Facebook group helped police make rape arrest

Last modified: Wednesday, May 26, 2010
For 13 years, a woman who the police say was raped and impregnated at the age of 15 by a member of her Concord church kept her story to herself. This year, a Facebook group helped her come forward.

The woman, who said leaders of Trinity Baptist Church helped move her to Colorado after she revealed she was pregnant, said in a statement to the police that she thought her case was an isolated one until she read similar stories on the internet.

'This is the first time I have seen that I am not alone and that there are other victims out there that need to be heard!' she said. 'This is the first time in my life that I have started to see and believe how wrongly all of these situations have been handled, and that I'm not the one who should feel guilty over any of this because this is not my fault.'

Ernest Willis, 51, of Gilford was arrested last week and charged with two counts of rape and two counts of having sex with a minor. The woman said Willis raped her twice, once while he was teaching her to drive and a second time in her Concord home while her family was away.

Willis is free on $100,000 personal recognizance bail and couldn't be reached yesterday. He is due in Concord District Court on June 16 for arraignment.

The woman told the police that, after she discovered she was pregnant, then-pastor Chuck Phelps helped arrange for her to be taken to Colorado, where she was home-schooled and gave birth to her baby. Before she departed, she said she was made to read a letter before the congregation asking forgiveness for 'allowing a compromising situation to occur.'

A spokesman said this week that Trinity Baptist Church leaders reported the crime to the authorities within a day of hearing the accusation and will cooperate with investigators. The police said their investigation in 1997 was hampered because the victim left the state.

The church, located at 80 Clinton St., didn't return messages seeking comment yesterday. Phelps, who no longer works there and has not been charged with any crime, told the Associated Press he reported what the teen told him to the authorities, but he wouldn't comment on her move to Colorado.

'I called in a report,' Phelps told the AP. 'I think I've said what I need to say.'

The Concord police said an affidavit laying out evidence in the case would be filed by Willis's arraignment date.

Internet community

Matt Barnhart, 41, said he was a member of Trinity Baptist Church for 15 years until he and his family left last year. He said he had lingering misgivings about church teachings, including about 'worldly' practices, as well as the 'discipline' of the alleged victim, which he said he witnessed years before.

'It just bugged me to no end because it seems like (Willis) was a felon and he should be in prison, but he's not,' Barnhart said.

After his children were barred from the church's youth group because he left the congregation, he said, Barnhart posted a frustrated message on a Facebook group for former members of 'independent fundamental Baptist' churches, described as a loose network of congregations across the country.

Included in the message posted early this year, the Concord man said, was his recollection of the 1997 apology.

'Within 10 minutes,' Barnhart said yesterday, he was contacted by Jocelyn Zichterman.

Zichterman, 35, runs the Freedom From Abuse Network, a website intended to help victims of abuse from fundamental Baptist congregations, which she calls a 'cult.' She is also active on the Facebook group and is a board member of the Independent Fundamental Baptist Watchdog Committee, a group to assist former church members.

Zichterman, now living in Portland, Ore., said that she was physically abused growing up and molested by family members and that, when she tried to come forward later, she was pressured into silence by church leaders. After a libel and slander lawsuit following her departure from the church, she said, she became dedicated to helping other victims.

'I decided I could either curl up in the corner and be defeated by these men, or I could stand up and be strong and fight for my family,' said the mother of eight.

Zichterman and Barnhart said they got in touch with the Concord police, and Barnhart and his wife made a statement to detectives.

The victim, now 28, herself got in touch after reading the Facebook group 'and said, 'This is my story, I don't know what to do about this,' ' Zichterman said.

Zichterman said she helped the victim with counseling and other matters as she made her statement to the police.

'It wasn't until she and I started talking that she realized she wasn't guilty for this rape,' Zichterman said.

Melissa Fletcher, 34, of Oahu, Hawaii, said she also was abused growing up in an independent fundamental Baptist family. She later left the group because she wanted to marry a Christian from outside the church.

She said the Facebook group has provided a safe space for victims to speak and share their stories.

'It's the first time survivors have really found each other,' Fletcher said.

Monitor reporter Trent Spiner contributed to this story.