In February 2009, Cardenas returned to Mexico after Michael’s 11th birthday party. He visited adult male “boy lover” friends in Mexico City, Vera Cruz and Monterey whom he knew through child-porn and boy-lover forums. Through his friends, he met former and active child prostitutes, he says, and the 14-year-old partners of 30-year-old men. In Mexico, he adds, boy lovers do not fear the authorities. He declined to comment if he had “sex” with children in Mexico.
He remained in contact with Michael through cyber cafes or small-town telephones. “I was taking all the precautions I could.” But he felt safe. “Even if they showed my picture on TV in Mexico, I’d not get caught. There’d always be a way out of it.”
Cardenas was also still in contact with Scooby and Muttley. In October 2009, Muttley sent him an article about Greenwell being arrested. Unbeknownst to both, Greenwell identified to the FBI Cardenas as “SpongeBob” and also named the child in the videos.
Despite Greenwell’s arrest, Cardenas says he decided to return illegally to the United States, partly for financial reasons, partly because he wanted to see Michael again. He says he had made a commitment to the boy that even though the “sex” had ended, he would continue to be a presence in his life.
On Oct. 29, 2009, Susan learned the truth about Cardenas’ relationship with her son when FBI agents and Michael’s school-resource officer came to her office. She realized then that she was capable of murder. “I could easily slit that man’s throat while looking him in the eye.”
Ross knew securing Michael’s cooperation would be difficult. “A child has every reason not to disclose,” he says. When he met with Michael, they walked down a corridor together to the interview room. Beneath a sheet of paper, Ross had photographs of Michael with Cardenas. A breeze lifted the sheet up and Michael looked at the top photograph, then up at Ross. “Now he knows that everyone else knows,” Ross says. “I knew right then I was going to get disclosure out of him.”
While Cardenas says it was his plan to return to Utah, Susan says she concocted a plan with the FBI to persuade him to return to the United States by telling him about a surprise 12th birthday party for Michael. On the phone, she’d tell him how much Michael missed him, then when she’d hung up, “I’d literally throw up and bawl.”
It took Cardenas five days, he says, to cross the border illegally and reach Phoenix, where his brother picked him up and drove him to Salt Lake City. His brother was on edge. “I feel like somebody is recording what we’re talking about,” he told Cardenas.
That same night, as Cardenas drove to Michael’s supposed birthday party, a police siren sounded behind him.
Cardenas says he ran through a mental checklist. Was he speeding? No. Had he run a red light? No. He knew it was over.
Ross says the moment when he arrests someone on a child-porn case, “when you watch the anguish wash over their face when they realize why you’re there, it’s better than a paycheck.”
But Cardenas’ response wasn’t what Ross expected. Cardenas told him it was actually the fault of Ross, not Cardenas, that the boy was suffering, because Ross had dragged their relationship into the light.
“Everything pointed to where I wasn’t the cause” of any anguish, Cardenas says, meaning that even after he had left Utah, he and the family had continued to make plans to see each other. “Everything was good before he showed up.”
Cardenas held out for a trial, until Ross had a break while sifting through American-produced child-porn images in Lyons, France, at the invitation of Interpol. Amid the child porn, he recognized, despite the blacked-out features, Cardenas’ distinctive ears and hairline. In three images, Cardenas was victimizing three different sleeping children, later identified as Cardenas’ nephews.
Families typically tend to stand behind and even defend abusers, Ross says, until, that is, they see the evidence for themselves. When Cardenas learned his close-knit family members had been shown the images, he capitulated. At court to plead guilty, he was surprised to see not only Susan but also Michael there. “We exchanged eye contact,” he says. “I put my head up and he had no response.”
On June 18, 2012, Judge Clark Waddoups sentenced Cardenas to 35 years in federal prison. Tall and gangly, his white shirt untucked, and trembling with anger, Michael told Waddoups he wanted his former mentor in “general population” in a prison, where he would be unprotected from the inmates who typically torment sex offenders.
Cardenas isn’t overly concerned. He talks about the segregation of Mexicans in prison. “My people, los paisas [countrymen] we stay together, we are very close,” he says, weaving his fingers together. Mexicans don’t pry into each other’s criminal histories, he adds. “We don’t go there.”
Susan says she failed to find any remorse in Cardenas’ pre-sentencing statement to Waddoups. In jail, Cardenas says, “I was extremely sorry for what I have put [the victim] through,” particularly “what I did to him sexually, but I’m not sorry about the relationship we had.”
He describes the emotional satisfaction he would get “from sitting in a theater or watching a movie in a hotel room, and the child comes over, gets close to you, puts his head on your shoulder,” he says. “The way I look at it now that was a lot more rewarding than anything I did sexually.”
Zhdilkov holds little hope for Cardenas. “Statistically, pedophiles who are attracted to pre-pubescent boys are the most difficult to treat and the highest recidivism rate. I think it’s too dangerous for somebody like this to even be out.”
Cardenas will be 67 when he gets out of prison, at which time he will be deported to Mexico.
A LIFE FOR A LIFE
Susan says Michael, through therapy and experiences like leadership camp, has made significant progress. “It’s not all rainbows and ponies,” she says, but, in contrast to Michael’s lack of self-esteem and self-worth that had led her to seek out a mentor, now “he likes himself.”
Susan is a different story. She thought her hatred of Cardenas might have dissipated after three years, but it hasn’t. She still has much to learn about what he did to her son. All she can do, she says, is listen as Michael reveals shards of a world she had never known existed until the FBI came knocking at her door. One day, while they were playing cards, Michael held a root-beer bottle cap. Cardenas collected bottle caps, he told her, but they were Bud Lite. “Do you know why he collected those, Mom?” Michael asked. “BL. Boy love.”
Susan’s furious stare echoes her words. “What do you say to that?”
While she acknowledges it might be unhealthy to hold on to that hate, nevertheless, “it’s mine,” she says. She struggles to understand what happened, how Cardenas could so horribly abuse her child and “call it love. I think what happened was Tony convinced Michael he really cared.”
Finally, though, the only person who believes Cardenas’ protestations of love is himself. He told a psychologist who interviewed him jail, “I would have given my life for this kid.”
“Now you literally are,” she replied. “You are going to spend your life in prison.”