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Ex-youth pastor avoids sex trial with plea deal

BROOKSVILLE — A well-known former youth pastor accused of having sex with a 17-year-old congregant has pleaded no contest to a lesser charge, heading off a jury trial scheduled to begin next month.

Brian Brijbag, 36, was charged with two counts unlawful sexual activity with a minor after the teen came forward in April 2011 and claimed she had two sexual encounters with Brijbag, one of them at his home and one in his office at First Baptist Church of Brooksville. With a trial looming, Brijbag on Thursday pleaded no contest to one count of child abuse.

The plea does not come with a conviction or formal admission of guilt, nor will Brijbag's name be added to the state's sex offender registry.

He received three years of probation and must attend sexual offender counseling and pay court costs of $964. He also will pay restitution for counseling for the teen, who was just a few months shy of her 18th birthday when the alleged encounters occurred.

Now married and living in another state, the woman agreed to the terms because she was eager to avoid a trial, said prosecutor Brian Trehy.

"As you might imagine, the trial would have been an embarrassing situation for her, particularly with the media attention this case has garnered," Trehy said. "Because of the difficulty the victim would have encountered, it's important as a prosecutor to put great weight on the her wishes to resolve the case without a trial, so that's what we did."

Trehy said the woman also told presentencing investigators that she did not want Brijbag to go to prison, "she just wanted him to get help so this wouldn't happen again."

The arrest already ruined Brijbag's career as a pastor, said his attorney, Peyton Hyslop. The married father of three, who has adamantly denied the allegations, decided there was nothing to gain by going to trial and racking up legal bills, Hyslop said.

"He didn't admit he was guilty, but it was so everyone could get along with their lives," Hyslop said. "The net outcome, even with a not guilty verdict, would not have changed Brian's ability to work in his chosen field. This was just a better utilization of his resources, and it shows his compassion for the youth he cared so much about by not forcing any of them to come testify."

Had he been convicted on the original charges, second-degree felonies, Brijbag faced up to 15 years in prison or a maximum $10,000 fine for each count. Brijbag does not have a criminal record, which Judge Daniel Merritt Jr. said in court was a factor in the decision to withhold adjudication.

Convincing jurors beyond a shadow of a doubt that a crime occurred would not have been easy, attorneys on both sides agreed.

The foundation of the state's case, beyond the teen's allegations, was the statement of an 18-year-old woman who said she was present and participated in the encounter in Brijbag's office in the summer of 2010.

During an initial interview with Brooksville police Officer Marc Davidoff, the woman denied the encounter. In a second interview with Davidoff that Hyslop characterized as a "browbeating," the woman said the encounter did happen. She later submitted an affidavit recanting that statement, saying she had been pressured by investigators.

Davidoff was later fired, accused of grabbing a female inmate working at the station by the hand and trying to kiss her. He would ultimately plead no contest to misdemeanor battery in connection with that incident. If Brijbag's case had gone to trial, Trehy said, Davidoff would likely have been called as a witness, and his firing would have been "a complicating factor." Trehy declined to comment on Davidoff's interview techniques.

Another investigator on the case, police Officer Bryan Drinkard, also was later fired after he showed up at the station intoxicated and left his gun unattended in the lobby.

"It would have been a difficult case, no doubt, and the witnesses on both sides would have been subjected to a lot of scrutiny," Trehy said.

There was another wrinkle for the prosecution, Hyslop noted.

The teen made the allegations months after the encounters supposedly happened, coming forward with her boyfriend, a man in his mid 20s who had served as an intern at the church. Brijbag had warned the intern that he could not serve in that capacity and be romantically involved with a congregant, Hyslop said. When Brijbag learned the relationship was still going on, he dismissed the intern, which Hyslop called a motive for the allegations. The two are now married and living in Wyoming, Hyslop said.

True or not, the accusations drastically changed Brijbag's life.

Church officials first learned of the accusations a couple of weeks before the arrest, placed him on paid leave and informed authorities. Soon after, Brijbag resigned.

He was popular with the church's youth, but stopped attending the weekly meetings of Fire Xscape, the First Baptist student ministry he'd worked to build. A former redevelopment coordinator for the city of Brooksville, Brijbag also stepped down as a board member of the Hernando County Fine Arts Council. He had served on the board for nearly eight years, two as chairman.

Brijbag is attending graduate school at the University of South Florida and is in good spirits, Hyslop said. He and his family moved out of their bright yellow historic home at the corner of Fort Dade Avenue and Lemon Street several months ago.

"They're moving on," Hyslop said, "and looking forward to the new opportunities ahead."

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@tampabay.com.

Ex-youth pastor avoids sex trial with plea deal 05/11/12 [Last modified: Friday, May 11, 2012 7:13pm]
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