They trusted John Warren Gesell with their daughters' welfare.
He let them down.
"Our trust with him went very deeply; we chose him to be our daughters' guardian if anything happened to us," the father said yesterday after Gesell was sentenced to four years in state prison for sexually molesting the man's 12-year-old daughter from the time she was 5. The family's name is being withheld to protect the victim's privacy.
"It's a big shock, it's devastating. It makes you think about trusting anybody."
Gesell, who pleaded guilty to one count of child abuse on Sept. 14, apologized to the girl and her family before Carroll Circuit Judge Luke K. Burns Jr. pronounced sentence. He had asked the judge for leniency.
Instead, the judge said he wished he could have sent Gesell away for longer than the four years he had agreed to as part of the man's plea bargain with prosecutors.
"I would have no difficulty exceeding guidelines in this case by imposing the [maximum allowable] 15-year sentence," Judge Burns said in a scolding tone he rarely uses. "How can a man force himself sexually on an innocent child of this age?"
The judge called the case a betrayal of trust. "The statement of facts I heard on Sept. 14, 1993, in this case were as bad, and as terrible and as sick as I have ever heard."
Judge Burns imposed a 15-year sentence but, because of the plea agreement, suspended 11 years. Upon release, Gesell will be placed on five years of supervised probation and ordered to pay for counseling for the victim and her family.
After the hearing, the girl's family stood outside the courtroom. Her parents, wiping away an occasional tear, almost blamed themselves and wished they had recognized the signs in their daughter that they now know pointed to something terribly wrong.
The girl, clinging to her mother, said she spent years being "afraid of the dark, afraid to go upstairs, afraid of being alone in a room."
Her father said he hopes other parents will do what he and his wife wished they had. "If you don't know the signs, simply ask the question. Ask your children if they've been abused."
Gesell was indicted in June on six charges of child sexual abuse after an investigation that lasted several months. The trooper in charge of the investigation said in June that police learned of the abuse when the girl told an officer who was visiting her school for a class on drug abuse.
Gesell's wife was a licensed day care provider who, along with her husband, cared for the girl for years. The abuse took place when Gesell's wife was out of the house, records say. Gesell would ask the girl to come upstairs to his bedroom where he would fondle her and force her to perform sex acts, records say.
The girl -- along with her parents and older sister -- watched as Gesell's attorney asked the judge to consider a suspended sentence for his client.
Defense attorney Michael M. Galloway said Gesell had suffered greatly because of the abuse, which he termed "an isolated incident."
"Mr. Gesell voluntarily stopped the abuse before being charged in this matter. . . . This case illustrates how these type of cases affect so many people -- the victim, the family of the victim, Mr. Gesell's family and Mr. Gesell himself," Mr. Galloway said.
Gesell lost his job as a Baltimore County firefighter, and he and his wife have separated. Mr. Galloway asked the judge to consider the grave impact his client's incarceration would have on his family's financial stability.
"I have thought a lot about this case, why somebody like Mr. Gesell, with no prior record of anti-social or criminal behavior, would engage in this type of conduct," Mr. Galloway said. "He has not been able to provide a satisfactory answer."
Mr. Galloway said the case -- while serious -- was not as "grave" as some Judge Burns has seen before.
Assistant State's Attorney Eileen McInerney said such a characterization "was offensive."
"To the victim, no punishment is too great. [She] received a life sentence as a result of the abuse."