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Tea Pastor Has Long Criminal Past

July 13, 2009, 6:01 PM by Brian Kushida

Tea Pastor Has Long Criminal Past
A Tea man on the South Dakota Sex Offender Registry has gone quiet about opening up a community church and youth center in the town.

Forty-two-year-old pastor Joe Panaia Jr. spoke with KELOLAND News a little more than a week ago, as he prepared to open his Bridging the Gap Community Church and Youth Center.

Panaia said his sex offense status had nothing to do with kids, and that he wants to help local teens. But the man who asked the public for a second chance has been in trouble with the law since then.

Tea resident Joe Panaia Jr. refused to comment Monday on why he's keeping his community church and youth center open, despite new details, and concern, emerging about his criminal past.

His criminal record in South Dakota alone is seven pages long.

In October 1999, authorities arrested Panaia for sexual contact without consent. Those charges were dropped.

But in January 2003, he pleaded guilty to indecent exposure after records say he exposed himself to a woman. He spent 30 days in jail and is now a registered sex offender.

His run-ins weren't limited to sex charges. Panaia was accused of grand theft of over $500 in May 2005. Those charges were dismissed, but he did plead guilty to social services fraud of $200 or less, and spent less than a week in jail.

Two years later in 2007, he pleaded guilty to forgery, had to pay $575 dollars in restitution, and went on probation for 18 months.

Later that year, he faced several driving violations, including not having a driver's license, but those charges were dropped.

And just last week, Panaia pleaded guilty to driving without a license, and was ordered to pay a $50 fine.

Reports also say Panaia is wanted in Maryland on charges of bigamy and perjury in Maryland.

The director of the youth center said Monday he would not comment on Panaia or the center, despite saying he backed Panaia earlier this month.

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