Is Costa Mesa Sunday school teacher ‘a man of God’ or a serial child molester?
The trial of a volunteer Sunday school teacher suspected of sexually assaulting more than a half-dozen children began Wednesday, as attorneys painted opposing portraits of the man as a devout religious leader and father figure or a serial child molester.
Christopher Bryan McKenzie Sr., 51, is facing two dozen felonies after being accused of having unlawful sexual contact with seven teen and pre-teen boys.
Among the accusers are neighbors and Sunday school students McKenzie met through Rock Harbor church in Costa Mesa, along with two boys whose mother had a long-term relationship with McKenzie. Most of the boys worked with McKenzie, assisting him with his pool cleaning business.
“He seemed to be a man of God; he seemed to have a love in his heart for children,” Deputy District Attorney Heather Brown told the jury during her opening statements Wednesday morning, explaining why parents trusted him with their children.
McKenzie kept his face down and appeared to be taking detailed notes as the prosecutor outlined the sexual abuse claims provided to authorities by seven boys. The alleged misconduct ran from the late 1990s to 2010.
First to testify was a man whose decision to come forward in 2012 at his family’s urging led to McKenzie’s arrest and the discovery of the other accusers. The man, who is now 20, was referred to in court only by his first name and the first initial of his last name. Given the nature of the charges, the Register is not identifying him.
The 20-year-old testified that he met McKenzie at the age of 9, when they lived in the same Costa Mesa apartment complex. He began working with McKenzie, helping him remove light bulbs from pools McKenzie was cleaning, after he turned 10.
The man said that one day after cleaning a pool, McKenzie urged him to take a shower, claiming that he needed to get the chlorine off himself right away. He testified that McKenzie put soap in his hands and washed the then-11-year-old over his entire body while he showered.
“He said it was normal, that he did it for his kids all the time,” the 20-year-old said. “It just felt uncomfortable.”
Similar showers took place more than 30 times, the 20-year-old testified. Then, after cleaning a pool in Laguna Beach, the 20-year-old said McKenzie asked him to pose naked for photographs, claiming that an artist friend needed the pictures in order to create a sculpture.
He alleged that after taking off his clothes, McKenzie rubbed oil all over his body and took photos of him in a variety of poses. He also said McKenzie then offered him $20 to sit and watch pornography with him.
The 20-year-old said that in the ensuing years he suffered from depression, and eventually went to a counselor.
He said he finally “broke down” and told his older brother what had happened, at which point his parents and police were notified.
“Why did you go to police?” Brown asked.
“After thinking about it for a while, I did not want it to happen to anyone else,” the 20-year-old answered.
After learning about the allegations, the older brother posted a message on Facebook saying he was trying to find McKenzie.
Among those who saw the message, Brown said, were two men whose mother had a previous relationship with McKenzie. They came forward, saying they had been the victims of years of escalating sexual abuse.
Police then notified Rock Harbor leaders of the allegations and decided to send a letter to their congregants asking them to speak to children who had been in contact with McKenzie. The prosecutor said three other boys told similar stories about McKenzie persuading or attempting to persuade them to take nude photographs for an artist friend.
After his arrest, investigators found more than 300 images of suspected child pornography on McKenzie’s computer, Brown added.
McKenzie’s attorney, public defender Darren Thompson, said in his opening statement that there wasn’t enough evidence for a conviction. He described his client’s memories of his grandmother reading him the Bible as playing a huge role in his life.
“That is the reason he is shocked at these allegations,” Thompson said.
During a sometimes heated cross-examination on Wednesday afternoon, Thompson repeatedly asked the 20-year-old about a civil suit he and his father had filed against McKenzie, questioning whether he was simply trying to get money out of McKenzie.
The 20-year-old denied that money was the motivating factor, saying that “no money in the world could compensate for having to get up here and discuss this.”
The trial will continue today at the Orange County Courthouse in Santa Ana.