Deputies showed up at church on Sunday morning, but they weren’t there to worship.
The minister had been accused of a crime, and the son-in-law was there to confront him.
Words were exchanged; an investigation was started, and a close-knit family was torn apart.
Months later, the legal drama -- at least -- ended on Tuesday after Wythe County jurors judged a man of God on the state’s scale of justice.
Accused of sexually touching his teenage adopted granddaughter last August, 60-year-old Nathan Ray Phillips pleaded not guilty on Monday to aggravated sexual battery. A minister for more than three decades and the former Austinville Pentecostal Holiness Church pastor, Phillips adamantly denied the accusation.
Now living full time in Floyd County, Phillips and his wife, Esther, were staying at the Austinville parsonage on Aug. 13, 2016, when their granddaughter – the Enterprise doesn’t typically identify juvenile accusers – and her siblings spent the night with the couple.
Both adopted out of a tough home life – the father was in prison -- by Phillips’ daughter and son-in-law, the granddaughter and her younger brother were the commonwealth’s first two witnesses in a courtroom packed with the minister’s friends, family and former congregants.
The brother testified that he saw Nathan Phillips rub the granddaughter’s head with his hand and then continue down her body to her private parts as the granddaughter and other siblings were watching a movie in the parsonage living room. Esther Phillips was in her bedroom.
When Nathan Phillips went downstairs to check the laundry, the brother got his sister’s cell phone, went into a bathroom and called his father at about 2 in the morning, according to testimony. Feeling “awkward” that his grandfather was touching his sister, the boy spent the night in the tub.
“Why would a 12-year-old sleep in a bathtub, why?” Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Meghan Lackey asked jurors in her opening statements.
The granddaughter testified that she woke up and noticed Phillips touching her “in the breast area.”
Wythe County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Joe Kincer testified that the granddaughter said Phillips told her, “I love you; I’m crazy about you.”
During the investigation, the teen also said that Phillips had touched her vagina. Police had charged Phillips with animate object penetration. The commonwealth, though, dropped that charge on Monday before trial.
On cross examination, Phillips’ attorney, Dave Rhodes, brought up another allegation that the girl had made against Phillips that she later admitted was false. According to testimony, the girl said Phillips had licked her ear after prompting from her biological mother, who was in the midst of a parental rights hearing involving the teen and her siblings.
After that allegation, Phillips and his family agreed that Phillips would never be alone with the girl.
Stephen Short, the son-in-law who confronted Phillips at the parsonage last summer as parishioners were arriving for services, said his daughter at first denied that Phillips had touched her that night, but later said it was true after he told her what her brother had said.
“I pretended like I was asleep so he would stop doing it,” Short said his daughter told him.
Asked why she initially told her father that nothing happened, the girl testified, “I didn’t think he’d believe me.”
Before Short arrived at the parsonage, the girl and Esther Phillips got into a confrontation over the allegation. The girl testified that “things got rough,” and Esther Phillips said she tried to take the girl’s cell phone so that she would talk to her about the accusations.
“She (Esther Phillips) kind of threw me across the bed and threw me across the room,” the girl said.
The next day, Short moved his family to the Lynchburg area. He and his wife, Dara, had been living in Floyd County in a house Phillips built for them. Dara Short, who’s now separated from Stephen, later returned to Floyd County with their six kids, but the two children who testified are now living with him in Lynchburg.
Throughout the two-day trial, defense attorney Rhodes hinted that the granddaughter may have made the allegation because she was unhappy living in the country and wanted to return to Lynchburg.
Although the commonwealth offered no exhibits, the defense submitted several photographs as evidence along with a cardboard box diagram of the parsonage. Witnesses used a laser pointer to show areas in the house referenced during testimony.
Police never interviewed Nathan Phillips even though his attorney said he agreed to be questioned with legal counsel present.
Asked in court on Tuesday whether or not he’d ever touched his granddaughter in the way she described, Phillips said, “No sir; I did not.”
His testimony was followed by a string of character witnesses.
After discussing the case on Tuesday evening, the jury made up of seven women and five men found Phillips not guilty of the lone felony charge.
Free on bond while awaiting trial, he has not preached since the allegation was made.
Jeffrey Simmons can be reached at 228-6611, extension 19, or firstname.lastname@example.org.