Rape conviction a win for advocate

Last modified: 5/29/2011 12:00:00 AM
When jurors found former Trinity Baptist member Ernest Willis guilty Friday afternoon of four counts of rape, it was a victory for Tina Anderson, who was 15 years old when she became pregnant by Willis in 1997, leading their pastor to present her to the congregation to ask for forgiveness.

But it was also a victory for the advocate who has been by Anderson's side throughout the trial: Jocelyn Zichterman. A Portland, Ore., woman who runs a website dedicated to exposing what she calls "Independent Fundamental Baptist abuse," Zichterman shepherded Anderson through the criminal justice system from start to finish - from making the call last year that led the Concord police to reopen their investigation into Anderson's rape to squaring off in front of cameras outside Merrimack County Superior Court Friday afternoon, proclaiming Anderson a hero for her "incredible courage."

Anderson, her eyes shielded by sunglasses, said nothing during that event, getting hugs from Zichterman and other supporters after Zichterman finished making her statement. She escorted Anderson away from the crowd of supporters, who remained in a group, holding posters that read "I support Tina Anderson" and bearing a design of Jesus beside a teenage Anderson and the baby she gave up for adoption.

Throughout the trial, Zichterman was a constant companion to Anderson, seated by her side in the front row of the courtroom during emotional testimony - including that of her estranged mother, who along with Anderson's pastor had arranged for her to be sent to Colorado after she became pregnant.

Zichterman "was really almost like a mother figure in some ways, just giving that support," said Matt Barnhart, a former Trinity Baptist member who took the witness stand during trial and sat in the courtroom for two days of testimony.

Barnhart, who first spoke to Zichterman after he posted about Anderson's case last year on a Facebook page critical of Independent Fundamental Baptist churches, described her as "selfless" in her involvement with Anderson.

"I can see how some might view this as selfish on Jocelyn's part, and it's definitely not," he said yesterday. "It was really out of pure concern for Tina as the victim."

Zichterman didn't respond to messages yesterday seeking comment for this story. Barnhart said she was on her way back to Oregon, where she lives with her husband and eight children.

Growing up in a fundamentalist Baptist congregation, Zichterman says she was molested by family members but pressured by church members to stay silent. She has since devoted herself to advocating against abuse within the church, which she refers to as a "cult." She calls former members "survivors."

It was on a Facebook page for those "Independent Fundamental Baptist cult survivors" that Barnhart posted about Anderson last year. Zichterman, seeing his post, contacted him within minutes, and after Anderson - then 28 and living in Arizona - came upon the page, she contacted Zichterman, who called the Concord police.

While it was Anderson's decision to speak to the police, "it wasn't until she and I started talking that she realized she wasn't guilty for this rape," Zichterman told the Monitor last May, shortly after Willis's arrest.

She quickly took an active role in the case, becoming a conduit for news media requests. During the trial, Anderson described Zichterman as "the family spokesperson."

She appeared with Anderson on a 20/20 special about Independent Fundamental Baptist churches and publicized Anderson's case online; her Freedom From Abuse Network website includes pictures of Zichterman and Anderson taken last year in Arizona and a link to another website called the Tina Anderson Foundation, which tells Anderson's story and has a PayPal account for visitors to donate online.

The website bills the foundation as "dedicated to helping victims of Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) abuse" and describes several goals, including helping Anderson move to Portland, Ore., and get a master's degree in counseling, as well as creating a "safe house" in Portland, "where college students wishing to leave the IFB cult can find a place of refuge and financial security."

In court last week, Zichterman did not testify, and her name came up only occasionally during the trial. But along with Anderson's brother, she ushered Anderson into court daily and surrounded her with supporters, at one point asking the state's victim witness advocate to have the lawyer for former Trinity pastor Chuck Phelps move when he tried to sit in the front row.

The courtroom was packed throughout the trial - "a bonding experience," Barnhart said - with supporters traveling from Ohio, North Carolina and Florida. Many of the out-of-state supporters said they had met through Facebook and online support groups managed or frequented by Zichterman.

Members of those online communities paid close attention to the trial as well. As news spread of the verdict, the congratulations came pouring in for Anderson and Zichterman alike on Facebook.

"You are both rockstars!" one woman wrote. Another called Zichterman her "inspiration," and one man commended her on the statement she made after the trial ended, telling her, "You should go into PR."

Zichterman thanked the supporters. "This was a team effort . . . we all did this TOGETHER," she wrote.

Elsewhere on the page, she wrote: "There is still so much to be done."

(Maddie Hanna can be reached at 369-3321 or mhanna@cmonitor.com.)




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