CLEARWATER — The girls said he came while they slept, gathering them in his thick builder's arms and carrying them away in the night like a creature in a fairy tale.
One of them, a now 12-year-old, described waking in his bedroom, staring groggily at a burning bedside lamp as he slid his hand between her legs. "I tried to fall back asleep, because I thought at first it was a dream," she said.
That experience years ago led to nightmares, the 12-year-old said. But she no longer thinks she was dreaming about her encounter with 49-year-old Clearwater contractor Henry Keith Cavaliere.
At an emotional hearing Tuesday in Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court, three female witnesses testified that they had been molested by Cavaliere when they were between the ages of 6 and 9.
They are older now, ages 12, 23 and 24. The Tampa Bay Times is not disclosing their names because authorities say they were victims of child sexual abuse.
Cavaliere is facing a charge of lewd and lascivious molestation based on the most recent accusations, from the 12-year-old. The Palm Harbor girl says Cavaliere fondled her during a sleepover at his house several years ago.
He has pleaded not guilty. He and his lawyer declined to comment Tuesday.
One purpose of Tuesday's hearing was for Judge Michael Andrews to decide whether testimony from the two adult women, who claim Cavaliere molested them in the 1990s, should be allowed at his trial. There are no pending criminal cases in connection with the older victims.
Andrews said he would rule by the end of the month. Cavaliere's case is scheduled to go before a jury in March.
Child sex-abuse cases are notoriously intractable for detectives and prosecutors. Outcomes often hinge on the memories and anecdotes of victims at an age when it's still considered normal to have imaginary friends. If kids can get past their fear and shame, past shocked parents and probing social workers and police, their credibility is often shredded in the courtroom by defense lawyers.
Exhibit A: Cavaliere. Five times since the 1990s, he has been arrested on suspicion of child sex crimes, only to see the cases against him result in dismissals or reduced charges.
But never before have prosecutors succeeded in marshaling a collection of his alleged victims spanning decades. All three of the witnesses who testified Tuesday say they were friends with Cavaliere's children and were abused while spending the night with him and his family.
Assistant State Attorney Kate Alexander said the stories of the two older women were "identical — identical, not even similar, identical — to what the (12-year-old) victim said in this case." She added, "When he had the opportunity to have a young child spending the night alone with him, he took advantage of that."
Cavaliere, a solidly built man with a pockmarked face and dark, thinning hair, has been out on bail since the day after his arrest in April. Sporting a suit, tie and stylish rectangular eyeglasses on Tuesday, he leaned back in his chair at the defense table and placidly watched each witness testify.
Like the 12-year-old, the 23-year-old woman — who testified remotely via live video — said the last thing she remembers from the night of the alleged abuse was going to sleep at Cavaliere's Clearwater home, where she was spending the night at the invitation of one of his children. In the middle of the night she woke up in Cavaliere's bed, she said, and he was touching her genitals. She said she was 9.
The girl's mother took the stand to talk about another time she herself had spent the night at Cavaliere's old apartment in Clearwater.
The parents drank beer while the kids played, she said, and Cavaliere's guests went to sleep on a big sofa in the living room. Late at night, she said, she woke to see Cavaliere lifting her daughter from where she lay.
"She's fine where she is," the woman recalled saying. He put her down and walked away.
The 24-year-old said she went on a trip to Disney World with Cavaliere and his family when she was 6. Early one morning in an Orlando motel room, she said, she woke with Cavaliere kneeling beside her and rubbing her genitals.
She eventually told her mother about the abuse, and prosecutors in Orange County charged Cavaliere with sexual battery and lewd assault. In 1998, he pleaded no contest to a reduced charge of misdemeanor battery.
The girl who said she was molested on her first trip to Disney World is now a woman with a husband and two children. Before Cavaliere's most recent arrest, she said, "I had done my best to put the past behind me and move on." Her eyes welled.
"I have a family now," she said.
Alone among Cavaliere's alleged victims, the 12-year-old girl did not break down during her testimony. Through the lawyers' exacting questions, she remained expressionless, sometimes smiling, occasionally raising a skinny arm to run her hand through long copper hair.
Andrew Crawford, Cavaliere's attorney, questioned her in a mild tone, gently poking at her story to see where it would give.
"It's fair to say that you don't remember a lot of what happened with Mr. Cavaliere, isn't it?" Crawford asked.
"Yes, that's true," the girl replied, "because I was 7 and now I'm 12, and I waited a long time to tell anyone."
He pointed out that she had at first thought she was dreaming when she woke up in Cavaliere's bed after going to sleep in another room. "You were telling yourself this wasn't real," he said.
"I didn't want to believe it was real," she said.
Her testimony finished, a bailiff led her into a witness waiting chamber that opens off the courtroom and shut the door. Behind it, within minutes, came the muffled sound of a sob.
Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.