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CFC sex scandal deepens

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Another woman alleges abuse at troubled church
By
Kay Fate, Staff Writer
“I didn’t know who to tell or what to say.”
-Sierra Krause, Alleged Victim

Sierra Krause is taking a leap of faith.

She knows her story will be difficult for those who love her, but she wants accountability from those who failed her.

She was 15 when this story began, and today, more than half her lifetime later, she is ready to tell it.

“They physically, mentally, and emotionally have done everything that they could have done to me,” Krause said. “I’m just exhausted of letting it hold me back or making me afraid to talk about it.”

She is talking about the leadership, former and current, at Christian Family Church in Owatonna.

Krause is using her maiden name – the one people whispered when they talked about what happened in 2009-2010.

“They want to take away my name,” she said of her decision not to remain anonymous. “They want to take away all of this, pretend it never happened to me.”

Krause alleges she was groomed, then sexually assaulted for more than a year by a man with close ties to the church.

Because he has not been criminally charged, the Times is not naming the suspect but rather identifying him in this story “John Smith.”

All legal and potentially criminal accusations against him have been verified through law enforcement records and legal documents. The information has been provided to the Owatonna Police Department, and the Times has put Krause in touch with investigators.

Age 15, winter

Smith was a 33-year-old former youth leader for CFC when he first took note of Krause.

“He was never my youth leader,” she said, “but I remember getting close with his older daughter and being friends with her over the summer. He would come pick his kids up from youth group and hang out in the parking lot.

“In my head, it wasn’t creepy at the time.”

Instead, Krause said, “I figured he was thinking, ‘oh, my kid’s making friends, and I’ll let them hang out.’ But he was always there.”

She knew the family from church, and Smith’s wife was a teacher at El Shaddai, the private school affiliated with the church. Krause was a student there.

Her relationship with her father was “a little rocky” at that time, which often happens with teens trying to stretch their independence.

“I think I saw John as a father figure,” Krause said. “I felt safe and could talk to him because I thought I could trust him. Obviously, it triggered something in him – whether it was because I confided in him, or if he knew I was struggling … That’s where it started.”

Age 15, spring

“Nothing really happened until the summer I turned 16,” she said. “That’s when things started to get physical.”

It was also the time that Christian Family Church was moving out of its original home on the corner of St. Paul Road and 12th Street NE after buying the former Heritage Hall, a transportation museum north of Owatonna on Interstate 35.

“We’d have work days out at the new church, renovations and clean-up on weekdays and on weekends,” Krause said. “All my friends were hanging out at the church and helping out, so I’d go after softball practice.”

Smith, she said, “wasn’t employed by the church, but he was put in a position to lead a group (of volunteers) that included me. He had authority.”

He also had a job with a vending machine company that came with some perks.

“He used to give me all sorts of things: drinks, candy, different coins that he’d find,” Krause said. “Then he started giving things to my mom and my brother.”

Smith also had a company car; Krause claims he allowed her and her younger brother to practice driving a manual transmission in that vehicle.

“He was just reeling me in,” she said. “He knew. ‘I’ve got to get her to trust me;’ that was what happening. But it wasn’t weird to me then, because I thought he was stepping in as a father figure.”

Age 16, summer

Smith kissed her for the first time shortly after her 16th birthday.

“I think I was in shock,” Krause said. “In my head, he was supposed to be someone to keep me safe, someone to look up to in the church. I was confused.”

She slips into a steady stream of present tense language, as if she’s reliving it.

“This isn’t right, but I don’t know what to do, because he’s in charge of me right now,” she said. “I was like, ‘you’re married, you have kids. I don’t know why you’re holding my hand, and why you’re trying to kiss me. If I say something now, I’m going to be in trouble. I’m getting kissed by a married person. I need to just not say anything, because I’m scared.’

“I knew it wasn’t right,” Krause repeated, “but I didn’t know who to tell or what to say. I thought it was just going to be one time, so I just let it happen.”

But it continued, she said.

Prior to Smith’s advances, she had kissed one boy, one time.

“As time went on, I thought, ‘this makes me feel good, so these feelings must be OK,’” Krause said.

As renovations continued on CFC’s new home, the congregation held worship services at the movie theater in Owatonna.

Krause said the two took every opportunity to be together: anywhere in the new church, in his car, in random parking lots.

“I remember being at the movie theater for church,” she said. “Go find an empty room and start making out. Even at (the new) church – anywhere we could get two seconds alone, we were probably in a closet somewhere.

“One time we were at his house, in his daughter’s bedroom,” she said.

Age 16, winter

On Dec. 28, 2009 – six full months after Smith first kissed Krause – they were discovered.

A Waseca County Sheriff’s Office incident report indicates a deputy responded to a suspicious vehicle at a large hog confinement in Wilton Township.

A caller said a car was parked on the property. The driver was not visible, and the barn owner was worried someone was in the building.

It was 1:30 in the afternoon.

It was Smith’s car; he and Krause were inside, partially dressed.

She said he told her to give the deputy her older sister’s name, “to lie, so I would seem older,” Krause said.

She lied initially, but when the deputy asked her to repeat the name, she provided her own, “because I thought I would get in trouble for lying,” she said.

Her name is redacted in the incident report, but Smith’s name, birthdate, vehicle description, and license plate are all listed.

Krause’s parents, also listed on the document, were notified, but their daughter and Smith were sent on their way with a warning to stay off private property.

She believes her mom and dad “may have had an inkling something had been happening, but they weren’t really sure,” she said. “They thought something was off, the way he was acting toward me.”

She and her parents had to meet with Tim and Cherrie Peterson, head pastors at CFC, who had learned of the incident. Krause was ordered to stay away from Smith.

“This has stuck with me,” she said. “Cherrie said to me, ‘Sierra, didn’t you know what you were doing? He’s married, he has five kids.’ She was definitely putting it on me.

“I remember only a few months of not talking to John, and then him giving me a phone,” Krause said. “He was trying to start it up again, and it worked. It worked.”

Age 16, early spring

“The moment I put my coat on in church, I knew what it was, who it was from, and what it was for,” she said of the cell phone Smith had slipped into her pocket, “but I knew if I were to say something, they were all going to blame me, because that’s what happened the first time.”

By now, Smith was 34, still married to his second wife, and pressuring Krause to continue to see him.

“The reason I went back the second time is because he gave me a diamond engagement ring,” she said. “He gave me a magazine and told me to pick it out. He said he was going to leave his wife, and we were going to get married.”

There was more.

“I remember him saying, ‘if you tell anybody, I’m going to have to kill myself. I can’t live without you, but I can’t have you tell people about us,’” Krause said.

The two continued to meet and exchanged intimate text messages and photos.

“I could leave school if my work was done,” she said. “I would leave school and go meet up with John in parking lots somewhere.”

Age 16, early summer

About four months after Smith secretly gave Krause the prepaid cell phone, his wife opened his phone one night.

“She found out,” Krause said, and the news got back to her parents – and the Petersons.

Her parents were very angry: How did she let this happen? Why didn’t she come and tell them?

“I was afraid,” Krause said. “I didn’t know what the church would do to me – or to them.”

Her mother “did everything to get me to go to the police,” she said. “I know I should have, but who’s going to believe somebody who doesn’t have money? I was more afraid of (the Petersons) than my parents, because they had money.

“If they wanted to destroy me or my family,” Krause said, “they could do it in the snap of a finger.”

She and her parents were summoned to CFC again: This time, they would meet with the church board in addition to the Petersons.

It was similar to the first meeting, Krause said, in tone and attitude.

“They said to me, ‘Sierra, you know what you did; you have to take responsibility and apologize. He’s married and has five kids,’” she said.

“There weren’t any questions about how I felt, only what I did wrong,” Krause said. “I don’t ever remember them asking me questions about what I thought was right or wrong – they never even gave me a chance.”

What they did give her, she said, was a warning.

If there was another incident with Smith, “I would have to go in front of the whole church and tell them what happened.”

As it was, Krause believes most of the church members knew about the inappropriate relationship.

“The second time was pretty public,” she said. “People knew something was going on with John and me; if not, they never saw us together. I would guess at least 50% knew something physical was going on, yet no one did anything – they all just talked bad about me.

“My thing with John was a big deal in the church.”

Age 17, summer

Krause’s mother continued to push her to report the alleged abuse to law enforcement, but Sierra resisted.

In her 16-year-old mind, with her lack of knowledge about legal matters, “I was afraid my name would be in the paper, and I’d be in trouble, too,” she said.

“I disappointed my mom; she was definitely trying to advocate for me, and I see that now,” Krause said.

So, they arrived at a compromise of sorts: Her mother petitioned the district court for – and received – a harassment restraining order against Smith.

The final order is dated July 22, 2010, signed by Judge Larry Collins in Waseca County. Krause had turned 17 a month earlier; Smith was nearly 35.

In it, the judge found “reasonable grounds to believe that (Smith) has engaged in harassment of the minor child …”

According to the document, the Court had previously given oral orders regarding Smith’s presence at the church and school.

The order goes on to say that while both may attend Christian Family Church, Smith “shall not have any contact with Sierra Krause at church or any church activities,” and must stay away from the family home in rural New Richland.

It remained in effect until July 21, 2012, after Krause’s 19th birthday.

Smith did not appear at the hearing “after being personally served with an Order for Harassment Hearing.”

Today, much of those proceedings is a fuzzy memory for Krause.

“I remember talking to the judge,” she said. “Both my parents think they remember Cherrie (Peterson) being there; they said she raised her hand and walked right up to the judge and said something to him.”

The Times is unable to verify that; no transcript indicates the presence of anyone other than the parties involved.

Age 17, late summer

The HRO served its purpose: Krause and Smith never spoke again.

“After the second time (in front of Petersons), it was cold turkey,” she said. “I could tell (Smith) was still staring at me, but I know there was no conversation. I was done.”

But even so, there was guilt – and fear.

“I knew (ending the behavior) would be on me, because I put (the HRO) in place,” Krause said. “I’m glad I had that, because clearly nothing else was working, and I could get in trouble.”

She meant legal trouble, though that was untrue.

She also meant church trouble.

Krause was “petrified” about appearing in front of the entire congregation.

“If I’d given John any attention, it would have happened again – and they were all going to blame me,” she said. “I remember taking as much responsibility as I could, because back then, I felt I was half to blame.”

So she did what she could to prove herself.

“I chose to step down from helping the children, working in the nursery,” Krause said.

Being involved in the church’s children’s ministry, she said, “felt important, almost an honor, and I remember thinking, ‘I don’t deserve that honor until I can prove to them that I can be as good as I used to be.’

“I needed to do something to show everybody that I’m being responsible,” Krause said.

She was not yet a senior in high school.

“I didn’t think it was criminally wrong,” she said. “I genuinely thought we both had done wrong, and I had to take ownership of what I did.”

Age 17, early fall

Krause’s parents were vigilant.

“The whole church knew something happened,” she said. “I remember going back to school, and everybody knew why my mom was sitting in the parking lot.”

She was back at El Shaddai, where she would finish her senior year early.

Smith’s wife was still a teacher there; his children still attended the private school.

“It felt taunting,” Krause said. “If we saw each other at school when he was picking up the kids, I felt like I had to be the one to turn away. I was always looking over my shoulder” to avoid him.

She was the focus of much unwanted attention.

“My classmates at the time asked me about him,” Krause said, “because they heard from their parents or other people in the church.”

It was very difficult, she said, “hearing people be negative about me, going around the church and asking, ‘did you hear what Sierra did?’”

Krause felt guilty.

She wrote a letter to Smith’s wife “and apologized, because I know I made her feel terrible,” she said. “As sick as it was, in my head, it was a relationship. It’s taken me years to realize it wasn’t my fault; I was a victim.”

False hope

“It was the reason Luverne was such a big part of my life – because of all this,” Krause said.

She was referring to Luverne Zacharias, once her principal and teacher at El Shaddai, but by 2010, he was a youth pastor for Christian Family Church.

Unbeknownst to Krause, Zacharias had allegedly engaged in sexual contact with another student at the school from 2005-2009, when the girl graduated.

Those allegations came to light in 2022, when the former student went to law enforcement because Zacharias continued to solicit her for sexual activity.

He has been charged in Steele County District Court with one count each of first- and second-degree criminal sexual conduct, as well as two counts each of third- and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct. All are felonies.

Zacharias pleaded not guilty to the charges last week; a settlement conference has been set for July 25, with a jury trial scheduled to begin July 29.

But to Krause, who in the fall of 2010 was battling shame and guilt and gossip, “I just thought he cared about (students). That bond you get when you trust someone; you confide in them because you feel safe and comfortable with them.”

So she sought refuge in Zacharias’s office at the school. He, of course, knew about the inappropriate behavior between Smith and Krause.

“If I didn’t want to deal with anybody staring at me, I could just sit in there,” she said. “It was private, and I could hide from everything.”

Zacharias’s previous alleged victim had graduated, “and I came crawling to him because of what I’d just endured – and I didn’t know what had happened with them. Saying that out loud now, it makes me even more disgusted,” Krause said.

More betrayal

She finished school in December 2010 and graduated with her class in the spring of 2011. A month later, she turned 18.

“After I graduated was when he decided to ask the really intense, sexual questions,” Krause said of Zacharias.

It began with odd text messages, she said, asking for proof that it was her he was texting.

“He said, ‘hey, I have questions I want to ask you – is this Sierra’s mom? I want to make sure I’m talking to Sierra, and not (her mom). Tell me something only you and I would know,’” Krause said.

Zacharias asked her to come to his office, something she said “wasn’t weird, because it had been a safe place” the year before, and he welcomed students’ visits.

“But as soon as I got there,” Krause said, “he shut the door and said he didn’t want anyone to hear.”

That, she said, was weird. Then he began writing on small pieces of paper and handing them to her.

“They were notes that said things like, ‘hey, would you ever be with a married person again?’ ‘Would you give a married person (oral sex)?’ ‘Would you send naked photos?’ It was always ‘a married person,’ not him,” Krause said.

She answered him out loud. No. No. No.

This time, Krause confided in someone from church, showing her friend Chris Jirele the strange text messages.

“He knew it was wrong, and said I needed to tell Tim and Cherrie about this,” she said. “But I couldn’t tell them – they’re going to think I started it.”

So Jirele told his mother, Naomi Jirele, who at the time held a leadership role at CFC.

“If he hadn’t, I don’t think I would have told anybody, because I was scared,” Krause said.

Naomi Jirele told the Petersons, who called a meeting that included Krause, her father, Cherrie Peterson and Jirele.

There was a notable absence: Krause’s mother, who had been so adamant about calling law enforcement after the incidents with Smith.

“Cherrie told us my mom couldn’t know about this, that it was best if she didn’t find out,” Krause said.

There were at least two more meetings, all with Krause, her father and Cherrie Peterson present. Initially, Peterson appeared to suspect that Krause had somehow initiated the inappropriate contact.

Zacharias attended the third meeting, where he apologized for his behavior.

“I remember Luverne saying he needed help, and crying,” she said of the meeting. “He thanked me for making this come out.”

Peterson claimed Zacharias was “going to go to counseling to get help. It was like, ‘we’ll take it from here – and don’t let your mom find out,’” Krause said.

That was the end of it, she said. She was not blamed; police were not contacted.

Today, Krause is 31, happily married and a mother who hopes her children will feel safe enough to confide in her when things are difficult.

So, what would she tell 16-year-old Sierra, if she could?

“I’d probably just hug her and cry with her for a minute or two,” she said, “because I know she was scared – and just wanted someone to help her.”

 

CFC Sex Scandal timeline of events

Allegations of sexual abuse at Christian Family Church in Owatonna span nearly 20 years. One man, Luverne Daniel Zacharias, now 46, has been criminally charged.

This is what a Steele County Times investigation has found so far.

2005: Victim 1 claims Zacharias began to fondle her over her clothing at El Shaddai private school, which is affiliated with CFC. She was 14 years old.

2006-2009: Victim 1 claims the sexual contact continues, with fondling under her clothing and digital penetration.

2008-2009: Sierra Krause alleges an adult male from the church begins grooming her – buying her gifts, consoling her, and telling her he loves her. She was 15 years old.

May 2009: Victim 1 graduates from El Shaddai, where Zacharias was a teacher and principal. The alleged abuse stops.

June 2009: Krause turns 16. The man’s attention turns physical, and the two begin to have sexual contact frequently.

December 2009: A Waseca County deputy finds Krause and the man parked, partially clothed, in rural Waldorf. Her parents are contacted.

December 2009: Tim and Cherrie Peterson, pastors at CFC, are told of the Waseca County discovery and meet with Krause and her parents.

March 2010: The man slips a prepaid cell phone in Krause’s coat pocket at church. The two begin meeting again.

June 2010: The man’s wife finds his cell phone and discovers intimate messages and photos between him and Krause. She tells the Petersons.

July 2010: Krause and her parents are asked to meet with Petersons and the entire church board to discuss the continuing sexual contact.

July 2010: Krause’s mother files for a harassment restraining order against the man, which is granted.

September-December 2010: Krause returns to El Shaddai school for her senior year. She spends time in Zacharias’s office to avoid people gossiping about her.

May 2011: Krause graduates with her class.

June 2011: Krause turns 18.

Summer 2011: Zacharias texts Krause, asking if he can talk to her. She goes to his office at the church, where he writes her notes, asking if she would “have sex with a married person again,” then destroying them after Krause answers negatively.

Summer 2011: Naomi Jirele, a CFC worship leader, learns of the texts and notes and contacts Petersons. A series of meetings is held with Jirele, Cherrie Peterson, Krause and her father. Zacharias attends one of the meetings and apologizes for his behavior.

Zacharias and the other married man continue to attend CFC. Law enforcement was never contacted.

2019: Zacharias contacts Victim 1, now an adult, and requests oral sex in his office at CFC.

2021: Zacharias contacts Victim 1, asking where he might be able to find a prostitute and requesting she send him nude photos and videos.

April 2021: Victim 1 informs the Petersons of the 2021 incident.

May 2021: Zacharias steps down from his position as campus pastor at CFC, saying only that he “made poor choices in my past.”

March 2022: Victim 1 reports all of Zacharias’s past conduct to the Owatonna Police Department, which begins a criminal investigation.

Late 2022: Cherrie Peterson tells OPD that church leaders have never received a report of inappropriate contact between a minor and an adult at church.

June 2023: A warrant is served at CFC to collect Zacharias’s personnel file.

December 2023: Zacharias is formally charged with one count of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, and two counts each of third- and fourth-degree criminal sexual conduct.

March, June 2024: Petersons tell the Times they have never been informed of inappropriate contact between any minor and adult.

June 2024: Zacharias pleads not guilty in Steele County District Court. If necessary, a jury trial is scheduled to begin in July 2024.

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