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The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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Chi Alpha organization took students to church linked with sex offender

Mountain+Valley+Fellowship+church%2C+where+Chi+Alpha+held+their+meetings.
Photo by Photo by Connor May

Mountain Valley Fellowship church, where Chi Alpha held their meetings.

Content warning: This article contains graphic details regarding sexual assault and sexual abuse of minors. Reader discretion is recommended.

UPDATE: In late May 2023, Eli Stewart, leader of the College Station church, was dismissed as pastor following the investigation’s conclusion. On June 5, 2023, Daniel Savala was arrested and charged with the continuous sexual abuse of a young child.

Chi Alpha World Fellowship, a student organization focused on bringing “students together into a spiritually nurturing environment,” has been accused of bringing students and members near a registered sex offender. It was founded in 2016, and its associated church, Mountain Valley Fellowship, was founded in March 2017 by Eli Stewart, the lead pastor, and 14 missionary associates.

By October 24, 2016, Chi Alpha’s Texas A&M chapter had 25 small group leaders, averaging five people per group, according to an interview Stewart did with the Christian denomination Assemblies of God’s news branch. Chi Alpha’s website also notes it brings students to Mountain Valley Fellowship every Wednesday at 8 p.m.

But those experienced with Chi Alpha say students weren’t told the chapter and church, along with at least four other Chi Alpha Ministries chapters, allegedly involves Daniel Savala, a registered sex offender, in activities and events. In 2012, Savala was charged with 11 counts of sexual abuse of a minor and pleaded guilty to one.

However, Savala’s influence doesn’t stop at the A&M branch. On April 17, Scheef & Stone, LLP law firm sent a demand to the Texas A&M University System, Texas State University System, the University of Houston System, Rice University and the University of Texas System alleging further abuses by Savala and demanding that action be taken to limit Chi Alpha Ministries’ organizations on campuses. In the demand letter, Scheef & Stone allege Savala is closely tied to various Chi Alpha chapters, using his position to reach and take advantage of students.

“This must be brought to an immediate end,” the letter reads. “If Chi Alpha’s ongoing disregard for its students continues and requires expulsion of the organization from every single campus, so be it.”
On April 23, Stewart spoke to Mountain Valley Fellowship, responding to the allegations of sexual abuse revealed by the firm and others who have come forward.

“A major influence in my life has turned out to be a master manipulator,” Stewart said in his address. “We have received major allegations that he is a wolf that has preyed on the innocent, pure-hearted and trusting. Recent testimonies have revealed this man, Daniel Savala, to be an active predator.”

A statement posted on the College Station church’s website soon followed, stating Stewart and two elders had been placed on administrative leave, with the church conducting “a thorough investigation through a third-party entity.”

“Our church has learned of some major allegations against our pastor and grievances against our church,” the statement said. “As a church, we are heartbroken as we examine these allegations and we extend our deep, heartfelt sorrow to the victims that have been impacted.”

Stewart’s address indicates he was not aware of Savala’s status as a sex offender. However, an analysis of documents related to Stewart and accounts that reference him implies the opposite.

Those familiar with Chi Alpha and Savala state he was often introduced as “the holiest man alive,” alleging he also mentored Stewart since he was a child alongside influencing multiple other leaders who gave Savala unhindered access to their Chi Alpha chapters at universities, allowing him a gateway to students and minors who sources allege he sexually abused.

Savala and Stewart: a history 

Chi Alpha Campus Ministries is a worldwide religious organization linked to the Assemblies of God denomination. Chi Alpha chapters exist on 312 campuses, involving more than 771 campus ministry staff and 28,000 students as of 2014, according to their website. They send “plant teams” to cities with universities to help students “connect with God.”

Savala’s involvement with Chi Alpha Ministries was noted as early as 1989, according to the L’Acadien yearbook from the University of Southwestern Louisiana citing him as a “Chi Alpha staff member and world-traveled missionary.”

Those familiar with Savala in his earlier years recall he traveled across various countries, eventually meeting Kevin Gould, a Welshman who would invite Savala to work as a youth minister at Clover Pass Community Church in Ketchikan, Alaska. According to a News-Miner article, he held this position from 1995 to 1997.

Savala’s indictment alleges that all 11 counts of sexual abuse took place during these three years, with one occurring in 1995 and the other 10 occurring “on or about” 1995 to 1997.

An individual with the username “99901,” the Alaskan zip code shared with Clover Pass Community Church, shared their experience publicly on the forum “XA & The Lions Den,” a website constructed by a user named “Gideon,” one of the main individuals involved in the legal effort to bring awareness of Savala and his involvement with Chi Alpha, and around 30 others, according to him.

The name is a pseudonym, as he wanted to keep his identity hidden to protect against retaliation. For readability, user “99901” will be cited using the alias “Tom.”

Tom said they were the individual who revealed the initial sexual abuse to authorities, resulting in the prosecution.
The Battalion reached out to Tom, who first spoke to Gideon about the media request. Gideon then took the role as his spokesperson and was able to verify Tom’s story and identity, adding that his attorney would be able to acquire the court transcripts confirming it if the testimony was contested.

Gideon said he was also in contact with attorneys from the Scheef & Stone and BozLaw PA law firms during this, the latter being a Florida firm specializing in child and adult sexual abuse and adult clergy abuse.
Tom said he was in a youth group in the church, where he was first introduced to Savala in “4th or 5th grade,” noting that he was “very highly esteemed by the leadership in the school and church.”

At 10 years old, Tom said Savala invited him to a sleepover in the main church building, recalling that it was “quite an honor to be invited.”
“At some point in the evening he got naked and started masturbating in front of me … and then when he had finished, he kept asking me to do it as well,” Tom wrote.

He recalled this was the start of “many years of abuse” and that it became commonplace soon after, with Savala calling it “no big deal.”

“All the way through my teenage years, this continued with a core group of young teenage boys and myself,” Tom wrote. “He liked to mix it up and sometime invite several of us over at a time for his ‘sleep-overs’ which always turned sexual. I remember waking up in the morning on several occasions, and he would be laying next to me masturbating and staring at me.”

Stewart, the current leader of the College Station church, was also an attendee of Clover Pass Community Church when he was young, graduating from Ketchikan High School in 1998, according to the school’s yearbook. Tom alleged Stewart was also one of the children whom Savala sexually abused.

“[Stewart] was one of my childhood best friends, we attended Ketchikan High School together and were in the Clover Pass youth group together for many years,” Tom wrote. “Unfortunately, we were also groomed and sexually abused by Daniel Savala together and individually during this same time period as well.”

Tom said years would pass before he would realize he was sexually abused, as he thought it “was all perfectly normal.” The Alaska State Troopers were contacted soon after, who would refer him to the district attorney. Tom later testified in front of a grand jury, where they determined there was enough evidence to indict Savala in 2012 and extradite him to Alaska, as he was living in Texas at the time.

Another individual with the username “99928,” a zip code primarily in Ketchikan Gateway County, posted soon after recounting their experience with Savala in Alaska, saying they were also one of the young boys abused. Their account and story was verified by Gideon, who was also in contact with them. For readability, they will be cited using the alias “Harold.”

“I was there almost 30 years ago in the same room as Eli Stewart, Daniel Savala and my close friend [Tom] during a group masturbation as minors,” Harold wrote in his post. “We were all close friends growing up, we shared everything together. In fact, that was one of [Savala]’s signature lines: ‘As long as we love and trust each other we can do anything together.’”

Clint McClennan, a youth pastor at Clover Community Church for 10 years, said they knew Tom and were present during Savala’s trial. In a recorded Zoom call, Gideon spoke to him about his experience.
McClennan said while there were 11 individual charges against Savala, he alleges that there were “at least five and possibly six” more children that the prosecutors didn’t include in the indictment due to smaller details, such as dates and locations, being forgotten throughout the years.

“He did plead guilty to it,” McClennan said in the recording. “Those are the facts. That’s what law enforcement concluded, a grand jury concluded, an attorney concluded [and] a judge accepted the plea. Regardless of what people think or want to believe or anything, those are the facts.”

The prosecution offered a plea deal where 10 of the 11 charges would be dropped, and Savala would be sentenced to time served plus an additional month in prison if he pleaded guilty.

During this period, Stewart would also lead a letter-writing campaign to push for leniency for Savala.

“The cruelty of these allegations are comprised of words only,” Stewart wrote in a shared document sent out to others within Chi Alpha. “So, we NEED YOU TO WRITE A LETTER THIS WEEK [sic] to appeal for leniency for [Savala]. These letter’s [sic] will help the judge understand who [Savala] is as a human, apart from these men’s accusations.”
Stewart claimed there was no physical evidence against Savala, instead alleging that the trial was an “absolute attack of the devil on his life.”

In his post, Harold recalled he received a phone call from Stewart when Savala was indicted, with Stewart calling the victim who spoke out “angry and bitter,” also noting that they both “needed to protect [Savala].”
“Ultimately, Eli asked me to write a letter to the judge overseeing [Savala]’s case to ask for leniency, which I did against the will and better judgment of my beautiful wife,” Harold wrote. “Eli even sent me instructions on how to write it and what to say in order to sway the judge. He even asked me for [money] to help pay for the attorney, but I refused to attach my family’s finances to that.”

Harold also wrote that Stewart organized Savala’s entire defense.

“I was so, so disappointed in him when I heard that they were cutting [Savala] a deal so that no one else had to testify or anything,” McClennan, the Alaskan pastor, said. “I was horrified by their agreement and how they made all kinds of concessions for his parole. That was a super, super painful deal for [the victim and their] whole family to walk through because they don’t feel like they received justice.”

In his post, Tom wrote that he “was fully prepared to testify in his trial,” alleging that was one of the main reasons Savala took the plea deal. Because Savala pleaded guilty to the sexual abuse of a minor, he is required to register on the sex offender registry yearly for the rest of his life.

“I had always hoped that once he was on the Sexual Offender Registry and had served time in jail for his crimes that churches would wake up and keep distance from him,” Tom wrote. “Unfortunately, it seems that nothing has changed, and he to this day is continuing to groom and molest young people, and the church [and Chi Alpha] continues to idolize him.”

Savala and his involvement in Chi Alpha 
Gideon said he met Savala in the early 1900s, noting that Savala was introduced as “the holiest man alive.” Gideon began attending Sam Houston State University, or SHSU, a few years later.

“He basically groomed me, and then in [19]97, he approached me to do something sexually inappropriate,” Gideon said. “And I said, ‘No,’ and then that’s how he started to push me out of Chi Alpha.”

Gideon said he had a nervous breakdown as a result in 1998.

Stewart eventually moved to Huntsville to help with the Chi Alpha chapter there, where he would meet Josh Bell and Jonathan Bryce. There, they would all be further trained and mentored by Savala, according to Gideon and another source experienced with the University of Texas-San Antonio, or UTSA, Chi Alpha chapter.

Bell moved to Houston in 2006 to start a Chi Alpha chapter at Rice University, and Bryce, who would later become Stewart’s brother-in-law, joined UTSA’s Chi Alpha chapter in 2008, according to an archived version of the website from 2013.

In UTSA’s archived website, one of the tabs under “podcasts” leads to a link named “The Lions Den,” where a statement is written.
“This is our friend Daniel Savala’s website,” the site states. “This man, like Sam Houston Chi Alpha, has had a HUGE impact on the way we think about Jesus.”

As this is the 2013 version of the website, this statement and link would have been on the website months after Savala was extradited to Alaska and convicted, something the organization would have been aware of, according to Gideon, as he had contacted various leaders informing them of Savala’s conviction.

In an archived version of SHSU’s Chi Alpha chapter’s website from 2003, there is a quote embedded in the mission statement cited as being said by Savala.

“We must never underestimate the potential of youth,” the statement reads. “Throughout history God has called the young to rise up and change the world through the gospel.”

Gideon discovered that Savala was a sexual offender in 2013 after they heard about it from a friend.

“I immediately contacted everybody I knew from Chi Alpha to warn them, and they were pretty much saying that they don’t believe that [Savala]’s guilty,” Gideon said.

He first reached out to Bell at Rice and then Jason Bell, the campus pastor at SHSU’s Chi Alpha chapter and twin brother of Josh Bell.

“And Jason told me that ‘We don’t see this the same way that you see it,’ was his exact words,” Gideon said. “And, of course, I was pretty angry with that.”

Gideon said Bell would then tell Stewart to contact him a day later, where he told him a “story that was kind of unbelievable.”

“He said, basically, ‘[Savala] fell on the sword to protect some boys in Alaska who were bitter and had an ax to grind with [Savala],’” Gideon said. “‘They waited until they got about 37 years old and decided to make up a story that he sexually abused them.’ And that’s pretty much my only interaction with Eli, is him trying to control the narrative of [Savala]’s innocence and how ‘The boys in Alaska are all wrong, just trying to hurt [Savala].’”

Years would pass before Gideon discovered that Savala was still active in Chi Alpha in 2022. Soon after, Gideon and 30 others began working on a website so those with negative experiences with Savala and Chi Alpha could tell their story.

“It’s an accountability project that was put on our hearts about 11 months ago when we heard that [Savala] was still being allowed to work within the colleges, and he was being protected and promoted,” Gideon said. “A lot of the leaders the last 20 years, he’s been the driving force behind kind of who they are. He’s the foundation, [and] he’s a huge mentor, set the standard for them. So we’re just trying to expose him as a sexual predator and then those who are protecting him.”

Gideon said a narrative had been pushed by Chi Alpha that those working on the website are “bitter, angry [and] trying to hurt [Chi Alpha].”

“And none of that’s true, none of us want that,” Gideon said. “We’re all spending a huge amount of time, effort, even money and livelihood because they want to see this thing all the way through and done, right? Because, you know, the students deserve better.”

The A&M Chi Alpha chapter specifically was helping build Savala’s website and his home, Gideon said.

“They take mission trips to his house to do this,” Gideon said. “So they say officially, ‘We’re distancing ourselves,’ but unofficially, you know, actions speak louder than words.”

He contacted a law firm to take action around 10 months before attorneys sent the demand letter to universities. One of Gideon’s attorneys, Mitchell Little, was present in the interview and was able to expand on the letter itself.

“The purpose of the letter is to bring accountability to the organization,” Little said. “And the organization obviously has chapters in a number of places, which means that every place where there’s a chapter, there’s a potential risk.”

Little said any potential follow-up action depends on the responses of the universities.

“I’ve been very pleased that Texas A&M University, the Office of the General Counsel responded to us very quickly and seems to be giving the issue the attention that it’s due, so I’ve been very pleased with their attentiveness to the problem,” Little said. “I wish I could say the same to the other recipients of the letter, but they haven’t responded yet.”
The chief legal officer of the A&M Office of the General Counsel, Ray Bonilla, did not respond to a request for a comment or statement.

An individual experienced with UTSA’s Chi Alpha chapter shared their story, choosing to stay anonymous due to fear of retribution. They will be using the alias “Riley.”

Riley said their experiences in the organization pushed them to permanently avoid it. In an example they shared, Riley said the leadership structure was “concerning,” as it was “very top-down,” with the top leader directly controlling staff members, who then directly controlled small group leaders.

“Everyone has direct authority over the person that’s under them,” Riley said. “And so, when you’re a small group leader, or you’re involved in Chi Alpha, you’re expected to view them as your spiritual authority.”
At UTSA, Riley also shared that attendees going to staff members’ houses was not unheard of.

“My [siblings] went to Daniel Savala’s house as well,” Riley said. “I don’t think they were ever part of the abuse … But it was definitely a part of the pattern … which was disturbing.”

Public records reveal that Savala currently lives in Houston, two houses down from Rice’s Chi Alpha’s main house.

Riley recalled that at UTSA, they had a home they termed the “Chi Alpha house” that was owned by the ministry. Staff members would live there and use the house for student events.

“So Eli Stewart and Jonathan Bryce kind of spearheaded this, but they bought an old frat house, and they redid it and remodeled it,” Riley said. “So now that’s basically like their Chi Alpha house at [A&M].”

An Assemblies of God article from 2021 details Stewart’s and Bryce’s efforts to purchase the frat house, stating it was only possible due to a $1.4 million loan from The North Texas District Church Planting Loan Fund, a group with a “vision … to partner investors with the purpose of advancing the Kingdom of God through the local church.”

Riley said the Assemblies of God denomination provides funding, support and training for Chi Alpha and it often sponsors campus ministers. On March 26, 2018, an email was also sent to the senior national director of Chi Alpha Ministries, E. Scott Martin, revealing Savala’s close connection with SHSU.

“I fear for the safety of those students,” the anonymous author of the letter wrote. “I have an Instagram post from 2014 where Mr. Savala is being quoted at [a Chi Alpha] staff meeting. I also have a link to a 2017 [Chi Alpha] Breakaway where a minister in Indiana who was trained in Houston is giving Mr. Savala a platform with a favorite quote attributed to him.”

Martin responded on June 1, 2018, where he stated that no action would be taken because Savala “is not and has not been associated in any official capacity with Chi Alpha.”

The demand letter also states that the district superintendent for the Assemblies of God, Tim Barker, was directly told about Savala and his conviction in 2013. No action was ever taken.

The letter also talks of the Chi Alpha Ministries’ North Texas District representative, Eli Gautreaux. Gideon shared that Gautreaux was the prior campus minister at SHSU, where he was mentored and trained by Savala.
It states that the issue was raised with Gautreaux multiple times yet no action was taken, despite Gautreaux knowing Savala’s status as an offender “from 2012 on.”

“Eli Gautreaux has been one of the main ringleaders in listening to Eli Stewart,” Gideon said. “I’ve been getting a lot of people telling me he’s the one who orchestrated [Savala]’s mission trips, so Monday would be UTSA, Tuesday would be Rice and stuff like that.”

Gideon also said Gautreaux helped Stewart in his 2012 letter-writing campaign seeking leniency for Savala. While Stewart is cited as having written the letter, the email spreading the letter was sent by Gautreaux.
An article from the Assemblies of God talks about Gautreaux’s position as director, detailing how Gautreaux and his wife founded the SHSU Chi Alpha chapter, later spreading the organization to “30 other campuses.”
“Since 2018, Eli and Mary Gautreaux have served as Chi Alpha directors for South Texas Assemblies of God Ministries and New Mexico Ministry Network,” the article reads. “For a quarter century, they have held the same role for the North Texas District. But before that, the couple built the chapter at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, into the largest Chi Alpha group in the nation.”

Alleged abuse in Chi Alpha chapters

A user named Sholt posted to the forum about an experience in 2021-22, alleging that his son was taken from Mountain Valley Fellowship in 2022 and brought to Savala’s home in Houston, where they sat naked in a sauna together. Sholt stated in the post they have “chosen to use [their] name as [their] user name.”

Sholt said his son was either 12 or 13 when he met Savala at a youth group meeting at a church staff member’s home.

“My son and [Savala] spoke for a bit, and [Savala] ended the conversation by saying, ‘I like you, you have something special,’” Sholt said. “Of course my son was so happy to hear that coming from this supposed great man of God, no[t] knowing he had been chosen by a pedophile.”

Sholt said Savala would grow closer to his son until 2022 when a small group leader took them to Houston to sit in a sauna with Savala.

“I trusted our leadership and never gave [Savala] a second thought,” Sholt said. “My son told me the three of them sat nude, other then their towels, in the sauna.”

Sholt gave The Battalion permission to use his story and said in a separate comment that law enforcement had been contacted.

Chi Alpha pastor William C. Robinson was also arrested and charged with continuous sexual abuse of a child under 14 years old, sexual assault of a child, two counts of indecency with a child involving sexual contact and indecency with a child involving exposure on July 11, 2022. Gideon stated Robinson was involved in the chapter at A&M – Corpus Christi.
Robinson’s arraignment hearing took place March 23, the pre-trial hearing occurred April 25 and the docket call is scheduled for June 22, according to Nueces County public records.

Additionally, Gideon shared that on March 9, a temporary restraining order was filed against Savala for inappropriately texting a 14-year-old at Mountain Valley Fellowship, with Gideon noting that a permanent order will likely be signed soon.

The Battalion viewed the court order and verified its validity.

Mountain Valley Fellowship did not respond to a request for a comment or statement. When contacted, A&M’s Chi Alpha chapter’s public contact listed on A&M’s Student Activities website sent the information of Gaines West, a partner at West Webb Allbritton & Gentry PC law firm who is working with the chapter.

West initially stated he would answer questions after conferring with his clients, but Chi Alpha’s public contact later sent a message stating they “are not prepared to make any statements regarding any allegations due to this being an active investigation.”

Currently, the third-party investigation is pending at Mountain Valley Fellowship with Stewart on administrative leave, and A&M’s investigation into Chi Alpha continues. Gideon said that every day, more people from Chi Alpha chapters who were allegedly hurt by Savala are coming forward.
“I mean, everybody working with this, we’re pretty broken because the students really do deserve better,” Gideon said. “In a generic way, any pastor has one job … right? Protect your people. I had one guy say, ‘Daniel isn’t helping your kids. He’s helping himself to your kids by the help of Chi Alpha leadership not being able to discern what a wolf is and allowing him access.

“And that’s why we’re in the mess we’re in, is because people didn’t ask enough questions, they didn’t push back,” Gideon said. “And that seems to still be going on. Our heart goes out to the victims. And hopefully, [Chi Alpha] won’t be tone-deaf anymore.”

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Nicholas Gutteridge
Nicholas Gutteridge joined The Battalion in January 2023 as a news reporter before being promoted to news editor in August 2023. He interned at The Pentagon in Washington D.C. from January-May 2024 with the U.S. Air Force Office of Public Affairs before rejoining The Battalion. He specializes in investigative reporting and will be the managing editor for the 2024-25 academic year.
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