Veselka’s 20-year sentence closes 2001 cold case
By Judith Pannebaker, BCC
Before sentencing Steven Shannon Veselka to the maximum allowable time in prison under the terms of a plea bargain, 216th Judicial District Judge Keith Williams noted to the defendant, “You have shown an utter disregard for the law. I can’t wrap my head about what you were thinking - to deal drugs while facing a pending capital murder charge. I can’t fathom or comprehend your actions.”
In August 2008, a Bandera County Grand Jury indicted Veselka, now 38, for the 2001 capital murder of 22-month-old Cheriko Ressler. After being released on bond, Veselka was arrested in January 2009, charged with two counts of felony delivery of a controlled substance, methamphetamine, in Kerr County.
Rather than face a jury trial, in September Veselka pled guilty to a charge of injury to a child by omission in Ressler’s death. He also pled guilty to delivery of methamphetamine. The second drug charge dismissed as part of the plea bargain.
The plea bargain capped Veselka’s sentence to two 20 years terms in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. The sentences will run concurrently.
Veselka’s attorney Bernard Campion had asked Williams for a sentence of 10 years - and only on the drug charge. The circumstances surrounding Ressler’s injuries and subsequent death, Campion contended, still remain in dispute.
In 2001, Ressler, his sister and the children’s mother, Rebecca Sturgis, were living with Veselka in a trailer in Bandera County. Assistant District Attorney Lucy Wilke contended that Veselka was alone in the trailer with Ressler and his 3-year-old sister when the fatal head injuries occurred. The toddler was rushed to a hospital in San Antonio, where he was taken off life support two days later.
For his part, Veselka contended that he awoke from a nap to find Ressler injured.
Mugging for family
Throughout the proceedings on Thursday, Nov. 4, Veselka acted out, repeatedly mugging for his family who have supported him despite his criminal history.
Veselka’s actions belied the words of his father, George Veselka, 75, who testified that his son had “matured recently” and that he was now “making better decisions.” The elder Veselka also admitted, however, that he had not realized the severity of his son’s drug addiction - although the younger Veselka had apparently been arrested on several drug charges in the past.
“Were you aware that he was selling drugs out of your house in Kerr County and a ranch in Bandera County?” Wilke asked George Veselka. “Were you aware that he had other people selling drugs for him?” George Veselka answered, "No."
In his closing remarks, Campion asked Williams to sentence his client only on the drug charge. “He knows changes have to be made. Rehabilitation is important and relapse is a possibility,” Campion said. “If he hadn’t been arrested in January, he would have entered a 90-day rehab program. That should play in his favor.”
Regarding Ressler’s death, Campion said, “Strong arguments have been made on both sides about what really happened that day. Emotion often overrides reason in the death of a young child. Other people were also responsible for (Ressler’s) untimely and unfortunate death.”
He said that when a
babysitter asked the toddler about bruises on his face and swollen eye, Ressler told her, “My mom hit me.”
Not harsh enough
During her closing statement, Wilke countered that the 20-years maximum incarceration was not a harsh enough sentence for Veselka.
She reiterated the defendant was alone in the trailer when the mortal injuries occurred to the child. “After Rebecca Sturgis left, a neighbor heard a child crying and two loud thumps. He knocked on the door and heard a male voice inside the trailer, but no one came to the door,” Wilke told the court.
Wilke also revealed that Veselka had later told his associates, “I slammed the baby and couldn’t stop.”
“No one else was in the home at the time of the thuds and the baby crying,” Wilke concluded. She asked Williams to sentence Veselka to the maximum allowable under the terms of the plea bargain.
Before pronouncing his sentence, Williams addressed the defendant, noting that it was “critically important” to consider the victim and the victim’s family during sentencing.
‘Precious little child’
“This was a precious little child and something like that shouldn’t happen to any family. We must enforce the laws and deal with the cards that were dealt,” he said. “This is a tragedy, but things were within your control. Drugs shouldn’t be allowed to overshadow Cheriko. There must be accountability.”
After sentencing Veselka to the maximum number of years behind bars, Williams indicated that had a cap not been in place, the sentence might have been longer.
Star is Cheriko
Ressler’s grandmother and Stugis’ mother, Carlene Jackson, made a victim impact statement. Addressing Veselka, she spoke of the unfulfilled promises of Cheriko Ressler’s life.
“You have put your family and ours through hell. In my heart, you’re no more than a monster and when you meet your maker, you’ll see what hell is all about,” Jackson said. “You’re not a man, you’re a child murderer who beat my grandson to death. They say what goes around comes around, well, get ready for that come around part."
Jackson continued, “I used to say to Cheriko, ‘I love you more than all the stars in the sky at night.’ When you look at the stars, remember it’s me loving my grandson.”
Wilke on sentence
Regarding the outcome and Veselka’s sentence, Wilke wrote in an email, “I am convinced that Steven Veselka beat Cheriko to death. I thought the plea bargain was the best way to go - I would not have agreed to anything less.”
According to Wilke, Veselka will have to serve 10 years flat - day for day - before becoming eligible for parole. “In reality, he will probably serve closer to the 20 years,” she added. The plea bargain agreement changed the charge and indictment - not the facts of the case, Wilke said. “The facts are the facts and TDCJ and the parole board will get the facts.”
Wilke consulted with law enforcement officers before extending the plea offer. Based on the evidence, all agreed to the offer and understood the reasoning behind it.
She commended 216th Investigator Ernie Lobello for re-opening this case and all the hard work and long hours he put into the investigation. “But for Ernie’s efforts, the defendant probably would not have ever been held accountable. He almost got away with murder,” Wilke said.
The Bandera County Courier will present more of Wilke’s thoughts on the cold case in the Thursday, Nov. 18 edition.