ERWIN — The sentence of a former Johnson City restaurant owner who pleaded guilty to a child abuse charge in late 2010 was transferred to unsupervised release at a Friday hearing in Unicoi County Criminal Court.
Melvin Bentley appeared in Criminal Court for a motions hearing. In January 2009, a grand jury indicted Bentley on a charge of aggravated sexual battery. According to the indictment, in October 2008 Bentley engaged in “unlawful sexual contact” with a male juvenile less than 13 years old.
According to previous reports, the charge followed notification by the state Department of Children’s Services that had photographs showing Bentley kissing the boy, then 8, on the lips. The boy told local officials Bentley had fondled him and he had touched Bentley’s private parts at Bentley’s request.
Throughout the legal process, Bentley denied the charges against him. In December 2010, he entered a best interest plea to the lesser charge of felony child abuse. At a March 2011 sentencing hearing, Bentley testified he took the plea rather than risk the possibility of being convicted of more severe charges at trial. He also testified that he had a relationship with the boy’s family, and boy would stay with him several times a week.
Bentley testified he would take the boy on trips, purchased him gifts and said that the boy would sometimes give him closed-mouth kisses after receiving gifts and that such acts were not sexual in nature.
In March 2011, Bentley was sentenced to 40 days in jail followed by six years of probation. He was also ordered not to have any unsupervised contact with any minor children.
In February 2012, Bentley’s attorney, Dan Smith, filed a motion seeking removal of a condition of Bentley’s probation that he submit to a sexual offender evaluation.
“The defendant was not convicted of a sexual offense,” the motion said. “He adamantly denied the sexual battery charge and was prepared to try his case to a jury. He still denies any charge of sexual battery and, if required to undergo a Sexual Offender Evaluation, will deny any sexual activity with minor children. That has always been his position with regard to the charges and the requirement to be treated as a sexual offender is not supported by any evidence before the court and is embarrassing and demeaning to the defendant.”
In May, Smith filed another motion seeking Bentley’s release from supervised probation.
“The defendant has completed twenty-two months of probation without incident by the time of this filing,” the motion said. “During this period, he has been in full compliance with all of the terms and conditions of his probation and has paid all costs associated with his prosecution and probation supervision. Further, defendant has maintained gainful employment during this period and has otherwise conducted himself as a good and law-abiding citizen.”
On Friday, Criminal Court Judge Stacy Street said Bentley was aware of the required sexual offender evaluation, as it was part of his 2011 sentence, but the requested removal of the requirement did not occur until nearly a year later.
Street ordered that Bentley, former owner of Poor Richard’s restaurant in Johnson City, complete the required evaluation. Once it has been completed and filed with the District Attorney General’s office, Bentley could begin serving his probation unsupervised the following month, Street said.
In February 2009, the family of the alleged victim filed a civil complaint seeking damages from Bentley for “injuries and compensatory and punitive damages arising from the aggravated sexual battery of the minor male child.” In June 2012, the civil case was ordered dismissed with prejudice. The dismissal order states that the parties had entered into a “mediated settlement agreement” the prior month.