Paul Adjan’s long-awaited disposition hearing was supposed to end at 2 p.m. on Friday at the Alachua County Criminal Justice Center.
But at the podium, his attorney Ben Hutson warned the room: “It might go a little longer, Judge.”
Those words mirror the case’s two-year journey since Adjan was accused in October 2017 of siphoning almost $50,000 from his prior employer, the Gainesville Regional Airport. After originally pursuing a trial by jury, the defendant has pleaded guilty to second-degree grand theft.
With tears in his eyes, Adjan directly addressed Circuit Judge Phillip Pena. “I stand before you for the eleventh time,” he said.
He entered the plea deal because the legal system drained his time and money, he said. His trial suffered six canceled events and four rescheduled events throughout its course. He hasn’t been able to find work since June 2017, he said, although he applied to over 250 jobs.
His voice faltered. He started crying harder. “My wife and I have been barely surviving by selling our possessions to pay the bills.”
Hutson said that the financial strains weren’t the only hardships plaguing the defendant’s family. He announced at the beginning of the hearing that Adjan’s wife was admitted into an inpatient hospital the night before for psychiatric evaluation due to stress from the case.
She submitted a letter to be read aloud during the hearing, in which she urged the court to show mercy on her 67-year-old husband, who she said would not survive prison time.
“The most horrible day in my life was when I had to take my husband to the jail to be arrested,” she wrote in the letter. “Please don’t make me go through that trauma again.”
Ten of Adjan’s family members, friends and coworkers submitted letters to the court for review and consideration ahead of the hearing. The contents of the 20 pages, which Pena called “incredibly articulate,” paint him as a kind, considerate and hard-working family man.
Adjan’s daughter read an additional statement to beg the court to keep her father out of jail.
“Every night, I’ve prayed for the chance to speak to you directly,” she said to Pena. “And here we are.”
Despite entering the plea deal, Adjan maintained his innocence – and will continue to do so until the day he dies, he said. He said he can’t be remorseful for something he didn’t do.
Adjan’s attorney said that he agreed that $48,000 was a lot of money. But because of the airport’s $5 million budget, he said no individual person was severely harmed except for his client, who he claimed was accused too early.
“To the extent that the public had a person and a face to pin this on, it’s been on Mr. Adjan from the very beginning,” Hutson said.
The attorney said that the Department of Corrections recommended a 15-year probationary sentence with no contact with the airport and an anti-theft class. This timeline would give his client ample time for retribution, he said.
Having to explain why he could be behind bars to his 9-year-old granddaughter, whom he called his “will to live,” would be unimaginable, Adjan said. That’s why he said he is begging for no jail time.
“If I have to pay back the money I didn’t steal, I’ll gladly do it to hold the family together and to be able to be a part of my granddaughter’s life,” he said.
However, Omar Hechavarria of the State Attorney’s Office said he was pushing for a harsher punishment for Adjan. He said the airport agreed with the sentiments expressed in the letters – until more than 50 cash deposits were taken from the airport’s vault.
An airport representative spoke on behalf of chief executive Allan Penksa. The impact statement said that the incident “tarnished the reputation of the airport.”
Hechavarria recommended a range of six years in state prison for Adjan, followed by a probation to pay the airport its money back for this violation of trust.
Pena said he understands both sides – “I hear everything that’s going on” – but he can’t dismiss the nature of the grand theft charge to which Adjan pleaded guilty.
This isn’t a trial, he said, in which Adjan could muster evidence to prove his side of the case.
“You took $48,000 from an organization,” he said. “I know you keep on shaking your head, but that’s what you pled to, sir. I can’t change that.”
While the situation can’t be treated as a regular theft case because of Adjan’s familial circumstances, the judge said it can’t be treated as “a loan” with 15 years of probation. So though he said he won’t send the defendant to the Florida Department of Corrections, he will still spend time being incarcerated.
He’ll have to reflect on the exact details of the sentence, he said. The final pronouncement will be made Monday morning.
Adjan is in custody in the Alachua County Jail until then.