exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

The Preacher Combs Trial


Baptist Preacher and wife get 179 years in prison: Combs Trial

Compiled by Lewis Loflin

The Preacher Combs Trial, where a Baptist preacher and his wife were sentenced to 179 years for the rape and torture of Elsa Garcia, is not about religion. What it is about is unregulated private adoptions, break down in the social welfare system, and the use of home schooling to isolate children from the rest of society. What it is most about is nobody cared enough to get involved until the police stepped in after a suicide attempt.

What is even more strange is the fact anyone who spoke openly against Combs (Kestner, Loflin) ended up attacked while little was said by the public about Combs himself. A lot of credit should go to the police and jury in Sullivan County who didn't let Mr. Combs status deter them from dispensing justice.

Religion played no part in this, but an uncaring public did. That in many ways is part of Appalachian culture, "mind your own business." The article below by Jack Kestner shows just what I'm thinking and the links are few highlights in the local press. They are both still in prison as of 2007. I had met the victim once several years ago, but never brought this up. I don't know where she is today and hope she has gone on to a happy life.

Basic story

Ex-pastor Joe Combs was released from jail on bond after friends and family raised half his bond and a bonding company put up the remainder of the money. (His wife was released in March, $250,000 bond each.) Combs, 50, and his wife, Evangeline "Vangie" Combs, 49, were charged last year in a multi-count indictment that alleges they abused Esther Combs during the 19 years she lived with them. The girl has since moved to another state and changed her name. They are accused of using various items to abuse their daughter, and Joe Combs is accused of raping her. Ref Kingsport Times-News 05/13/1999

Evangeline Combs faces several counts of child abuse and her husband is accused of raping the girl, then known as Esther Combs. In a medical report, Esther Combs has "numerous scars involving scalp, face, neck, trunk, and extremities ... and some of which show an appearance suggestive of burns...the girl suffered from several broken bones - hands, leg and arm - some of which did not heal properly.

"The Combs are accused of taking the girl from an Indiana children's home more than 20 years ago but never adopting her. After being admitted to the hospital in 1997, Esther Combs told police her parents beat, tortured and abused her. Doctors said they found layered scar tissue over much of the girl's body. The girl also said Joe Combs raped her." A woman, who once attended the church Joe Combs pastored, told said that she remembered Esther Combs' teeth being "obviously broken." The woman also said the girl waited on the Combs family during a meal and spoke to Joe Combs as if she was afraid she wasn't serving him fast enough. Ref. Kingsport Times-News 2-17-2000

Witnesses in Combs trial describe scars on alleged abuse victim: Four medical witnesses and a social worker all testified they observed scars from head to toe on Esther Combs - the most they'd ever seen on one person..the only explanation any of them received from the 19-year-old girl's family was that she was "clumsy and fell a lot," nurses and a doctor testified. Esther Combs was transported by ambulance to the hospital Feb. 18, 1997, after a 911 call that Esther was having seizures...Dr. Jennifer Stiefel said she observed short and long scars of "horizontal distribution," overlapping each other on the young woman's back, but noted that there were scars also across her buttocks, thighs, arms, front torso, and even her face...some of the scars were from burns and others were from cuts...while some burns were on Esther's hands, others were on her back and thighs...She was underweight and appeared emaciated..the girl had ingested antifreeze, which could be fatal if not treated. (Suicide attempt.) Ref. Kingsport Times-News 3-3-2000.

AP 03/07/2000 Esther testifies ex-Baptist minister and wife beat, hanged and cut her. 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...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, Mrs. 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," Ester said. The woman said she can no longer straighten her left arm because Mrs. Combs beat her with a metal baseball bat, causing nerve damage...she walked over to jurors to show them scars on her arm she said came from Mrs. Combs burning her with a woodworking tool...

Kingsport Times-News 03/09/2000, Esther Combs describes effort to run away, being beaten with a hose for punishment Esther Combs testified that her life has changed in many ways since the first two decades when she lived with abusive adults. She now has a Social Security number, a job and attends school with classes in English, math, reading, writing and computers...Once Esther - who now lives in another state and has changed her name - tried to make her escape look like force when she ran away during a Sunday night service at the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church, where Joe Combs began pastoring in 1989.

"(Mrs. Combs) sent me to the nursery. ... She didn't want to be in the same room with me. I threw some things around to make it look like I'd been kidnapped...The girl ended up at a children's home in Elizabethton, and the Combses retrieved her there the following day...Esther said she was forced to undress for the beating with a water hose. "He said he didn't want to miss any inch of my skin," she said. Finally, she said she could take no more and on Feb. 18, 1997, she drank a 24-ounce cup of antifreeze, brushed her teeth and went to bed. "I wanted to die..."

Kingsport Times-News 03/10/2000. A life of servitude for Esther Combs was divine providence, according to former Bristol preacher Joe Combs, a former colleague testified Friday. "He said God had created (Esther) to be a servant," Galen Oakes II said. "And they were training her to serve...Mrs. Combs said Esther was meant to be a servant...

Discipline of children, Oakes testified Joe Combs told him, makes it "necessary to spank through their rebellion. You are not to quit spanking until their will is broken and they stop crying...They did not attend school. And they did not want the authorities to know...(a witness) testified her first day of teaching led to trouble for Esther, however, when the then 9-year-old learned to write her own name. "Mrs. Combs was very displeased...She said I was never to do that again. Mr. Combs told me his children would not receive formal education until they were 12 years old, because that is when Jesus first went to the synagogue...They hoped they were forming geniuses through this process...

Joe Combs "instilled a fear of strangers in the children. He said he had forced all of them to watch the "Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and the purpose was to make them fear strangers...(another witness) testified: "She saw Esther's legs uncovered as the then-8-year-old girl slept and they "were very, very scarred. There were old wounds and new wounds. They were just striped all the way up and down." An administrator testified that a search of Bristol Tennessee school system files for the past 10 years revealed no record of Esther Combs' existence.

Other Witnesses say they never saw scars on Esther Combs' body

David Combs testifies he never saw Esther abused

Two more Combs children testify their parents did not mistreat Esther

Joseph Combs denies assaulting girl raised as daughter

Joe Combs denies sex, abuse charges, says Esther was treated like other children

Kingsport Times-News 04/25/2000: Combs sentenced to 114 years in prison, wife gets 65 years.

Joseph and Evangeline Combs showed little emotion Tuesday afternoon as a Sullivan County judge went about determining their sentences for kidnapping a girl by concealing her and subjecting her to years of abuse. Joe Combs, 51 - who was convicted March 24 of especially aggravated kidnapping, aggravated assault, aggravated perjury, aggravated rape and seven counts of rape - was sentenced to 114 years in prison. His wife, 50-year-old Evangeline Combs, was convicted the same day of especially aggravated kidnapping and four counts of aggravated child abuse. She was sentenced to 65 years behind bars...The pictures speak for themselves...A medical examiner testified at trial that Esther carries 410 scars on her body. Defense attorneys said they will appeal the case.

Joe Combs: Especially aggravated kidnapping - 22 years; Aggravated assault - five years; Aggravated perjury - two years; Aggravated rape - 22 years.; Rape, seven counts - 10 years for each count. The assault and perjury sentences run concurrently, while all other sentences run consecutively for an effective sentence of 114 years.

Evangeline Combs: Especially aggravated kidnapping - 22 years; Aggravated child abuse - 10 years on one count and 11 years each on the three other counts. All sentences run consecutively for an effective sentence of 65 years.

Combs abuse case region's top crime story of 2000

Kingsport Times-News

For most area residents, crime in 2000 was a far-removed news event, but there were several stories throughout the past year that touched the lives of many in the region. They ranged from rape and robbery to fire and freedom. Topping the list of crime events in the region this year is a story so bizarre it couldn't be made up, according to a prosecutor involved in the case.

Former pastor, wife convicted of abuse The public view of a girl once called Esther Combs lasted about a year and a half, during which there were glimpses of her 20-year life with the parents who never legally adopted her, hid her away and molded her into the family's servant. Joseph and Evangeline Combs were arrested in November 1998 after more than a year of investigation by Bristol, Tenn., Police Detective Debbie Richmond-McCauley.

Although there had been some allegations of mistreatment or problems in the Combs home, an investigation into how Esther - who later changed her name to Elsa Garcia - became scarred all over her body began when she attempted suicide by drinking antifreeze in February 1997. While the young woman was hospitalized, the only explanation she or other family members gave for how she obtained her scars was that she fell down a lot. Richmond-McCauley was convinced there was more to the story, but she wouldn't know how much more for more than a year, during which time Esther Combs was secreted away in South Carolina then in Georgia to avoid a hearing to appoint her a guardian. While living with her aunt and uncle in Georgia and after being away from Joseph and Evangeline for months, Esther Combs made the decision to tell Richmond-McCauley the story of her life.

An investigation followed and the Combses were charged in November 1998 with crimes including kidnapping, rape and abuse. During the trial in February and March 2000, the young woman testified how Joe Combs forced her to have oral sex almost every day and that when Evangeline found out about it, she beat her for it. The couple used bats and garden hoses to beat the girl, forced her to perform all the household chores and wouldn't allow her to participate in the home schooling of the other children until her chores were completed. She suffered cuts from tin can lids, chunks of skin were pinched off with needle nose pliers, her skin was burned with a craft-type wood burner and a cut caused by a thrown shoe was sewn up without any anesthesia. Two days of testimony from the girl kept a full courtroom spellbound during the longest trial in Sullivan County history.

In the end, Joe and Evangeline Combs were convicted of their crimes and received sentences of more than 100 years and 65 years in prison, respectively. They both have appealed their convictions and sentences.

What Esther Combs faced defies all understanding


I started a column on the Combs trial shortly after its conclusion, but every time I got into the details I became so revolted I had to stop. Now, here I am, right on my deadline, so reckon I'll have no choice but write the thing. During my life as a newspaperman, I encountered numerous instances of brutality by one human being against another, but never, never, did I come across anything that even remotely compares with this case.

I mean no irreverence when I point out that the physical pain of Jesus Christ on the cross lasted for three days, but the physical pain of Esther Combs lasted intermittently for nearly 20 years. ONE THING that sets it apart from the serial killings and serial rapes we've all read about is the fad that this was a joint endeavor. Not one person, but two, a man and his wife, acted together to completely shatter the life of a child.

Not only that, they cloaked their unspeakable acts with the sanctity of an institution that most people revere and respect : the Christian church.

When the Rev. Joseph Combs was forcing 5-year-old Esther Combs to perform oral sex on him, she testified that he quoted Scripture to her : "King David had concubines." SHE ALSO testified that when Mrs. Evangeline Combs sliced open her arm with a tin can lid, beat her with a wooden shoe and then sewed up the wound with a darning needle, and pulled off pieces of flesh with a pair of pliers, the resulting scars were referred to as "marks of the beast."

Oh, they were "marks of the beast," true enough, but not in quite the sense this preacher's wife intended.

I have never been able to understand cruelty to children or cruelty to animals. I put them both in the same category for both rely on adults for nurture and love and protection.

WHAT DOES the inflictor of pain gain? Is it a sense of power that he or she otherwise lacks? Does it come from a twisted mind in which ownership works in conjunction with this exercise of power? Or is it simply evidence of the depths of depravity that human beings are capable of sinking to? Whatever it was, it was present to a horrifying degree in the persons of the Rev. Joseph Combs and his wife. Since the trial, one question I've heard asked is why, with such overwhelming evidence against them, didn't they confess? At the very least, it would have served as an act of contrition.

I DON'T FIND it surprising at all. No one could confess to acts of such ghastly bestiality and ever again look another human being in the eye. It's also possible that the preacher held onto the hope that a jury would not believe that "a man of God" was capable of such acts. Certainly, he could have found precedence for this hope in our nation's early history. During the days of our Founding Fathers, the case would never have come to trial. A preacher's word was law.

In a sense, the trial pitted a preacher against science. The science was provided by Dr. Gretel Harlan, state medical examiner, who testified concerning the victim's 410 visible scars. The layering of these, and their location, eliminated the possibility of accidental or self-inflicted injuries.

THIS FACT, buttressed by numerous other witnesses, convinced the jury to speedily conclude that it was the preacher who was lying. In a very real sense, the Combses' other children are also victims. According to Esther Combs, some of them not only witnessed these acts of brutality but actively took part in them.

One has to wonder if this "parental guidance" will follow them into adulthood, and what cruelty to others it will result in.

BOUQUETS GO to investigator Debbie Richmond-McCauley of the Bristol Tennessee Police Department, and Sullivan County Attorney General Greeley Wells, who relentlessly pursued the case. Without their efforts, justice would not have been served. The question remains, how far should blame extend? Although the blame game doesn't always lead to positive results, it might be instructive to follow events step by step.

First, the originator of it all, the mother of Esther Combs. We know nothing about her except that a sexual encounter ended in an adoption agency.

WAS IT THE result of incest, rape, a teen-age affair, or simply an unwanted child? We don't know. The only things we do know are the consequences. When she became pregnant, if she could have foreseen the years of torture and suffering that lay ahead for her child, would she have opted for an abortion if that choice had been available? We don't know. But we do know that it provides a clue as to why so many in this country are reluctant to repeal Roe vs. Wade. Poll after poll shows that well over half the population, while favoring restrictions, oppose a total ban.

"LIFE :WHAT a beautiful choice!" And it can be. But it can also be a living hell. Esther Combs became a mute witness to this fact when she finally tried to end her suffering by committing suicide. Question: what is a truly appropriate punishment for the two Combses? The Middle Age punishment of being drawn and quartered by wild horses comes to mind, but that's only because I have a vindictive nature. No, the lengthy imprisonment, which they both almost certainly face is appropriate. Those long, endless nights alone thinking about what put them there.

THE REV. MR. Combs may even encounter a different kind of sex than that which he forced on an innocent child while quoting scripture to her. If so, he may also recall another passage: "As a man soweth, so shall he reap."

-- The late Jack Kestner