One of Tomas Co's victims confronted her tormentor Friday in Shawnee County District Court to admonish him for the emotional trauma he inflicted.
She was among the students in the dental lab supervised by Co at Topeka Correctional Facility, the state-run women’s prison. Earlier this year, a jury convicted Co on one of six charges of unlawful sexual relations with an inmate.
This woman's story, documented in a 2017 investigation that was ignored by leadership in the Kansas Department of Corrections, was the one the jurors believed.
"I have taken accountability for my actions that led me to prison, and my hope is that this man can someday do the same," the woman said. "Unfortunately, I believe right now he thinks he hasn't done anything wrong. The fact of the matter is his time is up."
The 73-year-old Co hunkered in silence as Judge Cheryl Rios sentenced him to 32 months in prison. He wailed when he learned he also would have to register as a sex offender for 25 years.
Rios agreed to release Co on $50,000 bond pending appeal.
Co's daughter, Christine Co, attended the court hearing and said the family will continue to fight to clear his name.
"Giving my father a prison sentence for false accusations serves as a painful reminder that our justice system still needs work," Christine Co said. "The Central Park 5, Walter McMullin, and Lamonte McIntyre, who is right here in Kansas, are just a few relevant examples of wrongful convictions and racial bias that have destroyed the lives of innocent people like my dad."
An investigation by The Topeka Capital-Journal revealed at least nine women in the dental lab repeatedly complained for five years about sexual harassment and unwanted physical contact from Co. Their complaints were ignored and, in some instances, resulted in warnings or retaliation.
The victim who appeared at Co's sentencing said she felt safe everywhere inside the prison except for the dental lab.
"When I was sentenced to prison," she said, "I thought I was past having to suffer the sexual abuse and harassment I have endured since I was a 13-year-old girl, but I was wrong yet again. It seems that's something I can't ever escape."
The Capital-Journal generally doesn't identify victims of sexual abuse without their permission, and women in this case fear stigma and retaliation.
In an interview Friday inside the prison, three women, including the one who appeared in court, expressed disappointment in the jury’s decision to reject five of the six charges against Co.
They had different ideas on justice for Co. One thought he should go to prison. Another just wanted to see him land on the sexual offender registry. One of the women wanted him to understand what it feels like to be in a vulnerable situation.
They were not fans of Chris Joseph, the defense attorney who represented Co and convinced the jury that the investigation into allegations was botched. Among the problems identified by Joseph was the failure to preserve surveillance video.
"One of my incidents was on camera, and he made a comment about how that was lost,“ one of the women said. ”I felt like he was rubbing that in my face. I felt like they did that on purpose."
During the trial, Joseph questioned women on why they didn't refuse Co's advances.
"It's kind of like a battle of the mind, right?" one of his victim's said in the interview inside prison. "Should I go along with this so that way my time in here is easier, or should I go against it and risk being retaliated against or losing my good time so that I can't go home to my family on time? It's kind of a tossup on what's the biggest evil, basically."
Attorneys asked prospective jurors before the trial for their views on allegations of sexual abuse. Several men said they would have a difficult time believing women who make these kinds of claims.
When Joseph asked who thought the Me Too movement had gone too far, about half of the prospective jurors, men and women, raised their hand.
"I do not think that the Me Too movement has gone too far," one of Co's victims said. "This is something that should have been addressed over a hundred years ago, right? And even before then, this has been prevalent throughout the ages, and we're just now realizing that what is going on is wrong. We need to continue in that progressive mindset."
One of the former dental lab students said most women are afraid to stand up because people won't believe them.
"It's humiliating in itself to go through anything like this, but to stand up and tell something so traumatic, and then to have somebody say I don't believe you is probably one of the worst things," she said. "It's probably almost as bad as what happened.
"To have another woman be that simple minded, it's heartbreaking to me. It's really hard for anybody to come forward anyway. I don't think the Me Too movement has gone far enough, either. I feel like women need to be able to stick together and know that it is OK to stand up and tell the truth. And I think that people need to be more open that things are happening out there and we need to open our eyes."
As they left the interview, she encouraged the woman who would appear in court later that day to "be strong and keep your head up."
"I'm going to give a statement," the woman said.
"Well, if you need to talk when you get back, I'm here," she replied.