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Sentencing On Tuesday In NH Rape Case With Colorado Ties

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(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

(AP Photo/Dave Martin)

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) – A convicted rapist, accused of impregnating a 15-year-old church member, faces up to 54 years in a New Hampshire prison.

Ernest Willis, 52, of Gilford is to be sentenced Tuesday in Merrimack Superior Court.

Willis and the teenager, who also babysat his children, attended a fundamentalist Baptist church in Concord that made her apologize to the congregation when she became pregnant. The pastor helped ship her to the home of a Colorado couple she didn’t know — with her mother’s consent — and arrange for her baby to be adopted.

The divorced father of four pleaded guilty in advance of his trial on multiple sexual assault charges to one count of statutory rape. He said the sex was consensual and happened just once, while acknowledging the girl was under the legal age of consent at the time. He has not yet been sentenced for that crime.

A jury in May convicted Willis of forcibly raping the girl twice in 1997 — once during a driving lesson and another time at her Concord home. Concord police had shelved the case that year when they couldn’t locate the victim, unaware she’d been moved to Colorado. They revived the investigation last year when they learned of her whereabouts.

“She got shamed, shunned, silenced and sent away,” prosecutor Wayne Coull told jurors.

Lawyers for Willis did not return calls seeking comment.

The case that lay dormant for well over a decade was resuscitated partly because of the Internet.

A former member of Trinity Baptist Church who witnessed the teenager’s church discipline session described it last year on a website maintained by a group called “Independent Fundamentalist Baptist cult survivors.”

Website founder, Jocelyn Zichterman, followed up with the former church member, Matt Barnhart, and learned the girl’s identity. Zichterman passed the information on to the Concord police.

The Associated Press typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Tina Anderson said she wanted her name used and has been interviewed extensively by the media.

She testified she was in “complete shock” when she picked up the phone on her husband’s birthday in early 2010 and a Concord detective asked her if she wanted to talk about what happened in 1997.

Willis was arrested in May 2010 and remained free on $100,000 bail until he was convicted May 27 of this year. His bond was automatically revoked. Anderson gave her victim impact statement that day as well, so she would not have to return to New Hampshire from her Arizona home.

“When Ernie raped me, he destroyed the person I was and, in that moment, filled me with shame and guilt that I’ve battled against repeatedly,” she told the court. “When he decided that his sexual gratification was the most important thing in his life, he shattered mine.”

She said she was heartbroken when she gave her infant daughter to adoptive parents two days after her birth in 1998.

Anderson did not return calls from the AP. Zichterman, who has become her confidante and attended Willis’s trial, said Anderson is not returning to New Hampshire for the sentencing.

“She’s just staying behind the scenes,” Zichterman said.

She said Anderson is focusing on her three young children and tutoring college students online from her home.

- By LYNNE TUOHY, Associated Press

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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