Sexual abuse charges dropped against former Manatee fire commissioner

ejohnson@bradenton.comMarch 26, 2013 

MANATEE -- Sexual abuse charges filed against a former Southern Manatee Fire and Rescue commissioner were dropped last week, court records show.

Mark Ruben, 46, was charged in January 2012 with four counts of sexual battery and four counts of lewd and lascivious molestation on a minor.

Assistant State Attorney Daniel Yuter, who prosecutes child sex abuse cases, said the charges were dropped Thursday when the three children involved in the case refused to testify.

"The case was essentially based on the children's testimony," Yuter said. "We're not going to force them to testify. They've already been victimized."

Ruben was released from the Manatee County jail on Friday, after being incarcerated for 15 months.

"Obviously he's lost everything financially and his reputation is destroyed as result of the allegations and charges," said Jon Weiffenbach, Ruben's defense attorney. "I haven't spoken to him since he was released, but I guarantee he's relieved."

Yuter filed charges after Child Protective Services conducted interviews with the children who stated they were sexually abused from 2005 to 2011. The allegations were initially filed with the abuse hotline by a children's therapist, according to court records.

Ruben was held without bond after the judge denied requests for a monetary bond to be set at two separate hearings. The second decision was sent to appellate court where the ruling was affirmed without opinion.

Ruben "adamantly denied all of the allegations," according to his arrest affidavit. The affidavit also states that when one of the victims was interviewed again, he recanted his statements, "say

ing that he was just mad" at the defendant.

Ruben submitted a not guilty plea in March 2012.

"I had been instructed not to enter negotiations as far as a plea because he maintained his innocence," Weiffenbach said. "I believed my client when he said it didn't happen. Given he was facing life without parole and was so adamant about not accepting a deal, there was no reason to believe he did anything wrong."

Weiffenbach collected depositions from law enforcement and child protection officers while preparing for trial.

Before the defense interviewed the alleged victims, Yuter scheduled "deposition preparation interviews" with the children, where he was told they would not want to speak at trial.

"I did speak with them initially," Yuter said. "When a case is solely testimony, you have them recount it. Even though it's difficult for them, I want to make sure they're able to testify what happened."

When the children were brought to the State Attorney's Office for the interviews, two refused to leave the lobby, Yuter said. The oldest child met with Yuter, but did not want to talk about the incident.

Yuter explained to the mother of the children that the charges would be dropped if the children refused to take the stand.

"It was clearly too difficult for them to testify and even to talk to me in an informal setting," Yuter said.

The attorney explained that he has never experienced this exact scenario, but said children sometimes have trouble going to trial. However, the defendant has the right to confrontation.

"Sometimes these things happen a long time ago," Yuter said. "Testimony changes, and that's not necessarily indicative of lying. You're dealing with a child's memory about a very adult and serious incident."

Because charges were dropped, Yuter said the case could be reopened in the future if, for instance, the alleged victims choose to testify once they are adults.

"With no corroborating evidence, the state had no choice but to drop everything," Weiffenbach said.

Gov. Rick Scott suspended Ruben's duties as a fire commissioner days after the charges were filed. Melanie Marken was appointed in August 2012 to fill Ruben's vacancy on the five-person commission.

Weiffenbach does not know if Ruben plans to file for remedy or compensation for his 15-month incarceration.

"What I would advise my clients in this situation is to be glad it's over with and move forward in life," he said.

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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