicts on all four kidnapping counts related to the illegal confinement of Tony and Karen Chiera and their two daughters, Sandra and Laura Reynolds.
The jury found Ms. Thompson not guilty on four counts of pointing and presenting a firearm, apparently swayed by defense arguments that Mr. Hall was the person holding the gun.
A final witness Wednesday, Kenneth Morgan from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, testified that Ms. Thompson confessed in April 1998 to trying to kidnap a baby from area Wal-Mart stores.
While being investigated for other crimes, the teen-ager revealed that her 14-year-old brother and his friend joined her at stores in Martinez and Aiken in hunting for a white male baby. The child could bring them $20,000 to $25,000 as part of a child-selling ring, Mr. Morgan said.
"She indicated that when they went to the local Wal-Mart in Aiken ... they didn't have the opportunity and (she) was scared at the time," Mr. Morgan said.
In his closing arguments, Mr. Weeks told jurors that the defendant was able to manipulate Mr. Hall despite his size -- he stood 6 feet 4 inches and weighed 270 pounds. Ms. Thompson was "the one who controlled the guns," he said.
"All the testimony shows that Kristen Thompson was an active participant, a planner, a schemer in this ridiculous plot to harm the Chieras," Mr. Weeks said. "As morbid a plan as it may be, she had one: She was going to cut that baby out."
In his closing, defense attorney John Harte told jurors the state had failed to meet the burden of proof, arguing that Mr. Hall was the "real actor in this case." The attorney suggested a conspiracy was hatched between investigators to frame Ms. Thompson with testimony from Mr. Hall.
Before her sentence, Ms. Thompson continued her denials. Asked by the judge whether she had anything to say, Ms. Thompson paused and then quietly responded, "I still maintain that I am innocent."
Her attorney described his client's troubled childhood, telling the judge that she was sexually abused as a child. Since then, she has been treated at mental hospitals and has been moved in and out of her mother's home by Social Services workers.
Ms. Thompson was diagnosed with mild depression, borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress syndrome from the sexual abuse. Mr. Harte also asked the judge to take into consideration that Ms. Thompson is only 19 years old.
Judge Macaulay indicated he was upset by the defendant's denials and the kidnapping of the Chieras' two young girls "who are probably the most innocent in all of this."
The judge sentenced Ms. Thompson to 30 years in prison on each count of kidnapping, but then suspended that sentence to seven years in prison and five years on probation. Because he ordered the sentences to be served concurrently, the four seven-year terms will not be added together but will be served at the same time.
Judge Macaulay also gave Ms. Thompson credit for 18 months she spent in jail awaiting trial.
Mr. Hall is expected to plead guilty to four counts of kidnapping and four counts of pointing and presenting a firearm. The solicitor's office typically recommends a light sentence to a judge after a co-defendant has agreed to testify against an accomplice. No court date has been set.
Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (803) 279-6895.