Church member pleads guilty in NH teen rape case

AP News
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Posted: May 17, 2011 6:30 PM
Church member pleads guilty in NH teen rape case

A man pleaded guilty Tuesday to sexual assault in the rape of a 15-year-old fellow church member who got pregnant and was later shipped out of state by church leaders to have her baby.

Ernest Willis of Gilford admitted that he raped and impregnated his children's baby sitter, Tina Anderson, in 1997. He maintains that the sex was consensual but acknowledges that the girl was under the legal age of consent.

The Associated Press typically doesn't identify those who say they are victims of sexual assault, but Anderson said she wanted her name used. She's now 29 and lives in Arizona.

Willis' trial on three counts of forcible rape and an additional felonious sex assault charge is scheduled to begin May 23. He faces 3 1/2 to 7 years in prison on Tuesday's guilty plea.

Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler said he would pronounce Willis guilty on the charge of felonious sexual assault once the jury returns its verdicts on the other charges. But he said that even if the trial ends in a mistrial, Willis' guilty plea would stand.

Smukler ruled Tuesday that prosecutors cannot introduce evidence that Willis offered to punch the teen in the stomach to trigger a miscarriage. The judge said that, particularly in light of Willis' admission that he had sex with Anderson, her testimony about Willis' offer to punch her was irrelevant and inflammatory.

Prosecutor Wayne Coull objected to the judge's ruling, saying of Willis: "He offered to use violence on this child ... to conceal the crime."

Smukler also ruled that Anderson couldn't use the term "cult" in describing her experiences with Concord's Trinity Baptist Church, which she and Willis both attended when she was 15, or her involvement with the fundamentalist Baptist religion in general.

Anderson, who is expected to testify on the first day of the trial, said her mother took her to former Trinity Baptist Church pastor Chuck Phelps for counseling when she learned she was pregnant. She said Phelps arranged to relocate her to live with a Baptist family in Colorado and put her baby up for adoption.

Police said they tried to investigate the rape allegations in 1997 but couldn't find Anderson.

Phelps, she said, made her stand before the Trinity Baptist congregation and apologize for getting pregnant out of wedlock.

Smukler has yet to rule on whether Phelps must testify about admissions Willis made to him about the alleged assaults. Willis' lawyers claim that they are privileged. Coull argued that Phelps had a lawyer present during the conversations and that undermines any privilege between a member of the clergy and a congregant.

The penalty for aggravated felonious sexual assault is 10 to 20 years.