A youth pastor fondled three more young women in Arizona after a prominent Modesto church quietly let him go for having sex with other girls, all three told The Modesto Bee on Monday in new allegations.
Les Hughey was placed on leave Sunday while the Arizona megachurch he founded 20 years ago launched an independent investigation, church elders said Monday. The action came in the wake of a Modesto Bee report that Hughey had sex with young women when he was a married youth pastor here in the 1970s.
First Baptist covered up Hughey's sexual sins and transferred him to another congregation in Sonora, multiple victims alleged on Monday. Following his time in Modesto, he later went to Arkansas and Arizona.
"I'm super angry about that," said Jennifer Lefforge. "I feel like they sent us a sexual predator. They knew."
Seven women now have shared stories of back rubs with Hughey that turned into inappropriate massages, and sometimes turned sexual. Tracy Epler described a longterm sexual relationship to The Bee.
"It was definitely sexual — almost naked, touching body parts," said Juliet Buckner Pekaar, among the three coming forward Monday. "Fondling? Yeah. He went right up to there."
"It's called foreplay," said Carrie Fuller.
Lefforge, Pekaar and Fuller all were members of Hughey's youth group at Scottsdale Bible Church, where he worked before founding Highlands.
Hughey, now 64, received a grand send-off from First Baptist, a prominent Modesto church, although congregants were not told the real reason for him going to Sonora's now-defunct Peaceful Valley Church of God, several victims told The Bee. Hughey later worked at Fellowship Bible Church in Little Rock, Ark., before being hired at Scottsdale Bible Church, where he was a youth pastor for about a decade from the mid-1980s to mid-1990s.
Scottsdale Bible Church may launch its own investigation, Kory Schuknecht, a member of its executive board, told The Bee Monday. Last week, he had said the church had no knowledge of problems with Hughey when he was employed there.
"We're trying to figure out how to best proceed, to uncover the truth and see if we can help anybody, if they were affected here," Schuknecht said. "We're glad you brought this to light. It's a good thing. We want to pursue it and get to the truth, whatever it is."
Hughey admitted to "sinning" in "consensual relations" at Modesto's First Baptist, in The Bee's weekend story. The church changed to CrossPoint Community Church in 2010, and its current leader last week said pastors who prey on congregants ought to be removed from the ministry.
"While those who have come forward may not have been minors, a minister holds a position of power over those who come to him for guidance such that no sexual relationship with those in this care can be truly considered consensual," said Tim Lennon of Tucson, Ariz. He is board president of SNAP, or Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, a support group for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings.
SNAP called for Hughey's resignation.
In 1998, Hughey founded Highlands Church 10 miles from his former employer in Scottsdale. Highlands' income last year was just under $6 million.
Hughey sexually coerced Epler from age 17 to 19 in Modesto, she has said, before she and another victim, who asked to remain anonymous, separately confided in First Baptist leaders and were told to tell no one, both told The Bee.
Modesto's Brad Peterson also came forward Monday, saying he and a buddy also informed church leaders when they learned of Hughey's exploits from close female friends. Peterson and the friend were drawn into a meeting where leaders confronted Hughey, Peterson said.
"They said, 'These are serious allegations,' and made Les answer some questions. 'There was only one girl,' he said. They said, 'Did you ask her to have sex?' He hesitated, put his head down and said, 'Yes,'" Peterson said.
"So we figured he was gone. But later they told us to drop it. We were told that was the end of it and to stand down," Peterson said.
Shortly after, First Baptist publicly celebrated Hughey's send-off to Sonora. A few who knew about the alleged cover-up arose in silent protest and left the meeting, Peterson and the unnamed victim said.
"This is b--- s---,' I said, loud enough that an assistant pastor said, 'You may have burned some bridges.' I said, 'I don't plan on going back, pal,' and that's the last time I went to church there," Peterson said. "They just swept it under the rug. It was a bad deal."
Fuller said she left Scottsdale Bible Church after Hughey rubbed her bare legs and touched her crotch three decades ago while on a mission trip to Mexico.
Pekaar, who now lives in San Diego, said her father sexually abused her as a child. She sought comfort in church and ended up playing keyboard in Hughey's Christian rock group, "Les Hughey and The Band," which periodically toured throughout the country, she said.
"I was in dark depression, with anxiety attacks, so confused," she said. "I went to him for help. But I was going to a predator. That's how sick this was."
Hughey fondled her from age 16 to 19, she said, mostly on tours when other band members weren't around.
Hughey tried to grope Lefforge, now 47, when she was 17, also on a mission trip to Mexico, she said. She later became an ordained minister in Texas, and now lives in Georgia.
"I used this story when I would counsel other women, about trusting their gut and knowing when something is inappropriate," Lefforge said. "Anyone close to me has heard this story.
"I'm sick to my stomach, wondering if the pattern continued," Lefforge continued. "Now, we're not going to let it be. He's not going to control the narrative any longer."
Garth Stapley: 209-578-2390