published Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

Trial begins for pastor's son charged with statutory rape

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    Ronnie Powe, Jr. is accused of aggravated statutory rape involving a 15-year-old after the two met on a dating web site. Powe reportedly performed of sex act on the teen, according to police reports.

The trial of a 28-year-old pastor's son charged with aggravated statutory rape resumes this morning with testimony from prosecution witnesses.

Ronnie Powe Jr. faces the charge after his Feb. 15 arrest. He is the son of Pastor Ronnie Powe Sr., minister of Chattanooga's United Tabernacle Church of God in Christ.

On Tuesday, Hamilton County Assistant District Attorney Bret Alexander pressed jurors during the start of the trial to focus on what Powe knew about the 15-year-old he was with on the night he was arrested.

"He knew by his actions the age of his victim," Alexander told jurors in opening statements. "Powe asks him. The victims says 'I'm 17, well, really I'm 16.'"

"The most powerful evidence in this whole trial is the victim's face," Alexander said. "You will see for yourself, how old do you think he is?"

But defense attorneys Bill Speek and Gerald Webb dispute whether the alleged victim ever said much of what's attributed to him. The boy is scheduled to testify for the prosecution.

Chattanooga Times Free Press policy is not to identify victims of sex crimes.

Testimony indicated that Powe briefly performed oral sex on the 15-year-old but has not yet indicated if Powe knew the teen's age.

That knowledge is one of the keys to proving whether Powe is guilty. Under Tennessee law, the aggravated statutory rape charge requires "knowingly penetrating a person" older than 13 but younger than 18.

Proving consent is not required, Criminal Court Judge Barry Steelman acknowledged during pre-trial motions on Monday.

"During this trial, you have to ask yourself who the victim is," Speek said in his opening statements, then described how Powe was a closeted, gay black man struggled with his homosexuality and believed his desires would send him to hell.

Powe had no outlet for this secret in his home or at his church, Speek said, but he found an outlet at an online chat website for adult gay black men.

Speek said he and Webb would show through the trial how the 15-year-old created a web profile that said he was 18 and first contacted Powe nearly a year before the February incident.

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    Chattanooga Police Department officer Cornelius Gaines testifies during the first day of testimony in Judge Barry Steelman's courtroom Tuesday in the trial of Ronnie Powe, Jr., who faces charges of statutory rape.
    Photo by John Rawlston /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Powe took down his own website profile but put it back up about two weeks before he and the teen met in person.

Speek emphasized twice during opening statements that the now victim, now 16, continues to maintain an online profile on the website, but now claims to be 21.

"The decision by this jury will affect the rest of [Powe's] life," Speek said. "Today [the 16-year-old] is back on it, with his hook in the water waiting to catch the next fish."

According to testimony, the pair messaged via the website, then texted each other until Feb. 15, when Powe picked the teen up and drove him around before stopping behind the abandoned building that formerly housed East Lake Middle School on 13th Street.

Chattanooga Police Officer Cornelius Gaines testified Tuesday that he patrolled behind the school about 10:30 p.m. and first saw a person in the driver's seat. He walked up to the green Honda four-dour sedan to ask what was going on and, at that time, he saw the 15-year-old in the passenger seat.

At first, Powe told police he was a youth minister counseling the troubled youth. But, as Alexander showed through testimony Tuesday, Powe revealed more details as he talked with officers.

about Todd South...

Todd South covers courts, poverty, technology, military and veterans for the Times Free Press. He has worked at the paper since 2008 and previously covered crime and safety in Southeast Tennessee and North Georgia. Todd’s hometown is Dodge City, Kan. He served five years in the U.S. Marine Corps and deployed to Iraq before returning to school for his journalism degree from the University of Georgia. Todd previously worked at the Anniston (Ala.) Star. Contact ...

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