While working full time at DHL Express as a driver, Cardenas signed up as a volunteer at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Utah in 2002. The national organization matches volunteer adults with children whose parents feel need a friend. He went through a criminal background check—he had no priors—and a two-week orientation course. By then, Cardenas’ efforts to fit in had become quite sophisticated. He had a girlfriend—a friend with benefits, he says, even though he describes romantic relationships with adult women as “a time waster”—coached soccer and worked at after-school programs for at-risk teenagers. At the same time, he says, “I knew how to look at cute boys without being noticed.”
By the time Cardenas was matched with Michael, then 7, he says he had been a “big brother” to seven boys, which Ross confirms. Cardenas says when a boy’s father came back into the boy’s life—released from jail, for example—then his work as a mentor would end, and he would be matched to another child.
Cardenas says Michael was the only boy he mentored with whom he had “sexual encounters.”
But the FBI’s Ross is adamant that there are more victims. A predator like Cardenas, Ross says, doesn’t wake up one day to the next and simply lust after boys.
“I wasn’t able to track down all the kids he mentored,” Ross says. “These are troubled kids; some have fallen off the grid. It’s the most humiliating experience of your life, you’ve kept it a secret. And then a cop shows up at your door. It’s not uncommon to say nothing about it or minimize it.” Or, he adds, “simply bury it.”
What Cardenas did, says BBBS of Utah CEO Pam Sanders, “makes me sick. We do absolutely everything we can” to protect the children they match with adults.
And Michael never said a word, Susan says, of any problems. “I had conversations with Michael about ‘good touch, bad touch.’ He never let on. Ever.”
Sanders says that, tragically, “sometimes, when people make up their minds to [molest a child], they do it. The only way for us to be risk-free is not to do our work.” Last year, BBBS Utah had 1,575 children with mentors.
“A SWELL GUY”
Susan’s decision to find a mentor for Michael, whose father lives in central Utah, reflected both his struggles at school, where he was picked on because of a learning disability, and the yearning for a father figure she saw in him when she and her family would go on camping trips with other children and their parents.
“From the day Michael was born, he had an insatiable appetite for life and exploration,” she says.
Cardenas says Michael “was this crazy, outgoing kid,” he says, “running all over the place.” He had no experience in outdoor recreation. Through mentoring Michael, he learned to swim, ski and surf.
“He was a really swell guy; always hanging out with our family, Michael always hanging out with his family,” Susan recalls.
Cardenas went with her and Michael for school meetings on his learning disability. He encouraged Michael to do his homework. Cardenas admires Susan. “She was a great mother, a single mother who was on top of everything.” Which is why, he adds, it must have hurt her so much that he came in “under the radar.”
A pedophile, having found a vulnerable child, spends time with him, does fun activities, then asks for a small “favor,” Ross says. Ross describes a predator grooming a child to become a victim as perhaps no more than an adult willing to listen.
“Kids always want somebody to listen to them,” Cardenas says. “So people attracted to [kids] listen. One kid said to me, ‘Thanks for listening to me. My parents don’t.’ ”
Susan recalls that she and Cardenas “had so many conversations about Michael’s future.” She shared with him that she was afraid her son wanted to join one of the local gangs, the Juggalos or the Crazy White Boys. Cardenas said he wanted to show Michael the gang-controlled neighborhood in Los Angeles he had escaped from. In retrospect, she says, he played on her fears of the attractiveness of gangs to Michael.
Cardenas took Michael alone on several trips, both to Los Angeles to show Michael the gang-haunted barrio he had escaped from, and to San Diego, where they tried surfing for the first time. By then, Cardenas was abusing Michael.
Cardenas says Michael’s “attitude to life” was different from anyone’s he’d ever known. He told himself, he recalls, “This might be the one time when I bring up these feelings … try to pursue them a little further.” One day when the boy came out of the shower and put on a towel, Cardenas put his arm around his shoulder. “I brought him close to me,” he says, holding out his crooked arm, “and asked, ‘Can I?’ ”
As he describes the first time he molested the then-9-year-old boy, his hands and intense tones invoke the boy before him. In the suddenly airless jailhouse room, it becomes clear that his explanation has shifted into re-enactment. He is reliving years-old events, bringing them and the trusting child who sat beside him on the bed into the present day.
“After that, I was not afraid,” he says. But, at the same time, he says, he knew he “had to be real with him. I knew in a way he was not sexually attracted to me. I knew he was doing it to please me and help me through these struggles.”
Susan still can’t understand what happened. During the three years of sexual abuse, “They always seemed very close. Michael would always ask if he could hang out with Tony.” Clearly, she says, she and her family had been “groomed” to trust him. But more importantly, Michael “didn’t have a father figure, and that was just something he wanted so much.”
Zhdilkov says that children naturally want to please. “That’s one of the things that makes them so vulnerable.”
PICTURES ON DEMAND
In early 2007, Cardenas started photographing Michael while he was asleep or naked. “It was never my intention to put it on the Internet. It was something for me to keep.”
Pornographic photographs of child victims serve “as a trophy of their sexual conquest, their fantasy portrayed in videos,” Ross says. “They serve as status symbols to send to others.”
That same year, Cardenas met a child-porn producer named Jeffrey Greenwell through an online forum. Child-porn traders, Cardenas had discovered, were all about what they could get from one another, “to find an image they hadn’t seen before and go crazy about it.” It’s a mentality Ross describes as “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
But Missouri-based Greenwell—known as “Scooby” for his obsession with the cartoon Great Dane—was different, Cardenas says. “He wanted a conversation.”
Greenwell told him the invisible files he used to hide his child porn were not effective, that he had to stay informed as to how the FBI tracked child porn. The main difference he noted between Greenwell and himself was in how they approached boys. Greenwell, Cardenas says, “was afraid of being seen with younger kids. He would feel people saw him as a child molester.”
Greenwell introduced Cardenas to “Muttley” [the FBI requested that his actual Internet handle not be used since it was part of an open investigation]. “He didn’t have sex with kids, he was just a collector,” Cardenas says. He felt comfortable with Muttley. “He was very knowledgeable about encryption, about safety [from the FBI].”
Cardenas introduced Michael to both Scooby and Muttley through Xbox so they could talk to him. He also shared with Greenwell and Muttley his day-to-day child-porn finds and occasional explicit photographs of himself with Michael.
While there were instances, he says, where Michael did not want to do what he wanted, “I guess in a way I respected his sexual will, I never felt I hurt him. He had control of the situation.”
Ross tells a different story. He says Cardenas tailored his abuse to child-porn addicts’ demand for “stuff they’d never seen before.”
Cardenas adamantly denies that. He says such requests result in the pornographer having the name of the requester visible in the frame somewhere—perhaps written on a board, or on a piece of paper the child holds up. “I never did that one time,” he says.
In late 2007, Cardenas sent all his material featuring Michael to Greenwell to view and edit. Shortly after, a video of Cardenas molesting Michael on a SpongeBob blanket circulated in the child-porn community. Cardenas was initially convinced Greenwell had given traders the video in exchange for other material, but Scooby’s persistent denials eventually changed his mind.
However the video reached the Internet, Cardenas says, “I felt I had betrayed Michael. I never wanted that to happen.”
Cardenas wiped his hard-drives, beat them with a hammer, then cut them into pieces and dumped the pieces in various locations. “I was freaking out. I didn’t know what I’d shared and what I hadn’t.”
In June 2008, the noose tightened when a school-resource officer asked Michael about Cardenas, whom he had seen picking the boy up. A Cache County Children’s Justice Center official called Susan and reported Michael saying that Cardenas had touched him while they watched “dirty movies” together. But Michael complained that the CJC counselor was not even listening to what he had said. Cardenas “covers my eyes just like you do,” during inappropriate scenes, he told his mother. Looking back, Susan says sadly, “Michael was learning to be just as evasive and manipulative as Tony.”
The CJC investigation languished, and several months later, Cardenas lost his job at DHL Express after massive layoffs in December 2008. He announced he was returning to Mexico to help his parents run their business after an associate had defrauded them.
In the months leading up to his departure, Cardenas decided to profit from disaster and had Greenwell send him back his DVDs. He offered himself as the “creator of SpongeBob” to private child-porn traders in order “to get everything from anybody with nothing but my name. I had a very unique, special, tradable, beautiful kid series with which to climb up the pornography ladder. I thought, ‘Screw this, I’m going to get access to things I’ve always wanted to see but could never get hold of.’ ” As a child-porn collector, he suddenly “felt like I was god, I was at the top of the game.”