‘I’m shaking with anger’: Survivor of teen rapist fears he will attack again after he avoids jail time

One of the four women abused by Belter says judge’s decision to give him probation makes her feel ‘victimised a second time’

Io Dodds
Saturday 20 November 2021 22:52
<p>A picture of two women who were sexually assaulted by Belter </p>

A picture of two women who were sexually assaulted by Belter

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A teenager whose sex abuser was spared jail despite pleading guilty to the rape or sexual assault of four girls has said she is "shaking with anger" at the judge’s decision.

Christopher Belter Jr, now 20, was sentenced to eight years’ probation on Tuesday for a string of sex crimes against girls aged 15 and 16 while he was a student at an elite private school in upstate New York.

Now one of his survivors has warned that she fears he will re-offend thanks to Judge Matthew Murphy’s leniency, and claims there are still many women he abused who have not come forward.

In an interview with The Independent on Friday, she said: “I think this is the beginning of his offences. His nature is manipulative; he’s tactical... now he isn’t on a short enough leash. I think he is fully capable of abusing again within his probation.”

A psychological assessment in October assessed Belter as being “above average risk” of re-offending, according to court papers.

The probation ruling sparked outrage across the US this week, with one victim’s lawyer saying that Belter would "surely have been sentenced to prison" if he was not "a white defendant from a rich and influential family".

Belter, the son of a successful lawyer, was put on probation in 2019 after agreeing to plead guilty to less serious charges. A judge told Belter that he would need to be "perfect" to avoid prison, but he broke his parole conditions by deliberately circumventing the monitoring software on his PC to view online pornography.

"I felt victimised for the second time by Judge Murphy's decision," said the woman, who is not being named by The Independent as she requested anonymity.

"I was physically sick for three days. I’m going to college away from my parents, and my father has had to call me and just beg me to eat something. I’ve lost four pounds in the last three days.

"[The judge] said that he prayed to find the appropriate sentence for Christopher. I don’t believe that the God I pray to navigate the trauma Christopher has inflicted is the same god that Judge Murphy prayed to."

A lawyer for Christopher Belter declined to comment to The Independent.

‘I was either going to kill myself or come forward’

The woman was 15 years old in November 2017 when Belter assaulted her in her sleep at his family’s grand manor house in Lewiston, New York on the night before Thanksgiving.

She and her fellow students at Nardin Academy, a private girls school, were often invited there to drink and party, allegedly with the encouragement of Belter’s mother Tricia Vacanti.

On the night of the attack, she had used a vape pen given to her by Belter to take THC, the psychoactive ingredient of cannabis, and hallucinated badly. She told the Buffalo News that she remembers repeatedly saying "no" as Belter assaulted her, and waking up the next morning bruised and "beat up".

Known in some court papers as Jane Doe, the woman is suing Belter, Vacanti, her husband Gary Sullo, and Belter’s father Christopher Belter Sr for personal injuries and medical expenses, accusing the three adults of negligently fostering Belter’s abuse. All three have denied those claims.

‘Jane Doe’, left, and her childhood best friend ‘MM’, right, at around the age they were assaulted

Now 19, the woman says that it took about six months for her to realise what had happened to her. She developed complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), and struggled with "behavioural issues".

"I was kind of just a mystery at that point," she says. "Nobody knew why I was behaving the way I was. No one knew why I was just falling apart with anxiety. It put my family into a tailspin trying to figure out what was wrong with me. This is not something I wanted my family to know.

"It wasn’t until my youngest brother, who was 13 at the time, found me in my bedroom in the midst of a suicide attempt that I finally told my family."

That was in September 2018, and other survivors were beginning to come forward. The woman’s childhood best friend, known in court papers as "MM", had tipped off a state child abuse helpline after being raped by Belter.

"That was my last straw," says the woman. "I knew I was either going to kill myself or come forward – and come forward for the sake of her, and the other girls that were attacked."

‘I was not the first victim’

As more survivors began to tell their stories, they realised that they were not alone. The woman said: "I was not the first victim... by that point, there had been other calls about the same home, the same boy, the same family.

"[One] investigator told me he had received nearly 25 phone calls from different girls and families believed to be a victim of Christopher Belter, [who] had decided not to fully come forward because the four of us were going to fight for them."

Everyone assured her that coming forward was the right thing to do, and she felt a sense of responsibility to the other survivors. In 2019, a different Niagara County judge sentenced Belter to two years’ probation, telling him he would need to be "perfect" to avoid being sentenced as an adult.

"Jane Doe" was crushed. "I, unfortunately, believed the district attorney at the time that it was an appropriate procedure for Christopher’s crimes," she says. "I feel like my family and I were manipulated into believing that was the logical decision.... I suppressed my doubts."

Christopher Belter at his first sentencing in 2019

For a long time she did not speak to the media because investigators told her it could interfere with the case. She also struggled with being anonymous, feeling dehumanised by the "Jane Doe" label, which is a stock name to protect rape victims but also for dead women who cannot be identified.

She also found it hard to understand how Belter’s crimes had been allowed to happen. A separate lawsuit filed by the family of MM lays much blame with Vacanti, accusing her of "grooming [MM and other girls to be prey for her predator son".

The lawsuit alleges: "Vacanti cultured a relationship with MM with all the characteristics of a peer to peer friendship, including the mutual exchange of personal and confidential information...

"Vacanti would flatter and compliment MM’s appearance, find points of insecurity in MM’s psyche and use them... [she] gained MM’s trust by offering a space for her and others to party with drugs and alcohol."

“Jane Doe” agrees with that description. "I absolutely feel like I was groomed," she says. "Tricia Vacanti was always with us, drinking – to the point of incompetency on the part of myself and the girls. She would tell us to go find Christopher at points.

"She would be waiting in her kitchen with jello shots on a silver platter for us. She would lecture to us about how lovely her son was. She went to all ends to make us trust her – trust that Christopher was a good kid.”

Doe alleges that Vacanti told one victim that Belter had seen a doctor and was going to be taken to a rehabilitation centre. It was after that point that MM was raped.

The woman also says prosecutors refused to charge Vacanti as an accessory to the assaults, reacting with hostility to families’ attempts to push for it, and accusing Doe’s own parents of trying to bolster their civil case.

Rapist’s ‘gloating’ sentencing statement was ‘twisting the knife’

Vacanti, Sullo, Belter Sr and their lawyers did not respond to requests for comment from The Independent.

In court filings, Vacanti, Sullo, and Belter Sr denied "Jane Doe" and MM’s accusations or said they did not have enough information to give a response. Through her lawyer, Vacanti said that "any and all loss or damages sustained by Plaintiffs were caused by the act, actions, or omissions of third parties", and asked the judge to throw out both cases.

Police have filed charges against Vacanti and ullo, and a family friend, for child endangerment and unlawfully dealing with a child. All three have pleaded not guilty, and the case is ongoing.

Today, the woman known as Jane Doe still struggles with C-PTSD which sometimes leaves her lethargic and unable to go out in public because she would have to be around men.

She believes that Belter’s family influence and connections contributed to his light sentence and to the fact that his attacks continued for so long. “I don't know what else to blame – besides privilege,” she said.

At his sentencing hearing, Belter was allowed to address the court. “I hope each of you could close that wound I gashed,” he said. “I know though, that a scar will remain that will serve as a reminder of the evil of that night.”

The woman described this to The Independent as a “gloat”.

She said: "It was said in a bragging manner. To me that’s what fuels him, just turning the knife in us, over and over again, thank you for reminding me, Christopher.”

While Jane Doe requested anonymity, both she and MM gave permission to The Independent to publish their picture, so readers could see the reality of Belter’s crimes.

She said: "I feel like an important part of this would be people recognising that there is actually a 15-year-old girl behind all this – and what we looked like.”

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