The entire Riverfront Times Article covering Brandon Milburn 5/5/2015.
A Youth Minister’s Downfall Is Tearing First Christian Church of Florissant Apart
By Danny Wicentowski
Published Wed., May 6 2015 at 8:00 AM
|Illustration by Jeremy Wilson|
As he waits to face his victims, the former youth minister can do nothing but stare at his manacled hands. His piercing blue eyes barely move as St. Louis County Circuit Judge Robert Cohen adjudicates some half-dozen criminal cases — heroin possession, burglary, probation violations. An hour passes before Brandon Milburn’s name is called.
Milburn’s case is left for last. From the back of the courtroom, nineteen pairs of eyes turn to prosecutor Michael Hayes as he begins his argument for the stiffest possible sentence.
The date is March 30, 2015: two months since Milburn pleaded guilty to molesting two eleven-year-old boys; fourteen months since Milburn’s arrest; ten years since Milburn first set foot in St. Louis.
“Your Honor,” Hayes begins, “Mr. Milburn has plead guilty to the seven counts of statutory sodomy, first degree. These seven counts represent a pattern of abuse that took place over a period of years, from the summer of 2007 till the spring of 2009. The defendant had ingratiated himself with the victims’ families and with the church that they all participated in.”
And Milburn’s pattern of abuse began even before that.According to Hayes, the state had received information about three other victims in Milburn’s hometown of Louisville, Kentucky. Those molestations date back to 2000, when Milburn was in his early teens and the three boys in preschool. Hayes tells the judge that these earlier abuses spanned at least six years.
As Hayes speaks, Milburn’s bald head droops toward his lap. His expression is blank.
“This is a pattern that has been going on for ten years,” Hayes says. “We know there are other victims here in St. Louis, at least one who has been named.”
There is more. Hayes cites a former staff member at First Christian Church of Florissant, or FCCF, the 2,500-member north-county megachurch where Milburn worked as an intern and volunteer on and off between 2005 to 2012. The staffer claimed Milburn showed pornography to some students and exposed himself to others.
“Your Honor, again, he used his position as a youth minster to gain access to all these different victims,” continues Hayes. “In the sentencing advisory report, the defendant minimizes his activities, his offenses against the boys in this case, and actually denies there are other victims.”
Hayes calls Milburn a predator, a pedophile who would reoffend if given the opportunity.
“For that reason, Your Honor, we believe a life sentence is appropriate in this case.”
Hayes sits down. The two victims, now college freshmen, walk to the dais to address the judge. (Riverfront Times has changed their names, and those of their families, to protect their identities.)
“I stand before you a confused and hurt individual,” says Adam Krauss, who first met Milburn through FCCF’s children’s ministry when he was in middle school. “Brandon Milburn was a guy I thought I could look up to and trust. He played as significant role in my spiritual life. He baptized me… He is a pathetic excuse for a man. He is a liar and a manipulator.”
Next up is Harris Anderson: His family allowed Milburn to live in its house for several months in 2007. Anderson, too, met Milburn through his family’s connection to FCCF.
“I kept the secret of what happened to me for seven years, seven very long years,” he says, his voice shaking. “Your Honor, Brandon Milburn’s effects on my life reach far past the sexual abuses of years ago. It seeps into my daily life even now. His actions broke my confidence, pride and trust.”
The two boys’ parents take turns begging for consecutive sentences on each of the seven counts, what would amount to a true life sentence.
Then several people speak on Milburn’s behalf. One is a Los Angeles firefighter who met Milburn through Real Life Church in Southern California, and who flew to St. Louis for the sentencing. He describes how Milburn spent many nights in his own home, around his children. He insists Milburn is a changed man.
“I do not believe he is a predator,” he says. “I love Brandon; my children love Brandon. If Brandon was released today, he would be welcome to come and live in my home.”
Finally, it’s Milburn’s turn to speak.
“For over a year now, I’ve sat in my cell wondering what I would possibly say in this opportunity when it presented itself,” he says. “I continue to be a believer and follower of the one true God, so I know the importance of confession and taking responsibility for my actions, as well as seeking forgiveness. For that I truly am thankful for this platform I’ve been given to finally express my heart. With your permission, I would like to turn and direct my statement to the families…”
Milburn spins 180 degrees to face the rear of the courtroom.
“No, no, no, no,” whispers Anderson’s younger sister. She shakes her head violently.
A middle-aged woman, a victims’ advocate with the prosecuting attorney’s office, leaps to her feet. “They don’t want that, judge.”
“Well,” Judge Cohen says, “he can say what he wants, but if they don’t want to hear it…”
Harris Anderson, a thinly built eighteen-year-old with glasses and a preppy haircut, slams his hands onto this thighs, jolts from his seat and strides to the courtroom door. He batters it open with both arms, barely slowing, and is followed by his parents and the Krauss family.
In seconds, Milburn is left staring at two empty benches. His shoulders slump, and he slowly turns back to Cohen. In a voice barely higher than a trembling whisper, he continues his speech.
“To the families I betrayed…. With everything I am, I’m so sorry. I would do anything to take my childish behavior back…. I know that I sinned against God and that I sinned against them. I was given a position of trust, and I abused it on them…. My actions have haunted me for years…. I truly hate what I’ve done. I’m sorry, God, I’m so sorry.”
Between sobs, Milburn thanks the handful of supporters who spoke on his behalf. Then he delivers his final plea to Cohen.
“I’m ready to be put this all behind me and to continue reaching for my dreams of filmmaking and in music. … Your Honor, I ask for your mercy in your decision today, for a chance to further prove who I am.”
As Milburn returns to his seat, Dawn Varvil’s face contorts itself in a mask of bitterness and grief. A heavyset woman with a cigarette-hardened voice, Varvil had once counted Milburn as a friend, a trusted partner in ministry and youth outreach. Like others who knew and worked with him, she was once enamored with Millburn: his powerful preaching, his boundless creativity, his single-minded devotion to children in need. Now, she can only see the lies. As Cohen announces Milburn’s sentence — 25 years, to be served concurrently on each of the seven counts — tears stream down her cheeks.
But there will be no closure for Milburn’s victims, and none for Varvil. And none, for that matter, for the members and leadership of First Christian Church of Florissant.
Today, more than a month after Milburn’s sentencing, Varvil is at the center of a controversy that threatens to tear the 58-year-old church apart at the seams. At play are dueling narratives from Varvil and senior pastor Steve Wingfield: Wingfield maintains he knew nothing of Milburn’s monstrous secret life until his 2014 arrest. Varvil insists that’s not true, and that she personally told the pastor about Milburn exposing himself to five boys and sleeping in bed with a fourteen-year-old boy.
Wingfield says Varvil is a liar — and he’s seeking a court order to force her to recant the claims about the 2012 meeting. Filed April 16, the lawsuit also seeks at least $25,000 in damages.
Now one of the largest churches in north St. Louis County is in crisis. And for atonement for Milburn’s sins, Varvil and a growing coalition of former members, dissenters and abuse survivors want accountability from Wingfield, a man they’ve come to see as a calculated and self-serving manipulator. Some want nothing less than Wingfield’s resignation.
Brandon Milburn, they say, wasn’t just a lone wolf in minister’s clothing. He was enabled and supported by church leadership even after others made their concerns clear.
“Distancing yourself may be the safe thing to do, but it is morally wrong and a failure of Steve’s and the rest of the elders’ leadership. It was also against the law,” a former FCCF minister named Titus Benton wrote in a letter to the board of elders in February. “There is so much that has happened that remains a secret, and that is not acceptable.
“There are people who are suffering and…look at the church as a co-conspirator instead of an agency of healing.”
Dawn Varvil met Brandon Milburn the summer of 2006, a year after he joined the intern staff at FCCF’s children’s ministry. He’d arrived in St. Louis to pursue an associate’s degree at St. Louis Christian College, just a ten-minute drive from FCCF’s sprawling, fourteen-acre campus in the heart of Florissant.
Founded in 1958 by the followers of the American Restoration Movement, the church is an evangelical, nondenominational center of religious and communal life in this north-county suburb. Attendance at the main Sunday service regularly tops 1,000, and worship features a drummer, bassist, guitarist, keyboard player and three vocalists. When Steve Wingfield delivers his sermon, his face is splashed across two giant projection screens.
Milburn quickly gained a reputation within the FCCF community — and initially, it was a positive one. He could preach, sing, play guitar or hammer away on a piano. He knew his way around graphic design, and could run stage productions: anything from highly technical concerts to children’s plays. Best of all, he seemed to be looking, always, for ways of bringing the word of Christ to kids.
“He was cool; all the kids loved him and related to him,” Varvil recalls. Even the troubled ones: “There were always kids that would sneak out to the back property of the church. They weren’t too interested in participating in the church programs. That’s where Brandon and I first connected, because I had a heart for those kids. He seemed to as well.”
Milburn’s place in the FCCF community brought him into the lives of Jacob and Carrie Anderson, members of the church for more than a decade. They regularly hosted luncheons for FCCF members, which is where they began to bond with the fresh-faced college student from Louisville.
“He gave our kids gifts,” Jacob says. “He was a big University of Kentucky fan. He took [Harris] to a UK basketball game, to his parents’ home. We got to know his parents.”
Though he had a dorm room on campus, Milburn basically moved into the Anderson’s home in the fall of 2007, staying there until he received his associate’s degree several months later. During that time he took eleven-year-old Harris to Cardinals games and joined the family on outings and vacations.
“For us, it was like he became a part of the family, that he was a brother,” Carrie says. “It didn’t occur to us that it was favoritism, or that he was grooming our son. When you accept somebody into your home like that, that’s how brothers treat each other.”
“Looking back,” Jacob adds, “you see a lot of things clearer.”
Milburn nabbed another paid position at FCCF in 2008, a six-month internship under middle school ministry leader Titus Benton. The 40-hour-per-week internship paid $8 an hour and involved Milburn working with fourth and fifth graders.
“We had a great student-ministry team. Brandon was part of that,” Benton says.
But it was around this time that Milburn began molesting Harris Anderson, as well as his friend Adam Krauss. According to the criminal indictment, between June 2007 and March 2008, Milburn violated the two boys multiple times; he took advantage of the Anderson family’s generosity to prey on Harris, repeatedly, in their own home. The two boys, close childhood friends, told no one what had happened, not even each other.
Milburn earned an associate’s degree from St. Louis Christian College in 2007, and after his six-month church internship ended, he returned to Louisville. There he immediately found a full-time job as an “atmosphere and media tech” at his home church, the 20,000-member Southeast Christian Church.
But Milburn seemed to have a restless side. After five months in Louisville he returned to Florissant in April 2009 to pursue a bachelor’s degree in preaching at his alma mater.
His desire for that degree confused Doug Lay, an FCCF member who’d been Milburn’s professor and mentor at St. Louis Christian College.
“First, he’s unbelievably talented, and he had a job at a church with 20,000 people,” Lay says. “Number two, he was a terrible student. He’s a very good public speaker, but he could barely write your standard research paper. So I said, ‘Brandon, you don’t need a bachelor’s degree! Why would you come back?'”
In hindsight, the answer seems clear to Lay.
“I think he came back because the victims were still there.”
|Sarah Thiele and Milburn connected in California in 2010. She says their relationship unraveled because of his erratic temperament, as well as his obvious emotional attachment to teenage boys.|
If you ask people in the FCCF community when they started noticed something was, well, off about Brandon Milburn, there’s a good chance they’ll mention Sarah Thiele.
A striking brunette and academic overachiever, Thiele bonded with Milburn over their shared love of youth ministry while both worked at a California church. In January 2011, sixteen months after Milburn returned to Florissant, Thiele herself enrolled at St. Louis Christian College.
Like Milburn, she became enveloped in the FCCF community.
“There was a romantic connection, possibly,” she says of Milburn. “He was exactly what I wanted in a partner. The ministry wasn’t just a job for him, he poured his heart into it. There was an attraction in his commitment, which from the outside felt like selflessness.”
Yet Milburn would get jumpy when Thiele touched him. She remembers him becoming more distant as she tried to get closer.
And Milburn’s passion for ministry was undercut by a strange emotional imbalance. Thiele began noting his attachment to certain high school boys in the ministry, how he became distraught when they’d fail to sign text messages with “I love you” or miss one of his sermons.
“You’re too emotionally invested,” she told him. “It looks like something is going on.” He would insist he was just a normal twentysomething guy.
“I believed him,” she sighs. “Brandon, when he preached, he was so captivating. You couldn’t possibly think that someone who preached so well could be hiding such a secret. I didn’t think he was abusing kids sexually, but that he had been abused and refused to confront it, that he was trying protect these kids by being so emotionally protective.”
This sentiment — that Milburn’s attachment to young boys was strange but seemingly well-intentioned — is repeated numerous times in interviews with former friends and church coworkers. And Milburn’s carefully cultivated image of piety may also explain why the subject of his sexual orientation never rose higher than rumors. In a church where homosexual acts are considered sinful, no one wanted to believe this rising star had same-sex attractions, let alone was a sexual predator.
In the end, Thiele stayed in Florissant just seven months.
As for Milburn, it wasn’t long after his return to Florissant in 2009 that the Anderson family became distrustful and wary of their former houseguest. According to Carrie Anderson, two friends — one an abuse victim and the other a youth minister in another church — had approached her after seeing Milburn’s earlier behavior around Harris. They asked her, “Is that an OK relationship your son has with Brandon?”
Carrie took to the Internet and began researching sexual predators. What she found filled her with dread.
“I started researching, and there was a list of things, the gift-giving, ingratiating himself with the family. And I went, ‘This is Brandon, this is Brandon, he groomed my son, he groomed our family, he abused my son.'”
But when Carrie and her husband went to Harris, he rebuffed their questions.
“He said, ‘No, Mom; no, Mom; no, Mom; that didn’t happen,'” she says. “Because he wasn’t going to tell until it was time.”
The Andersons’ unease, however, was palpable. Milburn spent the summer of 2010 interning at various California churches, and when he returned to Florissant for the new school year, “he knew that it wasn’t the same,” Carrie says. “He wasn’t welcome in our house. We didn’t have to have a confrontation, we just — it was obvious from all of us that he wasn’t welcome. And [Harris] reinforced that. He didn’t want anything to do with him.”
But Milburn no longer needed the Andersons to connect him with teenage boys. By then he’d cultivated a close relationship Dawn Varvil.
During Milburn’s stay in California, Varvil had clashed with FCCF’s youth ministry programs and Steve Wingfield. Wingfield thought she wasn’t pushing teens hard enough to attend the church’s formal Sunday school program, she says. She chafed at his micromanaging and his unwillingness to expand the church’s youth program.
In 2009, she left the church. She began hosting high schoolers at her house, which became a hangout spot for neighborhood kids with unstable home lives.
A Facebook correspondence with Milburn turned to friendship, and in 2010 Varvil returned to FCCF and apologized to Wingfield. But she soon began feeling conflicted about her new partner in ministry.
On one hand, she trusted Milburn. They collaborated on ideas to reach teens deemed too troubled for the church, and they planned on building an independent skatepark ministry, going as far as to registering a nonprofit in both of their names. Varvil even allowed Milburn to chaperone her own teenage son and daughter on a mission trip to California.
During the trip, however, her kids reported back that Milburn went off for mysterious, hours-long trips with one teen boy. Varvil was incensed.
“There were so many warning signs,” she says. “I would always address them with him, and he was so calculating and manipulative that he could explain everything to me.”
When Varvil called him out on his favoritism of certain boys, Milburn quoted Bible verses, framing the teens as Timothys to his Paul. These select boys were special cases, he would tell her. They needed 24/7 attention that only he could provide.
After Milburn graduated in 2011, Varvil let him move into her house. Shortly afterward, her teen daughter informed her that many of boys who used to come over now refused to because Milburn was a “creep.”
“I asked her why, and she said he took a bunch of them out one night and he exposed himself to them, and then he convinced them to expose themselves to him,” she says. But when Varvil confronted him, he explained it away, telling her it had simply been a youthful indiscretion.
“We were just joking around,” he told her. “It’s just a guy thing, Dawn. You don’t understand how guys are with each other.'”
“Just the way he explained it, I believed him.”
Then came the incident with Nathan Rayner.
|According to victims and their families, Milburn’s pattern was to single out one or two boys, and then spoil them with gifts, attention and Cardinals outings before abusing them.|
Nathan Rayner is sitting in a booth at a St. Louis Bread Company (As with the other abuse victims quoted in this story, Rayner is not his real name.) As he lays out his history with Milburn, he uses roughly the same tone most people would use to describe the steps to make a salad. Dawn Varvil sits across the table, interjecting occasional details.
As Rayner tells it, Milburn first contacted him through Facebook when he was thirteen. He’d heard of Milburn through his churchgoing friends, so it’s not like the college-aged man was a total stranger. Still, Rayner recalls, “He started asking me questions, started getting kind of personal. I didn’t care. I was a sad kid — somebody cares, you know?”
Eventually, Milburn convinced Rayner to attend a service at FCCF. “I went back the next week, told him I wanted to get baptized,” Rayner says.
Soon, Rayner was hanging around Milburn all the time, mostly at Varvil’s house, joining the roughly 30 to 40 kids who made the home their unofficial hangout. It was a safe place, he says, away from a mother and stepdad who regularly threw him out of the house.
Over the next year, Milburn and Rayner became inseparable, and the pattern established with the Andersons repeated itself: Milburn drove Rayner to church, treated him to Cardinals games and bought him gifts, including an iPad and iPhone. Milburn sent him constant text messages.
“I was kind of blinded,” Rayner says.
When friends would bring up Milburn’s doting, he blew them off. “So he likes me better than you, whatever, I don’t care,” Rayner would tell them.
At Varvil’s house, sleepovers were common, with as many as 30 teens spending the night after devotions, dinner and a movie. Girls and boys slept in separate parts of the house. Yet even when there was spare room, Milburn insisted on sleeping head-to-foot on a hideaway bed with Rayner.
“One night he was actually spooning me. I was asleep, and I remember feeling something down here, on my leg,” Rayner says. “I woke up and I feel him getting closer to my dick. I was frozen with fear, I didn’t know what to do. He did that for a few seconds and then he stopped. I think he realized I was awake, and he just broke down in tears, saying, like, ‘Oh my God, I’m so sorry, I did not mean to do that.'”
Rayner remembers Milburn sitting up on the couch, crying and apologizing. When Rayner told him it wasn’t a big deal, Milburn stopped crying. “Did you like it?” he asked.
Rayner’s response: “No, dude, no. Don’t let it happen again.” It didn’t — and so Rayner continued to share his bed with the college student.
That summer, Milburn drove Rayner to tornado-ravaged Joplin, where about 40 other FCCF members had arrived to assist in the cleanup effort and to distribute aid. The church elder who led the mission, Scott Seppelt, witnessed Milburn and Rayner sleeping away from the main group.
In an email to another church member, Seppelt would later report sharing his concerns with Steve Wingfield upon his return to Florissant.
“When I led the mission trip to Joplin, where Brandon brought a young boy and slept away from everyone else, I talked with Brandon about this the night it happened. He stated that the boy was shy and would move out where others could see them,” Seppelt wrote. “Upon returning I shared this with Steve…. I wish I had done more.”
Wingfield took no action against Milburn.
But it was around this time that Varvil got fed up. By the end of the summer of 2011, she told Milburn she’d had enough of his excuses. He could continue to sleep over at the house, but he couldn’t sleep with Rayner.
“All of a sudden,” Varvil says, “he started looking for an apartment.”
Milburn found his own place in October, two blocks from Rayner’s home. A different FCCF family helped Milburn move in and bought him appliances and furniture. Milburn gave Rayner a spare key.
|Once a friend to Brandon Milburn, Dawn Varvil is now under legal pressure to recant allegations that in she warned FCCF of Milburn’s behavior around teen boys in 2012.|
Dawn Varvil tried to stay friendly with Milburn for a time, but her breaking point came after perhaps the oldest teenager trick in the book: While Rayner was spending almost every night at Milburn’s apartment, he was telling his mother he was staying Varvil’s.
As a mother, Varvil had no interest in being a part of that. She called Rayner’s mother, who cut off the sleepovers and ordered her son to return the gifts and never see Milburn again.
Even though she could barely articulate her worst fears, much less admit what was really going on, Varvil began confiding her concerns to a small circle of friends. The details shocked her therapist — to the point that the counselor called the hotline run by the state’s department of social services to make a complaint against Milburn.
Even then, Varvil wasn’t ready to believe Milburn was a pedophile.
“I thought she was blowing it out of proportion,” she says.
One week after Varvil’s therapist made the call, Milburn called Varvil and asked her to meet him at a local park. When Varvil arrived, Milburn was already in tears.
“He said, ‘I thought I was walking into an ambush, and you would have cops waiting for me when I got here.’ Which I thought was so weird. I didn’t know why he thought I’d have cops.” He begged her to convince Rayner’s mother to let him back into her son’s life.
Even then, Varvil didn’t get it. It wasn’t until she took her concerns to her mentor, a minister and faculty member at St. Louis Christian College named Lisa Womble, that the scales finally fell from her eyes.
“My husband and I stared at her, and we told her, ‘Dawn, you’ve got to call this in, or we’re going to do it,'” Womble says. That day, Varvil also phoned in a complaint to the state hotline.
By February 2012, Varvil knew she had to take her concerns to FCCF leadership, and her confidants encouraged her to do so. But before she could, a twisted version of Varvil’s story reached the ears of Gateway Christian Church, a west-county church with close ties to FCCF. The game of broken telephone continued to spiral after the church’s senior minister, Karl Schad, contacted Steve Wingfield.
Wingfield then called Varvil. He told her he’d heard reports that she was telling people Milburn had molested her own son.
Hoping to both correct the erroneous rumor and to tell the pastor the full truth about Milburn, Varvil agreed to sit down with Wingfield.
That meeting would change her life.
|Among the largest churches in North County St. Louis, First Christian Church of Florissant boasts a 58-year history, 2,500 members and a sprawling $18 million campus.|
The main spire of First Christian Church of Florissant hovers like a brick finger over an ocean of parking lot. It was from this parking lot that Varvil called Lisa Womble for a quick prayer before her February 2012 meeting with Steve Wingfield and then-executive minister Scott Strandell.
More than two hours passed before Womble next heard from Varvil.
“After the meeting she was real upset, and I was upset for her,” Womble says. “They made her feel like she was crazy.”
There’s no known recording of the meeting, but Varvil wrote detailed notes of her version of the proceedings, and she shared her thoughts with Womble immediately after it ended.
According to Varvil, she told Wingfield and Strandell everything she’d told Womble and the state child-abuse hotline operator: Milburn’s propensity to spoon with Rayner, his history of exposing himself to five other teen boys, his excuse that it was “just playful stuff guys do.”
Wingfield asked her repeatedly if she had directly witnessed Milburn molest any of her sons, Varvil says. She answered no each time.
“Steve told me, basically, that he thought I needed mental help,” says Varvil. “He said I was obviously overly involved, overly upset, and that I should just be worrying about my own family, not worrying about what Brandon was doing. At that point I was so confused. I thought, ‘Well, maybe I am overreacting to everything.'”
After hours of questioning, Varvil left the meeting more unsure than ever. She spoke to Womble, then decided to drive to the home of Doug Lay, who by nowhad developed his own nagging suspicion that something was not right with his former student.
At Lay’s house, Varvil unloaded the full story. Sobbing, she described everything she had seen of Milburn to Lay and to his wife, and what happened at the meeting earlier that day.
The Lays were horrified. They tried to reassure Varvil that she’d done the right thing.
“Dawn was shattered,” Doug Lay says. “She told us everything, and then she said, ‘Do you think I’m crazy?'”
At that moment, Lay realized he had a choice to make.
“I thought that when this comes forward, someone is going to ask us, ‘Oh, you heard about allegations in 2012? What did you do?'”
There was one thing that had to be done immediately, Lay decided.
“I needed to talk to Brandon,” he says. “I needed to watch him lie to me.”
A week later, the professor and student sat down and talked. Milburn denied doing anything inappropriate. And then he broke off contact, effectively ending a six-plus-year relationship with his mentor and friend.
Lay left the meeting convinced that it was only a matter of time before Milburn’s crimes against Rayner would come to light.
Yet a few months later, in May 2012, Milburn moved to California, where he found work with two churches there, including Real Life Church in Valencia. According to a church statement, Milburn had come highly recommended, with references from “a pastor in St. Louis.”
Despite their concerns about Milburn, Lay and Varvil didn’t warn anyone in California about what they knew of Milburn’s time in St. Louis. For Varvil, the meeting with Wingfield had broken her spirit, and she was simply relieved Milburn was no longer circling the community.
“I just kind of faded away,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to church anywhere. I was trying to maintain relationships with the kids that I could.”
Two years later, a police detective at Varvil’s door dragged her back into the fray.
|In this June 2012 photo, Brandon Milburn can be seen on the FCCF main stage directing middle school and teen boys during the annual Vacation Bible School. Milburn was allowed to attend FCCF youth events, even though a parent says she warned the church’s lead pastor about Milburn four months prior.|
In January 2014, when Harris Anderson was a high school senior preparing to graduate, he told his parents the truth about Brandon Milburn. When Harris approached his best friend, Adam Krauss, the two were finally able to share the secrets they’d kept from each other for seven long years. With urging from their parents, the teens went to the police.The police investigation was swift, and barely a month later, Varvil found herself facing a St. Louis County police detective at her front door.
“Do you know where Brandon Milburn is?” the detective asked. Milburn’s last listed Missouri residence was Varvil’s address.
Varvil didn’t know. She gave the names of two FCCF staff members where she thought he might be staying.
It didn’t take long for authorities to find him.
According to St. Louis County police spokesman Brian Schelman, police reached out to an acquaintance of Milburn’s, asking him to relay a message to Milburn that he should contact the police.
When Milburn, who was living in California, called a detective on February 6, she told him that she needed to speak with him about “an investigation.” The next day, when Milburn flew in to St. Louis to attend the wedding of Scott Strandell’s son, he stopped by St. Louis County Police headquarters in Clayton.
He never made it to the wedding. Instead, under interrogation, he confessed to six of the ultimately seven counts of statutory sodomy. He pleaded guilty one year later, thus sparing the victims from the trauma of a trial.
The arrest and charges tore through the FCCF community like a tidal wave through a teacup, but news coverage was relatively sparse. Aside from the police report, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s coverage relied heavily on this official FCCF statement:
“Having just heard of these charges from something that happened in 2007, our first concern is with how we can best help any victim heal,” the statement read. “The charges point to a time when as a college student he served in a part time role as an intern. For the last several years he has been living in another state. We have a justice system who can do the investigation and we will assist them any way we can as our church family works through this.”
A week after the arrest, Wingfield himself addressed the charges against Milburn during his Sunday sermon.
“Sometimes in the very best families, bad things happen,” Wingfield said, according to a recording of the service. Milburn, he said, “moved away two years ago but during a time between 2007 and 2009 he allegedly sexually abused two eleven-year-old boys. This while he was a college student and working here part time as an intern…. And the thing we do about it is if anyone ever makes you feel uncomfortable or unsafe — young people, we want you to tell your parents, your school counselor, tell a pastor, even if it’s embarrassing to talk about it. A parent, a school counselor, a pastor will listen and help.”
Wingfield continued: “Listen, we are not a perfect church, I am very imperfect as a pastor, our leaders are imperfect, and you at times, you’re not all that either. You know one of Satan’s oldest ploys is to create distractions for the church from its core mission to connect people to Jesus, and I am glad as a church family we’re not going to let something bad that happened years ago keep us from doing good right now, and as a church family we are going to stay positive.”
When Lay read the press statement and heard Wingfield’s speech, he got angry.
First, the church’s statement included a timeline that, while not technically inaccurate, made it sound like Milburn departed FCCF long before he did. Though Milburn’s FCCF internship ended in January 2012, he had continued to volunteer at FCCF on Wednesday nights. Photos show Milburn directing minors onstage during FCCF’s Vacation Bible School in June 2012 — four months after Varvil’s meeting with Wingfield and Strandell. Other FCCF members recall Milburn attending FCCF services and events at the time, usually in the company of teen boys.
Aside from the church’s ambiguous press release, Lay was most upset at Wingfield’s line about how “a pastor will listen and help.” Having heard Varvil’s description of her 2012 meeting with Wingfield, the pastor’s platitudes tasted like ashes in Lay’s mouth.
A soft-spoken academic, Lay was both a Sunday School teacher and beloved professor. He had also been sexually abused twice in his life, at age ten by a neighbor and then in college at hands of a male classmate. It took him more than twenty years before he finally opened up to his wife about what happened to him.
“You need to understand the enormous fear victims have,” Lay says. “The fear that, if I tell someone, what if you don’t believe me? Now what? Now I’ve made myself even more vulnerable, and if you don’t believe me — what the hell am I going to do now?”
Lay decided he wasn’t going to let Wingfield and FCCF get a pass on bullying Varvil. He knew there were more victims: Rayner, the boys Milburn exposed himself to and likely numerous others.
A fastidious researcher, Lay re-interviewed Varvil about the 2012 meeting. He enlisted the help of Titus Benton, who had overseen Milburn’s job in the FCCF middle school ministry in 2009. Benton had fled FCCF in 2011 to escape what he described as a toxic church environment under Wingfield’s leadership.
Lay also went to visit Milburn in jail.
No longer a friend, Lay came as an ordained minister.
“He had only been in prison a couple days, and I asked him how it’s going, how’s the food, and he sat there and talked about all the stuff he was going to do when he got out,” he recalls. “He was still in shock. I saw him again a week later, and he had been on this three-day fast, praying. He was negotiating with God. He was saying, ‘I’m really convinced that I’m going to get out on bail.'”
This March, just over a year after Milburn’s arrest, Lay sent out the first edition of his report on Brandon Milburn and FCCF. “Is It Enough: Sexual Abuse Within the Church: A Case Study at First Christian Church of Florissant” included detailed descriptions of Varvil’s 2012 meeting with Wingfield and Strandell, as well as Milburn’s work history from the time he arrived in Florissant in 2005 to his arrest in 2014.Initially sent to FCCF’s elders and Wingfield, the report was revised and re-released five more times. Each time, Lay requested input from the church.
The meticulously annotated report paints a stark picture of Milburn as a calculated child abuser. It accuses Wingfield of ignoring Varvil’s warnings in 2012, of failing to alert the other Missouri and California churches where Milburn later found employment, and of covering up his and FCCF’s inaction after the 2014 arrest.
The conclusion is blistering.
“Is it enough to deny the existence of other alleged victims?” Lay wrote. “Is it enough to ignore the pain of the collateral victims? Is it enough to keep silent about the church’s responsibility towards dealing with sexual abuse? Is it enough to remain ignorant to the signs of sexual predators? Is it enough to miss the opportunity to learn from the mistakes of this tragedy — thus turning evil into good? It is not enough for me to close the book on this story — I will continue to turn on the light and turn the pages of this story. Should it not be enough for you too?”
On March 19, Lay and Benton received a response from FCCF.
“We are thankful that two victims came forward so that the authorities could conduct an open investigation and seek a judgment,” the letter read in part. “As part of our complete cooperation with the instructions of the prosecuting attorney, as a church we have not taken the role of investigator…. We believe honoring victims includes allowing them to initiate communication and process healing through the counselors of their choosing. As we have reviewed your correspondence, we feel that it contains a number of inaccuracies and does not fairly or accurately describe communications with our church or our approach.”
The letter was signed, “Elders, First Christian.”
For Lay and Benton, the response only confirmed that Wingfield was covering up his lack of action. (Edward Magee, a spokesman for the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, is adamant that no prosecutor instructed FCCF not to investigate for other possible victims.)
A day after receiving the letter, Titus Benton’s wife, Kari, posted a savage open letter on Facebook.
Though rumors about what Wingfield had known about Milburn had bounced around social media for months, it was the first time those rumors were echoed by a widely respected former member of the FCCF family.
In the letter, Kari Benton revealed that her family left FCCF in 2011 because of Wingfield’s “poor leadership.” She hammered Wingfield for the 2012 meeting with Varvil and called him out for not attempting to reach Varvil (or Rayner) after the 2014 arrest.
“The first phone call you should have made after learning of his arrest was to that concerned adult that had previously come to you with concerns of abuse. But you did not do that — and to this day you still have not reached out to that concerned adult or to that teenage boy. You have failed both of them.”
|Courtesy of Titus Benton|
|Titus Benton supervised Milburn in 2008 as the head of FCCF’s middle school ministry. Now, he and his wife, Kari, are loudly calling for FCCF to confront its past mistakes.|
According to Varvil’s notes on the meeting, Wingfield again focused on her previous denial that Milburn had sexually abused one of her sons. Varvil, in response, attempted to clarify that she denied it because that specific rumor was, in fact, false. They circled this point in an interminable game of you-said-I-said-you-said.
During the meeting, Wingfield maintained that Varvil’s description of Milburn spooning Rayner didn’t amount to a “sexual act.” He insisted that Varvil never told him about Milburn exposing himself to five other boys — an odd omission if true, since she had told exactly that to Womble and the government hotline, and had told Lay about the incident immediately after the meeting with Wingfield.
“Dawn told three different sets of people the same thing,” Lisa Womble says. “And honestly, even if she didn’t mention him exposing himself, all the other things were red flags enough that everyone would say that you should take action.”
The meeting produced little in the way of reconciliation. But neither Varvil, Lay nor the Bentons were prepared for what came next.
On April 16, Doug Lay, Dawn Varvil and Titus and Kari Benton were notified through email that FCCF was seeking a restraining order against them. The message, sent by a lawyer retained by the church, asked the court to force them to retract and remove the “Is It Enough” case study and Kari Benton’s open letter from Facebook. The lawsuit also sought at least $25,000 in damages.
At a court hearing that Friday, Doug Lay stood in the hallway of a St. Louis County courthouse with a dazed expression on his face.
“This is crazy,” he said. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
|FCCF senior pastor Steve Wingfield (left), insists he knew nothing about Milburn’s predatory behavior before the 2014 arrest.|
In a Friday in April, one week after the court hearing, the hallways at FCCF ring with the giggling madness of some 200 preschoolers. They’re here for the church’s annual weeklong Vacation Bible School. Playing tour guide amid the chaos is Steve Wingfield, who proudly notes the various safety measures — a check-in system for parents, ID cards for all volunteers, full background checks — as he stops by the open door of a classroom filled with five-year-olds.Dressed in a gray, military-style shirt and jeans, the 53-year-old cuts a handsome figure as he strides the hallways of the building’s second floor. He’s been senior pastor for eight years, after previously serving 28 years on the ministry staff under his father.”Most of the other churches in our community have declined or died over the last fifteen years because of rapid transition in the population, and we’re committed to make a difference here,” Wingfield says, passing a gaggle of toddlers wearing paper angel’s wings. “We love Florissant, we love north county. Not everyone does, but we do.”At more than 100,000 square feet of space, the FCCF compound has sustained four major additions since moving to its current location. The value of the property, says Wingfield, is assessed at more than $18 million.Wingfield enters another youth-oriented space, called the Tank, a kind of lounge area for teens with comfortable chairs, an air-hockey table and a big-screen TV.”This was originally decorated by Brandon Milburn,” Wingfield says. “That was one of his roles…. It’s since been redecorated by my wife.”Accompanying Wingfield on this tour is his lawyer, James Wyrsch, an awkward reminder of Wingfield’s ongoing lawsuit against four ex-members of his flock. Lay and the Bentons have retained their own counsel and petitioned the court to dismiss the lawsuit. According to Wyrsch, the church would prefer to settle the matter without a lengthy and expensive legal fight.Asked about Milburn’s role at FCCF, Wingfield bristles at the suggestion that he or the church share any responsibility for the disgraced youth minister’s crimes.
“Brandon broke our hearts. We did trust him; he was a part of this church family,” Wingfield says. “These events didn’t take place in the church, and what he did outside of this building we can’t control. We found out six years after the violation of these two children. I never heard of any sexual abuse from Brandon any time prior to that.”
Wingfield has good reason for his defensiveness. As a minister, Wingfield is a “mandated reporter” under Missouri law, obligated to report suspected cases of child abuse to the state. So it makes some sense that Wingfield interprets Lay’s main accusation — that Wingfield ignored Varvil’s warnings about Milburn in 2012 — as more than just a “case study.” Rather, Wingfield sees it as an attack on his integrity and a blunt assertion of criminal misconduct.
If it was proven that Wingfield failed to report Milburn when confronted with evidence of molestation, the pastor could theoretically face a misdemeanor charge, which carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail and a $1,000 fine.
Such a charge would have precedent: Robert Finn, the bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese in Kansas City, was convicted of failing to report a suspected child abuse case in 2012. He resigned his position last month amid a storm of pressure from victims’ advocates.
“We’re going to civil court for one reason,” Wingfield acknowledges. “Because there’s a legal accusation. There’s an accusation that we committed a crime.”
Yet Wingfield’s stance on the church’s limited responsibility for Milburn’s actions doesn’t extend to the people he’s suing. Asked if he had any regrets about the Milburn situation, Wingfield blames Titus Benton, replying immediately, “I wish that I had not let Titus hire Brandon.”
He adds, “I did not supervise Brandon, [the hiring] was [Benton’s] personal request.” He doesn’t mention that, according to multiple former FCCF staff members, Milburn first joined the church’s paid intern staff in 2005 under the oversight of Wingfield’s mother, Ruth.
(Wingfield and FCCF have not responded to requests for Milburn’s complete employment history at the church.)
But as Wingfield and his lawyer maneuver against Varvil and her supporters, FCCF’s larger community appears conflicted about whether to support its lead pastor. Though Wingfield enjoys the backing of the church elders, some members indicate a growing unease with his leadership style.
Many members appear especially upset that the name of their church is now attached to a lawsuit, which they believe violates a Biblical prohibition against suing other Christians. A GoFundMe campaign founded by a FCCF member has so far raised $4,000 to a legal-defense fund for Varvil, Lay and the Bentons.
Again and again, Wingfield insists the church is doing all it can under horrific circumstances. He wants to see the church move on.
“First Christian Church is also a victim. As is Dawn, as is Titus and Kari,” Wingfield says with a sigh.
As for Lay, Wingfield mentions his history as a survivor of sexual abuse.
“Doug is approaching this as an advocate, from his own pain and experience. Doug’s saying, ‘If I had known Brandon was sexually abusing somebody, I would have done something to stop him.’ Isn’t that what he’s saying? Isn’t that what Titus is saying? And isn’t that what we’re saying? We all have in common the crime of someone we knew. How we handle that, whether we throw somebody under a bus…”
Wingfield stutters, searching for the right words. “You have to wrestle with the accusations.”
|Missouri Department of Corrections|
For someone who made his name inspiring crowds with his preaching, it’s an especially lonely time. But Milburn is not alone. Records obtained by the Anderson family show that he’s been visited on site no less than 78 times by Barb Brazle. She’s the wife of Virgil Brazle, the “connections pastor” at FCCF and one of Wingfield’s top lieutenants.According to court documents, Virgil Brazle unsuccessfully petitioned a judge in 2014 to reduce Milburn’s $100,000 bond, even offering to let the confessed child abuser to stay in his home. In fact, when Riverfront Times wrote Milburn a letter at the detention facility asking for comment, it was Barb Brazle who texted back, asking for clarification on what the paper was seeking.According to Wingfield, he personally notified the Krauss family that Virgil Brazle was making church-sanctioned trips to minister to Milburn in jail. Wingfield says he and other church leaders have met “on a regular basis” with family since the arrest.The Krauss family says they have no memory of Wingfield disclosing that, and that they’re uncomfortable with Wingfield’s characterization. They’ve talked only four or five times with the minister since Milburn’s arrest — once at their initiation.The Andersons, who left the church in 2012, say they’ve had zero contact.”The obvious/normal/healthy thing to do would have been for SOMEONE at FCCF to reach out to us,” Jacob Anderson says in an emailed statement. “We had been members for 25 years there. Brandon Milburn was employed at FCCF. We met Brandon Milburn thru FCCF. We joined the church when my oldest daughter was an infant and our other three children were born/raised up in the church there. Virgil Brazle still had a long history with us and could have made contact with us. At least, a card in the mail … a phone call … even an email note could have been sent to us. Nothing was.”No contact was made by ANYONE associated with FCCF. No contact after the arrest or anytime these past 15 months.”From his detention facility, Milburn sent a brief statement to Riverfront Times. On yellow legal paper, he wrote that he’d been saved from his past — a gift from God. “He loves me, so he gave it to me, and I reached out and took it,” he wrote. “No one will ever separate me from that love, and God extends that love to anyone and everyone no matter what they’ve done or where they are. I’ve chosen to do the same.”He ended with a P.S.: “Check out John 8:2-11.”The passage is the one in which Jesus defends a woman who’s been caught in an act of adultery. He’s asked if he would advocate stoning her. He responds, “Let anyone of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Milburn signs his letter “Choosing love, Brandon.”