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Former Odessa youth pastor gets 10 years for sex with girl from church

TAMPA — Everything had been worked out.

The former pastor had already admitted to sexually abusing one of his teenage congregants. He had agreed to serve 10 years in prison. He said nothing as he waited Thursday for a judge to pronounce the sentence.

But the girl's mother couldn't stay silent.

"He used God as a weapon," she told the judge. "Fear as a weapon. Her own beliefs as a weapon."

When the sexual encounters started, Samuel Sutter was a 25-year-old married pastor at Openwater Church in Odessa.

The girl was 15.

Sutter's responsibilities included ministering to the church members in middle school, high school and college, and that was how the two met.

They had chatted on the phone and on Twitter. Over time, they started getting together outside church, at coffee shops and malls. The sex began in the fall of 2015.

"He shoved her face into bare, sweaty mattresses, so the evidence wouldn't be on the sheets when his wife came home," the mother said in court. "He obsessively reviewed every social media account she had, every text on her phone, every email, every photo ..."

The mother spoke of Sutter overpowering the girl, putting his hands on her neck. She spoke of him forcing her to take morning-after pills to prevent her from becoming pregnant. She spoke of him threatening to leave her, if she didn't do what he wanted, to pursue one of her friends.

In the spring of 2016, the mother noticed her daughter was acting anxious, more stressed than usual. She managed to get into her daughter's phone, where she found text messages which indicated the two were sexually involved.

Hillsborough sheriff's detectives investigated and later arrested Sutter. They said most of the sex acts happened at Sutter's home, but some occurred in the women's bathroom at the church on Race Track Road in northwest Hillsborough County.

"He chipped away her self worth, her self-esteem, her sense of balance, her trust, her faith in her family, her God and her self," the mother said. "He continued to take, until all that was left was a shell of a girl who was so fearful and anxious and full of self-loathing that she felt the only way out may be to take her own life."

Since the abuse ended, the mother said her daughter can't eat certain foods or listen to the Christian music she once enjoyed. She has nightmares and panic attacks. She fears becoming close to anyone.

"Her precious gift of first love should have nothing to do with an adult, married youth minister ..." she said. "This man hurt a child. He's a dangerous predator, and unforgivable."

Sutter could have faced up to 35 years in prison.

He pleaded guilty to three charges: lewd and lascivious battery, unlawful sexual activity with a minor, and use of a computer or device to solicit illegal acts.

In addition to prison, Sutter was sentenced to 25 years of probation. He will have to register as a sex offender for life.

Contact Dan Sullivan at [email protected] or (813) 226-3386. Follow @TimesDan.

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