NH convict in shamed girl's rape gets 15-30 years

Associated Press
Ernest Willis is escorted out of the Merrimack County Superior Courthouse, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 in Concord, N.H. Willis was convicted of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old church member, who was made to apologize to her fellow members, he was sentenced Tuesday to 15 to 30 years in prison. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)
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Ernest Willis is escorted out of the Merrimack County Superior Courthouse, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2011 in …

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The 15-year-old New Hampshire girl was pregnant, scared and humiliated when she was made to stand before her Baptist church congregation 14 years ago and apologize for her immorality.

Tuesday, it was a former church member's turn to apologize before he was sentenced to 15-30 years in prison for forcible rape.

Ernest Willis, 52, of Gilford said he was "sorry and ashamed for this thoughtless act of sexual misconduct." But in his lengthy statement he did not admit he forcibly raped the girl.

Listening telephone from Arizona, victim Tina Anderson said she was "thrilled" with the sentence.

"It's a huge amount of vindication for me," Anderson, now 29, told The Associated Press. "I was never really believed, no matter how many times I said it was not consensual. Now it's been proven in a court of law that he's guilty and he's been given a significant sentence."

The AP typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Anderson asked that her name be used and has given numerous media interviews.

Willis, wearing bright orange prison garb and shackled at the ankles, also apologized to his ex-wife and their children for the embarrassment and financial ruin they've suffered and to Concord's Trinity Baptist Church for the ridicule his case has wrought.

The case remained unsolved for years because Concord police could not locate the teen. Unbeknownst to them, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church helped ship the girl to Colorado, with her mother's consent, to live with a Baptist couple she did not know and put her infant daughter up for adoption.

Police located Anderson last year after a former church member posted to a blog decrying the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement. The post described Anderson's church discipline session at Trinity Baptist. Willis was arrested in May 2010.

Anderson said Tuesday she would have loved to see others involved in her case held accountable, but is satisfied with Willis's punishment.

In imposing the sentence, Merrimack Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler said Willis betrayed the trust the girl placed in him and robbed her of her childhood. Willis faced up to 54 years in prison on convictions for statutory rape and aggravated felonious sex assault.

A jury in May convicted Willis of raping the girl twice in 1997 — once while he was giving her driving lessons and weeks later at her Concord home. His lawyers say he will appeal those convictions.

The teen babysat Willis's children and, a prosecutor said Tuesday, considered him a father figure.

"Her trust and admiration were repaid with violence and rape," prosecutor Wayne Coull told the judge.

Coull said the most aggravating factor of all was Willis's reaction upon learning the teen was pregnant.

"He offered to punch her in the stomach so hard as to cause a miscarriage," Coull said. "For the defendant to be so cruel and selfish as to recommend such actions upon a child is just outrageous."

Before his trial in May, Willis pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape. He maintained they had consensual sex on one occasion only, but acknowledged the girl was under the legal age of consent.

Willis remained stoic as the judge sent him to prison for a minimum of 15 years.

"This particular day is a day for justice for the victim," Smukler told him, saying Willis betrayed the trust of a defenseless teenager.

The judge stressed to Willis that he was not sentencing him for the actions of Trinity Baptist Church and then pastor Chuck Phelps.

Anderson told the AP she can never purge from her mind the horror and humiliation of being made to apologize to the congregation.

"It will never go away," Anderson said. "And that's not necessarily a bad thing because it helps me to be more compassionate to others. I would love to be able to use my trauma, my pain, to help others."

Anderson listened to the sentencing from the home of a victim advocate in Arizona. She did not address the court. But in a statement she delivered after Willis was convicted she said he "destroyed the person I was ... and filled me with shame and guilt."

She said it was heartbreaking to put her daughter up for adoption and that she misses her every day.

"When he decided that his sexual gratification was the most important thing in his life, he shattered mine," she said.

Willis, a divorced father of four, remained free on bail until his May 27 conviction. Tuesday he was taken to the state prison in Concord to begin serving his sentence.

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