Molestation suspect had been dismissed
A report by a Mesa County Partners staff member initiated an investigation into the actions of a Grand Junction man later accused of molesting two boys he was supposed to be mentoring.
Mark Anthony Bustamante, 50, was in Mesa County Jail on Thursday on $100,000 bond on suspicion of molesting two boys, ages 9 and 10, whom he had been mentoring through Partners. Bustamante is charged with two counts of sexual assault on a child by a person in a position of trust.
Joe Higgins, the executive director of Partners, said a staff member first reported to the organization that Bustamante was seen hugging a child, for no particular reason, in the back of a van as volunteers and children were heading home from a rafting trip in May.
Partners then telephoned Bustamante, without receiving calls back, then sent a certified letter asking him to come into the office to talk. When he didn’t reply to requests for contact, he was fired as a mentor, Higgins said.
Partners staff then telephoned all the parents of the four children Bustamante had mentored since 2009 to inquire of the children whether Bustamante acted inappropriately with them. Initially, Higgins said, responses from the children came back negative. However, two weeks later, Partners received a call from a parent saying her child told her Bustamante had molested him.
Partners then called Child Protective Services, and the Mesa County Sheriff’s Department launched its investigation, Higgins said.
“We really want to totally cooperate with local law enforcement,” Higgins said. “Basically where we’re coming from is safety is our number one priority. We’re in the business of not hurting children.”
Higgins said Partners requires extensive background checks through the FBI and Colorado Bureau of Investigation. It also consults a national sex offender registry. Being a senior mentor requires personal references, and newly matched partnerships are closely monitored by Partners staff.
Higgins said after the allegations surfaced he re-read Bustamante’s extensive file and found nothing in the documents that raised any red flags. Bustamante’s file has been shared with investigators, he said.
“We are very saddened that the youth and their families have to endure this regretful situation,” Higgins said. “Our major concern is safety of the children and we will continue to cooperate with the law enforcement and justice system anyway we can.”
In the past 30 years, the case against Bustamante marks the third time allegations of misconduct by senior mentors has emerged, Higgins said.
Recently, Partners has instated a policy of rechecking the sex offender lists and felony background checks each year. Staff also are trained by the Department of Human Services and the Western Slope Center for Children on ways to identify abuse.
Higgins said the allegations against Bustamante will no doubt hurt the organization, but he’s also received calls of support from parents who said they know other volunteers are doing good work.
Recent coverage of the Jerry Sandusky trial in which he was found guilty by a jury of sexually assaulting children he mentored in a football program also has had a similar reaction among mentoring programs around the nation, Higgins said.
“We all know that this is part of the risk in the youth program. We know we’re a magnet for people who want to get access to children,” Higgins said.
As usual, Partners has more children who want to be mentored than there are mentors. Typically, there are more boys seeking male mentors than there are senior male mentors, Higgins said. There are about 100 children on the waiting list.