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Romano: A child and the evil she faced

She has never met the child. Has no idea if the girl is carefree or shy.

She doesn't know where this 12-year-old goes to school, who she considers her best friend, or what she thinks about in the dark when she is all alone.

All she knows for sure is they share the same nightmare. And this girl half her age has more courage than many of us will ever know.

• • •

His name is Henry Keith Cavaliere. Five times since the 1990s this Clearwater contractor has been arrested and accused of sex-related crimes involving children.

Despite these multiple charges spanning parts of three decades, he was never required to register as a sex offender and never had to do meaningful prison time.

This had not escaped the notice of a woman nearby in another North Pinellas home. One of his earliest accusers, she was now married with two children of her own.

Yet, in many ways, she was still struggling to forget long ago days. Not just the night Cavaliere allegedly molested her, but the hours being questioned by cops and lawyers.

This is why she was not too receptive when Detective Mark Kolenda of the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office called last year to tell her Cavaliere was again facing charges.

Her own brush with Cavaliere had ended poorly 15 years ago when he entered a no contest plea on a lesser charge after she stumbled during repeated questioning.

"It affected my life in so many ways,'' said the woman, who is not being identified by the Times due to the nature of the charges. "I had problems with trust. I had trouble with my parents showing any sign of intimacy with each other. I had trouble with men in general.

"Why would I want to go through that again? I wouldn't say that it ruined my life on a daily basis, but it was always there. It's not something you can ever erase.''

Kolenda knew that better than most. After seven years in the Crimes Against Children division, he understood the struggles and pitfalls that victims endure.

Still, he gently pushed her to testify again. This new case had a chance, he said. He was talking to another woman who had also accused Cavaliere of sexual abuse when she was a child. The hope was that a pattern of behavior could be firmly established.

The North Pinellas woman resisted. She told herself she had neither the desire nor the obligation to testify. Then Kolenda told her about the most recent victim. A 12-year-old girl who described a night of abuse nearly identical to the story she once told herself.

"These are good people. These were good families he destroyed,'' Kolenda said. "And these women took it and owned it. All of these years, they didn't act out, and they didn't use it as an excuse to do drugs or find trouble.

"What they did this week was stand up and take back a part of their lives he had stolen from them.''

When it came time to testify on Thursday, the North Pinellas woman was standing in a hall outside the courtroom talking casually to her mother. She thought she was ready. She thought if she treated it like it was no big deal then maybe it would actually feel that way.

And then the courtroom doors burst open and the other adult accuser came running out. Her hands covered her face and her sobs bounced off the walls.

"That's when it hit me,'' said the North Pinellas woman. "I thought, "Oh, crap. It's my turn now. What if I say something wrong? What if the jury doesn't believe me? Am I going to screw this whole case up for everybody?' "

She cried nearly the entire time she was on the stand describing the night her best friend's father climbed into her bed when she was 6 years old. She cried as she was leaving the stand, and cried for another 10 minutes after that.

"The anxiety and the emotion,'' she explained, "were indescribable.''

Hours later, Cavaliere was convicted of lewd and lascivious molestation and now faces a possible life sentence. The charge was confined to the most recent incident involving the 12-year-old, but the testimony of the two adult victims seemed to be the unifying thread.

"They knew this case wasn't about them,'' said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Kate Alexander. "But they understood what it was like to be that victim, and they wanted to be there to support what she was doing. I applaud their willingness to come forward.

"I can't even begin to imagine what that must be like for any victim.''

Now that it is over, it has crossed Kolenda's mind to bring the victims together. None of the three have met, and the adults have never laid eyes on their younger counterpart.

But that sounds like wishful thinking. After living in the past for so long, everyone seems eager to move forward.

The victim from North Pinellas spent Friday afternoon searching for greeting cards for Kolenda and Alexander to express the depth of gratitude she felt.

She also spent time reflecting on the courage of a 12-year-old girl.

"I didn't want to get involved in this. I had my own family, my own life,'' she said. "If it wasn't for her strength coming forward, he would still be doing this. Look at how many years it's been. I am 99.9 percent certain there are other girls out there we don't even know about. And there's no way to know how many more he might have gone after.

"She stopped this. He'll never get away with it again. I honestly don't know how she did it. But I thought if this 12-year-old could do it, then I could do it too.''

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Romano: A child and the evil she faced 03/16/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 11, 2014 3:20pm]
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