Former Tyler Priest Pleads Guilty, Rejects Sentence

After 6 years on the run, a former Tyler Catholic priest is returned to Smith County to face charges he had a 10-month sexual relationship with a 13-year-old alter girl. 40-year-old Gustavo Cuello pled guilty today to aggravated sexual assault of a child. The conviction stems from an arrest in June of 1997. After posting bond, Cuello fled to his native Ecuador.

He is no longer a Catholic priest. This past July, he was arrested in Ecuador and brought back to Smith County. He has admitted to having sex with the then 13-year-old victim from June of 1996 to April of 1997. They are estimated to have had sex 80 times. The victim was an alter girl and said Cuello would have sex with her in his office then put on his robe and say mass. They also had sex once in a car in a church parking lot. She says she thinks about it every day. Her strongest memory is of his breath smelling like garlic. He told her she was the "chosen one" and that it was OK. The victim was called names at school and accused of raping the priest. She said Cuello told her if she ever told anyone he would kill her father.

There were around 20 church members in court today to support the former priest, not the victim. One church member called to testify says she doesn't believe he is guilty and refuses to believe he had sex with the victim. She says she was in the church before and after mass with the choir and never saw anything. Smith County assistant district attorney Matt Bingham says church members helped bail him out of jail, then helped him flee the country. Several church members testified that he was a good man. One woman, a year older than the victim, said she heard the victim brag about having sex with Cuello, and went as far as to say, even though she knows he admits having sex with a 13-year-old, she would still want him as her priest. Another woman says she didn't see this as abuse because she always saw the victim happy.

Cuello waived his right to testify on his behalf. Bingham called Cuello a coward, and wanted "not one second less than life in prison." The defense attorney, J. Warren St. John of Fort Worth, argued life sentence wasn't appropriate because Cuello had sex with just one person, and in some countries, having a relationship with a 13-year-old girl is acceptable. Judge Cynthia Kent sentenced Cuello to 50 years in prison with a $10,000 fine. That would make him eligible for parole in 25 years. Cuello rejected the sentence, opting instead for a jury to decide his fate. They can sentence him up to life in prison, which means he wouldn't be eligible for parole for 30 years.

"Under the circumstances," said Bingham, "in this case, I understood why 50 years was assessed by the court. I definitely think that it would be in his best interest to have taken it. He wants a trial, he'll get one."

The family says they were ready to accept Judge Kent's decision, no matter what it would have been. Now, Bingham plans to file around 6 more aggravated assault charges against Cuello, and request to have all sentences stack one after another. Bond is set at one million dollars. Jury selection begins on October 20th.