CourtTV online, March 27, 2000

North Carolina preacher may face fire and brimstone at child abuse trial--Howard Hunichen could face up to nearly 10 years in prison for various child abuse and assault charges. By Bryan Robinson

Howard Hunichen

RALEIGH, N.C. (Court TV) North Carolina street preacher and traveling evangelist Howard Hunichen was once revered by Kevin and Lisa Fortner as "God's messenger." They were enthralled when he talked of God's love and the mighty hand of God.

But did Hunichen, by his own hand, abuse the couple and mentally disable their defenseless infant son?

Hunichen is on trial on several counts of child abuse and assault for the injuries suffered by 7-month-old Zachary Fortner. According to Hunichen, Zachary fell off the bed while he was changing the infant's diaper on April 23, 1999. Investigators, however, say the infant's injuries were too severe to be "accidental."

Zachary suffered fractures to his skull, ribs and pelvis and suffered permanent brain damage. Since his fall, Zachary has been in a coma and has lived in a medical facility for brain damaged children in Raleigh.

Kevin and Lisa Fortner first met Hunichen in 1996 during one of his regular evangelical trips to Waverly, Tenn. Hunichen had developed a small following, preaching in private homes and local churches. After meeting through a mutual friend, the Fortners and Hunichen gradually grew closer. The Fortners were interested in the teachings of the Bible and were captivated by Hunichen's knowledge and passion. Hunichen saw the Fortners as willing and eager "disciples", ready to learn and eventually spread the Gospel.

Eventually, Hunichen persuaded the Fortners to uproot from their Tennessee home and move into his one-bedroom apartment in Raleigh, N.C. Hunichen thought the Fortners would help him care for his spiritual mentor, Dr. Hubert Lindsey, and his wife Phoebe, who were living in local nursing homes. While Hunichen claims the Fortners were willing to move in with him, they claim they were reluctant from the start. However, Hunichen's influence apparently persuaded them to make the move.

The Fortners moved in with Hunichen on Feb. 13, 1999 and they claim his attitude changed almost immediately. According to the Hunichens, he became a harsh taskmaster and was mentally abusive to them and their children. Kevin Fortner says Hunichen physically assaulted him and his wife several times; Lisa Fortner claims the preacher raped her repeatedly until she consented to sex. The Fortners claim they did not leave Hunichen because they felt powerless and confused.

Hunichen allegedly also assumed power over the raising of little Zachary. The Fortners claim that Hunichen took it upon himself to discipline the child. He considered Zachary a "lazy baby" and set out to teach him to crawl, stand and walk. The Fortners claim Hunichen's teaching tactics included hitting Zachary on his bare buttocks with his hand or a belt, stomping on him with his foot, and jerking his arms to get him to walk. Some of Hunichen's alleged tactics are captured on home video, which will be introduced at trial. Though the Fortners noticed bruises on Zachary, they didn't think he was in danger.

But Zachary's life took a dramatic turn April 23, 1999. Hunichen told police that Zachary slipped off the bed while he was trying to change his diaper. He said he grabbed the infant by the foot, but the child's head hit the floor anyway. Kevin and Lisa Fortner were both in the house at the time but didn't witness the alleged fall. Hunichen claims he immediately brought Zachary out to Kevin in the living room. When it was noticed Zachary wasn't breathing, Hunichen began performing CPR while Kevin called 911.

In addition to the numerous fractures, Zachary suffered brain and retinal hemorrhaging and acute blood loss. There was blood in his abdomen and bruises on his abdomen and buttocks. Given the injuries, Doctors believed that Zachary showed all the signs of "shaken baby syndrome."

Hunichen is charged with felonious child abuse and felonious assault with a deadly weapon with intent to inflict serious injury. If convicted, he could face nearly 10 years in prison. Hunichen denies hurting Zachary in any way. He insists the child merely fell off the bed during a diaper change. Hunichen agrees the child is a victim and that the injuries suggest he was abused over a period of time before the fateful fall. He suggests that the Fortners may have inflicted some of the injuries.

Though Hunichen has been blamed the most for Zachary's condition, the Fortners have not escaped legal scrutiny. The Fortners also are charged with felonious child abuse and do not have custody of any of their three children. They will go on trial another time. However, for now, their testimony will be a key part of the prosecution's case against Hunichen.

Return to Newsroom Index or to Table of Contents