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‘He took my childhood.’ Small-town R.I. leader faces sex abuse claims

David E. Barboza waved to the crowd during the 234th Fourth of July Celebration Parade in Bristol, R.I. Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

BRISTOL, R.I. — The middle-aged man in an American flag sweater grinned in a photo on the front page of the local paper.

It was April 2014, and David E. Barboza had just been granted Bristol’s “highest honor.”

He was going to be chief marshal of the Fourth of July parade, the oldest continuous parade in the country, broadcast live on local TV and attended by tens of thousands.

This was the latest recognition for a man who’d held nearly every role in his hometown — cop, volunteer firefighter, and EMT; multiterm Town Council member; civil defense director; a local Democratic operative serving on various boards and commissions. He even was an administrative assistant at St. Mary’s Church and director of the cemetery.


As the chairman of the Fourth of July Committee told the Bristol Phoenix newspaper, Barboza had “done a lot of things quietly for the town.”

Robert Powers felt his stomach knot.

Powers had left Bristol years before and returned occasionally to visit. Months earlier, he ran into Barboza around town.

The older man had pulled him in for a quick hug. Powers became nauseous. Barboza’s casual arm around his shoulders set off flashes in Powers’s mind — of other times when he was a little boy and, he said, Barboza touched him. Memories that started when Barboza was a young uniformed police officer, offering Powers a ride in his cruiser.

“A mind can be a dangerous weapon,” Powers said. “It just takes one little thing to open the floodgates and then you’re reliving the 1970s again.”

For decades, Powers said, the memories were buried deep. But, he said, the sexual abuse he endured for several years emerged in other ways, in a life of struggle, alcoholism, a spate of homelessness, and difficulty with intimate relationships.

Now though, here was Barboza, receiving their hometown’s greatest honor. “How could they put someone in the parade after what he has done?” he said.


The fear Powers had felt as a little boy turned to rage. He told his wife, and then a counselor, things he’d never told anyone. Then, he contacted the police.

“I finally came to terms with putting him in jail,” Powers said.

He didn’t realize that was no longer possible. The State Police told Powers that the statute of limitations on child rape in the 1970s had long expired. The detectives took his complaint anyway, telling him that he could use their report if he decided to pursue a civil case.

By late 2018, Powers decided to do just that and found a lawyer to take his case.

That was when he found out, court records show, that he wasn’t the first person to accuse Barboza of sex crimes.

He was the third.

Service not without controversy

If you painted a picture of a storybook New England town, it would be the heart of Bristol, with its gracious old homes along shady streets and a harbor lapping up against the historic downtown.

“It’s the most patriotic town in the country, that is a fact. You can look up under ‘patriotic towns’ and Bristol will be in the top five,” Robert Powers said.

Patriotic clothing is a common sight in storefronts around Bristol, RI. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

This is where families settle and stay. And for those who move away, the Fourth of July events call them home.

Even if the things they remember are dark.


For all of his accolades and positions, Barboza’s public service was not without controversy.

Barboza, who is not married, is a native Bristolian from a prominent family whose roots go back generations. He joined the volunteer Fire Department, following his grandfather, at just 17 in the early 1970s. He was a teenager in the police Explorers program and joined the Police Department at 19.

He didn’t last as a police officer. A young man sued the police in 1975, alleging that he needed stitches after Barboza split his forehead with a billy club; they settled out of court for $5,000, according to news reports. By early 1978, after the brutality lawsuit and questions involving sick leave and unpaid tickets, Barboza resigned, according to news articles. His family filed a $3 million lawsuit against the town and the police chief, alleging harassment of Barboza and his younger brother. They settled for $1,750 out of court.

Barboza then took a job as an investigator in the state fire marshal’s office, but left abruptly in 1982.

A local man told Bristol police officers that he had been molested by Barboza decades ago at the fire station, starting when he was six years old. Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

But he remained a volunteer firefighter and retained his unpaid position as the town’s civil defense director. In 1982, he was elected to the Democratic Town Committee, launching his political career. By 1998, he was elected to the Town Council and reelected multiple times, ending in 2012 with an unsuccessful run for town administrator.

In June 2014, when Powers decided to go to the Bristol police, Barboza was well established in town politics. That’s one of the reasons then-Deputy Police Chief Steven Contente asked the State Police to handle Powers’s complaint.


First, Contente told the detectives there was more to know about Barboza, according to the State Police report from June 2014 that’s included in Powers’s lawsuit.

Two other local boys had also made accusations that went back decades, Contente told the State Police.

One accusation was in 1982, when Barboza was with the state fire marshal’s office. A local teenager told police that Barboza solicited him for sex from his state vehicle. The Bristol police arrested Barboza, but the case was dismissed. That’s when Barboza was fired, Contente said, according to the police report. News articles at the time said Barboza resigned.

The Mount Hope Bridge.Nathan Klima for The Boston Globe

“Deputy Contente advised that this information is known throughout the community,” State Police Sergeant Christopher J. Schram noted in his report.

And then, Contente told them about another possible victim.

Another local man told Bristol police officers that he had been molested by Barboza decades ago at the fire station, starting when he was 6 years old, Contente said. The deputy chief told the State Police detectives that they could find that man incarcerated at the Adult Correctional Institutions.

Inside the medium-security prison, the State Police detectives showed the man a photo of Barboza and saw his expression and body language change.

“I will tell you everything,” he said, according to their report.

The man told the detectives that Barboza molested him multiple times at a fire station starting in 1971 through sometime in 1974.


Although he said he’d reported allegations against Barboza since the 1970s, nothing happened with his complaints, and by 2014, there was nothing the State Police could do for him. The statute of limitations on child molestation had passed.

Schram wrote in his report that he and Detective Stephen Vinton found the man to be credible, adding, “I found no evidence that [he] had any problems distinguishing reality from fantasy or fact from fiction.”

The detectives said the same about Robert Powers.

Contente, who is now Bristol town administrator, said on Monday: “Anything I reported to the State Police was true and accurate.” He declined to elaborate beyond what is in the public record.

‘I have no comment’

When a Globe reporter first called Barboza about the allegations in late May, there was a tense silence.

Barboza, 64, hadn’t responded to Powers’s lawsuit when he was served this past January. It was only after Powers’s lawyer moved for a default judgment against him in February that Barboza hired a lawyer and began to fight.

His lawyer, Fausto Anguilla, a former state representative for Bristol, declined to comment on the pending lawsuit. Barboza denied the allegations in an affidavit filed in court and, they argue, the statute of limitations to file a civil lawsuit has expired.

“I strongly deny these fabricated accusations,” Barboza said over the phone in May. “On the advice of my attorney, I’m not going to comment any further.”

He didn’t answer questions about how he knows Powers. And he said he didn’t know the identity of the man who accused him of molestation at the fire house and whose name was redacted in the State Police report.

When asked about his arrest in 1982, Barboza said he had a clean criminal record and threatened “legal action” if the Globe wrote about the case. “That was dismissed and supposedly expunged. I don’t know how you have a copy of it,” he said.

With all of his years of service to the town, the allegations seemed surprising, the reporter said.

Barboza asked if he could talk off the record.

When he was refused, Barboza said he had nothing to say.

In a brief follow-up conversation by phone on Monday, Barboza declined to respond to the allegations made by each of the three men in interviews with the Globe.

“On the advice of my attorney, I have no comment,” he said.

Details of a 1982 arrest

The Bristol Police Department declined the Globe’s request for incident reports of complaints against Barboza, writing that those records could “reasonably be expected to constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

However, the details about Barboza’s arrest in 1982 — the only time he was charged — are described in old news articles and laid out in an arrest report and witness statements provided by the Bristol police and a court file that’s publicly available.

The father of a 14-year-old boy called the police in 1982, after his son told him that a stranger had solicited him for sex.

The boy told police that he was walking home when a man he didn’t know pulled up next to him in a black unmarked car and offered him a ride. When he refused, the stranger persisted, asking if he wanted marijuana, and then if he wanted to come to his house to “fool around.” The boy didn’t know what that meant, so the man elaborated: “Get gay.”

The boy told police that he fled to a nearby Almacs market and wrote down the stranger’s license plate. The police found it belonged to a vehicle owned by the state fire marshal’s office and driven by Barboza. A detective arrested him at the state fire marshal’s office in North Providence a week later.

Barboza was indicted on a charge of transporting for indecent purposes. His lawyer argued that the alleged misconduct wasn’t a crime under the state law at the time, because the law was intended for pimps or anyone seeking “pecuniary gain.”

The indictment was dismissed without prejudice, which allows for the case to be refiled. It never was.

The teenager who brought the charge is now 51 and still living in Bristol. When a reporter approached him outside his home on a recent afternoon, the man said in a brief conversation that he never forgot how scared he was. His description of the encounter was consistent with his statement to police at the time. The Globe does not name victims in sex offense cases without their permission.

He’s still angry that the case was dismissed, and he blames the prosecutor for bringing the wrong charge. He still sees Barboza around town, a man with power and influence.

‘I remember everything’

Robert Powers settled onto the couch in his apartment in Bristol one afternoon, clutching the cane that keeps him steady. He has suffered strokes that left him and his wife homeless. He’s overcome alcoholism and deals with post-traumatic stress and depression. His relationships and previous marriages have ended, because he couldn’t bear physical affection and sex.

He is now 54 years old. The memories going back to when he was in fifth grade set the path of his life, he says. In the interview with the Globe that afternoon, his recollections of the experiences were consistent with details in the State Police report.

“I remember everything,” he said.

Barboza was the young police officer who came to his family’s home one day in the mid-1970s when they reported some damaged property. They knew him from St. Mary’s Church, he said.

Sometime afterward, Powers said, he was walking down the street when Barboza pulled up in his cruiser and offered him a ride. Of course he said yes.

Barboza took him for a ride down a dead-end street and stopped, Powers recalled.

“And that’s when he asked, ‘Do you want to fool around?’ And I didn’t know what he was talking about,” Powers said.

Then, Powers paused. “How graphic do you want me to get?” he asked a reporter.

He spoke slowly, his gaze direct. A teenage relative sat next to him, a quiet presence to keep him calm, to remind him to breathe.

Powers said Barboza exposed himself and forced him to perform a sexual act. When it was over, Powers said, Barboza dropped him off near his house. “He said, ‘Don’t tell anyone, because this is what boys do,’ ” Powers said. “That was the first time.”

The second time, Powers said, Barboza picked him up again and drove him down under the Mount Hope Bridge.

And, then, Powers said, Barboza started taking him back to his cottage. These encounters, he said, went on for several years.

Powers described Barboza’s house, the queen-sized bed, and box of adult magazines on the floor. He described the sexual things that he said Barboza made him do.

“He was always reminding me, ‘Don’t tell your mother, don’t tell your father. They’re going to believe me over you,’ ” Powers said.

He didn’t say anything.

“I remember my mother asking me how come my underwear was bloody. I said I had a pimple there that let go,” Powers said. “It never dawned on her. I was about 9 years old.”

Barboza was always around town and at church. Even in Boy Scouts, Powers said, Barboza would show up where they were camping and ask to see him.

There was nowhere to hide.

Powers said that as he got older, Barboza became more aggressive. “I started getting nervous, because he started bringing out toys and stuff,” Powers said. “One day he told me, ‘You’re the best I’ve ever had.’ ”

That was the last time. Powers said he fled Barboza’s house and never went back.

Now, as an adult, Powers thinks about what “the best I’ve ever had” meant. Were there others?

‘He took my childhood’

Powers didn’t know about the boy at the fire station.

In 1975, around the same time that Powers said Barboza started raping him, another Bristol boy was admitted to Bradley Hospital, a psychiatric children’s hospital in East Providence, where he says he disclosed that Barboza had been molesting him.

Nearly 40 years later, he told the story again to the two State Police detectives when they visited him at the prison to investigate Powers’s complaint in 2014.

Throughout the decades, the man said, he has repeatedly told local authorities about what he said happened to him.

He said he told Bristol police officers when he was a teenager and again in his late 40s. He sent a letter to then-Chief Russell Serpa from prison in the 1990s, after reading an article about Barboza’s involvement at St. Mary’s Church. He spoke to an investigator from the Providence Diocese looking into a complaint about Barboza at St. Mary’s, where Barboza was administering communion. As Barboza claimed a greater role in the Fire Department and led the creation of Firefighters Memorial Park, the man said he warned some of the firefighters.

Not one of them did anything.

“I’m baffled to this day how [Barboza] got away with it,” the man said recently.

Out of prison for the last several months, the man keeps to himself, working alone cleaning out a barn and doing odd jobs for a business owner in exchange for a place to live. He has spent most of his adult life in and out of prison and has a hard time being around people. He’s on psychiatric medication and said his trouble traces back to his encounters with Barboza.

In early July, he told his drug counselor about being molested as a boy. Thoughts about Barboza make him want to use drugs again. As he spoke to the Globe recently about Barboza, he paced and lit a cigarette.

“I’m 54 years old, and last night, I cried myself to sleep,” he said.

He met Barboza when he was 4 or 5 years old and Barboza was a teenager, both hanging around the old fire station at Franklin and High streets, near where both lived. He was one of eight children, and his mother was busy with his siblings, but the volunteers at the station were like family to him. When the siren blew, he ran down to watch the fire trucks roll out. The firefighters invited him to their cookouts and would let him help wax the trucks and take him for rides. “I wanted to be a police officer or a firefighter in the worst way,” he said.

The boy looked up to Barboza, especially after he officially became a volunteer firefighter in fall of 1971.

Then, one day when no one was around, he said, Barboza took him up to the second floor, where the firefighters had a couch and TV. His description of what happened next was consistent with what he told the State Police.

“He ended up with no clothes on,” the man said. “We both did.”

He was 6 years old.

“David Barboza hurt me. He took something from me that I can never get back,” the man said. “He took my innocence from me. He took my childhood from me.”

David E. Barboza. Nic Antaya for The Boston Globe

Multiple times over the years, he said, Barboza would get him into the station alone and molest him. And the boy kept the secret, too ashamed to tell anyone. He blamed himself.

By the time he was 9 or 10, he was out of control and so angry that he was expelled from school and placed in Bradley Hospital. That’s where he told a counselor about being molested.

That was the first time. As his life spiraled, the man said, he watched Barboza held in increasingly high esteem throughout Bristol.

The man said he came to believe that town officials were protecting Barboza. By serving on a variety of committees and local boards, Barboza was ingrained in town politics.

“As long as he was on the Town Council and part of politics in Bristol, he was a somebody,” the man said.

Statute of limitations

In his lawsuit, Robert Powers, the other alleged victim from the 1970s, argues that his complaint falls within the state law that allows victims of childhood sexual abuse to file civil lawsuits within seven years of the alleged crime or when a victim “discovered or reasonably should have discovered that the injury or condition was caused by the act.”

That would mean the clock started in 2013, when Powers met Barboza again and understood why he felt sick at his touch.

Barboza’s lawyer is arguing that the law does not apply and Powers’s time has passed. The case is pending.

Powers is seeking in excess of $1 million in damages from Barboza. “I want him to live what I did, with no money. He can have the same feeling of how low you have to live,” Powers said.

He wants Barboza to know what it’s like not to be able to run.

“I want to get him to where I can tell my story to someone in a court, where they will believe my story,” Powers said.

After filing his lawsuit, Powers called Bristol Representative Susan R. Donovan to ask her to support legislation to extend the statute of limitations for victims of childhood sexual abuse. She assured him that she would.

Then, Powers told her that he was also a victim. He said the alleged perpetrator was Barboza.

Donovan is in the Rotary Club with Barboza and knows him from around town. Barboza received the “Men Who Make a Difference Award” from the House in 2015 for his service in Bristol. Lately, Barboza has been involved with Haiti’s Child, a Christian nonprofit organization that helps impoverished children.

And yet, over the decades, Donovan said, she’d also heard that Barboza had “done something.”

But when nothing ever came out — no criminal charges, no court cases — she dismissed the talk as malicious gossip.

She thought all the chatter had been put to rest, until Powers’s phone call.

“I don’t want to perpetuate a rumor unless there is something behind it that is going forward. [Barboza] has got a job, he’s had positions, and what am I supposed to think?” Donovan said about Powers’s allegations.

On the other hand, she added, “I’d never say to Robert [Powers], ‘I don’t believe you.’ That’s not right either.” All she could tell him is that he should take his complaints to the authorities.

For all the years of whispering about Barboza, there were at least two instances where the rumors went public. When Barboza was running for Town Council reelection in 2006, a local plumber who frequently clashed with him mailed 500 postcards to voters that featured a reprinted Bristol Phoenix article about Barboza’s 1982 arrest.

The anonymous mailings stirred up controversy, and police questioned the plumber, Rick Lavey. But Barboza held onto his seat and remained vice chairman.

Six years later, when Barboza sought to become town administrator in 2012, Lavey sent a letter to Bishop Thomas J. Tobin, then mailed copies of that letter and Barboza’s 1982 arrest papers to voters.

That time, Barboza lost the election. Even so, he won Bristol’s highest honor — chief parade marshal — two years later.

Reality of a small town

There is no distance in a small town.

Barboza lives alone in a historic home just off the parade route and has a red-white-and-blue stripe painted in the middle of his driveway.

The man who said he was molested at the fire station lives a block away. He said he threatened Barboza years ago and now they keep their distance.

When Powers moved back to Bristol a few years ago, he also ended up in an apartment a short walk away from Barboza’s home. They go to the same church and attend the same town gatherings — Barboza among the dignitaries and Powers in the crowd.

On the Fourth of July, Bristol bustles with community and cheer. The grand homes along the two-plus-mile red-white-and-blue striped parade route are decked with flags, and spectators throng the sidewalks and lawns. The town has a sense of safety and welcoming, its oldest continuous parade of patriotism and pride a display of how life in a community should be.

As is tradition, on the Fourth of July this year, the parade honored its past chief marshals.

Powers and his family were among the crowds along the parade route, and they watched the passing procession. So did the man who said he was abused at the fire house.

In the back of a convertible BMW, David Barboza rode by both of them, an American flag fluttering at his elbow, waving to all the spectators.

Amanda Milkovits can be reached at