Ex-guard gets 10-year prison sentence for sexual assault

Former jail guard sentenced

Former Maui Community Correctional Center jail guard officer James Siugpiyemal listens to the prosecution make a case for a 10-year sentence Tuesday. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

WAILUKU — A 10-year prison term was ordered Tuesday for a former jail guard convicted of sexually assaulting an inmate while he was working at the Maui Community Correctional Center three years ago.

James Siugpiyemal took advantage of his job as an adult corrections officer and “violated this position of trust to establish a sexual relationship” with the inmate, said Deputy Prosecutor Iwalani Gasmen.

“This was not based on love but was based on his exploitation of her,” Gasmen said in arguing for the prison term.

“He used her. He used her for his own sexual gratification, even despite having a wife and family.”

In a trial in July, Siugpiyemal, 44, was found guilty of second-degree sexual assault and two counts of third-degree sexual assault of the 36-year-old Kihei woman.

Former Maui Community Correctional Center corrections officer James Siugpiyemal turns toward family members in the courtroom after being sentenced to 10 years in prison Tuesday afternoon for sexually assaulting an inmate three years ago. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

She videotaped a sexual encounter between her and Siugpiyemal on Aug. 11, 2014, in her car at the Maui Tropical Plantation in Waikapu. At the time, she was a work furlough inmate at the Wailuku jail.

The woman reported that Siugpiyemal had threatened to have her work furlough privileges taken away after he saw a photo of her wearing a bikini that she had posted on Facebook. He called her and the two exchanged text messages before she reported having sexual contact with Siugpiyemal on July 31, 2014, and Aug. 11, 2014.

During the second incident, the woman said she turned on a camera in her car to make the video because she didn’t think anyone would believe her.

“You were banking on the fact that you were a corrections officer and people are going to believe you,” the woman said, appearing by videoconference for Siugpiyemal’s sentencing Tuesday. “I’m just a drug addict . . .

“At the end of the day, nobody did believe what I said because you were acquitted on the first time . . . and you know for a fact it happened,” she said.

She was referring to jury verdicts finding Siugpiyemal not guilty of two other charges of second-degree sexual assault.

“They might not have believed what I said, but they believed what they saw,” the woman said. “I just hope at some point you can take responsibility and accountability in some way for your actions.”

While noting that he didn’t have any specific information, 2nd Circuit Judge Joseph Cardoza said the not-guilty verdicts weren’t necessarily a rejection of what the victim said in her testimony. He said the jury appeared to pay “very close attention” to some legal definitions in those charges.

Defense attorney Richard Gronna, who was appointed to represent Siugpiyemal after the trial, argued for probation for the defendant.

Siugpiyemal, who has no prior arrests or convictions, has already spent 11 months in jail and would have to register as a sex offender, Gronna said.

Because he is not a U.S. citizen, Siugpiyemal will face deportation to the Federated States of Micronesia, Gronna said.

Siugpiyemal is the son of a chief on a small atoll of less than 200 people in Yap, said Pat O’Brien, a San Diego, Calif., resident who spoke in support of Siugpiyemal at his sentencing.

“He was raised as a responsible leader, and he played that role up until this incident,” O’Brien said.

He said Siugpiyemal had joined the Yap Police Department and was managing the U.S. census there.

“He will never be free of this stigma,” O’Brien said. “He’s lost all status he once enjoyed.”

But he said Siugpiyemal could help residents who need to move in the next few years from the island because of rising sea levels.

Gronna said that the victim could have talked to jail staff about her concerns when Siugpiyemal first approached her about her Facebook page or when they exchanged text messages. “I think the defendant would have been dealt with appropriately,” Gronna said.

As police began an investigation, Siugpiyemal resigned from his job Oct. 9, 2014, and left the state, officials said.

Gronna said Siugpiyemal hadn’t been approached by law enforcement before he returned to Yap to help his family.

But Gasmen said Siugpiyemal had been placed on administrative leave from his job Oct. 3, 2014. He paid $1,634 to change his plane ticket so he could leave Oct. 9, 2014, a day earlier than his original ticket, Gasmen said.

She said it took two years for the state to have Siugpiyemal brought back from Yap to face the charges.

“Sexual assaults in state correctional facilities are drastically underreported and rarely brought to trial,” she said.

Siugpiyemal didn’t testify during his trial.

Speaking in court Tuesday, he said he wanted to return to Yap to help his family, including his wife and parents.

“I realize what I did was wrong, and I cannot reverse my action,” he said. “For that, I would like to apologize to (the victim) and her family for all the pain I have caused.”

In sentencing Siugpiyemal to prison, Judge Cardoza said he weighed several factors, including the defendant’s history, the nature of the offense and the need for the sentence to reflect the seriousness of the offense.

“At the end of the day, this is extremely serious,” Cardoza said.

* Lila Fujimoto can be reached at lfujimoto@mauinews.com.