Illustration by Dominic Bugatto.
Sgt. Vince Ariaz liked what he saw in 15-year-old "Maggie." Eager to please, in awe of police work, and seeking a trustworthy authority figure in her life, the shy brunette was an ideal fit for the Brownwood, Tex., Police Department's Explorer program.
With nearly 2,000 law-enforcement Explorer posts and upward of 32,000 14-to-21-year-olds participating in the Boy Scouts-affiliated program each year, Maggie had entered a gateway into American law enforcement. The paunchy, gregarious 53-year-old sergeant who'd been running Brownwood's Explorer program since its inception took pains to make her feel special. Rapidly promoting her through the ranks, he promised to get her into the police academy when she was of age. Soon he was taking her on ride-alongs nearly every night.
One morning in June 2007, six months into Maggie's tenure, another Brownwood cop saw the girl — too young to have a driver's license — at the wheel of Sgt. Ariaz's squad car. Queasy, he contacted a Texas Ranger, John Nick Hanna, who was in the midst of a months-long investigation of Ariaz over allegations of sexual abuse.
Ariaz had been suspected of it for years. In 2004, according to court records, a 15-year-old Explorer told Brownwood Police Chief Virgil Cowin that Ariaz had forced himself on her one night when they were alone in the station house, kissing her, fondling her breasts, and fingering her vagina. Cowin also knew of text messages Ariaz had sent the girl bragging about the size of his penis and how he intended to use it on her.
"You're just a child," the girl recalls Cowin telling her. "You're just making it up."
Her complaint went nowhere.
Hanna's investigation, meanwhile, had been similarly stalled. Jolted to action by the new information, however, he soon learned that Ariaz took Maggie out several nights per week, often parking his car for hours at a time at known make-out spots. With a go-ahead from his superiors, Hanna set up a hidden camera. For five nights, he watched as the sergeant kissed and groped Maggie, but held off until he had his smoking gun. Finally, after watching Ariaz go down on the girl, he swooped in for the arrest.
The eyebrow-raising decision to use an unwitting 15-year-old girl as bait for a serial sexual abuser — over which a multimillion-dollar lawsuit, naming the Texas Rangers, the local prosecutor, and the Brown County Sheriff's Office as defendants, was filed earlier this year — is atypical. But police officers having sex with Explorers is not.
In recent decades, more than 100 police officers have had sex with Explorers they were entrusted with mentoring, the vast majority of them underage. In just the past year, two sheriff's deputies in San Bernardino, Calif., were arrested for having sex with underage girls; a New York City cop was charged with child sex abuse after sending racy text messages to a 15-year-old; an officer in Bremerton, Wash., was reprimanded for sleeping with an 18-year-old; and a former cop in Burlington, N.C., pleaded guilty to taking indecent liberties with a minor after being accused of having sex with a 14-year-old he'd taken on ride-alongs.
The Explorer program is administered by Learning for Life, a Boy Scouts of America subsidiary formed in 1991. Its programs, which extend far beyond law enforcement, provide more than 110,000 young people each year the chance to see firsthand workplaces in fields ranging from aviation to architecture to the law. The organization's mission, says Learning for Life Executive Director Diane Thornton (who for the purposes of this article responded only to questions submitted in writing) is to "enable young people to become responsible individuals by teaching positive character traits, career development, leadership, and life skills so they can make moral choices and achieve their full potential."
The exact number of exploited Explorers is not known. (For a list of known cases, see the interactive feature accompanying this article at http://bit.ly/hands-onexperience) And Thornton won't say whether Learning for Life tracks sex-abuse cases against Explorers, nor would she comment on why the vast majority of those cases involve police officers. "We do not release that type of information," she wrote.
Learning for Life, Thornton says, has sought to reduce instances of Explorer sex abuse — which she characterizes as "very rare" — limiting one-on-one contact between mentors and Explorers, banning non-work relationships, and requiring those who work with Explorers to watch a 20-minute training video.
"The protection of all youth in Learning for Life programs is of paramount importance, and Learning for Life views any abuse of youth as unacceptable," says Thornton.
But a review of Explorer sex abuses dating back to the 1970s shows that the Boy Scouts and Learning for Life waited years to enact rules barring inappropriate contact between police and Explorers. And once these rules were in place, the Boy Scouts and Learning for Life have not enforced them, mostly leaving police departments to police themselves.
"Learning for Life should expect police chiefs to follow common-sense rules protecting Explorers," says police accountability expert Jeffrey Noble, deputy chief of the Irvine, Calif. Police Department and a believer in the Explorer program's benefits. "If they become aware their rules aren't being followed, should they refuse to allow that department to have an Explorer program? Absolutely. Shame on them if they don't."
The luster was long gone from Hollywood's star when, in the mid-1970s, the first Law Enforcement Explorer Girls (or LEEGS, as they were more commonly known at the time) appeared in the Los Angeles Police Department's rundown Tinseltown outpost. A couple dozen strong, they were among the first girls allowed into Explorers, a Boy Scouts career-preparation program dating to the 1940s. The LEEGS trailed cops as they patrolled the neon-lit expanses of porn shops, massage parlors, and peep shows on their beats. They occasionally helped control event crowds and assisted with station-house desk work.
As a token of appreciation, the Hollywood cops began taking the Explorer girls, most of them 15 and 16 years old, on overnight weekend camping trips. The tradition endured for more than two years, until the autumn of 1976, when one of the girls, uncomfortable with the campsite activities, complained to department higher-ups. The camping trips, she reported, were little more than orgies.