Handle With Care

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

Rivera worked for a while as a counter employee for Frontier Airlines, a vestige of his one-time dream of becoming a pilot. He took some flying lessons, but before he could complete them, he would have another kid, and that was that. In the late '80s, he settled into work as a press operator for Container Corporation of America, making about $35,000 a year with "a bunch of overtime." Molina had $365 a month garnished from Rivera's check to pay child support.

The press-operator job ended in August 1994 with a fight over an injury claim. When Rivera took his plea later that year, he was collecting unemployment and working a little for his brother Joel, a tile subcontractor who has done well for himself putting pretty bathrooms in million-dollar homes in Southlake and Colleyville.

About a month before Rivera's November 1994 court date, Tarrant County probation officials put him through an array of tests, including a plethysmograph at the office of Michael Strain & Associates.

For the test, Rivera was fitted with a mercury-filled rubber ring capable of measuring as little as a one-hundredth millimeter expansion of his penis. Slides of nude models, adult females, girls ages 15-17, 11-14, 7-10, and 1-6 flashed up on a screen in the small testing room while a technician monitored the results. Then came pictures of males.

An audio part of the test conjured scenes of consenting sex with adult women, as well as an array of acts with children: consenting sex, fondling, and rape. Says Rivera: "I didn't move."

In his report on the test, Michael Strain found Rivera's overall arousal level to be low, but he speculated that his subject could be faking. "Consider dissimulation and interpret with caution," he noted in his report. Strain concluded that Rivera should participate in behavioral treatment "to lower his arousal to females 11 to 17 and to female child sexual stimuli," because those were the images and sounds that seemed to light him up the most.

H. R. Nichols, a psychologist, administered his own tests the same day, amounting to what Rivera remembers as more than 800 questions that took him half the day to complete. Nichols' judgment was that Rivera had no specific personality disorder, but tended to be flamboyant, a "teller of tall tales," and self-centered. Tests focusing on sexuality showed him to be a "person trying to excuse or defend some improper action or behavior," and he was pegged as "likely overcontrolling...most likely a physical batterer." Finally, Nichols found that Rivera appeared to have "a rigid and hypermoral attitude regarding the sinfulness of sex."

On that score, the shrinks hadn't seen anything yet. After his relationship with the girl became known in Cornerstone, Rivera applied for a job as a youth teacher and was rejected out of hand. He moved along to Calvary Cathedral, a large nondenominational Pentecostal church on a hill just west of downtown Fort Worth.

One Sunday about a month after Rivera got on probation, Tim Storey, a visiting California evangelist, was preaching in the large circular sanctuary and called for those moved by the Holy Spirit to gather in the aisles.

Angela Bason, a 24-year-old single mother of two, was one of those who joined in. "There was a man way behind me yelling," she recalls. "I turned around, and right there was David. That's how we met."

They started dating, and in time Angela started driving David to his group therapy sessions, which began in late January 1995.

Strain, a licensed clinical social worker whom the probation department put in charge of treatment for Rivera and about 300 other sex offenders referred by Tarrant County courts, then had his offices in an old two-story wooden mansion on East First Street in a junky neighborhood of old houses, industrial buildings, and weed-strewn lots.

Every Tuesday morning at 10:30, Rivera reported there for his hour-and-a-half group counseling session. He says he didn't take much interest in the 20 or so others in the group--flashers, molesters, child rapists. But he had no choice but to participate when he was put on the hot seat and confronted with their questions. "They'd pick at your mind. Ask you, 'How did you groom her? How did you get her? What are your tactics?' " Heated arguments would follow Rivera's protests that it wasn't like that. "They'd say I was sick. That I'd really like to do that again."

In Strain's view, Rivera was making progress in the early going, and was admitting to having a problem with an attraction to underage girls. From January until late August, he missed only one of 28 sessions. And that, Rivera says, was because the wipers on his car had gone out.

But things began breaking down that summer, starting around the time Rivera received Strain's formal treatment plan. Dated June 6, it listed more than two dozen goals and exercises he was to finish before he could complete his treatment.

There were writing assignments, books to read, and discussion points such as "client will be able to describe step-by-step responses to high-risk situations." And on Page 2, under the heading "Deviant Sexual Arousal Module--Problem A, Goal 1," were the words: "Client will complete 20 one-hour sessions of masturbatory satiation exercises and/or ammonia aversion exercises."

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