The tears were minimal at first.
But when Fernando Cantero reached family and friends, his sobbing became uncontrollable.
The native of Paraguay — who came to Fort Hays State University to play soccer — had just learned his fate in the trial alleging him of sexual assault Friday afternoon in Ellis County District Court.
Cantero, 20, was charged with rape, aggravated criminal sodomy and aggravated burglary for alleged events that happened during the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2015, on the fifth floor of McMindes Hall on campus.
When the jury foreman handed District Judge Glenn Braun the verdicts, the judge announced the findings.
On all three counts, Cantero was found not guilty, leaving the Ellis County Courthouse on his own free will.
“I was thinking about starting my life again and thanking God for all the things he has provided because justice prevailed,” Cantero said through interpreter Pastor Lisandro Gonzalez.
The trial began Monday with jury selection and opening statements, followed by the state’s first witness, Joshua Fleenor, the lead investigator of the case and an officer of the FHSU Police Department.
When the jury was handed the case at approximately 11 a.m. Friday, Cantero’s future rested with the 12-person jury made up of seven women and five men. He could have served several years in prison.
Nearly three hours later, it was announced the jury had reached its decision — clearing Cantero of all charges.
“We are disappointed in the verdict but appreciate the attentiveness and hard work of the jury,” said Ellis County Attorney Tom Drees, who sat in the second chair for the prosecution. “We admire the courage it took for the reporting party to come forward and endure this process. We appreciate the efforts of law enforcement into the investigation to this matter.”
Crystalyn Oswald, assistant Ellis County attorney, handled the bulk of the case against Cantero.
During the trial, Cantero said he came to the United States on Aug. 20, 2015, on a student visa. He had grown up in Asuncion, Paraguay — a country located in South America between Brazil, Bolivia and Argentina.
He was in the country approximately one month before the allegations came to light, leading to the charges.
During the early morning hours of Sept. 20, 2015, the alleged victim had returned to her dorm room after spending time at house parties in Hays. The victim said she went to her room upon returning and vomited from the alcohol she had consumed — the majority a mixture of half-and-half of Gatorade and vodka in 20-ounce containers.
She said she awoke to someone in her bed who began having sex with her.
Cantero claimed she motioned him into her room and began making out with her, eventually leading to consented sex.
He said he and an acquaintance, Joseph “Joey” Harrington, were checking doors to see if any were unlocked. Cantero originally told law enforcement he was looking for a friend and that friend’s girlfriend to retrieve his keys. He admitted that was a lie later, and that they were looking for people to hang out with.
Cantero said Harrington initiated the jiggling of door handles as they made their way from the second floor to the fifth floor. Another male stayed in the fifth-floor lobby as the two made their way down the hallway.
The two passed one room and noticed a female on her bed. After checking other doors in the hallway, the two returned to that room. Cantero said the female motioned him to come in, and he sat by her bed on the floor prior to engaging in sexual relations.
Cantero, who testified he couldn’t read, write or speak English well, said he didn’t have a doubt about what the jury would find. He was assisted by a court-appointed interpreter during proceedings.
But Cantero acknowledged he was concerned about receiving a fair trial at times.
“Yes, at some point I was worried about receiving a fair trial,” he said through Gonzalez. “But I also was trusting there were good people there and people anywhere in the world.”
Cantero’s dream of playing soccer at an American university was put on hold by the charges he faced and the time he spent in jail. But he said that experience made him stronger as a person.
“It really helped me to even know more about myself and things about me I didn’t know,” he said. “And it also taught me to have security in myself during the experience.”
Cantero credited his family, friends and a person he met in jail for helping him the last several months.
“I truly put all my trust in God, and he was able to give me the peace and strength to go on to the next thing in life,” Cantero said.
He said he hopes to find a new university to study and play soccer at, and to improve his English. He said the counsel he received from his attorney, Robert Anderson Sr., was instrumental, along with the emotion and financial support he received from people in Paraguay.