ST. LOUIS – A youth pastor accused of abusing children years ago could be soon extradited from New York to the St. Louis area. Jesse Vargas, 37, of Seaford, New York, faces multiple state and federal charges. Police are concerned there could be several victims.
A woman from Hazelwood is among his accusers. She said she met Vargas at a Christian retreat in Michigan when she was 11 years old. Vargas was 25 at the time and serving as a youth pastor.
Hazelwood Police Detective Jason Perkins said the two exchanged phone numbers and that the relationship began, long-distance, over text messages. Those messages eventually escalated to graphic exchanges over a social media app, he said.
“The grooming evidence alone is probably 38 pages,” Perkins said.
Vargas gained the trust of the girl’s parents as well. In 2013, they invited him to stay at their home in Hazelwood, police said. That is where Vargas allegedly assaulted the girl. She was 13, and he was 27 when the alleged incident occurred.
She was later flown to his home in Seaford, New York, when she said she was assaulted again.
Police were unaware of the incidents until recently, when the girl, now 24, reported the crimes to Hazelwood Police. Although years had passed, the evidence remained intact, Detective Perkins said. He said the alleged victim saved her old iPhone 5 and her computer’s hard drive.
“Nude images of them both, back and forth. Him requesting those kinds of photographs,” Det. Perkins said.
Hazelwood Police, in conjunction with authorities in New York, and the FBI, worked together to bring charges against Vargas in their respective jurisdictions.
The FBI, Perkins said, assisted with decoding encrypted messages from Kik, the social media app Vargas and the girl used.
In the spring, Vargas was charged with multiple counts of statutory sodomy, in connection to Vargas’ 2013 encounter with the girl at her home.
Vargas also faces federal charges for transporting a minor across state lines.
Perkins said he hopes the pastor will face justice.
“It makes me personally sick to my stomach,” he said. “It’s more shocking that it came from this type of person that’s essentially supposed to be in a role of mentorship, and power – to take advantage of somebody at 13 years old or any age.”
Perkins also hopes the case serves as a warning to parents.
“To speak with their kids,” he said. “Understand that these types of abuse come with time and a lot of times, it’s up to the child to disclose that. I work in sex crimes. With the Child Advocacy Center, the forensic interviews alone is a process. Especially when you’re being taken advantage of by somebody you trust. Somebody you’re supposed to look up to. A role model, and people in positions of power. A lot of time, these predators will go after those kids because of those situations.”
Vargas remains in state custody in New York and will soon be transferred to federal authorities, police said. Eventually, he is expected to be extradited to Missouri for the state charges related to the alleged sexual abuse in Hazelwood.