Steven A. Cross has maintained all along that he loves his son and never meant him harm when he abandoned him for five weeks last summer.
On Wednesday, a judge and jury turned that logic on its head.
"The evidence seems to indicate a lot of love between Mr. Cross and his son," Judge Robert R. King Jr. said. "Unfortunately, the greater the love, the greater the emotional harm."
The Dakota County jury found Cross, 60, guilty of gross-misdemeanor child neglect for slipping out of his Lakeville home while his son, Sebastian, slept July 18. In deciding to head to California, the single dad left his 11-year-old son only a letter, telling him to go stay with his best friend's family.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom called it "one of the clearest cases of child neglect I've ever seen." The jury of three men and three women needed only about 30 minutes of deliberation to agree.
"We believed from the outset that this was child neglect," Backstrom said. "That's why the charges were filed, and I think the jury's verdict today justifies our decision.''
After the verdict, Cross choked on tears outside the courtroom as he stood before TV cameras and pledged to keep fighting to regain custody of his son.
"I love my son to death," he said. "I'm going to keep trying. I'm not going to give up. There's no way. I never gave up on my son, never."
There's no telling to what extent, if any, the verdict will affect Cross' efforts to regain custody. Jeffrey Priest, Cross' attorney in the child-custody case, said he wasn't prepared to comment on the question.
Backstrom said the custody issue will be decided in a separate civil proceeding conducted under different court rules. The next hearing in that process is Feb. 22. "I'm not certain about the direct impact this case will have on the child custody case," he said.
Cross will be sentenced March 20 for Wednesday's conviction. He is likely to be given two years' probation.
'I have to go'
The case drew national attention, much of it centered on what became the central question: Did Cross cause physical, mental or emotional harm to his son when he left him alone in their Lakeville home, which had been foreclosed upon and was days away from being seized by the sheriff?
Cross' attorney had argued that his actions didn't constitute neglect because he told Sebastian to go live in the care of people who were like family.
When Sebastian woke up that morning, he found a message written on a 2-by-4 board and two envelopes, one for him and one for Joanne and John Pahl, neighbors who had for years treated Sebastian as a member of their family.
The letter to Sebastian told him to ride his bike to the Pahls' home, about two blocks away. It said, in part, "You know your dad loves you more than anything. ... There are no jobs for architects so I have to go because the sherriff (sic) will take the house July 27th. ... There will be no more me. There are many many great years ahead for you. Not so for me."
In her closing argument, prosecutor Nicole Nee told jurors: "No parent is perfect. But perfection is not demanded. What is demanded is parenting that does not harm a child's sense of security and value."
If there were no jobs for architects, she said, Cross could have found another job. He could have sold some of his possessions and gotten a small apartment or moved in with friends. At the very least, she said, Cross owed it to Sebastian to take him by the hand, lead him to the Pahls' and explain that he was going away for a while and that the Pahls would take care of him.
She told the court after the verdict was read that Sebastian is preparing a victim-impact statement to be read during the sentencing hearing.
Joanne Pahl testified Tuesday that the boy was crying when he showed up at her house with the letters. But, she said, he quickly regained his composure and fit into the family nicely, doing chores, as he'd done before his father left, and going on vacations in the 45 days he spent with them.
Cross, meanwhile, was in Cambria, Calif., where he now says he was hoping to find some long-lost family members. He got a job at a deli and lived out of his minivan until he was arrested Aug. 29. In the 43 days he was gone, he did not contact Sebastian or the Pahls, but did ask an ex-girlfriend to make sure the boy was OK.
Sebastian is now living with his maternal great-aunt. His mother, Katik Porter, who had not had any contact with the boy since he was 2, has re-entered his life and has visitation rights.
Cross said he has not been allowed to see or even call his son since his arrest. But he vowed to keep fighting for custody.
"I was only thinking about my son," he said. "This is awful. I wouldn't wish this on anybody. This whole thing, I wouldn't wish it on anybody."
Pat Pheifer • 952-746-3284