Nathan Natal’s son was born soon after the home-invasion robbery that terrorized a Janesville family and forever changed a neighborhood where residents no longer leave their doors unlocked.
Natal, 21, of 1998 S. Nelson Ave., Beloit, got a glimpse of his son at his sentencing Wednesday in Rock County Court. He was one of six participants in the robbery, according to criminal complaints. He was the fifth to be sentenced.
Natal hasn’t been able to see his son, except via video screen, since he was jailed nearly two years ago.
It has been tough on Natal but tougher on his victims, family members who were terrorized by masked men pointing laser-guided handguns and ordering them to give up thousands of dollars in cash they didn’t have.
The youngest family member, an 8-year-old girl, was dragged from under a bed and down some stairs as her father watched, unable to protect her, said Assistant District Attorney Rich Sullivan.
“I pray your baby boy will never experience a tiny fraction of the fear my baby girl felt that night,” the mother told the court Wednesday.
The family is devastated. They sold their house, said Scott Schroeder, a neighbor who opened his doors to the family the night of Jan. 12, 2016, after the robbers fled.
“It’s the same as if they had burned their home down,” said Schroeder, who has spoken at several of the previous sentencing hearings, noting the family’s emotional scars.
A sob wracked Natal’s body as Judge James Daley sentenced him to 10 years in prison and another 12 years of extended supervision on a charge of being a party to armed robbery.
As with his co-defendants, charges of party to false imprisonment, burglary and criminal damage to property were dismissed as part of a plea agreement.
Natal put his head in his hands as his mother tearfully told the court: “I’ve never known him to do anything like this. It was a shock. ... I have four kids, and he’s the sweet one.”
But Natal “engaged in the gang lifestyle,” small-time marijuana sales and drug use, Sullivan said.
“This family went through hell,” Sullivan said, their American Dream life turning into a horror story.
The father, described as “the nicest guy” and someone who never wanted firearms in his house, now goes to sleep to the click of a gun lock, Sullivan said.
Natal was one of those pointing a gun, Sullivan said as he called for 10 to 12 years in prison for Natal.
Natal gave up the names of two other defendants, immensely helping investigators, but he later recanted, apparently because of threats he received in jail, Sullivan said.
If not for his help, Sullivan said he would have recommended 15 years in prison, not the 10 to 12 that he suggested to the judge.
Natal thought he was joining a get-rich-quick scheme, and he enlisted another participant and loaned his car to drive the robbers to the house, Sullivan said.
Defense attorney Stephen Compton said he was horrified when he first read about the incident, but he has come to see hope for Natal and to like him.
“I can assure you this gentleman is remorseful. ... He’s a good kid with a good heart who made a terrible decision,” Compton said.
Compton recommended an eight-year prison sentence, saying, “He’s ready, willing and able to do his time.”
Natal told Daley that he had doubts about going into the house, and when he saw the behavior of Damien Hewlett, who was said to be the defendant who acted the cruelest, he wanted to get out.
Natal said he realizes he hurt the family, adding: “None of you ever deserved to be put through this.”
Natal said he knew he had to change his ways when he first saw his son, and he wants to “be the father I never had,” helping his son not to take the same path he took.
He has plans to go back to school to learn culinary arts with a dream of working at a high-class restaurant and perhaps owning his own place someday, Natal said.
Daley said that in his long career, he rarely sees a defendant in such a case who has graduated from high school, has no criminal convictions and has a supportive family.
But Daley said the offense is a grave one that left a family under severe stress and no longer feeling safe in the community, problems they will have to deal with for the rest of their lives.
Daley said Natal had followed people blindly, making them his heroes.
“Do you want your son to have the same heroes you had?” Daley asked.
“No,” Natal said.
“You’ve got to act as an example for your child so you can be his hero,” Daley said, “and how you do that is going to be how you handle the sentence that you get here today.”
Daley told Natal he needs to see his sentence as a way to prepare for the rest of his life.
Daley gave Natal credit for the 704 days he has spent in jail. He also made him eligible for in-prison rehabilitation programs that could shorten his sentence, but Daley said Natal will not be eligible until he has served seven years.