In Harm's Way

Seventeen-year-old Santiago "Jimmy" Rodriguez could not walk or talk, but he enjoyed his classes at Glendale High School in the fall of 1995.

The junior flirted with attractive girls. He shared a passion for rap and ranchero and Radio Campesina with the guys, and tapped out macho wisecracks on his Liberator, a computerized device that gave him a voice. He showed off by racing his electric wheelchair, which he steered with his neck, down campus sidewalks and through mud puddles.

He came to school wearing cowboy hats and baseball caps, Converse All Stars and baggy jeans. Once, he arrived with his arms tied to his wheelchairwith yellow lace, which is all his mother could find that day to fasten his arms to the chair. Because Rodriguez was born with cerebral palsy, he preferred to have his spastic legs and arms strapped to his wheelchair to prevent him from injuring himself or others. With his legs and arms secured, he could more easily operate his Liberator, a sophisticated computer he learned to use in junior high school and still uses today. The battery-operated Liberator consists of a keyboard with 128 different keys marked with letters, pictures and parts of speech. The keyboard itself was -- and is -- fastened to the front of Rodriguez's wheelchair. Rodriguez controls a device strapped to his head to beam light on individual keys. Once a sentence is tapped out on the keyboard with the light beam, Rodriguez uses the light beam to voice-activate the Liberator. It sounds a little like an old Speak & Spell toy.

In high school, Rodriguez mastered hundreds of words on his Liberator, including "Nasty Boy Klik" (a local rap group) and "Shakespeare."

"He was comfortable with himself, " says Dale Whitney, Rodriguez's guardian and former special education teacher at Glendale High.

But everything changed on November 19, 1995, the day Rodriguez claims he was molested by a male caregiver sent to his home by the Division of Developmental Disabilities (DDD), a sub-agency of the Arizona Department of Health Services.

And things did not get better. After he was removed from his mother's home by the state, he was subsequently molested three more times while being cared for by the state, he claims.

He was such an easy target.

His arms and legs were useless and often tied down. And when he didn't have his Liberator, he had no voice. He says three of the incidents occurred when the Liberator was not attached to his wheelchair.

The first alleged perpetrator, caregiver Joseph William Suire, maintains he is innocent. (Through his attorney, he declined to comment for this story.) Suire has been charged with two counts of sexual abuse and one count of sexual assault of Rodriguez. The Maricopa County Superior Court trial is scheduled for July.

In 1997, Rodriguez sued the state and several DDD contractors in Superior Court, alleging he was molested a total of four times in state-licensed facilities. Three incidents were witnessed only by Rodriguez and the alleged perpetrators. The fourth incident, in which Rodriguez was molested by a mentally retarded man with a documented history of sexual and physical aggression, was witnessed by caregivers.

The two cases put the state in the unusual predicament of contradicting itself in court.

In the civil lawsuit, the Arizona Attorney General's Office, which hired Republican congressional hopeful Tom Liddy to defend the state against Rodriguez, says Rodriguez somehow "brought on" the alleged sex abuse.

In the criminal case, deputy county attorney Bill Amato says just the opposite. Amato is prosecuting Suire for the state, and portrays Rodriguez in court as a "victim" with a "target on his back" who has "been molested . . . several times."

"Jimmy was targeted [for sexual abuse] for two reasons," says Rodriguez's Phoenix attorney, Larry Tinsley.

"One, because he is attractive. Two, because the perpetrators assumed Jimmy couldn't speak up for himself or defend himself. . . . He is a person who is trapped inside his body and he can't run away."

Roger Deshaies, assistant director of the DDD, won't comment on the Rodriguez case. Neither will he excuse what may have happened.

"There is never any excuse or explanation" for such abuse, he says.

According to Deshaies, sexual abuse of people with disabilities is probably vastly underreported. The reasons: Some victims can't talk; other victims fear retribution by perpetrators.

"One of the most tragic [national] statistics is the number of people with disabilities who are sexually molested," Deshaies says. "Ninety percent of women with disabilities and 60 percent of men with disabilities may be molested in their lifetimes."

Jimmy Rodriguez and people like him are defenseless.

Jimmy Rodriguez says that he was very happy in the fall of 1995. He dreamed of graduating, living independently in a house with other disabled people, holding down a job. He nominated his teacher, Dale Whitney, for a "Silver Apple Award" sponsored by the Dial Corporation and a local television station. Among other things, he wrote that Whitney "makes me work hard so I can make a better life for myself." Whitney won the award, which today hangs in the office of Glendale High School. (Whitney has since become Rodriguez's legal guardian.)

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Terry Greene Sterling