Clouds hovered overhead on the morning Charles Pugh, 50, took his first steps to freedom outside the doors of the Bellamy Creek Correctional Facility into the brisk December air.
Pugh was met by his friends and family who were waiting to pick him up in Ionia from the place where he had spent the last 5½ years following his 2016 convictions on two felony counts of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a child under 16.
“What I did was wrong,” Pugh admitted to the Detroit Free Press in an interview in prison shortly before his release. “It is something that is indefensible. It was wrong and I shouldn’t have done it.”
On the nearly two-hour drive back to the place Pugh always knew as home — Detroit — he said his focus would not be on his past, but on restarting his life.
“”I have so much to do when I first get out,” he said. “I have an eye appointment, I have to go to the Secretary of State, DTE to get the lights cut on, just so much busy stuff, you know.”
Pugh, once a high-profile Detroit City Council president and reporter/anchor for WJBK-TV (Fox 2 Detroit), lost his job, his reputation and ultimately his freedom after pleading guilty to his crimes. The plea deal dismissed three more serious counts of first-degree criminal sexual conduct, which could have brought life sentences.
The Free Press interviewed Pugh in prison before his release and a reporter also spoke to him by phone. Efforts also were made to reach out to the man who was 14 when Pugh abused him. He declined an interview. Another young man with whom Pugh had an inappropriate relationship could not be reached.
Pugh is now on the Michigan Sex Offender Registry for life, must serve two years on parole, wear a tether for six months, receive sex offender counseling and have no unsupervised contact with minors for the duration of his parole, according to Chris Gautz, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Corrections.
At Pugh’s sentencing in 2016, Wayne County Circuit Judge Thomas Cameron called Pugh’s actions “reprehensible” and a “deep violation of the public’s trust.”
Pugh said he accepts that people will characterize him that way. He also said he has taken responsibility for his actions, and can’t dwell on the bad things if he wants to rebuild his life.
Reentering society after spending years in prison can be daunting, according to experts. Reestablishing a life after such a hugely public downfall involves even more steps, according to Kathleen Schaefer, a licensed professional counselor who has worked with child sex offenders after their release from prison.
“Give yourself time to truly readjust to society and find your place in it,” said Schaefer, who founded Professional Probation & Parole Consulting in Detroit. “Use the guideline of roughly one month for every year of your incarceration. If you were in for five years, give yourself five to six months to get comfortable with living on the outside.
“Consider it a privilege to be out of prison on parole.”
The beginning of a terrible end
Nearly 18 years ago, a 14-year-old named Austin Williams went to the Fox 2 studios in Southfield to perform with a group of other children. Pugh was 31 at the time.
The Free Press generally does not name victims of sex abuse, but Williams came forward publicly during Pugh’s downfall, and also provided testimony. Williams has said previously that he looked up to Pugh and wanted to learn from him.
“The shame that he put on myself … he now has to feel that for the rest of his life,” Williams said in 2016 when he spoke out publicly about the case.
Pugh said: “I wanted to help him. … He reminded me a lot of myself at his age,” ambitious and determined.
Pugh said he allowed Williams to do “production assistant” tasks at the station for a time. While testifying during Pugh’s criminal court case in 2016, Williams said that he never had an official internship at Fox 2, but did small tasks.
Pugh pleaded guilty to at least twice having sex in 2003 and 2004 with Williams, who was too young by law to consent.
Williams previously told the Free Press that the most important thing to him is for people to know that Pugh is “a sexual predator.”
The early days for Charles Pugh
Pugh was raised by his paternal grandmother after his dad died by suicide on Oct. 13, 1978 — a day Pugh calls the worst day of his life. Four years prior, Pugh’s mother, Marcia Pugh, was killed in the west side Detroit home they shared.
Charles Pugh says these incidents affected him emotionally. But he says his grandmother and other relatives offered stability and direction that helped him through the trauma. Eventually he graduated from Murray-Wright High School in 1989 and attended the University of Missouri on a scholarship from Ford Motor Co.
More: The Charles Pugh story: From tragedy to the top — and crashing down
More: Charles Pugh speaks at sentencing
After graduating in 1993, Pugh would land jobs in Topeka, Kansas; Fort Wayne, Indiana; Columbia, Missouri; and Norfolk, Virginia, before landing at Fox 2 Detroit in 1999.
Pugh would eventually move into a weekend anchor position at the station, further raising his profile before he resigned in 2009 to run for Detroit City Council.
His 2010-13 tenure on council coincided with Detroit’s descent into the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history. While he served as council president, allegations that he had carried on an inappropriate relationship with a teenager first surfaced, detailed in a WXYZ-TV (Channel 7) investigative report, but Pugh was never charged in connection with that.
Amid the allegations, Pugh skipped out on his council responsibilities and requested a four-week leave, which was denied. When Pugh refused to report back to the council, Detroit’s emergency manager stripped him of his council presidency and pay. Pugh resigned in September 2013. He disappeared from public view in Detroit and later was found living and working as a waiter at a soul food restaurant in Harlem, New York.
Pugh said during the interview with the Free Press that he was dumbfounded a few years later when he was arrested on the charges related to Williams.
When the U.S. Marshals came and got him from his Harlem apartment, Pugh thought he was being detained for skipping jury duty.
“I had no idea that I was being arrested for what I was being arrested for,” Pugh said, shaking his head.
It was about 6:15 in the morning and he was getting ready for work at a sports marketing firm.
The case wrapped up in late October 2016. Pugh was sentenced Nov. 9 and was transported to prison the next day. His release this week was the earliest it could have been under his sentence of 5½ to 15 years.
Pugh, who turned 50 in August at the Bellamy Creek facility, said he cannot change the past and should have made better decisions.
Williams, who is now in his mid-30s, declined to grant an interview to the Free Press. In a text message, Williams said: “At this time I don’t have anything further to discuss about Charles Pugh or what happened before. He served his sentence and is a registered sex offender.”
Pugh said he also regrets his conduct with the other teenager, the one featured in the television news report.
The young man, Pugh says, was a student in his mentor program at what’s now the Frederick Douglass Academy for Young Men, formerly known as Murray-Wright High, Pugh’s alma mater. The student was 17 at the time he entered the program, but turned 18 by the time dealings between the two would turn from being platonic, according to records filed as part of the young man’s later lawsuit against Pugh and Detroit Public Schools.
Testimony during the lawsuit showed Pugh and the teen exchanged sexual text messages that involved the teen making a sex tape for Pugh in exchange for money for prom. This was after Pugh learned the young man could not afford a tuxedo or hotel room.
Admittedly, Pugh told the Free Press, he redirected the teen. He said he recalls the wrong turn initially happened when the teen had a job interview at a Jimmy John’s and didn’t have anything to wear. Pugh said they phoned the teen’s mother and the two discussed what he was going to do for her son.
The young man, who is now in his mid 20s, could not be located for comment. Neither could his mother.
The young man’s lawyer, Bill Seikaly, said in a phone call that he has spoken to the family and his client “hopes Charles realizes now how much damage he did to so many young men so that he won’t do it again. But he worries that history will repeat itself.”
The lawsuit ended with a verdict ordering Pugh to pay the young man $250,000, according to Seikaly and court records.
“I can’t wait for Charles Pugh to be successful again so I can collect that $250,000 he owes my client,” Seikaly said.
Today, Pugh says that despite what he’s done, he thankfully has not lost friends or family members. Other people have stepped up to help him, he said.
“Dozens of Detroiters reached out to me to encourage me and uplift me while I was in prison,” he said.
Shanta I., who requested that her last name not be used due to the sensitivity of this story, said she met Pugh when she was 16 and he gave her “hope.”
“A person may forget your name, but they will never forget about how you made them feel. And when a person makes a mistake it is like they get thrown away,” she said. “So I wanted to connect with him when he got sent away. He even helped me heal from a childhood molestation while he was in jail, just by owning his mistakes because he never shamed the victim. And by him owning his mistakes he helped me understand that what happened to me was not my fault.”
Pugh says that he has forgiven himself for his past behavior and that he grew closer to God while he served his time.
“I was a part of the church service here and I was able to help people … one guy in particular who was an atheist, and when he left, he was a believer.”
Schaefer, the licensed therapist, said Pugh should keep a regimen while on parole.
“Develop a daily routine; stick to it; make your life predictable,” she said. “If you practice your religion, attend services regularly. Share your life situation with your pastor and look to the church and its members for support.”
Pugh said that his plans include working on several books and doing a radio show with his friend, Detroit radio figure Reggie Reg Davis, in the near future. Pugh hopes to get into the restaurant business and speak to others about lessons he’s learned.
He says as of now he has no social media accounts, though there are bogus accounts in his name. The story of his life and downfall have been popular conversations in some online chats, including on a Facebook forum the night before he was released.
Wayne Walker, 58, a lifelong Detroiter, posted that he hoped Pugh is able to get a second chance.
“I honestly feel once you pay your debt to society you have every right for a second chance. I have no connections to Mr. Pugh, nor did I vote for him, but I believe in fresh starts.”
Another commenter said people should be praying for the young men.
“Where is the sympathy for the victims?” Detroiter Jerald Jackson, 58, asked. “What he did to those boys affects the psyche for a lifetime and people showing so much support for the person who did the damage, but what about the people who are damaged?”
Facebook user Tony Jackson, 53, of Detroit, posted:
“I don’t feel sorry for him, but I do feel he can do better. …We all have sin. We all are born into sin. And with that being the case you don’t get a pass to condemn another person’s sin. I hope and pray his thoughts has been changed for the better.”
Pugh said that’s the case.
“I can make good decisions 18 years later,” he said.
Contact Jasmin Barmore: firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Charles Pugh released from prison: ‘What I did was wrong’