LaGRANGE — A former Army medic accused of falsely imprisoning and striking a 5-year-old autistic child pleaded guilty to several charges against him Monday afternoon in Troup County Superior Court.
Matthew Wade Ledbetter, 27, was charged with false imprisonment, cruelty to children and two counts of aggravated assault under the Family Violence Act, all felonies in Georgia.
According to Senior Assistant District Attorney Lynda Caldwell, on July 18 the 5-year-old was left in the care of Ledbetter. The child was the son of Ledbetter’s then-girlfriend, she said.
The prosecutor said when the mother of the 5-year-old returned home, the child had extensive bruising to his face, neck and buttocks.
Caldwell told the court Ledbetter claimed “he was out of his head,” having “bad, bad thoughts” and flashbacks to serving overseas.
He also allegedly admitted to locking the 5-year-old child in a room from early in the morning until late in the afternoon.
Caldwell said the child, who suffers from autism, was asked by investigators about each injury on his body.
“When the child was asked about the marks, he said, ‘Matt,’” Caldwell explained. “When he was asked about the mark on his neck … he also showed a karate chop … when he was asked about a mark on his arm, he said, ‘Me scratch.’ It showed that he was able to differentiate between what the adult, Matt, did and what he did.”
According to Ledbetter’s attorney, Jeff Shattuck, his client served in the U.S. Army as a medic from 2008 to 2012 and completed tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Shattuck claimed Ledbetter was also formally diagnosed with PTSD by doctors at a Veteran’s Administration clinic.
Tammy Ledbetter told the court her son was critically injured in Afghanistan after barely escaping a bomb blast in a tent where he was sleeping. She said Matthew Ledbetter had shrapnel lodged in his neck and head from the explosion.
The mother testified she immediately noticed a difference in her son when he returned home.
“He reacted negatively to loud noises and large crowds,” she told presiding Superior Court Judge Travis Sakrison. “… He was diagnosed with PTSD … time in jail will not fix what’s wrong with my son.”
The defendant’s father, Gerald Ledbetter, a West Point City city councilman and pastor, also spoke on behalf of his son.
“I don’t condone what he did. It is shocking to me,” Gerald Ledbetter said clearly as he spoke to Sakrison. “But he’s a caring person. He’s actually taking care of his grandmother and aunt.
“I ask that you consider that he’s never been in any trouble,” he continued. “I never even received a call from the principal’s office about him … Matthew has cooperated fully. He even turned himself in, which I think speaks fully to the Matthew that we all know.”
Shattuck told the court Matthew Ledbetter also has joint custody of a daughter, with no reported incidents.
He asked the judge for 10 years’ probation along with court appointed therapy, anger management classes and other special conditions.
“We don’t feel prison time would help Matthew in this case, your honor,” Shattuck stated.
Caldwell felt the injuries inflicted on the child could not be ignored.
“Thank you for your service,” she told Matthew Ledbetter.
“But your honor, take a look a these photos of the child’s injuries,” she said as she handed Sakrison a stack of pictures. “The state has no alternative but to recommend that he be incarcerated for the injuries he inflicted on this 5-year-old child.”
After studying the photos, Sakrison agreed.
“I have to give you credit. You came in here to accept responsibility,” Sakrison told Matthew Ledbetter. “But you have to understand, this is serious. This child could have been killed.”
Sakrison sentenced Matthew Ledbetter to a net 10 years in prison to serve 12 months with the remaining nine years on probation. He must also undergo a mental health evaluation, attend anger management classes and pay a $1,000 fine. Once released from jail, Ledbetter will not be allowed around children under the age of 18 unsupervised, excluding his child.
Updates: Article amended to correct sentencing information.
Melanie Ruberti is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. She may be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.