He sexually molested her 6-year-old son and fled the country. So this Fort Collins mom tracked him down — planning to kill him, if necessary

He sexually molested her 6-year-old son and fled the country. So this Fort Collins mom tracked him down — planning to kill him, if necessary

Lydia Lerma was horrified when she learned that a man had admitted sexually molesting her 6-year-old son, and she was beyond angry when she heard he had skipped out on bail and fled the country.

Her fury and frustration rose to an entirely different level when she felt law enforcement was dawdling in its efforts to find 27-year-old Andrew Vanderwal and bring him to justice.

So the Fort Collins mother decided to hunt him down herself, and planned to kill him if necessary. Her amateur sleuthing took Lerma and her boyfriend to Cuauhtémoca, Mexico, and it would require stealth and determination, but not violence. Her actions led directly to Vanderwal’s capture and extradition to Colorado.

Vanderwal, now in custody, is charged with four felonies accusing him of sexually assaulting Lerma’s son and another boy.

Lydia Lerma poses for a portrait ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lydia Lerma poses for a portrait with her daughter Arjay, right, outside of their home on April 4, 2018 in Fort Collins.

Because of the ongoing investigation, authorities from the FBI, Fort Collins Police Department and Larimer County district attorney’s office declined to comment. Lerma said she is speaking out to draw attention to gaps in the judicial system that allowed Vanderwal to slip away after he was charged. She also wants to reach parents of kids whom Vanderwal may have molested.

Predatory child molesters are very adept at taking advantage of weaknesses in community groups and legal systems, child abuse experts say. And Vanderwal used classic tactics of a predator, said Margaret Ochoa, a child abuse prevention specialist with Colorado School Safety Resource Center.

“They watch out for kids who are vulnerable. They start grooming the family to gain access to the children. The child sees that Mom and Dad trust them so they can’t do anything to him,” Ochoa said. “(Vanderwal) saw a vulnerability, and he exploited it.”

Lerma said Vanderwal gravitated to her family when she and her husband were separating in 2014.  At different times in 2015 and 2016, Vanderwal lived with her ex-husband as his roommate. She said she believes Vanderwal later moved into her ex-husband’s home so he could molest her son.

“Andrew is really unassuming, and that’s why so many people are not intimidated by him,” Lerma said. “He’s nothing that anybody would be concerned about.”

But Vanderwal gave her the creeps.

“Andrew would have sleepovers with neighborhood kids,” she said. “I always thought that was the most bizarre thing.”

Vanderwal became an issue in Lerma’s divorce proceedings. She didn’t want him living under the same roof as her children. But she also didn’t want to deprive her children of having a relationship with their father. Ultimately, Vanderwal remained in the home.

In the same interview with Lerma, her 14-year-old daughter, Arjay, said Vanderwal would take her and her brother roller-skating or to the movies. He organized sleepovers with lots of neighborhood kids, she said.

Anne Auld, the program director of Illuminate, a Denver child sex assault prevention advocacy group, said there were numerous red flags in Vanderwal’s actions. The sleepovers may have been the biggest.

“A rule of thumb is that if someone is wanting to spend more time with your kids than you do, it is a too-good-to-be-true situation,” Auld said.

When Arjay told her mother that Vanderwal would take her younger brother to the bathroom, her mother told her not to let that happen, she said.

“I confronted Andrew,” Arjay said, “and said, ‘No, my mom said I need to take him.’ He got really mad at me and was kinda, sorta like yelling.”

Vanderwal had tried to start several businesses, including a landscaping operation. But he always managed to come home at 3 p.m., right after the kids got home from school and two hours before their father arrived, Lerma said.

On Oct. 16, 2016, Lerma’s ex-husband entered his home and saw Vanderwal get up suddenly from the couch where he was next to his 6-year-old son, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

The child didn’t run to his father calling out “Dad” as usual. The boy asked to go to the bathroom. The father followed his son into the bathroom because he normally helped his son unzip his pants. But his son’s pants were already unzipped.

“The next morning I get up for school to get ready and my dad was just crying,” Arjay said. His son had just told him that Vanderwal had been molesting him, Lerma said.

The boy told his dad that Vanderwal had touched his penis, the affidavit says. The following week, during a visit with a forensic child interviewer, the boy — dressed in his Cub Scout uniform because it made him feel braver — pointed to his groin. He said his dad’s friend “Drew” touched him there, the affidavit says. The boy said he was scared of Vanderwal, who warned him not to tell anyone, the affidavit says.

When the boy’s father called Vanderwal from the police department, on Nov. 1, 2016, Vanderwal said, “I accidentally touched your son and I’m so sorry and I just need to blow my head off.”

“As (Vanderwal) was talking to my husband, he was saying it’s not that big of a deal. ‘Do you want me to apologize?’ ” she quoted Vanderwal as saying.

Vanderwal turned himself in to Fort Collins police that evening, and he said he “wanted to confess to sexually assaulting a child,” Lerma said. He then admitted sexually touching the child five times but said the boy initiated the contacts, the affidavit says.

“To him, it was just a misunderstanding,” Lerma said. She said Vanderwal told investigators her son had asked him why men get erections. “And he was supposedly trying to explain that to my son.”

After Vanderwal’s arrest, Lerma sorted through belongings he had abandoned at her ex-husband’s home. She was stunned to find boxes of kids’ toys, including Matchbox cars, watercolor paintings by kids and many photographs of children.

“I found a trophy chest of children’s belongings. I was sobbing,” Lerma said. “I got on the phone with detectives and said somebody needs to come and get this stuff now, because it was so disturbing.”

Although detectives initially told her “we can’t go fishing for victims,” they later retrieved his belongings as possible evidence.

Lerma had found letters and correspondence between Vanderwal and children’s baseball, hockey and swimming organizations from Denver to Zeeland, Mich. She started calling the clubs, churches and parents.

“I reached out to all these communities and organizations, and they said: ‘No, we don’t have any record of this person being a volunteer here,’ ” she said. “But yet I’m sitting there with all his personal belongings that indicate ‘Coach Andrew Vanderwal,’ ” she said. “As a parent, if somebody found my child’s pictures in the possession of a confessed pedophile, I sure as hell would want someone to let me know, and that was what I was trying to do.”

Auld, from the child sex assault prevention group, said organizations must do more than just a criminal background check. They should call clubs where coaches used to work and find out whether parents had any misgivings about their interactions with kids. Ochoa agreed. She said most child sex offenders have never been arrested, but they are sometimes removed from coaching because of red flags. Leaders of organizations can be reluctant to speak out for fear of slandering the volunteer, Ochoa said. But Colorado state law requires many organizations, as well as all schools, to report suspected abuse, she said.

After Lerma contacted several groups and parents about Vanderwal, a prosecutor called her into the Larimer County district attorney’s office. “They basically scolded me and told me to cool my jets, back off and let us do our job.” And she did back off.

After The Fort Collins Coloradoan reported Vanderwal’s arrest, families of three boys came forward reporting abuse by Vanderwal, Lerma said. In one case, Vanderwal allegedly molested boys living under the same roof. It was the second case in which Vanderwal allegedly molested the son of his former roommate. Two families later declined to go forward to a trial, she said.

Vanderwal skipped his Jan. 19, 2017, court hearing. His father had paid his bail.

On May 12, the Friday before Mother’s Day, Lerma’s ex-husband called her and said, “Did you see the Coloradoan? They say they found Vanderwal’s car abandoned on a bridge in El Paso.”

“I was livid. I was shaking. I was crying,” Lerma said. “I was so upset because here they tell me to back off and let them do their jobs, and they let this pedophile get across the border.”

The only person who remembered the case seemed to be Jacy Marmaduke, a Coloradoan reporter whose stories kept the case alive, she said.

Learning about Vanderwal’s abandoned car was the catalyst that drove Lerma to search for him herself.

“I wrote a Mother’s Day plea, and I shared that on my Facebook page,” Lerma said.

She recorded a video about Vanderwal’s case and went on a social media blitz, sending messages to newspapers, community organizations and TV stations in El Paso and Juárez, Mexico.

Lerma was planning to quit her job, sell her house and rent an apartment in Mexico if Vanderwal wasn’t arrested by last Jan. 19, the anniversary of his escape. Over a seven-month period, she stuffed $20,000 into a shoe box and fantasized about taking her new bow and arrow across the border and killing Vanderwal, Lerma said.

Lydia Lerma poses for a portrait ...
Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lydia Lerma poses for a portrait outside of her home on April 4, 2018 in Fort Collins. Lerma’s young son was molested by a man named Andrew Vanderwal. When Vanderwal fled to Mexico, Lerma herself went across the border to track him down after authorities failed to do so. She was able to get him back to the United States where he in now in custody for crimes committed against Lerma’s son and other victims. Lerma has become an advocate for children’s rights against sexual abusers and protecting them from sexual predators.

On Jan. 4, two weeks before her deadline to go to Mexico, a tipster messaged her on Facebook. He gave her Vanderwal’s cellphone number and much more.

“I knew what town he was in, I knew what car he was driving and I knew where he hung out,” Lerma said.

Vanderwal had been using an alias and posing as a businessman trying to cut timber deals between Canada and Mexico. And he was coaching little league baseball.

Lerma forwarded the text to the FBI. She figured the FBI, with its vast resources, could bring him back — and soon. Four weeks passed. She kept calling an FBI agent and asking: “What more does it take?”

“Enough was enough,” she said.

Lerma and her boyfriend, Russ Lambert, 48, decided to go to Mexico. She called a friend who lives in Monterrey, Mexico, and arranged to meet him in Chihuahua on Jan. 25. She had messaged the FBI about her plans to contact Mexican authorities about Vanderwal’s whereabouts. Shortly before they left to plead with Cuauhtémoca police to arrest Vanderwal, an FBI agent called and warned Lerma not to contact Mexican authorities because Vanderwal could bribe them and escape. She agreed to only take pictures of the fugitive.

As they searched for Vanderwal, her friend drove because Vanderwal wouldn’t recognize him. Lerma and Lambert hid on the floorboards. They drove to a Walmart, which was next to a Mexican federal police station.

“I mean, come on. Here’s a guy. A fugitive. And he parks next to the Mexican Federales,” Lerma said. “He was so cocky. He was flying all over that town. We couldn’t keep up with him. I knew by his arrogance that he thought he owned that town so he wasn’t going anywhere.”

Lambert said it really didn’t take a lot of searching to find Vanderwal.

“That was the frustration with (the FBI). All we had to do was to get there and we had eyes on him. We found him,” Lambert said, snapping his fingers to show how quickly they tracked Vanderwal down.

Lerma took numerous cellphone pictures of Vanderwal and texted them to the FBI.

Lerma told the agent that Vanderwal’s apprehension would be a nice present for her Feb. 13 birthday.

But Lerma and her friends had an alternative plan ready to go. If authorities hadn’t arrested Vanderwal by March 1, she and two friends would find Vanderwal, grab him and bind him with zip ties. If need be, they would bribe Mexican Federales with the shoe box full of cash and smuggle him to El Paso, 270 miles north.

But on Feb. 19 — six days after Lerma’s birthday — an FBI agent texted Lerma: “Happy Belated Birthday.”

Vanderwal was back behind bars.

“I contacted the other parents and said: ‘We got him. We got him. We got him.’ ”

When Vanderwal was returned to Larimer County District Court, his bail was initially raised to $100,000. At Lerma’s request, a prosecutor asked for a new bail hearing. Before a packed court, a judge raised the bail to $750,000.

Arjay said she is so proud of her mother.

“She’s a superhero. It’s like I’m watching a movie. All this effort, just for her son and all these other victims,” Arjay said. She admitted she was also relieved, adding, “I’m proud that she didn’t kill him.”

5
Like
Save

Comments

Write a comment

*