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CROWN POINT - Three women said Thursday they were fondled by a Hammond

church deacon who was convicted in March of molesting a 7-year-old girl in

1991 in a Sunday school class.

Perhaps the most damaging of the witnesses against A.V. Ballenger, 57, was

his niece, a 17-year-old high school senior from East Brewton, Ala., who said

he touched her private areas while she lay pretending to be asleep at his home.

The niece, who is the same age as Ballenger's daughter, said that when her

family lived in Lake County 10 years ago she would often spend Saturday nights

with the Ballenger family, then accompany the family to church Sunday morning

at First Baptist Church of Hammond.

Several times while she was at the home, Ballenger "would go inside my pants

and rub my privates," she testified.

She said one of the incidents happened while she lay on a bed with Ballenger

and his daughter watching television, and another while she lay on a sofa bed

with Ballenger's daughter sleeping alongside her.

The niece was the last of four witnesses against Ballenger brought by the

prosecution in the first day of the sentencing hearing following the deacon's

conviction on a child molesting charge.

Ballenger's daughter and wife testified for the defense Thursday afternoon,

as defense lawyer James Foster tried to punch holes in the niece's testimony.

Both told a different story from the niece and denied that the girl had ever

told them Ballenger had "messed with" her.

Deputy Prosecutors Clarence Murray and Gary Bell also put on three other

witnesses, including two young women who said they also had been fondled by


One was a 21-year-old computer student at Indiana University in Bloomington

who said she visited the Ballenger home a number of times when she was much

younger because her mother and Mrs. Ballenger were close friends.

She said that once, when she was about 5 or 6, she was lying on her stomach

watching television in the Ballenger home when A.V. Ballenger crouched down

alongside her, lifted her dress and fondled her. Hearing women's voices from

the kitchen, he "jumped up and got on the couch," the woman said.

The third victim, a 20-year-old woman from the Columbia Center public

housing project in Hammond, told how she would ride a bus Sunday mornings to

the First Baptist Sunday school, and that A.V. Ballenger was her driver.

She described the church as "a good church" she enjoyed attending, and said

she liked Ballenger. But she said there were several times when both were on

the bus alone that he would run his hand inside her dress and fondle her

private areas.

All three victims said they did not go to anyone in authority because they

were uncertain what type of reception they would get.

"I didn't want my mom to know," the niece said. Said the Hammond woman, "I

thought no one would believe me; they'd say I was a bad girl."

The computer student said she was "confused" by Ballenger's actions. "I knew

it was wrong, but this was a grown-up doing this to me," she said.

All testified the actions happened while they were between 5 and 7 years

old, and Foster suggested so much time had elapsed they were mistaken about

what had occurred.

But the computer student said, "I am definitely sure. Something like this

you don't forget."

Another state witness was a former security officer at the church, who

testified he saw Ballenger fondle a young girl in 1978 or 1979 in a Sunday

school room after being called to the room by a female teacher.

He said he confronted Ballenger, who was in a "trancelike state" with his

hand under the girl's dress.

At this point in the testimony, Ballenger looked at the packed courtroom and

put a twirling finger to his head as if to say the witness was crazy. As the

testimony continued, he muttered that security guard Michael Parkman was a


Parkman testified he confronted Ballenger, "and he tried to deny it, but I

was standing there as a hands-on witness as to what was going on."

The girl, however, was uncooperative, Parkman said, and disappeared into the

group of children being bused from the church to their homes. She was never

found, and the matter was dropped, he said.

Testimony on behalf of Ballenger is expected to conclude this afternoon.

Lake Criminal Court Judge Richard Conroy said he likely will sentence Ballenger

early next week.