Handle With Care

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

The first time I saw David Rivera, he was standing behind the lipstick-smudged glass of a jail visiting room, head bowed as if in prayer. Guards had led the 38-year-old Fort Worth printer there from Tank 30, Unit 59D--better known as the "pervert pod."

Through the glass I noted Rivera's pitted face, his chin peppered with spiky whiskers, all of it framed by a nimbus of dense black hair. The thickened arms of a working man poked from his county-issued khakis as he took his seat in a narrow cubicle, lifted the phone receiver, and smiled.

He was immediately engaging, in a youthful sort of way. One of his ex-wives would later comment on that same sweet-talking charm: "Sugar wouldn't melt in his mouth."

Listening on the other end of the 5-foot phone line, I could barely hear him above a misfiring fire alarm and the rest of the Tarrant County Corrections Center's dissonant noise. It clanged about the brick cube from the street-level sally port to the ninth floor, where Rivera had lived since November 1995.

As his story came through the din, I decided that of all the tales of woe in jailhouses throughout the land, his deserved some type of prize.

Rivera, you see, refused to masturbate as part of his court-ordered sex-offender therapy. Absolutely refused--wouldn't think about it, wouldn't go there, wouldn't touch it. So a state district judge responded by sending him to the slammer for a long, long time.

"Your faith should not stand in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God," Rivera said, with studied piety, explaining the religious underpinnings of his refusal to participate in that part of his treatment. "That's First Corinthians, Chapter 2, Verse 5."

With a privately hired lawyer at his side, David Rivera pleaded guilty in November 1994 to seducing a 14-year-old girl in his east Fort Worth apartment. The girl had been staying the night with Rivera and his children because her family met him at church, and trusted him.

There were sins that night, by anyone's count. And the hypocrisy of a debaucher of 14-year-olds wrapping himself in the Bible today makes it difficult to call this a case of a good man wronged.

Still, Rivera's odd tale raises a question: Are his ideas about sin and redemption any less sound than what the guys in white coats had in store for him when he became a state-certified, scum-of-the-earth sex offender?

The "masturbation satiation" technique his Fort Worth therapist prescribed, which is in scattered use at the privately run sex-offender treatment clinics under contract to Dallas and Tarrant county state district courts, is as controversial as it is obscure.

There are legal questions about the treatment as well, involving Rivera's rights under a 1993 federal law aimed at freeing religious expression from government control. As he appeals his case to a higher court, Rivera, who claims he is a practicing Pentecostal Christian, hopes that issue will either win him a new trial or allow him a different type of treatment outside of jail.

After putting him on probation for assaulting the girl, state District Judge Sharen Wilson ordered Rivera into one of Tarrant County's eight sex-crime treatment clinics to begin his therapy early last year.

Rivera barely tolerated the indignity of the "plethysmograph assessment," a test in which a rubber ring is placed around the offender's penis while slides of nudes are flashed across a screen--in an effort to determine what flavor of aberrant sex turns him on. He could more or less handle the weekly group-therapy sessions in which his fellow sex criminals would go on about their obsessions with the genitals of some of their terribly young victims.

But when he found out about his homework--that he would have to pleasure himself for 20 hours in pursuit of "masturbation satiation"--Rivera says he drew the line. "It's ungodly," he says today. "It's totally against my beliefs."

When it came to jerking the gherkin, Rivera just said "no" in the name of God.

He met the girl at Cornerstone Evangelistic Ministries in Haltom City, a chicken-fried, mostly blue-collar suburb northeast of Fort Worth. The nondenominational Pentecostal congregation of 90 assembles behind the burglar-barred windows of a low-slung, brick sanctuary set on a rutted street lined with small cottages and aging parked cars.

Rivera joined Cornerstone in 1990 at the urging of his brother, Joel Rios, and was, by his family's recollections, "a real Bible-thumper." Rios says his brother was seldom without his brown, leather-bound Bible.

The girl's mother says she wasn't worried about having her daughter around Rivera because of his connection with the church. But others recall the girl as being beyond any parental control. "It might sound strange because of the age difference, but my brother and her were in love," says Rios, who describes the girl as wild, sexually wise, and well-developed. "It went on for a few months. Even our preacher said something to him about it."

The Rev. Crawford Sprabary recalls seeing Rivera and the girl sitting close together in a back pew during several Sunday services, a display that drew notice all around. "I brought David in the office, and I set him down and told him this didn't appear to be proper," Sprabary says. "David said he was just trying to help young people. He said nothing was going on."

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."

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."

"How could this sick, dirty exercise make you better?" Rivera recalls asking Strain about that goal. "I do the will of God and live by the Word. We don't yield our members to unrighteousness."

The satiation technique, first mentioned in professional journals in 1982, is in use in clinics throughout the world. It requires the subject first to masturbate while thinking about an appropriate sexual fantasy. After the climax, the individual must continue masturbating for the rest of an hour while fantasizing about the aberrant image on which he is fixated.

"That's usually at least 50 minutes, so the deviant image becomes tedious and boring," Strain says. "It sounds like it would be counterproductive, but it is not." He monitors compliance by making his subjects tape-record the sessions, which are done at home. They must speak out about their thoughts as they go about their business. With the ammonia technique, the subject is made to masturbate while breaking an ampul of the pungent chemical and breathing it. This, says Strain, also lessens arousal and deadens the pleasure.

Strain and other sex therapists handling probationers in Dallas and Tarrant counties defend the techniques as effective because follow-up trips to the plethysmograph show the offenders' reactions are indeed changed.

Hardly--say critics of the method--who point to recent research that questions the entire concept of satiation therapy. A 1992 study by a researcher working with child molesters in a New Zealand prison, for instance, found that "support for these clinically popular procedures remains weak." The study concluded the method actually decreased male offenders' responses to "appropriate stimuli," meaning naked women. Another review, published in 1991 by a behavioral researcher in Alberta, Canada, concluded: "There is some hope that satiation may be effective. More careful, larger-scale studies are required."

Mike Cox, a psychologist and director of the sexual-abuse treatment program at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, says satiation can backfire. "It's reintroducing inappropriate ideas, and I don't think that's necessary," says Cox, who runs one of the oldest and largest sex-offender programs in the state, with a staff of 20 professionals. "This is using a punishment paradigm, which isn't in the spirit of treatment."

Cox says an emphasis on empathy with victims and the development of appropriate fantasies are more useful in long-term treatment. Even if satiation shows results on follow-up tests, he says the benefits will likely be short-lived.

As for what he derisively terms "that ammonia stuff," Cox says, "That's old, tired methodology. It's tied back to the days when they used electric shock on homosexuals."

In Tarrant County, several practitioners besides Strain say they use both of these techniques. At Psychotherapy Services and Yokefellows, P.C., a south Fort Worth clinic attended by about 300 probationers, about 30 percent are prescribed masturbation satiation, says therapist Brian Bilyeu. In Dallas County, probation officials familiar with the more than two dozen sex-offender treatment clinics working with court-ordered patients say it is not in widespread use.

All clinics that perform such work are required to be registered with the state Council on Sex Offender Treatment. The council issues broad guidelines on treatment, but takes no stand on the use or effectiveness of specific techniques such as satiation.

"Even in the past five years, we're seeing drastic changes in these treatments," says Maria Molett, director of the Counseling Institute of Texas, a Garland clinic. Molett says she has found satiation to be effective in breaking down offenders' "patterns of deviant arousal," but only when they are willing. "In some cases you really have to have this behavioral approach," she says.

Of course, she adds, treatment works only on some sex offenders; there are those who just can't be cured.

Rivera was talking about salvation, not science, when he began mounting his own attack on the treatment. Masturbation-satiation therapy went against his idea that a cure would come when God cleansed him from all unrighteousness. "I live by the Word," he says. "God can do the miraculous."

Last June, about six months into his sex-offender treatment program, Rivera and Angela were married before Justice of the Peace Barbara Ferrell in a wood-lined, century-old chamber in the Tarrant County Courthouse. She wore a print dress, he a mustard-colored suit. Her two kids, ages 2 and 8, were the only family present.

Around the time of the wedding, Esmeralda Molina, Rivera's ex-wife, lodged a complaint with child-welfare workers that he had beaten their children. It led to Rivera signing an agreement with Child Protective Services, dated June 14, 1995, which prohibited him from being around Molina's kids at all. He was allowed to see Angela's children only with an approved chaperone.

And although Angela attended eight classes during the summer to become a recognized chaperone--twice the required number--she could not pass. "They said I didn't get it," she says. "I don't know why. I had those materials memorized."

Meanwhile, Rivera lashed out at Strain's treatment. At one group session, he began preaching, offering to lay hands on a former minister to help heal him spiritually. "If you are sick, you can have hands laid on you to recover," Rivera told him. "There is nothing impossible for the Lord to do."

During his last session, on August 24, Strain and Rivera began debating whether the program was consistent with Christian beliefs, Rivera later testified. Rivera told Strain his treatment was ungodly--that it made him feel dirty and weak. Strain, seemingly out of patience, told Rivera he didn't want to harm him, so he was letting him out of the program and sending him on his way. When Rivera argued more, Strain refused to back down and ordered him off the property.

Looking back on Rivera's case, Strain says it was obvious that denial was the man's hang-up, not religion. "If he's saying he's in prison because he refused to masturbate, that's not the real story. You have people who admit to doing the offense, then later decide not to admit to it. They come up with all sorts of controversial things to hide behind."

Rivera certainly wasn't admitting much of anything to his new wife.
He didn't talk about his liaison with the underage girl for a long time after they met, Angela says. Once he did, she was convinced of his innocence. "I don't believe he did anything they said."

A waiflike woman with limp straight hair and a perpetual note of sadness in her voice, Angela says it's been tough being involved with a man of so many troubles. "I didn't plan this, it just happened...Maybe it's God's will."

Rivera talked during this time about sin and his treatment program with several counselors at Calvary Cathedral. They voiced concern about the masturbation therapy, but did not intervene. "He came in with his wife and, as I recall, he said he refused to be involved with that kind of treatment," says John Shelton, director of the church's prison outreach. "Personally, I wouldn't want anyone submitted to that."

On September 23, 1995, three weeks after he was officially bounced from the program, Rivera celebrated his 38th birthday at Angela's house in south Fort Worth. They went shopping at Venture, and she fixed his favorite meal--meat loaf, mashed potatoes, and green beans. Then they watched TV. According to the rules, he was forbidden from visiting, but she says, "It was hard to be married and have the state say we couldn't be together." Rivera was raking leaves in her front yard the following day when probation officials picked him up.

Before long, he was standing in front of state District Judge Sharen Wilson and accused of violating his probation by not attending treatment and falling behind in his fees. Around the Tarrant County courts, Wilson has a reputation for being as tough as stainless-steel tubing, and hardly shy about meting out punishment to sex offenders.

During the two-hour hearing, defense lawyer Ted Christopher did his best to highlight his client's religious objections to the treatment.

On the stand, Rivera said again and again that he believed the therapy was ungodly and harmful. "I came for positive training when you sentenced me, ma'am," Rivera told Wilson.

"Listen to me," she snapped. "All of the counseling is exactly the same. What are you going to do?"

"I just hope it's better than what I've been going through," he said. "It's all precisely the same. Everybody has plethysmographs. Everybody has polygraphs, even masturbation satiation...So what are you going to do?"

When Rivera continued to quibble, Wilson said, ominously, "Then there is an alternative."

Minutes later, prosecutor David Hagerman asked for the maximum: 20 years. Wilson gave Rivera 10. He was probably lucky she didn't boot him in his skinny butt as he was led to the jail door.

Asked about Rivera's case now, Wilson needs to be prompted with a few details before she can remember him. What finally sparks her memory is a recollection of hypocrisy. "Didn't he think it was ungodly to have sex with a 14-year-old? Doesn't that seem a little anomalous to you?"

Well, yes. But is it necessary to order people to masturbate?
"We realize this is sex treatment," she says. "But these are sex offenses...It's an extreme treatment for extremely dangerous people."

The idea of conservative Republican Bible Belt judges sentencing prisoners to mandatory masturbation may be more of a political matter than a scientific one. But, as with most things legal, there's more mischief in it than that. As Fort Worth defense attorney Ward Casey puts it, "Can the state of Texas make people jack off because they think this is gonna somehow change them? Or do they have to take their religious views into account and try some other way?"

Rivera's brother, Joel Rios, brought Casey into the picture a week or two after the sentencing, putting $2,500 down and agreeing to pay him $10,000 for his work. The deep-drawling Casey is perhaps best known for getting skinhead Christopher Brosky a probated sentence in 1992 for Brosky's role in the racially motivated slaying of an Arlington black man. (He dressed his heavily tattooed client in a preppy tennis sweater for the trial. The backlash at the sentence was so fierce--10,000 people marched down Main Street in Fort Worth--that prosecutors tried Brosky again on conspiracy charges, and a jury in Galveston gave him 40 years.)

Through some recent work on the appeal of a peyote-possession case, Casey had become familiar with an assortment of lawsuits being brought against prisons, schools, and other government institutions under the innocuous-sounding Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993.

The law, which was co-sponsored by the unlikely duo of Sens. Edward Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, and backed by a coalition of 68 religious and civil-rights groups, set up the legal principle that government can restrict religious practice only if it shows a "compelling interest" and applies "the least restrictive means."

It has been used in the courts to win Khalsa Sikh children the right to carry 7-inch ceremonial knives to California schools. The Texas Attorney General's office has litigated 25 cases according to the law in which Wiccans, witches, Native Americans, Muslims, and others have asserted their religious rights against prison rules.

"They have to prove there isn't any other way to treat David without tromping on his free exercise of religion," Casey argues. "That might be kind of hard, considering this jerk-off stuff is not exactly the sine qua non of sex-offender therapy."

Casey had begun preparing legal papers to that end, and even secured a statement from the Rev. Harold Herring, an elder at the International Faith Center, a Haltom City church where Angela has been working as a janitor since her husband went to jail. Herring's letter quotes, among other verses, a few lines from Galatians: "Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness...as I have told you in times past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."

Despite the promise Casey's work held out for getting Rivera a new trial, he and his wife found a way to cripple even this last-ditch chance.

Earlier this year, the couple fell out with Joel Rios over $1,800 he had loaned Angela for payments on her house. When Rios claimed that she stiffed him on the debt, Rivera called his brother a "devil." Rios says he reluctantly pulled Casey off the appeal.

In late February, with the Riveras broke, the lawyer passed his research on to David in jail, who filed the papers in April on his own. "Nine times out of 10, the Court of Criminal Appeals sends back a postcard saying your writ's denied," Casey says. "If it is not, the courts will appoint Rivera another lawyer."

icking at a salad at a cheap Mexican restaurant a few blocks from her church, Angela lays her petite hand on two thick envelopes piled next to the chips. "It's all in there," she says. "What the state has done to my husband."

She doesn't pause for an instant when asked why she is so certain her husband isn't just another degenerate with a wild excuse. "He's not," she says. "I know him."

Just as certainly, she concludes, "I build my life on my God. I've seen miracles. When people know what's going on in that treatment, he'll be coming home.

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