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Napa Police, district attorney investigating accusations of sexual misconduct by former youth minister of Hopewell church
Investigations

Napa Police, district attorney investigating accusations of sexual misconduct by former youth minister of Hopewell church

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Hopewell Baptist Church, Napa

Hopewell Baptist Church holds services on Linda Vista Avenue, in north Napa.

Eric Marczak

Eric Marczak

A longtime youth pastor at Hopewell Baptist Church is facing potential criminal charges tied to allegations of sexual misconduct by former female members of the Napa congregation, according to former church members and city and county authorities.

The investigation by Napa Police and the office of Napa County District Attorney Allison Haley stems from accusations against Eric Marczak, the son-in-law of Hopewell pastor Mike Ray, of sexually inappropriate behavior with teenage girls at the church during a tenure lasting nearly 15 years until his departure in late June, according to seven people familiar with the matter. At least one accuser was under California’s legal consent age of 18 at the time of the alleged misconduct, former church members told the Napa Valley Register.

Witnesses also allege that Ray, who has ministered at Hopewell since 1986, and other church leaders dissuaded families of abused teens or other members from reporting Marczak’s behavior to law enforcement.

Napa Police has recommended charges against Marczak, who is turning 38 this month, and has forwarded the case to the District Attorney’s Office, according to police Detective Garrett Smith, who on Monday declined to give further details. Assistant District Attorney Paul Gero also confirmed the investigation but likewise did not share further information.

As of Tuesday afternoon, no arrest of Marczak had been announced. His whereabouts since June 25, when Pastor Ray announced his son-in-law’s separation from Hopewell during a special church meeting posted online, remains unclear.

Attempts over several days to contact Marczak and Ray were unsuccessful.

Randi Stegman was 16 when she and her mother in 2003 began attending Hopewell, an Independent Fundamental Baptist congregation with a sanctuary on Linda Vista Avenue in northwest Napa. About a year later, Marczak began ministering to teenage Hopewell members including Stegman, now known as Randi Trudelle after marrying another former church member. (The Register does not customarily disclose the names of people alleging sexual crimes unless they choose to go public, as Trudelle has done.)

After attending services and programs under Marczak’s leadership, Trudelle left Napa for college in 2005 at age 17, enrolling a year earlier than her high school peers. Soon afterward, she began receiving frequent text messages from him – “checking how I was doing, asking ‘Are you getting settled OK?’, just friendly conversation,” she said during a recent telephone interview, recalling friendly meetups during brief visits home in her freshman year.

“During our first couple meetings it was just friendly conversation, like he was confiding in me as a friend,” remembered Trudelle of those encounters. “We’d share personal things like (him) saying ‘I feel lonely; I don’t have a lot of friends in the ministry.’ He was putting it on me to be someone he could be friends with.”

But during the third meeting, according to Trudelle, “he started sitting close to me and holding my hand and being physical – but in gentle terms. Looking back, that sounds pretty silly, but that was very much a ‘no way’ type of situation; those actions were very much inappropriate. Red flags are going up for me at that point: why are you getting so close to me? I feel like I’m trying to help you in whatever you’re going through, but I got that uncomfortable feeling he was crossing a boundary.”

At their next meeting, Trudelle said, Marczak – having continued to text her – came even closer than during the previous visit and then touched her inappropriately, she said.

“At that point, I was very uncomfortable and pulled away and I thought, ‘What is happening?’” said the 32-year-old Trudelle, who now lives outside Napa County. “He looked awkward and uncomfortable. The next time we talked, we talked about it and I said ‘This is not what it should be; I was your friend, and now you’ve taken this too far.’ After that, we never spoke again.”

“I’m thinking, “I’m a young girl, he was my youth pastor, and I thought we were friends. But now he’s not treating this as a normal friendship and I’m not OK with that.”

Marczak’s conduct with teenage girls in the Hopewell church followed a pattern of grooming them by lavishing them with personal affection, but also waiting until they turned 18 before trying to move further with them, according to Kyle Trudelle, a onetime member of the youth group who attended Hopewell services with Randi and later married her.

Another past member of Hopewell described a similar escalation of Marczak’s interest in her as she entered her senior year of high school, from frequent conversations to written notes to more.

“Once I had a cellphone, he had my number, so he’d text me,” said 27-year-old Ashley Sousa, who agreed to come forward to the Register. “It got more and more (intense), to the point of ‘Can we kiss?’ or ‘What about a hug?’ He would find places where we could do all that.

“Once I turned 18, soon after that, it was the kissing and touching,” said Sousa, whose family attended Hopewell for 27 years. “That happened for a couple of months. Then it got to the point when we’d meet outside the church and I’d go into his car and we’d drive somewhere. It was never sex; it was touching and kissing, that’s as far as it ever went.”

Both Sousa and Trudelle told the Register they have been interviewed in recent months by Napa Police about Marczak’s actions while serving at the Hopewell church.

What moved her to go to police, according to Trudelle, were other reports from other Hopewell members who shared their own stories of misbehavior by Marczak.

“I was willing to extend him forgiveness and move on and not put him on blast,” she said last week. “I was willing to do that for a long time, probably forever. But as the years kept going by there was more and more incriminating evidence that this was not a mistake, and that this is the person that he is. It’s not OK and it’s dangerous. Other people I know have been personally affected, and I would hate for any other person to be affected that way.”

Former church members described a culture at Hopewell of seeking to deal with complaints in-house without approaching authorities – an atmosphere they said discouraged people from speaking out.

After Hopewell leaders learned about Marczak’s alleged behavior with Sousa, she said, “the way they handled it was not by going to police. They said ‘We won’t go to the police; we’ll keep an eye on you.’ They punished me more than him; they treated me pretty terribly for the next nine years. The way they handled it was very hypocritical.”

That culture also discouraged open questions about the sudden departure of a previous Hopewell youth minister: Cameron Giovanelli, who left the congregation around 2003, according to three sources. Giovanelli subsequently pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a 17-year-old female at a church where he ministered in Dundalk, Maryland, and was sentenced this January to a three-month jail term, according to The Sun newspaper in Baltimore.

Sousa said she shared her story with Napa Police in June, after her brother Steven contacted the agency.

Steven Sousa said he learned about Marczak’s behavior around his sister within a year, but did not learn the full extent until this June.

“I asked more questions to my sister: ‘Did he touch you?’” he said. “When she said yes, ‘I said, I’m going forward with this; I’m going to the police. If you’re not going to do it, I am.”

Another past Hopewell member described seeing Marczak singling out Sousa for special attention before doing the same with her the following year.

The 26-year-old woman, who asked to be identified only as Melissa, said Marczak gave her an Apple iPod Touch to allow the two to message each other without the knowledge of her parents or of Pastor Ray – with the youth minister sometimes verging into topics like his dating history and marriage, and once complimenting Melissa on her looks after she updated her online avatar picture.

During her senior year of high school at Hopewell Baptist Christian Academy, “he left my favorite candy bars and Starbucks drinks in my locker,” Melissa said. “At first, I assumed it was just a senior thing, but the rest of my class was all girls and I noticed no one else got them.”

“With me, the only reason it didn’t become physical was because it made me uncomfortable and I would always bring up his wife,” remembered Melissa, who graduated from high school in 2012.

Melissa said she reported Marczak’s behavior several months later to Pastor Ray, but added that despite at least one person at the time wanting to share the report with law enforcement, “that was the last I heard about it until this year.”

“Can you imagine going to the pastor and trying to tell him that his son-in-law is trying to form inappropriate relationships with teenage girls?” she said Monday, adding that she too spoke with Napa Police in June.

More accusations against Marczak and the Hopewell church began to surface publicly following an April 19 episode of the Preacher Boys podcast, according to Rebecca Foltz, who was interviewed for that day’s program about her experiences at the Napa church and other congregations. (Foltz’s allegations, which she shared with Preacher Boys host Eric Skwarczynski, do not involve Marczak; her family attended the church from the late 1980s to the mid-1990s, a decade before Marczak’s hiring, but her family remained close to Hopewell members for several years afterward, she said Sunday.)

Within a day of the podcast – part of a series focusing on allegations of abuse at Independent Fundamental Baptist churches – Foltz began receiving Facebook messages from several women who began sharing their memories of alleged sexual misconduct by Marczak during his years in Hopewell’s youth ministry.

The social media exchanges have led more former church members to discuss the accusations freely “because we realized how big a problem it was at that point,” said Foltz. “We had thought, ‘It must have been just me.’ Nobody talks about it there, so if anything happens you never know. … We were kids then, but now we’re adults and talking about it and realizing how bad it was. We’ve realized we have to stop it – nobody there is going to do something, so we have to do something.”

As social media discussion of the accusations mounted, Pastor Ray called a special meeting at Hopewell for June 25 to address the allegations against his son-in-law and youth minister, who is married to Ray’s daughter Charity.

Ray announced the dismissal of Marczak from his posts in Hopewell’s youth ministry and Hopewell Baptist Christian Academy, the K-12 school where Marczak served as principal, and invited members to share reports of alleged misbehavior with a team of congregation leaders. But he also sought to explain why a 2011 report of Marczak’s unusual behavior with a teenage church member was not brought to the authorities.

“They were both adults at this time,” he said, according to a video of the meeting posted to YouTube. “Had she had been a minor, I would have done what I have always done since we are mandatory reporters: I would call the police immediately file a report. Some of you have been in my office when I have made those hard phone calls.”

After demanding that Marczak tell him about his behavior, Ray said he asked the teen’s parents whether they wanted Marczak fired or forced to confess his misdeeds to church members. Without making clear the response of the parents, Ray recalled his decision to keep Marczak on board but “on a short leash” for a year – pulled from Sunday school teaching duty or traveling on Hopewell’s behalf.

“Eric, for a season, was no longer in the forefront – though I didn’t announce it,” said Ray. “... I felt like he could be restored here. I believed at that time ... we could restore him after that meeting.”

“Recently, however, this entire story has gotten out. Some of the story is the same; some has been enhanced. So he has lost his good name. He has lost his credibility. He can no longer be on staff, nor will he attend this church, nor will he serve in this church.”

Former members interviewed by the Register dismissed Ray’s explanations as largely an evasion of Hopewell’s failure to promptly respond to the allegations about Marczak’s behavior with teenage girls, or to pass the information on to law enforcement.

“It was frustrating that it was made out like ‘My family has gone through a lot this week,’” Melissa said. “There was no apology to the victims for his not properly handling it. There was no sympathy for the victims.”

“Personally I feel relieved, but also I’m very sad about the church not opening its eyes and seeing Pastor Ray knew about it, and did nothing about it,” said Steven Sousa, Ashley’s brother. “He didn’t go to the law and he didn’t remove his son-in-law. I’m relieved that it’s dealt with, but it’s not – it’s only half dealt with.”

Meanwhile, Randi Trudelle called her decision to go public with family, friends and law enforcement about her former youth pastor’s alleged misbehavior a step toward protecting others from further harm – and giving them the courage to also speak up.

“I was hoping if it continued, someone would be brave enough to say something,” she said. “And then I thought: ‘Well, I’m a pretty strong woman, and I’ve said nothing. Some of these women, they are probably not as strong as I am.’ At that point, the tipping point was thinking, ‘Maybe they would be brave enough if they knew they were not the only one.’”

In an email Tuesday morning, Melissa thanked those within the Hopewell church who supported the cause of those implicating Marczak.

“Do not condemn a whole congregation for the sins of a few,” she wrote. “I am so beyond proud of those in my home church who from the moment they found out wrong was done stood up and refused to back down. They did not do it with a spirit of maliciousness or hatred but of a spirit of making sure right was done. God is good even when men are not.”

You can reach Howard Yune at 530-763-2266 or hyune@napanews.com

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Public Safety Reporter

Howard Yune covers public safety for the Napa Valley Register. He has been a reporter and photographer for the Register since 2011, and previously wrote for the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, Anaheim Bulletin and Coos Bay (Oregon) World.

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