ST. LOUIS — A homeless U.S. Marine Corps veteran testified Wednesday that he thought it was “funny” when he sneaked up behind women walking in the Tower Grove South area two years ago, grabbed their butts and laughed as he slinked away.
But John Michael Wells, 32, insisted he never groped his victims’ genitals as some of them claimed.
“Do you think it’s funny now?” His lawyer Travis Martin asked.
“No,” Wells answered.
“Were you sexually aroused when this happened?” Martin asked.
“No,” Wells said.
A St. Louis jury rejected Wells’ explanation Wednesday, finding him guilty of felony counts of sodomy and attempted sodomy after a three-day trial. The jury recommended sentences of a year in jail on each count to Circuit Judge James Sullivan.
The judge will decide next month whether the sentences will run consecutively or concurrently for Wells, who has already been jailed for 21 months awaiting trial. Meanwhile, Sullivan lowered Wells’ bail to $5,000 over the objection of prosecutors.
He will be required to register as a sex offender.
Wells had been accused of groping five women in the city’s Tower Grove South and Benton Park West neighborhoods in May and June of 2017.
This week’s trial was for just two of those incidents: for allegedly trying to shove his hand down the back of a woman’s exercise pants May 25, 2017, in the 3200 block of Bent Avenue and for allegedly groping a woman’s genitals as she walked her dog June 16, 2017, in the 4000 block of Potomac Street.
“I went with my hand about halfway down (her buttocks) and I pulled back,” Wells said of the May attack.
Of the June 16 attack, Wells said “I was aiming for her butt — to grab it — and that’s it.”
Wells blamed his conduct on alcohol and drug abuse over the disappearance and presumed drowning death of his sister in California. Though his parents lived in Jefferson County, he said he had been staying with friends at the time or sleeping in his Jeep Cherokee.
Wells told the jury he was honorably discharged from the Marines, had completed college-level coursework and was working as a health-care tech in the St. Louis area when his sister vanished and died in what he described as a likely alcohol-related drowning. He said he became depressed after that.
Assistant Circuit Attorney Olufunmike Owoso showed jurors still images from a Soulard resident’s home surveillance system that showed Wells following residents, trying to enter a home and grabbing a woman. The images were widely shared on Facebook and an STLtoday.com story at the time to alert the public to the man’s behavior. Police testified this week that the publicity helped them identify Wells as a suspect.
Owoso told jurors to dismiss Wells’ story of tragedy and drug abuse because “he knew exactly what he was doing” by driving around St. Louis to target women who were minding their own business. She said Wells “ruined” the victims’ sense of security in their own neighborhoods.
“Defense counsel’s whole theory of the case is that boys will be boys,” Owoso said. “That is a disgusting excuse.”
Wells was originally charged in June 2017 in connection with four encounters. In the other cases, he was accused of making “provocative” physical contact with a woman in the 3900 block of Connecticut Street, and of grabbing a woman’s buttocks in the 3500 block of Roger Place, also in June 2017.
He was later charged in a fifth incident, for allegedly grabbing a woman’s buttocks from behind on June 9, 2017, pressing his body against hers in the 3100 block of Iowa Avenue and laughing while running off down an alley.
Prosecutors dropped some of the charges before this week’s trial. Some of the charges prosecutors dropped against Wells were misdemeanors. His lawyer said in court records said those cases weren’t refiled because the statute of limitations had expired. The Circuit Attorney’s Office, citing technical issues and witness problems, dropped and refiled charges against Wells three times since originally charging him in June 2017.
The pattern prompted defense complaints in court filings that prosecutors were deliberately delaying the trial to keep Wells behind bars for nearly two years.