ST. GEORGE — Even as his attorney continued to fault his accuser’s account of kidnapping and rape, former preacher Dale Richardson knew Wednesday that the odds were against him.
In the second day of the 49-year-old’s trial, his attorney showed a jury how the woman accepted phone calls during the time she said she was abducted, tied up and forced to perform sexual acts on Richardson.
Jurors learned how he and the woman, who still works as a prostitute, had set up a rendezvous that day in July 2011 by exchanging text messages.
Richardson thought he could be acquitted if the jury saw the same problems with the woman’s story that his attorney did.
But it was the two other women accusing him of rape, including one who was not a prostitute, he worried about.
Richardson was on trial this week in only one case, but 1st Circuit Judge Maite Murphy allowed his accusers in two others to be heard. And as one of them prepared to testify Wednesday, Richardson pleaded guilty to three counts each of kidnapping and first-degree criminal sexual conduct.
He was sentenced to 20 years in prison under the deal that abruptly ended his trial. He had faced up to 30 years on each count.
The agreement allowed him to avoid prosecution for one other kidnapping case in which the woman had not accused him of rape.
Under state sentencing guidelines, he won’t be eligible for release until he has served 17 of those years. He has already spent nearly two years in jail.
As his relatives and accusers wept, the former leader of Freedom Free Will Baptist Church on Lincolnville Road issued a brief apology for the “pain and suffering I’ve caused.”
Murphy told him that the women he raped had put themselves in dangerous situations. But they didn’t deserve to be bound, taken to remote locations and forced to have sex at gunpoint, the judge said.
“Churches heal people,” she said. “You were the pastor of a church. Rather than healing the people who most needed it, you took advantage of them in the most horrible way.”
For weeks, Richardson had considered a plea deal. Defense attorney Andy Savage said Richardson could have been acquitted if Murphy hadn’t allowed testimony and evidence in the other cases not on trial this week.
Richardson had arranged to have sex with the woman who had already taken the witness stand. But, the woman testified, she never would have agreed to rough treatment as part of a sexual fantasy.
“We were doing pretty good on the facts,” Savage said. “But the legal issues were like a tidal wave.”
Married for 30 years, Richardson has two grown daughters.
His loved ones walked briskly out of the courthouse after he accepted responsibility for the crimes. None would stop and talk with reporters.
“There’s two sides to every story,” one of them said but refused to tell that story.
Assistant Solicitor Glenn Justis, who helped prosecute the case, said Richardson’s victims are traumatized each time they give their accounts. The plea deal allowed them to move on, he said.
But their credibility on the witness stand, he said, was a hurdle for a guilty verdict. One was an escort, one was a street prostitute, and one was a hitchhiker with a criminal rap sheet, he said.
“It’s a shame that ... a preacher ... would have this second life and wouldn’t treat those less fortunate than him in a better way,” Justis said outside the courtroom. “The victims actually showed more mercy to him by allowing this plea.”
Though weeks of negotiation had gone into the deal, attorneys hashed out the final details during the jury’s lunch break Wednesday.
When Richardson stood in front of the judge, Justis read off the basics of the other women’s accusations that played into the defendant’s decision:
In January 2010, the first woman hitched a ride from the driver of a red pickup on Ashley Phosphate Road in an area of North Charleston where all three stories leading to Richardson’s convictions began.
Instead of dropping off the woman, Richardson pulled out a pistol and drove her north on Interstate 26. In a forested area off Jedburg Road, Richardson made the woman get out and have sex with him.
He left her wandering in the woods. She eventually emerged and called 911 from a pay phone.
That August, Richardson was parked in a white Cadillac outside a Hess station on Ashley Phosphate Road. The eventual victim noticed him and climbed into his car.
They negotiated a deal: He would give her $30, and she would have sex with him.
He took her to a remote part of North Charleston, where he stopped the Cadillac. The woman thought that’s where she would make good on their contract.
After she snuffed out a cigarette on the ground, she turned to the sight of Richardson holding a gun.
He tied her hands, covered her head with a pillow case and drove her to the mobile home, a parsonage for his church.
But the woman couldn’t remember much of the building’s interior because she still had the pillow case on her head when she said Richardson raped her on a table.
After Richardson dropped her off in North Charleston, that woman also reported her ordeal to the police.
‘No means no’
The next woman’s allegations, the ones Savage defended him against this week, would end the exploits that prosecutors said classified Richardson as a sexual predator.
Savage said it was nothing more than strange sex.
The woman advertised her services online, in forums like Backpage.com and AdultSearch.com. She went by a fictitious name: Vanessa, a petite, sweet and 19-year-old brunette.
“Im ready now in a discreet quiet location,” Vanessa wrote in one post. “Or i can come see you.”
During the trial, a Verizon Wireless employee testified about calls between Richardson and the prepaid cellphone that the accuser posted in her ads. Some of the calls popped up on July 11, 2011, 16 days before the incident.
On July 27, the two numbers exchanged text messages indicating that a meeting was set up that morning.
“I’m here,” said a text message from Richardson’s cellphone at 10:50 a.m. “You still coming?”
“Yeah,” the recipient responded. “Give me a min.”
Seven minutes later, the person Richardson was texting typed, “I’m coming now.”
Even prosecutors acknowledged after the guilty plea that the woman had arranged to meet Richardson.
But she did so without knowing her prospective client was the man who happened upon her on the roadside, gave her a ride and later raped her while holding a 9 mm pistol.
But Savage noted the phone calls between her cellphone and another number during the time she was supposedly being held against her will. They indicated, he said, that she was a mutual participant in the sex.
Whether it later turned into a bizarre and unwanted escapade that included bondage and a firearm had been issues for a jury to decide.
“When his expectation exceeded her willingness to perform certain acts was the question,” Savage said. “Even when you’re a prostitute, it doesn’t matter: No means no.”
The woman later gave the authorities information they needed to arrest Richardson.
Detectives linked the perpetrator’s method of operation to unsolved abductions, leading to the additional charges.
Other accusers also picked him out of a photo lineup. In one case, analysts matched semen on the accuser’s shirt to a sample of Richardson’s DNA.
But Richardson had not denied having sex with the women, so his attorney argued that the DNA evidence didn’t matter.
His guilty pleas Wednesday, though, left some wondering if any other unsolved assaults would be tied to him.
Justis, the prosecutor, said it’s possible.
“Maybe some day in the future, we’ll find out there’s more,” Justis said. “When you look at … the way he went about it, people just don’t wake up one day and start kidnapping.”
Reach Andrew Knapp at 937-5414 or twitter.com/offlede.