FORT LAUDERDALE (CBSMiami.com) – A Broward County judge sentenced a former youth pastor to nearly 29 years in prison after he pled no-contest in June to charges of having sex with a 14-year-old girl.
Russell Lewis pled no contest on three counts of sexual battery and one count of lewd and lascivious conduct. He had worked at the Church by the Glades when he started the relationship with the girl.
When he learned of the sentence, Lewis slumped over a podium and bowed his head.
The pair met while Lewis was a married youth pastor. The abuse occurred over a period of several months in 2009.
During the sentencing, the wife of the church pastor — Lisa Hughes — read a letter written by the teenage victim.
“Not only was I robbed of my virginity I’m still traumatized whenever I think of Russell,” the victim wrote. “He groomed me to believe that I was worthless and that he was the only one who truly cared about me.”
The victim said Lewis tried to control her — making her feel guilty if she spent time with friends, trying to drive a wedge between her and her parents and even asking her to dress sexy for him. The victim wrote that the abuse damaged her relationship with her church.
“I do not feel safe at church — a place where security and comfort should go hand in hand,” the victim wrote. “Instead of that, I feel shame and fear.”
The victim’s therapist, Marti Wibbels, told the court she’s spent more than 100 hours counseling the girl. She said Lewis manipulated the victim.
“He tricked her into trusting him,” Wibbels said. “He knew what he was doing and where he was going.”
Police said all of the encounters between Lewis and the girl occurred on church property. The relationship lasted for five months and was said to be consensual. But, under Florida law, a 14-year-old cannot legally consent to a sexual relationship with an adult.
Lewis faced more than 100 years in prison for his crimes.
Lewis was fired from his job after his arrest in November 2009. Pastor David Hughes said Lewis’ actions were a grave betrayal.
“To betray not just the church or the calling but to betray a family — it’s been in my 13 years at Church by the Glades the worst storm we’ve weathered,” Hughes testified.
Lewis addressed the court and apologized to the victim and her family.
“I took a lot away from your family and I know it’s affected the young lady,” he said.
He begged the judge for a second chance and said he’s hurt his mother, family and even become suicidal.
“I’ve lost a lot of respect for myself,” he admitted. “I’m ashamed.”
Lewis’attorney, Shlomi Presser, argued that Lewis qualified for leniency from the sentencing guidelines because this was Lewis’ first brush with the law, he is remorseful and it was an isolated case. However, Judge Sandra Perlman disagreed, sending Lewis to prison for nearly three decades.
Lewis can appeal the sentence. When CBS 4 News asked Presser whether Lewis would appeal the sentence, Presser said, “No comment.”