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Lawsuit accuses teen rapist's mom of 'grooming' Lewiston party house victim

Court papers filed this week accuse Tricia Vacanti, the mother of admitted rapist Christopher J. Belter Jr., of  "grooming" a teenage girl to make her feel comfortable with her surroundings before her son assaulted the girl.

The charge came in a legal complaint against Belter, his parents and a nearby resident over the Aug. 2, 2018, sex attack in Vacanti's home on Mountain View Drive in Lewiston.

"Vacanti cultured a relationship with (the girl) with all the characteristics of a peer-to-peer friendship, including the mutual exchange of personal and confidential information by each to the other with the intention of grooming (her and other girls) to be prey for her predator son," the lawsuit charges.

"Grooming" is a term used by sexual assault investigators to describe a process in which a victim's trust is won before the victim is assaulted.

A summons was issued in the case in early August, but Steven M. Cohen and William A. Lorenz Jr., the attorneys for the girl and her parents, followed up with a 14-page complaint Wednesday.

In addition to accusing Vacanti of helping set up his daughter, the victim's father is seeking compensation for losing his job. The lawsuit says he was laid off for taking too much time off to assist his daughter with the "profound emotional impact" of the sexual assault.

The girl's mother also seeks to be compensated for time she had to take off work for the same reason.

Christopher J. Belter, left, appears in Niagara County Court with his attorney, Barry N. Covert, on Aug. 28, 2019. (Thomas J. Prohaska/Buffalo News)

It's the second civil suit filed against Belter and his family by one of his victims. A lawsuit was filed last year by the parents of a girl who was assaulted Nov. 22, 2017.

Belter, 18, pleaded guilty July 1 to victimizing four girls on four different dates in the Lewiston residence, reportedly called the "party house" by local teenagers. The charges were third-degree rape, attempted first-degree sexual abuse and two counts of second-degree sexual abuse.

On Aug. 28, Niagara County Judge Sara Sheldon placed Belter on two years of interim probation, holding out the prospect that he could earn youthful offender status if he obeys the dozens of conditions attached to the probation.

If Belter fails, he risks being resentenced to as long as eight years in state prison.

"The facts appear to indicate a pattern of grooming on the part of Ms. Vacanti," Lorenz said.

"Vacanti gained (the victim's) trust by giving (her) advice ... by allowing (the victim) to confide in her, and by deceptively confiding in (the victim)," the complaint says.

"Vacanti would flatter and compliment (the girl's) appearance, find points of insecurity in (her) psyche and use them, and tell (the girl) things to endear (her) to Vacanti," the complaint continues.

The lawsuit also names Christopher Belter Sr., the attacker's father; Gary E. Sullo, stepfather of Christopher J. Belter Jr. and Vacanti's husband; and Jessica M. Long, a family friend, as defendants.

The suit accuses Belter Sr., Sullo and Vacanti of negligence, asserting they "knowingly and willfully failed to prevent and/or report the incidents of sexual assault and abuse" and "increased the likelihood of the aforesaid assault by promoting and allowing underage drinking, use of controlled substances, use of illegal substances (i.e., marijuana) and sexual activity to occur prior to and at the time of the sexual assault."

And, as State Police have charged, Vacanti, Sullo and Long allegedly supplied drugs and alcohol to the girl – although not on the night she was assaulted, according to the lawsuit.

Police have charged Long only with providing alcohol to minors on April 13, 2018, which is not the date of the assault on Cohen and Lorenz's client, and the charge against Long is not based on that girl's statement.

Belter Sr. has never been charged by police with any offense in connection with the case.

"The allegations against Chris are meritless," said James W. Grable Jr., attorney for Belter Sr. "He was not present at the home on the dates alleged and he should be dropped from the lawsuit."

"It's unknown if he was present," Lorenz said. "We are alleging he knew what was going on. If discovery reveals one way or the other, we can make a determination as to whether he remains in the lawsuit."

Barry N. Covert, attorney for Belter Jr., declined comment on the civil case.

Attorneys for the other defendants did not respond to calls seeking comment Friday.

The client of Cohen and Lorenz objected to Sheldon's decision on Belter's sentencing.

"After speaking with my family, we decided that the right thing to do would be to come forward," the girl told The Buffalo News Aug. 29. "I did what I agreed to do. When he got probation and youthful offender status and some social limitations as his punishment, I felt betrayed by the system."

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