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.