Crime

Arizona police report alleges continued sexual misconduct by former Modesto pastor

A Modesto youth pastor accused of sexual abuse in his church here decades ago continued to prey on young women after moving to Arizona, a Scottsdale police report issued this week alleges.

The 100-page report compiled by Scottsdale Police Detective Tara Ford contains interviews with more than a dozen victims and witnesses who described sexually predatory behavior, including full-body massages, by Les Hughey during his time as a high school youth pastor at Scottsdale Bible Church in the mid to late 1980s.

The report was submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney several weeks ago for consideration of charges against Hughey, said Scottsdale Police Sgt. Ben Hoster. The county attorney’s office did not return calls for comment about what charges Hughey could face.

The investigation began last April after The Bee broke the story about Hughey’s alleged sexual misconduct during the time that he worked as a youth pastor at a popular church in Modesto.

Scottsdale police conferred with Modesto police on the investigation, but no reports were filed here.

Hughey, in his 30s and 40s at the time under investigation in Arizona, would tell dirty jokes and stories and normalized back rubs among the youth so it didn’t seem inappropriate when he requested massages from the teenage girls, some as young as 15, according to the report.

He was able to get the job at Scottsdale Bible Church and work at several other churches before that because his alleged sexual abuse of girls at First Baptist Church in Modesto was covered up, according to a victim and two witnesses. First Baptist has since become CrossPoint Church.

Tracy Epler told The Bee last year that Hughey was her youth pastor at First Baptist in the late 1970s, when he coerced her into having sex when she was a 17-year-old virgin.

Four other women at First Baptist said Hughey would give them back rubs that bordered on fondling.

Epler confided in church leaders, but instead of an investigation, Hughey got what Epler described as a hero’s sendoff, a “one-man Academy Awards show.”

Hughey went on to work at churches in Sonora and Little Rock, Arkansas, before working at Scottsdale Bible Church for about a decade prior to founding Highlands Church, also in Scottsdale.

Hughey created what victims and witnesses interviewed by Scottsdale police described as a cult-like culture during his time as a youth pastor at Scottsdale Bible Church.

They described Hughey as charismatic and charming, the “life of the party.” He sang and played the guitar in a band and had a “sort of celebrity status and a way of drawing people in.”

They also described a man who could be cutting, tempestuous and narcissistic.

Several people in the report described mission trips to San Francisco during which Hughey would confront gay men and call them a gay slur.

He became enraged at one of his concerts when attendees’ attention was drawn to a disturbance off stage. He yelled at the audience and instructed them to pay attention to him.

He exploited members of the youth group by getting them to babysit or help him work on his house without pay, according to the report.

Hughey would make inappropriate comments about teenagers’ appearances and tell derogatory jokes and stories about women. One of his favorite stories was about attempting to feel the breast of a girl he was dating when he was a teenager and realizing he was instead touching one of her “fat rolls.”

Still, youth flocked to him and he was credited with building the high school ministry group to more than 300 members.

Teens were expected to recruit new members from their schools, the report said. During choir trips, they were dropped off on street corners with quotas for the number of people they had to “save.”

“The more people that were brought into the church the more they ‘tithed’ and the more money the church earned,” Carrie Fuller described to Detective Ford.

Hughey had opinions about who the girls in the youth group dated and who they were to marry, several women said. Instead of going to college, they were expected to stay on as part of his staff in youth group once they turned 18. Those who disobeyed him were ostracized from the group and their friends.

Hughey preached purity but created a sexually charged environment, according to victims and witnesses. Back rubs among the youth were encouraged, and sexual jokes were common.

Hughey used choir and mission trips to begin physical contact with the girls through full-body massages. This is how the grooming started, several of the women said.

All of the women interviewed said that within the youth group there was an “in crowd,” Hughey’s “inner circle,” that got to stay up late with him during mission and choir trips and sit up front with him in the van he’d drive on the trips.

Fuller said she wanted nothing more than to be part of Hughey’s inner circle, to be “one of the cool kids.” Being invited at night into his van, which he’d sleep in during the trips, was like “reaching the pinnacle.”

The first and last time Fuller accepted an invitation to his van, she was one of his staff during a trip to Mexico in 1989. There were others in the van, but it was dark.

Fuller said she gave Hughey a back massage and then they switched. Hughey started at her feet, worked his way up her legs, and touched her vagina through her shorts and underwear, according to the report. She jumped, then froze, and Hughey moved his hands back to her calves. She thought it must have been an accident, but then Hughey made his way back up her legs, rubbing her buttocks and in between her thighs.

Fuller said she doesn’t remember how it ended or how she got back to her bed.

“The next day, she didn’t want to see him, talk to him or make eye contact with him,” the report reads.

While it pained her to do it because she was “blackballed” from the group, Fuller quit upon their return to Scottsdale.

The physical contact often would start with the girls giving Hughey massages. He was usually wearing only shorts or swim trunks and would instruct them to straddle him and massage his buttocks and thighs, then eventually he’d tell them to lie down so he could give them a massage, according to the report.

During her interviews with Scottsdale police, Jennifer Parrella described hearing about “Les’ famous massages” before she experienced one inside Hughey’s van during a mission trip to Mexico when she was 15.

She said there was another male staffer there as well as a teenage boy and that they were all making fun of her because Hughey had to instruct her on what to do.

When Hughey massaged Parrella, she said, she remembers feeling “he was heavy on top of me” and that he touched the side of her breasts.

Juliete Buckner Pekaar said Hughey massaged her on several occasions during church functions and after babysitting at his home. One of the incidents occurred during a choir trip to California. During the trip, they were staying at a cabin when Hughey gave her a massage.

“He sat on her butt, unlatched her bra, and then started touching the sides of her breasts, and then touched her at the groin area, before actually touching her vagina outside her clothing,” Ford’s report reads.

None of the women reported having sex with Hughey, although one said her memories of that time are too repressed to know for sure whether she did. She also was being molested by her father and said she was “the perfect target for Les.”

Hughey resigned as senior pastor of Highlands, the church he founded, days after The Bee broke stories about Hughey’s behavior at both First Baptist Church and Prescott Bible Church.

Attempts by The Bee to reach Hughey by phone and email on Friday were unsuccessful. In a statement he issued last year, Hughey said in part, “Over 40 years ago, as a church intern in California, I sinned and harmed the most important relationships in my life. I was unfaithful to my God, my wife, and the ministry, and was rightly removed from that church. I engaged in consensual relations with fellow college-aged staff.”

Brendan Anderson, Highlands Church associate pastor of worship and communication, issued the following statement Friday:

“Between May and December 2018, an independent third-party investigation into the allegations brought against former senior pastor Les Hughey was conducted on behalf of Highlands Church leadership, which resulted in findings consistent with the recently announced investigation by Scottsdale Police. … Based on the subsequent third-party investigation findings and reports, Highlands leadership found that he engaged in inappropriate behavior, which constituted a moral failure by biblical standards applied by the church. In light of our determination, church leadership further believes he is disqualified from vocational ministry.”

Anderson would not say if Hughey received a severance from Highlands, which reported nearly $6 million in revenue last year.

“We are grieved for those who report accounts like those contained in the police investigation,” the statement continues. “We pray there will be a process of healing for all who have carried hurt for so many years. Highlands leadership is hopeful for the many ways God will lead us to further minister to the hurting and broken as we move forward.”

Officials from Scottsdale Bible Church did not return calls Friday. A pastor there previously said they also had hired a company to do an independent investigation.

Scottsdale attorney John P. Robertson said he is representing five women who made accusations against Hughey for a potential lawsuit. He would not say who he is representing or who would be named as defendants in the lawsuit.

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