Anne Stanton 3/2/09
A handful of dogs were yapping as Michael Garcia opened the door of a shoebox house with a big smile.
Looking at him, youd never know this slight young mana happy teen in an oversized orange sweatshirt and camo pantshad suffered so much in his short 19 years.
At the age of 13, Michael was repeatedly blindfolded, tied up and sexually assaulted by Robert Becker, a lonely middle aged man who was employed as a respite worker by the Northwest Michigan Child Guidance Center.
The Child Guidance Centerwhich was later sold to new ownersdid a background check on Becker with the Michigan State Police in Lansing, but failed to check his history with local courts or police.
For that reason, Garcia sued and was awarded last fall an undisclosed sum of money that will pay for his college and therapy, putting some closure to an early and brutal chapter to his childhood.
Now Garcia, his parents, and his grandmother, plan to lobby for a new law, which theyd like to call Michaels Law. It would require thorough background checks of anyone who works closely with children, including a request for police records. Alarmingly, some local nonprofits and school districts are currently relying on background checks that would allow another pedophile like Robert Becker to slip through the cracks.
Garcia said he filed the lawsuitnot for the moneybut to make sure that no other child has to suffer what he did.
Garcia grew up troubled and poortwo facts of life that played a part in a system that deeply betrayed him. Yet it was also the system that saved him and gave him fresh hope for the future.
While growing up, Garcia shared the two-bedroom home with his mom and dad, two younger brothers, his grandparents and five dogs. He slept in the living room until last year when his family found a home of their own on the other side of town. Now, he has his own room (still no closet), and admits that his twin-sized bed feels so big he can barely get to sleep.
Garcia met Robert Becker in July of 2002 at a nearby trailer park, where Becker, then 40, lived with his mother. Becker complimented Garcia on his excellent behavior, but his grandma told him that Garcia, 13 at the time, wasnt always so easy-going.
Garcia admits he was challenging back then; he was diagnosed at an early age with attention deficit disorder and was emotionally sensitive. He had to change schools oftensix elementary schools before the age of 12because his parents had trouble with rent and landlords. He remembers when lingering smoke from a tire fire at Blair Elementary gave him breathing problems, and forced him, once again, to change schools. He took it hard and became a shadow in his crowded home. His dad worked constantly and his mother battled a host of medical problems.
Becker offered hope for the young boy. He told his grandma at the yard sale that he was a respite worker for Child Guidance Center, and could bring young boys out of their shell. Garcias grandma warmed to the idea. Her late father-in-law had been the first director of the Child Guidance Center and she believed in respite care. She told Becker that Garcias mother might have problems filling out the forms.
No problem, said Becker. He was the kind of guy who often reminded people how much smarter he was than everyone else.
He could fill the forms out for her.
Garcia took an instinctive liking to Becker, who sold his grandparents a telescope that day at the yard sale. Becker knew what kids liked. He took Garcia bicycling and stargazing at night. He showed him how to get computer games free off the Internet. He let him shoot a rifle and watch Harry Potter movies, both of which Garcias deeply religious family disapproved of.
Had they known what Becker was really up to, a wizard movie would have been their least concern. Several months into the friendship, Becker began sexually assaulting him. Becker took Garcia to his trailer while his mother was gone. He also took him to another boys home and assaulted him in the teen boys bedroom when no one was home. Then he began taking Garcia to his fathers cabin in rural Atlanta for overnights.
Becker threatened Garcia that hed do the same thing to his two younger brothers if he ever said anything. When Garcia returned from outings with Becker, he was moody and lashed out at his family. He was even more agitated when Becker took his two brothers out of the house, but he never said why. Garcia felt sickened by what was happening. He tried to get Becker to go to church; he refused, saying his job didnt allow it.
Garcia began acting out, stealing stuff at school. A counselor later told him it was a subconscious cry for help. Finally he was sent away in May of 2004 to Pineview Homes, a residential school for juvenile offenders in Evart.
A few months after he arrived at the residential school, Garcia was talking to a counselor, explaining some of his background. An hour into the session, he said that Becker had inappropriately touched him. Visibly shaken, Garcia didnt tell him everything.
Grand Traverse Deputy Patrick Erway followed the trail of Beckers victims, interviewing Garcia and several of the boys that Becker had mentored over the years.
He found police records that told of other teen boys whod accused Becker of sexual molestation, including a boy who stole a firearm in 1994 from Beckers trailer in retaliation for getting sexually molested.
In 1992, Becker was tried in a case involving a boy who took martial arts lessons from Becker. A friendship developed and the boy spent the night with Becker, who allegedly fondled him during the night. Becker was found not guilty, but court transcripts reflect that 13th Circuit Court Judge Philip Rodgers told Becker he had no business being around young boys.
He was a karate instructor, and he would cull out the weak from the herda kid whos got the single mom, who is overwhelmed, and needs a little free time assistance, said Rodgers in an interview last week. So you give the kid special attention in karate class, make him special and stand out. Give him extra lessons for free. . Beckers attorney argued in that case, Why would anyone volunteer to help these disadvantaged kids if youre just going to be accused of child molestation.?
The thing that stuck in my craw was this claim came to light because the kid started molesting other kids. He acknowledged the behavior and told police that Becker had molested him. Then he came to testify against the guy who taught him this behavior and that guy gets acquitted.
SHARING A BED
A friend of Beckers also called Child Protective Services in 1992 to report that Becker had shared the same bed with a 10-year-old on an overnight visit. He overhead them talk about sex and watch a movie with explicit sex scenes. CPS passed the report onto sheriffs deputies, but it wasnt followed through.
In fact, Becker fit the profile of a serial molester. He was a single male, lived with his mother, and was unsuccessful in relationships with women.
This subset of pedophiles are unable to sustain an intimate relationship for more than two years and they tend to have a lot of victims. Each offender tends to have many, many victims, said John Ulrich, a therapist who often counsels sex offenders.
Because the Child Guidance Centerlike many nonprofits and school districtsrelied on a background check that doesnt include arrest reports, Beckers record looked clean. Becker went a step further: he filed a petition with the court to have his fingerprint record expunged a month after he was found not guilty.
As is the case with all sexual assault crimes, Grand Traverse County Deputy Todd Heller, the areas computer cop, seized Beckers computer to analyze whether there was child pornography on it. Possession of child pornography can bolster a sex assault case and often adds more years to the sentence.
Heller knew there were nude pictures on the computerGarcia had seen thembut the files were encrypted and Heller couldnt get at them. He ended up sending the computer to law enforcement agencies all over the country, but no one could break the encryption. Heller is still trying.
Becker was ultimately tried in 13th Circuit Court on a first-degree charge of criminal sexual conduct. The 2005 case was dismissed because Garcias testimony was too confused.
The first trial, I got scared and stressed out, Garcia said.
Grand Traverse County Assistant Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg decided to try again with a trial in Atlanta, where Becker had sexually assaulted Garcia in the cabin. This time, Garcia was clear about the dates and the actions. Becker incriminated himself after refusing to
tell the court the passwords to his encrypted files.
One by one, the jurors returned their verdict of guilty. Beckers smug grin during the trial dissolved into an expression of Oh my God! He bolted from his table and ran outdoors. Heller dashed after him, yelling Stop! Stop! Moments later, Montmorency County Deputy Chad Brown joined the chase.
Becker ran to his white station wagon parked in the county buildings rear parking lot. When Heller caught up with him, he could see Becker through the cars rear window, leaning into the back seat. As he came around, Becker bolted out of the back seat with a .20-guage shotgun that hed hidden earlier underneath a sleeping bag. He pointed the gun an inch away from Hellers chest and pulled the trigger. The round misfired.
After Heller was able to wrestle the gun away, he drew his .40-caliber pistol and shoved it under Beckers chin. If you move, Ill shoot you, he said. Becker sneered. I dont care.
Heller believes that Becker fully intended to go back into the courtroom and start killing people.
He had another box of 25 rounds of ammunition and he taped down his slide release on his shotgun so he could fire more quickly.
35 YEARS IN PRISON
Becker was convicted for both criminal sexual conduct and attempted murder. He is serving a 35-year sentence in maximum security as most sex offenders do. Otherwise, said Heller, the other inmates would probably kill him.
Garcia said hell never be the same. Hes not comfortable around men, and he finds it hard to hug even his dad. He also suffers from nightmarish flashbacks. Indeed, the whole family suffered. His dad feels a deep sense of guilt over not being home enough; his mother was hospitalized repeatedly for emotional trauma. Yet his immediate and extended family members were all there to support him. Theyll now work together for a new law to ensure that schools and nonprofits check with local police and courts as part of their background checks.
When Becker went after Michael, he never figured hed have to mess with his family. He thought he was smart,
but he was dumb as a rock, said Michaels dad.
When Garcia gets his next portion of the settlement money, hell use it for counseling and college tuition. And then hell take his heroes out to lunchDetective Heller, Noelle Moeggenberg, who prosecuted the criminal case, and Blake Ringsmuth, the attorney who handled the civil lawsuit.
Garcia said that he first wanted Becker to be castrated for what he did; now he wants him to be saved. It was God, after all, who helped him get through this.
One of the reasons hes been able to heal is his faith, said his grandma, Karen Young. Hes able to forgive. It feels easier and its not a burden. Forgiveness can help you let go of the past, and God can bring you the healing you need.
Next week: How a pedophile slipped through the cracks . What every school and nonprofit should know.