by Bruce A. Smith
Michael Fontenot, a former lay minister of the New Testament Christian Church in Graham, and also a part-time choir leader and the former publisher of the church’s pamphlet, The Trumpet, has been convicted on child rape charges, his ex-wife Christina Growder and other principals involved in the case announced recently.
According to documents from the Pierce County Superior Court, Mr. Fontenot was convicted on two counts of Rape of a Child in the Second Degree, and he is currently serving a ten-year to life sentence in the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, WA.
Fontenot was convicted on these charges based upon his admission that he had sexual contact in 2005 with his then-twelve year-old daughter, which included finger-penetration.
However, his conviction took place in 2006 and it was only in 2010 that he began serving the entirety of his sentence.
Initially, the prosecuting attorney, John Sheeran, sought a sentence of ten years to life, but Mr. Fontenot and his defense attorney requested – and received – an alternative sentencing agreement from the court, known as a SOSSA.
SOSSA stands for Special Sexual Offending Sentence Alternative, and is a well-established legal program that blends short-term prison sentences with extensive counseling and probationary requirements. At his sentencing in mid-2006, Mr. Fontenot received his SOSSA and was sentenced to six months in prison, whereupon he was immediately released based upon time already served.
What transpired over the intervening four years – from the conviction in 2006 until Fontenot’s SOSSA was revoked in October 2010 – is a complex web of legal intricacies and problematic personal behaviors by Mr. Fontenot.
Coupled with impacts within the community – and especially within the NTCC – the case has become multi-faceted. To fully understand it the Mountain News has spoken to many individuals connected to Mr. Fontenot, his family, the church and law enforcement.
Central to grasping these complexities is Fontenot’s SOSSA agreement.
As is standard for SOSSA sentences, Fontenot’s SOSSA protocols mandated that he abstain from alcohol and drugs, maintain weekly counseling sessions with a SOSSA-approved therapist for five years, and assume complete financial cost for the therapy.
In addition, he was forbidden to have any direct and indirect contact with minors, and he was required to disclose his status as a sexual offender to all romantic partners and announce these relationships to his therapist. Also, Mr. Fontenot was not allowed to have any contact with his child and wife, and he had to submit to regular polygraph testing and frequent probationary reviews to insure compliance with the terms of his release.
However, in 2007 Fontenot violated some of his SOSSA requirements and was re-arrested and placed in prison. The court found that his infractions of alcohol and marijuana usage along with socializing with neighbors of his family to be relatively minor, and after serving 120 days for these violations Fontenot was again released, according to Ms. Growder.
(Note: Due to the emotional nature of this story, Christina, who is the mother of the child involved, has asked for a measure of anonymity and the Mountain News has changed her name slightly to provide her with a degree of privacy.)
Christina says that over the next few years Mr. Fontenot violated his SOSSA protocols with some frequency and was re-incarcerated multiple times, typically serving 20-30 day sentences.
Nevertheless, in 2009 Fontenot began having a prolonged romantic relationship with a young woman who had a five-year old child, a major SOSSA violation. Apparently, Mr. Fontenot informed his therapist of the relationship as required; but she failed to inform the court or other law enforcement. Whether any legal actions will be taken against this therapist is unknown at this time.
However, in 2010 a family member did alert law enforcement about Fontenot’s relationship, and as a result, Mr. Fontenot was arrested in July, 2010 and his SOSSA was revoked in October, 2010. At that time, Fontenot was re-sentenced to his original ten year to life sentence.
In August, 2010, after the arrest but before the revocation, Ms. Growder contacted this reporter and began sharing the details of the crime and its court proceedings.
Christina said that prior to their divorce in 2007, she had been married to Mr. Fontenot for fourteen years and their daughter was born in 1992. During this time, the family had also been attending the New Testament church regularly.
The Fontenots had met in Arizona, and after an uneven courtship that spanned several years they finally married and settled in St Louis. There, Christina and Michael intensified their involvement in the NTCC, and a year later, in 1995, the family moved to Washington so that Christina could attend the NTCC Bible Seminary in Graham.
At that time, the NTCC also hired Michael Fontenot to run their print shop and produce The Trumpet. In addition, Mr. Fontenot, who had been a long-time member of the NTCC and had been ordained as a minister, began teaching in the Bible Seminary.
Also, Christina began teaching Sunday school in the NTCC’s children’s church, and did so for at least six years. In addition, their daughter attended the children’s program.
Although she characterizes herself as a fervent believer and a dedicated member, Christina also describes her involvement within the NTCC as mixed, saying she rolled her eyes over a few things, especially the “exceptionalism” of the NTCC as proclaimed by the leadership.
Despite their devoted participation in the NTCC, Christina says they were never part of the inner circle.
“We were never invited to rent one of the homes on the campus (allotted to) the families of the ministers.”
Relations between the Fontenots and the church – and certainly within the marriage – changed dramatically in 2004 when Christina discovered that her husband was having an affair, and also, had been frequenting porn sites and sexual chat rooms on the Internet.
“Michael admitted it,” Christina said when she confronted him, and they resolved to bring the matter to the NTCC leadership, which led to Michael being fired from the print shop and having his minister’s license revoked.
After Michael’s dismissal, Christina says her family began “pulling away” from the NTCC. Christina still attended Sunday worship, but Michael stopped attending services altogether.
The admission of adultery and his dismissal seemed to trigger something very profound within Michael Fontenot.
“He got depressed and just didn’t care anymore,” said Christina. “He also started going out to clubs at night.”
This latter behavior devastated the marriage. Further strains ensued throughout the next year as the couple grappled with financial issues.
Then, in late 2005, Christina spotted Michael leaving their daughter’s bedroom wearing only his underwear.
“That was so unlike him,” Christina said. “He always wore sweat pants and running suits around the house.”
That strange sight of her husband planted a thought that perhaps he was more than just an adulterer.
“The idea that Michael could be having sexual contact with our daughter was so foreign to me, I couldn’t even conceive of it at first – even with his being a philanderer and the adultery and the clubbing. I just didn’t see it.”
However, by the next day, Christina’s suspicions began to crystallize.
“I didn’t have a clue up until this one particular moment,” Christina said. “Then, it was like God just dropped the question into my head.”
Acting upon this intuition, Christina asked her daughter, “Has your daddy ever touched you in a sexual way?”
Christina reports that her daughter was initially evasive and turned away, but she did eventually confirm her father’s sexual behavior.
Next, Christina confronted her husband, and he confessed to digital intercourse with his daughter and to placing his mouth on her breast.
“He had a deer-in-the-headlight look,” she said, and then a profound drama unfolded.
Christina says that Michael began “balling and crying” and asked that she take him to a psychiatric hospital, saying that he didn’t want to live anymore and that he might harm himself.
Bundling the family into their car, Christina then drove to the American Lake Veterans Administration Hospital in Lakewood, where Michael was admitted into the psychiatric unit.
At this point in the telling Christina became quite animated.
“I’m not a big believer when people say they hear God talking to them, but sitting there in the VA hospital waiting room and filling out paperwork, I heard a voice – clear as day – and I believe it was the voice of God. It said, ‘You’re in the wrong place.’”
“Where should I be?” she asked the voice.
“‘A police station,’” the voice replied.
Christina reports that she next turned to her daughter and asked, “Are you ready for a really hard time? I have to report this to the police.”
Christina says that her daughter replied very evenly, “Yes, I’m ready.”
When the admissions nurse returned for the papers, Christina told her she needed to speak with law enforcement, and arrangements were made for her to speak with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department. Over the next few days charges were filed, statements given and an investigation launched that included a team of detectives, deputies and medical personnel.
“They were the nicest people,” says Christina. “I really compliment them – they really had the human touch – they even gave my daughter a Teddy bear and a $20 gift card to Target! I’m so thankful.”
A week later, Michael was arrested upon discharge from the American Lake VA, and incarcerated at the Pierce County jail.
Although Christina said that she felt her husband was totally honest with her at this time, and that his abuse of their daughter had been recent, she later learned that was not true. At the SOSSA revocation hearing in October 2010, Mr. Fontenot admitted to initiating sexual contact with his daughter four years earlier, when the girl was eight years old.
Further, Fontenot’s therapist also told the court that Michael had been grooming his daughter throughout this early time frame in preparation for more intimate relations.
However, in 2006 only part of this was known, and at that time Christina says her husband began accusing her of being a cold and frigid wife – in effect blaming her for the molestation.
“At the NTCC Michael was told that a wife should be subservient to her husband, and that when he came home from work she should be raring to go – well, that’s just not the way it is in real life,” said Christina.
In short, she says that Fontenot complained she wasn’t sexy enough.
In addition, Christina says her husband was highly judgmental and rarely supported her in any difficult emotional time.
“He sure knew how to be charming to women he just met, and how to be a clown with his buddies, but he never knew how to be a loving husband,” she says.
Nevertheless, as harsh as life had been with Michael Fontenot, and certainly the financial strains imposed upon the family by his incarceration added greatly to the family’s struggles, another trauma befell Christina and her daughter upon Michael’s conviction – she was shunned by the NTCC.
When Michael was first imprisoned, Christina informed the leadership of NTCC, specifically founder Rodger W. Davis and CEO Mike Kekel; yet they offered no assistance whatsoever – no financial aid, counseling, or emotional support.
Christina was shocked by their rebuff.
“Helping out by paying my mortgage for a month would have made a real difference,” said Christina, who began to cobble together part-time and full-time jobs to earn the $1,400 per month she and her daughter lived on.
“Where was my religious family when I needed them?” she asks.
Further, few called or visited, and no one commiserated with Christina.
“No one offered a shoulder to cry on,” said Christina. “Friends of ours, two couples from NTCC came over, but they never asked, ‘What happened?’”
Christina feels that much of this emotional abandonment is a result of the culture and religious doctrines of the NTCC.
“No one even came to pray with me,” she says. “That is just like the NTCC – even on simple things members are forbidden to talk with each other. They can’t even talk about the bible or discuss personal troubles together. People learn to shut up.”
Christina says she made “feeble” attempts to tell people what had happened, but met a wall of resistance from her faith community.
The NTCC says that if something is wrong in your life, then you’re not right with God. I confronted Verna (NTCC founder RW Davis’ wife) about the abandonment, but she just said over and over, ‘We do miss you, just come to church.’”
Recalling the incident, Christina became angry.
“Why should I go to NTCC? I’d just sit by myself and cry all through the services,” Christina said, her voice filled with passion. “So, I stopped going to NTCC altogether after that.”
Back home, Christina suffered in silence.
“I just curled up in a ball on my bed,” Christina said. “But I wanted to be strong for my daughter – I never let her see me when I was a basket case. So, when my daughter needed something, I’d sit up in bed, clench my fists and say, ‘Function!’”
She also prayed for “real friends” and found them straight away, and her life has improved steadily ever since.
“The day I confronted Michael – that was the worst day of my life – and the best! A lot of good has come into my life after I left my husband and the NTCC.”
As proof, Christina first divorced Michael in 2007, and has since remarried to a remarkably sensitive and secure man. In addition, her daughter has had a wonderful family in which to thrive and grow.
Reflecting upon her daughter’s happiness, Christina shared a story about the first time her daughter met the man who eventually became her step-father.
“My boyfriend (now husband) just asked her how life was as a fifteen year-old, and she just opened up and told him everything – giving him her opinion on everything in her life – high school, her friends and how they didn’t care about school and she did, everything – for an hour. Michael never did that.”
Christina continued and said that after her beloved left for the evening, her daughter made a very insightful comment.
“’Michael never asked me my opinion on anything,’” Christina recounts her daughter saying, a statement that fully illustrates the lack of emotional connection within the Fontenot family.
Nevertheless, as Christina looks back on those times she smiles.
“Finding out the truth (of the NTCC and Fontenot) and being set free – it’s been great,” Christina proclaimed.
However, in 2006 when Michael was first released from jail he reportedly became an active member in the NTCC again. Alarmed, Christina informed pastors Davis and Kekel of Michael’s status as a convicted child rapist.
“It’s clear now, after the last SOSSA hearing (in 2010) that they never told the church members anything,” Christina said. “That’s totally irresponsible.”
Whether Davis or Kekel, or any members of the NTCC leadership alerted their congregation, is unknown. When questioned on this subject by the Mountain News, Graham NTCC co-pastor Phil Kinson simply said, “I have nothing to say to you. Have a nice day.” Then, he hung up.
Further, when the Mountain News telephoned co-pastor and NTCC CEO Mike Kekel, he merely uttered, “No Comment,” and afterwards he did not hang up the phone or continue the conversation. After a lengthy silence this reporter re-identified himself and re-iterated the purpose of the call, and left the contact information for the Mountain News with no apparent results.
In addition, efforts to reach NTCC founder and patriarch Rev. Davis have been unsuccessful.
However, a former but long-time licensed and ordained NTCC minister has told the Mountain News that he did not hear the leadership issue any warnings about Fontenot upon his re-introduction to the faith community, especially his probationary requirement that he have no contact with minors.
(Note: this pastor has asked for anonymity, clearly reflecting the grand silence that seems to envelope the NTCC community on challenging issues. Hence, for the sake of linguistic clarity he will be identified as Rev. T.)
“I didn’t even hear a rumor about Michael Fontenot – nothing,” Rev. T said, “and pastors usually hear stuff like that.”
Further, Rev T, who knew Fontenot in St Louis, invited Michael to dinner at his family’s home in Spanaway and says he never suspected the sordid details of Fontenot’s recent past.
However, Rev. T now concurs with Christina’s perspective that the absence of any effort by the NTCC leadership to alert the congregation left the membership vulnerable to assault from a sexual predator, and at the very least was highly irresponsible if not legally questionable.
Sadly, Michael Fontenot took advantage of this veil of secrecy at the NTCC.
After his multiple arrests and subsequent releases, he reportedly kept returning to the NTCC community. As stated above, there were apparently no announcements made regarding the dangers that Fontenot presented to the congregation.
In addition, Michael soon married again, to his third wife, a woman named J who was reportedly a member of the NTCC and the mother of a friend of his. However, beginning in 2009 – while still married to his new wife – Mr. Fontenot began spending time with an old flame from St. Louis named KL, who had also relocated to Graham when the NTCC moved its primary activities to Washington in the mid-1990s.
Recently, the Mountain News spoke extensively with KL, and the following is what she shared about the events that lead to Michael Fontenot’s re-incarceration in 2010.
(Note: Again, KL and her husband have requested anonymity in this story despite their central role in the arrest and re-sentencing of Mr. Fontenot. The Mountain News hopes it has reached the proper balance between an honest telling of this complex story and assuaging the sensitivities of those involved.)
KL said that she had known Michael about twenty years earlier when they were young adults and attending the NTCC. At that time, couples need permission to date, and Rev. RW Davis did not allow them to see each other romantically because Michael was black-skinned and she was white.
(Note: In court documents Mr. Fontenot identifies himself as American Indian/Alaskan, while Christina says that Mr. Fontenot’s family was a mix of Creole-based parentage.)
Reportedly, Davis’ pronouncement was founded on the notion that such a relationship would not enhance the work of the NTCC ministry.
Although they would chat occasionally, KL and Michael succumbed to the unrelenting social pressure from the NTCC and went their separate ways. Soon, they began dating others and eventually married their new partners, with Michael marrying his first wife, a woman named G.
When KL met Michael in Graham in 2009, she had been married twice, as well, with her second marriage occuring seven years earlier, in 2002.
However, KL’s marriage was rocky and she had already left her second husband several times even though they had a young daughter together.
KL speaks about the Michael Fontenot she knew in St Louis in warm terms and with depth. She describes Michael’s childhood as horrific, declaring that his stepfather physically abused Michael and his older brother and their sisters, charges that Christina confirms.
By September 2009, KL and her five-year old daughter had left her husband for good, and moved in with Rev T and his wife.
Rev T. sheltered KL and her daughter, and over time Michael Fontenot began visiting.
Both KL and Rev T claim that they had no knowledge of Michael Fontenot’s criminal past, nor were they aware that he was violating the terms of his probation by being in the company of a young girl – or even that he was mandated to inform any woman that he dated that he was a convicted sexual offender.
Regardless, his community correction officer, Angela Stanger, reported in her brief to the court in 2010 that Fontenot’s behavior at this time “is exceedingly below the standard expected of supervision (in SOSSA).”
Nevertheless, KL adamantly claims that her daughter was never alone with Michael Fontenot.
However, court records indicate the threesome saw each other with frequency, even going to Seattle on a day trip that included a boat ride and diner. Further, documents reveal that the daughter confirmed that Mr. Fontenot “gave her hugs.”
KL says she divorced her husband in December 2009, and later moved into an apartment near her mother, a current and long-time NTCC member named M.
M admitted to the Mountain News that she has a “minimal relationship” with her daughter due to issues over the NTCC, which KL confirms.
Nevertheless, M says that she helped babysit KL’s daughter, particularly after school when she received the child back home, often meeting her at the school bus.
During this time period, M says that she saw Michael Fontenot coming around KL’s apartment multiple times and that at one point he even had the keys to her home.
M says that Fontenot was a “weird-acting person” who didn’t want her to know who he was, and he parked his vehicle behind the apartment complex to further obscure his presence. When she confronted KL on why she was spending time with such an unsavory character – even giving him keys – M said her daughter retorted: “I’m of age, Mom!”
By mid-2010, events with KL, her daughter and Michael Fontenot escalated.
M. learned the truth of Mr. Fontenot, apparently receiving specifics from Michael’s most recent wife, who was attending the NTCC with her.
“She (J) knew that Michael was on probation,” M said.
M says she further confronted her daughter about the dangers of Mr. Fontenot, and claims that KL eventually realized that Michael was deceiving her – and most importantly that her daughter was at risk.
Shortly thereafter, M contacted her ex-son-in-law, who in turn contacted law enforcement. Pierce County Sheriff’s Department quickly re-arrested Michael Fontenot and placed him in jail, where he has remained to this day.
In the aftermath, KL has developed some profound insights.
“Thank God, my child is safe,” said KL. “That’s the most important thing, and I thank my (ex) husband for working so hard to protect our child. But Michael lied to me. I’m frustrated, hurt and mad…I asked Michael, ‘Why,” and all he could tell me was that he was ‘delusional,’ and maybe he was. All I know is that he’s totally different than the person I knew inSt Louis….I don’t hate Michael, and I pray for him. I hope that one day he gets the help that he needs. Repeating that cycle of life – all that abuse – is all that people like Michael know.”
As for her family, KL is looking to the future and moving on.
But, for Christina, her views on Michael Fontenot are strident.
“I’m all out of sympathy for him. He has violated all sympathy shown to him.”
Christina also has hard words for Michael and his relationship with the NTCC.
“Michael is a narcissist and a pathological liar, and he cloaks it all in the bible. He used his position to hurt people.”
“The NTCC fuels this mind-set,” she said. “The NTCC takes wounded people (like Michael) and feeds their authoritarian and patriarchal behaviors – a wife is only a sex toy. They tell a couple that if a spouse leaves the church, you’re going to hell, and they actively try to get the spouse who is still in the church to divorce the one who is leaving. It’s very hurtful, and it harms families.”
Christina says that she would love to confront NTCC CEO Mike Kekel and the church leadership on why they didn’t assist her family in their time of need.
“I’d love to tell them, ‘It doesn’t have to be this way.’”
Nevertheless, Christina’s ultimate objective – keeping her family safe and protecting the community – has been achieved; Michael Fontenot is now in prison for a very long time.
© 2011 The Mountain News – WA
Amy Pivetta Hoffman
Attorney at Law
Civil and Governmental Affairs
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