The colorfully cheerful banners hanging in the front yard of a Parkwood townhome extol the virtues of the determined teenager who lives there.
A message on one of the placards praises the 14-year-old as “A Brave & True Hero.” On the young man’s wrist, he wears ID bands with the slogans “Brave” and “Justice,” both reminders of his laudable accomplishments.
Some friends call him “Turtle,” but his real name is Ben. And he hasn’t always been such a visible role model to his neighbors, peers and loved ones. For years, he remained silent, with the sexual abuse he suffered as a 10-year-old at the hands of a next-door neighbor paralyzing his psyche.
But he has emerged from his shell, confronted his abuser in a court of law and taken control of his own circumstance, transforming himself into an unabashed advocate for fellow victims.
“I feel I’ve reached the top of my goals, but I still want to help other people with theirs,” he said during a recent interview at his home.
Weeks prior to his abuser’s Sept. 20 sentencing hearing on a rape conviction, the teenager compelled his parents, Michael and Melissa, to contact the Northeast Times to request the interview. The youth had a powerful story and he wanted to tell it, his parents said.
Ben proposed that his full name and photo be published in the newspaper, but his parents decided against that, cognizant of the sensitive nature of his case. Still, Ben is determined to make a lasting impact on what he describes as a general lack of awareness about child sex abuse.
“People don’t really think of it as anything,” he said. “They hear about it and say, ‘That’s sad,’ and go on with their life. But you need a lot of support to get through it. … If someone tells you it truthfully happened to them, believe them.”
Ben’s personal ordeal began with a seemingly harmless swim in his neighbor’s pool one day in June 2009. The neighbor was 19 at the time. The two families had lived next to each other and shared a common driveway for the previous nine years. Ben didn’t think twice about accepting the teenager’s invitation.
“He seemed pretty normal at first,” Ben said. “He and his family would let me swim and when I was done, I would go inside for a drink.”
Sometimes, Ben’s older brother would go swimming, too, but Ben was usually the last one out of the pool “because that’s what I liked to do.”
After swimming one day, the neighbor cornered Ben inside the house and assaulted him sexually. The youngster in his naivety didn’t know what had hit him. It happened twice more that summer, as the abuser routinely urged Ben to use their pool, while furnishing him with various gifts.
The gifts included a custom bicycle constructed from salvaged parts, an old hand-held video game and a used video game system. At first, Ben’s parents allowed him to keep the gifts, figuring them to be hand-me-downs with little value. But as the gifts started getting more expensive, Ben’s parents put an end to it.
Ben was still trying to comprehend what had happened to him in the neighbor’s house, but he had a bad feeling about it and wasn’t telling anyone.
“I didn’t know at the time it was wrong,” he said. “I had a feeling but I wasn’t sure.”
The end of summer also signalled the end of the assaults and the start of Ben’s sixth-grade school year.
“I started health class in school and that’s when I learned,” he said. “I felt ashamed so it took me a while before I reported it.”
The weeks turned into months and then years. Ben stashed his secret beneath a shroud of shyness, interrupted only by hostile outbursts.
“It put my grades down a lot. I had fights and ran away from school a couple times,” he said.
“I kind of kept to myself, but I did think about it at least once every day. I started getting real depressed and I didn’t like that.”
The youngster had many thoughts racing through his head, all of them bad. If he told someone about the abuse, would his peers ostracize him? Would his older brother or dad seek street justice, exposing them to legal peril? He couldn’t even confide in his sister.
“I didn’t tell her because I really didn’t want anybody treating me different because of it,” Ben said.
“He was holding it all in,” mom Melissa said. “We knew something was wrong, but we never would’ve thought that.”
Everything changed on March 8, 2012. Ben, who had just turned 13, heard some of his schoolmates making light of sexual abuse, specifically rape.
“There were some kids using the word as a joke, talking about it like it was nothing,” Ben said. “I told them it’s not a joke. I said it happened to me. At first they didn’t believe me.”
He repeated his admission with a seriousness that one of the other students could not dismiss. The youth persuaded Ben to tell a school guidance counselor. He couldn’t verbalize the details, so he wrote them down. The school called his parents immediately and showed them what Ben had written.
“He just had this look on his face, like ‘Do you love me?’ ” Melissa said. “I said I did. We hugged him and got him the help he needed.”
None of Ben’s deepest fears came to pass. At his school, teachers and fellow students were largely supportive of him. And his parents allowed the authorities to seek justice for him.
“He flat-out said, ‘I need both my parents to get through this,’ ” Melissa recalled. “We wanted to prove him right, that he did the right thing in the end.”
Yet, Ben and his family were soon confronted by another unanticipated torment. Even as police investigated the case, the abuser was still living with his parents next door.
Police arrested Rick Jastemski on April 11, 2012, and charged him with 11 offenses, including rape, unlawful contact with a minor, unlawful restraint, sexual assault, reckless endangerment and corruption of a minor. He posted 10 percent of $25,000 bail that day and returned home.
“We spent the next year in our front window, watching him because we didn’t want Ben getting hurt anymore,” dad Michael said.
As the case made its way through the court system, another troubling realization struck Ben’s family. Most of their Fairdale Road neighbors seemed to blame the boy for the trouble on the block.
“They would antagonize us by staring at us and talking behind our backs,” Ben said.
The few neighbors who continued to speak to Ben’s family got similar treatment.
“Basically they were shunning us,” Melissa said.
Ben found a therapist through the Network of Victim Assistance in Bucks County. In school, he spoke of his abuse to teachers and friends and tried to start a sex abuse awareness group among his peers. The school administration nixed the idea, however.
“Sometimes, when you raise awareness, you raise fears,” the boy’s dad said.
But Ben was still trying to come to terms with his own set of fears, his distrust of others, his anxiety about having to confront his accuser in court or in the driveway outside their homes.
“He was still afraid to be in his own house,” Melissa said.
One special friend has helped Ben overcome the fear. A man named “Khaos” entered Ben’s life after the boy’s mom found an Internet link to Bikers Against Child Abuse. With 165 chapters across the country, BACA is a group of motorcycle enthusiasts whose mission is “to create a safer environment for abused children” and “empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live,” according to the organization’s website.
Typically, a BACA chapter will ride to a child’s house or another prearranged meeting place upon a professional referral and request from the family. If the youngster chooses, a friendship develops. The bikers can provide camaraderie, mentoring and protection.
“We come into his life and show him he’s not alone,” said Khaos, who declined to provide his real name for publication. “He knows no matter what he does, he’s not going to be judged. He knows whatever he says stays with us.”
“So they’re able to vent and get things off their chest, and to a child that’s so important,” Melissa said.
Khaos is still a big part of Ben’s life, even with his abuser out of the picture. Jastemski’s family eventually moved. On June 21, Jastemski pleaded guilty to rape. On Sept. 20, a judge sentenced him to 11-1/2 to 23 months in prison, followed by five years of strict house arrest and 18 years of probation. He must register as a Megan’s Law offender for the rest of his life.
After the final court hearing, Ben texted to friends that it was the best day of his life.
“I thought it was obvious,” he recalled, smiling.
Meanwhile, he continues to work on a victim advocacy campaign that he launched as a school project. That’s one of the reasons why he contacted the Northeast Times. He also talks directly to other kids and has created the Facebook page “Shatter the Silence (Eradicate Child Abuse).”
“People like it,” Ben said. “Me and my mom post stuff. People can comment. People are talking about it.” ••