TRAVERSE CITY — Prosecutors dropped eight felony charges against a former church leader accused of drugging and raping multiple men.
Christopher Cox, 41, would have appeared for trial in less than three weeks — action no longer necessary after a “late addition” plea Tuesday, said Cox’s attorney Paul Jarboe.
“I would never use the term ‘happy’ — ‘happy’ and criminal cases don’t typically go hand in hand,” Jarboe said. “He decided it was best for everyone involved that the matter be resolved.”
The deal — which Jarboe said hit the table “fairly recently” — saw Cox plead guilty to one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct, according to court records. In exchange for the guilty plea, prosecutors dismissed a list of felony charges, including three counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, extortion, delivering/manufacturing meth and three counts for possession of child porn. Prosecutors also agreed to drop a habitual offender enhancement included in their original bevy of counts. The deal stipulates prosecutors will not pursue any other charges related to ongoing investigations.
Third-degree criminal sexual conduct carries a maximum 15-year prison sentence and requires registration as a sex offender. Cox’s prior drug convictions could put him on the higher end of the sentencing range, said Grand Traverse County Prosecutor Noelle Moeggenberg.
The original charges levied against Cox could have netted a life sentence.
Moeggenberg said the offer spares victims from testifying, and ensures Cox, who has two prior drug convictions, carries a sex crime on his record.
“He picked victims that were very vulnerable, people that unfortunately might be difficult to believe because they were using drugs at the time. Obviously I think he did that very intentionally,” she said. “Some of them were having a difficult time.
“He does have to register (as a sex offender) for life, he had to admit what he did in court, and the victims won’t have to go in and talk about what happened.”
Cox, a former Long Lake Church pastor and previously a Traverse City Christian School official, was arrested in late March. Investigations launched when two men told authorities Cox lured them to his office with promises of free drugs or women and then drugged them, the Record-Eagle previously reported. The men claim Cox then sexually assaulted them.
Five accusers have spoken out since.
“I had several that didn’t even want to come forward,” Moeggenberg said. “Obviously this isn’t easy stuff for anyone to talk about.”
She said pursuing charges beyond the single count offered little, as sentences would be served concurrently. And the accusers she’d spent months working with were content with the deal.
“Frankly, we didn’t need another charge,” Moeggenberg said. “If he were to do something again, he’s going to be a habitual (offender) fourth.”
The notice of plea did not appear in Cox’s 13th Circuit Court record before Tuesday and, as of late Tuesday morning, had not made it onto Judge Thomas Power’s public record schedule. Moeggenberg said she and Jarboe have discussed the possibility of a plea for several weeks, but those talks didn’t become serious until this week. Cox made a decision to take the plea earlier Tuesday, Moeggenberg said.
The lawyers and Cox appeared in Power’s courtroom an hour before a deadline he previously set for a plea deal.
Representatives from Long Lake Community Church either declined comment or could not be reached for comment on the plea. Others in the Christian community, however, spoke out against what they consider exploitation Cox used against people he should have helped.
Brian Williams, pastor at The Tabernacle Church in Buckley, did not know Cox personally but said he still was disheartened by both the accusations against Cox and the guilty plea.
“I’m really tired of people abusing their power in positions of leadership — especially in the church,” Williams said. “The Bible teaches us to love God with everything we are and to love others as we love ourselves. It also teaches us to beware of people who look like they follow Jesus but have ulterior motives.”
Williams said it is imperative now for the attention to shift from Cox and focus on supporting the victims and congregation.
Cox next appears in court for sentencing on Nov. 8.