Former pastor gets 3 years

Judge doubts remorse of ex-church leader

The former pastor of one of Columbus’ largest churches mouthed “I love you” and “I’ll be OK” to his wife just moments after he was sentenced in Bartholomew Circuit Court to three years in prison on one of two Class C felony counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Justin White, 38, who was senior pastor of First Christian Church in Columbus for six years, was asked to remove items from his pockets and was led from the Bartholomew Circuit Courtroom in handcuffs by a Bartholomew County Sheriff’s deputy following the sentencing by Judge Kelly Benjamin.

White, who moved with his family from Columbus to Camby this week, is awaiting assignment to the Indiana Department of Correction while incarcerated at the Bartholomew County Jail. That process can take several weeks, said Mark Dove, his attorney from North Vernon.

White has been serving as a pastor of Still Waters Church and a counselor at Camp Camby, near Camby, since early August, ministering to the homeless and the addicted and setting up a Celebrate Recovery program there.

White, who had testified during the six-hour hearing in his own behalf along with his wife Michelle, was stoic throughout the hearing, a demeanor that changed when his wife buried her face in her hands and audibly sobbed in the courtroom after Benjamin concluded the hearing.

Several of the more than 25 people who crowded into the visitor’s area and stood at the courtroom entryway reached forward to comfort her, many of them crying along with her. Earlier, a group of about eight supporters held hands and prayed inside the courtroom while waiting for White’s sentence to be announced.

Before White was taken to jail, he gave his wife a hug as she cried, and whispered to her, “I’m sorry. I love you. Be strong. You stay strong, I’ll stay strong. I love you.”

White supporters gathered in a circle outside the courtroom following the hearing, with a prayer led by Dove.

Benjamin sentenced White to three years in prison for the first count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, and gave him two days credit for time already served. On the second count, she gave him a four-year prison sentence, to be served consecutively to the first jail term, and suspended it, placing him on probation after he is released from prison.

She ordered that he is not to have unsupervised contact with juveniles and is not to do any counseling of juveniles while incarcerated or on probation. He was also ordered to pay $185 in court costs and probation fees.

When Dove asked that his client be given a few days to get his affairs in order prior to reporting to the Bartholomew County Jail, Benjamin said he would be remanded to the sheriff’s department immediately.

Plea bargain reached

In August, White pleaded guilty as part of a plea bargain agreement to two charges of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, which alleged that he aided or induced a 16-year-old juvenile to commit an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult, court documents state. As part of the plea, White admitted he asked the juvenile to sell him two narcotic drugs, hydrocodone and oxycontin, court documents state.

The juvenile’s mother testified during Friday’s hearing that she approached White when he was First Christian pastor about having him sign court documents that would let her son out of house arrest to attend church. Her son had been expelled from school after being accused of possession of marijuana and several other drug-related charges.

The pastor offered to counsel the 16-year-old by going to his house at lunchtime to check on him and provide spiritual guidance, she said.

“I thought this was an answer to a prayer,” she said. “I thought he would share God’s word and be a great witness,” she said.

Her son wanted to be a coach and a pastor, she said.

“Justin was just the perfect person — he acted like he really loved my son and wanted to help him,” she said.

The counseling sessions increased in frequency, with no other adults present, when White would stop in at lunchtime to talk to the teen, beginning in May 2013, she said.

However, White initially asked the boy to obtain marijuana for his aunt who had cancer and then later asked for prescription pain pills, court documents state. Eventually, White asked the boy to obtain heroin for him, court documents state.

Meetings between White and the teen were documented through their communications on social media, including the teen’s demand for $300 from the pastor. White owed the juvenile about $1,000 for pain pills, heroin and other drugs at one point, court documents state.

The boy’s mother said White never apologized to her, or to her son, for betraying their trust and leading the teenager into a life of opioid abuse.

Sentencing testimony

Dove called five witnesses to testify for leniency for his client, including Brad Dobson, a Greenwood mental health/clinical addictions counselor who has been working with White since 2015, and Dove’s law partner, William Dillon of North Vernon, who grew up with White in Plainfield.

Also testifying was Randy Ebert, a technology company owner in Plainfield, who purchased a former Nazarene camp meeting property in Camby and has been working with White to turn it into a residential addictions and homelessness intervention center along with establishing a new church there.

The most riveting testimony, however, came from White and his wife, who each talked about how White’s opioid addiction had affected their family.

Michelle White testified that she has been married to Justin for more than 16 years, a marriage that produced three children — boys ages 14 and 12 and a daughter, age 8.

She described how her husband went from a hands-on father to one that withdrew from family life as his addiction progressed.

She described the changes the family had gone through since he agreed to counsel the 16-year-old at the teen’s home beginning in 2013, culminating in a more in-depth investigation into a Dec. 18, 2016, burglary at the White home that police allege was staged to raise money to pay off a drug debt, court records state. Justin White denied staging the burglary and the insurance fraud charge was dismissed as part of the plea bargain.

While at First Christian, White was given an extended leave of absence in July 2015 to deal with heroin addiction after he received a pain medication prescription for headaches, according to court documents. A probable-cause affidavit states he overdosed on heroin July 27, 2015, and police saved his life by administering naloxone to revive him.

During cross-examination by Nash, Michelle White admitted that she found heroin in the pocket of her husband’s shorts after he was taken to the hospital after the overdose.

Asked what she did with it, she said she flushed it down the toilet in the hospital room — but that she didn’t know it was heroin.

Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash asked why she did not tell police or anyone about finding the drug.

“I just thought, let’s get rid of it,” Michelle White testified.

She was also asked to provide the court with the name of the person she called from her husband’s phone who had supplied the drug, who she called to ask what her husband had been given.

“I was told, just leave him there, he will be fine,” she said, and added that she could not recall the person’s name.

When Nash pointed out that witnesses for her husband had been testifying for more than an hour and no one had mentioned the teenage victim or showed any remorse for him, Michelle White said the boy was an addict.

“I hope he gets the opportunity for treatment. I don’t have any ill will toward him,” she said.

During his testimony, White apologized to the teenager and his family and said there was not a day that went by that he didn’t feel regret for purchasing drugs from him.

“What I did was wrong. He is the victim and I want him and his family to know how sorry I am,” White said.

Before declaring White’s sentence, Benjamin talked about the responsibilities that come with being a trusted leader.

“Many people expect to have that trust in the leader of their church, and Mr. White, you are a part of obliterating such a trust,” the judge said.

She described White as going into the 16-year-old’s home under the pretense of helping him spiritually and instead leading him into narcotics addiction.

“You did this while standing before people in the church, preaching to people about right from wrong and to watch their own behavior,” she said. “When you were one-on-one behind closed doors, you led him (the victim) down another path.”

She told White that instead of apologizing to the teenager, and getting him help, he abandoned him.

“Today is the first day that I have heard you have even thought about him,” the judge said.

After citing the mitigating factors of White’s limited criminal history and efforts to rehabilitate himself, she then cited the damage he had caused to the juvenile, saying the pastor used his position to the detriment of the community and to his church family.

“The court does question your remorse,” Benjamin said.

Earlier in the hearing, Nash asked White for a definition of the word “pastor,” receiving the response from him that it means “shepherd,” or someone taking care of a flock of members.

“Do you ever wonder how his life might be different if you had done the opposite of what you did?” Nash asked, referring to the teen victim.

“It haunts me every day,” White said.

At the end of his closing statement, Nash asked what is more to be feared, a wolf or a wolf in sheep’s clothing, circling back to White’s definition of what a pastor is.

“And what is worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing?” Nash asked, rhetorically. “A wolf posing as a shepherd.”

Justin White timeline

Dec. 18, 2016: First Christian Senior Pastor Justin White reports a Dec. 18 burglary at their home on Sunrise Drive in Columbus. White claimed the family returned home from church that day to find about $11,000 in valuables missing from their home, including his wife’s jewelry and a television. Two Columbus police officers pooled money to buy the family a new TV.

March 12-13: White submits his resignation to the First Christian elders on March 12 and it is accepted by the elders the next day, but not made public.

March 24: White is arrested on felony charges of insurance fraud and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, accused of arranging with a juvenile to stage the burglary of his home. Court documents allege he filed an insurance claim for the items that were taken to pay a drug debt owed to a juvenile he had provided counseling for in 2013 and 2014. The juvenile, who was 16 when the counseling began, was asked by White to obtain marijuana, prescription pills and heroin to feed his drug addiction, according to court documents.

March 25: White is released from the Bartholomew County Jail after posting $150,000 bond.

April 13: White pleads not guilty to the three charges, and an initial pretrial hearing and trial dates are set in Bartholomew Circuit Court.

Aug. 28: White pleads guilty as part of a plea bargain agreement to two Class C felony counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. 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. 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.

Friday: White is sentenced by Judge Kelly Benjamin to three years in prison on one count of contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He is sentenced to four years in prison on the second count, which is suspended and is to be served on probation after his incarceration. White is handcuffed and taken to the county jail.

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