To the parents and children involved in Newport Beach's after-school recreation programs, Trenton Veches was a dedicated leader.
The 31-year-old city employee organized events at parks and on weekends helped referee basketball games. He was known for encouraging kids to do their best and for ensuring the teams were balanced so everyone would play.
Then, a few weeks ago, a co-worker said he saw Veches crouched in front of a boy, sucking one of the child's toes.
Detectives launched an investigation and now allege that Veches sucked the toes of more than 40 children, videotaping many of the incidents. Veches is being held at the Orange County Jail on $500,000 bail and faces multiple counts of child molestation. Veches pleaded not guilty and told the city last week he was resigning.
The case has left parents and athletes alike feeling a mixture of disbelief and betrayal.
"For somebody who lives in a safe little community, this is all it takes for me to be shattered," said Charlotte Baca, who has a 10-year-old son in the basketball program at Mariner's Park. "I have to rethink ... how I let my children participate in community activities--whether I attend with them."
Baca and others said Veches seemed like a good influence on the children, noting that as a referee he was known for being judicious. They said they trusted him because he was a city employee.
"The kids seemed to enjoy him and were always flocking around him. The parents thought he was very fair," Baca said. "You do build a certain confidence, and we all believed we were in a safe community. [The accusations] are horrifying and disturbing."
Hired in August 1998, Veches supervised employees who ran the Community Services Department's youth recreation programs. City manager Homer Bludau said Newport Beach had conducted a background check on Veches before he was hired and found no arrests or record of inappropriate behavior.
Police believe the incidents occurred over a two-year period at the Mariners Branch Library and at two other community centers that Veches oversaw.
Detectives searched his house and allegedly found a digital camera loaded with images of Veches sucking the toes of 45 partially clad children, all boys between the ages of 6 and 10 years old, Sgt. Steve Shulman said.
"It's different when a parent sucks on their 3-year-old's toe or fingers," Shulman said. "When the person is doing it for sexual [arousal], that's illegal."
Although the allegations do not involve rape or fondling of sexual organs, authorities considered them extremely serious, said Orange County Assistant Dist. Atty. Rosanne Froeberg.
"It's the multiplicity of victims, the surrounding circumstances and his position as an administrator," she said. "Those kinds of things, given the predatory aspect of his behavior, is a concern."
Under California law, child molestation is any touching of a child for sexual gratification, Froeberg said.
Still, it's possible that a toe fetish may not result in as harsh a sentence as other molestation cases, she said.
"When you look at it, it does not have the same psychological trauma as your classic child molest," Froeberg said. "It's a different type of sexual molestation and that is definitely something that will be a consideration when we're talking about what type of sentence is imposed."
The city is providing counseling for children and parents who need it.
But parents like Baca said it will take a while to restore trust.
"I didn't have a problem with my children coming and going, but now I have to rethink activities they're involved in," she said.