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Tampa man convicted of molesting neighbor

By CHRISTOPHER GOFFARD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published October 24, 2002

TAMPA -- A 49-year-old Tampa landscaper was convicted Wednesday of molesting a 5-year-old girl who lived in his neighborhood, charges that could bring him 60 years in prison.

After an hour's deliberation, a Hillsborough jury found Arnulfo Silva guilty of two counts of lewd and lascivious molestation in connection with the July 28, 2001, incident.

Prosecutor Rita Peters argued that Silva molested the girl, who came regularly to his house to play with his own children.

Taking the stand Tuesday, Silva said he had been alone with the girl but denied touching her improperly. Defense attorneys suggested that Silva's accuser had been coached by a neighbor who disliked him, and that the criminal accusations stemmed from neighbors who wanted him ousted.

In his closing argument to the jury Wednesday, assistant public defender Anthony Candela noted that the girl was unable to identify Silva when asked to point him out during the trial.

"If this really happened to this little girl, she'd know who did it," Candela said.

Prosecutors argued that Silva looked different when the incident occurred. In contrast to the well-groomed man who sat through trial in a dress shirt and tie, he was 40 pounds lighter then, had facial hair and a deep tan, and wore a T-shirt.

Silva faces up to 30 years on each of the two charges when Hillsborough Circuit Judge Jack Espinosa sentences him Dec. 6.

But first Silva must stand trial on charges of sexual battery and lewd and lascivious molestation related to another girl, a 13-year-old neighbor. That trial is set for Nov. 18.

"We've got a rough road to go. He's a sick man," said the mother of the 13-year-old girl, who attended Silva's trial this week and wept with relief at the verdict. "We trusted this family," she said of Silva and his wife. "We protected their children, and they did nothing to protect ours."

Though jurors did not learn this at the trial, prosecutors said Silva pleaded guilty in 1981 in Harris County, Texas, to a charge of raping a child. Silva received a seven-year suspended prison sentence but wound up serving only two years' probation on the charge.

-- Christopher Goffard can be reached at (813) 226-3337 or goffard@sptimes.com.

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