An employee of All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito, despite serious allegations of child molestation, has the support of many in the church congregation, which has rallied around him both financially and spiritually while his case winds through court.
Carlos Ruano, 66, who over the last seven years has worked as the church’s sexton, overseeing the maintenance and function of its buildings, is accused of lewd conduct against a minor — his step-granddaughter — during an incident that reportedly took place last year inside his home on Santa Barbara’s Eastside.
The alleged victim was 7 years old at the time. Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig said Ruano faces up to seven years in prison if he is convicted, but that he is also considering filing more charges in what is very much a he said/she said–type case.
In court Tuesday afternoon, Ruano was present and in custody for his preliminary hearing, where Judge Clifford Anderson ruled there was enough evidence against him to proceed to trial. Also in attendance were more than two dozen supporters of Ruano, who has been in jail since his arrest.
In the years he has worked at the church on Eucalyptus Lane in Montecito, members have gotten to know his character, they said. In a phone interview prior to the hearing, congregation member Patricia McClure called Ruano a remarkable man, an opinion she bases on “years and years of watching him work, and his kindness toward everyone. … He’s served with real distinction,” McClure said. “He has an extraordinary work ethic.”
Church members are raising money for Ruano’s family and are writing him letters while he sits in jail. And most importantly, said Sheri Benninghoven, the senior warden at All Saints-by-the-Sea, they are praying. “It’s obviously very sad,” Benninghoven. “It’s tragic no matter what has taken place.” The church has continued to keep Ruano on its payroll during his incarceration.
Church members have sent dozens of letters to the DA’s Office in support of Ruano — Ladinig said he’s received around 80. “We appreciate these people showing their support,” Ladinig said. “Our job is to carry out justice.”
A young girl came in and testified as to what her step-grandfather had done to her. The judge heard her testimony, and he held the defendant to answer to the charges.”
Judge Anderson closed the courtroom for the testimony of the alleged victim Tuesday afternoon. Ladinig characterized the closed hearing by saying, “A young girl came in and testified as to what her step-grandfather had done to her. The judge heard her testimony, and he held the defendant to answer to the charges.”
Prior to the courtroom being cleared, Detective Crystal Bedolla testified that in an interview with Ruano, he told her that, on the day in question, he was at his home on East Montecito Street with a friend watching three children, including his step-granddaughter. He told the detective that the alleged victim’s brother jumped on her, causing her pain to her stomach. The children had apparently been jumping on a bed in Ruano’s room. He told Bedolla — who interviewed Ruano about a month after the alleged incident — that he grabbed some sort of ointment to give to the victim to ease the stomach pain. He later applied the ointment to her himself.
Initially, Bedolla testified, when Ruano demonstrated to her where he applied the lotion to his step-granddaughter, he kept his hand on his stomach area. But, Bedolla went on, Ruano then slid his hand down the front of his pants and explained to the detective that he may have accidentally rubbed on the outside of the girl’s underwear near her vagina.
The girl was wearing a dress at the time, Bedolla testified, and said Ruano told her he lifted it up to apply the ointment. Bedolla said he denied rubbing her beneath her underwear, licking her breast, or exposing his penis, all allegations the victim apparently made. “He said he wasn’t that kind of a person and wouldn’t do that sort of thing,” Bedolla said.
It was Ruano’s opinion, Bedolla continued, that the mother “conspired … to coach the victim to say these things.” Many Ruano supporters believe the allegations arose out of an acrimonious divorce proceeding between the child’s parents. On cross-examination, defense attorney Jeremy Lessem asked if Bedolla had looked into whether the victim’s parents were undergoing a divorce or whether there was a custody battle going on.
He also asked if the alleged victim originally identified the person who committed the crime as “Jose.” Bedolla said that yes, she did, but it was later clarified that the victim didn’t know the defendant’s correct name and that the girl identified him through a photo. The detective also asked family members if the victim might know another person named Jose, and they answered they didn’t know whom she could be talking about.
Lessem said he didn’t want to comment on the specific facts of the case but said he feels strongly Ruano will be exonerated. “Carlos Ruano is innocent of the charges against him,” Lessem said. “We are very appreciative of all the support that has come from the church and other members of the community. I think it says a lot about Carlos as a person that he has received such an incredible outpouring of support.”
Ruano will be in court again on March 18.