PORTLAND — Gerald “Jay” Gilbert says he knows he made the biggest mistake of his life earlier this year — one that cost him his dream job and landed the former jail guard behind bars himself.

The 41-year-old South Portland resident pleaded guilty last month to misdemeanor assault.

The conviction stemmed from an investigation that found Gilbert had sex with a female inmate while he was on duty at the Cumberland County Jail. He reported for a two-month sentence on July 16 at the York County Jail.

But while Gilbert admits he was wrong to have had sex while he was working as a corrections officer, he wants the public to know that his case was not as simple as it appeared in court records and media reports.

Gilbert said he had been involved in a romantic relationship with the 32-year-old inmate, Sarah Tsika, for several months before she was sent to jail in late December 2009. He hoped they would someday get married and have children.

This was not a case of a jail guard abusing his authority for sexual favors, Gilbert said in an interview earlier this month.

“I was in love,” he said. “I used poor judgment. Sometimes you don’t think, you just act.”

J.P. DeGrinney, Gilbert’s attorney, said he was frustrated that Gilbert’s prior relationship with Tsika was not mentioned in a press conference held by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office or in a press release issued by the District Attorney’s Office. Officials should have made clear that Gilbert was not preying on random inmates, DeGrinney said. He said Tsika did not initiate a complaint against Gilbert and she did not want him to be prosecuted.

“There’s a context that has to be given here,” DeGrinney said.

Tsika, who is now serving a three-year sentence at the Maine Correctional Center in Windham, did not respond to a request to be interviewed.

Stephanie Anderson, district attorney for Cumberland County, said she does not dispute Gilbert’s claim that he had been involved with Tsika, but that did not have a significant impact on the plea bargain her office reached with DeGrinney. She did not feel there was any reason to include background details in her press release.

“I don’t think it was dishonest or misleading,” Anderson said. “We just wanted to issue a short, factual statement on the disposition.”

Sheriff Mark Dion also said he did not need to publicly describe the relationship between Gilbert and Tsika. Under Maine law, it is a crime for anyone in authority at a jail or prison to have sex with a person who is in custody, regardless of the circumstances, he said. Similar laws apply to other categories of workers, such as teachers, camp administrators and staffers, social workers and psychologists.

“His assertion about having a relationship, that’s fine, but when they walk through the door it just changes, there is no way to avoid that,” Dion said. If Gilbert had a temptation to have contact with the inmate, he should have told his superiors that he could not guard that pod, the sheriff said.

“It is a sad case, but he created this,” Dion said.

Gilbert was hired at the jail in 2007. He said he hoped to keep the job until he could retire.

In the spring of 2009, Tsika, who had served time in the jail earlier that year, showed up on the jail grounds and asked Gilbert for his phone number, he said.

“I was kind of naive, thinking she was out and not on probation, and that we could have a relationship,” said Gilbert. He said he was going through a bitter divorce. “The chemistry was just there (with Tsika), and it was great,” Gilbert said.

He met Tsika’s children and visited her parents with her. Gilbert recalled taking long walks with her and holding hands.

Gilbert said he learned at some point in 2009 that Tsika was still in the probation system, so he was not supposed to date her. He said he cut down his contact with her, but continued the relationship. Gilbert said the last time he saw Tsika outside of jail was Dec. 23, 2009, when he gave her some money to buy Christmas presents for her children.

Tsika was arrested a few days later on several charges, including robbery. She was housed in her own cell in the women’s maximum-security pod at the jail, Gilbert said. He said he picked up some overtime shifts just so he could see her. Gilbert said he was still in love and he saved the love letters she wrote to him and passed underneath her cell door.

Although he knew that it was against the law, Gilbert said he had sex with Tsika on two occasions inside the cell, where there are no surveillance cameras.

His misconduct came to light during the internal investigation of another guard, Toby Post of West Gardiner. Post was observed taking prescription opiates into the jail. The investigation revealed that Post intended to give the drugs to Tsika, and that Post also had sexual contact with her.

Post pleaded guilty to assault and trafficking in prison contraband. He was sentenced to one year in jail.

Gilbert said he never brought drugs into the jail and he was “crushed” to learn that Tsika was involved with another corrections officer.

“I got played,” Gilbert said.

After the criminal investigation, Gilbert was indicted on two felony counts of gross sexual assault. If he had been convicted on those charges, he would have been required to register for life as a sex offender, and could have been sentenced to up to 10 years in prison.

DeGrinney negotiated with Assistant District Attorney Angela Cannon.

Anderson, the district attorney, said the biggest concern for the prosecution was that they did not believe Tsika was reliable. Also, Tsika told prosecutors she “did not want Jay to get into trouble,” Anderson said.

“We did recognize that there probably wasn’t the typical abuse of authority,” she said. “We were concerned, obviously, that the prior relationship that Gilbert had with the inmate made this an unusual case.”

Judge Paul Eggert signed off on a plea agreement. Gilbert would plead guilty to a simple assault charge, and he would serve 60 days for having “offensive physical contact” with Tsika. DeGrinney said he took the deal because he could not risk a felony conviction if the case had gone to trial. The sentence was announced July 2 in a press release from the District Attorney’s Office.

DeGrinney said an inaccurate headline that appeared in The Portland Press Herald and the newspaper’s website, indicating that Gilbert was convicted of a sex crime, jeopardized Gilbert’s safety in the jail and his ability to get a job after he gets out. The Press Herald published a correction.

“For people to think he’s guilty of a sex crime, or that he is some type of violent predator, is completely unfair,” DeGrinney said. “Jay is not a threat to anybody.”

Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at:

[email protected]