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Clearwater man with history of accusations found guilty in child molestation case

CLEARWATER — Prosecutors had no doctors or DNA samples; no fingerprints, confessions or expert witnesses. In fact, they had no firsthand witnesses at all.

What they did have was a voice — a small voice from a small person, speaking of an awful thing with a preteen girl's guileless imprecision. A voice that said I don't know and I don't remember many times.

In the end, that voice was enough.

A jury Thursday found 49-year-old Clearwater contractor Henry Keith Cavaliere guilty of lewd and lascivious molestation, a charge that rested on a 12-year-old Palm Harbor girl's allegation that he molested her during a sleepover at his house when she was 7. The verdict came after a grueling two-day trial that featured the girl's testimony, as well as energetic efforts by Cavaliere's defense team to shred her credibility.

The conviction carried an emotional resonance beyond one incident or one victim: Cavaliere has been arrested five times on suspicion of child sex crimes since the 1990s, only to see the charges against him repeatedly reduced or dismissed. The most wrenching testimony in his trial this week in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court came from two adult women who said he molested them when they were 6 and 9, respectively.

As the verdict was read, Pinellas County Sheriff's Office Detective Mark Kolenda, the lead investigator in the most recent case, loudly exhaled from the gallery. Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Kate Alexander — who earlier in the afternoon had delivered a blistering closing statement undermining the defense's argument that Cavaliere's victim was lying — broke down in tears outside the courtroom.

"For this victim, and for any victim in his past, and anybody in the future, this keeps him from hurting anyone else," Alexander said. "It's long overdue."

Kolenda looked up from his phone, which he was using in a frantic exchange of text messages with the adult victims. He read one sent to him aloud: Thank you. Thank you for all the work you do.

The work of securing a conviction for Cavaliere never promised to be easy. The challenges faced by detectives and prosecutors — a child witness with a spotty recollection of events, a lack of DNA or other physical evidence of an offense alleged to have occurred years ago — are the same that stop many molestation charges from ever reaching a jury.

But after a history of fruitless arrests of Cavaliere, authorities were determined that this time the outcome would be different, Kolenda said.

Prosecutors' efforts got a boost when Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Judge Michael Andrews ruled that the two adult women who said they were molested as children by Cavaliere could testify, even though the current criminal case against Cavaliere was based solely on the 12-year-old's accusation.

Both women, now in their 20s and with children of their own, testified on Thursday. They left the courtroom weeping violently, trying and failing to exert some control over themselves as they passed the table where Cavaliere sat, wearing the same bemused expression he had worn throughout the proceeding.

But their turns at the witness stand served their purpose.

Each woman's account of abuse approximately mirrored that of the Palm Harbor 12-year-old, who said she awoke in the night while staying at Cavaliere's house with his young daughter, to find him touching her inappropriately. The Tampa Bay Times is not identifying the two women and girl who testified about alleged abuse because of the nature of the allegations.

Juror Sean Tennant, a 30-year-old marketing professional, said that the pattern established by the adult witnesses was key to overcoming the jury's initial misgivings about the veracity of the Palm Harbor girl's story.

"We had some contentious discussion about how much we could believe the accuser," he said. "We thought the story was pretty consistent throughout, however."

Cavaliere, a pale, thickly built man with dark eyes and thinning dark hair, had no outward reaction to the verdict when it was read. Dressed in the suit and tie he had worn throughout the trial, he calmly followed a bailiff who led him out of the courtroom.

Alexander said the State Attorney's Office would be seeking a life sentence for Cavaliere.

Andrew Crawford, Cavaliere's defense lawyer, declined to comment on the verdict.

The 12-year-old was at dinner with her grandparents when news of the conviction reached her Thursday night, her mother said.

The girl had displayed a preternatural calmness during the trial, answering evenly as prosecutors asked her to recount waking up to Cavaliere's predatory touches and as defense attorneys assailed her story, in part because she could not remember what she had for breakfast the morning after the incident.

The girl's steely exterior was misleading, her mother said. In the runup to the trial, the girl bawled at the prospect of seeing Cavaliere in court.

Her reaction to the news Thursday night?

"She just smiled," her mother said.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157.

Clearwater man with history of accusations found guilty in child molestation case 03/14/13 [Last modified: Thursday, March 14, 2013 11:19pm]
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