MASON CITY | A former Mason City day care operator accused of sex abuse is requesting a closed sentencing hearing after North Iowans coordinated a protest over a plea deal, which dropped more serious charges against her.
Tawny Marie Symonds, 31, of Charles City, was initially charged with assault and felony second-degree sexual abuse for allegedly victimizing one of the children at her home-run day care, 696 13th St. S.E., Mason City, according to court documents.
Shelli Wierck, a human resources assistant for Exceptional Persons Inc. (EPI), told the Globe Gazette by phone Thursday that Symonds also worked as a child care consultant for EPI's child care resource and referral program, from Nov. 20, 2013, to Aug. 14, 2015.
Wierck added that Symonds worked out of EPI's Mason City office.
Symonds submitted an Alford plea earlier this week, which said she would plead guilty to a lesser charge of child endangerment, in exchange for the sex abuse and assault charges being dismissed.
Cerro Gordo County District Court accepted the plea, according to court documents. A sentencing hearing has been scheduled for 10 a.m. Jan. 29, 2018, at the Cerro Gordo County Courthouse.
There has been immense backlash about the court's decision on social media, notably on Facebook.
According to Symonds' request to close the sentencing hearing to the public, protests have been scheduled by members of the "Mason City Police Scanner" Facebook page outside the courthouse and inside the courtroom during the sentencing.
Members have also asked for Cerro Gordo County Attorney Carlyle Dalen to be removed from office. Dalen could not be immediately reached for comment by phone Thursday afternoon.
Dalen, an incumbent Democrat, ran unopposed for a second, four-year term in 2014. He was first elected in 2010 after 17 years with the Cerro Gordo County Attorney's Office.
Symonds' attorneys, court-appointed public defenders Nellie O'Mara and Steven Kloberdanz, also argued the sentencing should be closed for "not only the Defendant's safety, but also of the Court and all parties involved." Court documents note screenshots of Symonds' personal page and address have been listed in the group "in an effort to intimidate and condemn the Defendant."
The page is not associated with the city, court documents say.
The moderator of the Mason City Police Scanner, who did not publicly identify themself or themselves, reiterated in a statement Thursday afternoon the page represents the citizens of Mason City, not the police "or any other state department."
It was also noted by the moderator that "no one in control of this page planned a protest inside the courtroom" and that the outcry is about holding elected officials accountable for their jobs.
"You can close a courtroom," the moderator wrote. "You can't close the voting booths when the residents of Cerro Gordo are this upset they vote out every judge and attorney that refuses to consider public risk before handing out a ridiculous plea bargain such as this."
The court has not decided on whether to close the sentencing hearing.
Second Judicial District Court Administrator Scott Hand said he doesn't know of any sentencing hearings being closed to the public in the 16 years he has worked for the North Iowa court system. However, Hand said it's possible it's happened because that decision is at the judge's discretion.
“That would be the judge’s decision … and it goes in front of the court if there is a disagreement (between parties)," Hand said via phone Thursday.
Judge Rustin Davenport is presiding over the case.