When Patty Rothwell noticed Thomas J. Leggs Jr. hanging around… (Baltimore Sun photo by Jed…)
Four days before the birth of the Salisbury girl he would be accused of kidnapping from her bedroom and killing, Thomas J. Leggs Jr. pleaded guilty to his first sex offense.
Over the next 11 years, as Sarah Haley Foxwell grew into a bright, lively middle school student, Leggs was charged with five other crimes against girls and young women, including raping a teenager on a Delaware boardwalk and grabbing a 13-year-old the same day his newborn child was brought home from the hospital.
Despite convictions for a sex offense and the rape of a minor as well as multiple parole violations, Leggs, 30, has eluded serious jail time. The Baltimore Sun reviewed court records for all of Leggs' criminal cases and spoke with several witnesses and past accusers to gain insight into the man charged with the death of the cheerful sixth-grade student whose body was found in a frozen field on Christmas Day.
In past cases, Leggs' attorneys have cut deals enabling him to serve fractions of his prison sentences. One Maryland conviction was overturned because of a police mistake. And Leggs has benefited from states' laws that forbid past convictions from being admitted as evidence in nearly all cases. Juries haven't been persuaded to convict the tall, powerfully built bar bouncer - clearing him of all charges in one case.
A Wicomico County grand jury indicted Leggs last week on charges of first-degree murder and two sex offenses in Sarah's death. He had been held on charges of kidnapping and burglary in the girl's disappearance since late December.
A lawyer representing Leggs has denied that his client is involved in Sarah's disappearance and death.
The Sarah Foxwell case has prompted calls to change the state's sex offender laws, to include lifetime supervision for certain offenders, limits on early release and bringing Maryland into compliance with federal sex offender regulations.
Unless changes are made to the way sex offense cases are handled, predators will continue to rack up repeat offenses, advocates for sex abuse victims say.
"After all the things he's done, this man should not have been allowed to walk among normal people. And he definitely shouldn't have been allowed around kids," said Kaitlyn Alley, 23, who as a middle school student in 1999 brought charges against Leggs after, she says, he groped her and a friend at a mall in Salisbury.
"When I saw his picture [after Sarah's disappearance], my heart went right to my feet," she said. "I felt like I had just been punched in the stomach."
At the time of the 1999 mall case, Leggs, then 20, was "very smooth," flattering the preteens and trying to make them feel grown up, Alley recalled. But when he invited them on a "wild ride," they refused.
Although Alley and her friend testified against Leggs, a jury found him guilty of just one of 18 charges. And that conviction was later overturned by the Court of Appeals, which ruled that detectives used improper questioning techniques.
"Having to go to court at 12 years old was not something I ever wanted for myself," said Alley, who now lives in North Carolina. "I almost feel like we had wasted our time."
The mother of another girl who accused Leggs of harassment in 2004 blames the judicial system - whether the fault lies with the state's laws, with the prosecutors or with juries unconvinced by children's testimony - for Sarah's death.
"This little girl would be here today if the system hadn't failed in this case," said Patty Rothwell, who noticed Leggs hanging around her 13-year-old daughter and other teens on her porch in 2004 and recognized him from the sex offender registry.
Before Rothwell called police, Leggs told one of the girls on the porch, "I've watched you playing in your yard and I can tell you're a wild one," and slapped another girl present on the buttocks, according to court documents. Leggs, who had just that day taken his newborn daughter home from the hospital, was charged with two sex offenses and second-degree assault; a jury later acquitted him of all three counts.
A call to the jury foreman in the case - the only juror named in the court file - to find out why the panel was unconvinced was not returned.
"The jury had no idea that he was a registered sex offender," Rothwell said. "That makes you see [his actions] in a whole different light."
Under state law, evidence of past convictions can be introduced only in rare circumstances. A defendant would never be able to get a fair trial if jurors knew of previous convictions, defense experts said.
"Just because somebody did it before doesn't mean they did it again," said defense attorney Andrew I. Alperstein, who has no connection to this case.
But knowing a child sex offender's past can convince a jury that an action is not merely inappropriate but part of a consistent pattern, advocates say.