A lengthy prostitution investigation in Bennington ended in a plea deal Monday.
"This started out as a Internet hoax and it became an obsession -- and he recognizes that. And he is taking the steps to figure out why he did it and making sure it doesn't happen again," said defense attorney David Silver.
Thomas Lyons pled guilty to four misdemeanor counts of prohibited acts -- of soliciting a prostitute. The Bennington Subaru owner became the focus of an investigation into prostitution in Bennington. Investigators were trying to figure out if Jason Balsh, a fictitious pimp on Facebook, was really Thomas Lyons. Prosecutors now say Lyons created the Facebook pimp and used the account to recruit women for sex.
"That is what makes this a different case than a typical prostitution case, where someone might pick up someone who is already a prostitute on the street corner. These women were turned into prostitutes," said Bennington County Deputy State's Attorney Christina Rainville.
But investigators now believe that Lyons was the only client and that he was only arranging encounters for himself. The state agreed to a plea deal, with Lyons expecting to get up to four years of strict probation. Prosecutors say the plea bargain factored in his clean criminal record and good standing within the community.
"This impacted his life in a way that someone who doesn't have a very public life or and upstanding background where they have businesses and community people that look up to him. He has suffered consequences that someone that doesn't have any of those things would suffer," said Bennington County State's Attorney Erica Marthage.
Marthage added that Lyons' status did not impact the sentencing.
"In truth, it is not a victimless crime when you convince young women -- certainly they were over the age of 18 -- but they were still young women who were not previously engaged in prostitution," said Vt. Superior Court Judge Cortland Corsones.
But some Bennington residents, like Vanessa Rosenberg, say the consequences of this Facebook solicitation are not enough. "It makes me feel creepy and disgusting to know that there is somebody around here doing things like that and getting girls to do things like that," she said.
Lyons' probation includes strict sex offender special conditions and he is required to complete a rehabilitation program. As of now, officials say talk of a Bennington 'prostitution ring' is just an allegation and that there are so solid leads that prove Lyons, through the Facebook account of Jason Balsh, pimped out the women to other men in the area.
The investigation also points out that Lyons' personal activity was completely separated from Bennington Subaru.
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