GRANADA—One muggy evening back in October 2010, the Granada police got a phone call reporting a drugged and disoriented teenage girl wandering about in front of the Shell gasoline station, entirely unaware of her surroundings.
When police arrived, they found the girl inebriated and incoherent. She was too dazed to answer any questions and didn’t have any form of identification, so the cops took her to the hospital.
The following day the officer returned to the hospital to interview the girl, but discovered she had already left without giving doctors her name or address. Police tried to investigate her identity, but had few leads.
The mystery of the drugged girl’s identity eventually solved itself a year later, when she reappeared at the police station to file a criminal complaint against U.S. expat Ronald J. Leno, 63, whom she accused of posting naked pictures of her on the Internet. The girl admitted to having several intimate encounters with Leno and allowing him to photograph her, but she said he gave her alcohol and cocaine and she couldn’t remember if they had ever had intercourse.
Shortly afterwards, a 14-year-old girl also came forward with a similar complaint, although she referred to Leno as her “boyfriend.” She admitted to having sex with Leno, but said he violated her trust when he started posting naked pictures of her on the Internet.
Though the second victim claims her sexual relations with Leno were consensual, she’s a minor so its rape. The age of consent in Nicaragua is 18.
Though both girls had apparently fallen victim to a repeat sex offender with a sordid criminal history in the U.S., it was their sense of betrayal and embarrassment at discovering their pictures online that motivated them to finally go to the authorities. Neither girl, according to the cops, considers herself a victim of rape. And apparently the families of both girls knew what was happening but did nothing to stop the situation because they were benefiting from it economically.
That lack of education about the law and individual’s rights, the desperate socio-economic conditions and a residual campesino culture where it’s not uncommon for young girls to lose their virginity to older men, makes detection of sex crimes very difficult in Nicaragua. It also makes it hard for the police to enforce the new Penal Code, which typifies as a sex crime behavior that’s not uncommon in Nicaragua.
“It is difficult to detect these crimes because in general the modus operandi of the predator is a very subtle. And many times, he even approaches the family of the victim and starts a relationship with them. He’ll take advantage of their basic needs by giving them money, food or other gifts,” Granada Police Commissioner Horacio Sobalvarro told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
The police chief admits Leno’s behavior might not have been detected at all if he hadn’t posted the girls’ pictures on the Internet and embarrassed them enough to complain to authorities. In other words, the crimes of rape and sexual exploitation weren’t the motivating factors for the victims to come forward. Instead, it was the public embarrassment of having evidence of those crimes put online for all to see.
“They didn’t feel like victims; they felt tricked by having their photos on the Internet,” Sobalvarro said. “If these girls hadn’t gotten upset because they found their photos on the Internet…maybe there wouldn’t have been any complaint filed, that’s the truth.” gay sex, girls, nude photos
According to the police reports filed by the two victims, Leno is a patient predator; he lured the girls carefully and worked methodically to gain their confidence and that of their families.
Leno apparently approached the first girl (“Sixteen”) on the street more than a year ago. After several seemingly casual public encounters, Leno asked her for her cell phone number. Then he started texting her and flirting, and eventually invited her out to eat.
After their first meal together, he brought her home on his motorcycle and learned where she lived. He met her family. He was charming and polite. Leno then started making house calls, bringing the family money and food. Then one day he invited “Sixteen” to his house, where he plied her with alcohol and cocaine, according to her police report. She felt loopy and says she can’t remember much more from the evening. She said she was “surprised” to find out later from doctors that she is not a virgin.
Police think the evening “Sixteen” went to Leno’s home was the same night they found her wandering around in a daze in front of the Shell station.
It’s not clear how much longer the relationship lasted, but it apparently ended after Sixteen’s friends discovered her naked photos on the Internet.
At that point, Leno had already moved on to someone else—a 14-year-old girl who lived on Calle Nueva. Leno was less subtle about creating a pretext to meet “Fourteen:” he veered his motorcycle into the curb next to her and almost ran her over as she was walking down the street. He apologized profusely and invited her to lunch, driving her home afterwards. The unlawful courtship cycle began again.
After several weeks, Leno told “Fourteen” he loved her, and asked her to be his girlfriend, according to the girl’s testimony. They began to behave like a couple in public, driving around together on his motorcycle and going out to eat in restaurants.
Leno was happy. Public behavior that would have landed him in the stocks back in New England seemed socially acceptable in Nicaragua.
In private, Leno told “Fourteen” how beautiful she was as he photographed her in various poses, promising to get her a modeling contract in the U.S.
Andrew Vachss, a U.S. expert on sex crimes against children, says that the use of pornography is often used by pedophiles to “desensitize potential victims.”
“The predatory pedophile skillfully introduces child pornography among other child-enticing games offered during the grooming phase,” Vachss wrote in an article published in Parade Magazine. “This allows him to gradually lower the child’s resistance.”
But in Leno’s case, the pornography backfired and eventually led to his undoing. “Sixteen” and “Fourteen” objected to Leno making their private photos public. And now the photos themselves have become some of the most solid evidence against him.
When police raided Leno’s home Nov. 14, the suspect scrambled to the back patio and tried to burn several photos in his grill. The rest of the photos were found on his laptop.
Despite claims from several residents—Nicaraguans and expats—who say Leno was always a polite, friendly and well-mannered guy, the former Vietnam vet also had a violent side.
He served a three-year term in a correctional facility in the U.S. State of Maine for attacking a man there with a steel pipe after the neighbor objected to having a registered sex-offender in his neighborhood. And Leno also showed signs of violence in Granada when he started to get nervous that his behavior was being detected.
Police say Leno threatened a night watchmen on the street after he became suspicious the guard was monitoring his home as he entered with young girls. He also threatened the life of a U.S. expat—“about two inches from my face”—after members of the foreign community started circulating emails with old newspaper clippings about Leno’s criminal history in the United States.
In the end, many people came forward and reported Leno to the police, even when the families of the victims remained silent. Police were notified of Leno’s behavior by one of the neighborhood committees to prevent social crime as well as members of the expat community living here.
Leno’s trial begins Jan.
What will happen to Leno?
Since Leno has no pending arrest warrants in the United States, he most likely won’t be deported or extradited back to the U.S. That means it will be up to Nicaragua’s feeble judicial system to sort it out.
While police have photographic evidence taken from Leno’s laptop, as well as the accusations from the two young victims and corroborating testimony from witnesses, they may have a hard time convicting Leno under the new law against commercial sexual exploitation of minors, since there doesn’t appear to be much evidence of commercial transactions.
The new law is also untested in Granada’s courthouse. Leno’s case will be the first time a prosecutor in Granada tries to convict someone under the new sex-crimes law, despite the amount of illicit activity that happens here every day in plain view of everyone whose vision is better than 20-40. (All previous cases here have fallen under legislation that was based on the more archaic concept of “corruption of minors”).
So far, police aren’t getting much help in the investigation from the families of the victims, and it’s not clear how solid their case is. Then again, convictions in Nicaragua’s judicial system are only sometimes based on evidence and due process.
The challenges of proving intent
A source at the U.S. State Department said there is a possibility that Leno could be tried in the United States under a new law that makes it illegal for U.S. citizens to travel abroad with the intent of sexually exploiting minors. But the source said there are there are two issues that complicate that possibility: First, proving intent is a prickly proposition. And second, extradition of a U.S. citizen is a formal process that requires official government-to-government cooperation, which could be tricky at a time when political relations are frosty. (The source did, however, say it’s not unthinkable that U.S. and Nicaraguan authorities could come to an extra-official arrangement for a quiet midnight handover to whisk Leno out of the country and bypass all the paperwork).
Maia Christopher, executive director for the U.S. Association for the Treatment of Sexual Abusers, says the motive and intent of repeat sex offenders varies from individual to individual.
“Some people are more motivated to offend than others and don’t see anything wrong with their behavior. Some even feel their behavior is positive; they’ll say they feel emotional affinity for children in a different way, and think if no physical injury is being done they are not being harmful,” Christopher told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview. “People can make sense of their behavior in a lot of different ways.”
Recidivism rates also vary. But for most sexual offenders, it’s high. A study by the National Sexual Violence Resource Center suggests that at least 50 percent of sexual predators who have done jail time will be repeat offenders.
For serial offenders “there is no cure,” says Christopher. “We look at managing behavior, but treatment is more effective with some than with others. Some people are driven to offend—that’s what their goal is and they are not interested in changing that.”
Police Chief Sobalvarro thinks Leno was driven to offend.
“There is no doubt that he came here with this intention,” he said. “These two cases prove it.”
Whether the judge agrees will be determined in January.
Next week, part III: How big is Nicaragua’s sex-crime underworld? (hint: very)