Young Loves

Tom Zaratti was just a lawyer of modest means, looking out for his boy. Then the revelations began.

Zaratti pressed for a jury trial to gain primary custody -- it cost his ex an estimated $50,000, but she prevailed. Again and again, he challenged the $900 monthly support payment as excessive. He objected to paying the uninsured medical expenses of the boy. When he gained an order for her to pay $525 for his attorney's fees in the contempt action against her, Zaratti was back for $194 more -- the cost of filing the contempt paperwork.

The motions and legal battles outlived state District Judge John Montgomery, then they marched into Fort Bend County when his ex moved there and found another husband and an auditor's job with a school district.

Zaratti eventually convinced a judge in Fort Bend that his meager law practice -- he said he was now making about $30,000 a year -- required a reduction in the $900 monthly support to $500.

Susan Zaratti found her ex-husband, Tom, in jail on child pornography charges.
Harris County Sheriff's Department
Susan Zaratti found her ex-husband, Tom, in jail on child pornography charges.

Over the years of the case, Zaratti insisted that no male nonrelatives be allowed to spend the night at his ex-wife's house when she had the child. He even asked in an interrogatory for the names and dates that such activities occurred. He objected to the kid being left in the care of anyone possibly "addicted to tobacco," among other substances.

If some of it sounded extreme, there was plenty in the voluminous case file to present him as nothing more than a loving father concerned about the welfare of his only child.

Then came Christmas 2003.

When he never arrived to pick up their son for visitation, Susan's search for information took her to the county jail, where C. Tom Zaratti turned out to be in custody without bail -- held on child pornography charges.

Earlier last year, the computer at his home malfunctioned. Zaratti took it back to the Best Buy outlet for repairs by a technician. The worker alerted police after he discovered hundreds of pictures of underage children, nude and engaged in sex.

He first arrest was in June. He was freed on $10,000 bail.

The revelations about Zaratti were only beginning. A month after he got out of jail, Zaratti took on a client in a DWI case. She was a small woman, about five feet tall and weighing about 100 pounds.

In an affidavit for a later search warrant, Harris County D.A.'s investigator Johnny Bonds stated that the 32-year-old client he interviewed looked more like she was in her early twenties. She told investigators Zaratti demanded the remainder of his unspecified fee from her, then told her there was a way he would forgive the debt: to have sex with him. And if she refused, he would make sure she got jail time for her offense. According to the affidavit, he told her to come to his home, without makeup and hair arranged in girlish braids, with her pubic area completely shaved. She said she had sex with him on several occasions in August to retire her debt.

At least one time, he led her to a computer on a table in his living room and pulled up a file labeled "Teens" and showed her several images of children engaged in sex, the affidavit stated. One that she recalled vividly was of a young blond girl about 11 years old, having anal and vaginal intercourse with two adult men.

While Zaratti was hosting the viewing session, on the opposite side of the living room was his seven-year-old son, watching television, the affidavit says.

Texas Ranger Drew Carter and other investigators headed to the nondescript brick home in Sharpstown, seized the computer and found images of the blond child and other girls performing sex acts for men.

That was on Christmas Eve.

In early January, Susan read a small newspaper account of the arrest of her ex-husband for his second count of possessing child pornography. More discoveries were awaiting her.

The mid-morning December 24 search led to the seizure of the computer, which soon joined the one taken from his home before the June arrest. This time, however, Ranger Carter was back before a judge, gaining permission to remove a beige floor safe from the front closet of the home.

Inside the safe were more tantalizing items. Investigators removed a pilot's license and birth certificate bearing the name Cayetano Zarate. Several envelopes contained photos of naked women. One packet had 109 photos of them -- all shredded. Another contained 64 pictures of an unclothed woman, one with her engaging in oral sex with a man. There were clothed shots of her and one with her and Zaratti. On one photo was a label with a woman's name, followed by "Aug 1997 20 yrs."

Twenty-one handguns, ranging from a .22 to a .44-caliber magnum, some still bearing HPD evidence tags, were in the safe.

Jewelry spilled from several bags and pouches -- rings, pendants, necklaces, ear studs and earrings, tie clasps. No value was given for them, although one medallion was engraved "To Mom With Love."

Most of all, there was cash -- loads of it -- in varying currencies from various countries, including Russia and South Africa. The man who had complained so long about $900 a month in child support had stacks and stacks and envelopes stuffed full of U.S. bills -- three of them were in the $1,000 denomination. The $100 and $50 amounts were wedged into 29 bundles totaling more than a quarter of a million dollars.

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