Lawsuits: Children sexually assaulted by Charleston Salvation Army worker
UPDATE (Tuesday, March 21, 4:49 p.m.) The Salvation Army says Armando Gonzalez was a member of their church, but was never employed as a Sunday School teacher or child care provider, as is alleged by attorneys in the lawsuits.
CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCIV) -- Families of two Charleston-area children have sued the Salvation Army for negligence amid reports of sexual abuse by a former employee.
Attorneys say they are suing the national Salvation Army, the Salvation Army's Southern Territory, and several regional and local Salvation Army employees for actions that led to 65-year-old Armando Gonzalez being hired, and ultimately molesting the two children.
Attorneys argue Salvation Army employees did not perform their due diligence in researching Gonzalez's background. If they had, attorneys say they would've discovered Gonzalez has a history of criminal sexual conduct.
As such, attorneys for the victims argue Gonzalez wouldn't have been hired, and three children wouldn't have been molested. The McLeod Law Group filed separate civil lawsuits Monday on behalf of two of those children.
Gonzalez and his wife, Mabel Shuler, ran the child care and Sunday School programs at The Salvation Army location at 2135 Ashley River Road in Charleston when the alleged sexual assaults occurred, between 2010 and 2015.
The lawsuits claim three Salvation Army administrators in charge of hiring and general operations at the Charleston branch failed to perform so-called "child sexual assault prevention or safety measures" required by Salvation Army policy.
The families and their attorneys are also suing Shuler. Attorneys argue she had direct prior knowledge of her husband's criminal history, having observed and participated in past sexual assaults, yet "knowingly and recklessly" failed to report them.
Salvation Army officials responded to the lawsuit Monday, saying in a prepared statement they first learned of the situation in October 2015 when one of the victims' family members reported the abuse to them.
Salvation Army officials say they immediately contacted law enforcement, and banned Gonzalez and Shuler from Salvation Army properties pending the outcome of the police investigation.
"From the moment The Salvation Army heard the allegation, our first priority has been the care and well-being of those affected and their families," the statement reads. "The Salvation Army guidelines do not tolerate sexual misconduct of any kind. We are committed to the safety of those we serve and will continue to refine our practices to ensure the safety of all who come through our doors."
THEY 'NEVER SAID NO'
Gonzalez was arrested and charged in 2015 with three counts of first degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor under 11-years-old in connection to the Salvation Army case. The minimum prison sentence for that charge is 25 years.
According to incident reports from Charleston Police related to the Salvation Army case, three children claim Gonzalez repeatedly sexually assaulted them over the course of five years.
Affidavits show the victims in the Salvation Army case were each about four years old when the alleged abuse began.
Attorneys for the children say they were left in Gonzalez's care as part of the child care and Sunday School programs.
According to the police reports, Gonzalez admitted to molesting the girls. Investigators say Gonzalez told them he would put his hands up the victims' skirts or dresses and rub their genitals.
Detectives say Gonzalez admitted to touching two of the girls' outside their underwear, while making skin-to-skin contact with the third.
The affidavits show Gonzalez told police he believed the children "liked it," and "never said no."
View one of the two lawsuits below. Mobile users, click HERE:
A HISTORY OF SEXUAL ASSAULT
Other police reports provided by the McLeod Law Group show Gonzalez has a documented history of sexually abusing minors.
Reports filed in 2003 by North Charleston Police and the Colleton County Sheriff's Office show a 17-year-old Cottageville girl who attended church with Gonzalez and Shuler reported both to law enforcement after an encounter in their North Charleston home.
The teen told law enforcement Gonzalez led her into his bedroom, straddled her, then groped and rubbed her breasts and genitals. The girl told investigators Shuler walked in and saw this, then asked Gonzalez "what are you doing with your hands down her britches?"
However, the teen told Colleton County deputies Shuler did nothing to stop her husband, and even left the room only to return with a camera, saying she wanted to take pictures. The victim didn't believe Shuler actually took photos.
In the report filed by Colleton County Sheriff's Office, Shuler reportedly told deputies her husband needed help, and she was going to see that he got it.
Gonzalez was eventually convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor in the 2003 case, a misdemeanor. He was sentenced to three months probation. A judge ordered him to receive sex offender counseling, and prohibited him from supervising children.
According to state law, "no childcare facility may employ a person, engage the services of, or knowingly allow a person in the childcare facility during normal hours of operation, who is required to register under the sex offender registry act."
It's unclear if Gonzalez was ever listed on the South Carolina or federal sex offender registry. No one by the name Armando Gonzalez is listed on either database.
NEW VICTIM COMES FORWARD
WARNING: GRAPHIC DETAILS FOLLOW
Shortly after Gonzalez was arrested in December 2015, another victim came forward. Attorneys for the Salvation Army victims also point to this case in their suit.
It's a key factor in their accusations against Shuler.
The woman, now 30, told a Charleston County Sheriff's Office detective In January 2016 that Gonzalez molested her repeatedly as a child between 1991 and 1996. She was between 6 and 11 years old at the time of the assaults.
The victim told detectives Gonzalez on multiple occasions took her pants off and touched her vagina, penetrating her with his fingers while masturbating.
The woman says Shuler once walked in on Gonzalez doing this to her, and stopped it. However, the woman says Shuler in a later instance actually participated, allowing Gonzalez to fondle them both at the same time.
The woman also told detectives Gonzalez once forced her to watch while he and Shuler had sex.
Shuler has never been arrested or charged with a crime in Charleston County, according to online records. A search of her name does not return even the simplest of criminal activities, such as traffic tickets.
Since the woman came forward, a state grand jury has indicted Gonzalez on two additional counts of criminal sexual conduct with a minor -- one first degree, and one third degree charge.
Gonzalez faces a total of five charges of criminal sexual conduct with a minor under 11 from both the Charleston Police Department and the Charleston County Sheriff's Office.
A judge has set Gonzalez's bond at $275,000. He is still in jail at the Al Cannon Detention Center, where he has been for one year and three months.
The last actions in court related to Gonzalez's Salvation Army case were in May 2016. There has been no activity in the 1991-1996 case since October 2016, according to online records.