Irvine G. Oelke Sr. told a judge yesterday that he hadn't intended to harm the little girl he invited into his car one warm evening last summer - that he was only "being friendly" when he asked if she wanted to get some ice cream with him.
The explanation from the convicted sex offender did not sway the judge.
"If the defendant is still attempting to abduct children at the age of 73, he is still a threat and should go to jail, regardless of his age," Baltimore County Circuit Judge H. Patrick Stringer Jr. said.
He sentenced Oelke to seven years in prison - even more than the prosecutor had requested and much more than the supervised probation that a defense attorney argued would be appropriate for the retiree with health problems.
"I shudder to think what could have happened had this little girl gotten into the car," the judge said, adding that Emily Tuzzolo's parents had obviously taught her well about the hazards of talking to strangers. "But for that, I'm not sure what would have happened."
The sentencing hearing brought to a close a case in which police and prosecutors say the girl's parents and neighbors in the close-knit block of Dundalk families did everything right.
Neighbors watching as the man stopped his dark sedan at dusk to talk to the little girl on her pink bike took note of the man and his car.
They called the police.
And when Emily's mother produced a police-like photo array of men living within two miles of their Dundalk neighborhood from the state's Sex Offender Registry, two neighbors and Emily all picked out Oelke.
"On that day, you, sir, came to the wrong neighborhood," Emily's mother, Lucinda Tuzzolo, wrote in a letter to the defendant that the prosecutor read aloud at the sentencing hearing.
"This is a community that came together and will always work together to keep people like you off our block."
It was nearly dusk on Aug. 15 when Emily climbed out of her family's backyard pool, changed her clothes and set off on her new bicycle to find her friend, who lives at the end of her block.
There, at the corner of Patapsco and West Dundalk avenues, the friend's father was watching his nine children.
He was still watching when a man in a dark sedan and a dark baseball cap pulled up to the stop sign and started talking to Emily.
The girl, who was 6 at the time, later told police that the stranger asked whether she had a brother and offered her ice cream if she got into his car, according to court records. Emily did not answer the man. Instead, she climbed back on her bike and pedaled away.
Across the street, another neighbor had just stepped off a bus when she saw the dark sedan parked at the corner. She later told police that she got a good look at the car - and the man at the wheel - as he drove off.
Both neighbors identified Oelke as the man who approached Emily, first in the images that her mother printed off the state's Sex Offender Registry and then in a photo array by police.
Oelke was convicted in Cecil County in 2004 of sex abuse of a minor for inappropriately touching a 3-year-old girl and sentenced to 18 months in jail and 18 months of supervised probation.
In April, he entered an Alford plea in the Baltimore County case, in which he acknowledged that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict him of attempted child kidnapping without admitting guilt.
Defense attorney Kimberley P. McGee told the judge yesterday that her client did so because, although he admits that he spoke to Emily and asked if she wanted ice cream, he maintains that he didn't intend to take her anywhere or hurt her.
Oelke retired at age 62, after spending four years in the Navy and working a series of jobs as a truck driver, accounting clerk and a housekeeper at an apartment complex, McGee said. His wife died of cancer in 2000, leaving him depressed and lonely, and he suffered a stroke in 2005, the defense attorney said.
McGee told the judge that her client's 80-year-old sister explained that the stroke left her brother without "a filter" that might otherwise keep him from saying or doing certain things.
Given a chance to address the judge, Oelke asked his attorney where in the nearly empty courtroom the victim's parents were sitting.
"I want to apologize for frightening you," he said, turning to face them. "I meant no harm. I was just being friendly."
Lucinda Tuzzolo broke down in tears and turned as far away from Oelke as she could, while her husband, Bobby Tuzzolo, simply stared at the man.
Prosecutor Stephanie Porter told the judge that Oelke's explanation - that he was on his way that evening to a Royal Farms store for ice cream and thought to invite the little girl when he saw her - doesn't make sense.
Reminding the judge that Emily was approached on a one-way street that serves as more of an alley off the main road, she said, "There is no reason to go up that side street unless you live there or had a specific reason. I would suggest that he went up there for the specific reason to find Emily or someone like her. ... I don't believe the community is safe with him in it."
The prosecutor asked the judge to sentence Oelke to five years in prison.
Stringer, the judge, said he was most concerned with protecting the community's children and deterring the defendant - and others - from "preying on children."
He sentenced Oelke to 10 years in prison, suspending all but seven years of that term. He also ordered that Oelke serve three years of probation upon his release and have no contact with anyone under the age of 18.