Lead detective admits no evidence other than accusers’ conflicting statements
HILLSBORO, Ore. — Washington county judge Steven L. Price said he had questions regarding the accuracy of the accuser’s testimony. The judge’s statement came after 5 days of trial (case #C061748CR) where he found Eric Pepin and Jamison Priebe not guilty of all charges.
Reflecting on the case and his accuser, Chris Young, Pepin said, “We’re happy with the verdict but the accusations will always be there. Right now it’s about picking up the pieces and moving on. In some ways I feel sorry for Chris. He’ll be carrying around the guilt of what he did the rest of his life. I don’t think he’ll ever tell anyone the truth and it will eat him up.”
Deputy district attorney Andrew Erwin struggled to build the state’s case around three conflicting accounts the accuser, Chris Young, who is now 21, gave to police.
One of the biggest upsets came when Young, having learned about defense evidence, claimed Eric Pepin was not wearing a robe with the words, “Master Eric,” emblazoned on it when they first met. Young’s dramatic account was given a mass of local and internet media attention when a July article in the Oregonian paper detailed their first meeting with the robe. Young claimed police had gotten the account wrong.
The defense gave evidence to the court showing pictures of the robe being given to Mr. Pepin in January 2005, at a birthday party, with Young in attendance. The event took place nearly a year after Young said he saw the defendant wearing the robe.
The defense also showed receipts of when the robe was purchased by one of Pepin’s employees. The employee testified he brought several robes with him to the United States after studying with one of the worlds top martial arts masters. A student of martial arts most of his life, he said it is common to call his teachers master and meant it respectfully, though Pepin has never been called master by anyone.
Young told the court that instead, it was a “fuzzy, brown cotton robe.” When asked if he was certain Pepin was wearing a fuzzy, brown robe Young confirmed that was what he told police.
Officer Matthew Groshong, a 10 year veteran of the force, testified that was not what Young told police. Groshong conducted the first interview with Young in January 2006. The interview was done at the office of Young’s civil attorney, which he obtained before filing charges. Groshong’s report detailed a different version of events than what Young later told other officers and what he also said in court.
Attorney Stephen Houze commented on the prosecutions reaction to all the different stories. “Counsel would have the court believe this seasoned police officer got it all wrong. That he was confused. It’s not that Christopher Young is being dishonest, somehow this police officer just screwed it up and didn’t get it right.”
Christopher Young’s testimony also conflicted with lead detective Mike Smith’s report of what Young told him. Said Houze, “Are we to believe Detective Smith is lying about it? Of course not. Chris Young is lying about it.”
In the last encounter between Young and Pepin, before Young went to police, Young said he went to Pepin for help because nobody else would help him. Pepin helped fix the car of Young’s girlfriend, Krystin Birtchet, and worked to find them a place to live. Pepin said they came asking for money but an argument followed when Pepin said he wouldn’t continue to help the two unless they agreed to stop using drugs. They refused his help.
Young said it was his girlfriend who didn’t want Pepin’s help; not him. “She’s young and angry and has problems with men.” He said she flipped Pepin off at their meeting.
Soon after refusing Pepin’s help, Young and his girlfriend went to police. Sergeant Matthew Condon said when they first came to police it was for “employment” related issues. Condon said he offered them the chance to speak to an investigator if the matter was serious. They declined. Instead, Young and his girlfriend sought out a civil attorney. Young’s girlfriend said she believed he had a case and thought a lot of people would believe it.
“They’re calling for an attorney to make a civil case to get the money from Eric Pepin. To them Eric Pepin is the pot of gold in the sky,” Houze said. “All you got to do if you’re Chris Young, like you do every day, is tell a lie. This is the biggest payday he’s hoping he’s ever going to see.”
Chris Young’s mother, Amy Manning, testified to the court that her son is dishonest with her and frequently hid his drug use. She sent him to Mexico for his out of control behavior when he was 15. She told police she felt Eric Pepin was a positive influence on her son.
Young’s family refused to provide him with assistance at the time and wouldn’t let him live with them, leaving him frequently homeless.
During execution of the search warrant of Mr. Pepin’s home and office, lead investigator Mike Smith found Pepin to be, “very cooperative, very polite.” Police said Pepin went as far to volunteer locations to the officers they were not authorized to search or were even aware of. Pepin had employees drive police to a house an hour away to secure a laptop computer for them. Lead Detective Mike Smith also admitted Eric Pepin continued to speak to him after his attorney had advised him not to. Pepin said he believed police would seek to find the truth.
Detective Smith testified that he told Pepin during the search, “I will work as hard to clear your name as I will to substantiate the claims.” According to Pepin and attorney Stephen Houze, that never happened.
Although the police discovered no evidence that any crime had taken place, other than Young’s conflicting statements, Pepin and Priebe would later be charged. “During the search I remember all the officers laughing at me. They admitted it wasn’t like TV with how things get resolved. They were right. On TV police remain neutral and seek to find the truth. Reality is far different,” Pepin said.
During their testimonies Christopher Young and detective Mike Smith constantly referred to each other as “Chris” and “Mike.” Young and Smith admitted to the court that it was the nature of their relationship. When asked how many times he had spoken to detective Smith, Young replied it was, “40, 50, 60 times.” Detective Smith told the court that their meetings were not always professional. He admitted sometimes he was off duty.
Houze told Judge Price he would be remiss if he did not address the nature of the investigation and the obvious bias the Lead Detective had going in. “The skeptical guard a police officer needs to have when evaluating a case was not there,” Houze said.
“The police never came to talk to Jamison or I after the initial search. No looking into Chris’s past. They took his word and ran with it,” Pepin said.
To support Young’s accusation the prosecution called two of Young’s friends, his girlfriend, and his mother. None of them testified about having any personal knowledge of the events. His friends and his girlfriend talked about how Young burned them in the past and lived off them continuously.
The prosecution also called Adam Alder, a one-time friend of Eric Pepin’s from California. Mr. Alder testified he met Pepin when he was 16 but that Pepin would not let him attend classes until he was 18. Alder stated he found Pepin again when he was almost 19. He admitted that Pepin ended their friendship nearly 7 years ago when he was 23. Alder’s testimony also conflicted with what he initially told police. Alder said, like Young, the police had gotten it wrong.
The reason Alder changed his story may be because Alder and Young were in contact before the trial, said Alder’s friend Tim Todd. “I’ve known Adam a long time. He came to my wedding. About 5 years ago he tried to convince me to make up a story with him and tell the police that Eric [Pepin] had sex with us and that we were minors when it happened. I told him no way. He feels burned that Eric pushed him out of his life.”
Some time after news of Pepin’s arrest broke in the Oregonian article, Todd and Alder talked. “He said he was talking to Chris Young. He wouldn’t tell me about what or if Chris was promising to give him money in exchange for help if he won the case. They at least had time to corroborate their stories once Adam decided to testify,” Todd said. A guilty verdict would have been an instant win for Young in a civil case.
Asked in court whether he had any contact with Alder before the trial, of any kind, or if the two had ever met Young replied, “No.”
Pepin said some people view him as controversial. “I say what I think and don’t make apologies for it. People like to hear what confirms their own thinking. I encourage people to go beyond that. Sometimes that’s controversial.”
That controversy was evident in most of the news surrounding the case. One reporter in particular painted Pepin out to be the leader of a cult.
“I tell people to question everything, myself included. We have people using our meditation program that are religious but they are more open-minded than the average person. Nobody should tell you what your experience of the Universe, or God, is. It should be a direct, personal relationship. The majority of our customers have never even met me so how can I exert some kind of power or influence over them? To hear me say that and then try and paint me as some ‘leader,’ people who know me see how it doesn’t add up,” Pepin explained.
When asked if his company, Higher Balance, is a cult, Pepin said, “What I offer are tools to experience things for yourself. What you do with those tools is up to you. If someone invents a hammer, and you use it, that doesn’t make the inventor a leader or his company a cult. Same thing. I think people respect me and appreciate what I offer because it works and because I’m not running around saying worship me, I’m a guru. Instead I’m saying, be your own guru. Here’s how.”
The prospect that Pepin’s company was a cult was quickly abandoned by the prosecution after several employee’s testified about the nature and operations of the business.
Detective Mike Smith agreed that he could not say the company was anything like a cult. He told the court, “I don’t know exactly, how do you define a cult?”
Defense attorney Stephen Houze brought out the Oregonian article where Smith was quoted talking about the “Master Eric” robe and stating simply about Pepin’s company, “It’s a cult.”
Smith said it was the reporter who got it wrong. “When the newspaper article came out I felt that what happened was that she wrote down two separate sections of our conversation and put them together. Like it was one continuous quote when, in fact, it wasn’t. I wasn’t happy about the way she put that together.”
Houze asked detective Smith if he felt the reporter misquoted him. He replied, “Yes sir.”
It wouldn’t be the only time the media would report incorrect facts regarding the case. The same day the trial ended two other articles came out.
“One article claimed I said I’ve had sex with my employees. I never said anything close to that. I told the truth. I’ve had relationships with 3 people who are now employees. All of them long before they were hired. I’m very loyal and stay close to people in my life. Maybe a relationship doesn’t work out; it doesn’t mean we can’t remain friends. Better to have a friend for life than push people away for pride or your own hurt.”
The article also said a videotape was seized at Pepin’s house showing Pepin, Priebe and Young in a three-way sexual act. Detectives testified to the opposite stating no videotape, pictures or any proof was ever found showing Pepin, Priebe and Young in any sexual act and that no evidence was ever seized indicating any crime had occurred. The article went on to state Alder testified he had sex with Pepin when he was 16, the opposite of his testimony.
“I don’t know how they can print some of these things but that’s why I’ve been silent so long. There have been so many wrong facts reported by the media it’s hard to say anything because you’re worried how it will be twisted,” Pepin said.
Houze said the case was about money for Young and his girlfriend. He asked the court what Chris Young had to lose or if there were any consequences should the defendants be found not guilty. He told the court there were none at all.
Young and his attorney asked for half a million dollars before trial to settle the case, Pepin said. “You can’t ask for $500,000 and then say it’s not about money.”
“I thought of Chris as a friend. Someone genuine,” Priebe said. “Now, after the paper came out, my whole family has suffered too. They’ve stood by me but it shouldn’t have ever gotten this far. We’ve lived here pretty much my whole life. The police should have stopped it. Instead they encouraged it. He hurt a lot of people.”
Stephen Houze summed up the case, “All it takes is for a person, in this case Christopher Young, to make the statement ‘it happened,’ and this whole case is launched. How does a person who is in the position of Eric Pepin or Jamison Priebe disprove an accusation? How do you prove your innocence?”
Houze went on to say, “Mr. Pepin has helped many people in his lifetime. He has helped numerous people. Men, women. He helped them overcome their difficulties and encouraged them. Get your education. Better yourself. He worked with people to keep them doing positive things. That’s a rather extraordinary portrait of a person. Christopher Young is at the opposite end of the spectrum by anyone’s reckoning in this case, including that of his own mother.”