ORLANDO, Fla. – Despite the victim's calls for a harsher penalty, a judge sentenced Ehsan Karam to two years in prison Thursday after the former Twin Cities-based mixed martial arts fighter pleaded no contest to choking and assaulting his ex-girlfriend with a deadly weapon during a violent 36-hour episode in this central Florida city last September.

In exchange for his guilty plea, prosecutors dismissed charges for battery and the more serious first-degree kidnapping, the latter carrying up to a life prison sentence. Judge Kevin Weiss also granted Karam credit for the year he's already spent in jail since he was first arrested on allegations of imprisoning Holly Appell in a closet, repeatedly choking her unconscious and holding a knife to her throat.

Appell, through her attorney, objected to the plea deal, telling Weiss she thought Karam deserved more prison time and "she's fearful for her life should he get out."

The charges against Karam were detailed in a June Star Tribune special report on the unsolved death of Heather Mayer, another former girlfriend. The story followed Mayer's mother, Tracy Dettling, as she set out to uncover the events leading to her daughter's nude and battered body being discovered in the basement of a South St. Paul home Mayer had shared with Karam and her three young sons. In the process, Dettling learned of a life her daughter had kept secret from her family as a well-known figure in the world of bondage, dominance, submission and sadomasochism — a sexual fetish commonly known as BDSM.

Mayer was found strangled by a chain used for BDSM on July 4, 2019. The medical examiner listed the cause of death as "undetermined," and South St. Paul police told Dettling her daughter killed herself, but Dettling has refused to believe it.

On Thursday, Dettling watched the proceeding from the courtroom gallery, having driven 1,500 miles from Nerstrand, Minn., to witness Karam admit guilt in Appell's case. After the sentencing, Dettling, who blames Karam for her daughter's death, said she also did not believe Judge Weiss gave Karam a severe enough penalty. But she was pleased that Karam will serve prison time.

"It was not justice," said Dettling. "But it does give him two felonies. It does make him accountable in some way. I'm grateful for that."

Dettling said she planned to continue searching for justice for her daughter.

Attack on Holly Appell

Police arrested Karam on Sept. 28, 2022, as Hurricane Ian ravaged the area around Orlando, where Appell lived at the time. In a hearing later over his bond, Appell said Karam had come to stay with her last fall, after spending two months in jail in Minnesota for violating Mayer's domestic assault no-contact order, a conviction that was based on evidence Dettling discovered after her daughter's death.

Appell testified in February that she'd told Karam she wanted to end their relationship and he choked her until she blacked out. Over the next two days, she said, he held her captive in her apartment, took her phone, stripped her naked, locked her in a dark closet for hours and forced her to perform sex acts. He told her he planned to kill her and himself, she said.

Karam later forced her on the bed and drew the tip of a kitchen knife from her neck to her cheeks and mouth, according to Appell's sworn testimony. He told her how he was going to rip off her insulin pump and let her die, she said. "He also at that point told me that my dad wasn't coming until Friday and that my body would be decomposing by then."

Appell said she was eventually able to call for help using her Apple Watch.

Karam initially pleaded not guilty to the charges. His attorney, Bryce Fetter, said in a court document that Ehsan's actions with Appell during the alleged assault and kidnapping were "consensual," and in the bond hearing he called her unreliable.

"This was a difficult case with a very unique fact pattern and I think there were strong arguments on both sides," Fetter said afterward. "I am happy we were able to resolve the case today and both parties can move forward."

In the courtroom Thursday, Karam, charged under the name "Kramamafrooz," did not speak, other than providing brief answers to Weiss' questions. In addition to the prison sentence, he agreed to serve three years of supervised probation and three years of standard probation. He must also submit to evaluations for mental health, substance abuse and psychosexual behavior.

Weiss also granted Appell a no-contact order, which also applies to digital contact, and barred Karam from entering the state of Alabama, where she now lives.

Frustration from other victims

As Karam put the plea on the record, several more of his ex-partners who have accused him of assault in the past watched the proceeding from across the country via live video feed.

Bella Bree, Karam's ex-wife, said she empathized with Appell, and was frustrated by the plea deal. "It is really hard to feel much beyond anger and fear for Holly — and for the rest of us," she said.

Bree, Appell and several other women told police and the Star Tribune they engaged in relationships as "submissives" to Karam, their "dominant." Though BDSM is about taking or relinquishing control in a safe place, they said, Karam used it to punish them with brutal force beyond any consent.

In interviews with the Star Tribune, Bree described instances when he beat her with a metal rod so hard he bent her wedding ring, or when he held her head underwater for prolonged periods of time or shoved her face into dirty cat litter.

Bree filed for divorce against him last year. Karam was previously convicted of violating her no-contact order.

Karam is facing additional assault charges in Tucson, Ariz., where he is accused of tackling and punching another ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Chao.

Bree and Appell were both in the house when Mayer died, and both say Karam and Mayer were engaging in a BDSM "scene" the night before they found her body. According to her statements to police, Bree could hear Mayer being whipped and saying, "I would hang myself for you" that night.

The investigation into Mayer's death is still open.