OKEECHOBEE — ‘I’ve been living with this secret …’
Prosecutor Don Richardson stood in the middle of the courtroom and implored the jury:
“We have one question, and one question only: Did this defendant commit these horrific acts? He is guilty as charged. After 23 years, he is guilty as charged.”
Shortly thereafter the three men and three women who made up the jury were sent out to deliberate. A few minutes later they returned to the courtroom Thursday afternoon and found Tommy Gene Comfort guilty on four counts of sexual battery on a child under 12 years of age by a person under the age of 18.
The two-day trial centered around Comfort’s sexual abuse of three young relatives while they were all children. The four victims detailed for the jury how his abuse began with fondling and progressed to his having intercourse with the girls and forcing them to perform oral sex.
One of those girls was only 4 to 5 years of age when she was abused in the early 1990s.
Victim #1 turned to face the jury and told about visiting Comfort and his family who lived in a home on a U.S. 98 North dairy. And, of some calf pens on the property.
She sat upright, trying to control her emotions, and detailed how he would lay her face down on the dirt floor of the pen and remove her shorts or pants and would rub himself on her. Comfort, she added, was probably around 8 years old at the time.
The victim said that he did not penetrate her that time.
When asked how many times she was abused by the defendant, the now 28-year-old woman said she “couldn’t even put a number on it. I don’t even know a number to throw out,” she told assistant state attorney Don Richardson.
Why didn’t you tell someone? asked the prosecutor.
“I didn’t say anything because I grew up thinking it was normal,” answered the woman.
Victim #2, an older sister, testified to watching Tommy sexually molest her “baby” sister in that calf pen.
“When he was doing it to her I tried to lock eyes with her because I was afraid if she closed her eyes, she wouldn’t open them again,” she told the jury, adding that tears were running down the child’s face.
She then wondered if her baby sister would give up and die.
“Is this going to be the last time? Is this going to be the time my little baby gives up?” she said, looking at the jury. “I felt I should have protected her better, but I didn’t.”
Some time later Comfort and his family moved to a double wide mobile home in Otter Creek and that’s where the abuse began to turn more violent, according to court testimony.
The victims told stories of Comfort hitting them in the back of their heads with a wooden guitar until the back of the instrument cracked; tying their naked bodies up in a walk-in closet in his bedroom; or, digging a shallow grave and burying one of the girls up to their neck as a threat of what would happen to her if she told anyone.
“He was very mean and was smacking us around,” testified Victim #1.
She told Mr. Richardson about how she and her sisters would be watching television and Comfort would come in and “pick” one of the girls.
Once, when the youngest victim was around 6 years old, they were watching a scary movie on a Halloween night. Comfort came in and “picked her” to go with him to his room. But, Victim #2 who was a couple of years older, stepped up and told him to choose her.
“My sister (Victim #1) was really tiny. She was my baby, too. I loved her,” explained the now 30-year-old woman. “I thought by saying ‘do what you want to me’ it would protect her.”
Comfort took the older girl into his bedroom.
She recounted for the jury how Comfort became more brutal and the four girls knew whenever they were around him at least one of them was going to be abused.
“It got to the point it wasn’t out of the norm any more. Whenever you went over there you just expected it. When something like this happens to you every day. It’s just blurry. It’s just another day in hell,” said Victim #2. “When he left for the military, it was one of the happiest days of my life. It was finally going to be over.”
Comfort joined the U.S. Marines in 1996 and served in Afghanistan.
In fact, Victim #2 told the jury, the last time he molested her was just before he left for the service. She was around 11 years old at the time.
Finally, after 23 years, Victim #1 decided she, her sisters and her cousin had suffered in silence long enough. On June 14, 2015, she went to the Okeechobee County Sheriff’s Office and filed a complaint.
“I wanted somebody to know. I’ve been living with this secret forever,” she told the jury.
The case was assigned to then-OCSO detective John Fisher. And although it wasn’t easy, he finally talked to all four of the girls and later arrested both Tommy and his older brother Carlton Comfort.
Carlton’s trial has yet to be scheduled.
When asked, Victim #1 said she didn’t tell her sisters or her cousin about her plan to go to the sheriff’s office.
“I just did it. I didn’t want anyone to talk me out of it,” she told Mr. Richardson.
Although the trial ended Jan. 21, Mr. Richardson said he still has a lot of research to do. Because the molestations occurred in the 1990s, Comfort will have to be sentenced by the statutes and sentencing guidelines that were in place at that time.
Also, it has to be taken into consideration that Comfort was a juvenile at that time.
All four of the girls are grown and now have families of their own. But, they are still living with the emotional scars left by Comfort’s abuse.
“He’s in jail and I put him there. But, that doesn’t mean it stopped,” said Victim #1.
For Victim #2, having to talk about what was done to her, her sisters and cousin was painful. And as she spoke about it to the jury, she finally broke down.
“It’s very hard — remembering everything,” she cried, adding that she does not want to hurt anyone, including Comfort. “I’m telling you about the horrible things he did to me but he’s still my family and I love him.”
Eric Kopp is a staff writer for the Okeechobee News