(Editor’s note: To protect the alleged victim’s identity, her name and her family members’ names are not used.)
An Effingham County man likely will spend the rest of his life behind bars after a jury found him guilty Thursday of molesting a 14-year-old girl who committed suicide eight months later.
The jury of six men and six women found Michael Parfenuk, 61, guilty on all four counts in the indictment — two counts of child molestation and two counts of sexual battery. The jury deliberated for less than an hour following two days of testimony.
Chief Judge William E. Woodrum Jr. gave Parfenuk the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison.
“Not only does Mr. Parfenuk not accept responsibility for his actions, but he has absolutely no remorse for them as well,” Assistant District Attorney Ben Edwards said following the verdict.
“He doesn’t indicate any remorse because he has maintained his innocence. He still maintains his innocence,” said Parfenuk’s attorney, Craig Bonnell.
According to testimony, the victim was one of several neighborhood children who often spent time at the Plantation Drive home of Parfenuk and his live-in girlfriend, Zora Zena. Members of the girl’s family testified that she told them Parfenuk kissed her and touched her inappropriately in the bedroom of his house on Jan. 29, 2011.
The girl killed herself on Sept. 21, 2011.
Showing a framed picture of the teenager to the jury as he made his closing argument, Edwards said, “Today is about justice for (her). She can’t be here to tell her side of the story.”
On the witness stand, Parfenuk admitted that he kissed the 14-year-old on Jan. 29 after she dropped by his house to ask him to repair a broken string on her guitar. However, he denied the accusation that he touched the girl’s breasts and genital area.
“She came up and she gave me a hug. I put my arms around her and gave her a little peck on the lips,” said Parfenuk, who was 59 at the time of the alleged incident.
On cross-examination, Edwards asked, “And you find nothing inappropriate about you, a 59-year-old man, kissing a 14-year-old girl?”
Parfenuk responded, “In the manner that I did it, I didn’t see anything wrong with it.”
Parfenuk said that he often gave a hug or a “kiss on the head” to “a lot of the kids” who visited his house to swim in the pool or enjoy craft projects with Zena. He testified that the 14-year-old he was accused of molesting would visit frequently and often confide in him about her personal life, so much so that “she made me feel sometimes like a surrogate father.”
As time went on, Zena and Parfenuk both testified, the girl began to see Parfenuk as more of a boyfriend figure than father figure. The defense portrayed the teenager as a flirtatious attention-seeker who made the molestation accusations only after her advances toward Parfenuk were rejected.
“I told him I didn’t think it was a good idea for him to be alone with her,” Zena testified. “I felt she had an affection for him, and I thought it would be really bad.”
“How dare they accuse this 14-year-old girl of being the instigator,” Edwards said in his closing argument.
The girl’s mother, father and grandmother testified that she was scared and shaken when she returned from Parfenuk’s house following the alleged attack.
“She was trembling, crying very hard — something I had never seen before,” said her grandmother.
That was the start of a pattern, they said. According to the family’s testimony, the teenager’s behavior changed dramatically after Jan. 29, 2011.
“After everything happened, she just seemed angry all the time,” her father said.
“She wasn’t the happy little girl she always was,” her grandmother said.
The girl’s mother said her daughter wasn’t comfortable talking about what she alleged happened at Parfenuk’s house, so she encouraged her daughter to write it down. The 14-year-old wrote a note a few hours after the alleged attack.
On the witness stand, the mother read the note, which said in part, “He said, ‘Come here,’ and I did. He grabbed my hand and he took me to his room. Then he started kissing and touching me. I thought through it and didn’t panic.”
What the teenager did, according to testimony from Parfenuk and the girl’s family, was get away from him by saying she heard her cell phone ringing in another room. The 14-year-old said was going outside to talk to a friend because the phone reception was better there than inside the house.
Bonnell drew the ire of the victim’s mother when he questioned the credibility of the girl’s story. He asked the mother if she found it strange that her daughter could stop an alleged attack simply by saying “my phone is ringing.”
“I think the whole event was strange, but I think my daughter reacted the best way she could,” the mother said. “I’m proud of her that she was strong enough to think of such a thing to get away from him.”
Rather than calling a friend, though, the teenager called 911 as she left Parfenuk’s house and headed toward her home. The jury heard the recording of the 911 call, which began with the girl telling a dispatcher her emergency was “the guy that is raping me.”
The girl’s call was transferred to an Effingham County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher, who asked her, “Do you know who attacked you?”
“His name is Michael Parfenuk,” she replied.