Antwan Diggs never shied away from telling his employers, friends, congregants, reporters and the youth he mentored that he was once a homeless drug addict who ended up in prison twice.
"I was a bum on the streets," Diggs told The Buffalo News in 2006.
And he often told the story of how he turned his life around in large part through a halfway house on Grider Street and began working for the City of Buffalo's "Weed and Seed" program in 2001, steering youth away from a life of crime.
Eighteen years later, he was the program coordinator of the city's Community Crime Prevention Initiative, helping 50 to 70 young people every summer with job training and workforce development. The married father of two was also the pastor at Hananiah Lutheran Church.
So it came as shock to many when Diggs was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a 17-year-old boy in a Canalside hotel room.
"I am shocked," Mayor Byron W. Brown told reporters the day of Diggs' arrest. "If you talked to the many people that have worked with him in the community, they would say he was hardworking, committed to the community, did good work. So it is quite a shock. Quite a surprise."
Murray Holman, executive director of the Stop the Violence Coalition, who often worked alongside Diggs on crime prevention efforts, was stunned by the news.
"It really hurts," Holman said.
He said he hadn't heard any concerns about Diggs until the arrest. "If I did, I would have gotten him the help that he needs," Holman said. "But I'm not judging him yet."
Holman was hoping to be able to visit Diggs at the Erie County Holding Center.
Diggs was arrested Tuesday morning at his church on Genesee Street, after returning from a trip to South Carolina where he attended a crime prevention seminar.
Diggs, 50, was charged with first-degree criminal sexual act, first-degree sexual abuse and forcible touching, according to court papers. He is accused of forcing a 17-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him in the Courtyard by Marriott Buffalo Downtown/Canalside during the afternoon of Aug. 19, according to court papers.
It's not clear how Diggs met the boy.
Diggs has been put on administrative leave from his job at City Hall.
The mayor told reporters after the arrest that the city knew Diggs went to prison for a New York City robbery.
"We certainly were aware of the prior convictions," Brown told reporters Tuesday. "The city has a program of working with returning citizens, helping people to turn their lives around and return to the community."
He added that Diggs' prior record "had nothing to do with the youth. There was no reason to have concerns based on the prior record." Brown also pointed out that Diggs was first hired before he became mayor.
The city has launched an internal review of his activities. "At this point, there's nothing out of the ordinary," said city spokesman Michael J. DeGeorge. He also said that youth who participate in city programs are given packets of information that include ways to contact commissioners with any complaints.
Diggs didn't mince words in describing his previous life, Holman said.
"Crackhead thief," Holman said Diggs would call his old self. They often counseled youth together and Diggs would often use his past to show that if he could change, so could they.
Diggs was from Philadelphia and had been living in New York City when he was arrested on robbery charges.
Diggs, who is known to the state Department of Corrections as "Jonathan Harris," was sentenced in 1993 to up to 10 years in prison for the robbery. He spent three years at Watertown Correctional Facility. In 1998, he was sent back to prison on a parole violation. He was released in February 1999.
He heard about a halfway house in Buffalo, far from his old life.
It was run by Sister Karen Klimczak, who took Diggs under her wing, encouraging him to find a job, get clean and change his life.
In time, she had Diggs working one night a week at a teen center on the campus of SS. Columba/Brigid Catholic Church.
Klimczak was murdered in 2006 by a halfway house resident. Shortly after her death, Diggs told The News about how Sister Karen came to him one day and handed him a set of keys to the center. "I was four, five months out of prison and she gave me the keys to this center that had eight brand new computers in it," Diggs recalled.
He said he was moved by how much she had trusted him. "She saw something in me."
Working for the city
Around 2001, he got a job with the city's Weed and Seed program, described as a program to weed out violent crime in neighborhoods and seed it with social and redevelopment opportunities. He was recognized the next year at the Black Achievers in Industry 2002 Awards dinner for introducing more than 100 Buffalo youth to community service and leadership development and for working with clubs to improve vacant lots.
More recently, as the program coordinator for the city's Community Crime Prevention Initiative, he worked with Buffalo police on community policing as well as teaching crime prevention strategies involving environmental design. His job also included a "Summer Youth Initiative" with 50 to 70 youth. The youth program was run out of the teen center.
The Rev. Jud Weiksnar, the pastor of SS. Columba-Brigid Church, explained that the teen center was in one of the parish's old school buildings but was not affiliated with the parish. He said during the summer he would see Diggs and groups of young people at the center and working on projects around the neighborhood, like cutting weeds and picking up trash.
"He'd be meeting with the kids and tell them to stay of trouble, show up and do your work, respect authority," Weiksnar said. He added that he hadn't seen Diggs in the last few weeks.
Diggs' bio on the city's website highlights his work with young people. "Antwan has successfully introduced over 1,000 of Buffalo's youth to community service and leadership development while encouraging them to be partners in the community to bring about positive change," it says. It later reads: "Today, Mr. Diggs spends the bulk of his time helping young people make the successful transition from adolescence to adulthood."
Diggs' Facebook page is filled with photos of young people he worked with doing yardwork and learning about crime prevention.
The night before his arrest, he posted a Bible verse: "Paul said, Some indeed preach Christ. Preacher, what do you preach?"
As the police investigation of Diggs continues, Holman is worried about his friend as well as the victim.
"He's going to need help," Holman said of the victim. "You cannot forget the victim."
Holman said he is reaching out to other young people that may have had contact with Diggs. "If they need some help they can contact me or Crisis Services," Holman said of the organization that provides support to sexual assault victims. Crisis Services' 24-hour hotline is 834-3131.
Holman said he wants to learn the truth about what happened.
"I've worked with him side by side. I'll be in court to hear. I really want to hear what happened and support him all the way through it," Holman said.