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Rape defendant admits to touching

Last modified: 5/26/2011 12:00:00 AM
As he took the stand in his own defense yesterday, the man accused of forcibly raping a teenage member of his Concord church twice in 1997 admitted to sexually touching the girl while giving her driving lessons.

But Ernest Willis, who has already pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape for getting then-15-year-old Tina Anderson pregnant in 1997, maintained yesterday that the two only had sex once, following a different driving lesson that June.

"We were returning to her residence," Willis said. "I asked her if she would like to join me in sexual intercourse, and she replied yes."

No one was home as the two entered her Concord apartment and went to Anderson's bedroom, where "she removed her clothing," Willis said. "I removed my clothing. We got into bed and had sexual intercourse there."

Willis said Anderson "did nothing to discourage me at the time."

His testimony, which he gave on the third day of his trial in Merrimack County Superior Court, marked the first time Willis has publicly shared his side of the story since he was arrested last August and charged with forcibly raping Anderson twice in 1997, when both were members of Trinity Baptist Church.

Anderson, who became pregnant and told her mother and pastor it was Willis's baby, said she was made to stand before her congregation and apologize before she was sent to Colorado, where she had her baby and gave it up for adoption.

While her pastor reported the pregnancy to the police, he described the relationship between Willis and Anderson as consensual, and the police said they closed the investigation because they couldn't find Anderson after she left for Colorado.

Anderson, who is now 29 and living in Arizona, agreed to be interviewed by the police last year after someone mentioned her story on a Facebook page critical of fundamentalist Baptist churches.

She said she never consented to having sex with Willis but didn't tell her mother and pastor what really happened because she was scared of being blamed.

But Willis, who pleaded guilty last week to one count of statutory rape, said the two instances of sexual contact he had with Anderson, his former baby sitter, were consensual.

"There was no resistance to my overtures," he testified yesterday. "She appeared to enjoy it. She appeared to want it to happen."

Willis, who is 52 and lives in Gilford, said he realized Anderson was too young to legally consent to having sex with him.

"And as I look back on it now I can't fathom what I was thinking," Willis said. "I was driven by emotion, selfishness. . . . That it would hurt her and her family and so many other people, the process never, ever occurred to me at the time.

"I was very dull and senseless at that time," he continued. "But now, certainly, I fully understand."

Willis said Anderson began baby-sitting for his three children when she was 14. He said the sexual aspect of their relationship began when she was 15 and asked him to help her learn to drive.

In the spring of 1997, as he took Anderson home from a lesson, Willis said they parked in a lot near her apartment, where he "inappropriately touched her knee," he said.

"I brushed her hair back, caressed her," Willis said. "I did touch her genital area as well."

But he didn't have sex with her until later, in the middle of June, he said.

Asked by Assistant County Attorney Wayne Coull how their relationship developed to a point where Willis touched her, Willis said it "built up to that," noting that the two had been spending time alone in the car.

"You're telling us that you and your 15-year-old baby sitter just start to have these sexual type of conversations?" Coull said.

"Unfortunately, that's how it happened," Willis said.

As Coull pressed his accounting of events, noting that Willis never confessed to touching Anderson in his car during an interview with the police last year, Willis said he had only answered questions directly posed to him.

"In the church, we've been trained to be discreet in how we discuss things of this nature," he said.

Willis said that when he told the former Trinity Baptist pastor, Chuck Phelps, that there had been "two occurrences" between him and Anderson, he was referring to sexual contact in his car in addition to the one time he says he and Anderson had sex.

Willis's public defender, Donna Brown, asked Willis about his decision to plead guilty to one count of statutory rape, but jurors were not told that Willis entered that guilty plea just last week.

Coull asked Willis if he pleaded guilty to the charge because "you can't really deny that it at least happened once."

"It happened once," Willis said.

"Are you saying that it happened once so that you hope folks will find you honest and credible and acquit you?" Coull asked, referring to the three forcible rape charges and one statutory rape charge Willis still faces.

"I'm very sorry for what I did, and I'm very sorry for how I've impacted Tina's life," Willis said. "It did happen that one time, and I'm very sorry that it did."

Coull will continue cross-examining Willis today.

Also testifying yesterday was Phelps, who said he believed Anderson had been in a "consensual dating relationship" with Willis, then a married man and father of three.

Phelps, who testified Tuesday that Willis had described himself as the "aggressor" in his relationship with Anderson, said yesterday that Willis had also told him the sexual contact with the teenager was consensual.

Phelps said he reached that conclusion himself after learning Willis had taken Anderson to the Bedford Village Inn for her 16th birthday - a fact he said Anderson failed to share with him.

"The Bedford Village Inn is not McDonald's," Phelps said. He described Anderson as "very dishonest from the very beginning."

Phelps said he never forced Anderson to stand before the congregation. She was invited to come forward seeking forgiveness, he said, and he read a statement on her behalf, apologizing for having "allowed myself to be in some compromising situations."

During the same service, Willis also apologized for violating his marital vow. Phelps, who had reported Anderson's pregnancy to the Concord police and the Division for Children, Youth and Families, said he invited the apologies to prepare the church community for press coverage about Willis.

"I totally expected that there would be an arrest," Phelps said.

The Concord police detective who investigated Phelps's report, Paul Gagnon, testified yesterday that he returned Phelps's call and spoke to his wife but never heard back from Phelps.

Gagnon also called Anderson's mother, Christine Leaf, who "wasn't giving me a lot of information," he said.

Leaf told him Anderson did not want to speak to the police, he said.

Gagnon said he didn't learn Anderson had gone to Colorado until he received an anonymous phone call. He said he left a message with Leaf, asking to speak with Anderson when she was willing and able, but "I never heard back from anyone," he said.

The trial resumes this morning. Closing arguments are expected after Willis finishes testifying.

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


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