BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. -- A Baptist minister and his wife were convicted Thursday
of abusing a girl they took from a Porter County orphanage and raised as the
Jurors in Sullivan County (Tenn.) Circuit Court deliberated four hours before
convicting the Rev. Joseph Combs, 51, and his wife Evangeline, 50.
The couple, who took Esther Combs from the Baptist Children's Home and Family
Ministries in Porter County in 1978 but failed to adopt her, both were
convicted of kidnapping and other charges.
Combs, 51, once a respected Bible teacher at Hyles Anderson College in St. John
Township and former pastor of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church in
Bristol, Tenn., also was convicted of aggravated assault, aggravated perjury,
seven counts of rape and one count of aggravated rape.
Evangeline Combs also was convicted of four counts of aggravated child abuse.
She was acquitted of one count of aggravated assault.
The couple looked at their children in the courtroom when the verdict was read
and said, "I love you." The two then hugged.
Esther, now 22 and living in another state under a different name, sobbed after
the verdict was read. She declined comment for reporters.
The couple, who had been free on bond, were taken to jail. They will be
sentenced April 25.
Combs faces up to 144 years in prison; his wife, up to 73.
Jurors and defense attorneys declined to comment after the trial.
"I feel a great deal of relief. ...," said District Attorney General Greeley
Wells. "The guilty verdict was thoroughly justified by the evidence in this
"Given the type of evidence they saw, I was not at all surprised."
A 19-count indictment was handed down in November 1998, but Sullivan County
Circuit Judge Jerry Beck dismissed four of the assault charges Wednesday.
Esther testified Evangeline Combs beat her with baseball bats, burned her with
a curling iron and pulled out chunks of her flesh with pliers -- causing more
than 400 scars on her body. Esther also said Combs whipped her and forced her
to engage in sex acts.
She said she was denied an education, forced to do all the chores and required
to wear clothing that covered her scars.
The Combses' other five children testified Esther never was abused or treated
as the family's servant. They said she could read and write well, went shopping
without their parents and chose to wear long dresses.
Combs also denied the allegations and testified he was "bewildered" by Esther's
claims. He said the couple meant to adopt Esther but could not afford the
financial demands from the Baptist Children's Home. Evangeline Combs did not
testify in the trial, which started Feb. 22.
Testimony chronicled the family's life in Indiana, Florida, and in a travel
trailer as touring evangelists before moving to Bristol in 1989.
Authorities said the two decades of brutal abuse was hidden until Esther was
hospitalized in February 1997 after trying to kill herself by drinking
antifreeze. Doctors found layers of scars on her body and fractures that had
not healed properly, according to court testimony.
Although Esther initially denied being abused and returned to live with the
Combses after her suicide attempt, police remained suspicious about her scars.
Seven months later, police filed a petition for guardianship for Esther, who
was to appear in Sullivan County Chancery Court.
During the October 1997 hearing, Combs told the judge he did not know where
Esther was. On the witness stand Tuesday, Combs said his testimony that day was
"not the whole truth" and said he had arranged for Esther to leave the state.
Instead of attending the hearing, Esther spent a few days at a church member's
home in nearby Virginia, then spent several weeks with one of Combs' friends, a
South Carolina pastor.
After that, Esther was sent to live with Combs' relatives in Georgia, where she
called Bristol police in February 1998 and made the abuse allegations.
She later filed a lawsuit seeking unspecified damages against the Combses and
the children's home.