“There’s so much suffering in this case by so many different people due to the actions of the defendant. There’s very little I can say today to make any of that better,” Hillsborough County Judge Laura Ward said at his sentencing on Monday.
Ackett occasionally met the gaze of former students attending the hearing in a Tampa courtroom. He later read an apology in a clear, steady voice, the Tampa Bay Times reported. During the two-hour hearing he bowed his head as friends, neighbors and his wife of nearly 30 years begged for leniency.
But prosecutors pointed out that the 324 counts of video voyeurism Ackett pleaded guilty to in April call for roughly 366 years in prison, the newspaper reported.
Defense attorneys had asked for no more than three years, plus probation, promising that Ackett would continue seeking treatment for a diagnosed “voyeuristic disorder.”
Ackett sobbed as his victims spoke to the judge.
Eva Applebee, a longtime Bloomingdale High School teacher, spoke of the shock and disbelief she felt when she learned she was the only adult in the videos.
Prosecutors said Ackett, after returning to Bloomingdale as the girl’s track coach and fashion design teacher in 2017, collected, cropped and edited hundreds of nude and partially-nude videos and photos of 125 victims changing in the fashion design class dressing room.
Applebee told the court it felt like she had been punched in the stomach when she learned that his cameras were in the classroom they shared. The students now call the classroom the “room of horrors,” she said.
“What Mark did was not an isolated lapse of judgement but calculated and deliberate criminal acts,” Applebee said. “Mark groomed and chose his victims – gaining their trust and then taking advantage of them.”
A parent whose daughter was 15 when she was recorded changing clothes told the judge she can’t trust the school system any more.
“I can’t trust the teachers or the coaches, I can’t trust anyone anymore,” she said.
Several students said they struggle with depression and anxiety. Another went from being a standout on the girl’s track team to quitting completely. One victim told the judge she spent her father’s birthday sitting with investigators and identifying pictures of her naked body.
Those who came to court to speak on behalf of Ackett described him as a good neighbor, a good coach, a volunteer for his kids’ marching band, a trusted Sunday school teacher and a loving husband, the Times reported.
“I wish I could go back and change what I did, or do something to make amends but I know that I cannot,” Ackett said to the court. “I feel especially ashamed of what I did because you treated me with such care. Some of you confided in me your fears and problems, and many of you consider my classroom a safe place to escape the problems that you face. I will never forgive myself for turning something that should have been a fond memory for you into something that you would rather forget.”
Prosecutors said Ackett was caught when a 17-year-old student noticed a box on a shelf with a light coming from it as she changed clothes. Inside it, she found a cellphone that appeared to be recording. She told the school’s principal who called the sheriff’s office.
“He is an excellent actor, having fooled us and his very own family for years,” Applebee said. “Acting like he cared, like he respected us. But instead we found out it was a big act.”