Fugitive ET Priest Arrested

Tyler Morning Telegraph
July 18, 2003

EDITOR'S NOTE: It is the policy of the Tyler Morning Telegraph to withhold the names of sexual assault victims to encourage the reporting of such crimes.

A Catholic priest wanted for allegedly raping an adolescent girl in a Tyler church has been captured in his homeland of Ecuador six years after he fled the United States, but only a year after federal authorities embarked on an international search for the fugitive.

Gustavo Cuello was captured earlier this week in Guayaquil, Ecuador. He is believed to have fled to Guayaquil in 1997 while free on bail from Smith County Jail, according to a copy of a one-way plane ticket filed in court records shortly after the priest's disappearance.

Cuello, now 40, is under indictment for sexually assaulting a parishioner of Our Lady of Guadalupe church. The victim, now a college student, alleged the priest had been having sex with her in various rooms of the church and in his vehicle beginning when she was 13. She said the molestation continued from June 1996 through April 1997, when she confided in her mother.

Authorities arrested Cuello in Guayaquil on Tuesday and a judge there deported him. Cuello was transported Friday to Miami, Fla., to face a federal fugitive charge, and will eventually be returned to Tyler to face a charge of aggravated sexual assault of a child.

Although information surfaced immediately after Cuello's disappearance indicating he went to Guayaquil, the FBI did not search Ecuador for the priest until May 2002, when local agents learned about the case.

At the time, the Tyler Morning Telegraph contacted head Agent Jeff Millslagle in the Tyler FBI office for an update on the search for Cuello.

Millslagle admitted he did not know about the case until the newspaper contacted him. But he insisted that within days, his office would obtain a federal unlawful flight to avoid prosecution warrant - a document authorizing the FBI to embark on a worldwide search for Cuello. Two days later, on May 14, 2002, the federal warrant was issued.

Upon reviewing Cuello's case file last May, then-Assistant District Attorney Alicia Cashell said she found a request for federal assistance filed in 1997, and assumed one had been forwarded to the FBI. Millslagle said his office did not receive the request, but vowed to find the elusive priest.

The victim's mother said she did not know of Cuello's capture until she was contacted Friday by the Morning Telegraph.

"Oh, my God," the mother said. "My heart just stopped beating. It is a big relief. You don't know how much I've been praying for this."

The victim filed a civil lawsuit in 1998 against Tyler's Catholic Diocese alleging a cover-up that allowed the sexual abuse to continue.

The suit was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount the victim's attorney said was enough to cover her college education.

Jim Smith, chief financial officer for the diocese, said some parishioners who supported Cuello collected money for his bail but church leaders never facilitated his flight.

The victim told the newspaper last year she and her family left the church after filing complaints against Cuello with law enforcement in 1997.

Her claims of ostracism from the church mirrored examples in years to come from the international scandal alleging church leaders conspired to cover up for pedophile priests.

"They completely did not believe me, but they believed him," the victim said. "They turned everyone against us. The church did not want to help me. It's really sad to hear about this happening to little kids all over the world."

According to documents from the criminal case, the victim's family contacted police a second time after their initial complaint that led to his arrest. The second complaint alleges church members harassed the girl's family, attempting to persuade them to drop the charges against Cuello.

Mrs. Cashell said evidence suggested church members helped the priest flee the country but not enough to support criminal charges against particular parishioners.

District Attorney Jack Skeen Jr. said Friday the Catholic Diocese has been cooperative with law enforcement during the search for Cuello.

Before coming to the United States, Cuello ministered at the Archdiocese of Guayaquil, where he was ordained in 1989.

Authorities are pursuing extradition of Cuello to Smith County. If convicted, he faces up to life in prison.


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