‘A house of sexual assault’: How private school student Christopher Belter avoided jail despite string of sex crimes

The Belters’ grand residence was known to local students as the ‘party house’. But victims’ lawyers say it was a trap for teenage girls who were ‘groomed’ with drugs and alcohol and then abused, writes Io Dodds

Friday 19 November 2021 09:39
<p>Christopher Belter Jr at a hearing in 2019 </p>

Christopher Belter Jr at a hearing in 2019

"If Chris Belter was not a white defendant from a rich and influential family, it is my belief he would surely have been sentenced to prison."

That was what lawyer Steven M Cohen said on Tuesday when his client’s rapist Christopher Belter Jr, 20, was sentenced to eight years of probation despite pleading guilty to sexually assaulting four girls when he was 16 and 17 years old.

Belter, the son of a successful lawyer and formerly a student at a $15,200 (£11,280) a year Jesuit high school in upstate New York, had already broken his parole conditions before, yet was spared jail by Judge Matthew Murphy this week.

“I’m not ashamed to say that I actually prayed over what is the appropriate sentence in this case, because there was great pain; there was great harm," said Judge Murphy. “It seems to me that a sentence that involves incarceration or partial incarceration isn’t appropriate."

After the verdict, Mr Cohen said his client had thrown up in the lady’s room. "Justice was not done today," he said. "The truth of what went on and what he did to his victims is far more egregious than the charges he plead guilty to."

Lawsuits filed by two victims further allege that Belter was enabled by his mother Tricia Vacanti and her husband Gary Sullo, with one complaint accusing Vacanti of "grooming [the victim] and other girls to be prey for her predator son".

Based on court documents from both suits, this is how a child abuse tip-off about a grand home in an affluent area of Lewiston, New York led to such outrage and confusion this week.

Rich parents, grand manors, and jello shots

When Chris Belter was arrested in November 2018, it sent shockwaves through the well-heeled neighbourhood where he lived and the two Catholic high schools connected to his case.

At the time he committed the crimes, he was a student at Canisius High, a private all-boys prep school in Buffalo, New York that charges $15,200 for each year of tuition. A school fundraising page lists him as a member of its varsity hockey team, and news reports say he played rugby.

His father, Christopher Belter Sr, is a senior trial lawyer and a partner at Goldberg Segalla, a high-end law firm where some partners reportedly make more than $1m a year.

Mr Belter Sr’s company profile describes him as an expert in commercial, construction and intellectual property law who works at Goldberg Segalla’s Buffalo headquarters and its office in Manhattan. Belter Jr’s mother Tricia Vacanti also appears to be a lawyer, according to online listings and her Facebook page.

Gary Sullo, meanwhile, is the chief executive of Tramec Holdings, a privately owned manufacturing firm whose products include truck parts, heaters, and plastic components for vehicles and air conditioning systems. In 2020 it made $34 million in revenue according to PitchBook.

The house itself stands in one of Niagara County’s most exclusive neighbourhoods, on a tree-lined street whose grand estates are set back far from the road behind iron gates and sprawling lawns, just five minutes’ walk away from the Niagara Falls Country Club.

The house where Christopher Belter Jr lived with his mother and stepfather in Lewiston, New York

According to local media, the house was known among students at Canisius and nearby Nardin Academy as the "party house". Police charged Sullo with serving alcohol to minors as far back as 2016. Other court papers accuse Vacanti of serving the teenagers alcoholic jello shots and smoking cannabis with them.

New York police began investigating the parties after receiving a tip through the state’s child abuse helpline in September 2018.

Four victims over 18 months

The facts of Belter’s crimes are grim. All of them happened in the same house and follow a similar pattern, but on four separate occasions over a year and a half, according to documents.

"It’s not a party house case," said assistant district attorney Peter M Wydysh. "It was a house of sexual assault."

The first victim said that Belter tried to kiss and grope her after she had fallen asleep in February 2017. She awoke and tried to stop him, but he said "just a little bit more" and put his hand under her shirt to touch her chest.

The second victim woke up in Belter’s bedroom in November 2017 after using a vape pen to take THC, the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. As she woke up, Belter was penetrating her.

The third victim said she had often been to parties at Belter’s house, where she took alcohol, cannabis and adderall, a medication for ADHD that is sometimes used recreationally as a stimulant.

Late one night, she said, fell asleep in a bedroom and woke up to find Belter touching her genitals. When she asked him what he was doing, he said he was looking for a phone charger.

The fourth victim had previously been in a sexual relationship with Belter lasting from February through June 2018, when she was under the age of consent. That August, after they had broken up, she stayed overnight with Belter’s sister because they were going to Chicago next day.

Belter asked her to come to his room to talk, and then to sit on his bed. When she refused, he threw her down on the bed, pulled off her clothes, held her down by her arms, and put his hand over her mouth to stop her from screaming, according to the documents.

During the crime, the victim said she focused her attention on the leaves of a plant in the room even while crying. She said that Belter told her to "stop being such a baby" and that "if she stopped resisting, it wouldn’t hurt as much". Afterwards she threw up in the bathroom.

Mother accused of ‘grooming’ girls with flattery, confidences and drugs

How did the same thing keep happening in the same house? According to a pair of civil lawsuits filed by two of Belter’s victims, the adults around him share some of the blame.

One lawsuit was filed shortly after Belter’s arrest, asking for damages from him, Sullo, Vacanti and Belter Sr for the "profound physical, psychological and emotional injuries" stemming from the plaintiff’s sexual assault in November 2017.

The three adults, it claimed, "had notice that multiple minor children had been subjected to sexual assault and abuse by Belter Jr" even before the plaintiff’s assault, "and therefore should have known of Belter Jr’s propensity to commit those acts."

It accused them of "knowingly and wilfully failing to prevent or report" those incidents, and of making such crimes more likely by procuring booze and drugs for the teenagers.

Another lawsuit was filed the next year on behalf of Belter’s fourth victim, known as "MM", and her parents, naming Vacanti, Sullo, Belter Sr and a fourth adult, Jessica Long, as co-defendants.

"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, with the intention of grooming MM and other girls to be prey for her predator son," it alleges.

"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."

Then, in August 2018, the lawsuit says that Belter Jr sexually assaulted MM. Alcohol was not involved, but the suit argues that it had played a crucial role in building a relationship of safety with Belter Jr.

"Vacanti, Sullo and Long knew or should have known of the vicious, amoral, abusive and dangerous propensities of Belter Jr," it concludes.

Afterwards, Mark Moore was laid off from his job due to taking so much time off to look after MM, and Stacy Moore lost money from missed work. The family also suffered medical expenses.

Both suits are still ongoing, and Vacanti, Sullo, Belter Sr and Long have denied all wrongdoing or denied enough knowledge of the facts to form a response. In parallel criminal charges, they have all pleaded not guilty.

A lawyer for Sullo claimed that the two victims’ injuries were due to "negligence, recklessness, want of due care and other culpable conduct", and that the first plaintiff knew the risks of her behaviour.

A lawyer for Belter Sr said: "The allegations against Chris are meritless. He was not present at the home on the dates alleged and he should be dropped from the lawsuit."

Psychologists feared Belter was likely to reoffend

Though initially charged with first degree rape and sexual assault, Belter was able to avoid those counts by pleading guilty to less serious charges in 2019.

At the time, Niagara County judge Sara Sheldon sentenced him to two years of probation, ordering him to undergo sex offender treatment and take a mental health evaluation; to eschew alcohol and illegal drugs; to have no contact with the victims or anyone under 17; and to never view any pornography or "sexually oriented material".

Judge Sheldon warned Belter that his conditions would be "incredibly stringent”, saying: "Literally, you are going to have to follow these rules – and there’s like four pages – to the letter of the law or you won’t earn youthful offender status.

"Do you understand this...? You have to be perfect. And who’s perfect? This may be the greatest challenge you ever face, young man."

If Belter followed his conditions, he would earn the right to be sentenced as a young offender, Even then, the decision was controversial. "I did what I agreed to do," a stunned MM told the Buffalo News. "When he got probation and youthful offender status and some social limitations as his punishment, I felt betrayed by the system."

Soon enough, Belter broke those rules. He downloaded software that allowed him to circumvent the monitoring program placed on his computer and continued to look at porn throughout 2020 and 2021.

His counsellor, Dr David Heffler, said Belter’s therapy had been impeded by a lifelong addiction to porn, which was his only way of managing life stress. Belter said he had been viewing porn since he was seven and described it as a "coping mechanism".

Dr Heffler also told a judge that Belter had previously been emotionally blunt and displayed little empathy towards other people, though in the months before his sentencing he appeared to have had a breakthrough.

Despite medication that lowered his libido, a risk assessment performed by Dr Heffler this October found that Belter was at "above average risk" of reoffending.

For all those reasons, Judge Sheldon’s successor Matthew Murphy refused to sentence Belter as a young offender on 28 October, writing: "Perhaps the Defendant has made progress, perhaps if [he] is continued on probation and sex offender counselling for another eight years the risk to reoffend will be eliminated.

"But in the meantime, the defendant still poses an ‘above average risk’ to reoffend even after two years of counselling, and this risk occurs as [he] is about to turn 21 and likely to meet other young women who might not be aware of [his] criminal past unless [he] informs them.

"We now know, from his documented failure to follow the rules imposed by the court about abstinence from pornography, that this defendant does not hesitate to ignore the rules when they compete with his own carnal appetites."

Victim’s impassioned plea: ‘you can put this fire out’

According to reports, Judge Murphy did not give detailed reasons for his decision on Tuesday, and it is unclear why he changed his tone from the October hearing.

The case may be one of the last that Mr Murphy handles: next month he will turn 70 and be forced to retire by New York state law.

In August, he tried to bar the media from publishing Belter’s name despite it being said in open court and having been widely reported. The Buffalo Newsshot back in an editorial accusing him of "an abusive of power" with "no legal justification", arguing: "The ruling wasn’t merely lawless, it was weird."

His October decision mentions that Belter’s mother created "a highly permissive environment with little or no consequences for bad behaviour", and that much of his therapy was focused on "pathology within his own family" and "negative emotions and anger about his childhood".

After Tuesday’s ruling, MM’s lawyer Steven Cohen said that she threw up in the ladies’ room. "In our opinion, there were absolutely no appropriate consequences for the defendant’s repeated violations of Judge Sheldon’s terms of probation," Mr Cohen said.

He added that "each and every person in that courtroom" who had heard Judge Sheldon’s warning to Belter two years ago must now be doubting whether he will really be punished for any future parole violations.

In a victim impact statement given in August, MM had described driving across the USA this summer and seeing the devastation caused by forest fires. She compared Belter to "a forest fire that raged through acres of lives, destroying everything in its path".

She ended her statement with a plea to the court: "I wish I could have had a louder voice at the beginning of all this. That 16-year-old girl trusted a bit too much that justice would have been served.

"She worried that if she spoke up louder, she would get hurt even worse and hurt other people along the way. She had just assumed that all rapists go to jail. She missed out on opportunities to speak up that she wasn’t even ware of....

"But today I am older. Today I know that I am able to speak up for myself without interference, without people telling me what to say and what not to say.

"So I stand before you no asking you to not let this be the end, to not let this rapist walk away from two years’ probation with a clean slate. I am asking you because you have the ability to save future girls. You have the ability to either put this fire out or let it continue burning."

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged in