The fall of man
First Baptist Church of Benton music minister David Pierce led a secret life for two decades. Then it all unraveled.
October 1, 2009
If you need a reason why music minister David Pierce was able to do what he did for so long -- to sexually victimize scores of boys at the First Baptist Church of Benton over the past 20 years or more -- you probably need to look no further than the inch-thick stack of letters that flooded into the Saline County prosecuting attorney's office in the days and weeks after his arrest last April. The letters urging leniency for Pierce, some from Benton's most powerful citizens, kept coming in even after he had been booked on 54 counts of sexual indecency with a child; even after it started to seep out that dozens might be involved; even after the rumors about his crimes spread through the city like brushfire.
Reading those pleas on his behalf, it quickly becomes clear that Pierce was trusted completely by a great many people. It also becomes clear that comprehension of his crimes by those who knew and loved him has only come grudgingly, if at all.
There are a few letters in that stack encouraging Saline County Prosecutor Ken Casady to throw the book at Pierce. Most beg for probation, saying that -- no matter what the truth of the allegations -- stripping Pierce's livelihood and reputation from him was punishment enough. They cite his devotion to the congregation, his age, his diabetes, the danger to child molesters in prison, and his failing health. The writers speak of times when Pierce ministered to their dying relatives, sang at their weddings and planned their loved ones' funerals. A pastor at a large Little Rock congregation, after acknowledging that Pierce's crimes were “sick, twisted and perverted,” asked that Pierce receive probation, or -- in the event he was sent to jail -- be allowed to serve his sentence at a minimum security prison or a treatment facility for sex offenders.
Despite these calls for leniency, 56-year-old David Pierce sits behind bars at this writing, waiting for transfer to the Arkansas Department of Correction. The church, meanwhile, faced with the possibility of civil litigation, has largely closed ranks. Pastor Rick Grant provided brief written statements in response to questions posed by the Arkansas Times. But representatives of the church declined to be interviewed about the case. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes attributed to church officials and the victim known as “Kurt” in this story are all taken from interviews conducted by the Saline County sheriff's office during the investigation. For many of the boys who were caught in Pierce's strange web of voyeurism, control and lust, his arrest and conviction still hasn't brought them peace.
No one but Pierce knows long it had really been going on, but for First Baptist Church as an institution, it began in late October 2008. One night after Sunday evening services, Senior Pastor Rick Grant was approached by the father of a young man we'll call Robert. By then in his early 30s, Robert had once been an energetic member of FBC's 130-strong youth choir, known as Pure Energy. During his time with the choir, Robert had been closely mentored by the church's associate pastor of music, David Pierce. That night after services, Robert's father told Grant that there was more to that relationship than prayer.
Robert's father told the pastor that while talking to Robert about some recent marital troubles, his son had confided that “something wasn't right” with his once-close relationship with Pierce. While the father wouldn't elaborate to Grant, he urged the pastor to look into it. Grant told him that the charges were “a big deal” and urged him to meet with him again soon to discuss it further.
It's easy to see why Grant may have initially doubted the allegations. David Pierce had been the music minister at FBC -- one of Saline County's biggest churches, with a congregation that hovers right around 2,500 -- for 29 years by then, and was beloved and respected in both the church and the community. At least one church member had gone so far as to name his son after Pierce. Grant himself had been employed at the church for 26 years, and had been senior pastor for 10. Grant later told detectives that if -- prior to Pierce's arrest -- they had polled those in the pews at First Baptist Church as to who the most Godly man in the room was, a majority would likely have said David Pierce.
Robert's father came to another meeting with Grant, and reiterated vague charges of inappropriate conduct. Grant told the father that he should address it with David. If the father didn't, Grant told him, he would.
Before that could happen, however, the situation seemed to resolve itself. Two or three weeks after the initial allegation, Robert's father and mother found Grant in the foyer of the church after Sunday services. “He said: ‘Pastor Rick, I met with David. Everything's OK,' ” Grant told investigators. “At that point, I didn't really do much about that. I just tried to ask him just to affirm that, number one, he did talk to David and, number two, it was legit as far as what they talked about.” The issue seemed to be resolved in the minds of Robert's parents, so Grant let it drop.
Then, on a Friday morning in December a few weeks before Christmas, a young woman came to Grant's office, visibly upset. Just before Thanksgiving, she told Grant, she and her husband -- whom we'll call Kurt -- were arguing when Kurt made a shocking revelation. His once-close relationship with David Pierce, forged since he was in junior high, hadn't stopped at mentoring.
Now in his 20s, Kurt is a successful professional who still lives in Saline County. Having grown up at FBC, where David Pierce was trusted above all, he didn't think anything sinister was going on when Pierce approached him in the 7th grade and offered to guide him on his walk of faith. In the church, Pierce was well known for closely mentoring boys as they grew into young men.
“David would always have a group of three guys at a time,” Kurt told police. “He always said that Christ had twelve apostles, then he had three that he was closer to than the others. He always said that those were the three that he chose to kind of disciple a little bit more in-depth.”
After Kurt agreed to allow David Pierce to be his mentor, he began spending a good bit more time with the older man. Pierce was an avid fly fisherman, and they would often take trips on the river or a lake near Benton in Pierce's pickup truck. The first overtly sexual talk between Kurt and Pierce happened during one of those trips.
“It was one of those very vivid memories for me,” Kurt said. “He asked me if I masturbated much. After that, it got more detailed. How many times? What do you think about? How do you do it? Then it got to: How big are you? That led to the measuring.”
In a pattern that would become all too familiar to detectives investigating the case, Kurt related to them that soon after his discipleship with Pierce began, Pierce told him about something he called “accountability,” and the “Four S's” of development. Though the list of S-words that Pierce told each of his young disciples was different ? some heard he was interested in their Scholastic Health, others in their Social Health ? the one constant was his interest in their Sexual Health.
“It started out very benign,” Kurt told police. “But the longer it went on, the more emphasis was placed on: 'How are you doing sexually?' and the questions got more detailed and more explicit. That was over the course of months, maybe a year. Everything was very methodical and systematic.”
Around the time Pierce told Kurt about the Four S's he also introduced him to something he called “charting” ? taking measurements of boys' bodies to chart their growth during puberty. Pierce carried a seamstress's tape in his truck, and had another in his desk at the church. Many of the older boys had allowed him to measure their bodies, Pierce told Kurt. As proof, he showed Kurt a spreadsheet chart, with columns of entered numbers. Beside those entries were the names of many older boys Kurt knew, and some of his closest friends.
“He was real slick,” Kurt said. “He would throw out names of older guys, I guess to make me feel OK.”
With Kurt, as with most of the boys, the charting started out with Pierce measuring biceps and chest, but eventually progressed to measuring his penis. Always very careful about not allowing himself to touch a boy's genitalia (of all the witnesses interviewed, only two said Pierce ever touched his penis; once while Pierce put his hand down a victim's pants while ostensibly trying to teach him to sing from his diaphragm, and another who says Pierce grabbed his penis outright), Pierce would first measure the boy's flaccid penis for length and circumference. Then he would tell the boy to stretch his penis to make it erect. Once that measurement was taken, Pierce would often tell the boy that since he was hard, he should “finish” by masturbating. Pierce would usually stay in the room while the boy brought himself to orgasm.
Once the charting started, the relationship between Pierce and his young disciples became increasingly sexualized. In his office and truck, Pierce kept bottles of flavored lube, and would often invite boys to masturbate with him in a windowless room near the bell tower in the church. In the summertime, Pierce would take boys -- sometimes three at a time -- to the Saline River, ostensibly to fish. In fact, they were making trips to a place Pierce called “Goober Heaven,” a low spot in the river where Pierce claimed the rushing water was perfect for giving a man an erection. Pierce and the boys would sit in the water naked, then masturbate.
“He would take a boy fishing,” Rick Grant told police, “and nobody would think anything of it. If a parent did think [something, it would be], well, it's just David. Everybody loves David. David is the Golden Child. There's a lot of guilt that a lot of us carry because they didn't see that. … People come up and say: you know, I knew that didn't look right, but it was David.”
For Kurt and many of the other boys, the slow but steady initiation into David's clique meant that they were largely blinded to the fact that what Pierce was doing was wrong. While Pierce often told his young proteges not to tell the adults in their lives about their sexual activities, he would share information freely about his experiences with other boys in the church.
“He was pretty open about the things that he would do with the other guys,” Kurt told investigators. “[He'd say] 'Me and [another boy] went to the river the other day, and found a great new spot to sit. Let‘s go check it out.' ”
As was the case with many of the young men involved, Pierce's quasi-sexual relationship with Kurt lasted well into his 20s. It only ended when Kurt came to Pierce to tell him he planned to get engaged. In response, Pierce produced a synthetic vagina, placed it on a couch, and instructed Kurt to have sex with it as a way, Pierce said, of “practicing” for his wedding night.
“That was the one time that I finally realized that he was watching,” Kurt told detectives. “That it wasn't this thing that we were separately doing in the same room or area. He was watching.”
These were the memories Kurt was struggling with by the time he told his wife the truth the day before Thanksgiving 2008. For Pastor Rick Grant, who had already heard the vague allegations by Robert's father regarding David Pierce, Kurt's story must have hit him like a brick. During a series of meetings between Kurt and Grant, Kurt told the pastor everything.
After calling in church personnel committee chairman Dennis Byrd, Grant brought Pierce in and confronted him about the allegations. Byrd and Grant had discussed how it might go; that Pierce might possibly get emotional, cry, or resign. Instead, Byrd was taken aback by how little emotion Pierce showed at hearing the news.
“I wouldn't say he showed no emotion,” Byrd told investigators. “But he just didn't seem repentant to me. He said he was sorry that we were having to go through this, Rick and I, and he said something to the effect of ‘Boy, you really picked a bad time to be on the personnel committee.' ”
At that meeting, Pierce didn't deny any of the allegations leveled against him by Kurt. Instead, Pierce spoke of the events Kurt had described as a one-time run of bad decision-making, during a time when he was “questioning his manhood.”
“He said, 'I thought all of that was behind me,' ” Byrd told police, “indicating to us, at least -- I don't know, maybe it was what we wanted to hear at the time -- that this was something that had occurred to him during a season in his life.”
Believing that it had been a one-time occurrence, mostly consisting of sexual talk, church officials decided that Pierce would be allowed to keep his job as long as he met certain conditions. During a Feb. 8 meeting with Byrd, Grant and Kurt, Pierce was made to sign a document saying that he would disclose the names of all the boys whom he'd had inappropriate contact with, would apologize, admit wrong, and ask for forgiveness, and would report to the pastor as to the outcome. A record of the event would be placed in his permanent record, the document states, adding that if Pierce was untruthful in any way during the process, he would be fired immediately. Eventually, he would provide Grant with a list of 12 names.
“David talked for a long time,” Kurt said, “and he offered this big long explanation, and his whole point was to convince Rick that it wasn't something that was happening anymore. It was kind of a rough patch in his life and he was through it.”
After the meeting, Pierce approached Kurt and asked him if he'd like to go out to lunch sometime to talk. Then he gave him a photocopied page from a devotional pamphlet about forgiveness.
That might have been that, but as winter turned to spring, Rick Grant spoke more with Kurt, and began to suspect that Pierce had been less than truthful about who was involved and what had gone on. In early April, Grant's suspicions were confirmed when he received a call from another victim, a man close in age to Kurt. Thought Grant still believed that Pierce's dalliances with boys had been confined to an isolated period in the past, he felt that ? given this latest victim, who called what had gone on sexual abuse ? he had no recourse but to fire Pierce. On April 11, after Pierce returned from a trip to Chicago with a group of church seniors, he was summoned to a 9 a.m. meeting with Grant, Dennis Byrd, and chairman of deacons Paul White.
“I explained to him that my responsibility is to the church and to protect the church, and I terminated him,” Grant told police. “He did not resign. I fired him.” Again, the three men found themselves taken aback by Pierce's reaction to the news that he had been fired. He seemed devoid of emotion.
“He specifically said something to the effect that your sins will find you out,” Byrd told investigators. “He was still very matter-of-fact in his discussion. He did not openly weep or anything like that, which I guess I wanted him to do. He did throw his head back one time. I took it as more of: ‘I guess it finally caught up with me.' ”
After Pierce had been escorted out of the building, Grant informed the administrative staff that Pierce had been terminated. He then drafted a letter to be read to the church as a whole at Sunday services the next day. A statement released by the church said: “First Baptist Church has terminated the employment of David Pierce, our longtime music minister, as a result of serious moral failures on his part. The events for which he was terminated occurred several years ago, but left the church no alternative other than to dismiss him.” Grant also encouraged parents to talk to their kids about their relationship with Pierce.
Immediately some church members began questioning the firing, asking why ? if the events with the young men happened so long ago ? Pierce had been fired.
After Pierce's firing was to the congregation, the floodgates opened. In the following weeks, young men came forward seemingly every day to admit to parents and FBC youth pastor Clay Cunningham that they had been “charted” by or had engaged in mutual masturbation with David Pierce. One young man revealed that Pierce once drove him to adult shops in Little Rock, then waited in the car while the boy bought sex toys for him. Others said that Pierce had given them pornography from a stash in his garage. Like Kurt, at least one other young man reported that when he came to tell his old friend he was getting engaged, Pierce had encouraged him to have sex with an artificial vagina for “practice.” Almost all recited the four S's, the measuring of the penis and the mutual masturbation at the church and while on trips on the river.
At the same time, other boys who had been close to Pierce -- even some who admitted that what happened was abuse -- came out in defense of their old mentor. One launched a kind of lobbying campaign on Pierce's behalf, calling other victims and asking them to reconcile with Pierce. In the stack of letters asking Ken Casady for leniency for David Pierce is a missive written by a victim, saying that he sees Pierce as a “misguided friend” who only wanted to help him with his sexual development.
“The one time, [when I was masturbating] in his office, when I did see his face, and he was looking at me, I searched closely and I did not see a face full of lust or objectifying sexual glee. I just saw the face of someone who was trying, in his own very misguided and ultimately harmful way, to be a friend to me and to help me understand something about sexuality.”
As more and more young men came forward, a pattern began to emerge: David often went after kids with problems ? kids whose parents were divorcing, kids who had lost a close relative, kids who had recently experienced a trauma in their family. “The pattern seems to be,” Grant told investigators, “that David would befriend these kids who had a personality or home life or whatever that he could manipulate.” At the same time, another pattern is still developing: many of the young men who were the disciples of David Pierce have spent their 20s and 30s struggling with their demons. Several have seen their marriages wrecked, or nearly wrecked. Some have sought treatment for substance abuse.
Though the five-year statute of limitations had run out on the older cases, a younger victim -- recently graduated from high school -- stepped forward, spurring a criminal investigation. On April 24, Pierce was arrested on 54 counts of sexual indecency with a child, a class D felony. Pierce was spared more serious charges because he refrained from sexually touching his victims for the most part, a move prosecutor Ken Casady and several of those interviewed by the police saw as calculated by Pierce to get him less jail time if he were ever found out. As Pierce himself put it in a letter to church administration on April 22 in which he inquired as to whether he would be afforded a severance package by the church: “While I fully acknowledge the sinfulness and immorality of my past behavior, I did not engage in actual sexual contact -- specifically, oral sex, intercourse, or masturbating another individual -- with any person, nor do I believe that in recent conversation with legal counsel that I have violated criminal or civil law.”
Eventually, detectives would find two more young men whose allegations were recent enough to fall within the statute of limitations. Facing a messy and embarrassing trial, Pierce entered into a plea agreement on Aug. 27 in which he pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual indecency with a child. Sentenced to 10 years (two six-year terms that will run concurrently, two four-year terms to run concurrently, and two years suspended), Pierce could be out as early as December 2012.
The path that leads away from David Pierce isn't easy for either the victims or First Baptist Church. Back on April 25, when Rick Grant spoke to police investigators, the decision to fire David Pierce was clearly still rippling through his congregation.
“I've got people who still believe that David Pierce does no wrong,” Grant said. “I've got church members who want to fire me, because they can't come to grips that this man has done this. I've got family members who want to kill me because of [pursuing] this legal issue. You know what? I don't care. … I know that he's not going to hurt any more kids. So I don't care.”
Months later, the church is still grappling with what happened. In a written statement provided in response to questions from the Arkansas Times, Grant said that Pierce had betrayed everyone in the church. “I trusted David; parents of victims trusted David; all of our ministers and church family trusted David. That trust, we know now, was betrayed. It appears that trust was turned into power over some of the young men in our church. That power apparently is what kept victims silent for so long. The good news is that we don't worship ministers; our faith doesn't depend on trust in people. We are here to serve a great and mighty God.”
If there are heroes in all, it's the young men who came forward to talk about the embarrassing and painful things that happened to them as boys. Without them, it's likely that everything stays: Pierce, the silent fraternity of victims, the line of new children waiting to be victimized.
One victim, who spoke to the Arkansas Timeson the condition of anonymity, said he's happy that the plea agreement saved the younger victims the pain of testifying about what happened to them. “Growing up in Saline County, the bigger thing to me is that he's been exposed to the community,” the young man said. “He could spend the rest of his life in jail. It's not going to make what happened to me any easier to deal with. It's not going to make my problems go away.”
Now in his late 20s, he has wrestled with his past. Since he came to the realization a few years back that what happened with Pierce was wrong, he's had marital problems, and came close to losing his faith.
“When you lose your trust in the way you lose it when you're dealing with somebody like David Pierce, you lose not only your trust in David Pierce or ministers and the church, but your trust in organized religion,” he said. “You lose your trust in God, and as a result of that you start to lose your faith in God. You kind of start all over with that.”
He hopes that his story will make someone pause before they put absolute faith in another David Pierce. “Especially in the South where we grow up in churches,” he said, “we're taught this blind faith in religion that turns into blind faith in pastors. That's how you have things like this that can go on for 30-plus years.”