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Twin Cities Pioneer Press
Article Last Updated: 02/11/2008 12:12:59 AM CST
Laura R. was sexually molested as a 7-year-old. Last Dec. 22 – 22 years to the day after police went to her Arden Hills home to question her about the allegations – the 30-year-old California resident searched the Internet for her convicted molester’s name.
Her shocking discovery: The man, Gary George Vadnais, 72, had been a chess coach for two decades, teaching hundreds of children in the St. Paul area.
This is Laura’s story, based on police, court and medical documents; interviews with relatives; and her own recollections.
Laura R. was your typical 7-year-old girl in summer 1985. She was off from school, mostly idle and homebound while her father, a mechanical engineer, was at work. She tussled with an older brother for attention and acceptance. She liked Cabbage Patch dolls. Her father, divorced with custody of two children, took out a room-for-rent ad, for extra income. Gary George Vadnais, then 50, got the basement efficiency apartment in the 3600 block of North Cleveland Street in Arden Hills.
Vadnais, Laura recalled, became almost like a best friend and confidant. The molestations began after a period of what sex crime experts call “grooming.”
Questioned later by authorities, Laura disclosed she was invited or went on her own to Vadnais’ room, often to watch TV or read books with him. She told investigators she often found Vadnais wearing a bathrobe and nothing else.
“Laura said that when they were watching TV, Gary would put his penis on the remote control so if she wanted to change the channel, she would have to touch the penis,” Ramsey County sheriff’s investigator Earl Kennicutt wrote in a report.
The victimization ended when Laura’s 11-year-old brother, told by his sister of some of the encounters, informed their mother.
“We have to get Gary out of the house, because he does weird things,” Laura told her mother after she was confronted.
Kennicutt described Laura’s demeanor during his interview with her: “Shy and has a very soft voice. She had two stuffed toys on her lap and kept playing with them, twisting and pulling on them.”
Another officer noted in reports that the only way Laura, sitting on her mother’s lap, would talk was if “she had a blanket over her head and face.”
Laura reluctantly but gradually provided details. She described the sexual encounters in police reports as “lots.” They included fondling and more. The encounters also took place, she recalled, during sneak visits by Vadnais into her room during nights when her father was at work or out of town and her grandmother baby-sat.
She underwent a necessary but traumatic physical examination Jan. 13, 1986, by Dr. Carole Levitt.
Levitt threw her softball questions to put her at ease, such as where the second-grader went to school – “Valentine Hills” – and who her best friend was – “Nicole.”
“She describes him touching her clitoris and her touching his penis, rubbing both at the top and the bottom with him ejaculating at times in her hand,” Levitt, who still works at the Midwest Children’s Resource Center, wrote in her report.
Levitt concluded Laura had been sexually abused. Laura considered the exam, among the traumatic intrusions into her life then, almost as bad as the molestation.
“Well, it was a nightmare when everything came out,” she says now. “I had countless strangers asking me to recount the details I didn’t even want to think about, let alone tell the whole world.
“I was very confused. This was a man who befriended me and paid so much attention to me, and here I was throwing him under the bus,” she added. “I knew what he did to me was wrong, and I wanted it to stop, but I didn’t want to lose a friend. Through all of this I thought that I was in trouble, guilty by association and by just being there.”
Vadnais was arrested and tried on charges of second-degree criminal sexual contact involving a minor younger than 13 years and older than 13 months. Vadnais denied wrongdoing. He described Laura to Kennicutt as a “chronic liar” who swore and “talked dirty in general.”
Laura remembers the prosecutor, Ben Rosene, saying it was critical she testify against Vadnais, because he could go on abusing more children.
The 8-year-old struggled to overcome her fear and reluctance. All she wanted to do was go to school and play with friends, not talk about sexual matters. Yet Laura testified during the weeklong jury trial, bringing a stuffed Bugs Bunny to the witness stand.
“The intensity was overwhelming, that Indian statue at the entrance (in the Ramsey County Courthouse) was so menacing to me,” she writes in an e-mail. “It was embarrassing. Now all the attention was focused on me for something so horrific.
“Again, no one had to say it was my fault, I could just read into the questions I was being asked, that’s all I had to go on,” she added. “I remember my mom in her grief saying, ‘I told you kids about good touch and bad touch!!’ I know that there’s no way she could blame herself for something so terrible, but for me those words meant I screwed up.”
After Vadnais was convicted, he was sentenced to a 21-month prison term, which was stayed on condition he spend a year in the Ramsey County workhouse. He also was placed on 15 years’ probation. There is no mention of any court-ordered sex offender treatment in available public records.
Vadnais served less than a year in the workhouse. Laura began serving a far longer sentence.
“I had no one to relate to,” she says. “I remember being made fun of when I told my best girlfriend around age 10 or 11.”
She was treated for depression and suicidal thoughts:
“I felt so isolated, alone and miserable. I wanted to die.”
She began cutting and mutilating her body at age 13. She was sent for psychiatric care at the University of Minnesota after middle school staff caught her cutting herself in the locker room.
“We watched movies, played games, made leather bracelets and had the occasional freak-out that required a few hours in a padded white room,” Laura says. Prozac, she recalls, “made me very violent.”
Drugs and homelessness followed. Then came placement in a correctional foster home. She tried a new tack: academic overachievement.
She says she was an English and math honors student at Anoka High School and ranked first in her biology class. But she struggled with male relationships and clashed with relatives. She dropped out during her senior year. She left for California at age 17, looking for escape and a fresh start. She did not realize her mental wounds would go along on the trip.
“As far as the (genital) warts that I was given at age 7, I will have that for the rest of my life,” Laura explains. “It will make me prone to cervical cancer. At age 13, I had my first Pap smear, and it was abnormal. They had to perform another colposcopy. It was frightening.”
Permanent scars from the mutilations are visible up and down her arms. She rarely, if ever, wears short sleeves. She is married, has a good job and takes college courses. But she still occasionally attends group therapy with other childhood sex abuse survivors in an effort to overcome and make sense of the senselessness.
Some impulse she can only describe as “spiritual” prompted her fateful online search.
“This is not like a poison pill I take daily,” she says of the lingering effects of her victimization.
“I am not a vigilante, or always plotting to get back at him,” she adds. “I’m just trying to live my life, but I just want to make people aware of what he did to me, and to make sure that people know and that kids are safe. That’s all.”
Rubén Rosario can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 651-228-5454.
On Tuesday: Gary Vadnais’ story
Online: Read Laura R.’s statement at twincities.com.