Shot At Redemption

Page 6 of 9

Much to Lederer's own amazement, his feelings grew when he found out she had a daughter. The romance was in its early stages when he met Maria at a Denny's and she was waiting with Angie, her little girl, who is now 10. It was a complete surprise. "I never intended to be in a situation like that," he says. "But I fell in love with her, too, right there."

He proved a fine stepfather. "He teach me how to discipline my daughter," Maria says. "When she do something wrong, I just start yelling, 'No, don't do that!' He doesn't. He says, 'Go to your room. When you're ready to talk, we can talk.'" An accountant before she came to the United States, she taught financial discipline to Lederer, who'd always been a carefree spender.

It seemed a perfect match.

After divorcing her estranged husband, she married Lederer five years ago and took his name. The couple managed an apartment complex in exchange for free rent, saving money for a down payment on a house they bought three years ago, complete with driveway basketball hoop and backyard swimming pool. He is, she says, everything she's always wanted in a husband. Hardworking. Honest. Reliable.

"What can I say?" she offers. "I just love the man."

Lederer weeps when asked what's been the hardest part of coming clean. "The effect it's had on my family," he answers. "It's the one thing I can't rectify."

Shortly after getting married, Gordon Lederer began attending Paradise Springs Community Church in North Phoenix.

It's a storefront church on Greenway Road that shares a strip mall with a bingo parlor and coin laundry, the kind of place where worshippers bring their own Bibles and show up on Sundays in jeans and polo shirts. With a cement floor, fluorescent lighting and plain white walls decorated with flags from 16 nations, it's a humble sanctuary for a congregation that includes Hispanics, blacks and Asians. During sermons, many parishioners take notes.

"We are a paradise in the desert," reads the church's statement of purpose. "Those who have been mistreated by other churches or by life in general can come to us and be renewed by God. Paradise Springs stresses the release of personal baggage brought on by sin in exchange for a new life in Christ. Counseling may be necessary to accomplish this."

Gordon Lederer told Rodney Ousley, his ex-roommate, that he was looking for a place where he and his family could do things together. Several people he'd known from AA went to Paradise Springs. Ousley says he went twice and wasn't impressed. "It didn't feel right," he recalls. "It sounded like a brainwashing."

As Lederer got more involved with the church, he spent less and less time at AA. "It got to the point where he wouldn't come at all," Ousley says. "I would call and leave messages and he'd never call back."

Kim West, a former parishioner who has befriended the Lederers, says pastor Ken Hodgeson discouraged church members from attending AA meetings. "Ken would say, 'We have what you need here, why would you go there?'" West says. Lederer says other church members who'd dropped out of AA encouraged him to do the same. "I was told I didn't need it anymore," he says. "I was just doing what other people were doing."

Some parishioners became so dependent on Hodgeson that they wouldn't change jobs or buy a home without his approval, West says. "It's amazing," she says. "These people can no longer think for themselves. To oppose Ken is to oppose God, pretty much."

In her own case, West says Hodgeson's counseling nearly wrecked her marriage. She was working as a counselor herself, with the church providing free office space, when Hodgeson told her she needed his help. She says she'd grown up in an abusive home and had already gone through counseling, but that wasn't good enough for the pastor. "I wasn't seeking counseling," she says. "I was doing pretty well with my life. I was pretty happy. Then he said, 'You need to be in counseling.' I said, 'No, I don't, I'm doing fine.' He said, 'Well, if you're going to work here, you're going to be in counseling with me.'"

Convinced that Hodgeson was trying to control her and drive her away from her husband, who had told her he didn't see any problems that required the pastor's intervention, West and her husband left the church in September of last year. From the pulpit, Hodgeson instructed his flock to shun the couple. "When the Wests left, the pastor say, 'Don't have any contact with them,'" says Maria Lederer.

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Bruce Rushton