PROVO — When they turned to their LDS bishop as vulnerable teenagers, two young men told a judge Tuesday that they instead became victims of a sly sexual predator who isolated them from their families and left them buried beneath guilt.
Erik Hughes, 51, was sentenced to at least one and up to 20 years in prison Tuesday, ordered to serve concurrent terms of one to 15 years for two counts of forcible sexual abuse, a second-degree felony, followed by a consecutive term of up to five years for witnesses tampering, a third-degree felony.
A recommendation for the sentence was agreed upon when Hughes pleaded guilty as charged in August, just two months after his arrest. A spokesman for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has said Hughes was immediately removed from his position when the allegations became known.
The spokesman emphasized that the church has "zero tolerance for abuse of any kind" and fully supported and cooperated with police in the investigation.
As he handed down the sentence, 4th District Judge Thomas Low called Hughes a predator whose genuinely "good works" in the community became a cloak for the crimes he was committing.
"That made you, for a time, one of the most dangerous men around," Low told Hughes.
As the older of the two victims began his statement Tuesday, punctuated by long pauses as he fought emotion, the now-22-year-old man described how Hughes, the bishop of his Mapleton ward, came upon him crying one day near the chapel of their meetinghouse.
He was 16 years old, he said, and fighting with his parents — something that should have been normal for a teenager. But the man said Hughes used it as an opportunity to alienate him from his family.
"He wanted to comfort me," the man said, taking a deep breath. "We became good friends, in a sense, and he was also my leader. I felt like I could trust him more than I could trust my family or my friends or other people who really cared about me. He made me feel like they were my enemies."
A sexual relationship with Hughes began when the boy was 17, according to prosecutors. To "distract" the young man from what was going on, the man said Hughes showered him with expensive gifts, including phones and computers.
"He took my innocence. He took everything," the man wept.
The man's mother said her son had been struggling with bullying in the neighborhood, and she had reached out to his school, to other parents and finally to the bishop, who agreed to meet with him. To prepare Hughes, the parents revealed details about their son that they now believe was used to manipulate him.
At first the parents were relieved to have the bishop's help, according to the mother, but as the two became "inseparable" and the gifts from Hughes became more expensive and obligating, they began to worry.
"We were as close as you could be to knowing without knowing," the mother said through tears.
For years after the abuse, the man said his pain was so great that he distanced himself further from his family, even spending six months homeless in Provo Canyon when he didn't dare go home. Hughes had taught him to feel entitled, he said, and he struggled to keep a job. He stole, and he ran from police when they chased him. He felt he couldn't trust anyone.
And in June of this year, when it appeared another young man victimized by Hughes was talking to police, the man said Hughes contacted him and asked to keep what had happened between them private. It was the first time he said he had ever heard an apology from Hughes.
Dressed in a blue suit and reading quietly from a letter, a now-18-year-old man also described the deep emotional wounds he suffered when Hughes, using his position as a religious leader to lure him into his own home, sexually abused him three years ago.
"Someone I looked up to, someone I thought I could trust, took advantage of me in the worst way possible," the young man read.
In a second letter read to the judge by his grandmother, the 18-year-old's parents explained that their family was moving to another state at the time. To help their son adjust to the move and in light of the friendship they had with Hughes' family, they agreed to let the boy stay behind for a month that summer to attend two church-related trips.
When they left, the parents said, their son was a typically energetic, outgoing and happy teen. He came to their new home angry, sullen and closed off, sometimes refusing to talk to them for days.
According to prosecutors, Hughes had drugged the then-15-year-old boy before touching him inappropriately on two occasions while he stayed in his home in June 2014. The young man described the sensation of feeling "like a passenger in my own body," leaving him helpless and terrified.
Because Hughes was his bishop, the man said he struggled to believe what had happened, instead blaming himself for it.
"I told myself, 'I'm just going to carry this to the grave,' and for the next three years I suffered," the young man read. "I had no relationship with my parents, with my family, I had no friends, I was a completely miserable person."
The young man's parents convinced him to talk to a counselor. After three years of meetings, he finally confided in the counselor about what had happened. But still unable to face his family about the abuse, the young man left it to the counselor to speak with his parents.
Standing shackled in a red jail uniform, Hughes read a lengthy apology letter Tuesday, directed briefly to the two victims and their families.
"I ask humbly and meekly, and I realize maybe you're not ready to give that to me at this time, but I ask for your forgiveness. Or I ask that you plant a seed that someday might blossom into forgiveness," Hughes said.
Hughes then went on to offer apologies to the judicial system, to his wife and daughters, to his widowed mother and to his co-workers from the LDS Church who spoke as character witnesses for his rehabilitation, until the judge cut him off and reminded him to direct his remarks to the court.
Hughes emphasized that for 50 years he had been a law-abiding citizen with no criminal record, but that a long, secret battle with pornography caused him to "stumble badly." Moving forward, Hughes promised there is no chance he will commit any new crimes and said he hopes to become an "evangelist" to parents about improving technologies to protect their families from "the wild west of the internet."
Hughes also noted that he accepted the plea agreement in order to spare the two victims a trial, even though it required giving up his rights to bail and to "correct misstatements" in the police reports.
As the judge prepared to hand down the sentence, Hughes asked him to consider only those offenses he had admitted to and not other allegations that had been made.
Hughes' attorney, John Allan, clarified that the two sexual abuse charges Hughes admitted to stem from the younger victim, and that the only conviction related to the older victim was the witness tampering charge. Had the case gone to trial, Allan said, he would have argued that any sexual conduct occurred after the older man's 18th birthday.
But prosecutor David Sturgill raised questions about whether Hughes is truly remorseful, noting that in presentence statements, Hughes maintained he had touched the younger boy inappropriately only out of curiosity and not for his own sexual gratification. The statements made no reference to the other victim.
"That illustrates a man who is being very careful with his words, that fails to take responsibility and minimizes what he did," Sturgill said. "That troubles me, judge."