AUGUSTA — A former Oakland woman will serve eight years behind bars and spend 18 years on supervised release for sexually assaulting a 3-year-old boy who was asleep at the time.

A jury on May 31 found Sarah B. Conway, 28, guilty of committing gross sexual assault, a class A crime because the victim was under age 12, and a sentencing hearing was held Wednesday at the Capital Judicial Center.

Conway, most recently of Canaan, New Hampshire, admitted that the sexual act occurred between December 2014 and March 2015 in Oakland, but said she it was involuntary because her boyfriend forcibly compelled her to do it.

Previously Conway had pleaded guilty to two counts of endangering the welfare of a child under 16, with the same boy plus a girl named as victims. She was sentenced to concurrent 364 days in jail on each count.

The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Paul Cavanaugh, had sought a 20-year prison term for Conway followed by a 20-year period of supervision.

“The children were 5 and 3 at the time of this conduct,” Cavanaugh said. “They were defenseless.”

In his sentencing memo, Cavanaugh notes that the boy apparently was uninjured physically.

“The victim is unaware of the conduct and will remain so until he becomes old enough for someone to explain his life history to him,” he said.

The two children are currently in foster care with family members and supervised by New Hampshire child protection authorities.

He advocated for the lengthy supervision “to insure that Ms. Conway is safe in the community” and to insure “the community is safe from her impulsive and risky behavior.”

As a result of her conviction, Conway must register as a lifetime sex offender under the state’s Sex Offender Registration and Notification Act.

The defense attorney, Sherry Tash, suggested a seven-year sentence would be appropriate, followed by 12 years of supervision. Tash said that Conway’s former boyfriend, Stephen Richard Smith, brought “this evil into her life. He manipulated her and emotionally blackmailed her.”

Tash told Justice Donald Marden at Wednesday’s sentencing hearing, “She was a good person, a generous person; she loved her kids, and Stephen changed her.”

Conway used tissues to wipe her eyes as her attorney described the gross sexual assault.

Conway wore a green jail uniform with “Kennebec County” printed in white on the back. She has long, dark, wavy hair turning blonde halfway down and most of the time wore dark glasses and stared forward. As the hearing progressed, and her seven family members spoke to the judge to ask for help for her, she wiped tears from her eyes more and more often.

She later spoke directly to the judge, telling him she should have fought Smith to stop the assault.

“I should have fought him or ran (away) with my children,” she said. “I foolishly stayed with this evil man and even had a child with him.”

She said she was not a bad person, but someone who made bad choices.

Conway has no prior criminal record.

“At the end of the conversation, she is individually responsible for her own decisions and own conduct,” Cavanaugh said in closing.

In giving reasons for the sentence, Marden noted that Conway has been “a victim of mental disorders of various diagnoses.”

He said she had been diagnosed with depression, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, dependent personality disorder and suicide ideation, and that she was “prone to develop quick relationships without the ability to assert herself with men.”

He noted that she told evaluators she had 45 sexual partners and that she considered 15 of them “friends with benefits.”

Marden said he expected Conway to get help through various programs available at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham and that he hoped that when Conway was released into the community, she would reintegrate with her family and possibly her children.

After the sentencing hearing, District Attorney Maeghan Maloney said via email, “Even though I still believe her conduct was deserving of a full 20 year sentence, I appreciate the consideration of the court and that she will spend a substantial amount of time in prison. Sarah Conway’s insistence on painting herself as a victim is an insult to real victims of domestic violence. Ms. Conway had her own car, a license, an extended supportive family, and a job that she went to every day. She could have protected her children. She did not protect them because she was the perpetrator.”

Smith, now 39, pleaded guilty in August 2016 to three counts of unlawful sexual contact, two counts of visual sexual aggression against a child and one count of sexual misconduct with a child under 12, all of which occurred Dec. 1, 2014, and March 11, 2015, in Oakland.

He was sentenced to serve an initial 18 years behind bars, with an additional 12 years suspended while he spends 18 years on probation. He is incarcerated at the Maine State Prison in Warren.

At his sentencing hearing, the children’s grandmother said the girl who was the victim was now 6 and told her grandmother, “I’m mad, I’m mad, I’m super-duper mad.”

Smith was the first witness called at both of Conway’s trials.

In May, he told jurors that the couple connected through an online dating site, and then met for the first time at his Oakland apartment, where they had sex and she stayed the night.

“I told her that I had an interest in younger kids,” he testified, and that he liked child pornography. “I didn’t watch it much with her because she didn’t have one opinion or another about it.”

Conway was convicted May 31 after a jury in a previous trial had found her not guilty of two counts of visual sexual contact and a judge acquitted her of two counts of visual sexual aggression against a child.

However, the jury in that earlier trial had deadlocked on the gross sexual assault charge, and the judge declared a mistrial. The state then pursued the charge again in a second trial.

The jury in that case deliberated for less than 30 minutes before returning with a guilty verdict.

The investigation began when Conway went to police in Canaan, New Hampshire, Sept. 15, 2015, at the direction of her family after they learned the reason why she broke off her relationship with Smith, whom they had liked.

Even though Conway broke off their engagement, Smith stayed on her family’s New Hampshire property, living in a tent behind the house.

She told Sgt. Ryan Porter initially about Smith’s fetish with child pornography. Conway, who has three children, also told police that Smith had said he had abused his own children sexually and tried to talk her into abusing her children.

According to the affidavit by Oakland (Maine) Police Department Detective Capt. Rick Stubbert, Porter told him that “Sarah thought she did this because she liked Stephen so much and she didn’t know how to say no.”

Conway has been held in jail since her conviction.

At the close of the hearing, Tash told Marden that an appeal would be filed in the case and that she was planning to withdraw as Conway’s attorney so Rory McNamara could be appointed in her stead. McNamara acted as co-counsel at the sentencing hearing, presenting several arguments.

Children who are believed to be victims of sexual abuse are generally referred to The Children’s Advocacy Center. In Kennebec and Somerset counties, that program is run by the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center, and referrals come from law enforcement, the district attorney’s office and the state Department of Health and Human Services.

“We see over 400 children annually who are suspected to be victims of sexual abuse,” Donna Strickler, executive director of the Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center, which operates the program, said via email on May 31, after Conway was convicted.

“Generally the children are ages 4 or older; however, we have seen children as young as 2½,” Strickler said. “It depends on the ability of the child to articulate. What we do is help provide support for them to recover. Research shows having that support makes a difference in their ability to heal from the trauma.”

The Sexual Assault Crisis & Support Center itself provides services for all ages and all genders. Assistance is available by phone at 800-871-7741 and online at silentnomore.org.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

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Twitter: @betadams