Barry Friedman is a Tulsa writer who has been published in the Tulsa Voice, This Land Press, and OK Policy, among others.It begins (and ends) in Moore, Oklahoma, at a Super 8, one of those hotels off the highway that smells of disappointment and disinfectant. A man, 35-year-old, Ralph Shortey, an Oklahoma state legislator, father of four, in a t-shirt that reads Ephesians 5:20 (Wives submit yourselves to your husbands) with the added words “Now go make me a sandwich” — I know, hilarious, right? — opens the door and sees cops. The room smells of pot. There is lotion and condoms in a satchel and a 17-and-a-half-year-old teen boy in the bathroom.
“You guys,” Shortey says to the cops, “are freaking me out a little.”
Actually, the story begins long before that with an abused boy in Wyoming. He’s beaten by his mother’s boyfriends, shot by a brother. The family eventually settles in Oklahoma where the boy discovers he’s gay, and while his new church is otherwise full of love and support, he is told gay boys are sinners who go to hell. He convinces himself he’s not and grows up hating them, hating himself — the gay Ralph Shortey. He goes to a bible college, gets married, has kids, is active in his church, and, eventually, is elected to the state senate where he champions good wholesome causes.
But make no mistake: there are two broken teens at the Super 8 that night.
The 17-and-a-half-year-old in the bathroom in room 120, though, is a child, according to state law. He advertised on something called “casual encounters” on the messaging app Kik, which is how he and Shortey met.
The police know the 17-and-a-half-year-old solicits himself.
Should that matter?
I don’t know.
At one point, for instance, the victim wrote Shortey, “I’ll be your slave,” a detective disclosed during the interview. Shortey replied, “That sounds nice.”
The child, and let’s go with that designation for awhile, told Shortey he needed money for spring break and asked Shortey if he needed anything in return. Shortey said he didn’t really need “any legitimate things” but would the boy be interested in “sexual” stuff?
“Yes,” the teen responded.
That was the crime.
Ed Blau, Shortey’s attorney, says even though no money was exchanged, the promise of payment opens up a charge of prostitution and child trafficking, which, if a minor is involved is sex trafficking. Think about that: if the 17-and-a-half-year-old meets Shortey in the same hotel on the same night and there’s no email trail, no texts, no social media, no satellite through which those social media messages are transmitted, no church nearby (I’ll explain in a minute), no consideration of payment for “sexual stuff” — and what are we taking about, 20 bucks? — there’s no crime.
The two reportedly had already had sex in a coffee shop, a coffee shop preposterously called Wholly Grounds that Shortey co-owned.
In Oklahoma, the age of consent to sex is 16; however, both state and federal law prohibit minors under the age of 18 from engaging in commercial sexual activity. Any person under 18 who is involved in prostitution, exotic dancing, or porn is considered to be a victim of human trafficking.
Had this been tried in state court, Blau tells me, Shortey is probably looking at 1-3 years.
“I would have fought for probation and a fine and probably gotten it,” Blau says, adding, under normal circumstances, if the guy’s name is Ralph Schmitt and he’s not an Oklahoma State Senator and he’s not a lightning rod for both the right and the left, if this case is brought to an US Attorney, considering the charges, which included engaging in prostitution with 1,000 feet of a church (First Christian Church of Moore is next door), it’s laughed out of the office.
Who knows if it would have happened exactly that way, but in Oklahoma, 17-and-a-half-year-olds can get married, can carry a firearm if used for hunting animals, can, and if they are charged with committing murder, be tried as an adult.
So how did it wind up in federal court? Here’s what Greg Mashburn, Cleveland Country District Attorney said about it.
“I believe this case is best handled in one venue and have every confidence the U.S. Attorney’s Office will prosecute this matter expeditiously.”
The case was investigated by the Moore Police Department, the Cleveland Country District Attorney’s Office, as well as the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation, the FBI, the United Secret Service and ultimately prosecuted by two assistant United States attorneys.
All that fire power for a consensual sexual relationship and ten child porn videos Shortey possessed five years before? When the Feds want a case, the Feds get a case. And they wanted this one. Oklahoma doesn’t have a mandatory minimum for sex crimes, plus Shortey’s trial and almost certain incarceration would be on the Fed’s dime — about $32 thousand per year to keep Shortey locked up — or almost a half million dollars if he serves the length of his sentence — so why wouldn’t the state want to drop its charges?
Blau wasn’t arguing — and I’m not arguing — a crime wasn’t committed, but someone made the determination, literally and figuratively, to make this a federal case.
This from the federal prosecutor.
“Drugs provided by Mr. Shortey literally provided physical influence to compromise the victim’s voluntariness. Beyond that, Mr. Shortey possessed attributes that made his influence particularly potent: he was a successful businessman with his own commercial space where they met, his stature was intimidating and he was a prominent state senator.”
Please. An Oklahoma state senator, a married father of 4, an owner of a coffee shop who has pot is a “particularly potent influence.” Blau says the 17-and-a-half-year-old didn’t even know who Shortey was. They never used their actual names with each other.
Which brings us to this: what do you call a 17-and-a-half-year-old anyway? If you’re looking to sentence a 35-year-old who had sex with him, you call him a child. Whoever controls the language controls the narrative, though, and no district attorney or politician ever got re-elected parsing the difference between teen and child in sex crimes.
“There was nothing that could have been done at that point,” Blau says about the feds receiving the case.
The federal sentencing guidelines recommend 26-30 years for a crime like this; the mandatory minimum sentence is 10-15 years.
And again Blau says it.
“Ralph did it.”
After a federal grand jury indicted Shortey on federal sex trafficking charges and one pornography charge, including engaging in prostitution within 1,000 feet of a church, Shortey reached an agreement to plead guilty to one of the trafficking charges in exchange for the others being dropped. At sentencing, the judge ignored the guidelines and instead sentenced Shortey to 15 years in prison, followed by 10 years probation, and a requirement that Shortey register as a sexual offender — pretty much the minimum mandatory allowed by law.
Shortey’s wife divorced him. Good for her. She has to live with the stain of being married to such a horror. The shame Shortey brought on children is unforgivable. At his sentencing, Blau tells me only Shortey’s mother, who just died of cancer, a relative and one friend were there.
Does he deserve sympathy?
But maybe humanity.
You watch the police investigation of Shortey. He’s pathetic. He says at one point his life is over.
But good riddance you say — why even bother writing about this?
Because Ralph Shortey is also being punished, maybe mostly being punished, for being Ralph Shortey. Austin Russell Goodman — you don’t know him — pleaded guilty in Cleveland County to three felony counts of performing lewd or indecent acts to a child. The judge gave Russell a seven-year suspended sentence for each count, which he ordered to run consecutively. Russell will not go to prison.
Three felony counts. No jail time.
But Shortey is the Bible’s Legion: An unapologetic blight, unclean, who headed up Donald Trump’s campaign in Oklahoma, and was, in his time in the state senate, a dangerous, sanctimonious hypocrite who worked tirelessly to hurt the lives of homosexuals and transgenders in this state. He was an unconscionable purveyor of uber rightwing xenophobia and insanity, introducing berserk pieces of legislation like banning human fetuses for being used in food and requiring presidential candidates to provide their birth certificates before being allowed on the Oklahoma ballot. But we don’t incarcerate people for hypocrisy and living a lie — at least we shouldn’t. His sentence satisfied everyone: the left for obvious reasons — for his comeuppance was delicious, welcomed; the right, too, because it was its chance to rid him from its midst, its chance to prove it is tough on its own kind.
Ralph Shortey brought us together.
Shortey was guilty. That much is clear — the law is clear, but it’s both the clarity and insanity of minimum sentencing laws — and the ways in which those charged are divvied up for maximum sentencing — that should be examined. Child trafficking laws, when they were written, were crafted to punish those who would corral, steal, kidnap, imprison children and farm them out for sex —they were not designed for 35-year-old gay men in the closet who answered personal ads and sent disgusting texts to consenting 17-and-a-half-year-olds.
This is an impossible story to write because not only are there are no less sympathetic figures in recent state history than Ralph Shortey, there are hundreds of people, good and innocent people, faced with greater and more profound injustices; nevertheless, perhaps his rancidity (and our schadenfreude) shouldn’t land him in a federal prison in Texas for 15 years.
Ralph Shortey will never again bother any of us with his moral outrage over society’s failings. He will never again betray his wife and children (they legally changed their names). He will never again pose with presidential offspring. He will forever be an outcast, a pustule on state politics, an anecdote, a punchline who has to register as a sex offender. He will be reminded every time someone averts his or her eyes when seeing him and by every whisper he hears from passersby that he is the Ralph Shortey he always feared and hated he was.
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