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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 5 of 8

Once a friend to Brandon Milburn, Dawn Varvil is now under legal pressure to recant allegations that in she warned FCCF of Milburn's behavior around teen boys in 2012. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Danny Wicentowski
  • Once a friend to Brandon Milburn, Dawn Varvil is now under legal pressure to recant allegations that in she warned FCCF of Milburn's behavior around teen boys in 2012.

Dawn Varvil tried to stay friendly with Milburn for a time, but her breaking point came after perhaps the oldest teenager trick in the book: While Rayner was spending almost every night at Milburn's apartment, he was telling his mother he was staying Varvil's.

As a mother, Varvil had no interest in being a part of that. She called Rayner's mother, who cut off the sleepovers and ordered her son to return the gifts and never see Milburn again.

Even though she could barely articulate her worst fears, much less admit what was really going on, Varvil began confiding her concerns to a small circle of friends. The details shocked her therapist — to the point that the counselor called the hotline run by the state's department of social services to make a complaint against Milburn.

Even then, Varvil wasn't ready to believe Milburn was a pedophile.

"I thought she was blowing it out of proportion," she says.

One week after Varvil's therapist made the call, Milburn called Varvil and asked her to meet him at a local park. When Varvil arrived, Milburn was already in tears.

"He said, 'I thought I was walking into an ambush, and you would have cops waiting for me when I got here.' Which I thought was so weird. I didn't know why he thought I'd have cops." He begged her to convince Rayner's mother to let him back into her son's life.

Even then, Varvil didn't get it. It wasn't until she took her concerns to her mentor, a minister and faculty member at St. Louis Christian College named Lisa Womble, that the scales finally fell from her eyes.

"My husband and I stared at her, and we told her, 'Dawn, you've got to call this in, or we're going to do it,'" Womble says. That day, Varvil also phoned in a complaint to the state hotline.

By February 2012, Varvil knew she had to take her concerns to FCCF leadership, and her confidants encouraged her to do so. But before she could, a twisted version of Varvil's story reached the ears of Gateway Christian Church, a west-county church with close ties to FCCF. The game of broken telephone continued to spiral after the church's senior minister, Karl Schad, contacted Steve Wingfield.

Wingfield then called Varvil. He told her he'd heard reports that she was telling people Milburn had molested her own son.

Hoping to both correct the erroneous rumor and to tell the pastor the full truth about Milburn, Varvil agreed to sit down with Wingfield.

That meeting would change her life.

Among the largest churches in North County St. Louis, First Christian Church of Florissant boasts a 58-year history, 2,500 members and a sprawling $18 million campus. - DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Danny Wicentowski
  • Among the largest churches in North County St. Louis, First Christian Church of Florissant boasts a 58-year history, 2,500 members and a sprawling $18 million campus.

The main spire of First Christian Church of Florissant hovers like a brick finger over an ocean of parking lot. It was from this parking lot that Varvil called Lisa Womble for a quick prayer before her February 2012 meeting with Steve Wingfield and then-executive minister Scott Strandell.

More than two hours passed before Womble next heard from Varvil.

"After the meeting she was real upset, and I was upset for her," Womble says. "They made her feel like she was crazy."

There's no known recording of the meeting, but Varvil wrote detailed notes of her version of the proceedings, and she shared her thoughts with Womble immediately after it ended.

According to Varvil, she told Wingfield and Strandell everything she'd told Womble and the state child-abuse hotline operator: Milburn's propensity to spoon with Rayner, his history of exposing himself to five other teen boys, his excuse that it was "just playful stuff guys do."

Wingfield asked her repeatedly if she had directly witnessed Milburn molest any of her sons, Varvil says. She answered no each time.

"Steve told me, basically, that he thought I needed mental help," says Varvil. "He said I was obviously overly involved, overly upset, and that I should just be worrying about my own family, not worrying about what Brandon was doing. At that point I was so confused. I thought, 'Well, maybe I am overreacting to everything.'"

After hours of questioning, Varvil left the meeting more unsure than ever. She spoke to Womble, then decided to drive to the home of Doug Lay, who by nowhad developed his own nagging suspicion that something was not right with his former student.

At Lay's house, Varvil unloaded the full story. Sobbing, she described everything she had seen of Milburn to Lay and to his wife, and what happened at the meeting earlier that day.

The Lays were horrified. They tried to reassure Varvil that she'd done the right thing.

"Dawn was shattered," Doug Lay says. "She told us everything, and then she said, 'Do you think I'm crazy?'"

At that moment, Lay realized he had a choice to make.

"I thought that when this comes forward, someone is going to ask us, 'Oh, you heard about allegations in 2012? What did you do?'"

There was one thing that had to be done immediately, Lay decided.

"I needed to talk to Brandon," he says. "I needed to watch him lie to me."

A week later, the professor and student sat down and talked. Milburn denied doing anything inappropriate. And then he broke off contact, effectively ending a six-plus-year relationship with his mentor and friend.

Lay left the meeting convinced that it was only a matter of time before Milburn's crimes against Rayner would come to light.

Yet a few months later, in May 2012, Milburn moved to California, where he found work with two churches there, including Real Life Church in Valencia. According to a church statement, Milburn had come highly recommended, with references from "a pastor in St. Louis."

Despite their concerns about Milburn, Lay and Varvil didn't warn anyone in California about what they knew of Milburn's time in St. Louis. For Varvil, the meeting with Wingfield had broken her spirit, and she was simply relieved Milburn was no longer circling the community.

"I just kind of faded away," she recalls. "I wasn't going to church anywhere. I was trying to maintain relationships with the kids that I could."

Two years later, a police detective at Varvil's door dragged her back into the fray.

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