Former Camp Bethel leader sentenced in 1980s indecent liberties case

Mike Still • Jun 20, 2019 at 9:02 AM

WISE — The former leader of a Wise County ministry and camp on Wednesday received a 12-month jail sentence in a case where he admitted to taking indecent liberties with a juvenile camp staffer between 1986 and 1988.

Jeffery David Rolen, 67, was led from the Wise County Circuit Courtroom in handcuffs after Judge John C. Kilgore handed down a sentence of seven years with six suspended in the three-decades-old case.

Rolen pleaded guilty in November 2018 to seven counts of indecent liberties with a child under 18 after having been indicted on 10 counts of the same charge in February.

The sentencing followed a six-hour hearing in which Kilgore heard testimony from a psychologist specializing in sexual deviancy cases, two Virginia State Police special agents and the victim.

Before Wednesday’s hearing, Rolen faced the possibility of up to 32 years in prison. Defense lawyers Jeremy O’Quinn and Richard Kennedy told Kilgore that the prosecution’s call for sentencing under current guidelines for a supervisory figure of authority should not be allowed. Kennedy said the guidelines did not go into effect until 2003 — 15 years after the last offense.

Psychologist Dennis Carter, testifying as a prosecution expert, described Rolen’s behavior during the two-year period of the offenses as “grooming” the victim for a sexual relationship by befriending her and discussing intimate details of his family life and problems. Carter also performed a psychosexual evaluation of Rolen for the presentencing report in which Rolen was described as a moderate risk for reoffending.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jeff Starnes described how he began investigating the case after receiving reports of sexual harassment, sexual assault and workplace issues at Camp Bethel before the investigation turned to Rolen.

Starnes said he received copies of Camp Bethel board minutes that referred to the board meeting in 1993 to discuss Rolen and accusations from a minor who worked at the camp. He said he got a warrant to look at the original minutes, finding the victim’s name and her being described as a minor.

The victim, now a 48-year-old college professor, said Rolen hired her in 1984, just before she turned 14, to work as a summer camp junior staffer at Camp Bethel.

“It was a fun place, a good place to make friends,” the victim said when Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Joshua Newberry asked her about her first impression of the camp.

The victim later described Rolen as personable, charismatic and the camp’s spiritual leader when she worked there. In the summer of 1986, she said, Rolen began paying more attention to her just before she turned 16. The attention included Rolen talking to her alone about his home life and marital problems.

The victim said Rolen would take her off some camp duties and have more conversations alone. She described it as “casual intimacy.”

The victim said that, during a camp trip to Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg later that summer, Rolen took her to a bar and bought her an alcoholic drink. During the camp and on other occasions, Rolen began holding her hand when other people were not around, she said.

Rolen first had sex with her in the fall of 1986, the victim said, after he had asked her to babysit while his wife was out of town. After giving her a wine cooler after his children had gone to bed, he began touching and kissing her.

“I’m not sure I was thinking much except shock and disbelief,” she said. Afterward, she recalled, Rolen told her they needed to keep the incident secret. Until the spring of 1988, Rolen would contact her by letter or phone, and they had sex nine more times until she declined to meet with him again, she said.

“It wasn’t something I wanted or sought out,” the victim said. “He presented himself as a lonely man in a difficult relationship. His attention was flattering. I was not mature enough to recognize his intentions.”

The victim said that the relationship helped break up her marriage, and that she met with the Camp Bethel board in 1993 prior to her divorce before the board decided to make Rolen undergo counseling in order to keep his job. She said the board members included a Virginia State Trooper at the time, but Rolen was not reported to law enforcement.

Reading her victim statement letter to the court, the victim said she had tried to forget about Rolen.

“It is humiliating to reveal such things in public … and have them become part of the permanent public record,” she said. “It robbed me of the best self I could have been. I have no ulterior motives. I’d rather not have been here.”

Commonwealth’s Attorney Chuck Slemp asked State Police Special Agent Trevor Howard about the results of a cell phone dump he performed on Rolen’s phone as part of the presentencing report. Howard said he found browser history and search results on various kinds of pornography.

The defense called one witness on behalf of Rolen, Knoxville contractor Steven Shively. Shively said that Rolen had begun working for him in March and that he had been a reliable worker whom he planned to keep.

“I have the deepest regret for what (the victim) went through in her life,” Rolen told the court. “My four grandchildren are just as impacted as my children were. I still strive to be a good person, and I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do to change what happened.”

Before sentencing, Kilgore said the presentencing report showed Rolen had good qualities before and after the offenses.

“It was an inappropriate relationship that devolved into illegal acts,” Kilgore said. “It was clearly wrong, illegal and felonious. … The victim bears no responsibility for Mr. Rolen.

“What was wrong in 1986 is wrong in 2019,” Kilgore said, acknowledging that the post-2003 sentencing guideline could not be applied to Rolen.

In addition to the 12-month jail term for the first count, Kilgore suspended the remaining six jail terms but made them concurrent if imposed later.

Kilgore also ordered Rolen to three years supervised and seven years unsupervised probation and to register with the Virginia sex offender registry. The judge also ordered Rolen not to have unsupervised contact with unrelated children.

“Jeff Rolen used his position and faith to manipulate, groom, and victimize a vulnerable child in the most formative years of her life,” Slemp said after the hearing. “For his calculated and deliberate behavior, we asked the court to send him to prison for a long time and hold him accountable for his actions. We pray that this sentence will safeguard our community and provide closure for the victim of this indecent crime.”

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