Strawbridge gets nearly 5-year term

Posted: November 29, 2007

Saying that deterring others from possessing child pornography was key, a federal judge "reluctantly" sentenced Steven L. Strawbridge Sr. to nearly five years in prison yesterday despite tearful pleas from the department store heir's wife and daughter.

Strawbridge, 64, in his own short statement, made no personal plea but apologized to the unknown children whose images he viewed, as well as to his family and friends, more than 100 of whom packed the courtroom in an impressive show of support.

U.S. District Judge Michael M. Baylson said he would allow Strawbridge to spend the holidays with his family before surrendering Jan. 2 to begin his prison term.

And in a nod to the defense's concerns that Strawbridge faced possible attack or sexual abuse in a regular prison population, Baylson said he would recommend that the Main Line millionaire serve his time in a minimum-security facility, despite Bureau of Prison policy to the contrary for the offense.

Strawbridge had faced up to 71 months in prison under federal sentencing guidelines for his guilty plea in August to possessing 100 pornographic images on his home computer.

Defense attorney Eric W. Sitarchuk - pointing to his client's many charitable works, his efforts to rehabilitate himself through therapy and his reputation as a kind and gentle person - had sought a considerably shorter term than the minimum 57 months set in the guidelines, or even house arrest.

"If ever there was a good person who did a bad thing, who deserved a second chance, I submit it is Steven Strawbridge," Sitarchuk said.

But in the end, Baylson settled on the 57-month term range, saying, "I came to that reluctantly.

"I can't avoid deterrence," he said, noting the sentences in such cases were aimed in large part at sending a signal to others who would possess child porn.

Strawbridge's wife, Elizabeth, who is known as Bebe, and their daughter, Allison, both wept as they addressed the court, telling how his crime had hurt them but also how he was a good man and loving husband and father.

"He is the only man I have ever loved . . . Your honor, please have understanding for this decent man I love dearly," Elizabeth Strawbridge said.

"Just the thought of not being able to call him when I need him is unbearable," Allison Strawbridge said.

Both women - and others in the court - broke into tears again when, before imposing the actual sentence, the judge indicated he would be sending Strawbridge to prison for longer than they hoped.

Standing ramrod straight at the lectern in a blue suit, Strawbridge offered no excuses and turned away from the judge to look at his family and supporters when he apologized to them.

"Words cannot describe my feelings of sorrow and deep, deep regret," he told the judge.

Referring to the children victimized by pornographers, Strawbridge said, "This has haunted me for years and will continue to be a nightmare for the rest of my life."

In urging the judge to follow the sentencing guidelines, Assistant U.S. Attorney Richard Zack said collecting child pornography "fuels the rape and brutal abuse of young children."

Zack also argued that a sentence less than that specified in the guidelines would send the signal that justice favored the rich over the poor.

Baylson said Strawbridge had two sets of victims: The children in the pornographic images and his family.

"He has left a trail of victims," the judge said. "This is conduct Mr. Strawbridge had to know was wrong. He could have sought professional help."

In his sentencing memorandum, Sitarchuk hinted that Strawbridge had endured some trauma as a youth that contributed to his fascination with child pornography.

Baylson said psychiatric reports apparently dealing with what happened to Strawbridge as a youth would remain under seal.

Contact staff writer Joseph Gambardello at 215-854-2153 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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