El Jebel man faces up to life in prison after conviction of sex assault on a child | VailDaily.com

El Jebel man faces up to life in prison after conviction of sex assault on a child

Jacinto Zelaya-Zelaya, center, is escorted to jail Tuesday afternoon after a jury found him guilty of sexual assault on a child. He is being escorted by Eagle County Sheriff James van Beek, left, and Det. Karen Waddell.

EAGLE — An El Jebel man insisted for years that he did not sexually assault his sister-in-law, 17 years his junior.

A jury disagreed Monday, Oct. 9, and sent Jacinto Zelaya-Zelaya to prison, convicting him of sexual assault on a child. He faces no less than eight years in prison and possibly life.

"He will be under some sort of state control for the rest of his life," said Bryan Garrett, who prosecuted the case.

The case will be appealed, said Thea Reiff, chief public defender who handled Zelaya's defense.

The case rolled through accusations that Eagle County Sheriff's investigators lied to Zelaya during their investigation and instructed the teenaged accuser to lie to Zeyala as well. The accuser twice told prosecutors that she wanted to drop this case and that she did not want to go forward in court. She later claimed that her sister, Zelaya's wife, pressured her into trying to recant.

A mistrial last spring moved the trial to last week.

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Zeyala's accuser said he started raping her when she was 13 years old and continued for two years. She said she told no one because Zelaya threatened to harm her and her family.

The accuser said she did not speak with anyone about it until she told her girlfriend, a student at a different high school.

That girl told her school counselor, who contacted the Eagle County Sheriff's Office. Investigators started working the case immediately.

The first forensic interview lasted 74 minutes.

Eleven months later, when the accuser was being prepared for last spring's original trial date, the timeline changed and so did some of the accuser's story, Reiff said.

The accuser lived with her sister, Zeyala and other family members. She initially said nothing happened in their house, that it was only in isolated areas near Basalt and Reudi Reservoir and in the back seat of his pickup truck. Reiff said no forensic evidence was found on the truck's cloth seats.

Later, the accuser said that on Friday nights, when her mother was in Rifle with her boyfriend, she stayed in her mother's bedroom. She said Zelaya came in either through a window or through a locked door. He must have had a key, she testified.

She told investigators that she forgot about that during their previous interview.

"The sound of the key in the lock is a sound that stays," Reiff said. "If you are raped almost every Friday night, in your mother's bed, that's something you would remember."

Zeyala's accuser said Zeyala gave her money, bought her a cellphone and drove the accuser and her girlfriend around. Neither of them were old enough to drive.

"Do you know why you're here today?" Garrett asked the girl during the trial.

"Yes," she replied.

"Why?" Garrett asked.

"Because he sexually abused me," she replied.

"Did you tell anyone what he had done? Garrett asked.

"No. … He would always tell me that he would tell my family and tell my girlfriend about it," she said.

On Sept. 5, 2016, the accuser sent another message to the prosecutors' office saying she no longer wanted to charge Zeyala. They told her it was beyond that and that they would move ahead with the case, Reiff said.

"You are here because of a false accusation that immediately spiraled out of her control," Reiff told the jury. "Jury trials are the last safeguards between accusations that spin out of control. The accuser did not anticipate the speed with which this would escalate, with which this would spiral out of control."

Garrett disagreed.

"This is a case, ultimately, about the violation of trust," Garrett said. "She has been raped for the last two years."

The jury was out all day Friday, took a break over the three-day holiday weekend and came back with their verdict late Monday afternoon. Zeyala was taken straight to jail, where he will stay until he is sentenced on Wednesday, Dec. 6, at 10:30 a.m.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 or rwyrick@vaildaily.com.