On Jan. 10, 2010, Antonio Cardenas borrowed his brother’s car to drive from their mother’s house in West Valley City to a surprise birthday party in Riverton for a 12-year-old boy he had once mentored.
But after just a few blocks, police lights filled the back of the car. A West Valley City police officer asked the 30-year-old for his driver’s license. FBI agent Jeff Ross stood behind him, took one look at the license and told Cardenas, “I’ve been looking for you.”
Cardenas realized that the boy, Michael, and his mother, Susan [not their real names], had set him up.
“You think you’re here to see Michael,” Ross told him. “He hates you, his family hates you.”
Just months before, Susan had found out from the FBI that for three of the five years Cardenas served as a “big brother” to Michael, he had sexually abused the boy and photographed and videoed himself doing so.
In a jailhouse interview, the undocumented, Mexican-born Cardenas prefers to characterize the abuse as “consensual sex.” He says he didn’t understand how society would see such acts until U.S Attorney prosecutor Carol Dain told him he had repeatedly raped the child. “When she said that, that gave me an idea what people were thinking out there,” he says. “I did not rape that kid. I never did anything against his will.”
In jail, waiting to be shipped out of state to begin a 35-year federal sentence at a yet-to-be-determined prison, Cardenas says he doesn’t blame single mother Susan for working with the feds to get him behind bars. “It’s the only thing for her to have done,” he says. “After you see the pictures, where do you go from there? She did what she had to do.”
The recordings of his abuse form part of what became known in the underground child-porn community as the “SpongeBob” series. It’s a collection of child-porn photographs and videos so nicknamed, Cardenas explains, because the first video of him and his victim to circulate on the Internet featured acts of sexual abuse on a blanket decorated with the Nickelodeon cartoon character.
In conversation, Cardenas uses his hands expressively, whether to describe a kiss between adults or the close relationship between Mexicans in prison. But when he uses them to describe the first time he sexually abused the 9-year-old child, those delicate hands become deeply sinister.
Cardenas is a “BL” or “boy lover.” He says his ideal partner is a “blondish” boy between 9 and 12 who, in his mind, is a willing partner. Agent Ross says, “Boy lovers believe nothing is wrong with having sex with children. They believe the law should change.”
Cardenas says the acts he perpetrated against Michael were in the name of love. In Cardenas’ search for emotional connections with pedophiles he met on the Internet, in his bid to impress them and share his videos of his sexual encounters with the boy, Cardenas sowed the seeds for his own destruction. During the course of four interviews with City Weekly, apologies or remorse nibble at the fringes of Cardenas’ words. He says what he did to the boy “at the moment, it felt like the right thing to do.” At first, he argues that it wasn’t betrayal. But then, he says, “I don’t believe a 9 to 11 year old is ready for anything sexual. It’s fair to say I betrayed his trust.”
That act of betrayal included getting past the formidable defenses of a woman dedicated to her children. “I tried everything in my power to protect my kids and he, like a little parasite, latched onto my family,” Susan says. Instead of the media stereotype of “the pedophile in the creepy little van,” Cardenas had presented himself to her family as “a 24-year-old fresh-faced mentor who worked with kids, who was enthusiastic about all the same things my kid was.” To make matters worse, Cardenas had previously worked with at-risk kids, so “he knew the kind of future he gave Michael [by abusing him], and he didn’t give a shit.”
In a 2010 sentencing memorandum on another child-porn case, Judge John R. Adams in United States v. Cunningham, paraphrasing a quote from Nelson Mandela, wrote, “Given the recent statistics surrounding child pornography, we are living in a country that is losing its soul.” At Cardenas’ sentencing, Susan offered a more explicit insight into the meaning of child pornography. In two large boxes stood dozens of brown envelopes containing at least 500 victim-notification statements of cases wending their way through the United States federal court system of individuals being prosecuted for possessing “SpongeBob” images. “Every one of those envelopes represents perverts looking at pictures of my son,” she says.
LEAVING THE ’HOOD
Gina Zhdilkov, herself a survivor of sexual abuse by a child pornographer who was featured in a 2008 City Weekly profile, is not surprised by Cardenas’ pattern of denial. A sexual-abuse and trauma therapist for the past 20 years, she has not reviewed Cardenas’ psychiatric evaluation but bases her opinion on City Weekly notes from the jailhouse interviews with Cardenas. She says pedophiles like Cardenas know something is wrong, but they convince themselves to do it anyway.
“He justified what he was doing by seeing it as consensual sex as opposed to abuse,” she says. In turn, that made him even more of a threat. “The self-justification helps the perpetrator feel normal to some degree, thus making him appear more normal to others, and more dangerous because he’s harder to detect.”
Cardenas realized he was attracted to boys around 10 years old when he himself was 11. “I was supposed to be a tough kid,” referring to growing up in South Central Los Angeles in an apartment building controlled by a local street gang. “But I was having all these mixed feelings I felt I had to keep to myself. I had an image to protect.”
Right then, Zhdilkov says, it was Cardenas who needed help. “It’s really sad he didn’t have somebody he could process his attractions to peers with,” she says. “It isn’t necessarily any indication of aberrant sexual attraction. Obviously, it’s something he felt was aberrant, that he had to keep secret. The guilt he felt associated with that was probably the most damaging thing at that age.”
After he lost his virginity at 13 to a 17-year-old girl, he says he sought out sexual encounters to better understand his own sexuality. But what was satisfying, he says, was hanging out with boys in his own “tagging crew. That was a lot more fulfilling than a woman or a prostitute.” Then he found nudism websites with images of nude boys. “I couldn’t believe it was out there,” he says.
He went on to college, the first of his siblings to do so, and studied sociology and Chicano studies. “My mother was very proud of me.” Cardenas would later use his experience of getting out of the ’hood as a weapon against Susan and Michael.
BURYING THE PAST
At college, “I was able to train myself on computers and then find [child porn] for myself,” mostly Russian material, Cardenas says. By the time he was 20, he’d discovered two worlds: the “boy lover” community and child porn. He believed his desire for boys was over- shadowed only by questions of legality, not morality. “I felt I had the same moral code as adult men and women,” he says, meaning that in his mind he would never rape a child, since the “sex” would be consensual. But because of the illegality of such relationships, out of frustration, he says, “boy lovers” turn to the equally illegal child porn, which, therapist Zhdilkov notes, serves to further reinforce the sexual attraction.
As he encountered more images on the Internet, so he became increasingly desensitized, he says. With more images also came the idea of keeping them, of starting a collection. He sought ways to hide the material he was collecting, using invisible files on his computer.
“Porn is so addicting,” Cardenas says. “You’re forever trying to find more and more. You take anything that comes your way.” Where he drew the line, he says, is when “a child is forced to do something, or children under 6. I didn’t keep that at all.”
Two years into his college education, his undocumented status cost him his scholarship. In 1999, his sister invited him to Salt Lake City, where she lived with her children and husband.
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.”
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.”