(UPDATE) Thompson Pastor Pleads Not Guilty to Felony Sexual Battery Charges
March 13, 2023 by John Karlovec

Laferty Admitted to Illegal Sexual Conduct with Minors, Prosecutor Says

Dennis W. Laferty, a pastor at Thompson United Methodist Church in Thompson Township, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Geauga County Common Pleas Court.

UPDATE: Dennis Laferty was released from the Geauga County Jail on March 16 after his father deposited $10,000 cash (10%) to secure payment of the $100,000/10% bond. He is living at his father’s home in Tiro, Ohio.

Dennis W. Laferty, a pastor at Thompson United Methodist Church in Thompson Township, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment in Geauga County Common Pleas Court.

Laferty, 37, who until early last week lived in a home Trustees of Thompson Methodist Church own at 6724 Madison Road, was indicted March 10 on multiple felony counts, including sexual battery against one or more minors.

A warrant was issued for Laferty’s arrest and he turned himself in March 10 in Crawford County.

He waived extradition and was transported to the Geauga County Jail and book on March 11.

The seven-count indictment against Laferty states a county grand jury found between Nov. 30, 2019, and Jan. 30, 2023, Laferty engaged in various acts of sexual misconduct with one or more minors. Specifically, Laferty was charged with five counts of third-degree felony sexual battery, one count of third-degree felony gross sexual imposition involving a person less than 13 years of age and one count of third-degree misdemeanor sexual imposition involving a person 13 years of age or older but less than 16 years old. The third degree felony counts in the indictment each carry a maximum potential sentence of five years in prison.

Laferty, who appeared on video before Judge David M. Ondrey, answered, “Not guilty, your honor,” when asked how he wished to plead.

Ondrey then was assigned the case for future proceedings.

On the issue of bond, Laferty told Ondrey he has been living in his father’s home in the Village of Tiro since he was removed from his Madison Road home. He said he has been employed by the United Methodist Church for the last 10 years. Laferty also admitted to a prior felony conviction 10 years ago and added it was sealed.

Geauga County Prosecutor Jim Flaiz asked Ondrey to set bond at $100,000.

“The state (of Ohio) would represent to the court that during an investigation of this matter the defendant did make admissions that he engaged in illegal sexual conduct with minors, so the state’s evidence is strong,” Flaiz said. “Given the nature and circumstances of the crimes charged, the state is requesting a $100,000 cash or surety bond.”

The Geauga County Public Defender’s Office, which represented Laferty for purposes of his arraignment, asked Ondrey to consider a personal recognizance bond, citing Laferty’s “lack of (criminal) history,” service to his country — Laferty served in the U.S. Marine Corps for eight years and was honorably discharged in 2011 — and work as a pastor for the past decade. If a PR bond was inappropriate, Ondrey was asked to grant reasonable bond with a 10% option.

“I’m going to set the bond at $100,000, 10% cash or surety,” Ondrey said, adding Laferty was required, among other things, to surrender his passport and to have no contact with alleged juvenile victims.

Laferty, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps, joined TUMC in July 2018 after serving three years as pastor at The United Methodist Church in Nevada, Ohio. He is married and has three daughters, according to his Facebook page.

On March 8, a former member of TUMC contacted the Geauga County Maple Leaf with information that Laferty was removed from his home on or about March 7 and was not allowed to have contact with his family. The person agreed to speak with the Maple Leaf on condition of anonymity.

“The Thompson Methodist Church is trying to cover this up, but the town’s people have a right to know,” the former member said. “The Thompson Police Department along with a few unmarked Chevy Tahoes were at his residence across from Dollar General. They came back later and confiscated some of his belongings.”

The former member was aware of at least one minor victim who is a member of TUMC and said one or more of the church leaders have known about other inappropriate behavior involving Laferty, but have covered it up for years.

“It has torn the church apart,” the former member said. “They don’t want anyone to know, especially the people of Thompson Township or the United Methodist Church District.”

Whether the leaders knew about the sexual battery allegations is unknown, the former member said.

Flaiz said as the investigation is still ongoing, he is unable to comment further on Laferty’s charges at this time.

“An indictment is only a probable cause finding by the grand jury,” his statement said. “A defendant is entitled to a fair trial in which it will be the State’s burden to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

A law enforcement source familiar with the investigation, but not authorized to speak publicly, told the Maple Leaf authorities learned of Laferty’s alleged sexual battery through a current TUMC member who was concerned with how the matter was being handled internally at the church.

In addition, the former member said Laferty has a criminal history and provided the Maple Leaf with a copy of a 2012 sentencing entry filed in the Richland County Court of Common Pleas. According to the entry, Laferty admitted to aggravated trafficking in drugs, a third-degree felony. He was ordered to pay a $1,500 fine to the City of Mansfield Police Department and hand over a Kimber .45 semiautomatic handgun to the state of Ohio. He also was ordered to complete a mental health evaluation and treatment program.

The former member claims some church leaders knew of Laferty’s prior conviction but failed to inform the “majority of the hiring committee” before he was hired in July 2018.

In October 2018, Laferty paid to have the 2012 case record sealed so he could get a passport to go to Jerusalem, the former member said, which he did earlier this year, according to his Facebook page.

The Maple Leaf reached out to the lay leader and president of the church, Steve Roessner, for comment on Laferty’s hiring, current status with the TUMC and the criminal allegations. Roessner, who is a tax map manager in the Geauga County Engineer’s Office, did not respond to a text message requesting comment.

The Maple Leaf also reached out to board member Kirk Fowler for comment. Fowler also did not respond.

On March 13, Geauga County Engineer Joe Cattell told the Maple Leaf that Roessner had been placed on paid administration leave pending an investigation into the matter. Cattell explained his office was investigating whether Roessner’s alleged actions or inactions violated any office policies or procedures.

In a March 11 Facebook post, the Thompson UMC Administrative Council stated Laferty has been suspended as pastor.

“We have recently been made aware of very concerning allegations regarding Pastor Dennis Laferty. Please be aware that we are taking matters very seriously and allowing the appropriate authorities to take action,” the council stated. “At this time, we ask that you pray for our church and community, and that answers may be brought in a just manner. Please know that we at Thompson United Methodist Church do not condone any form of harm to any person and we care for all our members.”

The council also stated that “to ensure the protection of our congregation and community”  Laferty has been suspended as pastor.

The Maple Leaf also learned Thompson Township Fire Chief Dorothy Battles had planned to put Laferty on the fire department as a probationary member to be trained as a firefighter. When reached by phone, Battles declined to comment.

Thompson Township Trustee Erwin Leffel said when he and the other trustees were informed of Laferty being removed from his home, they chose not to appoint him.

Law enforcement believes there may be additional victims of Laferty. Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand is asking anyone having information regarding this investigation to call Geauga County Department of Job and Family Services at 440-285-9141.