A man accused of sexually abusing a young girl pleaded guilty to a lesser charge while a jury was locked in a lengthy deliberation.

Bobby A. Runnels, 63, of Gold Ridge, pleaded guilty Thursday in Cullman County Circuit Court to attempted sexual abuse of a child less than 12 years old, a Class C felony.

Runnels was handed a six-year suspended sentence in a state penitentiary, with five years of supervised probation, as part of the plea agreement. He will also be required to register as a sex offender for the remainder of his life and his name will be included on mail notifications that are sent out by law enforcement.

Following two days of heated testimony, the jury had been locked in deliberation for almost eight hours before Runnels accepted a plea agreement offered by the Cullman County District Attorney’s Office.

The victim’s mother said she gave the district attorney’s office her blessing before the plea agreement was offered.

“I’m pleased that the family can now put this in the past,” said Assistant District Attorney Martha Williams, the lead prosecutor in the case. “This has been a long and difficult process for them, and the family didn’t want to put the little girl through having to testify again (if there had been a mistrial).

“And by getting this guilty plea, Mr. Runnels will have to register as sex offender for the rest of his life, which will help us prevent him from ever doing this to another child.”

The victim, an 8-year-old girl who was ages 4-7 when the attempted sexual assaults took place, provided the court with an emotional testimony Tuesday, stating that Runnels had touched her “in bad spots” both underneath and on top of her clothes on multiple occasions.

On Wednesday, an audio recording submitted into evidence by the state — supplied by the Cullman County Child Advocacy Center — revealed detailed accusations from the victim stating that Runnels touched her in inappropriate sexual manners and that there had been one incident of possible oral molestation.

Runnels denied those allegations during testimony, but on Thursday, he admitted to Judge Greg Nicholas that the evidence provided by the state fairly and accurately proved that he is guilty of the charge on which he was convicted.

Law enforcement officials were first made aware of the attempted sexual abuse on April 6, 2010 when the victim told a counselor at a local school about the incidents.

“(The victim’s teacher) first brought it to my attention,” the local school counselor said. “She brought her to my office and she said (Runnels) had touched her butt. I asked her if he had touched her anywhere else, and she pointed to her private parts.”

Once a report was filed with the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office, the victim was taken to the Cullman Child Advocacy Center, where she was interviewed by counselors.

Gail Swafford, a therapist at the Child Advocacy Center, said the victim never recanted her accusations during multiple interviews.

“These are always difficult cases because sometimes it’s hard for people to believe that this type of thing can happen in their community,” Williams said. “I’m just glad that we’ve been able to identify (Runnels) as a sex offender and hopefully prevent him from doing this again.

“It took a team effort to get this conviction. Everyone from Deborah Ball to Lisa McSwain, (Cullman County Sheriff’s investigator) Phillip Bray and everyone else with the district attorney’s office, along with the people at the Child Advocacy Center and DHR all played big parts in getting this case closed.”

* Justin Graves can be reached by phone at 734-2131, ext. 225 or by email at justing@cullmantimes.com.

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