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Woman sobs out apology in child molestation case

Sheila Marie Sikat gets emotional while addressing the court during her sentencing hearing, which was continued until March 6, 2008.
(Marc Martin / Los Angeles Times)
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

With tears streaming down her cheeks, Sheila Marie Sikat turned to search the sea of faces in a crowded Santa Ana courtroom Friday.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to a sister, locking eyes as they both wept.

Sikat’s soft-spoken apology set the tone for a highly emotional hearing to determine how much time she should spend in prison for repeatedly molesting a 4-year-old niece with her husband in a case that unfolded after a trunk full of homemade child porn movies were discovered in the couple’s home.

In an unexpected twist, Sikat’s sister was among several family members who asked the judge to show mercy, while jurors from Sikat’s trial -- at the request of prosecutors -- agreed to give the little girl a voice because no one else would.

“I still see it at night when I go to bed,” said Randy Styner, recalling one moment in a four-hour videotape that shows the girl waking up after being attacked by Sikat’s husband. “I saw her get up and start to scream. . . . I saw someone so alone. . . . Sheila had the opportunity to defend that child. She didn’t.”

At the end of the hearing, Sikat agreed, taking responsibility for her role and saying she deserved to pay the consequences.

Judge Gary S. Paer indicated at the outset of the proceedings that he believed the crimes deserved serious punishment but put off a final decision until March 6. Sikat’s husband, David S. Hwang, is serving 50 years to life after pleading guilty in October 2006. Prosecutors are advocating a 60-year term for Sikat.

Sikat and Hwang were arrested in 2003 after a housekeeper discovered some of the videotapes while the Rancho Santa Margarita couple were honeymooning. Investigators found a locked wooden trunk they dubbed a “little chest of horrors” in the couple’s bedroom closet; it contained 212 videotapes.

The tapes show Hwang molesting girls, some with Sikat in Orange County, others in earlier years with a former girlfriend. Sikat’s niece is seen in four of the tapes. She was molested five times at the couple’s home in early 2001, producing the four-hour tape that became the primary piece of evidence against the couple.

During Sikat’s three-week trial late last year, the defense argued that Hwang drugged his wife without her knowledge before the abuse took place.

Prosecutors said the couple told the girl’s parents they wanted to baby-sit to practice their parenting skills. Once in their custody, the girl was given a glass of dark-colored “medicine” that knocked her unconscious.

Sikat never directly touched her niece, but was touching Hwang while he molested the girl, prosecutors said. She also helped to drug the girl, they said.

On Friday, Styner and three fellow jurors -- two women and another man -- said they did not consider Sikat a monster, but faulted her for not doing anything to protect her niece from such horrible acts. All of them talked about how haunted they are by the tape.

One of the jurors said she was so traumatized that she cannot give her own 11-month-old daughter a bath or change her diaper. Another questioned what more might have happened, not only to the niece but other children, had a tipster not alerted authorities.

Among Sikat’s biggest supporters was the victim’s mother.

She said she was angry at first but has since forgiven Sikat, whom she described as a good person who was manipulated by Hwang. She said her daughter is doing fine and doesn’t remember the ordeal.

The judge interrupted, asking the sister if she had seen the video.

When she said she had not and didn’t want to, Paer told her he thought she was in denial and “trying to avoid reality.” He reminded her that Sikat was not a bystander, but in the room when bad things happened.

He guaranteed that the sister would have a much different view if she ever found the courage to watch the tape.

“I’d bet money on it,” he said. “You see that tape, and that would be the last time you spoke to her.”

Another sister followed, echoing what other family members said.

Deputy Dist Atty. Beth Carmichael said she was shocked that the defense let the second sister speak in court because investigators had seen tapes of her when she was younger, being victimized by Sikat and Hwang.

Sikat, who wept throughout the hourlong hearing, was shaking with sobs as she apologized to just about everyone involved in the case. She took complete responsibility for her role and told her family she did not deserve their support and kind words, nor mercy from the judge.

“I’m not going to make excuses. I failed to protect my niece and a lot of people,” she said. “I hurt everybody . . . . “I’m taking full responsibility. . . . I do deserve to go to prison because I failed to protect my niece. . . . I’m not a victim. I had my choices,” she said. “I was weak.”

christine.hanley@latimes.com


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