A former youth pastor from New York was sentenced in federal court in St. Louis today to more than 13 years in prison for two felonies stemming from his crossing state lines to engage in a sexual act with a person under 16.
In 2013 when Jesse Vargas was 29, he had sexual contact with then 15-year-old Molly Rodgers, of St. Louis.
Rodgers spoke at length during and after Vargas' sentencing, both to shine a light on the damage the former youth pastor had done and to encourage others in a similar situation as she was in to trust their instincts when they feel something about an authority figure's attention is not right.
Rodgers, now 24, first met Vargas when she was 11 and attended the Incredible Journey Christian camp in Michigan. In her victim impact statement, which she read in court in front of Vargas, Rodgers recounted their initial meeting as Vargas worked the camp's check-in table.
"Molly Rodgers? The Molly Rodgers? I've been waiting for you all day," Vargas said.
Rodgers said that at age 11 she was immediately "charmed" and that his manipulation and grooming began instantly.
“Over the course of the next four years, Jesse played with my family and I like frogs in a pot, slowly increasing the temperature of his manipulation until we each were unaware of the water we had been submerged in, let alone its suddenly scalding temperature," she said.
After that first meeting at camp, Vargas asked for Rodgers' phone number and would text her and send her gifts.
He was a youth pastor at a church in New York with a fantastic reputation, she said. She trusted him as an authority figure.
He enticed Rodgers to travel to New York to visit him. Vargas also traveled to Missouri to stay with Rodgers' family. The two continued to meet at the summer camp in Michigan as well.
The first sexual contact occurred when Rodgers was 15. Vargas was married with a child at the time.
Vargas manipulated not only her but her family, Rodgers says. He repeatedly told her not to tell her parents about what he'd done. He "remorselessly stole" her childhood, she said.
Vargas referred to Rodgers' body as "God's gift to him." He manipulated her into forsaking her friends in favor of him.
"By age 13 I [had] abandoned most of my spiritual leaders and friendships at his suggestion. By 14 he [had] even guided me to push away my two closest friends,” she said.
"I would ask [Vargas], from time to time, God’s opinion on what it was we were doing. In answering, he was unwaveringly careful and calm," Rodgers said.
Prior to his sentencing, Vargas himself addressed the court saying that he was responsible for Rodgers' pain.
"I am possibly, or probably, the worst thing that ever happened to this person," he said, referring to Rodgers.
Vargas' attorney, New York City-based Edward Sapone, referred to Vargas' crime as one that "could not be more serious." However he requested that the well-being of Vargas' son be taken in account, as well as Vargas' Apserger's diagnosis and his claim he himself had been sexually abused as a young person.
Sapone asked for a sentence of a little over eight years.
After Vargas spoke, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jillian Anderson said in court that throughout his life Vargas had demonstrated a "striking ability to behave in a duplicitous way."
Vargas had entered his guilty plea March 22.
In addition to the 13 years and 4 months in prison, Vargas must pay $146,000 in restitution and upon release will be on lifetime supervision.
He still faces charges in Nassau County, New York.
Originally published by our sister paper, Riverfront Times.