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Deacon Falls from Grace

Crack dealer turned church leader is sentenced to seven years for having sex with a minor.

Her parents thought it was a safe place to send their daughter when afternoon classes were released from Minnie Howard Ninth Grade Center, and St. John’s Baptist Church on North Alfred Street offered a wealth of activities for the 14-year-old girl. According to court records, the teenager went to Bible study on Tuesday, choir practice on Wednesday, sign-language class on Thursday, dance class on Friday and then church on Sunday.

But one day in September 2005, the teenager ditched sign language class to spend time with Richard Bates, 33, a deacon at the church who led the youth ministry. In an empty church office, according to court records, they fondled each other and began an illicit relationship that would last for eight months. Over the course of the relationship, he sent nine photos of his penis to her cell phone and called her nearly every day — making 43 calls in one month. When one of the girl’s relatives told her parents what was going on, the girl’s father confronted church officials and called the police.

“This relationship was not only illegal, it was morally wrong,” said Cathryn Evans, the assistant commonwealth’s attorney who prosecuted the case. “And the nine different penis photos sent to her cell phone were certainly not a mistake.”

In October, Circuit Court Donald Haddock found Bates guilty of indecent liberties with a child, carnal knowledge of a minor and transmitting sexually explicit material to a teenager. Last week, Haddock sentenced Bates to seven years of incarceration. The sentencing hearing marks an end to the disturbing case in which a former crack dealer turned church deacon abused his position in a neighborhood church to take advantage of a minor — a relationship that Bates maintains was consensual.

“Do you or did you love the defendant,” Evans asked the girl in a pre-trial hearing, according to court records.

“Yes,” she responded.

BATES’ OWN TROUBLED childhood formed the basis for a young life of crime and drugs. After his first conviction for selling crack in the 1300 block of Wythe Street in 1993, Bates told investigators that he was raised by a single-mother who battled drug addiction herself. He said their home hosted a steady stream of drug users who served as male role models to Bates as a child. By the age of 8, he was smoking marijuana. He took his first drink of alcohol at age 14. On the night he graduated high school in 1989, he smoked crack for the first time.

“As a child, I was a slave to my impulses. Now I am a slave to my habits as are all grown men,” wrote Bates in a Dec. 17, 1993 handwritten letter to Judge Haddock. “My actions were ruled by greed, fear and drugs.”

When he was paroled, after spending more than three years in prison, Bates vowed to turn his life around. But he failed a drug test that was part of his probation regulations and again found himself in trouble. Seven months after being released from prison, he was arrested for selling crack on the 800 block of North Alfred Street — just one block from St. John’s Baptist Church.

“I was sitting around with some friends getting high,” Bates told police in a 1997 statement, according to court documents. “And I would sell crack to support my habits.”

HIS SECOND PRISON sentence would be different. Bates attended Bible study regularly and became a model prisoner. He said he had a conversion in the summer of 1997, and he told investigators that he had seen the error of his ways and had accepted Jesus Christ as his savior — vowing to make something of his troubled life when he was released from prison.

“Today, I’m all right because I have God in my life and I know now he’s going to be with me every step,” Bates said in one interview, according to prison records. “As long as I keep the faith.”

After being released from prison, he started attending St. John’s — the church in the same neighborhood where he had once dealt crack cocaine. But things had changed for Bates. In his new life, he became a deacon in charge of the youth ministry. Bates helped to improve the youth ministry, and he had the respect of the church’s leadership.

“He has always been frank and extremely regretful about his past lifestyle and the circumstances that brought about his previous incarceration,” wrote the Rev. Phillip Pointer, one of the two senior pastors at St. John’s, in a Dec. 11 letter. “I am personally aware of his diligence and commitment to live a better, changed life.”

Even after Bates was convicted in October, both of the church’s pastors defended Bates in letters to Judge Haddock. They said that the trial was unfair and complained about the first defense attorney, who dropped the case after claiming a conflict of interest. The church officials said that the second attorney didn’t have the time to put together an adequate defense.

“I don’t think that I have ever met a young man in the church who is more dedicated to the Lord’s work than as Richard,” wrote the Rev. Carey Pointer Sr., in a Dec. 4 letter. “In my heart, I am forced to consider whether there must have been some mitigating circumstances that brought on this conviction. From what I have discerned, the court did not have the full story.”

BUT THE RESPECT of the church officials was not enough to persuade the circuit court judge — the same judge who ruled over Bates first crack-dealing conviction 13 years ago — to let Bates off with a probation sentence. His defense attorney repeated that the relationship with the 14-year-old girl was consensual and pleaded for mercy from the court.

“He is a person who can be an asset to the community,” said Douglas Steinberg, the second attorney to represent Bates since his April arrest. “He is not a lost cause.”

Shortly before being sentenced, Bates spoke to the court in a faint voice that was almost inaudible in Courtroom 2 on the fourth floor of the city courthouse. Wearing a drab green prison jumpsuit marked “prisoner,” Bates said that he would remain committed to a religious life.

“I pray that the Lord will continue to use me,” Bates told Haddock.

Although prosecutors asked for 15 years, the judge sentenced Bates to seven — two for indecent liberties with a child, three for carnal knowledge of a minor and two transmitting sexually explicit material to the girl. As part of the sentence, Haddock added that Bates should have no contact with the victim or her family and that he should have no unsupervised contact with children.