MINISTER, WIFE ABUSED ORPHANED GIRL, JURY FINDS

Date: 2000-03-24

The Commercial Appeal
Author: Angela K. Brown The Associated Press

A Baptist minister and his wife were convicted Thursday of abusing a girl they took from an orphanage and raised as their daughter.

Jurors in Sullivan County Circuit Court deliberated four hours before convicting Rev. Joseph Combs, 51, and his wife Evangeline, 50.

The couple, who took Esther Combs from an Indiana orphanage in 1978 but failed to complete the adoption, were convicted of especially aggravated kidnapping and other charges.

Blountville is in upper East Tennessee, about 10 miles from Bristol and the Virginia border.

Combs, former pastor of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church in Bristol, also was convicted of aggravated assault, aggravated perjury, seven counts of rape and one count of aggravated rape.

Mrs. Combs also was convicted of four counts of aggravated child abuse. She was acquitted of one count of aggravated assault.

The couple appeared somber in the courtroom and hugged each other once. After the verdict was read, they turned around to look at their sobbing children and said, "I love you."

Esther, now 22 and living in another state under a different name, sobbed as the jury foreman read the verdict in each count. She declined comment for reporters.

The couple, who had been free on bond, were taken to jail and will be sentenced April 25. Combs faces up to 144 years in prison and his wife up to 73 years.

Jurors and defense attorneys declined to comment after the trial, which lasted five weeks.

"I feel a great deal of relief," said Dist. Atty. Gen. Greeley Wells. "The guilty verdict was thoroughly justified by the evidence in this case."

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 that Mrs. 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 that 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 that 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 in Valparaiso, Ind. Mrs. 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 they moved to Bristol in 1989.

Esther said her earliest memory was being thrown down the stairs in her high chair.

Jurors saw dozens of pictures of Esther's scars and a picture of Esther at age 3 or 4 with large bandages on each hand. She said Mrs. Combs forced her to place her hands in boiling oatmeal.

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's friends, a South Carolina pastor.

After that Esther was sent to live with Combs's 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.

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