Column: Child victims of sex abuse face another horror in NM - Albuquerque Journal

Column: Child victims of sex abuse face another horror in NM

The two-story, four-bedroom house west of the Ladera Golf Course is mostly a blur on Google Earth, intentionally erased to hide what appears to be an open garage door.

If only blurring could erase what detectives say occurred inside that home.

The Attorney General’s Office this week announced that it has filed four more charges of child sexual exploitation against one of the home’s occupants. Joshua Vigil, 29, was already charged in January on 17 counts that include rape and criminal sexual contact of a minor and child exploitation by manufacturing child pornography. The four additional charges also involve child porn.

Most of the 21 charges center on a 5-year-old boy who prosecutors say was forced to perform sex acts, once while watching cartoons on Nickelodeon, while Vigil photographed or videotaped the incidents, later sharing them on his Google account and a cloud-based storage server.

Joshua Vigil

Vigil treated the boy “as his own child” and frequently had him spend the night, Vigil’s mother, who also lives at the house, told investigators. One of the boys’ mothers also told investigators that Vigil was a father figure to her son.

What investigators sayVigil did to the boy is horrific enough, but what the criminal justice system does to victimized children is another form of horror.

Eliza Sultan knows that because her two children had to testify against their father, her ex-husband, who was accused of sexually abusing them when they were 2 and 4.

Selito Dos Santos of Pecos was convicted in 2019 of three felony sexual assault charges during a bench trial before state District Judge Abigail Aragon in Santa Fe. Dos Santos, 46, was sentenced to 36 years in prison and will have to register as a sex offender when released.

Selito Dos Santos

Aragon, in her ruling, found Dos Santos guilty of molesting his daughter but found that the state had not met its burden of proving he molested his son, though she said she believes he sexually abused both children.

“We were very fortunate to get justice in our case, but this is not enough,” said Sultan, formerly of Santa Fe. “Our case highlighted to us that there are too many children in New Mexico who cannot get justice because they are too afraid to testify.

“This is how perpetrators in New Mexico silence their victims, and it’s working.”

It had taken 2½ years to get to trial, and in that time she said her children were traumatized by the prospect of testifying before their father.

“They would ask me, ‘Is Daddy going to kill us?'” she said. “My son was so anxious that he would hide under his bed, vomit just thinking about seeing his dad again. He had a nervous breakdown and needed prescription tranquilizers to get through it.”

During the last session of the state Legislature, she teamed with Attorney General Hector Balderas and bill sponsor state Sen. Michael Padilla to push Senate Bill 36, which would allow the use of remote video testimony for a child or incapacitated adult if the judge finds that testifying in person with the defendant present would be significantly traumatizing.

The bill died in committee. But Sultan continues to fight for the bill, joined again by Balderas and new bill sponsor, Rep. Tara Lujan, D-Santa Fe.

She credits her son, days shy of his ninth birthday, for that.

“I was close to giving up on this initiative, but my son said, ‘No Mama! We don’t quit. Kids in New Mexico need this law to be passed, now get back to work,'” she said.

“My son wants to change the law to help other kids not have to go through the same hell he and his sister withstood.”

Like most people, Sultan said she had not been aware that New Mexico and Missouri are the only states without case law or statutes allowing remote video testimony for victimized children. Federal courts also have provisions for children to testify remotely.

“I had naively assumed that the justice system was like I had seen on ‘Law and Order’ where the child would testify either through a closed-circuit TV or in the judge’s chambers,” Sultan said. “But in New Mexico, a child victim of sexual abuse is expected to walk into a room full of strangers, sit in the witness chair and set aside that this was their father whom they loved and yet had hurt them and threatened their lives if they told anyone.”

New Mexico has the Uniform Child Witness Protective Measures Act, but it is considered a well-meaning but essentially useless statute.

Critics have also voiced concern that remote video testimony may violate the defendant’s right to confront his accuser under the Sixth Amendment and the New Mexico Constitution.

But the Attorney General’s Office states that case law allows for the waiver of the right in certain instances and “essential formalities of confrontation” are still in effect by swearing in the witness, having the judge preside over the testimony, permitting a defendant to view the remote testimony and allowing defense attorneys to cross-examine the witness.

In addition, the use of remote testimony has already been tested in a 1990 case before the U.S. Supreme Court in which the practice was upheld. Remote testimony was relied upon by New Mexico courts because of the COVID-19 shutdown.

Sultan credits Balderas and his team for making a traumatizing event for her and her children less so, and she is grateful that the Attorney General’s Office is also handling the Vigil case.

But the scars upon her children have been deep and led to her family moving out of state. Two years after the trial, her children are doing better. They are learning to be kids again.

For the little boy who suffered horrific acts in that blurry house near the golf course – for every victimized child – she hopes the bill she fights for makes the path ahead for them clearer, better, safer and the path for their monsters shorter and straight into prison.

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Reach Joline at 730-2793, jkrueger@abqjournal.com, Facebook or @jolinegkg on Twitter.


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