Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Abusers employ similar tactics, experts contend

By Gary Harki

David Mullins didn't have a dad growing up.

His half-brother's father taught him how to drive, took him out to eat and spent time with him. All Mullins got to do was watch.

Then, when Mullins was about 14, he started going to church at the Shrewsbury Church of God near his home. He says the church's senior pastor, Sandy Martin Cook, took an interest in him.

"He started offering to do things with me, to teach me how to drive a car, to take me to McDonald's - all the things my brother would get to do with his dad but I didn't," Mullins said.

Then Mullins said Cook offered to let him stay at his house overnight, because the two were friends.

"He wanted us to sleep in the same room, the same bed. I thought it was weird but I didn't say anything," Mullins said.

That night, Mullins said, Cook performed oral sex on him: "I woke up later that night and there he was."

Child molesters have patterns in how they select, groom and keep their victims, says Anna Salter, a national expert on child sexual abuse who has interviewed many child molesters.

"What they do for sure is set up a double life," Salter said. "Sex offenders seem to understand intuitively that people trust people that they like. So they act in very likable ways."

Selecting victims

Jack Pierce chose his victims by how they carried themselves, said St. Albans Police Detective Mark Burdette.

"It was the kids that either had low self-esteem or possibly had problems within the family," Burdette said. "He could tell the difference between the ones where he could do what he wanted and the ones where there was no sense in trying."

Pierce, a piano teacher, had sexual contact with a male student in 2004, according to a criminal complaint filed earlier this month. Since he was arrested, more people have come forward. St. Albans police are working with 17 alleged victims, at least seven of whom are willing to testify, said Chief Joe Crawford.

Four alleged victims are involved in Sandy Cook's case, said State Police Trooper M.J. Napier.

Police say both cases have been bound over to a Kanawha County grand jury. Neither man has been indicted or convicted.

Child molesters will often pay as much attention to the family's opinion of them as to the child's, Salter said.

There are different types of child molesters, she said, but they are usually someone the parents and children know well.

Mike Lewis says he was 14 when he, like his cousin David Mullins, began being sexually molested by Cook.

"In 1992 or 1993 I started running around with him a lot," said Lewis, now a pastor in Cedar Grove. "My family was great, both my parents worked real hard, but with three kids at home it was tough. He took me out to eat, on trips. He always wanted me to attend church."

Lewis said he lived with Cook throughout high school. He said his parents thought the move was in his best interests.

"They believed he could give me opportunities I didn't have at home," Lewis said. "I didn't have the guts to say what was happening."

The abuse began not long after he moved in, Lewis said.

Grooming the family

Child molesters groom not only the child, but the entire family, Salter said.

"They win the parents' trust. In one case, this man, he was a music teacher and a 'good Christian,'" Salter said. "He volunteered to head the children's choir. Slowly over time he lulled several communities into thinking that he was just a good person who takes an interest in kids."

The man described how he offered to take underprivileged kids to professional baseball games.

"He always asked the mother with the kid there, to put pressure on the mother," Salter said. "And since it was so far away and they were leaving at dawn, she let him sleep over.... You see many variations on this process."

Pierce would take many of his piano students, boys and girls, on trips, Burdette said.

"He would take them to New York, buy them clothes, slowly work his way into their trust," he said.

Later, Pierce would show children gay pornography to groom them for abuse, the detective said.

"He would ask the kids, what do you think about his, or that and if they didn't respond quickly by saying that's disgusting, no, whatever, then he knew he got them," Burdette said.

Pierce would often ask the victims to stay at his house three or four times before he got up the nerve to get into bed with them, the detective said.

"It may sound stupid, but I don't think he thought what he was doing was a crime," he said.

Mullins said at 14, when he got curious about sex, he asked Cook questions.

"I got curious about women. I was feeling guilty and looking for guidance on how to deal with those thoughts from a pastor, a father figure," he said.

But Mullins said the conversations took turns that he was uncomfortable with. He believes now they were Cook's way of grooming him.

Salter said that often, if parents get suspicious and ask their kids if anything has happened, molesters have the kids so well groomed that they tell them about the questions.

"That gives them warning to hang back, not to touch the kid when the parent is around," she said.

Public persona

Child abusers set up a public persona so that when abuse allegations arise, people simply don't believe them, Salter said.

"This nice, kind, generous man is not their image of a child molester," she said.

The public persona also creates problems for the victims.

"It's extremely confusing for the kids. They feel betrayed, bad about turning them in, bad about when they go to jail," she said. "There are times when they are kinder to the kids than anyone has been to them in their entire lives."

Lewis said he lived with Cook through his high school years because he was afraid of the alternative.

He said he was convinced if he left Cook's house, the pastor would find another child to abuse. If he turned Cook in, he said, he was convinced the church would collapse.

"I didn't realize how big the circle of abuse was," he said.

Both Cook and Pierce had been accused of sexual misconduct in the past.

Pierce taught the children of many prominent families in Charleston, Burdette said. "There were students like that, but most were everyday students that enjoyed music of singing and took lessons from him," he said. "The oldest complaint we got was from 1968."

Lewis said Cook was accused of abuse around 1990, but the allegations never made it to police.

In 1990 Pierce was accused of sexually abusing a young boy, Crawford said. The case went to the grand jury but he was never formally charged, Crawford said.

"A lot of times you hear things but you don't have evidence to support it," he said.

State of denial

The extent of a sex abuser's actions seldom becomes known, Salter said: "Child molesters are very professional and do a good job of [hiding their actions]."

Mullins says Cook abused him one time and tried to abuse him once after that. Mullins left the church.

"There were times when I went around him because I didn't want anyone to know something was wrong," he said. "I couldn't understand it coming from someone supposed to be a man of God."

Lewis said he finally stopped the abuse shortly before he left Cook's house. It didn't deter him from becoming a pastor himself, he said.

"He would tell me, 'These things have to happen for God to use your life,'" Lewis said of the abuse. "I was lucky to have many people around me who had strong relationships with God. At the time I thought the church revolved around one man. Now I know it is about a personal relationship with God."

People often just can't face the fact that someone they like, someone they trust, is a child predator, Salter said.

"Often you get a lot of denial from people. They confuse likeability with trustworthiness," she said. "You can't recognize a sex offender. Most people don't want to face that fact."

The victims of child sexual abuse often have a lot of shame, she said.

"Most got talked into going along with it for a long period of time," she said. "They can't explain that to themselves. They don't really understand why they didn't scream and run from the room."

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