Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Public safety

Tampa police: Bishop lied in court paperwork in exchange for hugs

TAMPA — The bishop's going rate, according to the experiences of an undercover officer, was signing off on 50 fake community service hours for seven hugs.

"Hug is too light of a term, I think," said Cpl. Felicia Pecora, who supervised the investigation for Tampa police. "They were very groping hugs."

Police arrested Charles M. Leigh, 64, on Wednesday on six counts of falsifying records and six counts of falsifying official records in writing, all misdemeanors.

Leigh, who says he is a bishop, leads the Apostolic Catholic Church at 7813 N Nebraska Ave., which promotes itself as an alternative to the Roman Catholic Church. His sanctuary is hardly more than a small house, and his parishioners include prostitutes and people on probation.

He also has a record that includes arrests in the '70s on allegations of sexual battery and robbery, although those charges were never pursued.

Leigh did, however, serve five years in federal prison for a loan scheme. Prosecutors said that in 1981 and 1982, he operated Old Republic Mortgage Corp. in Tampa, promoting it as a loan and mortgage brokerage and overstating his background.

They said he fraudulently induced people into believing they had loan approval and got them to pay fees from $300 to $7,000. Then he converted the money so that he could use it.

"This was a very, very bad guy with a very warped style of supporting himself," Assistant U.S. Attorney Warren Zimmerman told the Times in 1999.

Despite Leigh's past, his church was among the various churches, hospitals and other entities where the Florida Department of Corrections allows probationers to perform community service hours as part of their criminal punishment.

In June, police received a tip that Leigh was falsifying probation paperwork, the agency said. The state Corrections Department participated in an investigation.

On June 19, an undercover officer pretending to be on probation went in and waited to meet with him to see about earning community service hours.

"Oh, you won't have any problem; you're female," a man told her, according to Cpl. Pecora.

Leigh signed off on paperwork saying the woman had performed 17 community service hours after giving her four "intimate hugs," police said.

She returned Wednesday and got three "groping hugs" in exchange for 33 more hours, police said. When the undercover officer pushed him away, Pecora said, he dismissed her, saying, "Aw, I guess I'm too gropey."

She had to push him off twice before officers moved in to arrest Leigh, according to the agency.

Pecora said Tampa police want to hear from anyone else who may have had similar experiences with Leigh.

"He claims to be a man of God, but he's really preying on these people," Pecora said.

Times news researcher John Martin contributed to this report.

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