Othello Man Found Guilty of Two Counts of First-Degree Child Rape and Two Counts of First-Degree Child Molestation
By Shirley Wentworth
Thursday, August 16, 2001
RITZVILLE - Erica Rodriguez and her mother, Alejandra Garza, broke down and cried when the verdict came in.
It took slightly less than four hours for a seven-man, five-woman
Adams County Superior Court jury to declare Manuel Beliz, 48, of Othello
guilty of two counts of first-degree child rape and two counts of first-degree
child molestation. They reached their verdict about 7:45 p.m.
Rodriguez said she believed Beliz, a Jehovah's Witness elder, had also molested other girls and her whole purpose in coming forward was to keep him from doing it to someone else. She said that even though her church disfellowshipped Beliz—or removed him from the church--for six months, church elders pressured her not to report him to the police. Jehovah's Witnesses say a member cannot be disfellowshipped unless that member has admitted the offense or crime.
A jury convicted Beliz of two counts of first-degree child rape and two counts of first-degree child molestation in 1998. However, the state court of appeals granted Beliz the right to a new trial on the basis that then-deputy prosecutor Dennis Scott sought to exclude women from the jury panel.
Security was tight in the courthouse because of death threats made against Rodriguez during the last trial. Rodriguez, now 22, was best friends with Beliz's daughter. She testified how as a child he would signal to her with two thumps of his hand, which meant for her to go and sit beside him. He would then allegedly begin to touch her and take her hand to touch him-- she not understanding what he was doing. This took place on a weekly basis throughout her childhood, Beliz denied ever having raped Rodriguez, or having had repeated sexual contact with her. He admitted to having touched her "boobs" on one occasion, but couldn't remember when. He said that a statement he made recorded in two Othello police officers' reports about touching her vaginal area during the time she was in town for a funeral was incorrect.
Garza testified Tuesday her daughter first told her about Beliz in 1996. Garza also testified that Beliz had called her earlier in 1996 to apologize about what he had done to her daughter: "He said, ‘I'm very sorry I have that problem, I'm working on it.'"
Defense attorney Dennis Morgan repeatedly challenged the soundness of Rodriguez's memory and tried to prove a rape couldn't have happened by calling three of Beliz's children to the stand, all of whom presented a time frame of events that contradicted Rodriguez's story.
During closing arguments, Morgan tried to convince the jury of Belize's innocence because of holes in Rodriguez's memories. Adams County Prosecutor Gary Brueher, however, said memories aren't necessarily tied to specific dates and times.
Barbara Anderson, part of a group fighting clergy-based sex crimes, is one of about 20 advocates from around the country who traveled to Adams County for the trial to lend support to Rodriguez. Anderson previously worked as a research assistant in the Jehovah's Witnesses New York headquarters. She said she gave the Dateline news show, which had a crew covering the Beliz trial, documentation describing how the church's leadership is well aware of sexual child abuse within its organization and helps cover it up.
The Dateline show plans to air a program this fall detailing how the organization deals with child abuse.
* Reporter Shirley Wentworth can be reached at 509-488-0657 or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.