Handle With Care

Sex offender David Rivera was willing to do almost anything to stay out of jail. Except masturbate.

Outside church, Rivera would take the teen and one of her girlfriends roller skating, to the movies, or swimming in the pool at his apartment complex, a well-kept but crime-plagued cluster of garden apartments along Interstate 30. Nothing looked too strange by outward appearances, because Rivera's son, Juan, one of five children he has by four women, was close in age to the two girls. Rivera was unattached at the time.

Two of his other children, then ages 8 and 9, were sleeping at Rivera's apartment as well on November 15, 1993, which became, as the lawyers put it, "the night in question." The other kids were asleep when the girl awoke at about 2 a.m., according to police accounts. Rivera was in the living room, sitting on the sofa and watching TV, and she went to him.

The girl told police that she and Rivera started hugging and kissing. Then he pulled her panties to the side with his hand and inserted himself, according to her official complaint. It hurt, and she told her much older paramour, "No, it's not right."

"OK," Rivera said, withdrawing. She went back to where she had been sleeping, and remembered that Rivera cooked everyone breakfast the following morning.

The girl came forth with her story about two months later, a confession prompted by a call from Rivera's ex-wife to the girl's mother. "My ex-husband's screwing your daughter," Esmeralda Molina said.

Molina had learned about the liaison from her 8-year-old daughter, who ratted on her father because he had given his teen lover a Walkman for Christmas--and gave his daughter and son nothing.

A phone call from the teen-ager alerted Rivera that Fort Worth police were looking for him, and in a few days, a detective called him in for a statement. His account, to which he clings to this day, matched the girl's except for one critical fact. "I kissed and fondled her breast, that was all," he insists, admitting to an act that is still a felony offense.

He talked in his statement of kissing her on the mouth about a month after they met. He said the teen seemed more mature than other kids, and he grew to love her like a boyfriend would.

Police arrested Rivera in April 1994 and charged him with sexual assault of a child younger than 17. He made a $7,500 bond and hired Fort Worth attorney Larry Coker to defend him. By November, facing what he thought would be a case of his word against hers and a possible 20-year sentence, Rivera was ready to cop a plea. "I was scared. I took the first plea bargain that came along," he says.

Not that it was a bad deal. Because he had no criminal history beyond a dismissed charge for a bad check, Tarrant County prosecutor Anne Box agreed to a 10-year deferred sentence, meaning that after 10 years on probation Rivera's slate would be wiped clean. No conviction. No record of the second-degree felony.

There were strings, of course: a $1,000 fine, several thousands of dollars in fees, and the requirement to complete and pay for sex-offender therapy. To Rivera, it sounded easy enough. But it would turn out to be another loop in his spiral down from what he calls "those 10 minutes that ruined my life."

Rivera's account of his 38 years is a tale of fecklessness, given all his failed relationships, workplace fits and starts, and half-hearted dreams.

His sister, JoAnn Flood, a security guard at a downtown Fort Worth social club, says he always was a talker. He gives no reason to doubt her as he leans toward the jail glass, eagerly answering questions about his life, some truthfully, some not.

Raised in Kerrville, the son of a highway worker and a housewife, Rivera grew up among four brothers and two sisters. They were Southern Baptists and diligent churchgoers, several siblings recall.

At 16, he fathered his first child, a daughter, and dropped out of school after the ninth grade. He did a two-year stint in the Army, finishing at Ford Ord, California, followed by seven years of civilian life in nearby San Jose, where he eventually graduated from high school. He moved back to Texas in 1985.

Rivera relocated to Fort Worth because his sister JoAnn had moved there several years before. He brought along his common-law wife, Esmeralda Molina, who was the fourth woman to bear him children. By 1990, that union was over, too.

"David would always be blaming his shortcomings on me and his family and everybody else," says Molina, who works in a factory making leather holsters for police officers. Rivera's myriad girlfriends, his increasingly scary religious obsessions, and his hard-handed approach to the kids--"Spare the rod and hateth the child," he'd say--all figured into her decision to call it quits, she says.

Marriage to the man was such a hard row, she has been leery of men ever since, Molina says, standing before the hanging laundry outside her tiny house in Arlington Heights. She moved in with Rivera when he was 18. She's now 32.

Flood says her brother's religious side was never too far from the surface, and it burgeoned once he moved back to Texas and hooked up with a series of churches grounded in faith healing, speaking in tongues, and Biblical inerrancy. Flood had been living with a man for five years, and Rivera would often chide her, saying, "You've got to do right by God's laws."

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