Police: Student minister molested teen

38-year-old charged with 4 counts of lewd, lascivious molestation

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - A student minister at Christ's Church in Mandarin is accused of molesting a 15-year-old at the church.

David Lawson, 38, was arrested Wednesday on four counts of lewd and lascivious molestation on a victim older than 12 but younger than 16.

Jacksonville police said they received information on Dec. 18 that Lawson engaged in sexual activity with a minor.

Police said they obtained "intelligence" Wednesday that corroborated the information.

Lawson was taken into custody at the church in the 6000 block of Greenland Road and transported to the police station to be interviewed by the Sex Crimes Unit.

Police said Lawson confessed and was booked into jail, where he was placed on suicide watch. He was released Thursday on $38,000 bond.

According to the church's Facebook page, Lawson was in charge of the ninth- to 12th-grade ministry at Christ's Church. He had been there for just less than seven years and worked in different capacities, but was usually involved in one or more of the youth ministries, according to the church's attorney. Lawson is married and has children.

"We are all shocked and totally surprised at the situation that has come to light concerning the allegations that have been brought forth against Mr. David Lawson and that has lead to his termination of employment at our church effective this date, January 3, 2013," the church said in a statement. "As more is known, we will ask our attorney, Kelly Mathis, to speak on our behalf."

Mathis said she doesn't believe there were ever any concerns expressed about Lawson in the past. She said the church didn't know about this incident or the police investigation until Wednesday, when Lawson was arrested.

Mathis said the church does extensive background checks in the hiring process, and nothing came up on Lawson. She said the church does background checks on any volunteers that work with children.

Mathis added that the church plans to review the policies and procedures but believe they are extensive. The church was working Thursday to notify its members of the arrest.

Parents at the church were in disbelief Thursday at the thought a minister is accused of engaging in sexual acts at a church, just feet from where many of them send their children to preschool and where many of them go to worship.

"You can't trust anybody. Trust your children, listen to them, and just look out for any signs," parent Vickie Lee said.

"It makes me nauseous. It makes me sick," said Heidi Valenti, whose children attend the school and church. "The world is a scary place. It used to not be like that, you know?"

Valenti said her experience has been a good one at the church, and she feels her kids are safe.

"It's a wonderful, wonderful church," she said. "My older daughter and son are very, very involved. She went on a mission trip and she's 16 and they're her second family."

Valenti said firing Lawson was the right thing to do, "but obviously some further investigation needs to be done to know if there's other children involved or even his past and other places he may have been employed at."

Channel 4 spoke with a teenager who knows Lawson and was a member of the church youth group he led. The teenager asked to remain anonymous, but wanted to share their feelings about Lawson.

"I couldn't believe it. It's so out there," said the teenager. "We all love him to death. Just a great guy. Always there for us."

This teen said everyone thought highly of Lawson and never saw any evidence of the crime to which police said he confessed.

"We had went ice skating at a church lock-in, just last year, and he's a great guy," said the teen. "He's real nice. Really cares for the students always willing to be there for us."

Jason Cullum, the church's lead pastor, sent a letter to its members in which he wrote: "My heart is broken for our students. I personally know what an influence a youth minister can be in a student's life. Friday, January 4 at 4pm, we are inviting all the high school students to the church for a time of prayer here at the Mandarin campus."

The church said it is also offering counseling to any students who may need it.

"It's mind blowing," said the teenager. "It's so out of the ordinary with his personality. I did speak to one of my friends that went to the lock in with me. It's unbelievable."

Channel 4 crime and safety analyst Ken Jefferson said it's hard to screen out people who don't have prior arrests.

"What you want to look for is, look to see if there are any reports where that person was named as a suspect and was not arrested," Jefferson said. "That way that will give you a red flag that, 'Hey, this person may have an interest in children.'"

Jefferson said sometimes parents have to take an extra step as well.

"Trust but verify," he said. "You've got to follow up with everything and everybody that's involved with your children. You can't just have blind trust and think, 'That's minister so and so. He's alright, he's fine.'"

The arrest also comes as a surprise to Dave Fevez, who lives in Lawson's neighborhood.

"Nice guy. I waved, his wife and him waved back and forth," Fevez said. "But you know, I don't go to church anymore. I used to. They're into that lifestyle, so really nothing in common there."

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