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Trial to Begin for Church Employee Accused of Lewd Acts

The trial for an All Saints-By-the-Sea Episcopal Church employee, who has been adamantly defended by parishioners in spite of a felony molestation charge, is set to begin Monday.

Carlos Ruano, 67, who has been the church’s sexton since 2006, will appear Monday in a Santa Barbara courtroom, where he 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.

Ruano, who as sexton oversaw ground maintenance and the logistics of all church events, was held to the molestation charge in a March preliminary hearing that was attended by more than 40 supportive church members.

Santa Barbara County Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa will hear pre-trial motions and possibly start the jury selection process at 10:30 a.m. Monday in Department 1, according to Deputy District Attorney Benjamin Ladinig.

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.

The court documents also allege that Ruano exposed his penis and took part in “other sexually inappropriate touching."

Ruano’s defense attorneys — paid for with help from Episcopal church members — contend that the victim’s mother and grandmother have never liked Ruano, and are coaching the victim to influence a family custody battle.

Last week, Jeremy Lessem of Lessem & Newstat LLP pointed to the overwhelming support of Ruano’s congregation as evidence of his true character.

“The love and support Carlos has received from family and friends has truly been amazing,” Lessem said in a statement. “Considering the serious nature of the charges against him, this incredible outpouring of support is something I have never seen before. I think this says a tremendous amount about Carlos as a person, and how he has touched the lives of so many.

"I know that all this love and faith has helped Carlos through these extremely difficult times.”

Church members have raised thousands of dollars for Ruano’s legal defense and have sent 105 strong letters of support to the District Attorney’s Office, according to Alan Hopkinson, a forensic accountant and nonpracticing lawyer who has been a member of All Saints for more than 20 years and has been coordinating support for Ruano and his defense.

Hopkinson described Ruano as a “God-fearing and hard-working man” who came to the United States as a Guatemalan political refugee in the 1980s.

“He’s beautifully liked by everybody,” he said.

Ruano is still considered the church’s sexton while an assistant has taken over duties in the meantime, and he recently sent a letter thanking his staunch church supporters.

Ladinig would not say what sentence Ruano will face if convicted, although prison time would be likely.

He said arguments in the case were not expected to begin until after Labor Day weekend.

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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