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Wednesday, May 6, 2015

A Youth Minister's Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart

Posted By on Wed, May 6, 2015 at 8:00 AM

Page 3 of 8

Sarah Thiele and Milburn connected in California in 2010. She says their relationship unraveled because of his erratic temperament, as well as his obvious emotional attachment to teenage boys.
  • Sarah Thiele and Milburn connected in California in 2010. She says their relationship unraveled because of his erratic temperament, as well as his obvious emotional attachment to teenage boys.

If you ask people in the FCCF community when they started noticed something was, well, off about Brandon Milburn, there's a good chance they'll mention Sarah Thiele.

Thiele had bonded with Milburn over their shared love of youth ministry while both worked at a California church. In January 2011, sixteen months after Milburn returned to Florissant, Thiele herself enrolled at St. Louis Christian College.

Like Milburn, she became enveloped in the FCCF community.

"There was a romantic connection, possibly," she says of Milburn. "He was exactly what I wanted in a partner. The ministry wasn't just a job for him, he poured his heart into it. There was an attraction in his commitment, which from the outside felt like selflessness."

Yet Milburn would get jumpy when Thiele touched him. She remembers him becoming more distant as she tried to get closer.

And Milburn's passion for ministry was undercut by a strange emotional imbalance. Thiele began noting his attachment to certain high school boys in the ministry, how he became distraught when they'd fail to sign text messages with "I love you" or miss one of his sermons.

"You're too emotionally invested," she told him. "It looks like something is going on." He would insist he was just a normal twentysomething guy.

"I believed him," she sighs. "Brandon, when he preached, he was so captivating. You couldn't possibly think that someone who preached so well could be hiding such a secret. I didn't think he was abusing kids sexually, but that he had been abused and refused to confront it, that he was trying protect these kids by being so emotionally protective."

This sentiment — that Milburn's attachment to young boys was strange but seemingly well-intentioned — is repeated numerous times in interviews with former friends and church coworkers. And Milburn's carefully cultivated image of piety may also explain why the subject of his sexual orientation never rose higher than rumors. In a church where homosexual acts are considered sinful, no one wanted to believe this rising star had same-sex attractions, let alone was a sexual predator.

In the end, Thiele stayed in Florissant just seven months.

As for Milburn, it wasn't long after his return to Florissant in 2009 that the Anderson family became distrustful and wary of their former houseguest. According to Carrie Anderson, two friends — one an abuse victim and the other a youth minister in another church — had approached her after seeing Milburn's earlier behavior around Harris. They asked her, "Is that an OK relationship your son has with Brandon?"

Carrie took to the Internet and began researching sexual predators. What she found filled her with dread.

"I started researching, and there was a list of things, the gift-giving, ingratiating himself with the family. And I went, 'This is Brandon, this is Brandon, he groomed my son, he groomed our family, he abused my son.'"

But when Carrie and her husband went to Harris, he rebuffed their questions.

"He said, 'No, Mom; no, Mom; no, Mom; that didn't happen,'" she says. "Because he wasn't going to tell until it was time."

The Andersons' unease, however, was palpable. Milburn spent the summer of 2010 interning at various California churches, and when he returned to Florissant for the new school year, "he knew that it wasn't the same," Carrie says. "He wasn't welcome in our house. We didn't have to have a confrontation, we just — it was obvious from all of us that he wasn't welcome. And [Harris] reinforced that. He didn't want anything to do with him."

But Milburn no longer needed the Andersons to connect him with teenage boys. By then he'd cultivated a close relationship Dawn Varvil.

During Milburn's stay in California, Varvil had clashed with FCCF's youth ministry programs and Steve Wingfield. Wingfield thought she wasn't pushing teens hard enough to attend the church's formal Sunday school program, she says. She chafed at his micromanaging and his unwillingness to expand the church's youth program.

In 2009, she left the church. She began hosting high schoolers at her house, which became a hangout spot for neighborhood kids with unstable home lives.

A Facebook correspondence with Milburn turned to friendship, and in 2010 Varvil returned to FCCF and apologized to Wingfield. But she soon began feeling conflicted about her new partner in ministry.

On one hand, she trusted Milburn. They collaborated on ideas to reach teens deemed too troubled for the church, and they planned on building an independent skatepark ministry, going as far as to registering a nonprofit in both of their names. Varvil even allowed Milburn to chaperone her own teenage son and daughter on a mission trip to California.

During the trip, however, her kids reported back that Milburn went off for mysterious, hours-long trips with one teen boy. Varvil was incensed.

"There were so many warning signs," she says. "I would always address them with him, and he was so calculating and manipulative that he could explain everything to me."

When Varvil called him out on his favoritism of certain boys, Milburn quoted Bible verses, framing the teens as Timothys to his Paul. These select boys were special cases, he would tell her. They needed 24/7 attention that only he could provide.

After Milburn graduated in 2011, Varvil let him move into her house. Shortly afterward, her teen daughter informed her that many of boys who used to come over now refused to because Milburn was a "creep."

"I asked her why, and she said he took a bunch of them out one night and he exposed himself to them, and then he convinced them to expose themselves to him," she says. But when Varvil confronted him, he explained it away, telling her it had simply been a youthful indiscretion.

"We were just joking around," he told her. "It's just a guy thing, Dawn. You don't understand how guys are with each other.'"

"Just the way he explained it, I believed him."

Then came the incident with Nathan Rayner.

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