LEWISTON — The parents of a sexual assault survivor filed a civil lawsuit this week that alleges Tricia Vacanti “groomed” their daughter before she was raped by Vacanti’s son.
The filing arrives after Christopher Belter, Jr., 18, pled guilty to felony rape and sexual abuse charges, among others, in Niagara County Court late last month. Meanwhile, his mother, Vacanti, 47, and his step-father, Gary Sullo, 53, fight criminal allegations in town court.
The suit contends that before the survivor, identified in the court papers as “M.M.”, was attacked on Aug. 2, 2018, Vacanti built a relationship “with the intention of grooming (her)” and other girls “to be prey for her predator son.”
“M.M. was made to feel comfortable drinking and partying at the house, made to feel close to and safe with defendants Vacanti and Sullo, and, like other girls lured for the use of Belter, Jr., to feel safe with Belter, Jr. himself,” the filling states.
Though she was at times “plied” with alcohol and drugs, M.M., then 16, did not consume any the day she was assaulted, the lawsuit said.
After being traumatized by Belter, Jr., the girl was left psychologically and emotionally damaged in ways that have, and will in the future, require professional treatment, for which her attorneys, William Lorenz and Steven Cohen, are seeking restitution.
Among the other damages the suit asks the court to award are compensation for M.M.’s parents. The time her father took off work to assist his daughter resulted in his layoff, the suit said, and her mother was also subjected to substantial financial losses in her time away from the office to care for her daughter.
In addition to Vacanti and Sullo, the suit names Belter, Jr., his biological father, Christopher Belter, Sr., and a friend of Vacanti and Sullo’s, Jessica Long, as defendants. The Niagara Gazette could not reach the defendants’ attorneys late Friday.
Belter, who was 16 and 17 at the time of his crimes, pled to felony charges of third-degree rape and attempted first-degree sexual abuse and two misdemeanor charges of second-degree sexual abuse earlier this year. He had faced sexual assault allegations from four girls.
Niagara County Court Judge Sara Sheldon later sentenced him to two years of interim probation, a punishment that stirred criticism in the community.
The Niagara County District Attorney’s Office defended Sheldon’s decision. District Attorney Caroline Wojtaszek said “both the plea and the sentence are not uncommon in cases like this.”
“He still faces a sentence of either eight years in prison or 10 years probation or a combination of the two,” Wojtaszek said in August.
Belter, Jr., was also ordered to undergo sex offender treatment and evaluation, have a mental health evaluation, refrain from any contact with persons younger than 17, not use alcohol or illegal drugs and have no contact with his victims.
After working with prosecutors in the DA’s office on the case against Belter, Jr., M.M., expressed an expectation that a harsher penalty was to be leveled against her rapist and said she was stunned by the judge’s sentencing decision through her attorney, Cohen.
“She felt betrayed,” Cohen said in August.
In Lewiston Town Court, Vacanti, Sullo and Long all face charges of unlawfully dealing with a minor and endangering the welfare of a child.
Town Justice Hugh Gee agreed with the requests of the defendants’ attorneys to turn over to him mental health records for two of the four teenage girls who said they were sexually assaulted by Belter, Jr. to evaluate the survivors’ reliability or credibility.