In October 2000, the parents of a four-year-old girl reported to police that the girl had been sexually molested by the caretaker of an aging synagogue, Congregation Adat Ysrael, in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The synagogue’s caretaker, 61-year-old Alfredo Vargas, was a Nicaraguan immigrant who had in 1983 pleaded guilty to risk of injury to a minor in a sexual molestation case involving a 6-year-old boy. The rabbi of the small congregation, Moshe Felsman, did not believed the allegation and kept Vargas on staff to maintain the synagogue and to perform the tasks that Jewish congregation members could not do during observance of the Sabbath.
In March 2001, Vargas was charged with sexual assault for allegedly raping the girl on several occasions while her father attended services in the synagogue, a tiny structure that Vargas himself had constructed as an add-on to the rabbi’s home during his two decades of service there.
Vargas went on trial in April 2002. The prosecution presented testimony from the child—although she only identified Vargas after saying several times that the man who attacked her was not in the courtroom. The girl testified that one incident took place on a table in the synagogue and another occurred outside behind a garage.
Experts at the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic at Yale-New Haven Hospital testified that the child told them she was sexually assaulted and that a medical examination showed evidence that she had been penetrated. The girl also told interviewers at the clinic that Vargas had also assaulted her parents, a sibling and a grandparent.
Vargas denied he assaulted the girl or was ever alone with her. On April 10, 2002, the jury convicted Vargas and he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
The conviction galvanized some members of the small congregation who believed Vargas was innocent, several of whom began working on the case without charge.
In December 2003, the Connecticut Appellate Court reversed the conviction and ordered a new trial. The court ruled that the trial judge made improper comments in front of the jury that suggested he believed the victim was telling the truth, and improperly prevented the defense from cross-examining the girl about statements she made prior to trial indicating she was not assaulted.
“The court’s remarks, particularly when coupled with the restriction of the defendant’s cross-examination of the victim, improperly bolstered the credibility of the victim’s testimony in violation of the defendant’s right to a fair trial,” the court ruled.
In the meantime, Vargas’s new legal team uncovered evidence that the girl’s parents had made other allegations—unproven—that their other children had also been sexually abused. A doctor reported that he had known the girl’s parents for several years and that they frequently made allegations of sexual abuse. A Bridgeport lawyer told the defense team that the parents once approached him saying one of their sons had been molested by another boy. A rabbi knew of another case in which the family claimed that a son had been molested.
By the time Vargas went on trial a second time in January 2006, Rabbi Felsman had died. The girl’s family had sued the rabbi, his wife and the congregation. Ultimately, the rabbi’s widow settled the lawsuit for $15,000 plus the deed for the house and synagogue, which was worth more than $500,000.
At the second trial, the girl, who was nearly nine years old, was even more inconsistent and unsure about what, if anything, had happened. She misidentified her attacker twice—both times selecting jurors as Vargas.
The defense presented evidence of the parents’ history of making unfounded sexual abuse allegations, as well as evidence, not presented at the first trial, that the synagogue and surrounding grounds were so small that it was virtually impossible for Vargas to have raped the child anywhere on the property and not be seen. Vargas again testified and denied he ever touched the girl.
On January 26, 2006, the jury acquitted Vargas and he was released. A lawsuit was later filed on behalf of Vargas against the parents of the girl, but it was dismissed.
Vargas was eventually deported back to his native Nicaragua because although he had entered the United States legally in 1969, he had failed to keep his legal status active.
– Maurice Possley