NEAL P. GOSWAMI
Senior Staff Writer
BENNINGTON -- Bennington Subaru owner Thomas B. Lyons pleaded guilty Monday to four counts of soliciting prostitutes in a case that brought to light deep contradictions between his public life and one he created for himself online.
Lyons, 54, of Old Bennington, had been the target of a lengthy criminal investigation into what police said was a possible prostitution ring. But a prosecutor said in court Monday that the investigation, which began to include Lyons in December, failed to turn up anyone other than Lyons involved in recruiting or soliciting prostitutes.
Instead, Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville said Lyons created an elaborate scheme in which he portrayed himself online as a young, black man and used the character to convince several young women in the area to become prostitutes, whom he directed to himself.
"It's important to understand how we got to this place," Rainville said during Monday's court proceeding. "This investigation began as an investigation in what was thought to be a prostitution ring with two women indicating that they were working for a black man they knew on Facebook named Jason Balsh. After extensive forensic investigation of computers and Facebook, we've determined that there was no prostitution ring. There was simply Tom Lyons who had created a false identity on Facebook and through that false identity of Jason Balsh, who was presented as a black pimp, was luring women to be his friends."
Lyons, who appeared in court Monday for the first time, pleaded guilty to four misdemeanor counts of prohibited act-procure, meaning he solicited women on at least four occasions. The four misdemeanor charges are based on his interaction with three women, all of whom are unnamed in a police affidavit used by prosecutors to substantiate the charges.
According to the plea agreement, Lyons will serve a combined, suspended sentence of 18 to 48 months, during which time he will be on probation. He must follow certain probation regulations reserved for people convicted of sex crimes, but will not be designated a sex offender as a result of his misdemeanor convictions.
The maximum penalty for each crime was one year in jail and a $100 fine.
Lyons was visibly upset and at times shaking, prompting his attorney and close personal friend David F. Silver to comfort him several times during the 30-minute proceeding.
Lyons responded with a simple, "Yes, sir," each time Bennington Superior Court Criminal Division Judge Cortland T. Corsones asked if he agreed that the offenses had occurred.
He also expressed remorse and apologized to those close to him for his actions that, according to police and prosecutors, took place over the course of more than a year.
"I would just like to apologize to my family, my children, who have been greatly affected by this, my parents, who go through their own things, my brothers and sisters, some who live in the state, my friends and certainly the people that I hurt. I never thought that I would hurt anybody like this and for that I sincerely apologize," Lyons said.
Rainville said Lyons, posing as Balsh, communicated extensively with women he befriended on Facebook. In reponse to a police search warrant, the social network site turned over more than 22,000 pages of correspondence Lyons had with women.
The Facebook conversations with some of the 242 women on his "friends" list helped investigators understand what Lyons was involved in.
"In those, he solicited young women. He promised them lots and lots of money -- hundreds of dollars for this sex act, hundreds of dollars for that sex act. A number of women were defrauded into providing him with naked photographs. Several young women were defrauded into becoming prostitutes -- women who had never engaged in prostitution before," Rainville told the court. "That's what makes this a different case than a typical prostitution case, where someone might pick up someone who is already a prostitute on the street corner. These women were turned into prostitutes as a result of this very significant and elaborate fraud."
A police affidavit written by Bennington Police Detective Anthony Silvestro sheds more light on Lyons' online life. Lyons used a common theme in his Facebook conversations with women, asking "if they were into pills, crack or weed." When asked by women if he was a pimp, Lyons would instead refer to himself as the "arranger," according to the affidavit.
Lyons told women he contacted online that they "could make a lot of money depending on what they were willing to do sexually," Silvestro wrote. Acting as Balsh, Lyons "described his clients as married men and that things would be very discreet. He had people in Vermont, New York and Massachusetts," according to the affidavit.
Computers seized from Lyons' home and business were sent to the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force for a forensic examination. That examination was still ongoing as of April 8, according to Silvestro. However, he wrote that initial analysis did not reveal any other clients.
"I have reviewed some of the items from ICAC and have found no evidence at this time Lyons was communicating with males and arranging them to meet with females for sex that he was speaking to via Facebook," Silvestro wrote.
Rainville said the state believes the plea is fair because Lyons quickly accepted responsibility for his actions once they were revealed. His reputation and willingness to seek help were a factor, she said.
"We think this is an appropriate sentence because Tom Lyons is a very respected person in our community. He's done a lot of wonderful things in our community. He has an absolutely clean record prior to this. And, when this came out, he was immediately forthright, immediately accepted full responsibility, told us exactly what had gone on when we were in the earliest stages of our investigation," she said. "When we thought it was a prostitution ring he came in and accepted responsibility. There was no prostitution ring. It was all him. He immediately started seeking help. He recognized that he had a problem, an illness, that required psychological treatment. He immediately started seeing a therapist on a regular basis to get help. That's also unusual to have someone come in and immediately accept responsibility at that level."
Silver, seeking the court's acceptance of the plea deal, said Lyons has already begun to make amends and seek help.
"Tom Lyons stands before this court, your honor, as a thoroughly chastened, remorseful and humble man who's fully accepted responsibility for his conduct. He wishes to do the work he has to do to understand why he became involved in this offense in the first place, and to make sure that nothing like this happens again," Silver said. "As the state has indicated, he has taken steps on his own initiative -- significant steps -- on that process and he stands ready, willing, able, and indeed committed, to continuing that process under the direction and supervision of probation."
Lyons did not engage "in any violent, threatening or coercive behavior," nor did he partake in "deviant sexual behavior," Silver said. Lyons never attempted to profit from his actions and fully cooperated with police and prosecutors, offering a "full, thorough and honest account of what happened," he said.
Additionally, Silver emphasized that each of the four offenses Lyons pleaded guilty to involved adult women.
However, though no charges arose from it, Silvestro's affidavit highlights one conversation Lyons had with a 14-year-old female during which he states, "I mean damn . You are so sexy . it's hard tellin age these days."
According to the affidavit, Lyons did not proposition the young girl as he had done with other women. However, during the online conversation that took place between August 2012 and October 2012, Lyons told the girl to wear shorts, suggested she should wear a "low cut" shirt and asked the girl if she wears a bra. The affidavit does not make clear what transpired from those comments, however Marthage said no other crimes were committed.
Silver also argued that the plea deal, which allows Lyons to avoid jail time if he successfully completes probation, is also appropriate because Lyons is a longtime business owner, gives "tens of thousands of dollars to charitable causes in this town" annually, volunteers for community events and has served on the board of directors for the Bennington Area Chamber of Commerce, Bennington Project Independence and the Bennington Museum.
Online, Lyons lured women into prostitution with the promise of money and drugs, according to police. In public, Silver said Lyons contributed funds to local police to help them investigate the illicit drug trade. That resulted in several successful prosecutions, he said.
"What many people do not know, is that a couple of years ago when this town ran out of money to fund its undercover drug operations, that Mr. Lyons, on his own, without being asked, provided seed money for undercover drug buys so they could actually have money to use in their undercover operations," Silver said.
As a "devoted son and sibling" and "doting father and grandfather," Lyons' greatest punishment has already taken place, Silver said.
"No punishment that Mr. Lyons receives for this can be as devastating than the public airing of these factual allegations, rumors and speculation that have been engendered by the press coverage and the mean gossip that has been all around town. It is a small town, after all, your honor, and people can be mean. As a result of his admissions today, this will no doubt continue. That his children and his parents and his siblings and his friends have been subjected to this, it pains Tom deeply. It's something he's going to have to live with the rest of his life."
"We know that the generous, kind, caring and community-minded Tom Lyons -- that we have come to know -- is the essential Tom Lyons, and we accept his apology and we believe in the sincerity of his remorse and his commitment to make up for his mistakes and his offense," Silver said.
Following the hearing, Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage said she agreed Lyons has made significant contributions to the community. However, he was also issued a fair sentence for the crimes he committed, she said.
"I'm not going to argue with any of the comments that Mr. Silver made about Tom Lyons in this community as far as what he has contributed to the community over the years. That said, I think that this, as much as any case that I've seen, demonstrate that justice is blind and it doesn't matter what your history is or what your contributions have been or who you are in the community," Marthage said.
She noted that Lyons was able to find young women whose backgrounds or situations made them more susceptible to the promise of money.
"It's not going to be the girls that are headed to college in the fall that are doing this. It's young women that are in a situation that need money, that are already in a corner, maybe have kids, maybe are marginalized, maybe have been victimized multiple times over the course of their life already. They are more receptive to the idea, but that doesn't make it right or make it any less of a crime," she said.
The entire case should be a lesson to the community to be more mindful of what they do online, and with whom they are communicating, according to prosecutors.
"Jason Balsh did not exist and he had 242 young friends from our tiny community. These are high school kids, some kids younger than high school, some young women in their early 20s, all engaging in conversation with a man they thought was someone who he wasn't. Instead of being a hot, hip, young black kid, it was a 54-year-old white man," said Rainville. "It should be a lesson and a warning to everyone, and a reminder that when you think you know who you're talking to on the Internet, you're never sure unless you know the person in person."
Contact Neal P. Goswami at email@example.com, or follow on Twitter: @nealgoswami