Meet the whistleblower — The Robert Powers story

Robert Powers talks about his relationship with David Barboza 40 years ago — and his life since his story went public

By Scott Pickering
Posted 8/8/19

Last Friday morning, Robert Powers moved slowly through two sets of doors at the entrance of Dunkin’ Donuts on Gooding Avenue. Walking with a cane and accompanied by his wife and stepson, he …

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Meet the whistleblower — The Robert Powers story

Robert Powers talks about his relationship with David Barboza 40 years ago — and his life since his story went public


Last Friday morning, Robert Powers moved slowly through two sets of doors at the entrance of Dunkin’ Donuts on Gooding Avenue. Walking with a cane and accompanied by his wife and stepson, he moved to the back of a short line, waiting to order a coffee.

In the dining area behind him, the din suddenly got a little quieter. Customers leaned in close and whispered to each other, glancing toward Mr. Powers. It felt awkward and uncomfortable.

Mr. Powers progressed through the line, placed his order, got his coffee and turned back toward the dining area.

Finally, the hush ended. One by one, people rose from their seats, walked up to “Bobby Powers,” put an arm around him, shook his hand or clapped him on the back and said, “We’re proud of you.”

“Good job, Bobby.”

“We’re with you, Bobby.”

“You’re doing the right thing.”

It lasted for 5 or 6 minutes, with people like former Bristol Fourth of July Chief Marshal Ed Castro huddled around Robert Powers and his family, congratulating them and bringing big smiles and a few tears to the face of a 54-year-old man who has spent most of his life in the shadows.

Meet Robert Powers, the whistleblower, key witness and outspoken victim in the David Barboza child molestation scandal.

The man who spoke out

Since a Boston Globe article on July 31 unearthed decades of alleged sexual abuse and molestation, Mr. Powers has been a mini-celebrity in Bristol. His Facebook page has been inundated with friends requests, and he can’t go anywhere without someone talking to him about the Barboza situation. That Dunkin’ Donuts visit was his first “public” appearance since the news broke, but his celebrity status reached a new level with a staged “protest” outside the alleged perpetrator’s Constitution Street home on Monday (see separate story).

Mr. Powers answered questions from reporters, posed for photos and joined with a small group of advocates and others (one of whom claimed to be a victim himself).

“I’m not a hero,” Mr. Powers said inside the coffee shop. “I did what I had to do, so no more kids have to go through what I did.”

The path from child victim to public whistleblower actually began five years ago. Ironically, it began at the same time that Mr. Barboza was basking in his highest achievement, making public appearances and receiving accolades as the 2014 Bristol Fourth of July chief marshal.

Being named chief marshal by Fourth of July Committee chairman Ray Lavey was a crowning achievement for Mr. Barboza, a man who had spent decades volunteering and serving and grabbing the reins of power whenever there was an opportunity. The headlines and hugs were everything he yearned for through decades of public service — they were the breaking point for Robert Powers.

State police investigate

Three weeks before Mr. Barboza led a rain-soaked 2014 parade, Mr. Powers was staying in a homeless shelter in Providence. Two state troopers met him at the Providence Mission Shelter to ask questions about his relationship with David Barboza some 35 to 40 years earlier.

With excruciating detail, Mr. Powers told them about the first time he met privately with Mr. Barboza — at that time, Bristol Police Officer Barboza — in 1975. He told them that Officer Barboza pulled up next to him in a marked police cruiser and invited him to go for a ride. He told them that Officer Barboza asked if he wanted to “fool around,” then exposed himself to the confused boy and taught the 10-year-old how to perform sexual acts.

He told the troopers that Officer Barboza reassured the boy not to worry, because “this is what boys do.”

In the most graphic section of Rhode Island State Police Sgt. Christopher Schram’s report, he writes, “At this point, Mr. Powers’ voice broke and he started to tear up. Mr. Powers advised that [Officer Barboza] instructed him to never tell anyone of what had happened. Mr Powers advised that [Officer Barboza] picked him up in uniform and in the cruiser and repeated this activity approximately two dozen times over a three- to four-year period, until he was 13.”

Inside the coffee shop, Mr. Powers was asked how he was able to sneak away with a uniformed police officer dozens of times without his parents or anyone else knowing.

“I used to go for walks [in the Annawamscutt neighborhood where he grew up],” Mr. Powers said, “and he knew my routine. He knew where to find me … He would pick me up and take me places. We’d go down by the TeePees.”

Back in those days, parents didn’t track their children with GPS like they do today. “We knew that when the streetlights came on, you had to be home,” Mr. Powers said.

Columban Fathers pickups

Mr. Powers was also a Boy Scout back then, and the Scouts would camp out at the Columban Fathers property off Ferry Road. “He knew where to find me,” Mr. Powers said of Mr. Barboza. “He would show up at the camp and say, ‘I want to take him for a ride.’ ” They would often go back to Mr. Barboza’s house on Narrows Road.

“I can draw a diagram of that house,” Mr. Powers said. “He always had dark shades in the bedroom.”

In the state police report, there are more disturbingly graphic descriptions of the alleged sexual activity inside Mr. Barboza’s home. “Mr. Powers advised that they would routinely engage in mutual masturbation, oral sex, digital penetration, and this occurred 75 to 100 times over the course of three to four years (1975-1979).”

Asked how this could have occurred so frequently for such a long time, Mr. Powers said, “He used his powers of position to gain the trust of kids … He used his uniforms.”

Throughout their relationship, Mr. Powers said he believed he was the only one. He never knew of any other boys, any other victims. Yet at one point near the end of their time together, he claims Mr. Barboza made a statement that is still chilling today: “He said I was the best he had ever had … So there had to be others before me.”

During those days, Mr. Barboza was a model citizen. Not only a police officer and firefighter, he was an honored parishioner at St. Mary’s Church. “He and my Dad used to collect money during Mass,” Mr. Powers said.

The relationship ends

Sometime in 1979, when the boy was 13 years old, the sexual activity allegedly became more intense. “He became more aggressive,” Mr. Powers said. The state police report states: “[Barboza] was trying to be more forceful and use sex toys … and at some point Mr. Powers stopped cooperating.”

“I became really scared,” Mr. Powers said inside Dunkin’ Donuts. “That’s when I left, and I wanted nothing to do with him.”

He avoiding going to church at St. Mary’s, and soon after, he began attending school out of town when he enrolled in the vocational technology program hosted in East Providence. He finished the program and went on to work in a variety of professions. He worked in a warehouse, learned to drive forklifts, did carpentry and woodworking. Over the next 35 years, many of them spent living in Bristol, he managed to avoid seeing Mr. Barboza, and if he did, he kept his distance.

Even at fire scenes or fire department events, the two volunteers — Mr. Powers with the Dreadnaughts and Mr. Barboaza with the Hydraulions — rarely interacted.

“For a long time, I kept that all repressed. I kept quiet,” Mr. Powers said.

Then came 2014, and as Mr. Barboza was soaking in the glow of his chief marshal celebration, Mr. Powers finally took action. He went to the Bristol Police Department to talk about his childhood, and then-Deputy Police Chief Steven Contente, sensing possible conflicts of interest, directed the case to the state police.

The state troopers found Mr. Powers “credible.”

“They told me I had so much detail, that nobody could make up a story with that much detail unless it was true,” Mr. Powers said last week.

As the interview wound down inside the coffee shop last week, Mr. Powers reflected on his many good years in Bristol. He talked about the big fires he fought as a member of the Dreads, including his gaffes and close calls. He said he’s switching to become a social member of the Ever-Ready station, a sure sign that he doesn’t plan on going anywhere. He plans on staying in his hometown.

Last December, he filed a civil suit against Mr. Barboza, seeking damages for “mental anguish” that he claims went untreated for years and affected his entire adult life. The initial suit demanded $1.5 million. Mr. Barboza is fighting it through an attorney.

On Wednesday, Mr. Powers shared a new frustration — that no one from the Town of Bristol has reached out to offer support or an apology in any way. “They’re the ones who let this happen,” Mr. Powers said. “As I talk to people around town, they’re all talking about how the town isn’t doing anything.”

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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.