Boy’s love of trains opened the door to his abuser

This is a feature piece that a coworker and I put together after a local man was arrested for one count of aggravated statutory rape by an authority figure. We found out he was a train engineer at a museum and was suspected of abusing as many as eight boys.

In a contributed photo, David Pugh poses at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum with an unidentified child. Photo contributed.

In a contributed photo, David Pugh poses at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum with an unidentified child. Photo contributed.

By Shelly Bradbury and Hannah Smith
Staff Writers
Published Nov. 23, 2014

Doug remembers the taste of the coconut rum.

He remembers the couch, the green corduroy and how it felt itchy on his skin.

He remembers the DVDs on the shelf in the corner, organized alphabetically and by case color.

Every time it was the same: the tidy living room, the most current Playboy on the coffee table, the one or two drinks.

But he tried to forget the rest: the grown man’s sexual advances, the touching that came after the man turned off the lights.

Charles David Pugh was a man the 16-year-old trusted, a man he looked up to. Doug thought Pugh was a friend.

“I just want to make you feel good,” Pugh would say, almost every time.

But even a decade after the abuse ended, all Doug could feel was shame, guilt and anger.

Doug told himself he would face the trauma privately, in a counselor’s office, and he did – until he realized he wasn’t the only victim and there were still children at risk.

Then he decided he wouldn’t remain silent any longer.

•••••

Hordes of children come through the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum every year. They gasp at the billowing steam and the grinding metal and giggle when the conductor asks to punch their tickets. They press their faces against glass windows and bounce on the seats.

A few of these children, mostly boys, are so drawn to the trains that they come back as teenagers to work, to volunteer, to learn all they can about the complex engines and to participate in preserving their history.

For years, Pugh was this group’s guide and teacher. He was one of the most skilled in the shop, especially with the old steam engines.

The boys Pugh liked got special privileges, like operating 150-ton cranes alone, Doug said. But boys who crossed him became outcasts. Pugh cultivated such a loyal squad of young men that other museum employees dubbed them “his boys.”

It was among this group – teens ages 12 to 17 – that Pugh preyed, victims say.

For years, each boy thought he was the only one. In June, the men realized they had a shared experience. Pugh had abused at least eight people, the men discovered as they opened up to one another about their pasts.

One victim called the tip line for the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, who alerted the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. Detectives there interviewed at least three men whose cases could have warranted criminal charges, documents show, but the statute of limitations on any charges had passed.

Still, they found one victim. Now 20, the man told investigators that the last time he had been abused by Pugh was between Nov. 1 and Dec. 23, 2010. Pugh was arrested Monday and charged with one count of aggravated statutory rape.

That charge involves sex with a child aged 13 to 18 by an adult at least 10 years older than the victim, and this victim’s allegations fall within the four-year statute of limitations.

Pugh was released on a $20,000 bond and declined to talk to reporters when contacted on his cellphone. Attempts to reach him at his home were unsuccessful, and a woman who answered the phone at the address he listed on his affidavit declined to speak about the case.

Still, the arrest raises questions about why so many teenagers kept quiet for so long.

•••••

Doug knew he had a good thing going at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, and he didn’t want to mess it up.

He loved trains. He loved the museum. And Pugh was the key to all that. Doug thought no one would believe him if he reported the abuse – and worse, Pugh would shut down his access to the trains.

So he kept quiet.

David Pugh works on a steam-powered locomotive at the Tennessee Valley Railroad shop in 2010.

David Pugh works on a steam-powered locomotive at the Tennessee Valley Railroad shop in 2010.

Four other men who told Doug they were coerced by Pugh declined to speak to the Times Free Press about their claims, and a sexual abuse expert said many factors could have led to their silence both then and now.

“There’s so much bribery, control and power that makes it extremely scary for victims to come forward and talk about it,” said Rachel Freeman, vice president of programs at the Sexual Assault Center in Nashville. “Most abusers figure out ways to keep their victims silent. That’s how abuse continues.”

Sometimes teenagers think they’ll get in trouble for drinking when alcohol is involved in the crime. Other victims are ashamed of the abuse and blame themselves for what happened, she said.

But the chief factor in encouraging or discouraging a victim from speaking about the abuse – the most important piece – is whether the victim feels he or she will be believed, Freeman said.

“If they feel they will not be believed, it makes it much harder to disclose,” she said.

Museum employees and volunteers say boys hinted that Pugh was sexually stalking the teenage volunteers.

One adult volunteer, who didn’t want his name used because he is still at the museum, remembers when a teenage boy brought it up several years ago.

“David likes to get a little touchy-feely when he’s drunk,” the boy told the volunteer.

The volunteer thought it was strange, but then, Pugh was strange – always hanging out with teenagers, even acting like a teenager himself despite being in his late 30s. He said Pugh had sharp mood swings, and sometimes he would mope when he didn’t get his way.

But Pugh was great with the trains. And he seemed to get along well with the kids – he’d teach them about the trains and pepper his conversations with jokes.

Over the years, rumors started to spread. Two employees say one teenage volunteer did actually make an accusation of sexual abuse to management in 2006 or 2007, but those same employees say his claims were dismissed by one supervisor. The boy was known for embellishing stories, employees said.

Doug said he was told Pugh gave management a choice when confronted with the allegation: Get rid of the kid or I quit. Pugh stayed.

After that, no one challenged Pugh again.

“The kids who were abused were abused because they love this stuff,” said one of the employees who asked not to be identified. “They cared more about [trains] than the fact that they were being abused.”

He didn’t report the allegations to authorities because he didn’t know if they were more than rumors. More recently he spoke with alleged victims and learned more details of volunteers’ encounters with Pugh.

Museum officials adamantly deny that any manager knew anything about claims of abuse until the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office told them about the investigation in July. The museum then immediately fired Pugh, spokesman Robert Pettway said in a statement.

“If anyone involved with TVRM had any prior knowledge of these alleged incidents involving Mr. Pugh more than four years ago, this information was not reported to management prior to the sheriff’s call,” the statement reads.

And while victims say Pugh found boys through the museum, Pettway emphasized that the sheriff’s investigation did not find that any sexual activity between Pugh and boys actually happened at the museum. He also said that there are no indications that any of the “alleged activities” have happened since 2010.

“At present, we simply do not know how, when or where Mr. Pugh met his alleged victim,” Pettway said.

The museum declined to answer questions about the volunteer program, how much contact Pugh had with young volunteers, how volunteers were supervised or the museum’s policy on reporting sexual harassment.

Pugh is scheduled to appear in Hamilton County General Sessions Court on Dec. 15. And while his arrest brings Doug some closure, the healing process is slow and arduous. And for several of the victims, recovery is only just starting.

•••••

When Doug began talking with other victims earlier this year, he heard that Pugh was “grooming” a new 15-year-old and he couldn’t stand the thought of someone else going through what he had experienced.

These days, Doug takes four medications for depression, panic disorders and obsessive-compulsive disorder. For years he had panic attacks every time he tried to talk about the abuse.

With therapy, he has only recently reached the point where he can describe what happened aloud. Now he can talk about the progression from fondling to oral sex to penetration. But he knows many of the other victims still can’t.

Earlier this year, Doug reached out to one of the victims who is in prison for a deadly DUI crash. The man, then 28, was on the phone with Pugh during the 2012 crash and told investigators he was on his way to Pugh’s house to “drink a beer and party for about an hour,” court records show.

The level of alcohol in his blood was 0.12 and he tested positive for anti-insomnia drugs.

The man, who is now serving an eight-year prison sentence for killing a man in the crash, wrote a letter to Doug from prison this summer claiming that he, too, had been abused by Pugh as a teen.

“I’ve often asked myself how my life might be different, and whether or not I would have had the problems with alcohol and drugs that I did, if David hadn’t molested me when I was young,” the man wrote. “Though I cannot change my past, I can however make a positive change for the future, and hopefully prevent David from destroying any more lives.”

Even from jail, the victim hopes to help Doug and the other victims as the investigation into Pugh continues.

Doug said Pugh once told him that he himself had been raped as a 12- or 13-year-old boy. And Doug said that after each sexual encounter with him, Pugh seemed to shrink and drown in guilt. Doug remembers telling Pugh to go get help.

“The poor dude hates himself, he really does,” Doug said. “He doesn’t know how to stop.”

But Doug said victims of abuse can choose not to abuse others. He’s now a happily married man. And he still loves the museum and loves working with trains.

He hopes sharing his story will help cleanse the museum.

“I seriously thought of David Pugh as a friend,” he said. “I’ve looked at his mugshot a few times and I’m like, ‘I’m sorry, David, but you had to be stopped.'”

Contact staff writer Shelly Bradbury at 423-757-6525 or sbradbury@timesfreepress.com.

Contact staff writer Hannah Smith at 423-757-6731 or hsmith@timesfree press.com.

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