LADSON, S.C. – Dale Richardson was saved at a tent revival 32 years ago, was called to preach the Lord's word in 2006 and, for the past year, had served as pastor at Freedom Free Will Baptist Church, a modest red brick structure on a South Carolina side road running along a railroad track.
Now he's in jail, charged with kidnapping and raping three women at gunpoint — two of them in a trailer behind the church — and kidnapping a fourth who was not sexually assaulted.
According to an incident report, about noon on a Saturday last month, Richardson picked up a woman and gave her a ride. When the 20-year-old tried to get out of the car, Richardson allegedly pulled a gun, bound her hands, covered her head and took her to the gray-blue trailer home behind the church.
The report said he later dropped the woman in a wooded area, threatening to shoot her if she turned around. Police said the woman was able to identify Richardson from his picture on the church website, which also displays a short biography detailing how he became a Christian and then a pastor.
Richardson has since been charged with two other similar sexual assaults, both of which occurred last year. He is accused of bringing one of those women to the church trailer. The third woman claims she was raped in a wooded area outside nearby Summerville, a bedroom community about 20 miles northwest of Charleston. He is also charged with kidnapping a fourth woman.
Richardson said little last week when, dressed in a gray and white striped prison jump suit with his ankles and wrists shackled, he appeared before a Dorchester County magistrate on the latest charges. He said he understood the charges against him and was denied bond when the magistrate said he was a danger to society.
Richardson's public defender said it's too soon to comment on the case. During his initial bond hearing when he was first arrested, Richardson said he has a spotless record and will put up a strong defense.
Maj. John Garrison of the Dorchester County Sheriff's Office said serial rape cases are unusual in the area. He said this case is drawing particular interest because the suspect is a preacher.
Garrison, then at the Charleston County Sheriff's Department, helped investigate the so-called Lowcountry serial rapist that attracted national headlines two decades ago. Authorities believe Duncan Proctor, who was convicted of two rapes and burglaries and sentenced to life in prison, may have raped as many as 30 women between March 1990 and June 1992.
Most neighbors on the quiet cul-de-sac where Richardson lived in a neat yellow house refused to talk last week. But Mary Milligan, who lives two doors away, came to Richardson's defense.
"I don't believe any of this. I have never had a problem with him. He's kind. He's a member of this community. He mows the neighbors' lawns. I am just blown away by all these accusations," she said.
There was no one home at the Richardson residence, where a paving stone beside the walkway is inscribed "Believe in God. Believe also in me. John 14:1."
The church website says Richardson became pastor of the church on June 9, 2010. It says he graduated from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. — the college founded by evangelical preacher Jerry Falwell — and has a wife and two grown daughters.
But his name has now been removed from the sign outside the church that has a congregation of about 50 people. Those attending last Wednesday night's service who were willing to be interviewed did not condemn Richardson.
"He's always been a real sweet person. He's always taught God's word," said Virginia Davis, who has been attending the church about a year. "He's been honest with me since Day 1. I'd let him look me right in the face and tell me he did it, because I don't believe he did it."
The Rev. Dean Mandrell, who has been helping by preaching at one of the church's three weekly services, said the congregation has drawn closer.
"Nobody is leaving, they are staying right here. They are just worshipping God. They are not condemning. They are not tearing down or poor-mouthing or bad-mouthing him," he said.
Mandrell's Wednesday sermon was about judging others, based on Matthew's biblical account of the Sermon on the Mount in which Jesus says people with a log in their own eye should not be concerned about the speck in another's eye.
The South Carolina Free Will Baptist State Association has suspended Richardson's preaching credentials pending the outcome of the investigations because "the misconduct alleged against him is forbidden by God." The Rev. Todd Smith, executive director of the statewide association numbering almost 120 churches, said in a statement the association would cooperate with investigators.
"Our prayers are with all involved," he said.