Bristol victims allege years of sexual abuse by civic leader

In police reports, civil suit and in person, two men allege longtime public servant David Barboza abused them

By Scott Pickering
Posted 7/31/19

Five years ago, David E. Barboza held the “highest honor” in Bristol. Celebrated for his long career in public service, the former police officer, volunteer firefighter, state fire …

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Bristol victims allege years of sexual abuse by civic leader

In police reports, civil suit and in person, two men allege longtime public servant David Barboza abused them


Five years ago, David E. Barboza held the “highest honor” in Bristol. Celebrated for his long career in public service, the former police officer, volunteer firefighter, state fire marshal, civil defense director, joint finance committee chairman and Bristol town councilor, was named the 2014 Bristol Fourth of July chief marshal, granting him the privilege of leading the nation’s oldest, continuous Independence Day celebration.

In an interview with the Phoenix at the time, he said cutting the ribbon at the start of the parade would be “humbling” and “magical.”

During the historic march that day, Mr. Barboza saw a familiar face in the crowd. Robert Powers was sitting with family along Hope Street, near the Bristol Oyster Bar. Mr. Barboza walked over and hugged him, and Mr. Powers went numb. He says that hug unleashed a wave of repressed memories, which came pouring out in public some five years later, detailed in a nearly 4,000-word Boston Globe article published Wednesday.

As reported by the Globe’s Amanda Milkovits and corroborated by Phoenix reporting on Wednesday, Mr. Powers and two other men have accused Mr. Barboza of either committing or soliciting sexual acts during the 1970s and ’80s, when the victims ranged in age from 6 to 14. Decades later, the three separate accusations were brought to light last December, when Mr. Powers, 54, of  Bristol, filed a civil suit in Rhode Island Superior Court against his alleged predator.

Victim alleges years of abuse

Mr. Powers, who was interviewed in person in the Phoenix office hours after the Globe article was posted online Wednesday, alleges that David Barboza sexually abused and molested him from 1975 through 1979, while the victim was 10 to 13 years old. Mr. Powers said memories came flooding back after seeing Mr. Barboza around town and feeling sick about it.

That sick feeling turned into action in June of 2014, weeks before Mr. Barboza cut the ribbon to lead that year’s parade, when Mr. Powers took his accusations to the Bristol Police Department. Current Town Administrator Steven Contente was deputy police chief at the time, and recognizing the potential conflicts of interest if they investigated a former officer in their department, as well as a sitting town councilor, sent the case to the Rhode Island State Police.

Sgt. Christopher Schram of the Rhode Island State Police Major Crimes Unit led the investigation, which is detailed in a graphic report filed along with the civil suit. According to the state police report, the victim first came into contact with David Barboza in 1975, when he was 10 years old.

According to the police report, Mr. Powers said his parents knew Mr. Barboza as a “family friend” and as a police officer. His family also knew him from St. Mary’s Church.

Alleged encounters in police cruiser

Mr. Powers, who was homeless in June of 2014 and staying in a Providence shelter with his wife, told the investigating officers that his personal relationship with Mr. Barboza began when the uniformed officer approached him one day in 1975, while driving a marked cruiser. He alleges that the officer asked him if he wanted to go for a ride in the cruiser. The boy accepted and the two drove to a remote location.

According to the report, Officer Barboza asked the boy if he wanted to “fool around,” then exposed himself and instructed the boy on how to perform sexual acts. Mr. Powers went on to tell the officers more graphic details of their encounter that day and in the years that followed. He told officers that they repeated their sexual activities in the police cruiser about two dozen times over a three to four-year period, and that they also met frequently at Mr. Barboza’s home. According to the victim’s statements to police, the two routinely engaged in an array of sexual activities, and that these acts occurred “75 to 100 times” from 1975 to 1979.

Two investigating officers found Mr. Powers and his testimony to be “credible,” but the Attorney General’s Office chose not to pursue charges because the statue of limitations had passed. The officers filed their report in the event Mr. Powers decided to pursue civil charges.

In his civil suit, Mr. Powers alleges he was of “unsound mind” for decades after the abuse, “being unable to manage day-to-day affairs and suffering from repressed recollection of the sexual abuse.” He says he has suffered homelessness, family turmoil and the inability to maintain a productive lifestyle as a result of the abuse.

Interviewed on Wednesday, Mr. Powers said he is a lifelong volunteer in the Dreadnaught fire station. With Mr. Barboza a member of the Hydraulion station, he has done his best to avoid his alleged abuser at fire scenes or around town for years. Mr. Powers said he also stopped going to St. Mary’s Church to avoid Mr. Barboza.

After years working in warehouses, driving forklifts, woodworking and holding a job as a security guard, Mr. Powers is now disabled, the result of two strokes.

In a civil suit filed by attorney Andrew J. Tine of Barrington, Mr. Powers is seeking damages of more than $1 million and said he welcomes publicity around his case.

“He has been walking around town for years pretending that nothing happened,” Mr. Powers said. “I feel like he needs to be exposed, and I feel like I did the right thing by coming forward.”

Another victim from the ’70s

During their investigation of the Powers allegations five years ago, state police officers learned of another alleged victim. In turning over evidence, Deputy Chief Contente told the officers that about two years prior, a man disclosed to two Bristol police officers that he had been molested by Mr. Barboza as a 6- to 8-year-old child in the early 1970s. At the time of their investigation, the alleged victim was incarcerated in the medium security wing of the Adult Correctional Institute on narcotics charges. The state investigators went to the prison to question him.

According to their report, this witness was also credible. They began by showing the man, who is not identified in the report, a photo of Mr. Powers. He did not recognize Mr. Powers. They then showed him a photo of Mr. Barboza, and “his facial expression and body language changed immediately and he stated, ‘I will tell you everything.’ ”

The man described how he met Mr. Barboza, then a volunteer firefighter at the Hydraulion station at the corner of Franklin and High streets, when the boy was 6 years old and would often hang around the station. He told officers that in their first sexual encounter, Mr. Barboza took the boy up to the second floor of the station. His account then mirrors Mr. Powers’s in many ways, including the alleged assailant exposing himself, instructing the boy to expose himself, and teaching the young boy sexual activities.

The man told officers this occurred about eight to 10 times from 1971 to 1974, always on the second floor of the station, aside from one encounter in the basement of the station. He said Mr. Barboza instructed him to never tell anyone about what they were doing, a promise he did not keep. According to the report, he disclosed the abuse during counseling sessions at Bradley Hospital around 1975. He said he also disclosed it in a letter to Bristol Police Chief Russell Serpa in the 1990s, and to an investigator from the Providence Diocese, who had also visited him in prison.

According to the Globe, which was able to identify and interview the man recently, he is now 54 years old and living in Bristol. The man told the Globe he grew up as one of eight children, and he always loved the fire station and firefighters, often running out to watch them roll out with sirens flashing and horns blaring. “I wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter in the worst way,” he told the Globe.

He also told the Globe, “I’m baffled to this day how [Barboza] got away with it.”

Attorney Fausto Anguilla, a former Democratic state representative from Bristol, is representing Mr. Barboza in the Superior Court suit. Contacted Wednesday afternoon, he said he will not comment on the case while it is in litigation.

Soliciting a 14-year-old boy

A third alleged victim of David Barboza was a 14-year-old in 1982. He told Bristol police investigators at the time about how a man driving an unmarked black car — David Barboza of the state fire marshal’s office — had pulled up next to him and asked him to get into the car. The boy said that after he refused, Mr. Barboza offered him marijuana and asked if he wanted to “fool around.”

Bristol Police arrested Mr. Barboza and charged him with transporting for indecent purposes. The case was later dismissed and Mr. Barboza was never charged again.

Mr. Contente, now the town administrator, explained Wednesday why he turned over information about that incident to state police investigators five years ago. "Like everyone else,” he said, “I knew what was reported in 1983 or 1982, that he was arrested for soliciting a kid on Gooding Avenue, the case went before a Grand Jury, and was dismissed for whatever reason. That's why when we got the new information at the police station a few years ago, I thought that it was important to bring in the State Police, since Mr. Barboza was politically involved and once employed by the Bristol Police Department. So we gave the information we had been given to the state police.”

More than a decade ago, Bristol resident and plumber Rick Lavey brought new publicity to the case when he dug up Bristol Phoenix reports of the 1982 David Barboza arrest and circulated them in an attempt to undermine the Democrat’s candidacy for Bristol Town Council. It didn’t work. Mr. Barboza was elected to the town’s highest board in 1998, then re-elected six more times. He served as vice chairman of the council and chairman of the Bristol Warren Joint Finance Committee.

His lengthy resumé of public service is detailed in extreme detail on a page of the Bristol Fourth of July website, posted when he was named chief marshal. It details his childhood in Bristol, growing up under the tutelage of Hector Massa; serving as counselor-in-training at Camp Hess on Hog Island; working as head counselor and lifeguard at the Bristol YMCA; joining the volunteer fire department a month early, when he was still 17; progressing to a career as an EMT, a civil defense and emergency management director; decades of volunteer service in local government; service to the Bristol Rotary Club, Elks Lodge and Knights of Columbus; and working as business manager and administrative assistant to the pastor of St. Mary’s Church.

Mr. Barboza wrote of the many influences in his life: “They taught me the value of public service, self sacrifice, putting others first and being grateful for what you have.”

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