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Scoutmaster's slaying, sexual abuse claims roil New Jersey town

Dennis Pegg was regarded as a mentor to children in Stillwater, N.J., but a suspect in his killing says Pegg abused him in the Boy Scouts.

November 27, 2012|By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times
  • Clark Fredericks is accused of stabbing a former Boy Scout leader to death in a case that has roiled rural Stillwater, N.J. Authorities say that he confessed to the killing and that he says the victim, Dennis Pegg, sexually abused him decades ago.
Clark Fredericks is accused of stabbing a former Boy Scout leader to death… (Jerry McCrea, Star-Ledger )

STILLWATER, N.J. — Dennis J. Pegg was happy to pay local boys a few bucks to mow the lawn at his house, which sat atop a hill overlooking the elementary school. He was eager to guide Boy Scouts as they mastered the skills of the great outdoors, and to assist hikers trekking the nearby Appalachian Trail.

Pegg appeared to have no enemies in his close-knit, lakeside town of leafy glens and rolling hills — until last June, when his throat was slit and he was repeatedly stabbed in a killing that has raised questions about whether Pegg exploited his position in the Scouts for years to molest young boys.

"This is a really, really ugly story. The blood of this man is on the hands of many people here," said Carol Fredericks, whose brother-in-law, Clark Fredericks, 46, confessed to the slaying. Pegg, who was 68, had been a local scoutmaster in the 1970s, when, Carol Fredericks said, Pegg sexually abused Clark and others.

Others have since echoed his claims, clouding the image of a man whose online obituary drew sentimental tributes from scores of people who knew Pegg as a bird-watcher; as a "trail angel" who gave food and water to hikers; as a former corrections officer with the Sussex County Sheriff's Office; as an Army veteran and firearms expert; and as a mentor to local youth.

The case is playing out as the Boy Scouts of America contends with a national scandal arising from its handling of past sexual abuse allegations. Hundreds of confidential files released in recent weeks show that leaders molested the boys they were supposed to be mentoring, and often were never held to account. The files have stirred uncomfortable memories and anger among men around the country who say they have been abused in the Scouts.

Pegg was not in the files, either because he was never written up by the Scouts or because the records were destroyed.

A photograph on the Facebook page of the Stillwater Historical Society, where Pegg was an active member, shows a cheerful, burly man leaning on a walking stick, smiling warmly and waving at the camera.

"I'd have put my life in his hands. I trusted him that much," said one of his fiercest defenders, attorney Ernest Hemschot III, who had dinner with Pegg two nights before he was killed and who now represents his estate. Pegg, who never married or had children, divided his belongings among a circle of close friends and two nephews.

Hemschot said he and others were stunned by the accusations against Pegg, whose large, granite headstone reads in part, "vir spectabilis," or "notable man." "If it did happen, my heart goes out to the victims. But I just find it hard to believe," Hemschot said. "He was the go-to guy, the one anybody who had a problem or difficulty went to for help."

That's not the way Fredericks saw Pegg, and when he went to see him on June 12, friendship was the last thing on his mind.

That night, Fredericks, who lived with his mother a few minutes' drive from Pegg, got his friend Robert Reynolds to go with him to Pegg's house. They got in through the unlocked front door and, according to an arrest report, Fredericks immediately began stabbing Pegg. The pair then fled, leaving Pegg with his throat slashed and his torso punctured. Blood soaked the carpet and a leather recliner in the front room. Nothing was stolen — not the DVD player, jewelry box, shotguns, rifles or ammunition.

Fredericks' mother became alarmed after her son came home about 2 a.m., his hands and clothes bloodied. She alerted the counselor her son had been seeing, saying she feared Fredericks "may have hurt or killed someone," according to a police affidavit. Hours later, as he was arrested, Fredericks told police "in effect that the victim got what was coming to him, and that he has been a child molester for years," the affidavit said.

Fredericks was charged with first-degree murder, but that could be downgraded to manslaughter — which carries a prison term of five to 10 years — if investigators are convinced that horrors of past abuse drove Fredericks to spin out of control. Reynolds, who has not alleged abuse by Pegg, is charged with being an accomplice to murder, conspiracy and evidence-tampering.

Both have pleaded not guilty.

Many, including Fredericks' relatives, are convinced he was driven to act after following coverage of the sexual abuse trial of former Penn State University assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky, which began June 11.

Already, "multiple people" have bolstered Fredericks' claims, said Sussex County Assistant Prosecutor Gregory Mueller.

Investigators face challenges because the alleged molestations occurred more than 30 years ago, and because of the absence of physical evidence and of law enforcement and Boy Scout records that might have shown decades-old complaints about Pegg.

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