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Willis gets 15 to 30 in rape

Last modified: 9/7/2011 12:00:00 AM
Before he was sentenced to 15 to 30 years in prison for raping his teenage babysitter, Ernest Willis said he was sorry for inflicting "heartache and misery" on the girl, who was made to apologize to members of their Concord church after she became pregnant.

But as he read a lengthy, regretful statement yesterday in Merrimack County Superior Court, Willis never admitted to raping Tina Anderson more than once or to forcing himself on her, referring only to a "thoughtless act of sexual misconduct."

Willis, 52, of Gilford, was convicted by a jury in May of forcibly raping Anderson twice in 1997, when she was 15 years old. She became pregnant as a result. Her former pastor at Trinity Baptist Church then had her stand before the congregation to ask forgiveness.

The pastor then helped arrange for Anderson to move to Colorado, where she had her baby and put it up for adoption - and where the Concord police said they could not find her. The investigation was closed until Anderson, encouraged by other former church members, came forward with her story last year.

In handing down the 15-to-30-year sentence yesterday, Merrimack County Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler noted that he wasn't punishing Willis - who said he was "very sorry for the mistreatment of Tina" - for how the church handled Anderson's pregnancy.

But Smukler said Willis had demonstrated "a lack of responsibility, beyond the one act in your statement to me today."

Since he was arrested, Willis has maintained that he had sex with Anderson once and that it was consensual. He pleaded guilty before his trial to one count of statutory rape, which he said happened when he brought Anderson home after giving her a driving lesson.

While Willis admitted guilt in that situation, "what you admitted to was the undeniable part," Smukler told him. "There was a baby."

If it weren't for Willis's otherwise nonexistent criminal record, Smukler said he likely would have sentenced him to 20 to 40 years in prison, the proposal made by Assistant County Attorney Wayne Coull.

"The acts you were convicted of robbed the victim of many things, one of which was, in effect, her childhood," Smukler said.

Anderson, now 29 and living in Arizona, addressed the court after Willis was convicted in May and did not attend yesterday's sentencing.

But she did listen to the proceedings via speakerphone, though she repeatedly interjected as Willis was speaking to say she couldn't hear and ask if everyone was still there.

Willis did not seem shaken by the interruptions, resuming his reading without much hesitation, sometimes repeating sentences. A trim, neatly-groomed man with glasses, he looked thin in his orange jail uniform, shuffling into the courtroom with shackled ankles.

No one came to court yesterday on his behalf. Public Defender Donna Brown told Smukler that Willis, a divorced father of four, hadn't wanted his family to appear in court.

"He did not want to involve anybody in this, especially his children," Brown said. "He wanted to take responsibility for this himself."

Besides apologizing for the hurt his actions had caused Anderson, Willis described the toll his case took on his family. His ex-wife and children lost their house because Willis was no longer able to support them financially, he said.

"The respect my wife and children once had for me has forever been compromised," he said. "I haven't seen my precious children in several months now."

Willis also asked for forgiveness from members of his former church, which "has become an object of public ridicule and slander," he said. And he said he was praying for the baby Anderson gave up for adoption - an "innocent life" brought into the world "through the result of misconduct."

"Your Honor, I'd like to let you know I stand ready, and respectfully submit to fair and just punishment, which I deserve for my very disgraceful act," Willis said, ending his remarks to the court. "And I look to your Honor's wisdom for an appropriate sentence."

Brown and Public Defender Brooksley Belanger had asked for a 3½-to-7-year sentence - a request made to reflect the one statutory rape that Willis admits to.

After yesterday's sentencing, Brown and Belanger said they will file an appeal. Among the issues they plan to raise is the court's decision to allow testimony from former Trinity Baptist pastor Chuck Phelps, who told jurors that Willis confessed in 1997 to having had sexual contact with Anderson on two occasions and described himself as "the aggressor."

Brown and Belanger had argued that Willis's conversations with Phelps were subject to the religious privilege and should have been excluded from the trial, a claim Smukler rejected.

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


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