Five arrests on child sex charges, but no prison for Clearwater contractor

CLEARWATER — She was looking for a family video on a relative's computer. Instead she found footage of an unfamiliar girl who looked about 7.

The child posed for the camera, wearing nothing but stiletto heels and underpants pulled down her thighs. She found photos of another girl, about 9, sleeping in her underwear.

It was April 2009. The woman called Clearwater police, who found some 700 images that prosecutors considered child pornography. The computer's owner, a Clearwater contractor named Henry Keith Cavaliere, was arrested and eventually charged with 12 felonies.

The images were upsetting. But the discovery haunted her for other reasons.

Fourteen years before, Cavaliere had been arrested and charged with molesting two young girls. She was one of them. The Times isn't identifying her because of the nature of the charges.

The allegations resulted in an unexpectedly light sentence: eight weeks in jail, probation and sex-offender counseling. This time, she hoped the outcome would be different.

"He should have absolutely no contact with any children," she said in an interview. "It's ridiculous. He should have been put away a long time ago."

In that view, she has company.

Five times since the 1990s, Cavaliere has been arrested and accused of child sex crimes. He has twice faced capital sexual battery allegations that could have sent him to prison for life.

In spite of the many accusations, he has never been sent to prison nor ordered to register in the state's sex-offender database. His 2009 arrest resulted in probation, in part because the detective working his case had a mental breakdown caused by looking at so many disturbing images of children and was unable to take the stand.

In April, Cavaliere was again arrested on suspicion of molesting a young girl.

His 1995 victim isn't optimistic that he'll be punished.

• • •

In the fall of 1994, Cavaliere took a family trip to Disney World. The group included a relative and a family friend, both girls of grade-school age.

The family friend awoke before dawn one morning to find Cavaliere, then 30, "where he wasn't supposed to be," according to her 1998 deposition in a criminal case in Orange County.

She said, "He just like stuck his hand in my private … like instead of a hug he did something bad that I didn't like."

The friend's mother called police in January 1995 after her daughter told her what happened, according to police records from the time.

The Times is not identifying the girl or her mother because of the nature of the charges. Neither could be reached for comment.

Clearwater Detective James Houck picked up the case.

He interviewed the grade school-age family friend. He then interviewed another girl of roughly the same age he suspected might also be a victim — the relative of Cavaliere who would, years later, find obscene images on his computer.

When Houck went to her school, he said, she confirmed his suspicions. She told the detective that he had "touched" and "tickled" her in the area covered by her underwear, according to police records.

It usually happened in her bed, she said, often when she was supposed to be sleeping, according to police records.

She said this behavior began when she was about 5 and was happening "all the time."

• • •

When Houck interviewed Cavaliere, he denied digitally penetrating the two girls, according to the detective's report. But he said, "Sure, I touched them while I'm giving them baths and I have rubbed them in the vaginal area," according to the report.

Asked by detectives whether he "felt this was appropriate," he replied: "I guess not."

Houck arrested Cavaliere on two charges of capital sexual battery, which could have sent him to prison for life.

The case involving his relative moved forward in Pinellas County. The family friend's case from Orlando was prosecuted in Orange County, where Cavaliere was charged with sexual battery and lewd assault in 1997.

As strong as the cases looked, problems soon emerged.

• • •

As witnesses, children are subject to easy attacks on their credibility. At an age when they indulge fantasies of imaginary friends and are prone to spinning wild tales, they don't stand up well under interrogation.

The girl who was related to Cavaliere was taken to a psychologist, whom she told that Cavaliere "never touched her or molested her in any fashion," according to court papers filed by his defense attorney at the time.

In a conversation with another psychologist, she "confabulated stories concerning a non-existent older sister, a mouse that was her pet, and a cat named Valentine," court records state.

Ultimately, Cavaliere pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of battery. His sentence was seven weeks in the county jail, plus a year of probation. He was ordered into sex-offender counseling.

The other girl's case ended in similar fashion. During a deposition, she seemed to recant her earlier tale of abuse.

Asked if Cavaliere had abused her on a trip to Disney World, she said, "I don't remember any of that."

In July 1998, Cavaliere pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor battery charge in Orange County. His sentence: a day in jail and a year of probation.

• • •

The 2009 case also started out strong.

After his former victim reported him for the images on his computer, he was arrested on a charge of "sexual performance by a child," an offense similar to child pornography.

The case was dropped in September 2009, but later the same month the State Attorney's Office brought a dozen felony child pornography charges against him stemming from images on the same computer.

The case wasn't ironclad. In a memo to prosecutors, Larry Sandefer, his lawyer, disputed the characterization of the images as child pornography. They might have showed some child nudity, but "none of the photos show … any 'sexual conduct,' " he wrote.

Still, an internal memo from prosecutors suggested they had ample evidence; "officers located 700 photographs depicting child pornography and 9,000 images of child erotica," plus a video of a girl between 9 and 11 years old "performing oral sex on an adult male."

Yet the memo recommended dropping the case or pleading it down to misdemeanors.

Why?

"The primary reason is a detective we would have needed wasn't available, and we really had to have the detective," said Pinellas-Pasco Assistant State Attorney Fred Schaub.

The detective, Darrell Folk, had worked for the Clearwater Police Department for 12 years and had a good reputation in law-enforcement circles for his expertise in Internet crimes against children and child pornography.

The ex-detective could not be reached for comment, but Clearwater records indicate he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder induced by his repeated exposure to "horrific images involving children."

Because Folk couldn't testify at trial, Cavaliere again secured a deal.

He pleaded guilty to multiple counts of possession of obscene material, a misdemeanor, and was put on probation for six years.

• • •

Cavaliere's seeming immunity to severe punishment appears to fit his personality, those who know him say.

"He could fall into a pile of s--- and come out smelling like roses," the relative and former victim said in an interview.

Today, she says she believes she was a victim of molestation, though she has no memory of it. She barely recalls the 1995 police investigation, just being interviewed by strangers in a big white room.

For Houck, the now-retired detective, the most troubling thing about the 1995 case was how closely Cavaliere's own statements tracked with what the girls said.

"He confirmed everything that she was saying," Houck said.

"The guy just seems to get every break possible."

Pinellas County records indicate that Cavaliere has twice been divorced, most recently in 2004. Despite his long history of child-abuse accusations, he has managed to keep young people close to him.

In April, Pinellas sheriff's deputies once more arrested Cavaliere on suspicion of child molestation.

Detectives have released few details about the case. They said the victim is an 11-year-old girl that he touched "skin to skin" underneath her underwear while he thought she was sleeping.

The girl told police she was a friend of Cavaliere's daughter and was at his house for a sleepover.

• • •

In Cavaliere's most recent booking photo at the Pinellas County Jail, he wears an amused-looking smile. He has short brown hair, wide brown eyes, and a salt-and-pepper goatee.

Last month, the State Attorney's Office charged him with capital sexual battery. He again faces the possibility of a life sentence.

Those personally familiar with Cavaliere aren't sanguine about that outcome.

"We want him put away forever, but we don't have much faith in that," the former victim's mother said in an interview. "We think he's just going to go scot-free again. Isn't that awful?"

Cavaliere did not respond to repeated requests for comment and visits by reporters to his listed address in Clearwater. Sandefer, his lawyer on the 2009 case, declined to comment.

"I haven't done anything wrong," police records from his 2009 arrest quote Cavaliere as saying.

When he was arrested on April 26, Cavaliere was on probation after pleading guilty to possessing obscene images in the 2009 case. That means he should have been confined to jail without bail as he awaits trial.

Once again, the case had a twist.

Though he was arrested this year, police say the molestation incident took place in 2009 — before he struck his plea deal. Therefore, he didn't violate the terms of his probation because he wasn't on probation yet.

The day after his arrest, Cavaliere posted $50,000 bail and walked out of jail.

Peter Jamison can be reached at pjamison@tampabay.com or (727) 445-4157. Curtis Krueger can be reached at ckrueger@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8232. Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Henry Cavaliere

Feb. 4, 1995: Arrested on two counts of capital sexual battery on child victims. One case is dropped, one is reduced to a misdemeanor. Serves 54 days in jail and one year probation.

Oct. 13, 1997: Arrested on charges of sexual battery and lewd assault. Pleads no contest to misdemeanor battery. Serves one year probation.

April 29, 2009: Arrested on two felony charges of sexual performance by a minor. But formal charges are not filed and the case is dropped.

Sept. 14, 2009: Arrested on 12 felony charges of possession of child pornography. Charges reduced to misdemeanors, gets six years' probation.

April 26, 2012: Arrested on charges of a lewd or lascivious act on a young girl. The charge is upgraded to capital sexual battery, and the case is pending.

April 27, 2012: Released on $50,000 bail.

Five arrests on child sex charges, but no prison for Clearwater contractor 06/17/12 [Last modified: Sunday, June 17, 2012 10:23pm]

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