CONCORD, N.H. – A New Hampshire man convicted of raping and impregnating a 15-year-old church member, who was made to apologize to her Baptist congregation, was sentenced Tuesday to 15 to 30 years in prison.
Ernest Willis of Gilford, 52, robbed the girl of her childhood, the judge said in sentencing Willis.
A jury in May convicted Willis of raping the girl twice in 1997 -- once while he was giving her driving lessons and weeks later at her Concord home. She babysat his children and, a prosecutor said Tuesday, considered him a father figure.
"Her trust and admiration were repaid with violence and rape," the prosecutor told the judge.
Before his trial in May, Willis pleaded guilty to one count of statutory rape. He maintained they had consensual sex on one occasion only, but acknowledged the girl was under the legal age of consent.
Willis, conveying no emotion in a lengthy statement to the court, said he was "sorry and ashamed for this thoughtless act of sexual misconduct." He never admitted to forcible rape or to a second rape. His lawyers said they will appeal those convictions.
Willis remained stoic as Merrimack Superior Court Judge Larry Smukler sent him to prison for a minimum of 15 years.
"This particular day is a day for justice for the victim," Smukler told him, saying Willis betrayed the trust of a defenseless 15-year-old.
The case remained unsolved for years because Concord police could not locate the teen.
Unbeknownst to them, the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Concord helped ship the girl to Colorado, with her mother's consent, to live with a Baptist couple she did not know and put her infant daughter up for adoption.
Police located the victim, Tina Anderson, last year after a former Trinity Baptist Church member posted to a blog decrying the Independent Fundamentalist Baptist movement. The post described her church discipline session at Trinity Baptist. Willis was arrested in May 2010.
The Associated Press typically does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Anderson asked that her name be used and has given numerous media interviews.
Anderson, now 29, listened to the sentencing Tuesday via telephone from her Arizona home. She did not address the court, but in a statement she delivered after Willis was convicted, she said Willis "destroyed the person I was...and filled me with shame and guilt."
Willis, a divorced father of four, remained free on bail until his May 27 conviction.