Omaha, Nebraska - An Omaha man had less-than-divine designs for the centuries-old Virgin Mary painting he stole from St. Cecilia Cathedral.
Aurelio Vallecillo-Sanchez planned to use money from selling the sacred painting to pay for an abortion for the 14-year-old girl he raped, prosecutors say.
That wasn't the only detail revealed Friday as Vallecillo-Sanchez, 39, pleaded no contest to sexual assault and theft.
Prosecutors say he threatened to kill the girl and her family if she went to police about the sexual assault.
And, prosecutors say, they believe Vallecillo-Sanchez was responsible for the thefts of dozens of pieces of religious artwork from at least five area churches in 2006 and 2007.
Vallecillo-Sanchez, 39, pleaded no contest to first-degree sexual assault for impregnating the 14-year-old girl and to felony theft for stealing “The Virgin Immaculata” — a painting St. Cecilia officials valued at $100,000.
He faces up to 70 years in prison — 50 years on the sexual-assault charge and 20 on the theft charge — when he is sentenced in October.
"He is very remorseful and ashamed," said his attorney, Assistant Douglas County Public Defender Kelly Steenbock. "He will give a sincere statement expressing that remorse at sentencing."
Brother William Woeger, curator of the St. Cecilia Cathedral art collection, said he was glad the plea had come to pass.
"Hopefully this will put some closure on things for the young woman, and maybe put some closure on it for the other churches," Woeger said.
Vallecillo-Sanchez, who will turn 40 on Monday, stood with hands cuffed and head bowed Friday as Chief Deputy Douglas County Attorney Brenda Beadle detailed the crimes:
In September 2006, Vallecillo-Sanchez impregnated a 14-year-old girl after repeatedly sexually assaulting her.
The pregnancy, in turn, caused Vallecillo-Sanchez to panic. He urged her to tell people that a teenage boy was the father. He then threatened to kill the girl and her family if she told anyone he was the father.
"He threatened to beat her so badly that her mom would not be able to recognize her," Beadle said.
Vallecillo-Sanchez then decided he had to find a way to permanently conceal the crime. He wanted to take the girl to Mexico to obtain an abortion but needed money to do so.
Vallecillo-Sanchez set his sights on "The Virgin Immaculata," a 300-year-old painting.
Police investigating the sexual assault of the girl spoke with his two teenage children. The children said Vallecillo-Sanchez took them with him to St. Cecilia early on March 16, 2007.
The teenagers said their father went into a chapel next to the sanctuary and used a box cutter to cut all four sides of the 4-by-6-foot painting.
An alarm went off — and Vallecillo-Sanchez rolled up the painting and raced with his children to the car. Soon after, he took the painting and his sexual-assault victim to Mexico. He hoped to get $30,000 for the painting. He got $3,000.
He then took the girl to a doctor in Mexico, hoping to abort the pregnancy. The doctor viewed an ultrasound, determined that the fetus was far along and said an abortion would be dangerous.
The girl also saw the ultrasound and decided she couldn't go through with it.
After returning to Omaha, he used threats to ensure the victim's silence — before and after the birth.
But earlier this year, he left for Mexico. With him out of town, the victim went to her mom, then to police. She acknowledged Vallecillo-Sanchez, not some teenage boy, was the baby's father.
Police waited for him to return to Omaha and arrested him.
They then spoke with his teenage children, who revealed his history of art heists. Omaha police took the children to churches where thefts occurred.
From the children's and other witness accounts, Beadle said, prosecutors believe Vallecillo-Sanchez is responsible for thefts of dozens of pieces of artwork from at least five Omaha churches from May 2006 to March 2007.
One of the children also remembered him stealing a painting of Jesus being whipped. However, police have been unable to determine a church that lost a similar painting.
Faced with further theft charges, Vallecillo-Sanchez pleaded no contest to his original charges.
The Rev. Anthony Espinosa, who was pastor of South Omaha's Immaculate Conception and St. Joseph Catholic parishes when paintings were stolen there, said the man's story was warped beyond any scenario he had imagined for the thefts.
"There's definitely mental problems there, to be so without conscience," said Espinosa, who now serves parishes in Schuyler and Columbus, Neb.
The thief robbed Immaculate Conception parishioners of some of their cultural heritage as well as their church's art. He took a large painting of a Polish saint's vision of Jesus as the Divine Mercy, one of three of its kind painted in Poland, the historic homeland of parish founders. He ripped from the walls six of the church's 14 Stations of the Cross paintings, which tell the story of Christ's crucifixion. They traditionally adorn Catholic church walls. Immaculate Conception members had sponsored the stations in 1897. Parishioners paid to restore them in the 1980s.
"They were all intended as gifts for everyone to enjoy in praise of God, and not for any other use," Espinosa said.
In return for Vallecillo-Sanchez's pleas, Beadle said, prosecutors agreed not to file additional theft or terroristic threats charges for a few reasons.
First of all, she said, he faces up to 70 years in prison.
Secondly, she said, Vallecillo-Sanchez would have no ability to make restitution. The paintings are gone — having been sold in Mexico. And Vallecillo-Sanchez has no money.
Beadle said her biggest concern is that Vallecillo-Sanchez "gets the maximum term."
She compared Vallecillo-Sanchez to some of the killers she has prosecuted.
"I would liken him to the worst," she said. "In some respects, it's worse than him taking her life because she's left to remember this whole ordeal. She has to raise a child that is a daily reminder of what happened to her."
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Tags: Aurelio Vallecillo-Sanchez, sexual assault, rapist, felony theft, The Virgin Immaculata
Location: Omaha, Nebraska, United States (load item map)
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