Shot At Redemption

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Lana Grass, Lederer's mother, says she went to Paradise Springs once and came away worried. Grass says she was concerned about the influence Hodgeson seemed to have over his flock, and particularly her son. Rather than delegating authority, Hodgeson seemed to be the head of virtually every prayer and support group within the church, she says. "He had to take control of everything -- it seemed like he was in so much control of everybody," she says. "I suspected a cult at first. I think Gordon got addicted to the man to the point where he probably would have done anything for him, which really isn't good. It was scary."

Lederer says there may be some truth to that. "My trouble was, I got confused," he says. "I based my okayness with God on what Ken was telling me. He managed to talk me into doing this. The longer I am away from that church the stranger it all looks."

On advice from his attorney, Lederer won't discuss his confession or Monique MacDonald's homicide -- the judge hasn't yet accepted a plea bargain he struck with prosecutors, so there could still be a trial. But his friends and family believe Lederer might still be a free man if he hadn't trusted Hodgeson.

"I really feel that he got some tremendously bad advice from a minister," says David Grece, his former employer.

Shortly after joining the church, Lederer hinted at his awful secret during a camping trip with church members, says West, who was present around the campfire that night. "He said that he had some things in his past that he felt terrible about," West recalls. He offered no details. But last spring, it became clear that something was terribly wrong.

He came home drunk one day. It was the first time his wife had seen him fall off the wagon. Gordon ended up going to Hodgeson for counseling. About an hour later, Maria got a call from the pastor: Come to the office right away. When she arrived, she found out that her husband had confessed to murder and that he was going to turn himself in to police. She asked Hodgeson if this was the right thing to do -- did her husband really need to go to prison to save his soul? Then she went home and waited while Hodgeson and Lederer drove to the nearest Phoenix police station. Without consulting a lawyer, he was throwing himself on the mercy of the system for a crime that could bring him the death penalty.

Lederer told police that he couldn't remember MacDonald's name, but he killed her because she was helping him sell drugs and had taken drug money that belonged to him. He couldn't remember how much. He shot her in the head with a .22-caliber rifle. Then he put the body in the back of his pickup, drove to the desert near Carefree and dumped her.

Police allowed his wife and stepdaughter a visit with Lederer before he was booked into jail, where thick glass separates inmates from visitors. Maria Lederer felt like she'd been punched hard in the stomach. "You know sometimes when you just feel like you can't breathe?" she says. "He was crying like a baby. He kept saying, 'I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm so sorry.' I hugged him. Kissed him. I just started praying, 'God, guide me.'"

During Sunday services two days later, Hodgeson told the congregation about the confession and instructed parishioners to keep their mouths shut. "He said, 'Don't talk to anybody -- I'm the only one,'" Maria Lederer recalls. The pastor also vowed that the church would not abandon Lederer and his family. "He said, 'We've got to take care of Maria and Angie and we're going to help them through this situation,'" Maria Lederer says. He also gave her some legal advice, telling her that she should divorce her husband so that MacDonald's family couldn't take the family's home via a civil lawsuit. Maria Lederer obeyed, but she still wears her wedding ring, still visits Lederer every chance she gets and still shows up for every court appearance.

"It's only paper," she says of the divorce. She vows to stand by her man, no matter how long it takes. "I think, sometimes, his faith is weaker than mine," she says. "We're in this together because God wants us to be in this situation. It's like a tunnel. And at the end of the tunnel is a light. I want to see the light, baby. And I want to see it together."

With Lederer behind bars, an anonymous donor in the church made his family's house payments for six months. Church members visited him regularly and looked after Angie while Maria Lederer was at work. Hodgeson kept his distance.

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Bruce Rushton