by Dan Spalding
Minutes before his trial was set to begin, Kosciusko County Sheriff Aaron Rovenstine pleaded guilty to intimidation – a level 6 felony – this morning in Kosciusko County Circuit Court.
Rovenstine had been scheduled to face a jury trial on 10 felony counts, including bribery and official misconduct. Nine charges will be dismissed as part of the plea deal.
Rovenstine was indicted on the charges by a grand jury in February 2016, along with former martial arts instructor Kevin Bronson and former Grace College professor Mark Soto.
Under the agreement, the court can consider sentencing the charge as a misdemeanor.
While the judge can sentence Rovenstine as a misdemeanor, the conviction will remain a felony, according to Deputy Special Prosecutor Tami Napier.
Judge Stephen Bowers took the plea under advisement and set sentencing for May 23.
Rovenstine stands to lose his position as sheriff if the judge accepts the plea, according to Matt Kochevar, co-general counsel for the Indiana Election Commission. “The sheriff’s office will become vacant by law,” he said.
Kochevar said Rovenstine can remain sheriff until his sentencing.
Kosciusko County Republican precinct committeemen would caucus within 30 days of the vacancy to fill the position.
Napier read a statement to the press: “The resolution of this case was made with the agreement of the investigating officers and the victim in the case,” she said.
The victim is Warsaw Police Lt. Paul Heaton. Heaton was investigating alleged racketeering tactics by Bronson and Soto. Police allege the men used intimidation to extort money for a movie about Bronson’s life and his martial arts gym, Young Dragon Enterprises.
Soto and Bronson are scheduled for jury trial on their charges Aug. 1. Court records suggest prosecutors are close to a plea agreement with Bronson.
While Bronson was in jail on a cocaine charge,?Heaton and Warsaw Police Chief Scott Whitaker asked Rovenstine to record the calls between Bronson and Soto. According to court records, the calls continued unmonitored.
The nine dismissed charges were based on allegations Rovenstine agreed to accept $40,000 to allow the unrecorded calls to continue.
During a phone call in August 2015, Heaton questioned Rovenstine about why the unrecorded contact continued.
As the basis for the intimidation charge to which Rovenstine pleaded guilty, prosectors allege Rovenstine threatened Heaton in a subsequent telephone call by saying, “I don’t wanna start World War III, because everybody’s gonna lose. I guarantee you, you think you hold everything. You don’t. This will be ugly. I’m the sheriff. I have investigators, too.”
KCSD had launched an investigation into Heaton’s actions as a drug investigator.
Heaton is expected to testify at the sentencing hearing.
KCSD declined comment.