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Willis guilty of rape

Last modified: 5/28/2011 12:00:00 AM
Nearly 14 years after he impregnated a teenage member of his Concord church, Ernest Willis was found guilty yesterday of forcibly raping her, despite his argument that the sex was consensual.

Willis, 52, of Gilford, was found guilty of three counts of aggravated felonious sexual assault and one count of felonious sexual assault for raping Tina Anderson twice in 1997, when she was his 15-year-old babysitter. The Merrimack County jury took a day to deliberate following four days of trial, filing into the courtroom late yesterday afternoon just as bailiffs prepared to send the crowd home for the weekend.

As a court clerk polled the six men and six women of the jury, each declared Willis guilty. Anderson, sitting in the front row, sunk into the arms of a supporter, her brother holding the two of them.

Earlier in the afternoon, Anderson read a victim impact statement in the courtroom. "When he decided his sexual gratification was the most important thing in his life, he shattered mine," she said.

After becoming pregnant at age 15, Anderson was brought before the congregation at Trinity Baptist Church, asking for forgiveness in front of hundreds at a Sunday night service.

Her pastor helped arrange for her to be sent to Colorado, where she had her baby and gave it up for adoption. The police said they were unable to find Anderson and closed the investigation.

But they resumed the effort last year, after a former Trinity member wrote about Anderson's story on a Facebook page. Tracked down by Concord Detective Chris DeAngelis, Anderson, now 29 and living in Arizona, agreed to speak to the police, and Willis was arrested in August.

He was led out of the courtroom yesterday in handcuffs, shepherded into a van that would take him to the Merrimack County jail, where he will await sentencing. He faces a maximum of 54 years in prison.

Willis's attorneys said during trial that they would file a motion to set aside a verdict finding him guilty of raping Anderson in a car while giving her a driving lesson.

Willis, who admits to having sex with Anderson in her home and pleaded guilty just before the trial to one count of statutory rape, testified that he touched Anderson sexually during one driving lesson.

But he said he did not have sex with her until after a subsequent driving lesson, when he asked her "if she would like to join me in sexual intercourse."

Anderson, he testified, "replied yes."

Assistant County Attorney Wayne Coull pressed Willis on that version of events and later told jurors it wasn't credible to believe that Anderson, brought up in a church where children didn't hold hands, had indicated to Willis that she wanted to have sex with him.

But Willis's public defender, Donna Brown, questioned the credibility of Anderson's account, which included conflicting statements about going to dinner with Willis on her 16th birthday at the Bedford Village Inn, two months after she said Willis forcibly raped her.

Brown said Anderson had changed her story to "look more like a victim" because she didn't receive the treatment she deserved after she became pregnant in 1997.

But Coull said Anderson never shared the full story with her mother and pastor, who Anderson said told her that "good Christians forgive and forget" when she reported being abused by her stepfather.

And when she reported her pregnancy, Coull said, she was "shamed, shunned, and silenced. Shipped away."

Yesterday, dozens of supporters surrounded her outside the courthouse, holding posters depicting Jesus beside a 16-year-old Anderson and the baby she gave up for adoption.

"Tina Anderson is a hero today," said Jocelyn Zichterman, an advocate for abuse victims within Independent Fundamental Baptist churches who encouraged Anderson to come forward with her story last year.

"We hope Tina can now move on with her life and find a sense of peace," Zichterman said, delivering the brief statement on Anderson's behalf. She hugged Anderson and escorted her away from the group of supporters, some of whom stayed to watch and take pictures as bailiffs led Willis into the sheriff's van.

Willis won't be sentenced until a hearing at a later date. His attorneys said he would wait to address the court until his sentencing.

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


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