Another Bristol man claims abuse by David Barboza

By Scott Pickering
Posted 8/15/19

John Vento grew up a few doors away from the old Hydraulion Engine and Hose Co. fire station, when it was located in a small, two-story brick building at the corner of High and Franklin streets. Back …

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Another Bristol man claims abuse by David Barboza

Posted

John Vento grew up a few doors away from the old Hydraulion Engine and Hose Co. fire station, when it was located in a small, two-story brick building at the corner of High and Franklin streets. Back then, in 1971, the Hydraulion station was nestled into a dense residential neighborhood that straddled the two realities of downtown Bristol — towering, historic homes from an era when the harbor was a hub of commerce and wealth, and crowded tenements from an era when brick factories were the center of life and commerce.

John Vento lived with seven brothers and sisters in a rundown house next to the Union Commercial hardware store on Wood Street. The firehouse was a few doors down the street and around the corner.

“At that time, when there was a fire, they’d run the siren on top of the station so everybody could hear it — they didn’t have pagers in those days — so I would hear it and run down there. I was fascinated by it,” Mr. Vento said.

That’s where he met volunteer firefighter David E. Barboza. That’s where Mr. Barboza befriended him. And he says that’s where Mr. Barboza molested him.

Mr. Vento was a 6-year-old boy. Mr. Barboza was 17.

Speaking for the first time publicly during a face to face interview in the Phoenix office, Mr. Vento described his encounters with Mr. Barboza on the second floor of that old fire station; his years of rage that fueled violent behavior; his multiple arrests; his 17 1/2 years in a maximum security prison, and his frustration that no one ever took him seriously when he talked about the local celebrity who destroyed his childhood nearly 50 years ago.

Inside the fire station

Mr. Vento was questioned about his experiences with David Barboza during a Rhode Island State Police investigation in 2014. At the time, he was incarcerated at the ACI, sent back to prison for another stint after being caught breaking-and-entering into a Bristol home.

The state troopers were investigating another man’s claim that he (Robert Powers) had been molested by Mr. Barboza back in the 1970s, and they got Mr. Vento’s name on a tip from Bristol Police Deputy Chief Steven Contente. The two troopers visited Mr. Vento in the Medium Security wing at the ACI and showed him a picture of Mr. Barboza. He told the investigators about how Mr. Barboza would bring him to the second floor of the station and when they were alone, touch the boy and instruct the boy to touch him. He said Mr. Barboza demonstrated and taught him sexual acts on about a dozen occasions, from 1971 to 1975.

“I love the fire department. I really do,” said Mr. Vento. “A lot of those guys were really good to me. A lot of them treated me like I was their own son … My family didn’t have a lot of money, and the guys would take me with their kids for ice cream, let me ride on the firetruck now and then. I was always down there. I loved it. That was my thing.”

“But,” he added, “I ended up on the second floor in that station, being molested by David Barboza. I remember it as clear as yesterday.”

In the beginning, Mr. Barboza was a firefighter, but at 19, he also became a town police officer.

Mr. Vento said he also hung around the police station as a boy, and he remembers the young Officer Barboza. “I remember him arresting guys, bringing them into the station, and it was always kids. He would go to the Newport Creamery, and round up five or six kids for loitering. He’d have so many in the car, they’d be hanging out the windows, and he’d bring them to the station and he’d call their parents.”

Mr. Barboza did not remain a police officer for long. In 1975, a young man sued the department, claiming police brutality, after Officer Barboza allegedly bashed him in the head with a billy club. Mr. Barboza resigned in 1978 amid allegations about his conduct.

A history of trouble

While Mr. Barboza was flaming out of the Bristol Police Department (later landing as an employee in the state fire marshal’s office) young John Vento was having trouble functioning in society. By 1975, he was admitted to Bradley Hospital, where he was a patient for three years.

“I ended up in Bradley Hospital when I was 10,” Mr. Vento said. “They said I was emotionally disturbed. I was getting suspended from school. I was angry at the world. I never understood why.”

After three years, Mr. Vento was moved to a new facility. “They couldn’t do nothing with me, so they sent me to the Harbor School in Newburyport, Mass.” He said it’s the most beautiful place he has ever lived. He was there for a year, after being sent there by the State of Rhode Island, on a court-ordered placement.

Mr. Vento knows he made a lot of mistakes and did a lot of stupid things. Back home in Bristol in his teenage years, he got into a lot of trouble.

“My father had left my mother by that time, so my mother was on her own with eight kids. I was an angry, violent kid,” he said. “I was a little punk running around Bristol. I would smash your pumpkins and I would fight.”

The police were very familiar with him, and he was familiar with them. But in 1983, his life changed forever. A day after he and another man spent a few hours drinking and hanging out with a 15-year-old girl who was a ward of the state — Mr. Vento was 18 and the other man, 21 — the two were arrested by Warren police officers and charged with rape. 

It took more than a year for the case to move through the court system, but when it concluded in the spring of 1985, Mr. Vento was sentenced to 42 1/2 years in prison. He maintains his innocence on that charge.

“I never raped no girl. Both of us were charged, and he was found not guilty, with a private lawyer, and I got stuck with a public defender because I’m poor, and I got convicted. It was [expletive] [expletive]. They got me on that one, because of all of the stuff they couldn’t get me on before that.”

The angry young man made matters worse when he unleashed his frustration on the judge.

“I got 2 1/2 years added to the sentence because I called her a [expletive] [expletive]. She held me in contempt of court. I just didn’t care. I had just been sentenced to life in prison, and I was angry at the world.”

“I’m not claiming I’m a saint. I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I’m a saint, and that I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr. Vento said. “But I didn’t commit the crime of rape. I was a little punk that ran around here smoking pot and busting pumpkins on Halloween, and stupid stuff we did. We had keg parties up in the woods, and I used to challenge the cops. I would call them names, and they would chase me around, and they got sick of me after a while … Anyway, I ended up in maximum security, doing a 40-year sentence.”

Maximum security prison

Before he was released from prison in 2000, Mr. Vento had a hard life behind bars, and he says it changed him forever.

“Seventeen and a half-years in a maximum security prison screwed me up. Seeing people get murdered screwed me up. Seeing people get raped screwed me up … At the time, it was one of the worst maximum security prisons in the country. It was a violent place. I lived a rough life, and it turned me into someone I never wanted to be. Not in a million years would I have believed I would turn into the person I did … I stabbed a few people, I did whatever I had to do.

“I may weigh only 160 pounds, but I was a dangerous person, and after a while, they knew it, and they left me alone … but it turned me into someone I never would have believed. I’m really not a bad person, but I was so angry at the world.”

Providence Diocese investigator

Mr. Vento said that during his time in maximum security, in 1995 or 1996, he was visited by a retired Massachusetts state trooper who was working for the Diocese of Providence.

“I was called to the lieutenant’s office in the prison, and he told me, ‘There’s a guy here who would like to speak to you … He said he was an investigator for the Diocese, and he was investigating a complaint from somebody at St. Mary’s Church. He [the retired trooper] told me that a fellow walked into St. Mary’s Church with his wife and kids in 1995 or 1996, and when he saw David Barboza up on the pulpit, he took off and left his wife and kids and went home. When his wife got home, she said, ‘what was that all about?’ and he said, ‘that guy on the pulpit with the priest molested me when I was a kid, and I lost it and went home.’ So she called the Diocese and reported it.”

Mr. Vento said the investigator asked him questions about Mr. Barboza, and he told his story, but that was the last he ever heard of the investigation.

Asked how the investigator found him in the first place, Mr. Vento said he believes then-Bristol Police Chief Russell S. Serpa gave him the tip. Mr. Vento said that a short time before the Diocese visit, he was reading the Phoenix — his mother paid for a subscription for her son for years — and he saw an article about Mr. Barboza working with a children’s-based program in town. It outraged him, so he wrote a letter to Chief Serpa describing his molestation as a child.

Mr. Vento does not have a copy of the letter anymore, and current Bristol Police Chief Brian Burke has been looking for it and not been able to find it yet. Mr. Vento is adamant that he sent it, and adamant that he never heard any followup from anyone in Bristol, the state police or the Diocese.

“I know for a fact that they went to Barboza and gave him a pat on the back,” Mr. Vento said. “That’s right. A pat on the back. Because Vento’s in prison, and he’s a piece of [expletive], and we don’t believe him anyway, so, Dave, keep doing what you’re doing, buddy.”

Mr. Vento is angry that no one pursued his claims further, including the investigator from the Diocese. “You’re a retired state police officer, and you’re required to report it.

“If someone comes to you, and you’re retired as a cop, and someone tells you, ‘I was molested by this guy,’ you’re going to tell me you’re not going to your superior, and you’re not going to hand this over to the police? You’re not even going to investigate it?”

Mr. Vento claims that over the years, he told many other people, unofficially, about his abuse as a child. He claims he told firefighters and police officers.

“I was so angry, not only at the molestation, but because no one would believe me,” he said.

John Vento today

Mr. Vento’s second round of official questioning about Mr. Barboza occurred in that 2014 interview with state police detectives looking into the Powers case. Though Mr. Vento was incarcerated after his breaking-and-entering arrest, the troopers nevertheless found him to be a credible witness regarding the alleged molestation.

That was five years ago. Today Mr. Vento is jobless, homeless and socially isolated. He said he’s sort of a loner, though he does have a longstanding relationship with a woman he loves deeply. He lives for free thanks to a friend who gives him a place to sleep, in exchange for odd jobs and help around his business.

Mr. Vento had a decent job at one time in his adult life, after getting out of prison on the rape charge in August of 2000. He said he briefly worked for a local boatbuilding company, but it did not last.

“I had a legitimate job. I loved my job,” he said, “but I started doing drugs, and I couldn’t get out of my own way, and I quit after four or five months … I’m a drug addict … I got out of prison after all those years and I couldn’t function in society.”

During the interview, Mr. Vento alternated between sounding angry at everything, and accepting of the choices he made.

“This affected me in so many ways. It turned me into a person I never should have been. It made me so angry at the world. I became the angriest person you would ever meet. I felt dirty. I couldn’t have relationships,” he said.

Yet at the same time, he said he can’t blame all his actions on someone else.

“I don’t use Barboza as my excuse,” he said. “I did what I did. I’m in full control of what I do, and I believe that, but I do believe that he played in a role in who I became as a person. He definitely played a role in who I am today.”

What’s next?

“I’m homeless. I have nothing. I have no money … I’m going to sue everybody. I’m going to sue the town … They were part of creating who I am today. I’m mad. I want the police and town to say they were wrong for what they did,” he said.

“Regardless of where they put this information, back burner, front burner, it doesn’t matter. They should have put it somewhere.”

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Scott Pickering

Scott Pickering has been on the East Bay Newspapers team for more than two decades, since starting as a reporter for the Sakonnet Times. He's been editor of most of the papers, was Managing Editor of all the papers for many years, and became General Manager in 2012. Today he can be found posting to EastBayRI.com, steering news coverage, writing editorials, talking to readers, working with the sales team, collaborating on design, or helping do whatever it takes to get the papers out the door. Reach him at spickering@eastbaynewspapers.com.