Crime

Canadian pastor found guilty of meeting with a minor for sex in Arroyo Grande

Nathan Rieger, 53, right, stands next to defense investigator Robert O’Day in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Rieger is on trial over accusations that he arranged to meet with a minor for a sexual act in Arroyo Grande. Rieger was formerly a pastor at Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church in Canada.
Nathan Rieger, 53, right, stands next to defense investigator Robert O’Day in San Luis Obispo Superior Court. Rieger is on trial over accusations that he arranged to meet with a minor for a sexual act in Arroyo Grande. Rieger was formerly a pastor at Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church in Canada. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Jurors needed less than a day of deliberations to show they didn’t believe a disgraced pastor was role-playing when he attempted to meet a supposed 15-year-old girl for sex in Arroyo Grande in August.

Nathan George Rieger, who resigned from the Winnipeg Centre Vineyard Church after he was arrested Aug. 10, stared straight ahead with little emotion as the verdict was read.

Rieger, 53, claimed when he took the stand in his own defense that he believed the supposed girl he met online — actually an Arroyo Grande police detective — was also role-playing, and was actually in her late 20s or early 30s, based on photographs the officer provided.

Rieger, who remains out of County Jail after posting $25,000 bail, now faces up to four years in state prison when he’s sentenced next month.

Due to his conviction, Rieger, who is a Canadian citizen, must register as a sex offender.

Following the verdict, defense attorney Charles Magill said the case was based on alleged “thought crimes,” or whether Rieger knew he was talking to a teenager, which Magill said are some of the most difficult to try in court.

Magill added that he respects the decision of the jury but that his client may pursue further legal options.

But Deputy District Attorney Julie Antos, who prosecuted the case, said in a written statement that she was pleased the jury focused on the evidence, including the nearly 40-page transcript of messages between Rieger and the detective, in reaching their verdict.

“We are optimistic that this conviction will send a message to would-be predators that they will be caught, and when they are, they will be prosecuted,” Antos wrote.

Rieger was accused of carrying on sexually graphic conversations with an Arroyo Grande police detective, who was working under the guise of a 15-year-old girl, over four days the week of Aug. 5 when Rieger was visiting the Central Coast on vacation.

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 Dec. 3. Last Thursday, jurors heard testimony from James Jolly, a detective with the Arroyo Grande Police Department who’s assigned to investigating internet crimes against children.

Jolly testified about how he engaged in a chat with Rieger under the guise of being a 15-year-old girl who lived with her grandmother in Arroyo Grande. He used photographs of a female Arroyo Grande police officer between the age of 26 and 34 to sell his ruse, Jolly testified.

Magill argued to the jury that no reasonable person would believe that the woman in the photograph was 15 years old.

In his messages, Rieger told the detective he was 37 years old.

In closing arguments Thursday, Antos told the jury that the Rieger’s explanation was an “absurdity” and that he was using “mental gymnastics.”

“He wants to avoid taking responsibility for his actions,” Antos said.

In his final argument, Magill showed jurors a scene from the 1992 comedy “My Cousin Vinny,” in which Ralph Macchio’s character is interviewed by sheriff’s deputies and accused of shooting a grocery store clerk.

“I shot the clerk?” Macchio, whose character is innocent, asks.

“Yes,” the deputy says. “When did you shoot him?”

In his filmed interview with Jolly immediately following his arrest, Rieger says — and sounds as if he’s admitting to — going to the parking lot to meet with a 15-year-old for sex.

Several times during his argument, Magill accused Jolly of lying to Rieger. Indeed, Jolly in the interview maintained the ruse, saying that the supposed girl’s grandmother found her cellphone and the messages and turned it in to authorities.

Jolly is seen in the video, played for the jury, reassuring Rieger, telling him, “This isn’t the end of your life.” Jolly testified that he kept the act up because his investigation didn’t stop at the interview.

Later on, Magill called Jolly “incompetent” for sending Rieger a photograph of an adult woman and creating uncertainty about what was in Rieger’s mind when he carried on the messages with the supposed girl, who repeatedly stated throughout their conversations that she was 15.

Magill said Jolly didn’t understand role-playing culture, and misunderstood Rieger from the beginning of their communication.

“The whole crime that was being committed was in (Jolly’s) mind,” he said.

Finally, Magill told jurors while “it might piss you off” that a pastor — who also taught in some capacity — would arrange to meet a stranger for a tryst while on vacation with his family, “that’s not what he’s charged with.”

Rieger is scheduled to be sentenced Jan. 16.

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Matt Fountain is The San Luis Obispo Tribune’s courts and investigations reporter. A San Diego native, Fountain graduated from Cal Poly’s journalism department in 2009 and cut his teeth at the San Luis Obispo New Times before joining The Tribune as a crime and breaking news reporter in 2014.


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