In the fall of 1983, 10-year-old Robert Bienvenue and his eight-year-old brother, Richard, told police in Port Arthur, Texas, that they had been sexually abused by their mother and step-father.
At the time, the boys’ father, Richard Bienvenue, Sr. had legal custody and the boys spent only the weekends with their mother, Mary Ann Elizondo
, 27, and their step-father, Joe Elizondo, 49.
The Elizondos were charged with sexually assaulting the boys on September 23, 1983.
Joe Elizondo, 49, was on probation for marijuana possession and had a lengthy arrest record for public intoxication and drunken driving. After they were arrested, the couple’s one-year-old daughter was removed from their custody and was later adopted by another family.
Joe Elizondo went on trial in Jefferson County Criminal District Court in August, 1984 on a single count of assaulting Robert Bienvenue. Robert told the jury that both he and his brother were forced to watch sexually explicit videos and to engage in oral sex with Joe, have oral contact with Mary Ann’s breast and to have anal sex with both Joe and Mary. At times, Robert testified, another man and two women joined them.
The jury also was shown a sexually explicit picture of a kangaroo that Robert had drawn at school as well as a sexually suggestive note written to him by a female classmate. Robert’s teacher had confiscated these items, prompting interrogation by Robert’s father and the police. During that questioning Robert detailed the alleged abuse.
Robert’s step-mother—the wife of Richard Bienvenue, Sr.—testified that the boys had told her of the abuse.
Joe was convicted by a jury of aggravated sexual assault in 1984. He was sentenced to life in prison and fined $10,000.
At a separate trial in 1984, Mary Ann was convicted of a single charge of sex abuse of Robert and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. She pled no contest to a second charge and was sentenced to 35 years in prison to be served concurrently with the 20-year term.
Mary Ann was released on parole in 1991. She then divorced Elizondo and remarried. While on parole, she was ordered to attend group therapy sessions and admit to sexually abusing her two sons. When she refused, she was jailed for six months before being released again on parole.
After the Elizondos were convicted, Robert and Richard had no further contact with them. They were so distant that it was not until 1988, on the day Robert turned 17, when he found a letter written by his mother, Mary Ann, did Robert learn for the first time that Joe and Mary Ann were in prison. He then began writing to authorities to say that he had lied when he accused them of sexual abuse.
A state petition for a writ of habeas corpus was filed, and at a hearing in August 1995, Robert Bienvenue testified that his father threatened to spank him and his brother every day for the rest of their lives if they refused to testify against Elizondo and their mother. He said their father wanted to retaliate against his ex-wife for marrying Elizondo.
Richard Bienvenue also testified. Though he denied that their father forced them to lie, he said the abuse never occurred.
In 1995, the trial court found the recantations credible, set aside Joe Elizondo’s conviction and ordered a new trial.
In December 1996, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals upheld the trial court ruling. “Robert’s recantation not only voids his trial testimony which implicated (Joe Elizondo), but constitutes affirmative evidence of (Joe Elizondo’s) innocence,” the appeals court ruled. “We are convinced by clear and convincing evidence that no rational jury would convict him in light of the new evidence.”
On June 23, 1997, Jefferson County District Attorney Paul McWilliams dismissed the charges against Joe Elizondo and he was released from prison that day.
Mary Ann then sought to vacate her conviction. In November 2005, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals, following the decision made in Joe Elizondo’s case, vacated her conviction and the charges were dismissed.
Joe Elizondo, who had been in poor health in prison, died in 2003. Mary Ann, who had changed her last name to Barbosa when she remarried, filed a compensation claim with the state of Texas and in October 2008, she received $370,833.
– Maurice Possley