Before his April trial, photographer Michael Haser turned down a plea bargain that would have kept him out of prison.

Haser would have had to plead guilty to felony sex crimes and get sex-offender counseling, but he wouldn't be sent to prison. Denying that he'd molested 14 women who'd come to him for glamour photography, Haser opted to go to trial, where he was convicted.

Now, he's got 40 years to think about that decision. Twenty of those years could be spent in prison.

District Judge Ed McLean sentenced the 46-year-old Haser on Wednesday to 20 years in prison and 20 more on probation.

"Mr. Haser, you have assaulted the mothers, daughters, sisters and wives of our community," McLean told Haser, who owned Picture Perfect Studios and Missoula Magazine.

In addition to the prison term, McLean forbade Haser from owning a camera for the next 40 years. And he strongly lectured Haser on using his profession to put women in a vulnerable position where he could take advantage of them.

"You've punished these people, … for the next several years, then for the rest of their lives," McLean said.

McLean's sentence was twice as harsh as the term recommended by Deputy Missoula County Attorney Kirsten LaCroix and probation officer Chuck Hill, who prepared a presentence report for McLean. LaCroix and Hill recommended 10 years in prison and 10 more on probation, a sentence much tougher than the probationary term sought by Haser's attorney.

Haser was charged in November after an investigation that stemmed from the complaint of one woman, who said Haser touched her breasts and vagina during a photo shoot. By the time charges were filed, nine women had described sexually molestation by Haser. Before the case went to trial, five more women came forward.

Haser was charged with sexual intercourse without consent - for inserting his fingers into women's vaginas - and misdemeanor sexual assault for touching their breasts.

At trial, women after woman testified that they were shocked and appalled as Haser groped them under the pretense of applying makeup or adjusting their poses. In a letter to McLean, one of Haser's victims described the crime as "the touch of darkness that will not be easily forgotten."

Haser's attorney, Chief Public Defender Margaret Borg, told jurors that Haser was simply a professional at work, trying to take the best possible pictures.

The jury didn't buy that claim, and neither did McLean. The judge took particular offense Wednesday in the fact that Haser was a professional who abused the trust placed in him by his clients. That, McLean said, warranted a stiffer-than-usual punishment.

Hill echoed the judge's concerns in his presentence report: "I view Mr. Haser as an extremely clever predator. … He created a business that provided him with a steady stream of potential victims."

The judge and LaCroix were also concerned by Haser's continued refusal to accept responsibility for his actions. Lindsey Clodfelter, a therapist who treats sex offenders and evaluated Haser, said his denial is entrenched. Even so, Clodfelter said that while Haser represents a moderate risk to reoffend, he could likely be treated successfully without going to prison.

McLean said, essentially, that he wasn't overly concerned with Haser's rehabilitation. If Haser won't accept responsibility for his crimes, he can stay in prison for 20 years, the judge said.

Haser must successfully complete the prison's sex-offender program before he can be paroled. He must also serve at least one-quarter of his sentence. That means he'll spend a minimum of five years in prison before becoming eligible for parole.

Thursday - 6/3/99

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