Dino Cardelli, senior pastor and founder of the Calvary Chapel of Arcata, stood in the pulpit, hands clasped, a wire microphone curling from behind his left ear, and began a sermon he'd titled "God's Lamentation." On the wall behind him was the outline of a large white dove diving earthward, the symbol of Calvary churches nationwide. Cardelli, a handsome, curly haired man of 49 whose sermons are broadcast weekly on Access Humboldt, spoke to his congregation about Psalm 81, in which the Israelites are taken into the bondage of sin. "The people have not listened to the Lord," he said, reaching out with an upturned hand. "They have not walked with the Lord. They have not had their relationship with the Lord. And so the Lord is lamenting here."
This was Cardelli's last sermon before being arrested last Thursday on suspicion of continuous sexual abuse of a child living in his custody. The charges: one count of recurring sexual conduct, three counts of lewd and lascivious acts and five counts of oral copulation, all with a single victim -- a child under the age of 14. Tuesday afternoon, Cardelli pleaded not guilty to the charges. He's being held on $750,000 bail at the Humboldt County jail, and a preliminary hearing is scheduled for Sept. 24. If convicted on all nine counts he could face up to 16 years in prison, according to Deputy District Attorney Kelly Neel.
Cardelli's community of followers, according to one member of the congregation, is heartbroken -- not for themselves primarily but for the numerous children who were in Cardelli's care, many of whom are adopted and have special needs.
It gets worse. This tragedy comes less than six months after another: the suicide of Pastor Dino Cardelli's wife, Nancy Cardelli, a dedicated Christian, mother and longtime advocate for special needs kids. Jan Carr of Arcata remembers meeting Nancy Cardelli in 1999 at a class Nancy was teaching on transporting such children to the Bay Area for medical care. Carr had recently adopted her own special needs child, and the two women quickly bonded over their shared passion, becoming close friends and confidants, Carr said.
Carr -- who spoke with the Journal Monday morning -- recalled getting a phone call last winter from Nancy Cardelli, who said she needed to talk. Carr recounted that Nancy asked to meet her at the McKinleyville Starbucks, and once there she made a shocking confession: She suspected that her husband Dino was "romantically involved" with one of their adopted daughters. Nancy was tormented, Carr said -- torn between her Christian beliefs in the sanctity of marriage and her faith in the righteousness of her husband on the one hand, and on the other, her growing belief that something terrible was happening in their home. Carr said Nancy confided in her that Dino and their adopted daughter had been openly flirting with each other, talking sexually at the dinner table and otherwise flaunting their inappropriate affection for each other despite Nancy's pleas for her husband to stop and for them to find another home for their daughter.
Carr spoke frequently with Nancy over the next few months as Nancy sought help and guidance from counselors, including one that she and her husband were seeing together and another that she was consulting on her own.
In the weeks before her death, Nancy Cardelli left her husband, moved in with a friend and stopped attending church, Carr said. On March 19 she used her cell phone to post a message on her Facebook page. "The plans that the lord have are for a future and a hope," she wrote. Two days later, her husband reported her missing. That night, Bobby Lucas, a former Arcata police officer and current member of Calvary Chapel of Arcata's board of directors, found Nancy inside her car, parked on Seidel Road in the Arcata Bottoms. She'd died earlier that day from an overdose of over-the-counter pills, according to County Coroner Dave Parris. Carr said there was a suicide note left behind that read, "I'm in more pain than you know."
Dino Cardelli's arrest last Thursday was the result of a tip from the alleged victim's high school, according to Humboldt County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Brenda Godsey. One of the Cardelli's biological children, now grown with kids of her own, declined to comment, citing legal restrictions and "respect for the remainder of this family." Reached by the Journal, Bobby Lucas sent along a statement on behalf of the church leadership, saying that they were praying for Dino Cardelli and his family and that they had accepted Cardelli's resignation from the church.
Carr said that while she's concerned for the Cardelli's children -- who have been placed in alternative custody, according to Godsey -- she's also relieved that her friend has been vindicated, albeit posthumously. "Nancy was the most loving, wonderful, compassionate person," Carr said. Asked why she didn't inform law enforcement of Nancy's confessions, Carr said that like Nancy, she had no proof. "I was just so torn for all these months, and I kept saying, 'Let law enforcement take its course,'" she said. Now that that's happening, Carr is comforted. "I'm so happy for Nancy. Now the world will know she's not crazy."
Tuesday afternoon Carr called the Journal to say that she'd been reading some old e-mails from Nancy, and she found one sentence particularly poignant. On Jan. 16, at 9:35 a.m., Nancy Cardelli sent her an e-mail saying in part, "I am clinging to the hope that the truth will prevail!"
UPDATE 9/16/10: The county coroner's office yesterday released Nancy Cardelli's death certificate and the associated coroner's report. The death certificate confirms that Nancy Cardelli died from an overdose of diphenhydramine, an over-the-counter medication often prescribed to treat and/or prevent allergies and motion sickness and also as a sleep aid. It further confirms that a suicide note was found on the scene.
In the accompanying coroner's report, Deputy Coroner Charles Comer notes that in a follow-up interview with Dino Cardelli, the pastor informed him that his wife had attempted suicide two weeks earlier using similar methods and that she had been "having some issues" with one of their daughters, their marriage and depression.