STANTON— The sentencing of a Lakeview business owner for sexually harassing a young employee came down to distinguishing between “a tale of two Larry Coles.”
Larry Cole, 47, appeared in Montcalm County’s 8th Judicial Circuit Court for sentencing Thursday. Cole was previously charged with six counts of criminal sexual conduct (CSC) involving five women and one teenager at Cole’s popular Alley Cat Bar & Grill bowling alley and restaurant.
Cole pleaded no contest last October to one count of fourth-degree felony CSC. He pleaded no contest due to possible civil liability on a charge that he touched an underage girl on her inner thigh near her groin area. A no contest plea is not an admission of guilt, but is treated as such for sentencing purposes.
The teenage victim read a prepared statement in court while standing next to her mother. The girl was 16 years old when she took a job at the Alley Cat. She said she was sexually accosted by Cole on her second day on the job in April 2016.
“It took 16 years to grow as a young woman and become a uniquely built character, and in a matter of roughly two hours he made me question my 16-year-old and future character completely,” the girl said. “The question of ‘how do I change myself to make sure this never happens to me again’ tore me up. Dreams torture me, forcing to relive and remember the emotion and fear that remains. Since that day, my mental and emotional demeanor has been molded.
“But above all, I refuse to authorize this particular obstruction to define me as an individual, no matter how much time or how many steps it may take because I’ve listed the things I think I cannot do, including this,” said the girl, who then lost her composure and broke down in tears.
“I hope that speaking out will prevent this from ever happening to another woman and causing so much fear and discomfort as it has caused my family and myself,” she concluded.
Aschelle VanZandt, a former Alley Cat employee, testified about working as a bartender at the Alley Cat in 2015, when she says she was violently accosted by Cole when he walked up behind her, grabbed her by her hoodie, pulled her off balance and verbally demeaned her. VanZandt quit on the spot, sneaking out the back door in tears.
“I’ve never been so humiliated in my life,” she said. “I saw firsthand all of the stories that I had heard about the defendant and what went on during business and after hours at the Alley Cat. I always knew that the defendant liked women, but what I didn’t realize was that we are just objects and age really doesn’t matter to him. From the butt slapping to the boob grabbing to coming up behind his female employees to move their hair, then move in for a kiss on the cheek, all while trying to cop a feel. I believe the defendant sees women as nothing more than breasts and pretty faces and that is what we are there for, his enjoyment. As I’ve heard him say many times, ‘This is my bar, I will do when I want, where I want.’”
Cole’s attorney Matthew Shepherd noted the letters written to the court by friends and family on behalf of Cole, as well as the courtroom’s nearly standing room only audience, many of whom were there to support Cole.
“We judge people not just what they are alleged to have done, but on the people they are,” Shepherd said. “Mr. Cole is more than what somebody says he was on this particular day. He’s lived in the Lakeview community, I believe, his entire life. This (court) complex from start to finish couldn’t hold the amount of people whose lives he’s positively impacted. Mr. Cole has spent his life helping people, employees. I’m not telling you Mr. Cole’s perfect. I’m telling you that his life’s work and his character isn’t defined by a police report.”
Cole did not make a statement, as is typical with a no contest plea.
Judge Ronald Schafer called the divergent testimonials “a tale of two Larry Coles.”
“There’s a picture painted of a Larry Cole which is not very flattering,” Schafer told Cole. “The first picture that’s painted of you … is of what I would characterize as sort of the stereotypical obnoxious, handsy, gropy, disgusting drunk that nobody likes to be around; pervert, we might even say.
“But … there’s another side to you that stands before the court as somebody who is 47, has no prior criminal history, is a successful businessman and … helps out different folks,” Schafer added. “We have two pictures of the same guy here in front of the court today. Time will tell which one is more accurate.”
Schafer then sentenced Cole to six months in the Montcalm County Jail — with the final 90 days suspended upon compliance — five years probation and $3,708 in court costs and fines. Cole may be allowed work release to work at Larry’s Tire Recycling if the jail allows.
Cole must also register as a sex offender and undergo sex offender treatment and HIV testing and will be placed on an alcohol monitoring unit. Cole was ordered not to have any contact with the teenage victim, including being within 500 feet of the girl’s residence, school or place of employment.