Lydia Lerma goes over Google Maps images of Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Mexico, where she traveled earlier this year to track down Andrew Vanderwal.
Crouched on the floorboards of a rental car in a supermarket parking lot, Lydia Lerma spotted her prey and started to cry.
She’d found Andrew Vanderwal in Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Mexico — 451 days after police say he confessed to molesting her 6-year-old son under a Denver Broncos blanket in her ex-husband’s Fort Collins home.
From her hiding spot in Mexico, she saw two boys lounging in the open trunk of Vanderwal’s Ford Expedition.
Lerma longed to kill him.
“The only way I can explain it is, I hunt,” said the Fort Collins mother of three. “And when you’re hunting and you see an animal, there’s that adrenaline rush — can I take this shot? Can I do this?”
Adrenaline and fury danced in her veins. Fury at Vanderwal — her son called him “Uncle Drew” — the man who authorities say fled the country in early 2017 to escape allegations of child sex assault. Fury at the system that allowed Vanderwal to walk out of jail for $750 of his parents’ money. Fury at the red tape that seemed to bind the hands of the FBI agents and police detectives tasked with catching the man accused of abusing her son.
But she figured she couldn’t do much for her kids from a Mexican jail cell, so she stayed low. Just not for long.
Vanderwal is back in the Larimer County Jail now, held there with 100 times his original bond while he awaits prosecution on five counts of child sex assault. Police say more charges are pending.
By some accounts, Vanderwal wouldn’t be there if not for Lerma — the self-described “pedophile hunter,” data resource manager and Lipan Apache tribal member who moonlights as a Facebook personality and NRA-certified firearms instructor. Lerma’s story reads like a true crime TV script, and at times, she says it’s felt like one.
The FBI declined an interview request for the story and has not yet responded to a Freedom of Information Act request regarding Vanderwal’s case file. The Larimer County District Attorney’s Office declined to speak with a Coloradoan reporter, citing the ongoing investigation.
In the past year, the Coloradoan has conducted extensive interviews with Lerma and other parents involved in Vanderwal’s case, details of which were confirmed through law enforcement records, texts and emails.
Perhaps the best place to start is where Lerma’s hunt for Vanderwal began — with the box.
‘He was grooming me, too’
She found it on the top shelf of Vanderwal’s closet, shortly after his first arrest in November 2016.
A big black boot box, taped shut. “Drew” was scrawled on the top in cursive. Lerma’s hands trembled as she ripped off the packing tape.
Inside was a boy’s baseball glove, a Nerf gun, a sneaker. All labeled with the same boy’s name. In plastic storage tubs beside the box, she found more: stacks of kids’ drawings, primary colors and marker stick figures. Sheets of notebook paper coated in the misshapen and misspelled words of children: “Dear Drew, thank you so much for evrything you do for me…” “I am sorry for misbehaiveing.” “Please forgive me.”
Then there were the photos: Boys smiling as then-26-year-old Vanderwal clutched their shoulders. Boys peering from class photos, family photos, team photos. Boys Lerma had never seen before.
She sat there, crying and shaking as she rifled through what she described as Vanderwal’s “trophy chest.”
Vanderwal was her ex-husband’s roommate, and she said he’d always given her the creeps. “Uncle Drew” was friends with all the neighborhood boys, she said, and lived with her ex-husband mostly rent free. He picked up her 6-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter from school and looked after them while their dad was at work. He bought her son a $250 bike and Nike sneakers. He tickled him on his inner thighs, her son told her.
“I asked (my ex), point blank, ‘When you were his age, what were you doing?’ ” Lerma said. “’You were chasing (women) and trying to get laid. You were not taking kids out and doing sleepovers with them, or taking them to the movies or buying them toys.’ We used to fight about it all the time.”
Lerma’s ex-husband told the Coloradoan Vanderwal’s behavior seemed “innocent” at first. The Coloradoan is not naming him to protect the identity of their son, who is named as a victim in the case.
“He told me he was a pediatric medic in the Air Force, and he served in Afghanistan, and he saw so many horrible things and so many children he couldn’t save,” Lerma’s ex-husband said. “I looked at him like a son. Looking back, he was grooming me, too.”
Soon, Lerma’s once-gentle son started having violent outbursts, flinging the blankets off his bed and tossing free weights and marbles. When the boy told authorities about Vanderwal, he said the abuse had gone on for “as long as I can remember.”
The contents of Vanderwal’s closet convinced Lerma her son wasn’t his first victim.
Over the coming months, she called everyone she could think of — Fort Collins Police Services, the District Attorney’s Office, TV stations and newspapers.
The press mostly ignored her. The DA’s office told her to cool off, she said. Police told her they couldn’t go “fishing for victims,” she recalled.
“I said, ‘OK, you can’t go fishing? I can.”
She tracked down most of the boys in the pictures. She said she talked to some of the boys themselves and their parents, who told her Vanderwal molested at least three other children. One of those boys has come forward to police, the boy’s mother told the Coloradoan.
But by the time law enforcement picked up Vanderwal’s box, he’d already posted his $7,500 bond, left his car in El Paso and crossed the border, FBI records show.
This story continues below the video.
A mother’s love
“Please bear with me as I try to get through this.”
Lerma’s voice wavered in the Facebook Live video posted three days after Mother’s Day. She’d planned to go public about her search for Vanderwal on Mother’s Day, about four months after Vanderwal stopped showing up to court, but she couldn’t keep it together.
In the ocean of days between Vanderwal’s reported confession and his return to Fort Collins, Lerma struggled to stay afloat. She couldn’t sleep without her son by her side. Sometimes she’d end up on the floor, sobbing in the fetal position. She’d go to the sweat lodge, burn sage, cedar and pollen. She tried medication, but it made her feel like a zombie.
“Please help me,” she’d pray — half the time she didn’t know who she was asking.
Lerma wasn’t the only one. Her ex-husband, wracked with guilt, recalled hoping Vanderwal was dead so his son would never have to face him in court.
Sabrina Villarreal, the mother of another boy who said Vanderwal sexually abused him, feared Vanderwal was hiding in plain sight.
“I’ve had this eerie feeling every time I drive to (pick my son up from school) that I’m going to pull up and he won’t be there,” she said in an August 2017 interview with the Coloradoan. “Every time, I’m white-knuckling the steering wheel trying to get there as fast as I can, hoping I don’t see Vanderwal’s face.”
Lerma couldn’t stop thinking about Vanderwal’s “trophies” and all the victims who might never come forward. In an old journal, he’d written, “God, let me be the light in these children’s eyes,” she said.
To her, it sounded like a tradeoff: Sexual abuse in exchange for mentorship. It reminded her of something.
“They try to form this relationship with the child; they say, ‘I’m doing this because I love you,’ ” she said. “That’s what my abuser said to me. And then you think that’s what love is.”
Lerma had never quite come to terms with her own sexual abuse as a teenager in California, which she said took place years after her mother packed up the kids and fled an abusive relationship in the night. Lerma didn’t tell her mother about it until she was 39 and pregnant with her son.
Action helped this time. Lerma rounded up the parents.
She pestered police, the DA’s Office and the FBI for updates that she says rarely came. She contacted a private investigator. When she found out about Vanderwal’s abandoned car, she took to Facebook, which had long been her preferred platform for activism.
Lerma often said she never expected to become an activist for sexual assault survivors, but she’s been an activist for something ever since she won high school class president with a speech that played off the Gettysburg Address. Her scores of Facebook friends have followed her to Standing Rock. They’ve read her views on routine infant circumcision (anti), breastfeeding (pro) and gun rights (pro, but let people protest).
With Vanderwal on the run, Lerma told Facebook he’d fled the country after confessing to molesting her son. She vented her frustrations about the lack of updates from law enforcement and sluggish progress in the case. For months, she implored her Facebook followers to be on the lookout. She tagged herself in locations she believed he might be hiding, offered a free ancestry DNA kit to one lucky user who shared her posts and posted regular updates on the case.
She kept posting, and nothing changed.
Families of the victims who said Vanderwal abused them began to wonder if anyone was even looking for him.
“The judicial process is very frustrating,” said Russ Lambert, Lydia’s partner of three years. “You don’t realize until you’re in it. You’re at the mercy of the system. You don’t have any faith the good guys are gonna win.
“That’s a terrible feeling.”
Lerma lives her life by a series of mental deadlines.
“I say, if something doesn’t happen by this date, what are you going to do, Lydia? Part of it is coping. I can’t just sit and not do anything.”
Her next deadline was Jan. 19, 2018.
If Vanderwal hadn’t been re-arrested by then, she’d quit her job and go to Mexico. She figured she was the best-equipped parent to do it. She could cash out her retirement. She speaks Spanish and knows people in Mexico. She’d spend one week here, one week there until she found him.
The Facebook message came at 12:39 a.m., two weeks before her deadline. It was from a fake profile with no friends.
“Hello. I’ve seen you’re looking for Andrew Todd Vanderwal. I have some information about him if you’re still looking for him.”
Lerma screenshotted the message the next morning and sent it to FBI Agent Philip Jones. The Coloradoan reviewed Lerma’s text and email records for this story and confirmed the recipient addresses and phone numbers belonged to FBI and law enforcement contacts.
As she traded messages with the tipster, hope billowed within her — this person knew Vanderwal and said he was living on the fringes of a German Mennonite community in Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, going by the name “Charlie Harper Penner.” The FBI later said he also used the alias “Andrew Webster.”
The tipster reported discovering Vanderwal’s true identity and finding Lerma’s videos after searching for him online. The informant begged Lerma for anonymity, fearing retaliation.
Finally, the tipster shared Vanderwal’s new cellphone number and a screenshot of his profile picture on WhatsApp, a free messaging app often used overseas. The picture showed him coaching a Mexican boys’ baseball team.
Lerma shared it all with Jones. Days passed without an arrest. The FBI lacked the appropriate jurisdiction but was working on it, she recalled Jones telling her.
So Lerma and Lambert hatched a plan: They’d fly to Mexico and convince the Cuauhtemoc police to arrest Vanderwal. Lerma wrote a letter in Spanish and had Vanderwal’s arrest warrant translated. She packed her passport and wads of hundred dollar bills. More cash sat in a shoe box in her bedroom — in case things got dicey and her oldest daughter needed to bail her out or bribe someone.
She emailed Jones the day before her flight to tell him about her plans. He texted her back.
“Lydia, I know your desire to get this guy, but DO NOT go to Cuauhtemoc. There’s nothing positive you can accomplish that is not already in the process of being accomplished.”
Too late. Her plane had already landed in Mexico.
Here are the key dates in the apprehension of Andrew Vanderwal, a man accused of child sex assault who evaded law enforcement for over a year.
‘Live and let die’
The initial plan didn’t work out.
Jones and another FBI agent stationed in Mexico told Lerma that Cuauhtemoc authorities could tip off Vanderwal instead of apprehending him. Undeterred, Lerma and Lambert set their sights on a new mission: Get pictures of Vanderwal and figure out where he lived.
“I didn’t doubt myself,” Lerma said. “I felt like I was finally accomplishing something. I put a fire under their a–es. Finally, I’ve got their attention.”
They’d made plans with the informant to lure Vanderwal to a grocery store parking lot next to a shuttered Applebee’s. That’s how she and Lambert ended up crouched in a white sedan as Vanderwal peeled in behind the wheel of a Ford Expedition.
She remembers watching Vanderwal pace the lot in a black T-shirt that said “Live and Let Die,” seemingly oblivious to the woman yards away who wanted him dead.
“I was like, finally, here he is,” she said. “I could grab this bastard if I wanted to. I could drag his a– to El Paso right now if I want.”
They tailed him around town in hopes of nabbing his address, but he drove too fast and lost them. He had a knack for that, Lerma said.
Lerma sent her photos to the FBI and asked an agent stationed in Mexico to arrest Vanderwal by Feb. 13, her 47th birthday. She couldn’t imagine a better present.
But as she boarded the plane home, Lerma was already thinking about another looming deadline. If the FBI didn’t arrest Vanderwal by March 1, she’d come back with zip-ties and take back roads to cross the border. If the FBI couldn’t get him back on American soil, she planned to do it herself.
Mexican prison couldn’t be that bad.
The Mexico FBI agent texted her Feb. 19.
“Happy belated birthday.”
This isn’t over.
Lerma’s son is starting to feel like a normal kid again. He just turned 8, and his temper tantrums are gone. He’s earning Cub Scout badges, plays hockey and baseball, and goes to some tribal gatherings with his mom. He sees a therapist once a week.
Lerma took him and the rest of the family to Texas Roadhouse to celebrate Vanderwal’s arrest. Her son is her co-star in the Facebook Live video she posted that day.
“Thank you everybody for sharing my mom’s posts and the FBI for capturing Andrew Vanderwal,” he says, haltingly, as Lerma smiles with her arms around him.
“Initially I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want anyone to treat my son differently,” Lerma said during an interview. “And part of me thinks, yeah, people probably will treat him differently. … I don’t care. He’s my boy, he’s gonna get through this and he has me fighting for him. That trumps everything.”
The last year and a half has inspired Lerma to take her activism in a new direction, to take aim at the shield of stigma that often silences victims of sexual abuse and protects their attackers. She’s already started posting on Facebook about other men accused of molesting children.
But for now, she and her family are focused on the process unfolding in a Larimer County courtroom.
Lerma and Lambert spend their days waiting for Vanderwal’s next court date. In April, Judge Susan Blanco raised Vanderwal’s bail to $750,000 — one of the highest set in Larimer County in recent history — after a battle cry led by Lerma.
She’s seen Vanderwal in court a handful of times since he came back to Colorado, but she said he still won’t look her in the eye. Always, he lurks in the back of her mind.
“To me, that’s mental torture,” Lambert said, resting his elbows on their battered kitchen tabletop. “To have to visit this every day, and think about it every day. And if you think about it too much, you go all the way back to what actually happened, and that’s the most devastating thought of all. Somehow we’ve got to get past it.”
They’re not there yet. Lerma can’t rest until the hunt is over — and she said this hunt won’t be over until Vanderwal is behind bars for good.
“Death would be too easy for Vanderwal,” Lerma said. “I want him to wear that scarlet letter for the rest of his life. I want him to have to face those other inmates, I want him to face the court, I want him to face his parents, I want him to face his peers — knowing that he’s a pedophile. …
“I want him to live knowing the world knows that.”
All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in court. Arrests and charges are merely accusations by law enforcement until, and unless, a suspect is convicted of a crime.
There has been a rise in child abuse cases in Northern Colorado in recent years. Here are some signs to look for and resources to help.
Vanderwal’s case at a glance
Oct. 28, 2016: Lydia Lerma’s ex-husband reports to Fort Collins Police Services that Andrew Vanderwal sexually abused his 6-year-old son.
Nov. 1, 2016: The boy tells Fort Collins police that Vanderwal touched him inappropriately on multiple occasions, according to police reports. During a phone call recorded by police, Vanderwal reportedly confesses to the boy’s father that the abuse occurred “a couple times,” according to the report. Later that night, Vanderwal goes to the police department for a voluntary interview and confesses to inappropriately touching the boy on five occasions, according to the report. Police arrest Vanderwal.
Nov. 2, 2016: Vanderwal is released from Larimer County Jail after his parents post 10 percent of his $7,500 bail, according to FBI and court records.
November 2016, shortly after Vanderwal’s arrest: Lerma sorts through Vanderwal’s possessions and begins contacting the parents of boys she believes may be victims. The parents of one boy go to police after their son tells them Vanderwal assaulted him.
Dec. 25, 2016: Vanderwal tells his grandmother in a phone conversation that the Mennonite church does not answer to the laws of man and will be taking him to Belize, according to FBI arrest records referencing a wiretap on his cellphone.
Jan. 19, 2017: On the day Vanderwal is set to be presented with additional charges of child sex assault, he fails to appear in court. Eighth Judicial District Judge Susan Blanco issues a warrant for his arrest.
Feb. 9, 2017: Fort Collins Police Services learns from El Paso police that a car registered to Vanderwal was reported abandoned near the Mexico border on Jan. 26, according to FBI arrest records.
Feb. 14, 2017: FBI Agent Philip Jones signs an FBI affidavit for Vanderwal’s arrest.
Jan. 4, 2018: Lerma receives an anonymous Facebook message from an informant who tells her Vanderwal is living on the fringes of a German Mennonite community in Ciudad Cuauhtemoc, Mexico. She passes the information to the FBI.
Jan. 25, 2018: Frustrated by the amount of time that has passed without an arrest, Lerma travels to Mexico to track Vanderwal herself. She takes covert photos of Vanderwal and plans to return to Mexico in March if he isn’t arrested before then.
Feb. 19, 2018: The FBI arrests Vanderwal in Mexico.
March 23, 2018: Vanderwal is booked into the Larimer County Jail.
April 3, 2018: Blanco raises Vanderwal’s bail from $100,000 to $750,000 with mandatory GPS tracking after outcry from parents of the children in the case.
If you think a child is being harmed
The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, an anti-sexual violence organization, lists tips for what to do if you suspect a child is being harmed.
1. Recognize the signs
The signs of abuse aren’t necessarily obvious, but they include:
Behavioral signs: Shrinking away from physical contact, thumb sucking or other regressive behaviors, changing hygiene routines, engaging in age-inappropriate sexual behaviors, or having sleep disturbances or nightmares
Verbal cues: Using words or phrases that are “too adult” for their age, unexplained silence or suddenly being less talkative
Physical signs: Bruising or swelling near the genital area, blood on sheets or undergarments or broken bones
2. Talk to the child
Pick your time and place carefully and find a place the child feels comfortable. Be aware of your tone. Try to make the conversation more casual and be non-threatening.
Talk to the child directly. Ask questions that use the child’s own vocabulary but are a little vague. For example, “Has someone been touching you?” In this context “touching” can mean different things, but it is likely a word the child is familiar with. The child can respond with questions or comments to help you better gauge the situation like, “No one touches me except my mom at bath time,” or “You mean like the way my cousin touches me sometimes?” Understand that sexual abuse can feel good to the child, so asking if someone is “hurting” them may not bring out the information that you are looking for.
Listen and follow up, but avoid judgment and blame.
Reassure the child, and make sure they know they’re not in trouble.
Be patient. Remember this conversation may be very frightening for the child. Many perpetrators make threats about what will happen if someone finds out about the abuse.
3. Report it
Reporting a crime like sexual abuse might not be easy, and it can be emotionally draining.
Keep in mind that reporting abuse gives you the chance to protect someone who can’t protect themselves.
Before you report, tell the child that you’re going to talk to someone who can help. Be clear that you are not asking their permission.
Learn more at www.rainn.org.
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