Clarisa Santos shot herself with the pistol her mother bought to protect them from Jose Manuel Gonzalez.
While Robinson police continue to investigate the 14-year-old Harmony Science Academy student’s death, the teen is believed to have taken her own life May 6, the day after she was subpoenaed to testify against Gonzalez at his upcoming trial on charges he sexually abused Clarisa for five years beginning when she was 7.
Her tragic death has forced the trial to be postponed again and complicated the case against Gonzalez, if not placing it in legal jeopardy. Prosecutor Hilary LaBorde said she is confident the case can proceed, even though Gonzalez has a constitutional right to confront his accuser. Gonzalez’s attorney, Chris Bullajian, declined comment, saying he could not discuss a pending case.
The Tribune-Herald does not routinely identify the victims of sexual abuse without their permission or report on most suicides. However, Santos’ mother and stepfather say they will create a foundation called “One More Day” with the goal of suicide prevention.
“I think it needs to be known,” Clarisa’s stepfather, Gio Michell, said. “That’s why we are starting the foundation. We want to talk to school kids and say, ‘No, don’t do this.’ We want to go to schools and tell students to give it one more day because tomorrow may be the best day of your life. We want to tell them to talk to someone. Kids feel shut out sometimes and don’t feel like they are able to talk to their parents. We had a good relation with Clarisa and could talk to her. But I think she just decided she couldn’t take it.”
After Clarisa reported Gonzalez, her former stepfather, sexually abused her from July 2011 to January 2016, she and her family did all the right things that families affected by such a horrific crime should do.
Her mother, Clara Santos, believed her and supported her. She kicked Gonzalez out of the house and changed the locks the same day. Clarisa had a medical exam and was interviewed by forensic specialists at the Advocacy Center for Crime Victims and Children. DNA evidence was recovered.
She went to counseling and followed up with regular counseling sessions at school. She seemed to be getting better in small increments.
Then there was the wait for her day in court. Routinely, felony cases take from a year to two years to go to trial. The May 2015 shootout at Twin Peaks, which immediately dumped 155 new cases into the already cramped criminal justice system, flooded the courts and pushed other cases back.
In Clarisa’s case, it took time for DNA evidence to be tested. Gonzalez changed lawyers, causing other delays.
Gonzalez was set to stand trial Tuesday, but 19th State District Judge Ralph Strother postponed the trial last week until July 17. The postponement was out of respect for Clarisa’s family, but also because the 46-year-old Gonzalez spent a week recently at a Dallas hospital getting dialysis treatment for renal disease.
As the trial approached, Clarisa met with members of the DA’s office to prepare her testimony. Then the subpoena arrived, driving home the harsh reality that she would have to recount her allegations in front of a jury of 12 strangers and others in court.
“She said she couldn’t go through with it, she couldn’t relive it all again,” Clarisa’s mother said. “She said she just couldn’t relive it all again. I knew she was really nervous, but we celebrated her brother’s birthday and she seemed fine. Later that night, she wasn’t feeling well and she really couldn’t sleep. She was tossing back and forth, and I lied down with her and told her everything was going to be OK, that maybe she wouldn’t even have to go to court. I slept with her that night.”
Michell agrees that the long wait to go to trial affected Clarisa.
“The system failed our daughter and made her wait three long years,” he said. “Clarisa told me if the whole thing had been put away closer to when it happened, she could have faced it. I believe she could have faced it. But to have all that resurrected when she was trying to take back over her life and the fact that she had to look over her shoulder for the last three years, it was just all too much.”
Her mother said she bought the gun two years ago because Clarisa thought she saw Gonzalez, who is free on bond, lurking near their Robinson home. Her fears were never confirmed, Clara Santos said.
LaBorde, a veteran prosecutor who has lost just two child abuse cases in 16 years, said she had cases in which alleged sexual assault victims have attempted suicide, but not one with a suicide victim. She said she met once with Clarisa, whom she said appeared fine.
“Of all the kids I thought would have done it, I wouldn’t have thought it would have been her,” LaBorde said. “She seemed like an old soul. She seemed like she was obviously sad, but she never talked about it. Mom took her to counseling, got rid of him, and lots of times, moms don’t do that. She was loved and had a lot of support. I thought this girl was in a much better place than some with previous suicide attempts. It just goes to show you that you never know what is going on inside of somebody, but I really thought this was a very good case.”
Waco psychologist Lee Carter, author of the book “It Happened to Me,” a workbook for teenagers and young adults who have been sexually abused, testifies frequently in court as an expert witness in sexual abuse cases. He was scheduled to testify in Clarisa’s trial.
Carter said while some abuse victims find it comforting that 12 jurors heard their stories, believed them and recommended lengthy sentences for the abusers, others find it overwhelming to be in court and having to share embarrassing, intimate details.
“It is not at all uncommon for identified victims to feel overwhelmed,” Carter said. “Once the day comes that she actually has to testify in court before a group of strangers with the accused looking at her, that is an overwhelming experience for most abuse victims. Obviously, a person can appear to be doing well externally as long as the stress is not right there in front of them. But external appearances don’t necessarily mean that they have dealt with it or have come to terms with it.”
A courtroom experience can be “tantamount to reopening old psychological wounds,” Carter said.
“A lot of victims may think, ‘Just when I though I was getting over my experience, I have to go back and revisit it all,’ and it is too overwhelming,” Carter said. “Most victims who have that overwhelming experience can and do push through and go to court and testify. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. This poor girl buckled even more than most of them do.”
Loss of best friend
Another possible contributor to Clarisa’s death was the suicide death in July 2017 of her best friend, a 13-year-old boy with whom she attended Robinson Junior High.
“I think the suicide death of her good friend influenced her decision to take her own life to a degree,” Michell said. “I think the court case taking so long was the major factor. But I think the death of her close friend, who was the same age, somehow played a role in her decision to bid this world farewell and made her decision easier to make the same choice.”
Clarisa’s mother said her friend’s birthday and the anniversary of his death were coming up and those dates might have triggered a deep sadness in her daughter.
“She was really attached to him,” she said. “After he passed away, she was never quite the same. She remembered him every month and would go to the cemetery with friends. They would get together and be there to support him.”
Researchers who study the phenomenon known as “suicide contagion” say media coverage of suicide deaths, especially celebrities, and exposure to suicides of friends or family can influence those who are vulnerable or at risk and can lead to suicide rate increases.
Carter said it is possible the suicide death of Clarisa’s friend may have influenced her decision, although she and her friend chose different means of death.
“There does seem to be some contagion. It is documented,” Carter said. “Sometimes you have a domino effect when one person acts out in that way and another person follows. I don’t know I would say that it is the reason most people commit suicide or attempt suicide.
“I guess I would say it is a real phenomenon. I would not want to overstate its effect. If you sensationalize anything like that and a disturbed person latches onto it, it might push them to do something. But again, I don’t think that is the reason most people commit suicide.”
After Gonzalez’s trial is over next month, Clara Santos and Michell say they will have wonderful memories of Clarisa to help them carry on.
Clarisa’s father is a mechanic for American Airlines, and Michell is a retired military defense contractor employee. Their careers possibly influenced Clarisa’s aspirations to join the Air Force after college and to possibly become a pilot, her mother said.
“There are so many good memories,” Clara Santos said. “She didn’t know how to be mean. She was not mean at all. Only with her little brother sometimes, but you know how that is. She was very sweet and understanding and caring, especially with old people and animals. She cared so much for the elderly and neighbors and helped them with their horses. She loved animals, especially her dog, Titan. That was her baby.”
Michell said a girl was bullying Clarisa at school. Clarisa told the bully that she refused to hate her.
“She came back later and told Clarisa that no one had ever been so kind to her and they became friends,” Michell said. “Some girl who was going to be a potential bully, Clarisa was able to use kindness to turn them into a friend. That is who she was.”