|This May 20, 2010 booking photograph released by the Concord, N.H., Police Department shows Ernest Willis, 51, of Gilford, N.H., charged with two counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and two counts of felonious sexual assault in 1997. (AP Photo/Concord Police Department)|
NH church at center of 1997 teen rape case
CONCORD, N.H.—Tina Anderson was a scared 15-year-old when she was summoned by church leaders to stand before her congregation and apologize for getting pregnant out of wedlock.
Just minutes earlier in that evening service in 1997, a longtime church member admitted publicly that he had been unfaithful to his wife.
Now, 13 years later, Ernie Willis is charged with raping Anderson, and police are investigating what church leaders knew about the assault and whether they shipped Anderson out of state to keep the matter quiet.
When the pastor heard Anderson's allegations, he told her that if she had "lived in the Old Testament," she would have been stoned to death for not reporting the attack sooner.
"He also said I had 'allowed myself to be put in a compromising situation,' Anderson said. The pastor decided she needed to be "church-disciplined."
"I was completely humiliated," Anderson said, her voice quavering at the memory. "I hoped it was a nightmare I'd wake up from, and it wouldn't be true anymore."
The Associated Press does not generally identify victims of sexual assault, but Anderson asked that her name be made public. Several witnesses to the church service involving Willis and Anderson recounted details to The Associated Press.
Willis, 51, of Guilford, will be arraigned June 16 on sexual assault charges. He was released on a $100,000 personal-recognizance bond after his arrest last week. A message left on a cell phone linked to him was not returned. A woman who answered the phone at a number listed to him said he no longer lived there. Court documents do not list an attorney.
Concord police also are weighing whether to bring obstruction-of-justice charges against anyone who may have concealed the girl's location during the initial investigation, which authorities say they were forced to shelve when there was no victim to testify.
After all these years, Anderson decided to come forward after she was contacted by a Concord police detective in February.
She told police she started baby-sitting for Ernie and Tammie Willis' children when she was 14. When she was 15, Willis volunteered to teach her to drive after her mother refused to do so.
During one of those driving sessions, she says, Willis pulled her into the back seat in a parking lot and assaulted her. The second attack occurred weeks later, when she said Willis came to her house, pushed her onto a couch and raped her again.
Anderson said she realized several months later that she was pregnant, and her mother took her to the pastor at Trinity Baptist Church for counseling.
This week, Pastor Chuck Phelps said he reported the accusation to police and child welfare authorities within a day of his conversation with Anderson and her mother. He would not discuss the church discipline session or his role in relocating her to Colorado to live with a family of another independent fundamentalist Baptist congregation.
Police refused to release any reports, citing the ongoing investigation.
The current pastor of Trinity Baptist, Brian Fuller, sent an e-mail to congregation members Monday saying that Phelps reported the alleged crime to police Oct. 8, 1997. Fuller said it was not until three weeks later that the girl, "by parental consent and pastoral counsel," moved to Colorado.
Anderson's mother, Christine Leaf, when asked this week whether she consented to the move to Colorado, refused to comment and hung up the phone.
Fuller's e-mail, a copy of which was obtained by the AP from a former parishioner, contains two statements advising parishioners to remain silent.
"Instead of engaging in talk about this incident, I beg you to pray for all those impacted by this crime," Fuller wrote. "I love you tenderly and am confident you will only talk of these matters to our Lord in prayer."
That's just the type of control Matt Barnhart said drove him away from the church.
The Concord man said he and his family had been members of Trinity Baptist for just six months when he witnessed Willis and Anderson's church discipline session.
"It was definitely, unequivocally put up as two separate incidents," Barnhart said. As his children grew, he said he saw the "high control" the church was exerting over their dress, music choices and conduct.
"We left because of Tina. It nagged me for years. They blamed her. They shipped her off," he said.
Fundamental Baptist church leaders believe in the autonomy of each individual congregation. The website of Trinity Baptist Church states that "on all matters of membership, policy, government, discipline and benevolence, the will of the local church is final."
While in Colorado, Anderson said, she was home-schooled, had no contact with students her own age and was told by her pastors not to discuss what happened to her in New Hampshire.
She placed her daughter, born in March 1998, up for adoption at Phelps' urging, with a family he had chosen.
Anderson, now 28, was educated at a Baptist college and offered a job as a music teacher at International Baptist College in Chandler, Ariz. She was married, the mother of three other children, when a phone call out of the blue in early February filled her with dread. It was from Concord Detective Chris DeAngelis, saying he learned of her case through a Facebook page titled "Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Cult Survivors."
"I was kind of in shock, but I just answered his questions," Anderson said. "Everything is changing because I'm seeing the things I was taught for so many years are not necessarily correct. It's almost like I had blinders on, believing all of this was my fault."
Crystal Evans, a longtime friend and former classmate of Anderson's at Trinity Baptist, had joined the Facebook exchange and provided police with information about Anderson and her whereabouts.
Evans, who now lives in Boston, said she left Trinity Baptist Church when she was 18 because she found the atmosphere "very cold and controlling ... the men in the church all controlled the women." And she remembers her confusion about Anderson being sent away.
"I didn't understand why she was being punished," Evans said. "She was the victim."
Anderson said she wants the pastors held accountable for concealing her whereabouts and fostering an environment in which no one could question the church's authority.
"If they're not dealt with, the cycle will continue," said Anderson, who resigned from the Baptist college the day before Willis was arrested. "I do not, anymore, unquestioningly obey authority, which is what they would teach."