A judge on Wednesday denied a request to lower bond for a man facing child pornography trading and sexual exploitation charges.
Michael E. Rankins, 46, is charged in Labette County District Court with three off-grid felonies and five mid-range felonies. The off-grid felonies can be punished by life in prison upon conviction and a defendant must serve a minimum of 25 years in prison before being eligible for parole. On the mid-range felonies, the minimum prison term is less than three years upon conviction.
The complaint alleges three counts of internet trading in child pornography, all off-grid felonies. A fourth count of internet trading is listed as a mid-range felony, as are five counts of sexual exploitation of a child. The complaint alleges the incidents happened between Feb. 12 and June 1.
Rankins, a former Labette County USD 506 maintenance worker, has been jailed on a $300,000 bond since early October. Rankins resigned his position in August after he learned of the investigation and his computer was seized, witnesses testified on Wednesday during a bond hearing.
Labette County Attorney Stephen Jones had asked for a $500,000 bond for Rankins in October, but Judge Steve Stockard set the bond at $300,000. Edward Battitori, Rankins’ attorney, asked for a $25,000 bond on Wednesday.
Rankins’ parents and brother testified about how they could monitor their son/brother if he’s freed on a lower bond. Rankins lives with his parents and his brother lives next door.
Vicki Rankins testified that she could change bedrooms with her son so he wouldn’t be in the same separate space that he occupied when the alleged offenses occurred. She also offered to get rid of internet service to the home and devices that could access it, except for the cellphones she and her husband use and their computers. The parents would be at the house unless they had to work as substitute drivers for USD 506, she said. She could also take his car keys, but that may impact his ability to get employment, she said.
She and her husband, Gary, said they would do their best to monitor Michael. Neighbors do have WiFi, but they are private accounts so Michael wouldn’t be able to access those. Michael’s brother has WiFi, too. She testified that Michael does not have that password, but she does.
Michael’s brother said he would have no reservations if his brother returned home, and he would help supervise him.
Michael Rankins testified that he worked for USD 506 for about 15 years. He began as a custodian in the grade school and moved to maintenance in the last four years. He resigned in mid-August after questioned about the allegations. He testified that he was questioned on a Friday and resigned the next Tuesday.
Since then, he’s visited with a psychiatrist, even before charges were filed. He promised to follow any rules of bond release, including GPS monitoring. When asked how he could assure the judge of this, Rankins said, “All I have is my word. I know what I’ve been charged with is serious, and I’ll do whatever it takes to not … try to expose myself to the same stuff I was exposed to before.”
After testimony, Battitori said even a $25,000 bond was high for the family. He said they were “salt of the earth people.” His client has no criminal history, and his family would watch him closely if he were released.
Jones argued that internet service is ubiquitous in society. “It’s just everywhere.” It’s available at public libraries, fast food franchises and public buildings, so there may be no way to keep Rankins off the internet. GPS does little to protect society. It says where he is but not what he’s doing or with whom he’s spending time. The crimes were allegedly perpetrated using the internet and the probable cause affidavit indicates that they had been going on for years, but the crimes were not discovered until this year, Jones said. He said the case is strong and includes a confession. It was investigated by a forensics team in Wichita. Rankins allegedly downloaded the technology he needed to perpetrate the crimes and then got rid of it, and he would download it again if needed, Jones said.
Battitori argued that a $300,000 bond is not safer than GPS monitoring. He said the time for his client to run, if he was going to run, would have been after first contact with law enforcement. Not after he was charged.
Stockard said the risk of access to the internet is high if Rankins is released. The affidavit in the case indicates the crimes had been going on for a long time in the same house Rankins would be staying if released on bond. Stockard said he was doubly concerned that Rankins’ job involved being around children.
“I’m not convinced that I can sufficiently monitor house arrest because an ankle monitor is easily removed,” Stockard said. “I simply cannot allow this defendant to be out and access the internet. My fear is that his compulsion would be … far too high.”
There is no way to monitor Rankins 24 hours a day, no matter the plan, Stockard said. This is not a victimless crime. “I simply cannot subject this community to that risk.”
He said a defendant has a right to a bond he can afford, but that right has to be weighed against public safety and risk of flight. He wondered what a psychosexual evaluation would say about Rankins’ risk of reoffending. He said if he had such a report that might allay some of his concerns. But he denied the motion for a lower bond at this time, keeping it at $300,000.
The same terms apply as before. Those conditions are: No access to social media, a cellphone or a computer. He is not allowed to have contact with anyone under age 18 and is to turn in his passport if he has one. He would be on bond supervision if released from jail and would undergo random drug testing.
A preliminary hearing in the case is set for Jan. 29.