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Little Boy Lust

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"I want to make him whole again," his father says.
But for them, that does not include sending Ava Owens to an extended stretch in prison.

This became a major point of contention for the lawyers dealing with the criminal case. Owens agreed to plead guilty to a charge of a pattern of sexual assault on a child, which carries a mandatory minimum sentence of ten years, rather than go through a jury trial where she could have faced more than thirty years in prison. Stephanie Villafuerte, the deputy district attorney who handled the case, agreed to the deal because it meant certain prison time and eliminated the need to have the boy testify in court.

She refused the pleas of Owens's lawyer, Ed Harris, to sentence Owens to sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust--a violation that carries no mandatory minimum sentence. Harris asked for Owens to be charged in a "non-pattern" crime and let a judge make the decision on a sentence. When Harris didn't get the answer he wanted from Villafuerte, he appealed directly to District Attorney Bill Ritter. In a seven-page letter, Owens's attorney emphasized the Trans' unusually forgiving stance regarding Owens. "Although I have sent Ms. Villafuerte a copy of statements from the victim and his family which clearly express their desire for a non-prison sentence in the case," he wrote, "she has chosen somewhat paternalistically to trivialize their position by attributing it to cultural differences between the United States and Vietnam."

Villafuerte says that charge is a thinly veiled accusation of racism, something she says is outrageous. She argues that part of the family's reluctance to want Owens imprisoned is the father's experience in the re-education camps--he doesn't want to send anyone to prison.

Villafuerte also says she thinks that when the Trans asked for leniency, they didn't really know what had happened between Owens and their son. She decided to go to the family's home with a translator. "I read to them in Owens's own words what she did," Villafuerte said during the final sentencing hearing in June. "I looked into those faces and saw so much pain and so much anguish."

The father says he now understands that Owens must go to prison, but he still doesn't see how it will help his son. He was counting on some counseling or other help for Dinh but got nothing.

Miller says the Trans' understanding of the system is still lacking. "They thought the DA was their personal attorney," Miller says. She got in touch with the family only a couple of months ago, after a friend contacted her and told her of their plight. She immediately started intervening on their behalf, trying to get money through a victims' program for counseling for Dinh. She is also working with lawyer Jack Hyland in trying to file a suit against Owens, DPS and others. That suit may go nowhere, however, because the family did not file a notice to sue early enough. Hyland will argue that the language and cultural barriers were so high as to keep the family from exercising its rights, but he adds that governmental immunity laws are difficult to overcome and says he hopes he can just help the family get reimbursed for counseling costs.

Duc Tran says he is interested in suing simply because he wants a return to normalcy for his son, who still will not discuss the Owens episode with him. "He told me that if his friends find out he will kill himself," his mother says.

While the father agreed to be interviewed, he says it was only reluctantly--partly because of a concern for privacy, but also because of a concern about aggravating anti-American sentiments in Denver's Vietnamese community. When a Vietnamese woman was raped by a white man recently, he says, he heard a lot of hateful words by other immigrants toward America. "We love this country, and we want everything to be okay between the Vietnamese and the others," he says.

He also hopes things will be okay for Owens. "We believe in forgiveness," he says, "and we think that if she is forgiven, then our son can get better."

There is no evidence that Ava Owens sexually assaulted other students in the past. But the case of Dinh Tran was enough to cost Owens her career. "As far as we're concerned, we don't need a whole string of them," says Mary Ryder, supervisor of the licensing unit at the Colorado Department of Education.

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Scott C. Yates

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