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Tuesday, July 25, 2006                                                                                       View Comments

Minister convicted of public indecency

In a trial outcome Friday that apparently stunned members of an Athens, Ohio, church congregation, a Hocking County jury convicted the church's pastor of committing public indecency in a state park lavatory on May 15.

"Oh, no," blurted out one audience member in the packed courtroom, as the jury foreman in Hocking County Municipal Court read out the guilty verdict against 57-year-old H. Willard Love, senior minister of the Athens Church of Christ.

One young woman in the audience burst into tears, and could be seen outside the courtroom later, sobbing inconsolably.

Love was arrested after he allegedly masturbated in front of an undercover park ranger in the restroom at the spillway of Lake Logan State Park, off U.S. Rt. 33. After deliberating more than an hour and a half Friday, a four-man, four-woman jury found him guilty despite Love's having put on a vigorous defense in which he portrayed his arrest as the result of a misunderstanding by the arresting officer.

Judge Richard M. Wallar fined Love $500 and court costs (which will probably be much more than the fine), and sentenced him to serve three days in jail and 14 eight-hour days of community service.

Hocking County assistant prosecutor David Sams didn't ask for a specific sentence, though he did tell Wallar that park rangers have had a longstanding problem with sexual activity at the Lake Logan restroom, and that "they have a legitimate interest in sending a message" that such offenses will be treated seriously.

Defense attorney K. Robert Toy asked Wallar not to give his client jail time, noting that Love has no prior criminal record and is a respected clergyman. "Mr. Love is a great asset to our community," Toy argued. "There is no sense in putting him in jail."

Wallar, however, gave Love 60 days in jail, with 50 days suspended. He gave him the options of serving 10 days behind bars, or doing three days plus community service, of which Love chose the latter.

Sams said later that if Love had pled to the charge against him - a third-degree misdemeanor - he could probably have been given a small fine, as other men arrested the same day for public indecency at the restroom were. By choosing to fight the charge at trial, however, Sams said, Love opened himself up to a harsher penalty if convicted.

"It's rather common that if someone goes through a trial and testifies, and the jury comes back and says they didn't believe the testimony, that (the defendant gets) some jail time," he explained.

Love said he must confer with Toy as to whether he wants to appeal the verdict, but continued to insist he did nothing illegal in the park restroom on the morning of May 15.

"I know I'm innocent, (but) I respect the court," he declared. "And I appreciate all the support that the community has given me. We did our best to go to trial to try to prove our innocence."

IN THE TRIAL, the state relied on the testimony of two rangers from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, and a tape made of a brief exchange in the restroom between Love and one of the rangers, who was in plainclothes and wearing a hidden microphone.

The defense called as witnesses Love, his wife, and his doctor.

The rangers told a story in which Love entered the empty restroom, and when officer Jeremy T. Davis entered behind him in plainclothes, found Love "massaging his penis back and forth very, very rapidly with his right hand." When Davis struck up a conversation with Love, he testified, Love continued to masturbate in front of him, and made statements suggesting he might want to leave with the officer and go to the second man's residence.

Love offered a wholly different explanation for what was heard on the surveillance tape. He readily admitted that when Davis entered the lavatory, he, Love, was massaging his genitals, but said he often has to do this in order to urinate, because of a medical condition he has suffered for many years. (Love's wife confirmed this in her testimony.)

The minister explained the suspicious-sounding comments he made to Davis by saying he became frightened that Davis planned to do him harm. He noted that the undercover officer struck up a conversation while standing behind him, out of plain view and blocking his exit from the restroom, then let about 30 seconds go by without saying anything. After this, he said, Davis made the observation that he didn't see anyone else around, which made Love even more uneasy.

At this point, Love testified, he looked around to locate the officer, initially couldn't find him, and then was shocked to see Davis bent over, peering around a low dividing wall at Love's crotch with a "weird grin" on his face.

"I look around and he is bent over with his hands on his knees and his head is crooked around like this," he demonstrated. "I freaked out... I had never experienced anything in a public restroom like that."

Many of his comments to Davis, according to Love, such as asking him if he were married or if he had "a place" to go to nearby, were designed to keep the other man relaxed, with the aim of Love's getting out of the restroom and to his car. Love noted that he has experience as a counselor in dealing with people in tense situations, and has learned to speak calmly and parrot what the other person says.

"I'm just trying to get him to back off, so I just repeated what he said to me to get him to back off," he claimed. "I know if I can get to my car, I can get away from him... I just want to get away from this guy."

The prosecution, however, hammered on Love's comments to Davis such as "what are you looking for," "too bad you're not in Columbus," and "you got a place?" Love at one point on the tape also tells Davis that he doesn't like to meet people in public restrooms because "I just don't feel safe."

Sams also put heavy emphasis on a questionnaire Love answered for officers after his arrest in which he supposedly answered "yes" to two questions, one about whether he knew he had been engaging in a high-risk activity, and the other about whether he knew that men soliciting sexual activity in public restrooms have been assaulted and murdered.

Love admitted answering yes to both questions. However, he said, he did not hear the portion of the second question referring to sexual soliciting, and heard only the part about men being murdered in public restrooms. Having known someone in Athens this happened to, he said, he answered yes - and only found out afterwards that the question was phrased in such a way as to imply that he himself had been looking for sex in the restroom.

Love also noted that the officers never gave him the questionnaire to review, and that he never signed it to approve his answers.

ANOTHER POINT OF Sams' case was the question of why Love chose a smelly, open-pit lavatory some distance off the highway, rather than going to one of the closer businesses at the U.S. Rt. 33-Ohio Rt. 664 exit, or to a rest stop with flush toilets a little further up the highway.

Love explained that when he takes medication for a chronic sinus infection, which had flared up recently, he has a very difficult time urinating, and sometimes has to go to great lengths massaging his back, thighs or genitals to be able to pass water.

Both Love's wife, Phyllis Love, and his doctor, William Rankin, backed up Love's claim that when he takes medicine for a sinus infection - which he was suffering at the time of his arrest - he has great difficulty urinating.

Phyllis Love said her husband sometimes has to massage himself for a long time at home to urinate. "When he's in that condition, (it can take) at least 10 minutes, or even more," she said. "You would think that someone was trying to masturbate, but it's not that."

She also confirmed that the day of Love's arrest, the minister had a full and tightly scheduled agenda of pastoral visits, including trips to Nelsonville, Lancaster and Chillicothe. He was on his way to Lancaster when he stopped off to use the restroom.

Sams repeatedly questioned Love as to why he didn't choose a more convenient and modern bathroom, and Love repeatedly told him that he wanted someplace quiet and preferably empty of other people, because he knew he might have to make an extended effort to urinate. If the restroom didn't meet his requirements, he told the prosecutor, "it could be on the side of the road two feet behind the guardrail, and it wouldn't do me any good."

In his summation, Sams told the jury that he believes Love was legitimately out on church business on May 15 as the minister claimed, "but I don't doubt that he's looking for a quickie, either."

He acknowledged that nothing on the surveillance tape clearly records Love making a sexual proposal to the officer (which he wasn't charged with), but suggested that if the jury could read between the lines, it would conclude that that's what Love had in mind.

"He didn't cross that line to where he actually solicited sex from the officer, but you can see where they were headed," he said.