AUSTIN (KXAN) — After waiting more than 20 years for justice, a Georgetown man who was sexually assaulted as a child says he’s still waiting for resolve, after a disappointing sentence for the man convicted of the crime in Travis County.
Out of respect for the victim’s privacy and the nature of the crimes he endured, we are concealing his identity on television and online.
The 37-year-old Georgetown man says he endured traumatizing sexual abuse that began the day he turned 14 in 1994.
“I was on my way over to the neighbors’ house to visit. [I] noticed they weren’t home, but Michael [their friend] was. Then he told me he was going to give me a birthday present,” he told KXAN.
Michael Vanorder, who is now 49 years old, was in his 20s at the time, living in Austin.
After the initial incident, court documents indicate Vanorder would continue to manipulate the teenage boy – and another boy – for a number of years. When the victim turned 19 years old, he came forward and reported the abuse to the Austin Police Department.
Decades later, the victim says the abuse still affects him.
“It’s not something you get over. It’s every time you close your eyes and you can dream about yourself being in that same bed again,” he said. “I didn’t know how to explain it to anybody, so I just kept quiet. The older I got, you know, the more tired of it I got.”
Vanorder was arrested shortly after the victim filed his complaint. After Vanorder posted bond, he reportedly made some court appearances but he ultimately fled the state and moved to Arizona.
“He completely disappeared,” the victim said. “It more than pains me. It irritates me that you can just run away from what you did wrong. You can just take off and get away with it for 20 years. That eats me up.”
…still ended up losing in the long run.
The man who had jumped bail for years finally got caught in February 2015 when game wardens stopped him in Lake Havasu, Arizona for an off-road sticker violation. During their investigation, the wardens determined Vanorder had an outstanding fugitive from justice felony warrant issued out of Texas. Vanorder was arrested and extradited back to Texas to face 10 counts of child sex crimes (six counts of sexual assault with a child, two counts of indecency with a child by contact, and two counts of indecency with a child by exposure) in Travis County.
In 2018, Travis County District Attorney Margaret Moore took the case to a jury trial because she said the offense was so serious and the conduct so egregious, that the office would never offer a defendant in a case like this a plea deal.
“It is unsatisfactory that he remained at large that long,” Moore said. “It was important to us to go ahead and pursue the case.”
The victim was there for the whole process and breathed a sigh of relief when a jury found Vanorder guilty on all 10 counts in February. The victim says at that point he truly thought he was getting justice.
“We convinced a jury of 12 people that this guy was actually guilty of the crime. They believed us and they convicted him,” the victim explained.
The jury sentenced Vanorder to 10 years probation — zero prison time. The victims felt like they were victimized all over again.
“We were able to get someone finally to believe our story and get the prosecution that was needed… and still ended up losing in the long run,” the victim said. “He had 20 years to do whatever he wanted to. Now he’s got the rest of his life. I just really can’t believe that. We waited for a long time for justice for something that happened to us and what we got was not what we were expecting at all.”
Under his conditions of probation, Vanorder must register as a sex offender. According to the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Bastrop County Sheriff’s Office is currently responsible for monitoring his registry requirements. These requirements include checking in with the agency in person on a quarterly basis. The sheriff told KXAN Vanorder was recently moved from an annual reporting status to quarterly reporting.
If Vanorder had been sentenced to the maximum penalty for each of the 10 charges he was convicted on, he would have been sentenced to a total of 180 years in prison. In 2007, the law changed prohibiting probation eligibility for sexual assault of a child cases if the victim was younger than 14 years old. But, in Vanorder’s case, the victims were at least 14, making probation an “acceptable” punishment option.
Moore said that after such a long hiatus, the guilty verdict is still a “significant achievement.” “I’m really proud of that,” she added.
When asked why she believed the jury decided on probation, Moore responded, “It was the evidence on punishment that affected their decision to recommend probation to the court.” She continued, “There is no evidence of reoffending during that 20 years.”
However, Moore said she believes the greatest factor in the jury’s decision was the compelling testimony from Vanorder’s juvenile daughter regarding her dependence upon him. Vanorder is the child’s sole guardian.
“If he were to be incarcerated, she’d have to leave her hometown and move in with relatives. It would have quite an impact on her,” Moore explained.
The district attorney says regardless of the outcome in this case, it is important that victims still speak up, even in an imperfect system.
“We can never guarantee the outcome of a criminal case. But, I can guarantee that there will be no justice if you do not bring your story forward, and come into a courtroom, and tell it. For sure nothing is going to happen if you do not participate in the system,” Moore said.
The victim says he feels like the justice system let him down and needs to improve to prevent bail jumping.
KXAN reached out to Rep. Joe Moody, D-El Paso, to talk about this case and others like it. Moody is a former prosecutor and has taken a particular interest in criminal justice matters in the state legislature.
“One of the big focal points in criminal justice reform is right-sizing penalties, and bail jumping should be part of that discussion,” State. Rep. Moody said. “Whether that means tying punishment more closely to the offense the person fled prosecution for or to the manner or length of flight, it’s worth taking a look at.”
Moody says this issue is something that could be evaluated during the next legislative session which begins in January.
In 2017, there were 90 criminal jury trials in Travis County. Of those, 21 percent were child abuse cases of one kind or another. According to Travis County District Attorney’s Office data, that trial load was exceeded only by family violence cases, which made up 22 percent last year.
Nineteen child abuse jury trials in 2017 is the most Travis County has seen the past five years. In 2013, there were only 8 and in 2016, 10.
If you or someone you know may be experiencing crimes like this, there are a number of local and national organizations that can offer assistance.
In Austin, SAFE (Stop Abuse For Everyone) can be reached through a 24-hour SAFEline at (512) 267-SAFE (7233), via text at (737) 888-7233, and a SAFEline chat available online at https://www.safeaustin.org/.
According to SAFE, the warning signs for child sexual abuse include: fearful behavior (nightmares, depression, unusual fears, attempts to run away); abdominal pain, bedwetting, urinary tract infection, genital pain or bleeding, sexually transmitted disease; and extreme sexual behavior that seems inappropriate for the child’s age.
Nationally, the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline is also available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. You can visit their website, https://www.childhelp.org/, for additional information.
Kids can call the National Runaway Safeline if they have and/or are thinking about running away. Their website is https://www.1800runaway.org/.
All of these resources have toll free hotlines.