'Who's gonna take my word over his?' Winnipeg woman comes forward after firefighter charged with sex assault
Winnipeg firefighter and jiu-jitsu instructor Manuel Ruiz was charged with a slew of offences last week
More than a dozen people have contacted Winnipeg police about firefighter and jiu-jitsu instructor Manuel Ruiz since he was arrested last week — including one who alleges she endured years of sexual assault by the man she called "Uncle Manny."
Ruiz, 52, faces a slew of charges, including sexual assault of a child, forcible confinement and luring a child.
Three girls and young women — who were 12 to 18 when they met Ruiz — accuse the martial artist of incidents of sexual assault spanning the past 16 years.
Among the people who have come forward since the charges is Luna Wanda Galdames. Now 43, she was six years old when her family moved to Winnipeg from Chile in the 1980s.
She said like other refugees at the time, her family turned to the Chilean community. It's through that community connection that Galdames said she met Manuel Vladimir Ruiz — or "Uncle Manny," as she used to refer to him.
"He appeared to me like a father figure in the beginning and I needed that. I was always looking for positive male role models," said Galdames.
"I would see him at Chilean functions, Chilean dance groups. I was a kid so I would always call him 'tio,' which is 'uncle' in Spanish."
On Monday, Winnipeg police said they charged Ruiz with offences they allege occurred between 2001 and 2016 and involved three victims, two of whom were underage.
Ruiz had previously been the subject of three failed protection order requests. The women in the requests — from 2001, 2006 and 2010 — said they feared for their safety, both physically and emotionally. One woman said she was scared because of Ruiz's late girlfriend's sudden death in Cuba.
The reasons for the judgments against the protection orders are unclear, but Ruiz denied the allegations in each request.
Within the last year, Ruiz, a 25-year veteran of the Winnipeg Fire Paramedic Service, was promoted to lieutenant in his position as a firefighter paramedic with the City of Winnipeg. City officials told CBC earlier this week that they've removed Ruiz from active duty.
Ruiz is also a longtime martial arts expert who taught self-defence and other courses throughout Winnipeg and the province. He owns a jiu-jitsu studio and had been teaching martial arts for decades, which is how he met the victims, police said.
One of the charges involves allegations he sexually assaulted a girl at a jiu-jitsu studio located at 80 Sherbrook St. in 2001.
During the investigation into that allegation, officers found another woman who reported being sexually assaulted by Ruiz at a different location in the city in 2005 and 2006.
A third victim, who is still under 18, said that Ruiz contacted her through an online advertisement for escort services and paid her for sex from 2015 until recently, police said.
Since releasing details of the investigation, police have received more than a dozen calls from alleged victims, witnesses and concerned parents whose children trained with Ruiz. Galdames is one of them.
"It's not entirely surprising because it is a 15-year span, and I think there is going to be a lot of concern from a lot of people based on the fact that he had contact with so many people," Winnipeg police Const. Tammy Skrabek said.
Officers will speak with all of the people and that may lead police to more victims, Skrabek said. Police expect the investigation to be a "full-time project for these officers for a while," she said.
'He had been grooming me'
Galdames said she didn't know there were other people who were allegedly assaulted by Ruiz, and she never spoke up about the alleged assaults for fear she wouldn't be believed. He was a firefighter and well-known member of the Chilean community, she said.
"Who's gonna take my word over his? I'm just a girl," said Galdames.
For the past 10 years, she's been working with women and girls who have been sexually exploited. When she heard Ruiz had been charged, she felt she had to call police.
"There's a part of me that feels really bad that I didn't say anything before, because a lot of people were hurt and a lot of children that I now advocate for and that I try to help," said Galdames.
He had been grooming me from an early age on, and the inappropriate behaviour started long before I was an adult or could think for myself.- Luna Wanda Galdames
"I thought, 'I'm always telling them that they're safe and there's places you can go,' and I wasn't doing it for myself. So I thought, 'I'm gonna do it now. I'm gonna walk the walk.'"
Galdames alleged the assaults began with inappropriate comments in a martial arts studio when she 12 or 13. By 16, she alleged Ruiz would brush up against her breast or slap her behind. She alleged in her early 20s, she was forced to have non-consensual sex with him.
"In my case, he had been grooming me from an early age on, and the inappropriate behaviour started long before I was an adult or could think for myself," said Galdames.
"I didn't feel I had anyone to speak up to. It's a very taboo subject in my community and being alone, I didn't know who else I could turn to."
Galdames is angry that people in her own life who she thinks should have noticed something inappropriate either didn't, or did and stayed quiet.
"When I look at girls who are as young as I was and I see how vulnerable they are, how devastating it can be for them and how sometimes trauma manifests itself, how no one asked — there's something wrong with this picture.… And that's very painful. I'm angry," she said.
"I was still addressing him as Uncle Manny when he would drop me off at work or to school. You would see that I didn't look right and I would address him as Uncle Manny and nobody said anything about that. It was always my behaviour that became questionable. Why is she acting out, why is she crying?"
'I am not ashamed'
Despite fears that putting her name and face to allegations of sexual assault could result in a backlash, Galdames said she wanted to tell her story in hopes of helping other women still afraid to speak up.
She said she has advice she gives to children she works with who have been sexually exploited.
"I always make a point of telling them that they're … sacred, beautiful human beings, and that you shouldn't be ashamed of those scars, you should be ashamed that you live in a world that doesn't give you a voice or that you're not being heard," Galdames said.
"I am not ashamed."
Police encourage parents to talk to their kids about any suspicious activity they may have seen and contact police with concerns.
Anyone with information can contact the counter exploitation unit at 204-986-3464 or Crime Stoppers at 204-786-8477.
With files from Kelly Malone, Meaghan Ketcheson and Donna Carreiro