Skaluba guilty in drugging, sex assault case
ALPENA — An Alpena man accused of six felony criminal sexual conduct charges was found guilty after a jury exited two-and-a-half-hours of deliberations late Friday afternoon.
Nick Skaluba, 22, now awaits sentencing and faces life in prison.
It is likely two third-degree criminal sexual conduct charges will be voided, because Skaluba can’t be convicted of both first- and third-degree crimes because of double jeopardy. He will be sentenced on the remaining four first-degree charges at a future date.
Skaluba was charged after two girls reported that they suspected he had drugged them with Xanax and then taken advantage of them while they were in blackout states.
The incidents happened in July 2016 at a home in Alpena where another man hosted a series of parties fueled by alcohol, drugs and sex, according to testimony in Skaluba’s five-day trial. The case moved slowly through the local court system because of its complexity and the number of witnesses who needed to be interviewed.
Defense attorney Dan White said he didn’t anticipate the jury would reach a verdict in such as short period of time, because he believed there was a great deal of reasonable doubt that Skaluba raped the girls or spiked their drinks. He said he and his partner attorneys still believe Skaluba didn’t commit the crimes.
“Yes, I was surprised the jury decided so quickly, because I thought there was a whole bunch of terrain to cover,” White said. “We’re highly prejudiced in this case, because we believed and still believe our client’s innocent. This is hard for us to understand the result, although we do have to honor the jury system.”
Asked if there was a possibility for an appeal, White responded frankly.
“It isn’t a possibility. It is a certainty,” he said.
Alpena County Prosecutor Ed Black said he preferred not to make comment on the jury’s decision or the verdict so soon after the trial ended out of respect for the families who were involved in the long and emotional case.
Earlier in the day, the two accusers attended the court proceedings and sat in the front row of the courtroom as the final arguments were made. They also attended the reading of the verdict.
More than three years after his arrest, Skaluba was able to publicly give his account of what he believed transpired at the parties as he took the witness stand Friday.
He denied having sex with his accusers –despite text messages showing he had assured one woman that he had worn a condom –and said he did not drug them.
After five days of many witnesses, motions and objections, it will now be up to the jury to determine Skaluba’s fate. The jury began deliberating the case Friday afternoon.
During his testimony, Skaluba said he was not the one who purchased the Xanax that was allegedly used to drug his accusers. He said he was only the middle man in the drug deal and that the drugs belonged to Shane Dawson, whose family owns the house where the parties took place. In exchange for hooking Dawson up with the drugs, Skaluba said he was given two Xanax pills before each of the two parties in question, and he consumed both of the pills himself each night.
He also said he didn’t know where Dawson kept the remaining drugs.
“I took the pills, but I didn’t know where the stash was,” he said.
Although Skaluba denied having sex with the girls, Black used a series of text messages to suggest the defendant may be lying. Messages shared in court showed that one of his accusers asked him the day after she was allegedly assaulted if he had worn a condom. Skaluba had written back that he had.
In other messages, Skaluba said he was upset that the alleged victim didn’t remember “it.” Skaluba claimed “it” referred to the party as a whole, not an alleged sexual encounter.
Black also pointed out that, by Friday, Skaluba had been able to hear all of the testimony over the course of nearly five days and, as the defendant, had access to other information about the case, such as police reports. The prosecutor said Skaluba had time to come up with a story he hoped would get him out of trouble.
“You’ve been able to curtail your story based on what everyone else has said,” Black said.
Skaluba said that, the day after one of the alleged assaults took place, he did not think that he’d had sex with the alleged victim. In talking with others, however, he was led to believe that he may have had sex but didn’t recall it, and that is why he responded to the texts the way he did.
DNA EVIDENCE QUESTIONED
After Skaluba testified, the defense called Michigan State Police forensic scientist Joni Johnson to testify over speakerphone.
Johnson was in charge of the DNA evidence submitted in the trial. She said that, out of many samples of sheets and comforters from Dawson’s home that were tested, only one sample found matches to Skaluba’s DNA. That match was found in an area where the assaults allegedly took place. Johnson said, however, it was almost impossible Skaluba and his accusers were in those places together and sex occurred.
Black asked Johnson to describe the samples. She said they were portions of the sheets, but not the entire thing, so there could have been other areas of the sheet that had DNA from Skaluba and the accusers but were not tested.
She said tests were conducted on areas of the materials hat investigators in Alpena submitted. They likely were areas that showed many stains while being examined with a black light.
Still, she said she couldn’t entirely rule out that Skaluba was with the girls or that they did not have sex. Some of that evidence may have been on or in items not sent to the lab.
Johnson also said there was a chance no DNA was left behind because Skaluba may have worn a condom, which could have prevented semen from getting on the sheets and blankets.
The prosecution and defense gave two-and-a-half hours of closing statements Friday afternoon. Then the jury received its instructions from 46th Circuit Court Judge George Mertz, who is overseeing the trial because 26th Circuit Court Judge Michael Mack recused himself.
Mack didn’t give an explanation as to why he did so.
They jury was sent into deliberation at about 4 p.m. Mertz had warned jurors that deliberation could carry into the weekend if a verdict wasn’t reached Friday night.
The verdict was returned about 7 p.m.
Steve Schulwitz can be reached at 989-358-5689 at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ss_alpeanews.com.