Man on trial says he would marry a child but isn’t a pedophile

Police monitor transient they say advocated sex with children as a religious rite

Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons and Madison County Sheriff John Lakin talk about the arrest of James Lopes, who was charged with disturbing the peace. Police were monitoring Lopes after they said comments were made online about sex wit
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Madison County State's Attorney Tom Gibbons and Madison County Sheriff John Lakin talk about the arrest of James Lopes, who was charged with disturbing the peace. Police were monitoring Lopes after they said comments were made online about sex wit

A man advocating sex with children took the stand in his own defense Wednesday as part of a jury trial in Madison County court in Edwardsville.

James Lopes is representing himself, and jurors must determine whether he should be declared sexually dangerous. Felony charges against Lopes are on hold pending the current petition from the Madison County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Assistant State’s Attorney Alison Foley said there are five factors that are required to establish whether someone is sexually dangerous. He or she must: possess a mental disorder; that disorder has existed for more than a year; the disorder makes him or her likely to commit sex offenses; that he or she has committed some acts; and that it is probable he or she will commit more sexual offenses if he or she is not incarcerated.

Lopes took the stand to make a statement Wednesday. He began to read from a 203-page document detailing his beliefs, but prosecutor Kathleen Nolan objected, stating that he was allowed to testify, not to read an entire document admitted into evidence. Lopes argued his beliefs were the reason he was on trial and that he should be allowed to detail them.

Madison County Circuit Judge Neil Schroeder said he would give Lopes “a great deal of latitude” in explaining himself to the jury, but would not allow him to read the entire document. He said Lopes would have to summarize relevant portions.

“I think it’s an unfair ruling,” Lopes told the judge. “I put every word in detail so that people will understand … they won’t understand me just talking about it.”

Lopes spoke at length, detailing his beliefs. “My church helps people face their sexuality issues,” Lopes told the jury. “I also help with the treatment of sex offenders … The biggest hate and fear in civilization is sex.”

He compared laws and taboos against sex with children to Prohibition, stating that society should permit and regulate it instead of banning it. His belief, he said, is that banning sex with children leads to sexual problems.

“When I talk about a mini-date, I am the main priest of this church,” Lopes said. “People can trust me that (I) will treat her as lovingly as I can ... My objective is to see these kids come into their sexuality in a natural way.”

He said he was looking for a “wife” of a young age, and that would include sexual relations, but a moment later said he was not a pedophile and is not a predator.

“If it’s natural, if it’s 100 percent honest and truthful, if the parents were involved ... would I marry a child? Yes, of course I would,” he said. “My church just happens to be the first to promote the ‘odd couple’ of a child and adult.”

He confirmed that he did approach children in Portland, Ore., but said the children were “luring me for a sex offense,” at the behest of his ex-wife.

Nolan repeatedly objected as Lopes’ topic ranged away from the “sexually dangerous” designation, and Schroeder sustained most of the objections.

Opening statements

Opening statements earlier Wednesday focused on the “uproar” that consumed Madison County in April 2016, when word of Lopes’ behavior of allegedly approaching young girls and his YouTube videos spread online.

Lopes unsettled many metro-east residents last year with a series of online videos shot in a Collinsville park, in which he promoted sexual relations with children as a religious rite. He has been charged with three counts of grooming, a Class 4 felony, regarding cards he allegedly handed out that directed people to his videos.

He has also been charged with several misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct and trespass, alleging that he approached young girls, declared he was on a “mini-date” with one of them, and asked a 7-year-old girl, “Hi, princess, are you looking for your prince? I’m right here.”

In his mind, “not only was it perfectly acceptable for him to engage in sex acts with children, but (he believed) that God himself had given him this responsibility,” Foley said.

She detailed that his “Rise Star Church” theories say Lopes believes he is required to seek out a “child bride” and have sex with her in public. Her preferable age, Foley said, would be 8 to 12 years old.

Not only was it perfectly acceptable for him to engage in sex acts with children, but that God himself had given him this responsibility.

Madison County assistant state’s attorney Alison Foley

Foley said Lopes had the same behavior in Oregon. He was initially convicted in Oregon of multiple offenses, but the conviction was later thrown out by the Oregon Supreme Court.

Lopes has been in custody at the Madison County Jail since April 2016, held in lieu of $75,000 bail.

In his brief opening statement, Lopes said he is the main priest of a church that teaches the proper divisions of sexuality, protects children from predators and preserves their innocence. He said he has never been a registered sex offender and has been “illegally incarcerated for 30 months” awaiting this trial. He said he is being prosecuted because of his beliefs, in violation of his freedom of speech.

Metro-east incidents

In April 2016, Madison County Sheriff’s deputies were notified that Lopes was at a gas station in Livingston, according to the testimony of Lt. Kristopher Tharp.

In Livingston, Tharp said Lopes approached a young girl and a man intervened. Sheriff’s deputies were able to locate him at a nearby ice cream parlor, where he had sat down next to a young girl and engaged her in conversation. When her parents confronted him, he told them, “I’m on a mini-date with your daughter,” Tharp said.

Lopes was arrested initially on a charge of disorderly conduct. Later he was charged with multiple misdemeanor and felony counts, including “grooming,” a legal term for attempting to initiate sexual behavior with children.

Tharp listed other incidents at a bowling alley, grocery store and other locations in Collinsville and Edwardsville where he allegedly approached young girls and asked them on dates and to attend “puppet shows,” often right in front of their parents.

Nolan played surveillance video from a grocery store, in which Lopes is seen approaching a family with a young girl and talking to them for an extended period, then handing small cards to the two parents. Tharp said the card detailed Lopes’ beliefs and ideology.

In another incident, Tharp said Lopes “made a beeline” for an 11-year-old girl and the father physically intervened to place himself between Lopes and his daughter. At the Edwardsville Shop ’n Save grocery store, a family with two young children observed Lopes approaching their 3-year-old daughter, and their 9-year-old daughter walked toward him. The parents intervened and Lopes left the store, Tharp said.

Lopes objected to Nolan’s request to play a recording of his interview with Tharp, stating it was irrelevant. Schroeder overruled.

In his statements to Tharp, Lopes said he saw himself as introducing young girls to healthy relationships, treating each as “my little wife.” As the main priest of the Rise Star Church, he said, he would have first pick of the children.

“It would be like, ‘This is my wife; she’s little,’” he said. He said he would pass her off as his daughter.

A thumb drive confiscated from Lopes when he was arrested showed hundreds of images of young girls made up and dressed up — like “glamour shots,” Tharp said.

Lopes cross-examined Tharp, asking if there was anything wrong with the glamour pictures of the girls on his flash drive. Tharp said they were not illegal to possess.

“They were pretty, weren’t they?” Lopes asked.

“They were little girls,” Tharp replied.

Expert testimony

Next on the witness stand was Dr. Kimberly Weitl, who works with the Illinois Department of Human Services doing evaluations of sex offenders. She has done more than 400 evaluations for civil commitment, and said only about 3 percent of patients she has evaluated meet the criteria for being sexually dangerous.

“I’m looking for patterns of behavior,” Weitl said. Criminal convictions alone don’t tell the whole story, she said; she considered everything she could find, including his religious statements, and a brief personal interview. She said he refused to cooperate, which is not uncommon in these cases.

Weitl said he fits the criteria for pedophilic disorder, delusional disorders and other personality disorders. In her opinion, he meets the criteria as a sexually dangerous person.

“He’s not hidden the fact that he’s interested in getting a child bride,” Weitl said. “He’s acted on that and stated his intent.”

Delusional disorder is when someone has convinced themselves of something they cannot be dissuaded from. In Lopes’ case, he has convinced himself that he is saving these children, Weitl said. She said it’s difficult to treat because he would have to be convinced that he is wrong.

“He is so wrapped up with this idea that he’s formed this church around it,” Weitl said. “Most pedophiles know what they’re doing is wrong ... they don’t usually form a church around it. He’s not only admitting it, he’s touting it.”

Dr. Mark Carich was the next expert who testified; he retired from the Illinois Department of Corrections after spending 22 years running the program for sexually dangerous people.

Like Weitl, Carich said Lopes declined to be interviewed, so his evaluation was primarily based on his records and the evidence in the various cases. He said Lopes does not deny his sexual attraction to children and doesn’t seem to have hostility toward women or children. But he does not seem to be able to restrain his impulse to approach young children, Carich said.

“He doesn’t seem to be able to control himself,” Carich said. “When he’s around kids he seems to gravitate to them… To me, that overrides everything.”

The state then rested its case. Outside the presence of the jury, Lopes moved for a directed verdict, stating that he believes all the evidence was circumstantial and that the psychological experts were just offering their opinions. “There is no victim,” he repeated.

Nolan argued that she believes the state made its case with a preponderance of evidence. Schroeder agreed and overruled the motion.

Although it is a civil action and not a criminal charge, the motion to declare someone sexually dangerous requires a jury trial. If the jury rules against him, Lopes would be committed to the custody of the Illinois Department of Corrections in a facility designed for sex offender treatment, according to Nolan.

Both sides concluded Wednesday. The trial will proceed to closing arguments Thursday morning.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald