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. 

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 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.

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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.

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“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.”