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Friday, May 23, 2008                                                                                       View Comments

Charges filed against youth minister

SARASOTA -- Jesse Knowlin wanted to become a teacher's aide and seemed to be the perfect candidate.

He was a youth minister at a Sarasota church. He had part-time work at a summer camp. He helped children get ready for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test at the Boys & Girls Club of Sarasota. And those who knew Knowlin raved about his honesty, his creativity and his patience with children.

Knowlin was arrested Wednesday, charged with performing a lewd-lascivious act on a person younger than 16, a felony. After questioning the second teenager, detectives added charges Thursday, bringing the total to seven counts of performing lewd-lascivious acts in the past year during sleepovers at his home.

Knowlin was being held Thursday night at Sarasota County Jail, and it was not clear whether he had hired a lawyer.

A Washington native who graduated from the Ringling College of Art and Design, Knowlin was a popular youth minister at Bethlehem Baptist Church and was known in teaching circles for winning the trust of students.

Detective Charles Riffe said that Knowlin met the two teenagers through church.

The Rev. Patrick Miller, Bethlehem Baptist's minister, is out of town this week, said Harold Bradshaw, a church board member. "We at Bethlehem Baptist Church are deeply grieved and sorrowed by these serious charges," Bradshaw says in a written statement.

Once he graduated from Ringling, Knowlin began working with students -- whether it was as a substitute at Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences or during the after-school program at the Boys & Girls Club.

By all accounts, he was hardworking and kind and developed good relationships with the students and staff.

"If anything, I thought he walked on water," said Pepar Anspaugh, the principal at Sarasota School of Arts and Sciences. "I was more than taken aback when I heard it. I said, 'No. Not him. It can't be him.'

"Turns out it was."

Allegations surfaced during the weekend, just before Knowlin resigned.

In the letters to the school district, Knowlin says he "wrongfully touched" the boys and that he "made the mistake" of not keeping his hands to himself.

"These were the only two people I have ever violated," Knowlin wrote. "I have never touched any child at school ever."