A Palm Beach County jury on Friday rejected a 58-year-old Uber driver’s claims that he had consensual sex in May with a passenger 20 years younger than him, convicting him of three armed sexual battery charges as well as one count each of false imprisonment and burglary with assault or battery.
The jury of five men and one woman, mostly middle-aged, returned the verdict after nine hours of deliberation that spanned two days at the end of the trial for Gary Kitchings, a former “house parent” at KidSanctuary in suburban West Palm Beach who was moonlighting for the ridesharing app when the now 38-year-old woman called police and told them he raped her several times after he picked her up from Sunfest.
The two primary witnesses in the trial were 38-year-old alleged victim and Kitchings, who took the rare move of testifying in his own defense and was the last witness jurors heard from Thursday before attorneys in the case delivered their closing arguments.
Although jurors acquitted Kitchings of the rape charge tied to the woman’s claims that he forced her into a sex act in his Nissan Versa on the way back to her Jupiter condo, they convicted him of three counts of armed sexual batter based on her claims that Kitchings forced his way into her home and raped her there.
Circuit Judge Krista Marx set Kitchings’ sentencing for May 18. He faces up to life in prison.
After the verdict, Assistant State Attorney Marci Rex, who prosecuted Kitchings with fellow prosecutor Brianna Coakley, said the jury’s decision was a sign of “a shift in rape culture” across the nation.
“I am so very happy with the jury. And so very grateful to live in this country,” the 38-year-old Norweigan native victim, who now lives in New York, said after the verdict.
Kitchings showed no visible reaction to the verdicts. His attorneys, Assistant Public Defenders Stephen Arbuzow and Raquel Tortora, said they were disappointed with the outcome and planned to appeal on Kitchings’ behalf.
On the witness stand, Kitchings told jurors that the woman had come on to him in the car and that “feelings had developed” between the two of them in the 15 minutes it took him to get her home.
Rex and Coakley urged jurors to reject those claims. Among other arguments, they said the fact that the woman abruptly left Florida the day after the alleged attack, wouldn’t be alone for days afterwards and promptly sold the home where the alleged attack happened were all the actions of a traumatized, victimized person.
Arbuzow in his last words to jurors described the case as one with “an ocean of reasonable doubt.”
Just as prosecutors claimed that the woman’s actions were consistent with having been raped, Arbuzow said the fact that Kitchings went on to continue picking up and dropping off passengers after his encounter with her was a clear sign of a consensual encounter and not the actions of a man who had just committed a “heat of passion” armed rape.
If the alleged victim’s story was true, Arbuzow said, Kitchings “would have to be the worst rapist in the world” to leave behind both DNA and a clear paper trail from their Uber transaction.
Arbuzow said unlike the woman, who he confronted on the witness stand with multiple inconsistencies between her statements to investigators and her testimony this week, Kitchings’ story held up well under cross-examination. Calling the woman’s story wild and inconceivable, Arbuzow was openly incredulous about how her accusations of a first alleged assault in Kitchings’ car would have left behind no forensic evidence.
He also wondered aloud what she was doing in the more than 13 minutes between the time Kitchings’ left her home and the time she called police.
“That 911 call sounds horrible. It doesn’t mean that it was true,” Arbuzow said, later adding: “People have won Oscars for stuff like this.”
Before they began deliberation, Rex told jurors that the only actor in the case was Kitchings, a man whose own words she said showed he was playing out a twisted fantasy in his head on the night of the alleged attack.
While Arbuzow had highlighted for jurors the fact that the two passengers who briefly shared Kitchings’ car with the woman heard her tell him she was sad about going home alone, Rex said the overshare was by no means an invitation for sex with a 58-year-old married man who Rex said she could assure jurors “was by no means in her wheelhouse.”
Rex also dismissed Kitchings’ claims on the witness stand that his age and various health issues caused him to be delayed in getting aroused during his encounter with the woman, which became an important part of Kitchings’ defense as his attorneys claimed a man of his age and health would have had trouble completing the number of sex acts the victim claimed occurred in less than an hour’s time.
Why, Rex asked jurors, would a man who had so much difficulty having sex be later found with a “sex kit” containing condoms, lubricant and other items stuffed in a blue pouch in the trunk of his car?
“The defendant in his imagination kept saying it was a great tryst with a young girl. That’s not what happened,” Rex said. “This was the worst night of her life. This was not the defendant’s conquest.”
During their deliberations, jurors asked to rehear both the woman’s 911 call and a later statement she gave at the Butterfly House, a sexual assault response care center. While the call, one male juror visibly shook his head with an expression of disdain on his face as the male dispatcher roughly told the woman to stop crying and listen to his instructions.
Jurors during the trial did not get to hear some details from the backgrounds of both the woman and Kitchings.
According to court records, the woman made a similar sexual assault claim in New York about a year before her encounter with Kitchings. In that case, which Arbuzow said in court records was detailed in a New York Post article, the woman was accused of having worked at the time as a prostitute specializing in sado-masochistic acts.
In a pre-trial interview, Arbuzow said, the woman described the alleged assault as “an online date gone wrong.” In a request Arbuzow ultimately won to further interview the alleged victim about the prior attack, he said several of the allegations she made against Kitchings — especially from when they were in his car — are acts popular in sado-masochistic culture.
And although jurors did get to hear about Kitchings’ so-called “sex kit,” they did not hear that investigators who searched his iPhone found he “was regularly searching dating and escort websites” at the time and at least 15 texts they found appeared to be contacts with people Kitchings found on the sites.
At the time of his arrest, Kitchings worked along with his wife as a “house parent” at KidSanctuary in suburban West Palm Beach. Officials with KidSanctuary’s parent agency, Palm Beach Gardens-based Place of Hope, said days after his arrest that he was no longer working there. The father of the one child who had been in Kitchings’ care at the time called him “a wonderful foster father.”