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Trial Opens for Montecito Church Employee Accused of Molesting Step-Granddaughter

A jury heard opening statements Tuesday in the trial for an All Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church employee, who had a dozen parishioners sitting supportively behind him in spite of a felony molestation charge.

Carlos Ruano, 67, who has been the Montecito church’s sexton since 2006, appeared Tuesday in a Santa Barbara courtroom, where a jury was at last installed after several days of the selection process.

Ruano, who as sexton oversaw ground maintenance and the logistics of all church events, has been charged with one felony count of lewd conduct against a minor — his then 7-year-old step-granddaughter — during an incident that allegedly took place last July in his Santa Barbara home.

Prosecutors allege that Ruano, who has been in custody since last year, inappropriately touched the victim when she visited his home on July 29, 2012.

According to court documents, the victim had been jumping on a bed with her brother when he jumped onto her stomach, injuring her. Ruano allegedly touched her beneath her underwear while he was applying lotion for the stomach pain.

On Tuesday, Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa swore in the jurors before Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig walked those in the courtroom through a timeline of events, a list of witnesses and the evidence he believed would point to Ruano’s guilt.

“The case is about alcohol and impulse,” Ladinig said.

He said jurors would hear the young victim use the words “nasty” and “ew” to describe the inappropriate touching that Ruano initiated when he was babysitting his two step-grandchildren alone for the first time.

The prosecutor also contended that Ruano repeatedly changed his version of the story when speaking with law enforcement, and he discounted the defense’s claims that the victim was coached by her mother and grandmother to influence a family custody battle.

“Ultimately, it will be up to you to decide,” Ladinig said. “You’ll determine what happened that day.”

Defense attorney Jeremy Lessem of Lessem & Newstat LLP began by reminding jurors that Ruano has never had any history or complaints relating to the current allegations, despite the fact that he has two children and numerous grandchildren and step-grandchildren. Ruano also worked daily at the Montecito church, which has a preschool on site, he added.

Lessem called the victim’s story “implausible” and frequently pointed out the inconsistencies spoken by the victim, who in previous interviews has mentioned details that adults do not corroborate and changed her mind about facts, such as whether someone was present in the bedroom during the alleged incident.

He said Ruano had babysat the children before and was not alone with them the day in question because an older stepdaughter was present.

“This was not a normal family dynamic,” Lessem said, directing attention to the pending custody battle between the victim’s parents. “There was animosity. There was bad blood.”

The trial is scheduled to continue Wednesday, when the prosecution will begin calling witnesses at 9:30 a.m. in Department 1.

Noozhawk staff writer Gina Potthoff can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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