Teacher Charged: Suspect's Computer Examined

Mormon Church officials admit checking files, say they sought to identify abuse victims

Review-Journal/October 23, 2003
By Glenn Puit

Mormon Church leaders accessed the computer of a child molestation suspect before police were able to confiscate it, a church spokesman confirmed Wednesday.

In a prepared statement, church spokesman John Hanks said church leaders examined the computer of Robert Stevenson for evidence of other possible victims within their congregation.

"Nothing was deleted from the computer and no files were altered during this review," he said.

Stevenson, a 33-year-old substitute schoolteacher, was arrested July 16 on charges that he molested an 8-year-old boy during a sleepover at Stevenson's house.

The day after the arrest, police detectives went to Stevenson's home and asked his wife, Cindy, for permission to seize two computers.

"It was during this time that Mrs. Stevenson informed (detectives) that LDS church elders had contacted her earlier and requested that they be able to look into the contents of the same computers," a detective wrote in a police report obtained by the Review-Journal.

In interviews Tuesday, police said they were baffled as to why anyone would want to access the computers of a person charged with child molestation.

"I don't know what they were looking for," Las Vegas police Lt. Jeff Carlson said. "I'm not sure what they were thinking."

Carlson said an examination of the computers by Police Department experts is pending and could take months.

He said the purpose of the examination is twofold: to see if there is any evidence valuable to the prosecution of Stevenson, and to see if the computers' contents have been manipulated in any way.

"We would be able to tell if somebody added data, changed data, deleted data," Carlson said.

"If they are tampering with evidence, we will deal with that," Carlson said.

Hanks is the media relations chairman for the Public Affairs Council of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Southern Nevada.

When first contacted by the Review-Journal on Tuesday, he said he had no information to indicate any church official accessed, or even sought permission to access, the computers.

On Wednesday, after investigating the matter further, the church issued a statement that says:

"Mrs. Stevenson allowed leaders of her church congregation to check her husband's computer to determine if it contained information identifying other victims. Local church leaders were concerned that children from the congregation, including their own children, may have been exploited or abused by Robert Stevenson. Nothing was deleted from the computer and no files were altered during this review."

Hanks said he did not know the exact time or date when the computer was accessed.

The statement also says:

"The church condemns abuse of any kind as something which cannot be tolerated. Local church leaders have cooperated fully with law enforcement authorities in their investigation of this matter. Robert Stevenson, like anyone else, will be accountable before the law for his actions."

In an interview conducted before the church issued its Wednesday statement, Chief Deputy District Attorney Doug Herndon said: "It would be concerning to me no matter who it was, if they searched that computer prior to the police coming."

He added: "We want to find evidence in as pristine a condition as we can; i.e., no one has had any contact with it."

Herndon said it was not clear whether the criminal case would be affected by anyone accessing the computers before police seized them. Police reports indicate Stevenson confessed that he engaged in inappropriate contact with the 8-year-old boy.

In July, Stevenson was charged with molesting and trying to have sex with the 8 year old. He was subsequently charged with molesting a 12-year-old family member.

He is awaiting trial on lewdness and sexual assault charges. His attorney declined comment.

When police interviewed Stevenson in July, he said someone had reported to his church bishop, Mark Gamett, that they felt uncomfortable about the way Stevenson was acting around young boys. He said this report was lodged prior to the incidents in which he has been charged.

Stevenson told police the report to the bishop did not contain an allegation of actual sexual abuse, but rather was an allegation of inappropriate contact or hugging of children.

"Stevenson went on to explain that he was subsequently counseled by Bishop Gamett, who warned Stevenson about such behavior," the police reports state.

Reached Tuesday, Gamett declined comment.

In the days after Stevenson's arrest, news coverage prompted several members of the public to call police with tips.

According to police reports, Detective Robert Conboy received one tip indicating Stevenson "had been taking digital pictures of children who had slept over at his home."

It was at that point, on the day after the arrest of Stevenson, that detectives went to the defendant's home and sought permission to access his computers.

Police said Cindy Stevenson did not provide the names of those church officials who sought access to the computers. The church statement didn't identify those who accessed the computers.

Hanks said the church would always defer to police when it comes to investigating allegations of criminal conduct.

"If there is a legal situation, then they defer to the legal system," Hanks said.

The Stevenson case is the second sexual assault investigation in recent months in which the actions of the church have been mentioned in Las Vegas police reports.

Earlier this month, former Mormon missionary John Misseldine was formally charged with molesting two girls at a church at 1775 N. Christy Lane.

"He maintains his innocence," said Misseldine's attorney, Robert Draskovich.

According to Las Vegas police reports, when detectives attempted to interview Misseldine, the suspect told police church officials had advised Misseldine not to speak with police without an attorney present.

Police have since confirmed that, in order to conduct at least two interviews in the case, they first had to arrange the interviews through the law firm of Lionel, Sawyer and Collins.

Draskovich said Tuesday there is nothing inappropriate about Misseldine invoking his right to an attorney when approached by police.

"We have a constitution," Draskovich said. "All the church had done was advise him to invoke his constitutional rights. It is the same constitution that protects you and me."

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