Judge releases former San Jose youth pastor while child sex abuse case is pending

The Mercury News [San Jose CA]

April 19, 2024

By Nate Gartrell, Robert Salonga and the Bay Area News Group

A Santa Clara County judge has cleared the release of a well-known nonprofit director who is accused of sexually abusing a girl for years during his former career as a youth pastor.

At a Friday morning bail hearing, Judge Hector Ramon approved the release of 47-year-old Brett Bymaster, who faces six felony charges for alleged sexual abuse of a girl from 2014-2019, starting when she was just 8 years old. Ramon imposed several release conditions, including ordering Bymaster to stay away from the alleged victim and children in general, confiscating his passport, and allowing police to search him at-will without a warrant.

Ramon cited state law that requires “clear and convincing evidence” that a defendant poses a future danger and that there aren’t bail conditions that could ensure community safety in lieu of pretrial detention.

“I don’t see that in this case. I see mostly speculation that this is likely to occur,” Ramon said, before noting the most recent allegation against Bymaster is from 2019.

Bymaster’s lawyer, Renee Hessling, delivered an impassioned plea for her client’s release, predicting that he’ll be absolved by the end of the case and arguing that even the alleged victim gave a wishy-washy response when asked if she wanted an order of protection from him.

“She knows Mr. Bymaster does not continue to pose a threat to her … he’s had zero contact with her aside from a pretext call, in which he vehemently denied all the allegations,” Hessling said. “There is no evidence before this court … that says there is a real threat to this community by Mr. Bymaster.”

Prosecutors relied on the underlying allegations to argue that Bymaster poses a danger to the community, saying that he took advantage of a position of leadership to sexually abuse the girl, and that there is a second victim — in a case that prosecutors have not charged the defendant in — who reported she’d been inappropriately touched by Bymaster. Both of those should cause “extreme concern” over Bymaster’s release, the prosecution argued.

Ramon confirmed with Bymaster’s lawyers that he could afford a $50,000 bail before setting it at that amount. Bail had been originally set at $400,000, then revoked altogether, setting the stage for Friday’s hearing.

The criminal charges are borne from parallel investigations by the San Jose Police Department and San Jose-based The River church, which employed Bymaster to lead its youth ministry during the time period covered by the criminal allegations. The police investigation was launched around the same time the church announced in late January it was commissioning an independent investigation into a series of sexual abuse claims against Bymaster. The church admitted that those allegations had been overlooked by a prior church probe into Bymaster’s leadership.

The woman whose claims are the basis of the felony charges contacted police earlier this year to report that Bymaster molested her multiple times over a span of about six years, and that an encounter when she was 14 spurred her to attempt suicide. She is not being identified by this news organization because she is a reported sexual assault victim.

Since leaving The River in 2019 amid criticisms of his management of the youth ministry, Bymaster has served as executive director of Healing Grove Health Center, an organization that supports low-income families and is based in San Jose’s Washington-Guadalupe neighborhood. After he was arrested and charged, the center stated that Bymaster was put on unpaid leave pending the results of the criminal case.

Anyone with information for investigators can contact Detective Camarillo at 4576@sanjoseca.gov or 408-273-2959. Tips can be left with Silicon Valley Crime Stoppers at 408-947-7867 or at siliconvalleycrimestoppers.org.