Testimony reveals more of pastor’s downward spiral

Former First Christian Church pastor Justin K. White has not appealed his three-year prison sentence for contributing to the delinquency of a minor. Instead, he is awaiting assignment to a prison at an Indiana Department of Correction diagnostic facility in Plainfield.

However, White’s friends and supporters still are reeling in the aftermath of a nearly six-hour sentencing hearing Oct. 20 in which his attorney, Mark Dove, asked that his client be given a suspended sentence. Local prosecutors had sought the presumptive sentence of four years on each of the two felony convictions of contributing to the delinquency of a minor.

Judge Kelly Benjamin arrived at a middle ground when she sentenced White to three years in prison on the first of the two Class C felony counts and gave him a four-year suspended sentence on the second, to be served consecutively. He was fined $1,795 in court costs and fees as part of the sentence.

White also was ordered that he could not be alone with juveniles as a term of his probation and he was not allowed to counsel juveniles while on probation.

Admitting guilt

The clergyman admitted his guilt to the felony charges during an Aug. 28 hearing in Bartholomew Circuit Court in exchange for having a Level 5 felony charge of insurance fraud dropped. White had been accused of staging a burglary at his home on Dec. 18, 2016, to obtain insurance money to pay a drug debt, a charge he denied in court.

White’s earliest possible release date is April 18, 2019, which reflects the good-time clause in Indiana law that allows one day off a sentence for every day without infractions served in the state’s prison system, according to the Department of Correction.

“It’s really heartbreaking,” said Randy Ebert, a technology company owner in Plainfield who purchased a former Nazarene camp in Camby and had been working with White to transform it into a residential addictions and homelessness intervention center.

Earlier this year, Ebert hired White as founding pastor of a new church at the camp, Still Waters Church, and offered the White family a new home there as part of the ministry. The family had moved to Camby just a day before Justin White’s sentencing hearing.

“It’s a significant downgrade, but we are grateful to be there,” White said in response to a question by his attorney during his sentencing.

Ministry to continue

During the hearing, Ebert had told Judge Benjamin that he was unsure how the church or the addictions program could continue without White’s presence and leadership. But the ministry is continuing without the pastor at this point.

“Justin White did a lot of good for people and he was a beacon of hope for everybody,” Ebert said in a followup telephone interview. “It’s something we’re working through. We really do believe God is at work in this.”

Ebert said the families who have been attending the church at the Camby camp have been supporting Justin White’s wife, Michelle, and their three children, boys ages 14 and 12, and a daughter, age 8.

“We’re all going through this together,” Ebert said. “We’ve kind of been making it week by week.”

At a change-of-plea hearing earlier this year, and during the sentencing, Justin White admitted to aiding and inducing a 16-year-old to commit an act that would be a felony if committed by an adult.

White admitted persuading the teenager, who was on house arrest, to sell him narcotics while the pastor was providing counseling at the teen’s home.

Waiting for assignment

The embattled minister could be at the Department of Correction reception and diagnostic center for anywhere from one to six weeks, undergoing evaluation prior to being assigned to a prison facility, said Ike Randolph, communications director for the department.

The department has facilities throughout the state, rated for prisoners from minimum security, including one in Plainfield and one in Edinburgh, to maximum security, the Indiana State Prison in Michigan City.

While at the diagnostic center, White is not allowed any verbal contact with outsiders, including his family, but may speak with his attorney, Randolph said. Once he is assigned to a facility, visits with family and friends may resume, Randolph said.

Assigning an inmate close to home to allow more visitation is typically not a consideration when determining where an inmate will be placed, Randolph said. Part of the consideration is where a bed is available that matches the inmate’s classification, he said.

Notification about his placement will not be made public, but the change in his location from the diagnostic center to a Department of Correction facility will be noted in the inmate-search feature on the department’s website.

During the sentencing hearing, Ebert said the Camp Camby effort and the church have been helping about 12 families dealing with homelessness and addiction in a rotation for about four months, and has the capacity to expand to 75 to 100 families in the future.

“He had an immediate impact on people’s lives who needed help to get out of their isolation,” Ebert said of White.

During his testimony before sentencing, White said he loved First Christian Church, where he served as senior minister for six years, and that members there had treated him better than he deserved.

However, he also said church leaders were not supportive of him sharing anything about his opiate addiction in his public role as a pastor.

“If I was going to make it in recovery, I had to be honest,” White told the court. “I had to tell people I was a recovering addict. I’m not sure that was going to happen in my position at First Christian.”

Mother’s testimony

When Bartholomew County Prosecutor Bill Nash called the teen’s mother to the stand during the sentencing, she testified that she had no reason to believe that the boy was using narcotics before his involvement with White.

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

Investigators documented meetings between White and teen through their communications on social media, which indicated White owed the juvenile about $1,000 for pain pills, heroin and other drugs at one point, court documents state.

When judgment came to White at sentencing, however, Benjamin referenced a speech he gave in late July used to promote establishing a Celebrate Recovery group in Camby, one where he did not mention the 16-year-old victim who was the minor in the case or note any efforts to help the teen.

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

Path into addiction

In the speech, White said he went to his doctor in January 2014 for treatment for headaches and received a prescription for hydrocodone.

“Some people when they take that, it makes them sick or they don’t like the way it makes them feel. For me, when I took them, I wanted the whole bottle. And unfortunately, that’s what I did. I went through the first bottle pretty quickly, called my doctor and he refilled it. That cycle went on for several months, refill after refill after refill, upping the dose along the way,” the speech states.

“This morning, I don’t have the time to go into all the gory details — maybe your preacher will let me share the entire story at some point — but after six months of that, I was hooked and my script wasn’t enough. And that started me down a path of destruction. I ended up buying pills from other people in Columbus and quickly climbed the opiate ladder. Percocet, oxycodone, tramadol, morphine, opana. If it was an opiate, I tried it.”

“Eventually there were no pills to be purchased, and so my dealer offered me what was next on the opiate ladder: heroin. And because I was hooked and desperate and because my brain had been rewired, I accepted his offer. And so there I was: 35 years old, married, three kids, preacher and heroin addict,” White said in the speech.

He recounted in the speech overdosing on heroin cut with fentanyl on July 26, 2015, brought back by a dose of naloxone, and then a 30-day rehab stay at the Hazelden Betty Ford rehab facility in Minnesota.

He told those listening to his speech that he would celebrate two years of being clean from all opiates on July 31, 2017.

Pastor didn’t apologize

Benjamin pointedly asked White why he did not seek out help or treatment for the 16-year-old when he was offered the opportunity to go to the rehab facility, assisted through his church.

White acknowledged to the judge that he had never apologized to the teen for his actions but admitted being in contact with him and giving him money to help him make ends meet.

“Out of my guilt I wanted to try to make it right,” White told the judge.

Benjamin said she was concerned that the pastor was giving money to someone he knew was a drug user, instead of contacting his parents to inform them of their son’s problems.

Ebert said the only explanation that White’s friends have for this behavior is that the White family was going through a terrible experience and handled it as best they could.

“When you are trying to save your own life, that’s where they were,” Ebert said of the Whites. “You have to think like the airplane safety information deal. You get on a plane and the first thing they tell you is put your oxygen mask on yourself first, and then help others,” he said.

“I know the White family are not selfish people. They do not throw people by the wayside for their own selfish benefit,” Ebert said.

Ebert said he would be willing to help the teenager, who is now an adult and incarcerated in the Bartholomew County Jail, to get into recovery and pay for it if needed.

And when Justin White is released from jail, he will ask him to return to the Camby ministry.

“God told me to hire Justin White,” Ebert said. “I wasn’t out preacher-shopping. God honors what we do. God also told Justin White to take the job. He’s sorely missed at this point. But he’s a preacher, and when he’s able to get back, there is a job here for him.”

Timeline of Justin White case

Dec. 18, 2016: First Christian Senior Pastor Justin White reports a Dec. 18 burglary at his family’s home on Sunrise Drive in Columbus. White claimed the family returned home from church that day to find about $11,000 in valuables missing, 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.

Oct. 20: 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.

Current: White is incarcerated at the Indiana Department of Correction Reception Diagnostic Center in Plainfield awaiting assignment to an Indiana correctional facility. While there, he is not allowed contact with anyone but his attorney but may accept letters. His earliest release date is set as April 18, 2019.

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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.