On the afternoon of Wed., July 31, officers of the Tampa police department took a battering ram to the front door of the tiny Apostolic Catholic Church of Christ the Servant in Sulphur Springs. The dramatic door-smashing was captured by ABC Action News and broadcast repeatedly that evening along with the sensational capture of the purportedly dangerous criminal who was holed up inside: Bishop Chuck Leigh.
A soft-spoken, bespectacled man with a Santa Claus beard, Leigh has been conducting Sunday sermons and providing counseling to the poor out of his modest oak-shaded church just a few feet from Nebraska Avenue for over 17 years. The Apostolic Catholic Church, which is not connected with the Roman Catholic church, is a small denomination with approximately 7,000 members in the U.S. As president of the board of the Florida Council of Churches, Leigh is well-known in local faith-based communities as a passionate advocate for the poor who’s gone out of his way to help those struggling with hard times. “He’s the real deal,” said Jon Dengler, director of The Well, an Ybor City-based homeless ministry affiliated with the Underground Network of Churches. “He put his church in that neighborhood to live among the poor and serve the poor. He has a constant relationship with people in need.”
According to Tampa police, at least one of those relationships went too far. Early this summer, police say they received a tip from a confidential informant that Leigh was falsifying court-ordered community service hours in exchange for sex — a charge that Leigh vehemently denies. He counters that the police are targeting him because of his activism in defense of the impoverished in Sulphur Springs. He says he’s helped homeless families move into foreclosed homes in the neighborhood and believes he’s provoked the ire of law enforcement over his refusal to respond to subpoenas asking him to testify against alleged drug dealers near his church.
“I’m not going to allow the State to use the church to enhance a penalty,” Leigh said. “You don’t have to stop selling drugs to come to church.”
The saga begins, as Leigh tells it, in late May of this year when a woman he’d known for several years and who had occasionally attended service at his church, stopped in to solicit him for sex. “Being located on Nebraska Avenue, I’m used to that sort of thing,” Leigh recalls. “I gave Lisa my stock response: I’m an old man. I’d probably have a heart attack with someone like you.”
Unbeknownst to Bishop Leigh, “Lisa” was wearing a wire. That conversation with the informant, as well as several subsequent ones with an undercover officer posing as a convict on probation named “Crystal,” were recorded by TPD as part of an investigation into Leigh’s activities. According to a police report submitted to the court by Officer Victor Gancedo, the informant Lisa and the undercover officer attempted on several occasions to entice Leigh into signing off on community service hours in exchange for sex. The report also details elaborate attempts to convince Leigh to express interest in viewing child pornography — a fetish that Lisa informed police that the priest was into.
“It’s laughable,” Leigh says. “Why would they launch this investigation on the strength of one person’s word who has a record of lying and a long criminal history? The police are clearly attempting to smear my reputation. Why else would they bring in TV cameras to film them busting in the door of the church. It was unlocked!”
On the last day of July, Leigh was mowing his lawn when he received a phone call from the undercover agent “Crystal.” She claimed that her probation officer was going to send her to jail if she did not complete all of her court-ordered community service hours. Leigh says she begged him to meet her at the church right away. When he showed up, Crystal asked if he would sign off on 33 hours of community service that she said she had done by babysitting a child in her care. By all accounts, Leigh complied — as he had in the past. “My church exists for them. I’m here for convicts. I’m here for the poor,” he explains. “I have some discretion as to the work that they are doing to benefit the community.”
What happened next is subject to debate. Leigh claims that Crystal asked for a hug to express her gratitude. Police claim that it was Leigh who asked for the hug, several long ones in fact, in exchange for signing off on the hours. In any case, after the prolonged hugfest, police burst through the front door of the church with the battering ram and an ABC Action News crew in tow.
Bishop Leigh was charged with 12 counts of falsifying official documents — all misdemeanors — which were later reduced to just one charge. He says he was held for several hours after his arrest so that police could do a “perp walk” to parade him in front of the media in handcuffs, “They worked it out with the media in advance.” Leigh also claims that one of the arresting officers told him the orders for his arrest came straight from Mayor Buckhorn’s office. The mayor’s office denies the claim.
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