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August 5, 2014
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Basalt man gets 11 years in prison on child sex-abuse charges

Pitkin County District Judge Gail Nichols on Monday afternoon sentenced a Basalt man who admitted to sexual relations with children to 11 years in state prison.

Once he completes his prison term, Felix Santana-Penaloza, who is not a U.S. citizen, will be deported to Mexico, authorities said during his sentencing hearing. Through an agreement with the 9th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, he pleaded guilty in June to three felonies: one count of sexual exploitation of a child and two counts of attempted sexual assault of a child.

His two female victims were between ages 7 and 13 at the time of the incidents, according to court documents. Santana-Penaloza has been held in the custody of the Pitkin County Jail under $500,000 bond since his July 19, 2013, arrest.

“No sentence can be right for me and my family,” the father of the victims said in court through a Spanish-language interpreter. “I do believe there will be a divine justice that will happen.”

Another relative of the girls asked the judge to impose the harshest penalty possible. She said she doesn’t believe that Santana-Penaloza can be rehabilitated.

A pre-sentencing report by the state Probation Office suggests that he is a low risk of repeating the offense and that he is not a sexual predator, according to his defense attorney, public defender Sara Steele.

However, “I truly believe that this was not the first time he did it, but I don’t believe it’ll be the last, either,” the victims’ relative said.

As one of his victims recited an emotion-filled statement before the judge, Santana-Penaloza slumped down in his chair and sobbed. The girl described the experience as “a living hell” and said she would never again be able to trust men because of what he did to her.

“I don’t understand how you can look in the mirror and call yourself a man,” she said.

Steele pleaded for leniency. She said her client led an impoverished childhood in Mexico with little education and that he battled alcohol addiction for much of his life but overcame it. He even started an Alcoholics Anonymous chapter in Colorado and helped people with their struggles, she said.

“We are all humans,” Steele said.

As she began to talk about how Santana-Penaloza would be deported after serving his sentence — to a country where he hardly knows anyone — he appeared to hyperventilate. Nichols called a brief recess so that Santana-Penaloza could leave the courtroom to compose himself.

Once he returned, he gave a statement to the judge and asked for forgiveness: from his victims and their family as well as his own relatives and friends who attended the hearing.

“What just happened was not a show,” he said with regard to hyperventilating and leaving the courtroom.

Santana-Penaloza then acknowledged his wrongdoing. He said he has always been a religious man but that he has become closer to God while sitting in jail and reading the Bible every night.

“There are many people here who are hurt,” he said. “I know my words cannot heal. We all know there is a God. He does heal.”

Dropping to his knees and raising his hands in the air, sometimes with clenched fists, he then begged for forgiveness.

“I am so sorry for everything I have done,” he shouted. “God, please help me!”

He said that while being held in the Pitkin County Jail, he has looked to the skies, seen the clouds part and felt the presence of a higher being.

Even if he should die while incarcerated, “I know my soul will go with Him,” Santana-Penaloza said.

But earlier in the hearing, prosecutor Andrea Bryan said no one was to blame but Santana-Penaloza. In the interviews that formed much of the basis for his pre-sentencing report, he reportedly blamed “the devil” for his misdeeds.

Bryan said she would have liked to have taken the case to trial — had he been convicted by a jury of sexual assault, he would have received what’s known as an “indeterminate sentence,” making it harder to earn release. But a trial would have been extremely difficult on the victims and their family, Bryan said.

The ordeal took an immeasurable toll on the family, she said.

“This defendant really did steal years from an entire family,” Bryan said.

One of Santana-Penaloza’s younger brothers spoke, as well, saying that he was the oldest sibling and a role model for the others. Santana-Penaloza always worked hard to help provide for the family, the brother said, adding that their mother has been in poor health since the arrest.

Under the plea bargain, Nichols could have given Santana-Penaloza 12 years behind bars. She said that in effect, she was taking one year off of the maximum recommended sentence since he had already served 385 days in the county jail.

The abuse, according to Aspen Police Department investigators, occurred over a period of a several years in two counties. Police said that after the incidents, he would warn the girls not to tell anyone about them.

Before the guilty pleas, Santana-Penaloza faced felony charges of sexual assault on a child from someone in a position of trust.

andre@aspentimes.com


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The Aspen Times Updated Aug 5, 2014 07:10AM Published Aug 6, 2014 06:40AM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.