A Lehigh Acres man in a child bride case took a plea deal Monday that puts him on 12 years of sex offender probation.
Antonio Juarez, 31, was accused of “marrying” a 13-year-old when he was in his mid-20s, according to court records. Investigators concluded Juarez and the girl lived like husband and wife with the girl’s parents from about 2009 to 2015 in homes in Bonita Springs and Lehigh Acres.
It’s likely Juarez will be deported because of his no-contest plea in a Lee County court to a charge of lewd and lascivious behavior with a victim between 12 and 16, according to the News Press. However, deportation is not under the local court’s jurisdiction.
A state prosecutor had to repeat his questions about deportation to Juarez several times before the native of Guatemala understood what the prosecutor was asking. Juarez, who was assigned a Spanish-speaking interpreter, is not a U.S. citizen and told the court he had a fourth-grade education. His lawyer has previously said Spanish was not his first language. Many Guatemalans speak Mayan languages.
Indeed, culture was at the root of the crime. Guatemala has one of the highest child marriage rates in Latin America. The now 21-year-old woman said her parents were also from Guatemala, though she was born in the United States. She is not being named because she is a victim of a sex crime.
The case went undetected for years despite the fact that the girl attended local schools and gave birth at HealthPark. The illicit arrangement came to light when Juarez filed for rights to see their now 6-year-old daughter, essentially turning himself in for the crime.
Toni Latino, the young woman’s lawyer, said her client was satisfied with the plea deal that requires Juarez record a radio public service announcement warning against underage marriage. Her client did not wish to testify or appear in court. Juarez is also barred from contact with the victim and must register as a sex offender.
Latino read a statement before Judge Joseph Fuller on her client’s behalf.
“She feels like she was not the only victim in this matter,” said Latino, before looking to Juarez. “She wants you to know that she promises that she is going to make sure the child is safe and she promises she’s going to protect the child but to please leave them both alone.”
Latino is also representing the woman in a separate petition to dissolve Juarez’s parental rights to the child. Juarez declined comment through his lawyer, Rene Suarez, who has said his client was profoundly unaware of the law. Juarez still hopes to gain some rights to his daughter, Suarez said, while noting that that scenario is unlikely.
“The real tragedy here is the child,” Suarez said after the hearing. “Because if and when he’s deported that child is going to grow up without knowing her father and the victim is going to suffer from that deportation because she’s not going to have the benefit of the child support payments that he otherwise would be paying.”
The ramifications extend beyond the family, the lawyer argued.
“Society as a whole is going to pay the price because then we’re going to foot the bill of that child having to grow up without that parental support.”