Man charged in NH church rape case testifies

Associated Press
Pastor Charles "Chuck" Phelps testifies during the trial of Ernest Willis at the Merrimack Superior Court Tuesday, May 24, 2011 in Concord, N.H. Willis is accused of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old fellow church member in 1997. (AP Photo/Alexander Cohn, Pool)
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Pastor Charles "Chuck" Phelps testifies during the trial of Ernest Willis at the Merrimack Superior Court Tuesday, May 24, 2011 in Concord, N.H. Willis is accused of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old fellow church member in 1997.

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A New Hampshire man accused of raping and impregnating his children's 15-year-old baby sitter in 1997 took the stand in his defense Wednesday, acknowledging he fathered her baby but saying he did not force himself on her.

The case has drawn wide attention because of accusations that the pastor of the Baptist church both attended made the girl apologize to the congregation for getting pregnant out of wedlock, then helped move her to the home of a church family in Colorado and arranged to put the baby up for adoption.

Concord police were forced to shelve their investigation into the rape allegation when they could not locate the girl for questioning. They recently found her through online posts and reopened the case.

Ernest Willis, 52, of Gilford, is charged with three counts of forcible rape for two separate instances. He testified Wednesday that they had sex only once, in her bedroom in June 1997, and that she agreed to it.

She did nothing to discourage him, he testified, saying he would have stopped if she had indicated she did not want to have sex.

"There was no force used," Willis testified. "Nothing indicated to me by voice, by saying anything to me or defensive actions she did not want it to occur."

He said he knew the girl was 15 and too young to legally consent.

"I cannot fathom what I was thinking," said Willis, who was 39 at the time. "I was driven by emotion, by selfishness."

Willis' testimony contradicts that of Tina Anderson, 29, who says he forcibly raped her in the back seat of his car and again when he visited her home about a month later. Anderson, who lives in Arizona, was not in the courtroom for Willis' testimony.

The Associated Press typically does not identify those who say they are the victims of sexual assault, but Anderson has agreed to have her name published and has been the subject of extensive media coverage.

Concord police learned of her married name and location through blogs critical of the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist Church network.

Willis has already pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape, acknowledging the girl was under the legal age of consent. The jury learned during Willis' testimony about his guilty plea.

Before calling her first witness, and with the jury out of the room, defense attorney Donna Brown asked Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler to dismiss the forcible rape charges.

In arguing that the prosecution had not met its burden of proof beyond a reasonable doubt, Brown cited Anderson's testimony that she "blocked a lot of things out," and "believes" she said no.

Smukler left two forcible rape charges in place but said he wanted to read case law before ruling on the third.

Willis testified that there was one instance of sexual intercourse and a second episode that involved only fondling.

On cross-examination, prosecutor Wayne Coull asked whether he pleaded guilty because he was on record as acknowledging in adoption papers that he fathered the child.

"I pled to that charge because it's a true charge," said Willis, who is divorced and has four children. "It did happen, once."

Coull's cross-examination of Willis resumes Thursday. The jury is then expected to hear final arguments and begin deliberating the case.

Willis and Anderson both attended Trinity Baptist Church in Concord in 1997.

Anderson testified that then-pastor Chuck Phelps made her stand before the congregation and apologize for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Phelps on Wednesday disputed a prosecutor's contention that he presented the girl to the congregation to shame and discipline her.

"This was not a discipline meeting," Phelps said, characterizing it as an opportunity for Tina Anderson to seek love and support from the several hundred congregants.

Other witnesses have testified that Anderson appeared to be "scared to death" and "pale as a ghost" at the evening church session.

Phelps said that Willis had told him the sex was consensual, and that he thought Anderson "was being very dishonest and had not opened up to me."

"He said he was the aggressor but that she didn't protest and he felt it was consensual," Phelps said of Willis during questioning by Willis' lawyers.

On Tuesday, Phelps testified only that Willis told him he was the aggressor.

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