Disclosure: This story contains graphic details of alleged sexual abuse of children.
Last year, during a sentencing hearing for Carmel Valley horse rancher Christian Clews, U.S. District Court Judge Dana Sabraw categorized Clews’ conduct as “extraordinary.” Months prior, Clews had pleaded guilty to possession and distribution of child pornography. Judge Sabraw called the 52-year-old, “dark, and very predatory.”
Now, alleged victims that can attest to Clews’ “dark” and “predatory” ways have come forward, filing a civil lawsuit against him.
In interviews and statements with NBC 7 Investigates, two of those alleged victims are speaking out about the sexual abuse they say they suffered at the sprawling San Diego horse ranch that Clews ran alongside his ex-wife and his mother.
“He stole my childhood and to this day he continues stealing things from me,” said “Mary,” who was 14 years old when she says Clews first began sexually assaulting her. NBC 7 does not identify victims of alleged child sex abuse.
“He gained my trust with his outgoing character, likability and jovial confident mannerisms,” wrote “Sarah,” another victim who spoke with NBC 7 Investigates. “Being well-known and respected in the San Diego equine community gave him the power to believe he could take away my innocence and childhood, which is something I will never forget, or forgive.”
Both women, under pseudonyms, are suing Clews and the ranch for civil damages, stemming from the alleged sexual abuse.
THE RAID, THE PLEA, THE RULING
Clews Horse Ranch was established in 1992 as a Carmel Valley horse boarding and training facility. By most accounts, prosecutors said the ranch was often swarming with kids. The ranch was run by Christian Clews and he was considered a pillar in his community and a longtime community planner.
In addition to running the ranch, Christian Clews was also an investor representative on the Carmel Valley community planning board.
But in October of 2016, federal agents raided Clews’ sprawling rural estate, located at 11500 Clews Ranch Road.
Months prior to the raid, the staff at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children notified federal law enforcement agencies of numerous images and videos of underage girls that were uploaded to a website from a San Diego-based telephone area code, according to prosecutors.
The evidence, as summarized in a December 2016 federal criminal complaint, included disturbing images including young girls and a toddler boy as well as photos depicting sex acts involving minor girls and a dog. According to prosecutors, the phone number that uploaded the images was owned by Christian Clews.
During the raid, agents recovered 800 images and 600 videos of young girls on Clews’ computer, according to the U.S. Attorney in San Diego. Prosecutors indicated, “repeated sexual victimization of minors” at the ranch for more than 20 years.
Clews was arrested in December of 2016 for the distribution and possession of child pornography. One month after his arrest, Clews was no longer listed as a member of the Carmel Valley community planning board.
Clews later pleaded guilty to the child pornography charges. Federal prosecutors, however, said it was more than just mere possession of illegal images of young girls, as Clews’ voice could be heard giving instructions in the background throughout the videos.
A spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said the office charged Clews with possession and distribution of child pornography because the videos were shared across state lines. The spokesperson said sexual assault and molestation of minors are state crimes and would need to be prosecuted by state prosecutors unless the alleged abuse occurred in more than one state.
NBC 7 Investigates reached out to the District Attorney’s Office to ask if the office investigated allegations of sexual molestation involving Clews. A spokesperson for San Diego’s District Attorney said the office had no record of an agency submitting a case for review, and thus no charges or investigation was started.
Judge Sabraw sentenced Clews to serve 17-years in federal prison for possession and distribution of child pornography. But the number of years that Clews may remain behind bars could potentially be reduced.
Since this report, Clews' sentence has been reduced.
On June 6, 2019, Clews will again appear before U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw for a resentencing hearing. The hearing comes after prosecutors informed the court that some of the hundreds of videos and photos that Clews possessed were, in fact, taken of women who were over the age of 18.
In a statement to NBC 7 Investigates, Clews’ criminal defense attorney says he will be asking for a substantially shorter sentence.
“Different lawyers represented Mr. Clews at the original sentencing,” wrote attorney Devin Burstein. “At the time, the Court was not given complete information about Mr. Clews or the allegations against him. Fortunately, we have a Judge that carefully considers every facet of the case. Now, with a complete picture, we are hopeful Mr. Clews will receive a substantially lower sentence.”
However, as the resentencing hearing nears, Mary and Sarah said they felt obligated to tell what they call “the real story,” a story of a man that used his position to lure young girls into becoming his sex objects.
For Mary, she says that meant losing her virginity to Clews when she was fifteen years old, amid promises that one day the two would run away together.
Mary said she is upset that Clews has not been investigated or prosecuted for molestation.
“I'm not satisfied,” she said. “I know what he did to me and to other people. [Possession of child pornography] is such a small thing compared to what he's really done.”
Mary began riding horses when she was twelve-years-old. After arriving in San Diego, she says she searched for a ranch where she could ride and be near horses. It was during that search she found Clews Ranch in Carmel Valley.
“I was in love with it. I begged my parents. I did chores at home, anything to earn the lessons,” Mary said. “And from there I just figured out ways to progress. You know what can I do to help out to be able to ride more was the whole goal.”
And by progressing, that meant spending more time at the ranch and having more personal interactions with Clews.
The following year, in or around 1995, Mary said the nature of her relationship with Clews changed.
Mary’s depiction of her relationship with Clews is detailed in the lawsuit she filed against Clews and the horse ranch.
She said she was fourteen when she first saw Clews naked.
“He would come to the door in a robe and it would be open,” Mary told NBC 7. “I think that was my first experience ever seeing a man naked. I thought, what the heck. It was shocking but I didn’t think it was intentional.”
Mary said at first Clews had an excuse. “He would say, ‘Oh my robe fell open,’ or, ‘Oh, I didn’t know you were going to walk in.’”
Meanwhile, Mary said, Clews would ensure her parents that leaving Mary at the ranch was no problem, and promised to keep an eye on her. During that time, she said what had started with Clews allegedly exposing himself turned into much more.
By the time she was 15 years-old, Mary says the two were having sex.
“He would tell me how special I was and how much I meant to him. I would get rewards at the ranch,” said Mary.
As the years transpired, Mary says Clews’ fondness for her grew. “He would tell me that he was madly in love with me. And, he couldn't wait for my eighteenth birthday. He had all these plans to leave and run away together.”
As she alleged in the lawsuit and explained to NBC 7, Mary also began to hear stories from other girls at the ranch.
“I know of five others that I grew up with there, just in that short amount of time,” she said. “I'm now able to reflect and think of how many lives he damaged, all of the pain and suffering that he caused.”
NBC 7 has only spoken with two of the five women who Mary claims were underage when Clews courted and sexually abused them.
And while the 17-year sentence initially handed down by Judge Sabraw for Clews’ possession of child pornography helped Mary ease her pain and anxiety, she told NBC 7 that the possibility that his sentence may be reduced is troublesome.
“I really felt the need to bring awareness to this,” said Mary, in a recorded interview with NBC 7. “The shame and humiliation that any other women might be feeling and to hopefully bring the message to prevent my children, any other children out there, from ever experiencing anything like this.”
NBC 7 Investigates also obtained a statement from the second victim currently suing Clews in civil court.
According to the lawsuit, as well as a detailed statement to NBC 7, Sarah started riding at the ranch in 1992 when she was 11 years old.
“I worshipped and relied heavily on [Clews] to train me in how to ride, care for and compete in low-level shows,” wrote Sarah.
She said it wasn’t long until she saw a different side to the “jovial” rancher.
“Soon after I began going to Clews Horse Ranch, I discovered a darker side to [Clews]; one that took a liking to sexually abusing children, including myself. He was very sly about the abuse and always seemed to have a well thought out plan. He was a master of manipulation.”
She said it started one day when she was called over to Clews’ trailer.
“Once I entered, he exposed his erect penis to me and asked me if I had ever seen or touched one before.”
She said the abuse, also detailed in the lawsuit, continued over the course of the next three years.
“Throughout those three years, Christian continuously made sexual comments towards me, including, among other things, asking about how ‘wet’ I had gotten from riding my horse and how he wanted to touch my body and vagina,” she said. “I recall Christian teaching me how to masturbate his dog and watching me do so, for his own sexual gratification. He was able to turn his sexual attention towards me on and off like a light switch.”
Cristina Nolan from the Orange County-based law firm Manly Stewart and Finaldi is the attorney for the two women. The firm also represented more than 180 women in lawsuits against Michigan State and former Olympic doctor Larry Nassar.
Nolan said the facts of the case are among the most disturbing she has seen, and that she hopes the lawsuit will prompt other potential victims to come forward.
“The abuse that these two victims had to withstand by this man - some including bestiality at least pertaining to one of the victims, it's truly horrendous and something I hadn’t actually seen before,” said Nolan.
In a statement, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office said they would refrain from commenting on the upcoming resentencing hearing.
Clews’ criminal defense attorney Burstein said his client was falsely accused by the women in the lawsuit and questioned the motivation behind Mary and Sarah’s decision to speak out.
“To be clear, Mr. Clews did not sexually abuse any minors. Tellingly, in more than 20 years running Clews Ranch, there was not a single allegation against him until after his arrest in this case, for different conduct.”
NBC 7 Investigates contacted the attorneys representing Clews and other defendants in the civil case. They did not respond. In court filings, Clews’ civil attorneys stated that the plaintiffs did not meet the statute of limitations for some of the counts and also had, “unclean hands" in regards to other counts.
In March of 2018, the name of Clews Ranch was changed to Carmel Creek Ranch, which according to state business records still operates as a “horse boarding facility.” The Clews family continues to manage the ranch.
The resentencing hearing for Clews’ child pornography case is currently scheduled for June 6 at 10:30 am at federal court.