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Group works to abolish sex-crime statute

Jul 16, 2006 | www.themonitor.com

Jaime Avila, one of the former Mission Boy Scouts alleging longtime Scoutmaster Genaro Vela sexually abused him several years ago, may join the fight to abolish Texas’ statute of limitations in child sex cases.

The statute of limitations gives victims of childhood sexual abuse 10 years after their 18th birthday or until they turn 28 to report the abuse.

But Avila now 35 and, according to law, too late to file criminal charges came forward to Mission police and the media barely three weeks ago, saying Vela sexually assaulted him when he was a boy.

“He tried to have sexual intercourse with me,” he said at the Mission Police Department, recalling a trip to San Antonio he took with Vela and two other students when he was around 12. Avila said he slept in the same bed as Vela in a hotel room.

“I pretended that I was asleep. I was hoping that it would end. I could feel flashes. He was taking pictures of me.”

After Avila’s statement to police, though, there was little police could do but console him.

Mission police cannot file charges against Vela based on Avila’s statements simply because of Avila’s age though Vela is facing four felony charges stemming from four other former and current scouts.

Their Voice, a statewide organization founded by sisters Rhonda Kuykendall and Traci Freeman, heard about Avila, and they are reaching out to him, hoping to turn his support system into theirs.

The Houston-area group has two lofty goals: to abolish the statute of limitations of child sexual assaults and establish life without parole eligibility for repeat child sex offenders.

The sisters were able to persuade state House Rep. Debbie Riddle and state Sen. Rodney Ellis, both of Houston, to sponsor bills seeking to abolish the statute during the last legislative session; however, both bills died while still at committee level.

In 2007, they plan to work even harder. And Avila, who said he is interested in the organization, could be a big help.

There are several reasons why victims of childhood sexual assault wait to come forward, Kuykendall said.

It is a mixture of shame, guilt, embarrassment, self-loathing and peer pressure.

“It’s hard for a child,” Avila said. “We’re embarrassed and ashamed and sometimes scared. It’s hard. Unless you’ve been a victim, you don’t understand how hard it is.”

The assistant restaurant manager, who now lives in San Antonio, said he waited more than 20 years to come forward because he never wanted to think about the things Vela allegedly did to him. But when the other former Boy Scouts told their stories, he said, “it made it real again, it brought it up again.”

“I felt 14 again,” he said.

“I wondered about it,” Avila said, regarding the statute of limitations. But he said he didn’t know before he reported the incident to Mission police that it had passed.

Freeman, who is now 31 and living in the Houston area, explained how horrible events that happened so long ago have impacted her life.

“It murdered the child I could have been,” she concluded at the end of an essay she wrote to help herself cope.

Freeman was five. Kuykendall was 10.

A man named Mark Phillip Turner saw them swimming at an apartment complex pool one day in Pasadena. He told the girls’ parents he could turn them into models. But modeling was just a cover for the secret child pornography ring the sisters say Turner ran. Kuykendall, as the older sibling, was allegedly physically assaulted, too.

Freeman turned to drugs, alcohol and eventually to a suicide attempt to erase the pain she says Turner, a previously convicted sex offender, inflicted on her. Kuykendall became an introvert and overachiever.

Both sisters kept the pain inside, but Kuykendall said her breaking point finally came when her own children started to approach the age she was when she experienced the abuse.

Kuykendall decided to come forward and persuaded her sister to do so, too. But when they told police their story two years ago, both women, at ages 29 and 34, were too old.

Coming forward at such a late age is rare, said McAllen Police Sgt. Michael Zellers, who has worked four years in the Youth Services Unit. He recalls one or two cases of childhood sexual assault that involved expired statute of limitations in hundreds he has worked.

The statute is “reasonable,” he said, because it covers most people. “But unfortunately, there are some cases that slip through.”

Usually if someone comes forward so late it is because they have heard that other people are bringing cases against the same person, as in the Vela case, he said. If someone molests one child, the likelihood is that they have molested others.

“A lot of times, kids will bury things in the back of their minds,” Zellers said.

Boys and men are especially reluctant to come forward because of peer pressure and what society may think of them, he said. Girls, more likely to talk about their feelings, generally come forward at an earlier age.

Opponents of the idea to abolish the statute feel the sisters are trying to drastically increase case loads, Kuykendall said.

Organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Criminal Defense Attorney Association say memories fade and evidence is lost.

“But if there is evidence, the DA (district attorney) should decide if the case can be prosecuted, not some law on the books,” Kuykendall said she believes.

Seventeen states do not have a statute of limitations for certain sexual crimes against children.

The federal PROTECT Act of 2003 President Bush signed also allows for prosecuting child abduction and sex crimes throughout an alleged victim’s entire life.

Avila said he supports the abolishment of Texas’ statute of limitations on child sexual assault.

He feels the statute tells these children, who are now adults, that what happened to them is not worth looking into anymore. It sends the wrong message, he said.

Avila has a 13-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter. “The last thing I would want is for something like this to happen to them,” he said. “Somebody needs to fight it.

“(I came) forward for the children of today,” he said. “If more people came forward, we would make a change.”


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