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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 6 of 8

In this June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn can be seen on the FCCF main stage directing middle school and teen boys during the annual Vacation Bible School. Milburn was allowed to attend FCCF youth events, even though a parent says she warned the church's lead pastor about Milburn four months prior.
  • In this June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn can be seen on the FCCF main stage directing middle school and teen boys during the annual Vacation Bible School. Milburn was allowed to attend FCCF youth events, even though a parent says she warned the church's lead pastor about Milburn four months prior.

In January 2014, when Harris Anderson was a high school senior preparing to graduate, he told his parents the truth about Brandon Milburn. When Harris approached his best friend, Adam Krauss, the two were finally able to share the secrets they'd kept from each other for seven long years. With urging from their parents, the teens went to the police.

The police investigation was swift, and barely a month later, Varvil found herself facing a St. Louis County police detective at her front door.

"Do you know where Brandon Milburn is?" the detective asked. Milburn's last listed Missouri residence was Varvil's address.

Varvil didn't know. She gave the names of two FCCF staff members where she thought he might be staying.

It didn't take long for authorities to find him.

According to St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schelman, police reached out to an acquaintance of Milburn's, asking him to relay a message to Milburn that he should contact the police.

When Milburn, who was living in California, called a detective on February 6, she told him that she needed to speak with him about "an investigation." The next day, when Milburn flew in to St. Louis to attend the wedding of Scott Strandell's son, he stopped by St. Louis County Police headquarters in Clayton.

He never made it to the wedding. Instead, under interrogation, he confessed to six of the ultimately seven counts of statutory sodomy. He pleaded guilty one year later, thus sparing the victims from the trauma of a trial.

The arrest and charges tore through the FCCF community like a tidal wave through a teacup, but news coverage was relatively sparse. Aside from the police report, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's coverage relied heavily on this official FCCF statement:

"Having just heard of these charges from something that happened in 2007, our first concern is with how we can best help any victim heal," the statement read. "The charges point to a time when as a college student he served in a part time role as an intern. For the last several years he has been living in another state. We have a justice system who can do the investigation and we will assist them any way we can as our church family works through this."

A week after the arrest, Wingfield himself addressed the charges against Milburn during his Sunday sermon.

"Sometimes in the very best families, bad things happen," Wingfield said, according to a recording of the service. Milburn, he said, "moved away two years ago but during a time between 2007 and 2009 he allegedly sexually abused two eleven-year-old boys. This while he was a college student and working here part time as an intern.... And the thing we do about it is if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe — young people, we want you to tell your parents, your school counselor, tell a pastor, even if it's embarrassing to talk about it. A parent, a school counselor, a pastor will listen and help."

Wingfield continued: "Listen, we are not a perfect church, I am very imperfect as a pastor, our leaders are imperfect, and you at times, you're not all that either. You know one of Satan's oldest ploys is to create distractions for the church from its core mission to connect people to Jesus, and I am glad as a church family we're not going to let something bad that happened years ago keep us from doing good right now, and as a church family we are going to stay positive."

When Lay read the press statement and heard Wingfield's speech, he got angry.

First, the church's statement included a timeline that, while not technically inaccurate, made it sound like Milburn departed FCCF long before he did. Though Milburn's FCCF internship ended in January 2012, he had continued to volunteer at FCCF on Wednesday nights. Photos show Milburn directing minors onstage during FCCF's Vacation Bible School in June 2012 — four months after Varvil's meeting with Wingfield and Strandell. Other FCCF members recall Milburn attending FCCF services and events at the time, usually in the company of teen boys.

Aside from the church's ambiguous press release, Lay was most upset at Wingfield's line about how "a pastor will listen and help." Having heard Varvil's description of her 2012 meeting with Wingfield, the pastor's platitudes tasted like ashes in Lay's mouth.

A soft-spoken academic, Lay was both a Sunday School teacher and beloved professor. He had also been sexually abused twice in his life, at age ten by a neighbor and then in college at hands of a male classmate. It took him more than twenty years before he finally opened up to his wife about what happened to him.

"You need to understand the enormous fear victims have," Lay says. "The fear that, if I tell someone, what if you don't believe me? Now what? Now I've made myself even more vulnerable, and if you don't believe me — what the hell am I going to do now?"

Lay decided he wasn't going to let Wingfield and FCCF get a pass on bullying Varvil. He knew there were more victims: Rayner, the boys Milburn exposed himself to and likely numerous others.

A fastidious researcher, Lay re-interviewed Varvil about the 2012 meeting. He enlisted the help of Titus Benton, who had overseen Milburn's job in the FCCF middle school ministry in 2009. Benton had fled FCCF in 2011 to escape what he described as a toxic church environment under Wingfield's leadership.

Lay also went to visit Milburn in jail.

No longer a friend, Lay came as an ordained minister.

"He had only been in prison a couple days, and I asked him how it's going, how's the food, and he sat there and talked about all the stuff he was going to do when he got out," he recalls. "He was still in shock. I saw him again a week later, and he had been on this three-day fast, praying. He was negotiating with God. He was saying, 'I'm really convinced that I'm going to get out on bail.'"

This March, just over a year after Milburn's arrest, Lay sent out the first edition of his report on Brandon Milburn and FCCF. "Is It Enough: Sexual Abuse Within the Church: A Case Study at First Christian Church of Florissant" included detailed descriptions of Varvil's 2012 meeting with Wingfield and Strandell, as well as Milburn's work history from the time he arrived in Florissant in 2005 to his arrest in 2014.

Initially sent to FCCF's elders and Wingfield, the report was revised and re-released five more times. Each time, Lay requested input from the church.

The meticulously annotated report paints a stark picture of Milburn as a calculated child abuser. It accuses Wingfield of ignoring Varvil's warnings in 2012, of failing to alert the other Missouri and California churches where Milburn later found employment, and of covering up his and FCCF's inaction after the 2014 arrest.

The conclusion is blistering.

"Is it enough to deny the existence of other alleged victims?" Lay wrote. "Is it enough to ignore the pain of the collateral victims? Is it enough to keep silent about the church's responsibility towards dealing with sexual abuse? Is it enough to remain ignorant to the signs of sexual predators? Is it enough to miss the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of this tragedy — thus turning evil into good? It is not enough for me to close the book on this story — I will continue to turn on the light and turn the pages of this story. Should it not be enough for you too?"

On March 19, Lay and Benton received a response from FCCF.

"We are thankful that two victims came forward so that the authorities could conduct an open investigation and seek a judgment," the letter read in part. "As part of our complete cooperation with the instructions of the prosecuting attorney, as a church we have not taken the role of investigator.... We believe honoring victims includes allowing them to initiate communication and process healing through the counselors of their choosing. As we have reviewed your correspondence, we feel that it contains a number of inaccuracies and does not fairly or accurately describe communications with our church or our approach."

The letter was signed, "Elders, First Christian."

For Lay and Benton, the response only confirmed that Wingfield was covering up his lack of action. (Edward Magee, a spokesman for the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, is adamant that no prosecutor instructed FCCF not to investigate for other possible victims.)

A day after receiving the letter, Titus Benton's wife, Kari, posted a savage open letter on Facebook.

Though rumors about what Wingfield had known about Milburn had bounced around social media for months, it was the first time those rumors were echoed by a widely respected former member of the FCCF family.

In the letter, Kari Benton revealed that her family left FCCF in 2011 because of Wingfield's "poor leadership." She hammered Wingfield for the 2012 meeting with Varvil and called him out for not attempting to reach Varvil (or Rayner) after the 2014 arrest.

"The first phone call you should have made after learning of his arrest was to that concerned adult that had previously come to you with concerns of abuse. But you did not do that — and to this day you still have not reached out to that concerned adult or to that teenage boy. You have failed both of them."

Titus Benton supervised Milburn in 2008 as the head of FCCF's middle school ministry. Now, he and his wife, Kari, are loudly calling for FCCF to confront its past mistakes. - COURTESY OF TITUS BENTON
  • Courtesy of Titus Benton
  • Titus Benton supervised Milburn in 2008 as the head of FCCF's middle school ministry. Now, he and his wife, Kari, are loudly calling for FCCF to confront its past mistakes.

Kari Benton's letter spread on Facebook, gathering hundreds comments and shares, exploding the controversy far beyond the FCCF inner circle.

Wingfield and his elders went into damage control.

On April 7, three elders arrived at Doug Lay's college office and read him a prepared statement. Effective immediately, Doug and his wife Tammy were barred from teaching their adult Sunday School class at FCCF. The reason? "For rejecting the leadership's authority."

Wingfield then convened three invitation-only meetings to address the allegations in Kari Benton's letter and "Is It Enough."

During an April 8 meeting, in front of an audience of around 70, Wingfield was asked to explain the 2012 meeting with Varvil.

"That is a charge specifically against me that we're trying to address, what I want to describe as a false charge, is that a parent came forward and told us about Brandon's having some sexual crime," stated Wingfield in a recording obtained by Riverfront Times. "That is not an accurate representation, but we want you to know that yes, we had a conversation that we initiated based on a rumor that was brought to our attention.... In that conversation the question was repeatedly asked if there was any sexual misconduct, any kind of sexual activity of any kind, and the person said, 'No, Brandon Milburn never would do anything like that.'

"We have a legal right and an obligation to defend ourselves," continued Wingfield. "To say what happened in that meeting and to say what is being said is not true. We can demonstrate that with evidence, and we'll do whatever it takes to help that person to withdraw that false accusation."

On April 11, Wingfield arranged another meeting with Varvil. This time, she brought her husband, Roger, as well as Lisa Womble and her husband. Wingfield brought along two elders.

According to Varvil's notes on the meeting, Wingfield again focused on her previous denial that Milburn had sexually abused one of her sons. Varvil, in response, attempted to clarify that she denied it because that specific rumor was, in fact, false. They circled this point in an interminable game of you-said-I-said-you-said.

During the meeting, Wingfield maintained that Varvil's description of Milburn spooning Rayner didn't amount to a "sexual act." He insisted that Varvil never told him about Milburn exposing himself to five other boys — an odd omission if true, since she had told exactly that to Womble and the government hotline, and had told Lay about the incident immediately after the meeting with Wingfield.

"Dawn told three different sets of people the same thing," Lisa Womble says. "And honestly, even if she didn't mention him exposing himself, all the other things were red flags enough that everyone would say that you should take action."

The meeting produced little in the way of reconciliation. But neither Varvil, Lay nor the Bentons were prepared for what came next.

On April 16, Doug Lay, Dawn Varvil and Titus and Kari Benton were notified through email that FCCF was seeking a restraining order against them. The message, sent by a lawyer retained by the church, asked the court to force them to retract and remove the "Is It Enough" case study and Kari Benton's open letter from Facebook. The lawsuit also sought at least $25,000 in damages.

At a court hearing that Friday, Doug Lay stood in the hallway of a St. Louis County courthouse with a dazed expression on his face.

"This is crazy," he said. "I can't believe this is happening."

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