TESTIMONY BEGINS IN ABUSE TRIAL

Date: 2000-03-03

The Commercial Appeal
Author: The Associated Press

A Bristol emergency room doctor who thought he was treating a seizure victim three years ago said he found so many scars on the teenager's body he could not count them.

Dr. Gregory Gerlock testified Thursday in the trial of Joseph and Evangeline Combs, charged with repeatedly assaulting a girl they took from a children's home in 1978. Esther Combs is now 22 and living in another state under a different name.

The doctor, one of the first witnesses testifying in the case, said Esther seemed delirious when paramedics brought her to the hospital Feb. 18, 1997. Gerlock said Joseph Combs gave only vague answers about the teen's condition and what caused the scars on her back, arms and face.

Esther drank antifreeze earlier that day, trying to escape her abusive home life by committing suicide, Prosecutor Barry Staubus said. The Combses had beaten her with baseball bats, pliers and pieces of tin and also burned her, Staubus said.

"Esther lived as a broken person, devastated by physical, verbal, psychological, sexual abuse without any other family, without an identity, without an education, deprived of self-worth," Staubus said in opening statements Thursday.

Combs, 51, former pastor of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church of Bristol, also is charged with rape. Mrs. Combs, 50, also is charged with child abuse. Both are charged with kidnapping and assault.

Before opening statements began, the charges against the couple were read to the jury, and the couple entered their plea on each count. They stood and looked directly at the jury each time, and said in a loud voice: "Not guilty!"

Defense attorneys told jurors the Combses meant to adopt the 4-month-old girl they took from a Valparaiso, Ind., children's home. The couple were given legal custody of Esther but never adopted her because of financial demands from the children's home, said Mrs. Combs's attorney Joe Harrison.

He said Mrs. Combs has devoted her life to her husband of 26 years, family and church. He said the Combses' six children - four biological, one adopted and Esther - received chores as part of the household. Esther's claims that she was a slave for the familyare misleading, he said.

"All family members will tell you this abuse never occurred," Harrison said.

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