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Accused Atlantic County sex offender charged with witness tampering day before trial was to start

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A former Ventnor man accused of sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl will remain jailed after he allegedly directed people to intimidate the victim and offer a payoff on the eve of his trial.

Edwin Villanueva, now 46, was charged with human trafficking and sexual assault four years ago, after he was found a vehicle in the parking lot of an Atlantic City laundromat with the victim after she had been reported missing April 12, 2013, according to the affidavit in that case.

The girl had met up with Villanueva at the Tropicana and took her to his Harvard Avenue home.

The two spent the next day with Villanueva's children, with a trip to the Get Air trampoline park, the affidavit states.

Villanueva allegedly gave the girl alcohol and had sexual intercourse with her that night and the next day.

He admitted to drinking with her, but denied having sex, the affidavit states, adding that his DNA indicated otherwise.

Villanueva, who now lives on North Michigan Avenue in Atlantic City, was released with weekly reporting, and a jury had been seated for his trial set to begin Sept. 13.

But the night before trial, Villanueva allegedly drove his sister to the victim's home, where the girl and her mother were on the porch.

The girl's mother called the victim witness advocate assigned to the case from the Atlantic County Prosecutor's Office and told her what was happening, Assistant Prosecutor Tiffany DeGrandmaison told the judge at Villanueva's detention hearing last week.

"You're not supposed to be here," the victim's mother told the woman, according to deGrandmaison. "There's a restraining order. I'm on the phone with the Prosecutor's Office."

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The woman left after about 20 minutes, deGrandmaison said.

But that allegedly didn't stop the witness tampering.

Oldis Zapata-Serrata, a friend of Villanueva's, called the victim's mother, offering money in exchange for the daughter to recant her testimony, according to the affidavit.

The 43-year-old Ventnor man is charged with second-degree witness tampering-bribery and was released on a summons.

Villanueva's defense attorney called the evidence against his client "hearsay on steroids."

"Oldis Zapata apparently owns a pizzeria in Atlantic City," Joe Swift told the judge. "My client knows him. Everyone in the neighborhood knows him. But what he did, he did on his own.

"(The state) cannot prove that my client directed anyone to speak to the victim's family," he added.

A recorded phone call includes Zapata-Serrata claiming Villanueva told him to call and make the offer, deGrandmaison said.

Within the same 24 hours, the now-17-year-old girl received text messages from different phone numbers threatening to expose sexually explicit videos, according to the affidavit.

"We're still investigating the source of the text messages," deGrandmaison told the judge.

Swift argued for his client's release, saying he had attended all his court dates and was prepared to got to trial, "and then all of this craziness unfolds."

He said those close to him may have thought they were helping by their alleged actions, "but they're actually hurting my client."

Villanueva nodded slightly at that.

Swift also pointed to the public safety assessment used to help determine whether a defendant is held under bail reform.

It suggested he be released and have to report to court twice a month. Villanueva previously was released with weekly reporting.

"The PSA gravely underestimates the serious threat the defendant poses to the alleged victim, her family and the community," Judge Joseph Levin said.

He pointed out that, in addition to being on release in the pending sexual assault case, Villanueva also was on probation for a conviction on third-degree aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

"That seems to be a theme," the judge said of the previous conviction.

Villanueva also had his pretrial release on the sexual assault revoked, and the judge lodged a detainer in the previous conviction at the request of probation.

Villanueva will now remain in the Atlantic County Justice Facility pending resolution of the pending cases.

He faces 25 years to life in the sexual assault case due to the victim's age at the time of the alleged crime.

author

Lynda Cohen

BreakingAC founder who previously worked in newspapers for more than two decades. She is an NJPA award-winner and was a Stories of Atlantic City fellow.

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