A Pulaski County man who pleaded guilty to molesting children at a private school where he was employed was sentenced Monday to 90 years in federal prison by a federal judge, who called his conduct "manipulative and deceptive" and said the conduct that led to his indictment warranted a severe sentence.
Augustus David "Gus" Shenker, 23, of Little Rock, sat without expression during a three-hour hearing in which his attorney asked U.S. District Judge Lee Rudofsky to consider a 15- to 20-year sentence and a government prosecutor asked for the maximum sentence under the law.
Shenker pleaded guilty last December to three counts of production of child pornography in exchange for the dismissal of 20 other counts charging him with production, possession and distribution of child pornography.
Shenker, who was working as a teacher's assistant at Miss Selma's School in Little Rock when he was arrested by the FBI, admitted to molesting children as young as 3 years old at the school. According to court documents, Shenker told investigators he had a problem with child pornography between 2014 and 2016, but had overcome it. He denied having inappropriate contact with the students, telling the agents that he had loved working at the school for four years.
Investigators seized Shenker's iPhone, which had a 3½-minute video recorded at the school on April 22, 2021, showing a sleeping girl being groped by a man. All that can be seen of the man is his jeans and white shoes with a colored trim around the bottom. The background of the video shows purple or blue curtains with apples and leaves bordering the room.
A 4½-minute video recorded the next day showed a sleeping girl being fondled by a man.
At the outset of Monday's three-hour hearing -- which was attended by members of Shenker's family as well as by families of the children who were victimized -- Rudofsky, recognizing the highly charged, emotional atmosphere in the courtroom, cautioned spectators in the packed courtroom gallery against any emotional outbursts.
"If there are any disruptions here today," he said, "I will not hesitate to use my powers of contempt ... You are not going to get out of hand on either side today."
Shortly after Rudofsky's warning, as a man could be heard laughing in the gallery, a U.S. marshal guarding Shenker turned toward the gallery and pointed to the man.
"Last time," the marshal said. "That's the last time or you're going out."
"What am I doing?" the man asked as a courtroom security officer approached.
"You know what you were doing," the officer said. "Now, stop it."
Shenker's attorney, Jeff Rosenzweig, asked Rudofsky to sentence Shenker to the statutory minimum of 15 years on all three counts, to be served concurrently for a total of 15 years, or, at most, to consider a sentence of no more than 20 years.
"Obviously, he's going to have to spend a significant portion of his life incarcerated," Rosenzweig said. "The question is, what is sufficient? We think no more than 20."
Under U.S. sentencing statutes, Shenker was subject to a statutory maximum sentence of 30 years on each count with it left to the judge's discretion as to whether to run the sentences concurrently or consecutively. U.S. sentencing guidelines recommended a life sentence, which, because it exceeds the statutory maximum, automatically defaulted to the statutory range.
Rosenzweig argued that Shenker suffers from cerebral palsy as the result of an in utero stroke. He said Shenker had shown remorse for his actions and was interested in receiving sex offender treatment while in prison. Shenker's parents, David and Shannon Shenker, told Rudofsky about the challenges they faced early on as their son began to exhibit developmental disabilities.
David Shenker said a brain scan showed "a big black hole in the center of the brain where there is no cerebral tissue," and he said that while neuroplasticity had enabled his son's brain to rewire itself in some regards, "there's going to be some things in life he just doesn't understand."
Shannon Shenker said she had spent most of her son's life "trying to get in front of things that would be challenging for him," but, "of every terrible thing I could think of, this was never on the radar."
The mother of one of the victims read from a letter she had written telling Shenker that she did forgive him, "as hard as it is to say." Crying as she read the letter, the woman apologized.
"Don't be sorry," Rudofsky said, gently. "You're entitled."
As she went on, she said her 4-year-old son went from being "the sweetest, bravest, kindest and most caring little boy who loved everyone" to withdrawn and angry, lashing out at others.
"You have destroyed this little boy's trust," she said. "The name he chose to give you is The Bad Guy, and that's what you are to him and to me, The Bad Guy."
The father of another victim, a little girl, took the stand and angrily denounced Shenker.
"You are a monster," the man said angrily, nearly shouting at times. "My little girl will have to live with this the rest of her life ... Anything less than 90 years is an injustice. You have ruined several, several children ... I really hope you die in hell and I do not forgive you. I hope you burn in hell."
Arguing for a maximum sentence, Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristin Bryant said she understood Shenker's parents in their struggle to understand their son's actions.
"In this job I've come to understand there are just some people who are evil to their core," she said. "I think Gus Shenker is one of those people. I think Gus Shenker molests children because he wants to ... I think to his core this is who he is. To protect the public I think you have to send him to prison for the rest of his life."
Rudofsky responded by saying there was no question that Shenker would go to prison "for a very long time."
"A 90-year sentence is essentially a life sentence," Rudofsky said. "Why not a 70-year or a 75-year sentence? Doesn't that do the same thing but potentially give Mr. Shenker ... an ability to live back in the free world for a little while? Why is that not the better option?"
"Because he doesn't deserve it," Bryant said. "He does not deserve to live one more day in the free world."
In denying a lighter sentence for Shenker, Rudofsky excoriated him, saying that nothing could justify a downward departure in sentencing.
"These kids will never be the same," the judge said. "These kids will grow up thinking this was their fault because they trusted you ... This was your fault and nobody else's. You did this over and over and over again ... Your conduct warrants the absolute highest I can go."