A 34-year-old convicted sex offender said in court Tuesday that he treated his 13-year-old neighbor as if she were a daughter — protecting her, befriending her, nurturing her.

A jury had a different take. After a trial earlier this year, jurors determined that he victimized her — manipulating her, molesting her and sexually assaulting her.

For that, Douglas County District Judge Timothy Burns on Tuesday sentenced Tyron Stapleton to a term that will mean he will serve 20 to 22½ years in prison.

Stapleton could have received from 15 years to life in prison after his conviction for first-degree sexual assault of a child.

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The World-Herald wrote extensively about Stapleton’s case after the girl killed herself — and prosecutors managed the rare feat of securing a conviction without her testimony.

The girl came forward two years after Stapleton abused her, telling Omaha police investigators that Stapleton, then 30, forced himself on her when she was 13.

“I told him to stop,” she said, according to investigators. “Pushed him away. But he kept saying, ‘It’s OK, it’s OK’ ... and put his hand over my mouth.”

Those gathered in the courtroom Tuesday heard Stapleton continue to profess that he was the victim.

Stapleton said he was distraught when he found out the girl had killed herself. She did so while Stapleton sat in jail, awaiting trial in the case.

“That day resonates with me,” Stapleton said. “I wake up and all I can do is cry. I loved her as if she was my own daughter. I protected her. My house was a sanctuary for her. ...

“Now I’m left to deal with this. Everyone gets to wash their hands and walk away.”

Not quite.

Prosecutor Molly Keane said the girl had a number of issues that may have led to her suicide. But the abuse she suffered at the hands of Stapleton — and her mother’s initial indifference to it — were significant factors, Keane said.

The girl’s sister said her family is reeling.

She stepped to the front of the courtroom and blasted Stapleton for his callousness.

“My little sister was beautiful,” the 24-year-old Omaha woman said. “She was loving. She was kind. She was funny. But she was also hurt.

“Tyron took advantage of that. No amount of time will ever teach the defendant accountability if he hasn’t learned it yet.”

In the end, the sister said she was satisfied that Burns sentenced Stapleton to “longer time than my sister got to live.”

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Reporter - Courts

Todd Cooper covers courts, lawyers, trials, legal issues, the justice system and government wrongdoing for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @CooperonCourts. Phone: 402-444-1275.

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