As you read this, an affluent pedophile roams the suburbs of North Charleston, South Carolina without supervision, consequence or explanation. He sidestepped the Palmetto State’s sex offender registry and has obliterated a majority of his convictions from the public record.
This is the mystifying story of Lazaro Vega-Sanabria, 60, a disgraced professor with four degrees ranging from a bachelor’s in Spanish to a doctorate in special education. He taught briefly at the Palmetto Scholars Academy (PSA) before finding employment at the oldest municipal college in the country, the College of Charleston (CofC).
WARNING: This report features graphic discussion of pedophilia that is disturbing in nature.
Approximately one year into his adjunct professorship, Vega-Sanabria’s exploits were overshadowed by the testimonies of children he was trying to adopt. According to incident reports obtained from the North Charleston Police Department (NCPD), he was repeatedly molesting two brothers under the guise of medical treatment.
Now one decade after the S.C. Department of Social Services (SCDSS) relocated the juveniles, Vega-Sanabria has reapplied for a teaching certificate through the South Carolina Department of Education (SCDE).
TO CATCH A PREDATOR …
On April 10, 2014, teachers with the Charleston County School of the Arts (CCSOA) notified law enforcement and SCDSS of troubling allegations made by a juvenile student against the man attempting to adopt him. NCPD investigators, social service agents and high school teachers cleared a conference room for his testimony within the same morning.
The 16-year-old with hearing impairment required three teachers to translate his sign language for the record. He and his younger brother, a minor under the age of 11, had been living with Vega-Sanabria on Popperdam Creek Drive for less than seven weeks before speaking out.
According to law enforcement’s narrative of the case — contained in probable cause affidavits — it all started when the juvenile came home from school feeling sick and feverish. Reactively, Vega-Sanabria ordered the deaf child to pull his pants and underwear down as to “inspect” his genitals for free, rather than take him to a doctor.
“The victim stated that [Vega-Sanabria] had a sheet of paper that appeared to be a doctor’s exam form that he wrote on during the time he was touching the victim’s penis,” the initial probable cause affidavit alleged.
It went on to allege that Vega-Sanabria forced the child to ingest medication before blacking out that evening.
According to a second affidavit, the adolescent was once again forced to expose himself in the kitchen seven days after the initial assault. This time, his adopted father ordered him to urinate and grow erect so he could examine his “muscle.” The boy was kept home from school that day as punishment for oversleeping.
“The victim then pulled down his pants and underwear and the defendant proceeded to touch the victim’s penis with his bare hand,” the second affidavit alleged. “[Vega-Sanabria] then rubbed a cotton-tipped stick with soapy water on the victim’s penis and filled out paperwork that the victim described as a doctor’s exam sheet.”
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The younger brother attested to similar treatment when questioned by law enforcement. The minor — under the age of 11 at the time — told investigators that the adjunct CofC professor made him disrobe and lay down for an equally grotesque inspection. He was reportedly wearing “white or yellow doctor-like gloves” when he fondled his genitals, according to preliminary NCPD records.
By April 30, 2014, investigators felt there was sufficient evidence to charge Vega-Sanabria with two counts of assault and battery in the first degree and one count of criminal sexual conduct (CSC) with a minor in the third degree. His laptop computer was also seized by NCPD — which we will return to momentarily.
Vega-Sanabria was facing a maximum of thirty years imprisonment until he secured legal counsel from criminal defense attorney Peter David Brown.
REVOLVING DOOR FOR ALL …
During his bail hearing the following morning, magistrate Linda Lombard noted Vega-Sanabria’s release on his own recognizance would “result in unreasonable danger to the community” while not “reasonably assuring” his appearance for criminal sentencing. As a result, the accused pedophile was granted a $30,000 surety bond which was posted within the afternoon.
By the time Vega-Sanabria returned to his vacated home on Popperdam Creek Drive, the College of Charleston had announced his termination to inquiring media outlets. Unfortunately for South Carolina, his judicial hot streak within the ninth circuit was just getting started.
On Sept 10, 2015 — seventeen months after posting bond — the disgraced professor pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree assault and battery. The criminal sexual conduct charge involving the adopted minor was dismissed. Circuit court judge Roger Young sentenced Vega-Sanabria to ten years suspended with five years probation, including all-expense-paid weekly counseling.
In lieu of registering as a sex offender, Vega-Sanabria was placed on the central registry of child abuse and neglect — a confidential, publicly inaccessible database used only by child protection agencies for employment and adoptive purposes. He was also fined $133.90 before essentially walking free.
Remember the laptop? It took approximately twenty months for NCPD investigators to conduct their forensic examination of the device which uncovered a reservoir of child pornography. The hard drive contained “minor males appearing in a state of sexually explicit nudity,” including a minor child “engaging in sexually explicit activity,” according to an illusive affidavit.
(Click to view)
Through an exhaustive search online, FITSNews uncovered 12 additional sexual exploitation charges brought against Vega-Sanabria following the discovery of his child pornography stash. Inexplicably, the felony charges — which carried a collective maximum of 120 years — have vanished from the public record.
This is where Vega-Sanabria’s journey runs cold — likely because his convictions were expunged and therefore protected from general observation and scrutiny. Fortunately, our research team uncovered fragmentary documents of his fall from grace … and his unwelcome redemption.
SLAP ON THE WRIST …
In March 2016, Vega-Sanabria was once again arrested by NCDP as a result of his laptop. In this case, he was granted bond and ordered to undergo “intensive supervision” for six months without fees. Per the conditions of his second release, he was to “remove all children(s) toys and children related items” from his residence.
According to his third and final arrest warrant — issued on May 8, 2017 — Vega-Sanabria violated the conditions of his bond by failing to complete mandated sex offender treatment. His clinician, Dr. William Burke, informed the courts that his patient was at “high risk to reoffend” and was subsequently deemed a danger to the community.
Inexplicably, the molester of Popperdam Creek Drive was again granted bond for a probation violation – this time by magistrate Alvin E. Bligen. Less than two weeks later, his suspended sentence was revoked and he was ordered to serve ten years within the S.C. Department of Corrections (SCDC).
According to his inmate record provided by SCDC, Vega-Sanabria worked primarily as a teacher’s assistant during his brief incarceration which was addled with facility transfers. On April, 30, 2022, he was released from SCDC after serving less than five years of his sentence.
Despite his newfound educational experience within the confines of prison, the S.C. State Board of Education was unmoved by Vega-Sanabria’s reapplication for his teaching certificate. On October 10, 2023, his motion was denied “based on the grounds of unprofessional conduct for crimes against the law of the state or the United States.”
For clarification on the process, we reached out to SCDE and were informed there was no “formal process through which the judicial department is notified of the State Board’s administrative orders.” Vega-Sanabria is eligible to request a reconsideration of the board’s decision in one year.
How does an offender who graphically assaulted the bodies, minds — and the innocence — of at least two children while harboring child pornography manage to evade a substantial sentencing despite years of probationary violations? How does he wash a litany of child sex abuse charges from the public record? How does he serve less than half of his incarceration and once again attempt to relaunch his career in the classroom?
All of these questions our system of justice must satisfactorily answer … and not just in Vega-Sanabria’s case, but in hundreds of other cases like it. So far, those answers remain elusive.
If you know of cases similar to this one in your community that deserve investigative scrutiny, please reach out to our media outlet. We are committed to not only telling these stories — but holding the system accountable for its handling of those who graphically abuse the most vulnerable population among us.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Andrew Fancher is a Lone Star Emmy award-winning journalist from Dallas, Texas. Cut from a bloodline of outlaws and lawmen alike, he was the first of his family to graduate college which was accomplished with honors. Got a story idea or news tip for Andy? Email him directly and connect with him socially across Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
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