TAMPA — In a Hillsborough circuit courtroom Wednesday, three dozen supporters of a molestation defendant took seats for a sentencing. On the side of the victim, just her mother.
Pleading guilty was Justin Ray Peterson, a 34-year-old former youth pastor at River of Life Church in Lutz who admits to molesting a young relative twice when he was 17, before he got married and had two kids, before he became a church leader.
The girl was about 6 when it started. He was her babysitter. He told her not to tell, and she didn't, for years.
Peterson was charged in 2007.
The girl, then 20, had phoned him about the molestation, and the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office recorded the call. She recounted what she remembered, and he responded.
"It's not easy for me to remember these things," he told her. "But you're jogging my memory."
He told her what he did was "sick" and "twisted" and blamed it on a pornography addiction. He said she was easy to manipulate because she was young, and what he did was an easy way to get sexual fulfillment.
"I wanted to hurt someone," he told her.
He said he hated himself every day of his life.
When detectives went to arrest him, he told them he never should have talked to her, that he should have asked for an attorney. But on Wednesday, he continued to apologize.
Two church pastors spoke on his behalf. One was Peterson's father-in law. They said they don't fear for the safety of children in their congregation, where Peterson remains an administration pastor. His wife cried as she spoke to the judge, begging him not to take Peterson away from his children.
The victim, in town from out of state, told the judge she didn't get a say in what happened to her.
"It was something I had to live with my whole life," she said.
Assistant State Attorney Kimberly Hindman asked for 10 years in prison. Defense attorney Eddie Suarez asked for probation.
Circuit Judge Chet A. Tharpe considered a psychiatric evaluation that concluded Peterson had a low probability of offending again. Tharpe told the victim what happened to her was horrendous and inexcusable, but he had to remember that when Peterson did it, he was a child himself.
He sentenced Peterson to 15 years of sex offender probation but allowed him to remain a pastor.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.