After three hours of deliberation late Friday, a jury found a former Sarasota bishop guilty on two counts of sexual battery of a victim under the age of 12.
During a five-day criminal trial in the 12th Judicial Circuit Court, Henry Lee Porter, 74, faced five of his victims as they shared their experiences of the sexual abuse they endured that began when they were young boys.
Two of the men who took the stand, now in their late 30s and early 40s, relieved the trauma they said started when they were just 11 years old. Both hadn’t spoken about the abuse for years, before finally stepping forward to share their stories. All the victims’ names have been withheld by the Sarasota Herald-Tribune to protect their privacy as they were children when the abuse happened.
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The charges against Porter are capital felonies punishable by up to life in prison.
Porter, who is well known in the Sarasota community for founding a non-denominational church — Westcoast Center for Human Development — in 1971, stepped down in 2016 after serving for 45 years. His son, Henry Porter II, took his post.
Porter was arrested in January 2020 by Sarasota Police Department officers after several victims came forward with allegations of being sexually abused by the minister. He was charged with two counts of sexually assaulting a child, although investigations by police uncovered allegations by more than a dozen adults and children.
"It's great for justice," Assistant State Attorney Ryan Felix said. "We had a lot of victims here, their families, their friends and we're just excited that the jury made the right decision."
‘Young, impressionable, trusting’
While Felix called several victims to the stand, Porter was charged with the abuse of just two of them because the statute of limitations prevented police from pressing more criminal charges, according to previous reporting by the Herald-Tribune.
The purpose of calling several of the witnesses was to show a viable pattern of preying on young boys portrayed by Porter, Felix said.
During closing arguments, Felix painted a picture of what he called Porter’s pattern: He’d look for you boys who’d grown up in the church and tended to be in vulnerable positions. They trusted Porter. They let him be a mentor. They opened up at a time when their own families experienced turmoil.
It's what Felix said was the "foundation of (Porter's) manipulation."
“He didn’t just manipulate the kids. He worked the parents," Felix said.
The lawyer recalled at least two boys who were only 11 years old when the abuse began.
While the plaintiff played to emotions, the defense focused on what was out of place, poking holes in the two victims’ testimonies.
Porter’s attorney, Brett McIntosh, said there were some aspects that didn’t add up, which called into question the victims’ credibility.
Timing also stuck out to McIntosh. The allegations surfaced some 20 years after the abuse. Why hadn’t they come forward sooner, McIntosh alluded. He implied that one of the victims, a 43-year-old, had done it out of his own manipulation to oust Henry Porter from Westcoast Center for Human Development.
Beyond the men's testimonies, McIntosh posed concerns with the investigation process itself. At one point in a formal interview with one of the victims, an investigator turned off his recorder for seven minutes.
The detective in question said the victim had been describing one thing, but motioning with his hands something different. He’d turned off the device to ease the victim and to figure out exactly what he meant.
“The Art of Manipulation”
A 49-year-old man, who said he’d been abused by Porter since he was 15 years old, recalled how Porter used to air his grievances on the pulpit and was called the “Hand of God.” He added Porter had an insatiable need to be praised by everyone.
But testimonies from at least four other church members didn’t concur. In fact, they all indicated that Porter never called himself the “Hand of God.”
The witnesses, which included that of the secretary administrative assistant, said that in all the years they’d been members of the church, they couldn’t recall Porter having ever aired his grievances at the pulpit.
Instead, their interactions with Porter had been warm and friendly, they said. When looking for spiritual guidance, they turned to him. That was the same for 26-year-old Liston Gregory, who called Porter his mentor and spiritual guide.
“It has been the most positive and most life-changing relationship in my life,” Gregory testified Friday.
Bridgette Edwards, Porter’s goddaughter, recalled during her testimony that the church was a tight-knit community with her godfather teaching everyone to have their own personal relationship with the Lord.
However, that wasn’t the experience of the 49-year-old victim who took the stand. He said he eventually told Porter to stop the abuse 14 years after it had started when he was 29 years old. He left the church soon after.
The victim told the court that after his mother’s death in 2019, he decided to release a video he made. The video — “The Art of Manipulation”— was posted on Oct. 28, 2019, and sparked the months-long investigation into the allegations of abuse by Porter.
However, it came with complications. A day before releasing the video, a link to the video was sent to Porter’s children. That’s when the texts, calls and Facetimes flooded in from Porter. The minister wanted to speak to the victim. He even hopped a plane for Fort Lauderdale to see if they could talk in person.
All forms of communication went unanswered, and Porter never got the chance to speak to him, testimonies revealed.
Following the release of the video, the Sarasota Police Department opened an investigation, interviewing several of the victims before arresting Porter on his 72nd birthday on Jan. 2, 2020.
But on Thursday, the victim had the support on his side that he wanted. His wife was seated in the front row of the gallery, at times dabbing her eyes with a crumpled tissue.
Evidence doesn’t turn up DNA match
The state introduced several items into evidence during the trial, including a black leather briefcase, a blue cloth bag, and two worn burgundy leather chairs.
These items, which had been collected from Porter’s office and home, had been described to investigators by two of the victims. Felix said the pulled evidence corroborated their stories of abuse.
The two chairs, specifically, were sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to be tested for ejaculatory fluid for DNA sampling.
Carrie McVaugh, a member of the Sarasota Police Department’s crime scene unit, donned neon-orange latex gloves before she removed brown paper wrapped around the leather chairs. She also revealed the contents of the two bags with each one having a pair of men’s boxer briefs inside.
Jared Baum, who was at the time of the investigation a DNA analyst for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, explained that while examining the two leather chairs, he’d found a white envelope and receipt stuffed in the crevice of one of the chairs.
When Baum tested both chairs, the envelope, and the receipt, several areas tested positive for fluids. Those areas were further tested to see if there could be enough DNA collected to compare or match to another DNA sample, Baum said. There hadn’t been.
Tears of joy, disappointment
After the reading of the verdict, tears were shed on both sides of the aisle as supporters of Porter were disappointed with the outcome while the victims felt the right verdict had come.
"We're disappointed but we respect the jury process, I always do," McIntosh said after the verdict was read. "So we'll move onto the stages of appeal that might exist."
The date of the sentencing will be determined later. Felix said the state will be seeking a life sentence for Porter.
Gabriela Szymanowska covers the legal system for the Herald-Tribune in partnership with Report for America. You can support her work with a tax-deductible donation to Report for America. Contact Gabriela Szymanowska at email@example.com, or on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Sarasota Herald-Tribune: Former Florida bishop Henry Lee Porter found guilty of sexual battery