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Victim no more

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For most of Susie Zapata’s life, no one listened.

Not to her muffled screams when she was 7 and sexually assaulted by not just one or two but three relatives for years, sacrificing herself to the monsters so they would leave her younger sisters alone.

Not to the catches in her breath when she was 9 and her mother’s boyfriend shoved a needle of heroin into her vein, the beginning of an addiction she continues to struggle with nearly 20 years later.

Not to her pleas for help as a teenager taking on the role as parent as the oldest of eight siblings, their mother a heroin addict who was in and out of consciousness, in and out of jail.

No one listened to the whimpers and the wails of her life, the post-traumatic stress disorder she was diagnosed with, the desperation, the fear, the rage, the clawing determination to survive somehow.

No one listened until now.

Zapata, 28, is the woman who spoke up and stopped former state Department of Corrections probation and parole officer Gordon Chavez from terrorizing her – and, likely, others – with threats of putting her back in prison if she didn’t put out and put up with his sexual demands.

Last September, Chavez, 36, pleaded guilty in federal court to violating Zapata’s constitutional rights and lying to federal agents. He was sentenced last week to 1½ years in federal prison.

In addition, he agreed to permanently forfeit his law enforcement credentials. He will never hold a position of power over the most vulnerable women in society – women no one listens to – again.

Last week, the American Civil Liberties Union of New Mexico filed a civil lawsuit on Zapata’s behalf, alleging Chavez violated her constitutional rights and that the state Department of Corrections was negligent in not providing adequate information and resources for probationers and parolees concerning officer misconduct.

Her lawsuit is a way, Zapata said, to continue to give voice to what happened to her and to give hope to other similarly oppressed women.

“I really hope that women, when they hear my story, will have the strength to come forward,” she said. “It really is possible to be heard and believed.”

But it is still not easy for Zapata. She is brave, but broken. Resolute, but wary. Tattooed across her chest in large, flowery letters are the words “Favorite Mistake,” and it is clear she thinks she is that.

She’s not that. She’s a survivor. She’s a hero.

She escaped the horrors of her childhood in Washington state and moved to Albuquerque about 14 years ago with some of her siblings. For a time, she had kicked her heroin habit. She fell in love, had three children. She had a job, a house, a car.

But that didn’t last. She lost the job, the house, the car, the boyfriend, the sobriety.

“I was homeless,” she said. “Me and my kids lived in motels until the money ran out. Then in parks, wherever. I got no help. I guess you could say I was desperate.”

Desperation is what she said led her in 2008 to join up with two other women to commit a string of armed robberies at sandwich, pizza and cell phone shops along West Central. Two of Zapata’s children, then 3 and 1, were in the getaway car.

Zapata served four years in prison. She was released May 2012 and began serving two years of parole. Chavez was her parole officer.

Chavez soon began what the lawsuit calls a “pattern of sexually inappropriate, abusive and assaultive behavior,” including asking her about her sexual preferences and the color of her underwear.

She had to check in with Chavez three times a week at his Downtown office and was subject to his calls and visits any hour of the day or night.

“I was on a leash,” she said. “I wasn’t free.”

She complied, she said, fearing the gun he always wore and the power he had to ship her back to prison by revoking her parole.

In late October 2012, his behaviors escalated, the lawsuit alleges. He began asking for photos of her in her underwear, asking her to open her blouse. At one point, he fondled her breast while he pleasured himself, the door to his office wide open. He knew he had her, she said. He knew of her sexually abusive past.

“It’s not right,” she finally told him. He laughed, she said.

But she had had enough. In late November 2012, she contacted the ACLU and the FBI. She was asked if she would wear a wire to capture his behavior on tape. It was a scary proposition, but she agreed.

She was so nervous she vomited before entering Chavez’s office.

But it worked. She got him.

Court documents state that seven other women probationers and a woman colleague had also been subjected to Chavez’s sexual advances and threats. Two had spoken up; no one had listened.

“I feel very emotional when I think of those other women who didn’t get to be heard,” Zapata said. “I wish this had never happened to any of us.”

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman said she could not speak about pending litigation but said officers do have policies and procedures to follow and that an orientation book is provided to offenders at the onset of supervision.

Zapata relapsed shortly after Chavez’s arrest. In January 2013, she was returned to prison after drinking and fraternizing with felons. She was released in February.

She has a woman probation officer to see her through the next 2½ years. She is in counseling and is taking parenting and relapse prevention classes. For now, her children are being cared for by her mother, clean and sober for years, back in Washington. Last week, Zapata registered for GED classes at Central New Mexico Community College. She hopes to go to cosmetology school some day. She hopes for a normal life.

She hopes people will keep listening.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, jkrueger@abqjournal.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to ABQjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.

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