CLEARWATER — Much she cannot remember. What she did that day at her friend's house, what time she went to bed, what was on the table for breakfast the next morning — these details, and many others, have receded for good into the gloaming of childhood memory.
But the girl said she recalls waking up that night, when she was 7, in a man's bed. It was a different bed from the one in which she and her friend had gone to sleep. And she said her friend's father, Henry Keith Cavaliere, was beside her, touching her between her legs.
On the strength of that memory, the fate of Cavaliere, a 49-year-old Clearwater contractor, now turns.
Cavaliere's trial on a felony charge of lewd and lascivious molestation began Wednesday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. Arrested five times over the past two decades on suspicion of child sex crimes, Cavaliere has repeatedly seen charges against him dismissed or reduced. He has never served a prison sentence or been required to register as a sex offender.
While Cavaliere only faces prosecution based on one victim's accusations, two adult women who claim he molested them when they were girls are expected to take the stand in the coming days. The case is still dogged by the same problems that often diminish or destroy investigations of alleged sex offenses against children: an absence of evidence, and questions about victims' truthfulness.
On the first day of trial, it appeared likely the verdict would hinge on how much credibility the jury grants Cavaliere's alleged victim, a girl from Palm Harbor who is now 12 years old. No direct medical evidence of molestation exists, since the girl did not report her accusations until roughly four years later.
Cavaliere's defense lawyer, Andrew Crawford, told jurors in his opening statement that the hazy childhood recollection in which Cavaliere is implicated doesn't amount to evidence of his guilt. If convicted, Cavaliere could spend the rest of his life in prison.
"This is a case of 'I don't remember.' This is a case of 'I guess.' This is a case of 'I think.' That's what you're going to hear from this complainant," Crawford said.
"Let's talk about physical evidence — there is none," he continued. "Let's talk about medical evidence — there isn't any of that, either. When it comes down to it, you're going to have the word of the complainant, who didn't come forward for a number of years, and her stories have been inconsistent."
The girl, a willowy preteen in jeans and a blue blouse, didn't show the signs of stress that might plague an adult who understood her testimony's importance. Seated in the witness box, she answered questions with downcast eyes, peppering her responses with like and um.
Cavaliere, dressed in a suit and yellow-and-brown tie, leaned forward on his elbows at the defense table, watching her, sometimes smiling. Asked by Assistant State Attorney Kate Alexander to identify Cavaliere, the girl fixed her gaze on Alexander and raised an arm in his direction.
"I felt kind of scared. I just wanted to think that it was fake," the girl said, explaining that she tried to convince herself she was dreaming when she says she woke up in Cavaliere's bed.
When his turn came to question her, Crawford zeroed in on what he called "holes in her memory," and the question of why years elapsed before she first reported abuse to a school guidance counselor last year.
"It's fair to say that you don't remember a lot about what happened between you and Mr. Cavaliere, isn't it?" he asked.
"Yes," she said.
Questioning her again after cross-examination, however, Alexander suggested the girl remembered what was important.
"Mr. Crawford asked you about a lot of things you don't remember," Alexander said. "What is it you do remember?"
"Keith touching me," the girl replied.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.