A sexual assault survivor’s story

Seth Gehle spent his teen years repeatedly being sexually assaulted by someone he thought was his friend.

He got justice back in January 2011, when his detailed information for the Bluffton Police Department helped put his molester, Armando Vasquez, behind bars.

He’s not focused on that, though. He’s grateful he’s alive and successful now.

“If I could go back 15 years ago and told that kid who was getting raped and molested in another man’s bed, like, just hang on, man,” Gehle said. “This is going to pay off. You’re going to be all right.”

His own gratitude brought him from his new life near Atlanta back to Ohio last weekend. He met with former Bluffton Police Officer Chad Cupples, the man who investigated his case, last weekend at The Lima News to share his story.

“I just want to tell him, ‘Thank you,’ and that I’m OK,” Gehle said about Cupples. “I appreciate everything he’s done, for me and for anybody else.”

Cupples choked back tears as he talked about Gehle and the case from 14 years ago.

“I’ll tell you this. I cannot even begin to tell you how proud I am of you,” Cupples said. “I mean, from the little boy that I met to the man that sits here now? I mean, good God. You should be proud of yourself.”

Two awful worlds

Gehle mostly grew up without a father figure in the Lima area, he said. His mother started a descent into drugs, and Gehle moved to Bluffton to live with his grandparents.

Gehle met Vasquez, who was in his 30s at the time. They bonded over playing video games, including “World of Warcraft.” Over time, the much larger Vasquez pushed Gehle into performing sexual acts while still a minor.

“It was almost like I was living in two universes at the same time,” Gehle said. “Monday through Friday, I was dealing with my mom and the drugs and abuse and violence. And then Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I was dealing with this guy. It’s nothing short of a miracle — I know this to be true — that I made it out alive, and I’m still here today.”

Gehle said he thought he could endure the torture over the years. He felt obliged to report it once he witnessed Vasquez start grooming a friend of his.

“He was just a freakin’ menace, man. And the guy was good at what he did,” Gehle said. “I know that sounds weird or wrong, but the people who do this stuff to kids are strategic, calculated and smart. They have to be if they’re going to get away with it.”

After one sexual encounter, Gehle talked to a friend about his situation before speaking with his grandparents. They took him to Lima Memorial Health System, which summoned Bluffton police’s Cupples to investigate the first sexual assault of his career after 12 years working in “Small Town USA,” as he called it.

“We are such a small town, a small, tight-knit community, that you don’t expect those things to happen here,” Cupples said. “That’s where things happen. The odds are never zero.”

Vasquez’s sentence

Following a brief investigation, Vasquez admitted his crimes to Cupples. Gehle asked if his family and friends would be safe afterward, fearing Vasquez might get violent.

“Even though you were the victim of this heinous act, you were still trying to protect other people other than yourself,” said Cupples, who now works as a public safety officer for Rhodes State College’s Borra Center for Health Sciences campus in downtown Lima. “That was the main impression I got from you at the time: This kid cares more about other people than himself.”

Vasquez pleaded guilty to four counts of unlawful sexual conduct with a minor. In January 2011, Allen County Judge Richard Warren sentenced the then-37-year-old Vasquez to 10 years in prison.

“It breaks my heart to know that this guy only got 10 years. Right? Because of what he did,” Gehle said. “I just think that there’s something wrong with the system, where if somebody admits guilt, they get a reduced sentence.”

Vasquez requested early release in 2019.

“I have learned about the amount of pain, anger and shame that I have caused not only the victim in my case but also my family, friends and society in general,” Vasquez wrote in a March 2019 request for parole, which officials denied.

He was eligible for release in July 2020, but he died at Marion Correctional Institution on Dec. 23, 2019, at 46 years old.

Moving onward

Gehle did the only thing he could do after Vasquez’s conviction, move on with his life. He said he felt like an outsider and outcast while taking classes at Allen East schools.

Eventually, he joined the U.S. Army, where he served for eight years, including in Afghanistan. As it turns out, he and Cupples had similar experiences, including both serving at Fort Bragg (now named Fort Liberty) in North Carolina. Cupples was also deployed in Iraq.

After Gehle’s military service, he began working in construction, often recruiting fellow veterans into the industry. He married and has two children, 5 and 3. He still lives with the trauma from his youth, which sneaks up on him sometimes, like when his wife offers certain types of affection or he sees media that brings back bad memories of Vasquez.

He said he thought about suicide every day from age 10 to 25 and didn’t realize it wasn’t an everyday thought for most people until he talked to his wife.

“I don’t have any anger for anyone,” Gehle said. “There’s no point in doing that. There’s no point in being mad about (expletive) because it’s just draining on you.”

Now he feels called to help others learn from his experiences. He’s writing a book called “Strength Beyond the Shadows,” which his publisher hopes to release this summer. He speaks where he can, whether to live audiences or on podcasts.

He stared at his fist on a conference table as he described his book’s title.

“If you just look at my fist, there’s a shadow right here, right?” Gehle said. “And you can’t see this side of my hand, but I can see it. He can’t see this other side of my hand, right?

“I think if we take this thing that is child exploitation … if we can see it from all sides, we can hopefully stop it, expose it, raise more awareness for it.”

Reach David Trinko at 567-242-0467 or on Twitter @Lima_Trinko.