Eric Kenneth
Eric Kenneth (Courtesy of San Juan County Adult Detention Center)

AZTEC — A Shiprock man was sentenced Thursday to 12 years in prison for posing as a police officer and sexually assaulting a former Mrs. Texas.

Eric Kenneth, 31, was convicted of kidnapping, aggravated battery and criminal sexual contact after a trial in August. The crime happened Nov. 9, 2011, when the San Angelo, Texas, woman was driving alone through San Juan County on her way back home from vacation.

The woman and her husband asked District Judge William Birdsall for a heavy sentence. They said their family, which includes their two children, has not been the same since the assault.

"He's taken something from me that I'll never get back: my innocence," the woman said during court. "I feel like I have to wonder: who is watching me and what are their intentions?"

The Daily Times does not name sexual assault victims.

About 20 San Juan County Sheriff's Office officials filled the courtroom Thursday. Detective Lt. Cory Tanner called the incident one of the most "heinous" crimes he's seen.

"There are a lot of eyes watching us and looking at how we are going to handle true predators," Tanner said.

By impersonating an officer, Kenneth hurt the trust between police and public, Tanner said.

"The only appropriate sentence would be the maximum sentence," Assistant District Attorney Anne Eley said. "This reads like the script of a horror movie."

Kenneth was convicted of pulling the victim over while she was driving alone on a cold, dark night in November. The woman -- a recent Mrs. Texas in the Texas United American pageant -- stopped for gas in Shiprock and drove toward Farmington for about 20 miles when he flashed his headlights at her.

The woman pulled over. She thought Kenneth was a police officer because he ordered her out of the car to do field sobriety tests. She said he started to frisk her and fondled her breasts and then pulled a knife and held it up to her throat.

The woman said she did her best to survive. She persuaded Kenneth to put the knife in the trunk in her car, and she agreed to get in his truck.

"If sex was the only thing he wanted, then at that point I was willing to do whatever he wanted to do as long as he let me live," the woman testified during Kenneth's trial. "I more or less tried to seduce him so he would get what he wanted and let me go home."

The woman undressed to her underwear, and Kenneth touched her body and kissed her, according to trial testimony. The woman stroked Kenneth's face and genitals and told him he was beautiful.

Then a police car drove by, and the woman said Kenneth let her leave. But that was not before he lent her jumper cables to start her car because her battery died and allowed her to take his picture with her cell phone, which investigators later used to identify him.

After the assault, the woman drove to a gas station and called 911.

During his trial, Kenneth said he pulled over the woman because she swerved and said they started flirting with each other.

"She gave me a flirtatious smile," Kenneth said. "I thought she was playing with me."

During Kenneth's sentencing hearing on Thursday, several members of his family spoke to the judge on his behalf.

"I have a heavy heart," said his mother, Rhonda Kenneth. "I realize a serious crime has been committed and I apologize on behalf of my son's actions."

Eric Kenneth's wife, LeAnn Kenneth, said she stands by her husband. She asked Birdsall for leniency for the sake of the couple's two children.

"I can surely say to you he will never do this again," she said. "I apologize for my husband's actions."

Birdsall sentenced Kenneth to nine years for the kidnapping conviction and three for aggravated battery and criminal sexual contact. He ran the sentences consecutively for a total of 12 years. Kenneth will be able to serve a year-long sentence for impersonating a police office concurrent with that prison sentence.

Birdsall did not rule Thursday how much good time credit Kenneth will be able to earn for the kidnapping conviction.

Kenneth will be able to shave up to 50 percent off his three-year sentence and either 50 or 15 percent from his nine-year kidnapping sentence for good time. The good time rules are dependant on if Birdsall rules the kidnapping conviction was a serious and violent offense.

Depending on what Birdsall rules, Kenneth will have to serve a minimum of six to 10 years in prison.

The victim said after Thursday's hearing that she hopes her story informs people that they should only pull their vehicles over for police officers who have red and blue flashing lights, and if people are unsure of who is pulling them over, they have a right to continue driving to a well-lit area before they stop.

"You are allowed to go to a populated, well-lit area to make sure they are police officers. That would have saved me from this whole situation," she said. "Hopefully, everyone will learn from the harsh lesson that I had to learn."

Ryan Boetel covers crime for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4644 and rboetel@daily-times.com. Follow him on Twitter @rboetel on Twitter.