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Yellowknife man who claimed he thought girls were of age convicted of sexual assault

A 27-year-old Yellowknife man who admitted to having sex with three underage girls has been found guilty on three counts of sexual assault, despite arguing he believed the victims were of age.

Joshua Desjarlais, who was 25 when he had sex with two 14-year-old girls and one 15-year-old girl over a two-week span in September 2017, showed little emotion as Justice Shannon Smallwood handed down her decision in NWT Supreme Court Wednesday.

Desjarlais took the case to trial in February, where his lawyer, Scott Cowan, mounted a “mistaken belief in age” defence, claiming the girls told his client they were over age of the 16 and that he genuinely believed them.

In Canada, a person must be the age 16 or older to legally consent to sex. 

The three victims testified in court during the four-day trail, but two of the girls did not complete their testimony after finding the experience too difficult. Two complainants described having sexual intercourse with Desjarlais, with one saying it was "likely consensual," and the other making it clear the sex was not consensual.

The girls, all of whom were friends, told the court they showed up at the offender's Yellowknife apartment multiple times over a two-week period where he gave them cocaine and alcohol.

One victim, who was 14-years-old and in Grade 9 at the time, testified she met Desjarlais during a chance encounter at a city park.

He told her she was “cute,” and suggested they go to the movies or for a drive in his car, she testified. She told him she was “probably too young,” but that she accepted his offer anyway, she said. 

She testified the topic of her age never came up in conversation with Desjarlais again.

In the weeks that followed, she introduced Desjarlais, known to her as “Taz,” to her two childhood friends. 

The girl halted her testimony and left the courtroom before testifying about any sexual contact with the accused.

But her friend, who was also in Grade 9 at the time, took the stand, making it clear she had had sexual intercourse with Desjarlais twice. She testified she thought she remembered telling Desjarlais she was 18 as "kind of a joke." She said the sexual encounters with Desjarlais often involved cocaine use. 

The third complainant, who was 15-years-old and in Grade 10 at the time, testified she was at the offender's apartment around 1 a.m. when she was gang-raped by Desjarlais and two other men. She also recounted another incident at the offender's apartment in which she said Desjarlais pulled down her pants and had sex with her without her consent. 

She testified one of her two friends told her to lie about her age before going to the man's apartment.

Desjarlais was interviewed by police in October of 2017 after someone told one of the victim's parents about the sexual activity. In a video statement played in court, Desjarlais first denied knowing the girls to RCMP. He then told the investigating officer the girls told him they were 18 and 19, and that he believed them. He said he thought the age of consent was 15.

He acknowledged he had sex with all three girls, but maintained he didn't know their true ages.

He told the Mountie he "went along" with what they told him.

On Wednesday, Justice Smallwood said he "went along" because he "didn't actually want to know" their actual ages.

Smallwood said Desjarlais did not take all reasonable steps to ascertain the true ages of each of the victims.

Desjarlais, she said, may have believed one of the victims was at least 16 as she was taller than the other girls, had a pierced tongue (an age-restricted body modification), held a job and supplied her own alcohol. However, Desjarlais did not take all reasonable steps to come to that belief, she said.

Smallwood said Desjarlais should have inquired further about the taller victim's age, because she was accompanied by two girls, her good friends, who did not look 18. That, said Smallwood, should have caused Desjarlais to make further inquiries about their ages – but he didn't.

During the trial, Cowan argued certain factors, including the fact that the girls held jobs, stayed out late, drank and consumed drugs, wore makeup and "looked older" than they were," reaffirmed his client's belief that the girls were of age.

But Smallwood said wearing makeup and staying out late does not determine one's age.

Smallwood added Desjarlais "appeared disinterested" in learning the victims' actual ages. 

She ruled the Crown had established beyond a reasonable doubt that Desjarlais did not take all reasonable steps to ascertain their ages, finding him guilty on all three counts. 

Desjarlais will be back in court on April 15, when a date for sentencing may be set.