Word of Faith Church members found not guilty
RUTHERFORDTON — Three members of the Word of Faith Fellowship were found not guilty in District Court in Rutherford County on Friday and all charges against a fourth defendant were dismissed.
Charges were dismissed against David Christopher Hall, 45, Country Woods Drive in Rutherfordton, after Judge Earl Fowler, Jr. of McDowell County, said there wasn't sufficient evidence for him to stand trial for false imprisonment.
Fowler earlier dismissed all cases of misdemeanor stalking against Hall and three other church members, Jason Lee Gross, 45, Hunting Drive in Rutherfordton, Gilberto Matthew Carmona, 52, Shady Woods Lane in Rutherfordton and James Randall Fields, 53, of Country Woods Drive in Rutherfordton.
At the end of the day, the attorneys for the men, asked Judge Fowler to expunge all cases, which he granted.
They were were charged with false imprisonment and misdemeanor stalking and Fields was also charged with injury to personal property.
Warrants were issued against the men on Oct. 16, 2012, after Jerry Cooper, a former member of the church, went to a Rutherford County Magistrate to take out the warrants.
Church members were arrested, taken to jail and all four were released on written promises to appear.
Attorneys for the defense were Josh Farmer, representing Gross and Hall; Mark Morris, represented Randy Fields and Jeff Cooper represented Gilbert Carmona.
Assistant District Attorney Marie Evitt of McDowell County prosecuted the case for the State. A court official said she was brought to court on Friday, especially for the trial, and Cooper later mentioned her lack of knowledge of the church.
Before the trial began, Fowler granted a motion from Attorney Morris on behalf of Fields, that no cameras be allowed in the courtroom.
In his motion, Morris said there had been extensive highly prejudicial publicity throughout the region regarding the case and cameras in the courthouse could deny the accused a fair trail; he also said electronic and photographic coverage implicates a number of fundamental constitutional rights to photograph and record the proceedings.
As the trail got underway at 11 a.m., all four men entered pleas of not guilty and, before Cooper began his testimony, Farmer presented the reasons the charges should be dismissed.
Fowler said the stalking charges, according to law, must be a pattern and not a one-time event, which the case was based on, so the charge was dismissed, but there was sufficient evidence to proceed with false imprisonment.
Cooper testified he came into Rutherford County on Oct. 16 with Michael Lowery, who says he was assaulted by church members in August 2011. He said as a part of Lowery's therapy, he brought Lowery back to the area and to the places where he lived and grew up in the church. Lowery also took the stand Friday. (He is expected to appear before the Rutherford County Grand Jury this month to tell his story of assault.)
Cooper said while he was on Old Flynn Road, where the church is located, he was blocked on the road by Fields and was not allowed to proceed on his way and that Fields hit his car with his fist, making a dent in the car.
Cooper testified he left "in fear of his life" and went back to his hotel and stayed three hours to counsel Lowery, who also said he was afraid for his life that day.
However in cross examination later, testimony showed Cooper returned to the church four times that same day, as recorded by a security camera at the church.
Evidence also proved through photographs, Cooper's car was not damaged.
Throughout the trial, testimony of Cooper's repeated harassment of church members was brought out by the attorneys for the defendants, who testified Cooper had pled guilty in 2009 of trespassing at the church and was asked to leave.
Attorneys put up more about 38 pieces of evidence, primarily photographs taken by various church members, including the defendants, on the day the warrants were issued, and previous days when Cooper allegedly harassed the church members.
Cooper testified after he left the Old Flynn Road, he later went to the Tri-City Mall and testified he was held against his will, also while in his car, blocked by vehicles of church members. Evidence showed he wasn't held against his will.
Forest City Police Officer Shawn Keeter testified he didn't witness interaction with the parties and neither party asked that a report be made. He was also told about the incidents on Old Flynn Road, but Keeter said that was out of Forest City's jurisdiction.
When word was received Cooper was in town on Oct. 16, security officers of the church were alerted and arrived at the church for precautionary measures, said the defendants.
They said they knew Cooper's history with the church, and went there to make sure the staff and school students were safe.
After the trial Cooper told WLOS-TV 13 News, "basically it proves to me and I hope it proves to the rest of the county that nobody can get a fair trial in Rutherford County when Word of Faith Fellowship is involved."
"It's just the way they are. It's a mind game. And I will say this as a minister they may not get it in this life but they will get what's coming to them in the next life," Cooper said. "I stand for what's right I stand for justice and I believe these people are a cult and I belive they're false ministers and as long as I'm serving the Lord and on God's side I'll continue to expose false ministers."
Farmer said that he was "thrilled" over the conclusion of the trial.
"The credibility of the state's main witness was obvisouly a key issue in this case and that very clearly was a central factor in the judge's decision," Farmer said. "A fair amount of evidence came out in the trial that this gentleman has made numerous, harrassing and unwelcome contacts with the church."
After the trial ended at about 5:30 p.m. members of the Word of Faith Fellowship, including leader Jane Whaley, gathered on the front of the courthouse lawn. She sat in the courtroom through much of the testimony on Friday afternoon.
Judge Fowler ordered Cooper not to go to the church and to stay away from the members.