A pastor from Canada accused of trying to meet with a supposed 15-year-old girl for sex in Arroyo Grande claims he was only “role-playing” and believed based on photographs that the supposed teen he was having sexually explicit chats with was much older.
“I thought I was talking to a 30-year-old,” Nathan Rieger said on the stand, recalling the moment a detective told him the supposed girl was underage. “Everything I had stood for for 30 years, I felt I had completely betrayed.”
Rieger, 53, has pleaded not guilty to a felony count of meeting with a minor for lewd purposes. If convicted, he faces up to four years in state prison.
Rieger is accused of carrying on extremely graphic conversations with an Arroyo Grande police detective, who he believed was a teenage girl, over four days on a mobile messaging app. He was arrested Aug. 10 in a parking lot on West Branch Street, where he allegedly planned to meet the girl.
He was released from San Luis Obispo County Jail in lieu of $25,000 bail after his arrest, according to court records.
The Tribune is not identifying the message app involved in the case, the undercover officer’s supposedly underage alias or the precise location of Rieger’s arrest as to not interfere with ongoing and future investigations, at the request of law enforcement.
The trial started with jury selection last Monday. Last Thursday, jurors heard from James Jolly, a detective with the Arroyo Grande Police Department who specializes in investigating internet crimes against children.
Jolly testified about how over the course of the week of Aug. 5 he engaged in a chat with Rieger under the guise of being a 15-year-old girl who lived with her grandmother. He used past and present photographs of a female Arroyo Grande police officer between the age of 24 and 30 to sell his ruse, Jolly testified.
Rieger, who at the time was on vacation on the Central Coast with his wife and children, told the detective he was 37 years old in the chats. Eventually, the dialogue progressed from flattering to sexually aggressive and ultimately resulted in the pastor agreeing to meet with the supposed girl in a parking lot, according to transcripts shown to the jury.
“My career could be at stake because of your age,” Rieger allegedly wrote.
In another comment, Rieger allegedly wrote, “I know (the age of consent) is 18. But I think I still want you.”
According to the transcript, Rieger allegedly told the avatar that he was an “experienced Dom” — or male dominatrix — and that sex is “much nicer without a condom.”
‘I call it being undercover’
Under cross-examination last week, Jolly was questioned by defense attorney Charles Magill about his lying to Rieger during their interview after Rieger’s arrest.
According to a video shown to the jury, Jolly did not admit to Rieger at the time that the 15-year-old girl didn’t exist. Rather, Jolly told Rieger that the 15-year-old girl’s grandmother had found her phone and turned it in to authorities.
“I call it being undercover,” Jolly said. “There’s no such thing as an undercover operation where you don’t lie about who you are.”
Magill asked Jolly if it was possible that Rieger was role-playing during their communication. Jolly said it was possible, though in his experience people role-playing will state their intentions early on so each side is in on the game.
At one point in Rieger and Jolly’s conversation, Rieger asks if the girl has ever been with an older man. Jolly responded that the avatar’s past boyfriend was 26 years old, to which Magill asked whether Rieger could have interpreted this to mean the girl was saying, in reality, that she was 26 years old. Jolly said it’s possible.
“You have no idea what was going on in the state of mind of (Rieger), do you?” Magill asked.
Jolly said that’s correct.
On Wednesday, Rieger took the stand in his own defense, breaking down in tears several times when discussing his arrest, how it impacted his reputation in Winnipeg and hurt his relationship with his family.
“This is the humiliating truth,” Rieger said.
In the video of the Aug. 10 interview between he and Jolly, Reiger is seen admitting that he was meeting a 15-year-old for the purpose of having sex. But on the stand, he said that he only stated that because he believed Jolly’s ruse that the 15-year-old was real, even though he does not say in the video that he thought the person was in her 30s.
Asked Wednesday by Magill if he planned to have sex with the supposed 30-year-old woman, Rieger said the plan was to “go to a Starbucks, walk through the mall, and if there was a connection, then yes.”
“The woman indicated she’d be into it,” Rieger testified.
Rieger was asked about Jolly’s supposed kindness to him during the interview. After Rieger states that his “life as I know it is over,” Jolly reassures him, “this is an opportunity to get over this.”
“I trusted him to the extent I was looking for any comfort I could find,” Rieger said, adding that in the hallway before the interview, Jolly even told him, “I love you, man.”
At that statement, Jolly looked to Deputy District Attorney Julie Antos, shook his head and mouthed, “No, I didn’t.”
Rieger testified that he didn’t find out the 15 year old didn’t exist until a July 24 article about his arrest in his hometown newspaper.
Forensic psychologist testifies
Under cross-examination by Antos, Rieger admitted that he had made other posts on the messaging app as early as January 2018 in which he talked about engaging sexually with younger females.
Rieger admitted in April, for example, he wrote: “I don’t feel there’s anything wrong with a younger woman being with an older man. ... It’s a timeless sexual chemistry.”
He also admitted to posting in June, “I seriously get embarrassed when my students flirt with me, but ... I’m tempted.”
When Antos asked Rieger whether people role-playing need to express that fact early on, he said no.
“It can be tacit, it can be implicit, or it can be explicit,” Rieger responded. “You feel it out as you go, in my experience.”
He then immediately added: “I’m actually not that experienced.”
Before the defense rested, Magill called to the stand Joe Debruin, a clinical and forensic psychologist and expert witness specializing in patients with pedophilia.
Debruin stated that, after a two-hour interview and review of police records, that Rieger is interested in bondage and sadomasochism, but he does not have an unnatural interest in minors.
“I don’t see this gentleman as having any interest in having sex with someone under the age of 18,” Debruin testified.