A 69-year-old Hamilton man will likely spend the rest of his life in prison for sexually assaulting an 11-year-old girl in 2018.
Nels Jerry Peterson was sentenced to 25 years in prison Wednesday.
Ravalli County Judge Howard Recht’s sentence allows Peterson a chance for parole after 15 years, but he will need to complete the first two levels of the state’s sex offender treatment before he’s eligible.
Peterson was found guilty of sexual assault following a trial in Ravalli County in May that included testimony from three other women who said the man had sexually abused them when they were young girls.
On Wednesday, Ravalli County Chief Deputy Attorney Angela Wetzsteon said Peterson had victimized young girls throughout his life and has not taken responsibility for his actions.
She asked the judge for a sentence that would ensure Peterson doesn't exit the prison system.
Peterson “has, for the entirety of his whole life, victimized young girls, sexually preyed on them,” Wetzsteon said. “He has never once taken accountability for any of those behaviors. He continues to deny that.”
Wetzsteon said Peterson has never demonstrated anything in his adult life “that would have any redeeming quality or any prospect for hope for treatment, for hope to rehabilitation.”
Peterson was arrested in August 2019 after the girl’s mother noticed changes in her daughter’s behaviors, including sleeping on the floor of her parent’s bedroom.
An investigation began after the girl told her mother about the sexual assault. A forensic interview was completed at Emma’s House in Hamilton.
When Peterson was confronted, he told law enforcement officers that he couldn’t remember and the incident may be “blocked” in his memory. Charging documents said he told officers “even if I did do something like that, I wouldn’t know if I did or not.”
Later in the interview, Peterson said “If (the girl) said I did, I probably did.” When asked why he would do that, Peterson replied: “It might have been an urge, I don’t know.”
Peterson was convicted of communication with a minor for immoral purposes in 2006 in Kitsap County, Washington. The charging documents said he was originally charged with third-degree child molestation for sexually assaulting a girl between the ages of 8 and 14, and offering her money not to tell anyone.
In the Washington case, three other teens told authorities Peterson had sexually abused them as well.
Peterson’s public defender, Sadie Busch, asked for a suspended sentence at Wednesday's hearing.
Busch said Peterson was in poor health and had a minimal criminal history. In the two years that he was awaiting trial, she said he did everything that was required under conditions for release from jail.
“He is an excellent candidate to be in the community under supervision,” Busch said.
The judge said Peterson already completed sexual offender treatment following his conviction in Washington, but nothing came out of it. Recht said he has no confidence that Peterson would refrain from that type of behavior in the future.
“I find evidence that the defendant (Peterson) behaves opportunistically,” Recht said. “If he has the opportunity to offend and thinks he will get away with it, he will offend.”
In justifying his decision to sentence Peterson for what could be a life term, Recht said it was to protect the community.
“I have no indication that sexual offender treatment will reform” Peterson, he said.