A former Durango church youth leader who pleaded guilty to sexually molesting four young adults avoided jail time Tuesday and was instead given four years’ probation, sending a court hearing into chaos.
“What if it was your son that was molested or sexually abused?” one of the victim’s parents said, interrupting La Plata County Judge Anne Woods during sentencing. “What would you do?”
Preston Edward Pitcher, 38, was arrested June 22 after three victims came forward. A fourth victim came forward shortly after Pitcher was arrested, resulting in four counts of unlawful sexual contact, all misdemeanors.
It was learned Tuesday in court that a fifth victim has been identified, though that person has chosen not to come forward.
Court records show the incidents were similar in that Pitcher, who had worked for First Baptist Church of Durango for 10 years, met the alleged victims in his role as a youth leader, befriended them and then made sexual advances.
Pitcher pleaded guilty to all four counts in November, signing a plea agreement that called for up to 60 days in jail and up to four years’ probation.
Woods on Tuesday imposed four years of probation, but no jail time. Woods argued that jail time would not help Pitcher receive the treatment he needs to heal.
The 6th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, as well as victims who spoke Tuesday, all asked that jail time be imposed.
“I understand it might feel better if he’s locked up,” Woods said. “But I have a different analysis of what constitutes punishment.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, court hearings are livestreamed, which allowed parents of the victims to voice their objections and confront Woods about her decision.
“What are you telling our boys that have gone through all of this?” one parent asked. “They need something.”
“We’re getting to a point where it’s disrespectful to this court’s decorum,” Woods said. “I know how angry and disgusted you all are with him (Pitcher).”
Deputy District Attorney Brad Neagos, prosecuting the case, asked Woods to “adamantly reconsider” imposing jail time, arguing there needs to be punishment for Pitcher’s crimes, which could then deter others from committing similar acts.
“The victims here deserve something,” Neagos said. “The community deserves something. ... Durango is watching what’s happening here today, and what happens is sending a message to the community.”
Pitcher is accused of habitually gaining the trust of boys under the age of 18 in his role as a youth leader. Then, once they turned 18 years old, he would make sexual advances and attempt to molest them.
In several instances, Pitcher asked the victims to his house, gave them alcohol and then made them sleep over. He would then manipulate the situation so the two had to share a bed. Once asleep, Pitcher would try to touch their genitals.
“These young men now have to live the rest of their lives haunted by what (Pitcher) did to them,” Neagos said.
One victim who spoke at Tuesday’s hearing said it took years to build up the courage to speak out about what Pitcher did to him. Similar to the other victims, Pitcher started “grooming” the victim when he was in the sixth grade.
The victim pointed out that had Pitcher done the actions a few months before the victims turned 18, Pitcher would be charged with more serious crimes.
“These are actions of an extremely talented pedophile that manipulated countless children for years,” a victim said. “He can’t be punished for abusing children even though he spent the last decade doing exactly that. He’s watching his plan play out exactly as he planned it.”
Another victim who spoke Tuesday said, “There is no crime more hated than this.”
“If we did not stop you, I can’t imagine the horrors you would commit,” the victim said. “We are all falling apart at the seams.”
A third victim, in a written statement, said Pitcher has “crushed the lives of countless” children.
“The worst part of this is we all know you’re a pedophile, but you will not receive the punishment one deserves,” the victim wrote.
Pitcher, in a brief statement to the court, said, “This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to deal with.”
“My apologies don’t even do it,” Pitcher said. “I will do what is needed to continue forth.”
Pitcher’s attorney, Joel Fry, did not object to jail time, leaving it to the discretion of Woods.
“I think he needs help in his life,” Fry said.
Woods was adamant that four years of probation are more severe than jail. She said treatment and getting Pitcher help would better serve the community than locking him up.
“In no way is Preston Pitcher getting out of this with a slap on the wrist,” Woods said. “I’m not going to sentence you to 60 days in jail because I just don’t see the point. The long-term goal is to heal you and victims in the community.”
Woods said Pitcher will have to undergo treatments, register as a sex offender, be subject to curfews, pay court costs and fees, as well as a number of other conditions of his probation.
“Basically, you’re going to have to get permission before you do anything,” Woods said. “You’re going to have a lot of restrictions on your freedoms for the next four years.”
Woods said Pitcher must live with the stigma of what he did for the rest of his life and will lose his livelihood as a youth counselor. If Pitcher doesn’t meet the conditions of his probation, he could face up to eight years in jail.
Woods said there is a “misconception” in the country that jail is the only suitable form of punishment in the criminal justice system.
“There’s no amount of jail that’s going to help anyone here,” Woods said.
Woods, 33, was appointed by Gov. Jared Polis in September to replace outgoing La Plata County Judge Dondi Osborne. Woods’ past experience included five years as a public defender.
At the time she was appointed, Woods said she wanted to bring a heavier focus on rehabilitation and restorative justice practices, rather than punitive punishments like jail.