Jan. 20—An Aiken County man pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a coveted horse and possession of child pornography Wednesday afternoon and will spend three years in prison.
Damian Alexander Connor, 33, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor in relation to a 2019 investigation, and one count of buggery in connection to the sexual assault of a horse in the custody of late dressage trainer Martijn Stuurman and breeder Abigail Ronco.
Judge Courtney Clyburn Pope sentenced Connor to five years in the South Carolina Department of Corrections that will be suspended to a three-year active sentence, followed by a four-year probationary term for the buggery charge.
Connor was sentenced to eight years in the South Carolina Department of Corrections for the second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor charge. That sentence also will be suspended to a three-year active sentence and will be followed by a four-year probationary term.
The two sentences will run concurrently. Connor will receive credit for four days of pretrial incarceration. As a part of both offenses, Connor is required to register with the South Carolina Sex Offender Registry.
While on probation, Connor will be subject to random drug and alcohol testing and is to have no contact with the victim in the buggery case. He will also be required to continue with mental health counseling once he is on probation.
How the investigation began
The South Carolina Attorney General's Office said the case arose from a private investigation involving a digital file sharing network that began on Sept. 1, 2019.
During the investigation, an IP address used to download files of child sexual abuse was traced back to Aiken County and a search warrant was produced for Connor's residence, according to Assistant Attorney General Quentin Gaddy.
During the execution of that warrant, a number of electronic devices containing child pornography were seized. One of the devices contained a number of videos depicting [a man and woman sexually assaulting a horse]," Deputy Solicitor David Miller said during the hearing Wednesday.
Although no faces were in the videos, Ronco told police the male in the videos was Connor and admitted she was in the video along with Connor; Connor confessed to everything Ronco told police, Miller said.
"He stated that there were two incidents that occurred with the particular horse, and that his wife, Abigail, had consented to the incidents," Miller said. "[Connor] said that they were very drunk and giggling about having sex with the horse, and then it happened. The second incident he described as probably more planned."
Multiple horses in Stuurman's care were assaulted in May 2019, June 2019 and September 2019, according to arrest warrants obtained from the Aiken County Sheriff's Office.
On May 19, 2020, the South Carolina Attorney General's Office charged Connor with 10 counts of second-degree sexual exploitation of a minor; police stated Connor distributed videos of minors, 8 to 14 years of age, engaging in sexual activity or appearing in a state of sexually explicit nudity, according to the arrest warrants.
Connor was also charged with three counts of buggery (rape of an animal) and Ronco was charged with two counts of buggery in connection to the assault of Stuurman's horses, according to the arrest warrants.
Prior to sentencing Wednesday, Connor's defense attorney told Pope that Connor's military service and education is a testament to his character.
Connor served in the Marines and was deployed to Afghanistan in 2015 before being honorably discharged. Connor also recently completed two semesters at Aiken Technical College while out on bond for the buggery and child pornography charges and is taking part in a sex offender treatment group.
"Firstly, I need to apologize for the betrayal and dishonor my actions have had on the people I hurt, my family and myself," Connor said at Wednesday's hearing. "I now understand that my actions were selfish, and I take full responsibility. I've come to understand that my actions don't just affect me. I've struggled as a husband, as a father and as a man. With the support and perspective I have now, I'm continuing to change that ... I'll continue to better myself after this, and I will be that better father and husband to my family."
The defense asked the judge for the minimum sentence so Connor could continue treatment.
Ronco was not present at her husband's hearing because her charges are still pending.
Horse owners speak out
Diana Swift and her husband, Christopher L. Sherman, are owners of the purebred Lipizzan stallion at the center of the buggery case.
The couple submitted a written statement to the court explaining their experience and pleading with the court for the maximum sentence.
Swift, who has been breeding Lipizzans since 1983, was getting out of breeding when she was approached by Ronco and her ex-boyfriend, Stuurman, who were hoping to start a stud farm with established breeding horses.
Lipizzans are rare, with only about two dozen publicly breeding stallions in the United States, one of which belonged to Swift.
In August 2017, Swift and her husband entered into a contract with Ronco and Stuurman whereby they were provided with a colt and a filly in exchange for Stuurman training the stallion.
Ronco and Stuurman were also given a mare who was supposed to be bred to the stallion twice, and then could be bred to any other stallion or breed, as part of a verbal agreement.
When Swift was informed Ronco had been charged in 2020 with buggery of her stallion, she said she spoke on the phone with Stuurman who told her Ronco was now married to Connor.
"I understand there are videos showing Abigail Ronco having sexual intercourse with my stallion ...," Swift said in the statement. "My interactions with Abigail throughout our partnership before and after the contract and my entrusting my horses to her and Martjin were based on her level of professionalism and experience as a breeder and Martijn's reputation as a horse trainer."
After Swift was informed that her stallion had been mishandled, she brought the horse back to her farm in California.
"I have slowly made progress bringing him back to his old self, he's not quite back to 'normal' yet in a year of positive, appropriate handling," she said.
She added from a financial aspect, the horse has lost almost all of his value as a breeding stallion because he could become dangerous in breeding situations.
At the end of her written statement, she asked the judge to give Connor the maximum sentence, to be served consecutively to any other crimes in which be may be found guilty. She also asked Connor be required to register as a sex offender.
Stuurman murdered in 2021
On June 13, 2021, Stuurman was found murdered in his Chesnee home.
Stuurman initiated a child custody battle with Ronco and Connor following the buggery and child pornography charges in 2020 and was in legal proceedings at the time of his murder, according to court records obtained by the Aiken Standard.
Following the charges of child pornography against Connor, Stuurman filed a motion for sole temporary custody of the child in Aiken County family court on Sept. 29, 2020, according to court records.
In his request, Stuurman also asked the court prohibit Connor "from being around the minor at any time in light of the child pornography charges filed and pending against him," and asked the court to "restrain [Ronco and Connor] from threatening, harassing, or bothering the Plaintiff in any way or manner whatsoever, directly or indirectly, during the pendency of this action," according to court records.
Stuurman also asked the court for a permanent restraining order against Connor on Sept. 29, 2020, according to court records.
Weeks before Stuurman's murder, a court hearing was held pursuant to the custody case, according to court records. The judge ruled Connor, "shall be and is hereby restrained, enjoined, and prohibited from having any contact whatsoever, directly or indirectly, with the minor."
On Aug. 30, 2021, after Stuurman's death, the court ordered that the case not be dismissed and custody and visitation remain as previously ordered, according to emergency hearing court records; however, shortly after, the case was dismissed due to Stuurman being deceased.
After almost four months of investigation in Chesnee and no findings, the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office distributed a press release stating "there is a potential person(s) of interest in the Aiken, S.C. area," on Sept. 16, 2021.
No suspects "can [be] named" at this time, said Lt. Kevin Bobo with the Spartanburg County Sheriff's Office during a phone call with the Aiken Standard on Sept. 21, 2021.
A reward of $25,000 has been offered for any information that leads to the arrest and prosecution of the person or persons responsible for Stuurman's death, according to the release.
To date, there still have not been any arrests in the case.