NEW ALBANY — A New Albany man could serve up to eight-and-a-half years in prison after a jury found him guilty Thursday of stalking a downtown New Albany business owner over the course of more than two years.
The six-member jury returned a guilty verdict in around 30 minutes Thursday morning for Nicholas Bethards, 37, after a day of testimony Wednesday on the stalking of Michelle Ryan, who owns the shop True North on Market Street in New Albany.
For this charge, a level 6 felony, Bethards could face between six months and two-and-a-half years. But Floyd County prosecutors also brought forth a habitual offender enhancement for the defendant's prior felony convictions.
These include judgments on level 6 felonies for possession of a syringe in October 2018, attempted theft in October 2018 and theft in November 2017. The enhancement carries between one and six years; a sentencing hearing is scheduled for Oct. 1 in Floyd County Superior Court No. 1.
"We are very pleased with the verdict that the jury returned," Chris Lane, chief deputy prosecutor for Floyd County, said after Thursday's proceedings. "And we think it does bring safety to the community."
But defense attorney Brian Chastain said Bethards' intent was not to scare or intimidate the woman.
"I think Nicholas is disappointed because in his mind, he clearly didn't commit the offense," Chastain said. "But he understands what he was facing."
According to court records and witness testimony from both the victim and New Albany and Floyd County police officers, Bethards first went into the New Albany shop in spring or summer of 2016, when he asked the business owner to borrow a phone charger.
"He seemed very off," Ryan said on the stand Wednesday. "His words were jumbled, not making sense. It made me feel very uneasy."
A week later, she found a rose outside the door of her business and an index card with her name.
"I thought 'Oh no. He's going to come back,'" she said. Later that summer, Ryan discovered that before he had ever come into the store, Bethards had sent her 37 messages on Facebook. The two had gone to high school together in New Albany and had mutual friends. She responded to the messages telling him to stop, and blocked him.
Communication stopped for about a year until the following May when Ryan first contacted New Albany police about "harassment she'd been dealing with a long time," New Albany Capt. Jerry Lawrence said on the stand.
Through December of last year, Ryan said this included Bethards coming into the store several other times, at some points getting angry and knocking papers over when she asked him to leave. He was given trespass warnings both by police and Ryan.
In July 2018, Bethards mailed six letters to Ryan at the store, five of which were stamped as being sent from jail in Clark or Floyd counties. Some were brief — a piece of paper with only her name, spelled the way she did in high school as a joke. One had a marriage proposal. Others were long, with parts hard to discern by the officer who read them into the record in court.
"Surely if anything else you are my greatest muse..." a line in one read. Another: "I could use a friend, you know. I truly need you. I need True North."
When a Floyd County police officer talked to Bethards and told him to stop, he asked the officer to apologize to Ryan for him.
The mailed letters ceased, but it wouldn't be the end of his communication to Ryan. Court records show that on Dec. 20, she found a bouquet of flowers near her building with four pages of handwritten notes front and back, in which Bethards wrote of love and other topics, including sexual innuendos.
"The moment she looked at the letters, she became very upset," New Albany Police Sgt. Julie Condra said on the stand. "Several sentences made no sense, according to what she told me."
He was arrested the following week on a warrant for stalking, and has been held in the Floyd County jail awaiting trial since.
Ryan said Bethards had never physically touched her, and had never verbally or otherwise threatened her. But she had been scared of him, and this is what the state sought to prove rose to the level of stalking.
"Scared and shocked," she said. "He's kind of unpredictable." Ryan said that fear grew when he continued to contact her through letters while in jail. "I felt like he was taunting me."
To convict on the stalking charge, the state had to prove to the jury that Bethards had intentionally, repeatedly and continuously harassed her in a way "that would cause another person to feel terrorized, frightened, intimidated or threatened," according to state statute.
In closing statements, defense attorney Chastain said this was not the case at all.
"The only thing Nicholas wanted, he wanted her to listen to him," Chastain said. "He wanted her to talk to him. He wanted her to be a friend to him.
"The last thing Nicholas wanted was someone to be frightened."
But Lane said that was the effect, and that the defendant should be held accountable. He went through the timeline of every incident in which Bethards had made communication with Ryan, saying that for someone not interested, it was "a terrifying way to communicate."
"It wasn't minimized to her," he said. "She was scared. She felt vulnerable. This is not 'annoying.' It goes way beyond 'annoying.'"
Both attorneys said Thursday further research is needed before they determine the sentence each will request from Judge Susan Orth at the October hearing.