HAZELWOOD, Mo. – Explicit text messages from an old iPhone show the lengths to which a youth pastor allegedly groomed a juvenile for years before he allegedly sexually assaulted her, Hazelwood Police said. That pastor now faces several state and federal charges and authorities believe there could be more victims.
“No matter how careful the parents are – the kids need to be educated on the types of techniques used by the predators,” Hazelwood Police DARE Officer Ed Novak said.
The alleged victim, who is now an adult, said she met youth pastor Jesse Vargas at a church retreat in Michigan. Vargas had lived in Long Island, New York.
She was 11 at the time. He was 25.
“He was actually the one at the registration table, the very first day that I went in. So I was 11, and I was in this new place full of strangers,” she said. “He was the first person to give me my nametag and make me feel comfortable. He was one of the spiritual leaders of the entire camp.”
FOX 2 is not naming the woman to protect her identity.
The woman, who is now 25, grew up in Hazelwood. She said she visited the camp twice a year. It was when she turned 13 that she said Vargas initiated more direct contact.
“After camp in 2011, he asked for my phone number and asked to take a photo of me. And he took that, and immediately started a friendly conversation,” she said.
She said the friendly conversations over texts were innocuous at first. Vargas, she said, insisted that he help guide her on her spiritual journey.
He began to text her, send her seemingly innocent tokens of affection, including a mix CD, a journal, and other items. Vargas’ wife had even sewn a dress for her.
But the subtle messages began to build into something dangerous over time, she said.
“He would talk to me about his work concerns, his marital concerns, his personal history, and also go on and on how well he wanted to treat me, and how he wanted to come there and buy me my favorite snacks,” she said. “And he wanted to transfer to St. Louis so he could take me out to lunch once I went to high school.”
The two became closer and while the alleged victim had concerns, she said she would ultimately trust Vargas, an authority figure.
Vargas, she said, even earned the trust of her family, even visiting and staying with them on more than one occasion.
Her first sexual contact with him happened when she was 15, she said.
“Inappropriate touching. Sexual stimulation. Oral sex, in my parents’ basement. He would come and stay with my family, he had earned their trust as well. But in the middle of the night, in my parent’s house, is where this would occur,” she said.
The methodically placed gifts, affection, and abuse continued. The alleged victim’s said her family was unaware of what was happening and that her parents allowed her to visit Vargas and his wife in New York.
The woman said she eventually broke off contact and lived with the secrets for years. It wasn’t until 2020—seven years after the initial relationship—that she came forward. She said a family member of Vargas—someone who she had never met—messaged her, saying she learned of what had been happened. She said the family member apologized to her for what Vargas had done.
That was when the woman, now 25, said she wanted to break her silence.
“I contacted Hazelwood Police,” she said.
She was aware that her case would be hard to prove, given that the alleged incidents took place seven years after the fact.
But two pieces of evidence helped bring charges against Vargas: an old iMac and an iPhone 5.
She still had possession of the old iPhone, which had the social app Kik on it. Vargas had instructed her to use the encrypted messaging system to communicate during the relationship.
“Even though it was encrypted and isn’t hosted online, it was still sitting there on my phone. The pages of conversation that we had had were right there waiting for the phone to turn on,” she said.
Hazelwood Police and the FBI were able to recover the texts. There were dozens of pages of evidence, revealing Vargas’ years-long efforts to groom his victim, police said.
“There were able to pull my phone backups off of that. Even though pretty early on in the grooming, he had instructed me to stop backing up my phone to that computer…we still had everything up to that point,” the woman said.
Hazelwood DARE Officer Novak visits schools in the area, speaking to teens and even children about the dangers of social media.
He called the woman who came forward “courageous,” and that her experience should send a chilling message to parents about sexual predators and the internet.
“They’re very good at what they do. They will not only groom the children, themselves but often the parents. They’ll get an in with the parents, to get better access to the children. That’s what happened. It’s not just this case, but however, they can best get access to the child. That’s how they’ll do it,” he said.
The woman said she is grateful that justice is being served on Vargas.
“It’s a huge relief to know that others aren’t in danger any longer,” she said. “No child should be doing the bidding of any adult.”