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Mary Jean Armstrong cries in Salem Superior Court Friday as the facts from her case are read. Armstrong plead guilty and was charged with 15-18 years and 10 years probation.

SALEM -- Mary Jean Armstrong, the Beverly mother who prostituted her 8-year-old daughter for more than a year in exchange for cocaine was sentenced to 15 to 18 years in state prison yesterday by a judge who said Armstrong had "damaged her daughter for life."

"I'm sorry that I had to put my kids through that," a tearful Armstrong, 38, said at the end of a nearly two-hour hearing in Salem Superior Court yesterday, a hearing marked by repeated delays as Armstrong's lawyer had to stop to explain each of the 22 charges.

Those charges include seven counts each of child rape and indecent assault and battery (while Armstrong did not commit the acts, she enabled co-defendant Richard Lapham to do so and was therefore also charged); two counts of inducing a minor into prostitution; four counts of child endangerment; and two counts of posing a child in the nude.

Those last two charges were based on two photos that led police to discover one of the most shocking child sexual abuse cases in recent memory, a case prosecutor Elizabeth Dunigan said left even veteran police officers traumatized by what they found one summer night in 2004. Most of those investigators from the Salem Police Department attended yesterday's hearing.

Dunigan described how the case came to light after a woman named Jill Pena-Contreras visited Lapham's Salem apartment, where he showed her photos of himself engaging in sexual acts with a dark-haired little girl and boasted of how he gave the girl's mother crack cocaine in exchange.

Horrified, Pena-Contreras later returned to the apartment and stole the pictures, then brought them to police, an act Dunigan called heroic.

Police used the photos to get a search warrant for Lapham's apartment, expecting to find more photos. They walked in on a horrific scene: the little girl, 9 at the time, naked under a blanket, Lapham dressed in his underwear, a pornographic video playing on the television.

Armstrong was in a bedroom with her other child, a 12-year-old boy who is autistic. And, said her lawyer, she was already high on cocaine and painkillers.

The little girl told police officers that Lapham had undressed her and made her touch him and that it had happened many times. Armstrong would tell police that it happened as many as 50 times during a 16-month period, sometimes in Lapham's apartment and sometimes in her Beverly apartment.

"She was the person that started this," said Dunigan, who asked for a 25- to 30-year prison term. "She was the person who did not stop this, and she is the person who is taking responsibility for this today."

But defense lawyer William Martin said it was Lapham who was the true villain in the case.

"This was not her idea," Martin said. "This came from Richard Lapham. This sick idea came from him. He was the ringmaster in this terrible, sick circus."

Lapham is now serving a 15- to 18-year prison term imposed in 2005 after he pleaded guilty.

Martin said Armstrong is taking responsibility and wanted to spare the children from having to testify in court. But he urged Judge Leila Kern to impose a shorter, eight- to 10-year prison term, saying there were mitigating factors, including Armstrong's low IQ of 59 and the fact that Armstrong was herself molested as a child.

Dunigan urged the judge to consider the victim, however.

"She is changed forever," Dunigan said of the victim, who has since been adopted, along with her brother, by a new family. "We will never know the woman she would have been."

The girl is slowly beginning to understand the abuse that happened, said Dunigan, who described how shortly after the abuse was discovered, the little girl was questioned by a team of investigators. On a tape of that interview, the little girl is curled into a ball, clutching a teddy bear tightly to her chest and fidgeting.

Almost two years later, the girl was interviewed again. This time, she would describe the abuse and then say, "That's bad, that's bad," Dunigan said.

The girl's adopted mother said in a victim-impact statement that she cannot fathom how a mother could so badly use and abuse her own child.

"I wish I could erase (her) memory of all those things," the girl's adopted mother said in her statement.

Armstrong's prison sentence is identical to that received by Lapham back in 2005. She received twice as much probation as Lapham, who will be on probation for five years after his release from prison.

And it is longer than what sentencing guidelines suggest, an eight- to 12-year prison term.

Kern said in a sentencing memorandum that she would exceed the guidelines because of the damage done to the girl.

"While I am disturbed by the fact that society as a whole has failed Mary Jean Armstrong and in turn to a much greater extent, her daughter, what the defendant did has damaged her daughter for life and it is only with the love of her adoptive family and extensive counseling that the child can hope to mature into a healthy person," Kern wrote in a sentencing memorandum.

Another defendant in the case, Patrick Doyle, was sentenced last month to a year in jail for his role in the case. During one episode of abuse in Armstrong's apartment Doyle was present and having sex with Armstrong and another woman as the crying girl was being raped by Lapham. Doyle did nothing to stop the rape, then threatened Pena-Contreras after learning she had gone to police.

His sentence drew outrage and was a heated topic of discussion even on a national cable television program. It also led to the filing of legislation earlier this week to increase the penalties for child endangerment.

In spite of that furor, few showed up yesterday to watch the Armstrong sentencing. Other than the police investigators who worked the case, Armstrong's mother and a friend, there was just one other member of the public who came to watch the hearing.

Robert L'Italien, the final defendant in the case, is scheduled to plead guilty on March 19.

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