Monday, August 17, 2009

Brett Candelaria Found Guilty of Sexual Assault

They are all gathered in the Denver courtroom, anxious to see what will happen to the man in the stone-gray pullover — the man with the Hot Wheels collection and the video games and a string of shattered young men stretching across two states.

Sitting in the back is a man from New Mexico in Wranglers and a black buttoned shirt, grown now with children of his own. He was 10 years old that day in 1992 when the defendant took him for a ride in his car, stopped at a park and molested him. He is here for himself and for his two brothers, also victims.

A slight 17-year-old boy with a buzz cut sits nearby, his red tie sticking out from the collar of his white shirt. Three years ago, after many sexual assaults, he had his head slammed against the side of a U-Haul when he tried to halt the abuse.

Next to him, close, is one of the Denver police detectives who investigated his case. Their work is done, and yet the abuse case gnaws at them. They worry that the abuser took advantage of still other boys, boys they haven't heard about.

In the corner sits a juror who pronounced the defendant guilty on 15 counts, wondering what happens next.

An air conditioner drones as 37-year-old Brett Candelaria, flanked by his attorneys, awaits his fate. It is a few minutes before 4 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 13. Judge William Robbins Jr. is about to sentence Candelaria.

A ruse perfected over decades

Brett Candelaria was just a teenager when he started preying on boys, according to court documents.

Over two decades, he perfected his ruse, finding vulnerable families, latching onto them at church, quickly winning their trust and then, after obtaining easy access to young boys, committing horrific crimes.

Experts call it "grooming" — a process of subtly ingratiating himself to families to the point at which otherwise cautious mothers and fathers thought nothing of letting their boys spend the night at his home.

Brett Candelaria -- convicted of sex assault on two teenage boys victimized by Candelaria found him, in the beginning, so perfect. A regular at her church, polite and respectful. Helpful when her husband's car broke down, offering to pay for new parts. A friend who gave her teenage son a job.

It was only later, after Candelaria had molested her son and her nephew, that the woman realized she'd been taken in by the kind of deliberate, insidious assault that pedophiles perfect over years.

"I look at it now, and I think, God, I was so naive," she said. "I just never would have thought — especially someone from your church.

"It's always the people you least expect."

Her family learned that lesson with cruel certainty.

That it doesn't matter what someone looks like. That a role in a church is no guarantee of a person's motives. That anyone can be a child molester.

"There is no typical face to a predator," said Maggie Conboy, a deputy district attorney in Denver. "Brett Candelaria looked like the guy next door, and he cultivated that image."

Life sketched in police reports

There is much about Candelaria that remains a mystery. He declined a request for an interview, and the detectives and prosecutors who spent 18 months studying him came away with more questions than answers. But sketches of his life fill court records and police reports.

Candelaria grew up in northwestern New Mexico in the Farmington-Aztec area. He never really knew his dad, a man, he claimed to one detective, who fathered 27 children. For a time he used his mother's name — Archuleta — but adopted his father's after a paternity test proved his lineage.

He was a teenager the first time a young boy accused him of sexual assault. That was in the 1980s, and though it was reported to police, no criminal charges were ever filed, according to court documents.

In late 1992, a mother's allegations that Candelaria molested three of her sons sparked a police investigation and formal criminal charges. Candelaria was 20, working as a security guard, when he befriended the woman's family, attending church with them, spending time with the boys. The relationship grew comfortable enough that Candelaria sometimes spent the night in her family's home. And three of her sons — ages 9, 10, and 13 — sometimes spent the night at Candelaria's home.

All three boys alleged that Candelaria molested them. The oldest boy reported the abuse even though Candelaria issued a cryptic threat: "Do you want to see your family? I am dead serious."

He pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual contact with a minor — although he would later contend he was pressured by his attorney to make the plea — and spent about two years behind bars.

In the spring of 1997, Candelaria found work at a Farmington trailer park.

And he faced a new set of allegations from two boys, ages 6 and 8. The allegations were a virtual repeat of the ones that sent him to prison. A meeting with the mother of the boys. Church. Trust. Sleepovers. Sexual contact. But in that case, a jury acquitted Candelaria, and he eventually left New Mexico.

By late 2002, Candelaria was in Colorado, where he found work delivering furniture and cleaning out homes where tenants had been evicted. He racked up a sheaf of traffic tickets and other misdemeanor charges. In all, he was ticketed 21 times.

During that span, his most serious legal scrape — a charge of custodial interference — was filed after he took in a 14-year-old New Mexico boy and brought him to Colorado to live with him. Candelaria pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor, but for reasons that are not clear from court records, the boy was allowed to stay with him. Candelaria often told people the young man was his little brother. And despite numerous questions about the state of their relationship, that boy would remain a steadfast supporter of Candelaria's.
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