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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Jerry England, pastor of Peakland Baptist Church, in Decatur, Tennessee, stands in the half-rebuilt church of his congregation.

Jerry England gripped both sides of the pulpit Sunday morning, his worn-out King James before him, framed by arms tattooed with a heart-shaped Confederate flag and the cigar-smoking bird of the Clay Smith Cams logo.

The Meigs County, Tennessee, pastor adjusted the microphone, a technology he hates using, before alerting the congregation it was time to address the "situation going on" in the church.

"I've had people asking me, they said, are we wrong for what we do? Are we wrong for this? Are we wrong for putting people in jail?" England said. "Well, let's see. I want to clear that up this morning."

England read a few lines from the Book of Matthew for his Aug. 15 sermon before drifting away from the microphone to stand in front of the altar. His face reddened as his voice rose. His hands cut through the air before him, quickening to match the increasing cadence of his message.

People can be forgiven for their sins, the 42-year-old pastor told the congregation, but people will reap what they sow.

"Do you know what that means? If you have committed a crime and they have cast you into jail or you are standing for that crime, you can be saved, you can repent, but you're still going to pay for the crime that you've done because you committed it," he said.

The alleged crime is the theft of nearly $84,000 in church money by Carolyn Mullins and William Larry Mullins, mother and son church members of Peakland Baptist Church. The money was supposed to be used to finish building a new church after a fire destroyed the original. Instead, the remaining church members continue to meet in a cramped fellowship hall with lines of pews practically extending into the building's kitchen.

Just months after being voted in as pastor, England turned in his own church members to law enforcement, something other church members were either too scared or not certain enough to do. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation took up the case, as did the Tennessee Comptroller's Office.

Larry and Carolyn Mullins, the church's treasurer and assistant treasurer, respectively, were indicted on theft charges by the Meigs County Grand Jury in July.

Larry Mullins declined to comment and directed the Times Free Press to his lawyer, Randy Rogers, who is also representing Carolyn Mullins. Rogers declined to comment because "it's an ongoing case."

England does not know if or when the church will get back the allegedly stolen money. In the meantime, the part-time pastor and part-time bull rider is attempting to steady the small congregation with a half-built church, which was the source of local rumors for months.

"It's a mess," England told the Times Free Press.

"It is," responded Georgia Collier, a decades-long church member who was sitting nearby. "It's unbelievable."

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Peakland Baptist Church

GROWING CONCERNS

In early 2019, Marcos Riojas began preaching regularly at Peakland Baptist Church. He would drive north from Calhoun to Decatur to lead the services, an exciting opportunity for a painter who just months earlier was doing street ministry.

Riojas now had his own church. He did not accept a salary and watched as the congregation grew from around five to between 20 and 30, depending on the Sunday, he said.

"I didn't know what was going on. I just preached there," Riojas said. "Everyone is on their best behavior when you have a visitor, right?"

But as the novelty of being the new spiritual leader wore off, Riojas became concerned about the dynamics in the church.

Larry Mullins had previously acknowledged misusing church money around 2017 — something Riojas only learned about later — which led to Carolyn Mullins becoming the assistant church treasurer at the time, according to the TBI report. She was the church secretary, too.

Riojas knew Larry Mullins was protective of his position in the church, despite the pastor's concern about Mullins' lifestyle and continued ability to hold a leadership role. Mullins is a registered sex offender, according to the TBI.

In February 2019, Riojas left Meigs County for Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a weeks-long painting project. On Feb. 18, 2019, Peakland Baptist Church burned to the ground.

In response to the fire, Riojas left his Louisiana job early to return to Tennessee. The community rallied to help, he said, though he grew increasingly concerned with Larry Mullins controlling the church money given his past and the amount of money the church would receive.

"We needed God's hand over us, in a real way. Not just in a churchy way," Riojas said.

Larry Mullins got angry with Riojas when the pastor brought up the prospect of him stepping down as treasurer, Riojas said. Mullins accused the pastor of wanting control of the money for himself, so he could financially benefit. Riojas worried their disagreement could become physical, he said.

Riojas said he found little support from the church for removing Larry Mullins.

"Nobody wanted to go against them," he said.

Riojas and his wife became concerned he would become a scapegoat if anything bad happened with the church's finances. Given Larry Mullins' previous misuse of funds, there was precedent, Riojas said.

"I told them, my last message was, I will not be part of a corrupt council," Riojas said. "If you guys don't want to vote him out, we're leaving."

And he did.

MONEY RUNS OUT

On May 1, 2019, the final insurance check from the fire was deposited into Peakland's bank account, according to the TBI report. The church received a total of $189,000 in insurance money, and in late May, church leaders signed a contract to construct a new building.

According to the TBI report, construction stopped in September after the church paid $95,000 and claimed it had run out of funds to complete the project. Sections of the outside walls were not completed. Plumbing was roughed in but not completed. The building could not be secured and was open to the elements, the TBI report said.

On Feb. 11, 2020, the church's checking account held a balance of 77 cents and was closed.

Collier and Wilma Paul, both longtime members described as the "rock of the church," kept coming to the sporadic services in the nearby fellowship hall. Collier said she returned, despite many other members leaving after the fire, because this was her home. She hoped people would see her determination Sunday morning.

"We thought, well, if we come in and just stay a few minutes, maybe people passing will see they're determined. They've got something I want," she said.

Within the church, though, there was still tension. Church members wanted to know why the building was not completed and how nearly $200,000 could be gone so quickly.

The church members told state investigators that Larry Mullins would report monthly spending totals during church meetings but would not provide receipts or detailed accounts of where the money was going.

Collier told the Times Free Press the church ran into a similar stonewall with Carolyn Mullins.

"She never would let us see the books," Collier said.

The TBI found that between 2018 and 2020 Carolyn and Larry Mullins made 463 transfers, for a total of $72,200, from the church accounts to their personal accounts.

"Investigators found nothing to indicate that these transfers and withdrawals were for the benefit of the church," the report said.

The Mullinses spent an additional $11,500 by writing checks from the church bank account to purchase items for themselves, including cigarettes, clothing and gift cards, according to the TBI report.

The TBI investigators found the Mullinses transferred around $12,200 back to church accounts from their personal accounts, although $71,400 is still missing.

Some of the money was given to people in the community, church members said. For example, a man stopped by the church one time to thank members for giving him several thousand dollars. The church members had no idea what he was talking about, they said.

"They were just handing people money like it was theirs," England said. "I'm not sure if they knew it was from the church or not."

NEW LEADERSHIP

England, who works full time as a furnace operator and rides bulls as a hobby, described himself as a "different kind of pastor" who does not take a salary from the church.

On Facebook, he posts firearms training videos and, in one video, said he is the kind of spiritual leader who could fire on someone for trying to close his place of worship, then turn around to perform that person's funeral.

He was voted in as pastor in August 2020 and said he ran into resistance with seeing the organization's finances.

"I can't fix it if I don't know what's broke. I got to find it before I can fix it," England said. "When I look at this structure right here, I don't see $180,000 right there. I said, it's not there. There's something wrong."

England's wife, Marsha England, was soon voted in as treasurer.

"We tried to work with that woman but she told us, out of her own mouth, if you want your money you're going to have to press criminal charges against me," Marsha England said.

Jerry England said he attempted to reconcile the situation without having to alert authorities. That did not work.

"We tried every way to work around putting it out in public," England said. "But it didn't happen."

In the fall of 2020, the church called law enforcement on its own members.

The Mullinses stopped coming to church after the report was made.

For around nine months, church members went to the fellowship hall for services. Folks kept driving past the half-finished structure next door.

"People would ask and I would just look at them and say, well you'll find out. You'll find out," England said. "That's all I can tell you."

On Aug. 3, the TBI published its investigative report, detailing the alleged bank transfers and misappropriation of money. Media coverage of the findings was widespread.

The Meigs County Grand Jury indicted Larry and Carolyn Mullins on one count each of theft of more than $60,000.

According to a 2017 survey from Lifeway Research, one in 10 Protestant pastors say someone in their church has embezzled money at some point, given the high amount of trust placed on treasurers and the typical volunteer nature of the position. The TBI report suggests churches assign someone other than the treasurer to reconcile monthly financial activity.

Under England's leadership, every major church decision is voted on, he said. Purchase a new rug for the church? Vote on it. Give money to help someone in the community? Vote on it. Allow a journalist to visit the church and ask questions? Vote on it.

Church members are hopeful about the direction their congregation is going. The pews are growing a bit more crowded, they said, despite the attention the TBI report brought and the reality they may never get back the lost money.

As it stands, the congregation does not advertise its presence with a sign along Peakland Road, which parallels the church running east to west. But the place has a reputation now, England said.

"It's always going to be known as that church where they took all that money," he said. "It don't matter that nobody here had nothing to do with it. That's still, that's just the way it is."

As for Riojas, he was relieved when he learned about the TBI report. For months, he wondered whether people thought he had something to do with the church not being completed, he said.

Those first Sunday sermons at Peakland in 2019 felt like such a high point for Riojas. When he was a street minister, he dreamed of being a pastor and leading a church, he said. But the experience at Peakland left Riojas questioning whether he was even meant to be a spiritual leader. He was exhausted.

"After something like that, it's like somebody kicked you in the gut and it didn't stop hurting," he said.

Riojas delivered his last sermon at Peakland in the spring of 2019. He has not preached since.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.

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