Trial set for child molest suspect

A trial for a man accused of molesting a child in Bartholomew County nearly 17 years ago is tentatively scheduled for later this month.

Juan Carlos Avitia, 39, of Nuevo Ideal Durango, Mexico, is charged with child molesting as a Class A felony punishable by 20 to 50 years in prison.

In a separate case, Ativia is also charged with possession of methamphetamine as a Class C felony punishable by two to eight years. Each felony can also result in a fine of up to $10,000.

The formal charges against Avitia reflect the extensive length of time since the original charges were filed. Before July 2014, Indiana utilized an A–D classification system for felonies. But for the last eight years, the Indiana Criminal Code involves six classes of felonies, with Level 1 being the most severe and Level 6 being the least severe.

In Bartholomew Circuit Court Thursday, defense attorney Elizabeth Milliken and deputy prosecuting attorney Joshua Scherschel told Judge Kelly Benjamin they were prepared for Avitia’s trial to begin Aug.16.

Scherschel said a firm trial date is necessary to arrange for witnesses.

Milliken told the judge she does not expect to file unusual motions that might prolong the trial date. Both the defense and prosecutor are expected to have court-certified Spanish translators to ensure the defendant knows what is being said during the proceedings.

For law enforcement, the case goes back to Sept. 19, 2003 when an arrest warrant was issued for Avitia for possession of methamphetamine.

Two years later, on Sept. 3, 2005, then-Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Steinkoenig received a report about child molesting, with the suspect identified as Avitia.

After Detective Jeff Tindell was assigned to the case, a second arrest warrant for child molesting was issued for Avitia on Jan. 6, 2006. Bond was set at $450,000 surety or 10% cash.

But after bond was posted and the defendant was released from jail, Avitia appeared to disappear from the Columbus area. After an unsuccessful search, deputies were informed he had fled back to his home country of Mexico.

The suspect may have remained free indefinitely if it weren’t for the strong memory of one of the initial investigators.

Over 16 years later, Steinkoenig –now captain of the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Road Division – was looking through jail booking photographs in late 2020 when he saw a familiar face.

However, the name associated with the face was Carlos Esparza Avitia, who had been captured crossing the border into Texas. Although the suspect initially denied being Juan Carlos Avitia, fingerprints and photographs identified him as the man Steinkoenig investigated several years earlier.

An arrest warrant was served on Oct. 31, 2020 by local deputies at the Texas facility where Avitia was being held. The suspect was immediately transported back to Bartholomew County, where an initial hearing was held on Dec. 17, 2020.