A former local pastor, whose arrest on felony charges in March shocked the Columbus community, has apologized for his choices after entering guilty pleas to two felony counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Justin White, 38, who had been pastor of First Christian Church in Columbus, pleaded guilty Monday in Bartholomew Circuit Court to the two Class C felony charges.

The charges allege that between May 7, 2013, and June 30, 2014, White aided or induced a juvenile to commit an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult, court documents state. In the two counts, he is accused of aiding and inducing the juvenile to deal in two narcotic drugs, hydrocodone and oxycontin, court documents state.

In a brief interview after the court hearing, White talked about a drug addiction that he acknowledged in interviews with police investigators and shared with church leaders, and the impact drugs had on him.

Story continues below gallery

“My addiction started with a prescription from the doctor for headaches,” White said. “And along the way I made poor decisions. I wasn’t honest with myself or with my doctor, and this led to poor choices.”

White said he loved First Christian Church, where he was senior pastor for nearly six years, whose congregation and church elders had been supportive of him while he battled substance abuse.

White submitted his resignation March 12, which was accepted the following day by the church leaders. That was nearly two weeks before White’s March 24 arrest.

“I apologize for the choices I made,” White said Monday.

The plea agreement calls for the prosecution to dismiss a Level 5 felony charge of insurance fraud. White had been accused of staging a burglary at his home to obtain insurance money to pay a drug debt, court documents state.

Defendants convicted of a Class C felony could face a jail term of two to eight years and a fine of up to $10,000, court documents state.

It will be up to Bartholomew Circuit Judge Kelly Benjamin whether to accept the plea agreement and determine what White’s sentence will be.

Benjamin told White that the plea agreement is between the prosecutor’s office and him, and that the court is not bound by it at this time. White could withdraw the guilty pleas if the court decides not to accept the plea agreement.

The agreement states that a decision rests with the court on whether the sentences are served concurrently or consecutively.

Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash said he could not comment on the plea agreement until the court has accepted it.

Benjamin set sentencing for 9 a.m. Oct. 13.

Robbery triggered investigation

Felony charges against White, 3255 Sunrise Drive, have been pending since March, when he was accused of staging a Dec. 18, 2016 burglary at his home, court documents state.

Mark Dove, White’s attorney, said White denies staging the burglary.

“He has denied that from the very beginning,” the attorney said.

When White was asked why he decided to plead guilty to two contributing to the delinquency of a minor charges, one that was amended and one that was added as part of the plea bargain, Dove replied, “Because he was guilty of those crimes and those crimes only.”

While employed at First Christian Church, White was given an extended leave of absence in July 2015 to deal with an opioid addiction that began after he was prescribed with pain medication from a doctor he was seeing for headaches, a church representative said.

The probable-cause affidavit for the charges against White states the former pastor overdosed on heroin July 27, 2015, and police administered naloxone, a drug-overdose antidote, to revive him.

After that incident, White was treated at an addiction-treatment center in Minnesota, court records state. After returning to Columbus, he resumed his role as First Christian Church senior minister under requirements from the church which included counseling, random drug testing and monitoring by the elders, the church representative said.

White reported the Dec. 18 burglary to police, saying he had been at church preaching when the incident occurred, court records state. White made an insurance claim seeking $11,460 in compensation for the items, court records state.

However, as detectives investigated, they found no signs of forced entry to the home and became suspicious regarding other factors in the burglary.

White advised church elders Dec. 24 that he was being accused by police of planning the robbery, church leaders told the congregation.

During Monday’s change-of-plea hearing, Benjamin asked White whether he was undergoing mental illness treatment and whether he was taking any medications or suffering any emotional distress that would preclude him from understanding what was happening at the hearing and the consequences of entering guilty pleas.

White told the judge he was a drug addict in recovery and has received treatment and continues to attend meetings to recover from addiction.

During the hearing, when questioned by Nash, White said he admitted encouraging, aiding, inducing or causing a juvenile to deal in hydrocodone on one or more occasions in one charge, and to deal in oxycontin on one or more occasions in another.

Steve Wiggins, who was chairman of First Christian’s elder board when White was arrested, said the church does not have a comment about the guilty pleas being entered.

“It’s history at this point,” he said.

Working to help homeless

White, who said after the hearing he has been clean for two years, recently began working at a camp in Camby to establish transitional housing for homeless people.

“Part of my passion is to help other people going through addiction and other kinds of painful moments,” he said.

White’s telephone and email is listed with an entity called Still Waters Church at Camp Camby, which was to begin services earlier this month.

The organization in Camby has started a Celebrate Recovery program in Plainfield which meets twice a week, and White said in addition to attending those meetings, he is seeing a counselor once a week.

“Recovery is my the number-one priority in my life,” he said.

What's next

Justin White, 38, former senior pastor at First Christian Church in Columbus, is scheduled to be sentenced 9 a.m. Oct. 13 in Bartholomew Circuit Court after agreeing to a plea bargain with the county prosecutor’s office, admitting guilt in two Class C felony charges. However, Judge Kelly Benjamin must first decide whether she will accept the plea agreement, which is between White and the prosecutor’s office.

Pull Quote

“I wasn’t honest with myself or with my doctor, and this led to poor choices.”

— Justin White, former First Christian Church senior pastor

Author photo
Julie McClure is assistant managing editor of The Republic. She can be reached at jmcclure@therepublic.com or (812) 379-5631.