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Tuesday, November 24, 2009                                                                                       View Comments

Pastor under fire following revelation of criminal past

The congregation at First 6th Street Baptist Church in Port Arthur got a surprise last Sunday, Nov. 15. Near the end of a sermon on forgiveness, their new pastor - the Rev. Donald R.A. Toussaint Sr. - said he had something he needed to tell them.

According to church members who were at the service, Toussaint waved some unspecified documents and disclosed that 28 years ago he was accused of robbery and murder. He added that he had nothing to do with those crimes and said he was forced into this admission because "someone had spent $19.95 to dig up old records" in the case. Toussaint said the matter was closed and did not need to be brought up again.

That expressed hope that the issue was settled was not to be, as shocked members of the church committee that had overseen the search for a new pastor - and selected Toussaint from a field of 20 finalists - wondered how that information had not come up on the background check they did on all the candidates.

By the time a meeting of the church deacons convened two days later, they had even more questions. Toussaint began life as Donald Ray Abram and grew up in Columbia, Miss. In 1982, at the age of 21, Abram - as he was then known - was charged with capital murder, kidnapping and armed robbery for his part in the robbery of a convenience store in which two people were killed with a shotgun. Also charged was Herman Barnes, 22.

The crime shocked the Columbia community. The store clerk at Jack's Quick Stop was high-school student Loretta Carson, 16, who was shot to death after handing over the money. A customer who arrived after she was killed, Percy Quin, 58, worked for the Mississippi Oil and Gas Board. He was killed when the robbers returned to the store.

Abram and Barnes were tried separately. Barnes, the acknowledged triggerman in the dual homicide, was convicted of capital murder. When the jury could not agree on the death penalty, he was automatically sentenced to life. Abram was not so lucky. He was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death on March 29, 1984. Execution of that sentence was postponed because of numerous issues raised at Abram's trial, including the validity of the confession obtained by law enforcement, the exclusion of blacks from the jury through challenges by the prosecution, and the fact the acknowledged triggerman was not sentenced to death.

Ultimately, the conviction was tossed out. Under a plea agreement in 1992, Abram pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of armed robbery and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. The last 10 years of that sentence were suspended under the condition that he remain outside the state of Mississippi. With the time he had already served in prison while this matter was adjudicated, Abram was soon a free man.

It was a long way from that courtroom in Marion County to the pulpit at the church in Port Arthur. Members of the pastoral search committee now understood why their background check had failed to discover this case - because Toussaint was not his name when those events occurred. According to one member of the committee who did not wish to be identified for this story, when asked when he changed his name, Toussaint said he didn't remember but noted he had a passport with that name. He also backed away from previous claims that he was cleared in the case, did not take part in the robbery, did not know codefendant Barnes and had not served any time in prison - but refused to discuss the case.

Toussaint had gotten the job in the first place because he wowed the search committee - and the congregation - when he came to preach as a guest minister during the search process.

First 6th Street Baptist Church is a strong church that is more than 100 years old, though the West Port Arthur neighborhood where it stands has seen better days. Earlier urban renewal efforts in the surrounding blocks stalled after many older houses and commercial buildings were razed, leaving blocks of vacant lots where no rebuilding has occurred.

The congregation has dwindled to fewer than 400, with many who have left the neighborhood only returning for church services. But they have maintained a strong internal structure, and Toussaint was hired for his ability to preach the gospel, not to overturn decades of structured leadership, according to some long-time church members.

Even before the revelations about his real name and criminal background, some deacons were aghast at Toussaint's stated desire to change long-standing church by-laws in favor of a more "biblical" approach. Some interpreted that to mean transferring more power and control into the hands of the pastor in keeping with Scripture.

Under current church by-laws, Toussaint's selection as pastor earlier this year must be confirmed by a vote of the congregation. That vote could come as early as next Tuesday, Nov. 24, but these recent revelations could change the timing of the vote.

Toussaint apparently has an impressive manner with Baptist church pastoral selection committees. In 2006, he was selected by the Friendship Baptist Church in Trenton, N.J., as its pastor. Another long-standing church with strong community ties and a solid core of deacons and elders, Friendship felt fortunate to have snagged this charismatic preacher.

Toussaint was hired by Friendship in December 2006 and installed in an elaborate ceremony in March 2007 that the Rev. Al Sharpton was slated to attend before sending his regrets due to difficulties with air connections from California. But according to sources familiar with Toussaint's tenure with that church, the deacons soon became concerned with the actions of their new pastor when he made clear his desire to amend Friendship Baptist Church's by-laws to make them "more biblical."

According to Paul Maselli, an attorney with the Trenton firm that represents the church, the deacons had decided to terminate Toussaint's contract and were trying to determine the amount of his severance package. After an advance on his salary that had been granted for moving expenses was subtracted, the contract indicated Toussaint was owed around $7,000. Church officials were stunned when Toussaint produced a copy of the contract that called for him to receive a buyout worth $194,000. Maselli said no other copies of the contract contained the clause, which appeared on Toussaint's copy on a page initialed only by Toussaint.

Maselli said no members of Friendship Baptist Church or their attorneys were familiar with the background of their former pastor. Toussaint has filed a breach of contract suit against Friendship seeking the $194,000.