BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- Esther Combs trembled Tuesday as she described how she
was beaten, cut, burned and choked by a Baptist minister and his wife who she
said kept her as a slave.
The 22-year-old woman, who has changed her name and moved to another state,
testified against the Rev. Joseph Combs and his wife Evangeline. The couple is
charged with abusing the woman for two decades after taking her as a baby from
a Porter County orphanage.
The fundamentalist Baptist minister charged with torturing a girl was once a
respected Bible teacher at Hyles Anderson College in St. John Township.
The abuse allegations surfaced after Esther drank antifreeze in a 1997 suicide
attempt and doctors questioned her about the layers of scar tissue on her body.
Esther said the couple, who has five other children, moved the family to
several states before settling in Bristol, Tenn., in 1989 when Combs was hired
as pastor of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church of Bristol.
She said all of the abuse occurred in the church's gymnasium building where the
Her voice shaking, Esther said she remembered a 1996 incident in which Combs
wrapped a rope around her neck and draped her over his back with her feet
coming off the ground.
"I passed out and I woke up on the floor," she said.
When she was about 16, Evangeline Combs pinched her arm with a pair of pliers
and twisted them until her skin peeled off, Esther said.
"She called them her marks of the beast," Esther said.
Esther said she got in trouble when she was about 11 for forgetting to throw
out a lid from a metal can.
"Mrs. Combs said she wanted to show me what would happen if the two younger
ones (children) had gotten hold of it. And she cut me with it on my wrist,"
The woman said she can no longer straighten her left arm because Evangeline
Combs beat her with a metal baseball bat, causing nerve damage.
Photographs of the young woman's body scars were shown in the courtroom on a
large overhead screen. Much of Tuesday's testimony focused on her scars and how
she got them.
At one point, she walked over to jurors to show them scars on her arm she said
came from Mrs. Combs burning her with a woodworking tool.
Esther also said she was assigned so many housekeeping chores that she was
often didn't go to bed before 3:30 to 5:30 a.m. They weren't worried about
school hours because the Combses taught their children at home.
During the testimony, the Combses were stoic, looking either at Esther or the
floor. The couple is charged with kidnapping and assault. Joseph Combs, 51, is
also charged with raping Esther and Mrs. Combs, child abuse.
Defense attorneys told jurors in opening statements that the Combses meant to
adopt the 4-month-old Esther when they took her from a Valparaiso children's
home in 1978.
The couple were given legal custody of Esther but never adopted her because of
financial demands from the children's home, Evangeline Combs' attorney Joe
Harrison said the Combses' other children -- four biological and one adopted --
will testify that they all were assigned household chores and that Esther's
claims of being the family's servant are false.
The Combses also claim Esther is pursuing the case in order to help a
multi-million dollar lawsuit she has filed against them and the orphanage.
Testimony began Thursday in the trial, which is expected to last about three