A New York foster parent accused of sexually abusing six of the more than 100 boys he cared for over two decades was acquitted of all charges Tuesday, a stunning defeat for prosecutors who said the case exposed lax oversight in the state's foster care system.
Cesar Gonzales-Mugaburu had maintained his innocence since his high-profile arrest last year, and his attorney argued that the accusers — most of whom had mental, intellectual, emotional and behavioural issues — simply made up stories of abuse.
"As I sat through the trial, it became more apparent to me that I didn't believe any of the young men who testified," Gonzales-Mugaburu's attorney, Donald Mates, said after the verdict. "This is vindication. From Day 1, when I met Cesar, he told me he didn't do this. I looked at him and believed him."
One mentally challenged man testified that Gonzales-Mugaburu, 60, molested him for about three years beginning when he was 10. The man, now 21, said it left him confused. Another testified he didn't tell anyone about being sexually abused because he was afraid of Gonzales-Mugaburu and didn't think anyone would believe him.
Gonzales-Mugaburu, who didn't testify in his own defence , was released from custody after the verdict in Suffolk County Court, but his attorney wouldn't disclose where he's staying. His previous home was boarded up.
The attorney said he doesn't believe Gonzales-Mugaburu will ever be able to restore his reputation.
The verdict that cleared Gonzales-Mugaburu of 17 counts including abuse of the children, child endangerment and other crimes came on the seventh day of deliberations.
Jury foreman Tim Carney told Newsday he voted not guilty on all counts from the beginning because there were too many holes in the prosecution's case.
"I could not put a man away for the rest of his life on what they gave us, the evidence they produced," Carney said, adding that he believed some of the accusers' testimony but the prosecution did not introduce evidence to support those accounts.
Prosecutors had painted Gonzales-Mugaburu, who lived in Ridge, on Long Island, as a monster and blamed the foster care system for systemic failures that allowed him to continue to take more than 100 boys into his home over 20 years.
A report released by Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota said Gonzales-Mugaburu had been the subject of 18 child abuse investigations and there was a breakdown in communications between various agencies charged with investigating abuse allegations. None of those investigations led to criminal charges until his arrest in January 2016.
Mates, the defence attorney, previously said he disagreed with the findings in the 83-page report. He said there was no reason for the agencies to uncover abuse because it never happened.
Mates also said that at least some of the accusers had financial reasons to see Gonzales-Mugaburu convicted because they have sued an agency that placed them in his home.
Spota said in a statement that prosecutors were "extremely disappointed" with the verdict.
"We will continue to pursue justice in cases involving the sexual abuse of children, which often means pursuing cases based upon the information from the victim of the abuse sometimes years after the crimes when limited corroborative evidence is still available," he said. "For those discouraged by this outcome, it is important to guard against any chilling effect that might result; especially a reluctance to report abuse."
This story has been corrected to show Gonzales-Mugaburu was charged with sexually abusing six children and endangering two, not sexually abusing eight children.
Frank Eltman, The Associated Press