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Witnesses say pastor cited in sex crimes Judge rejects bond for minister charged in `brutal' stabbing death

BYLINE: Gayle White Staff Writer, STAFF
DATE: 05-23-1986
PUBLICATION: The Atlanta Constitution
PAGE: A/01

The Rev. Rance Wellborn, the Roswell minister accused of a murder prosecutors suspect is homosexually related, had been arrested twice in the past for sex crimes, but charges were dropped in both cases, witnesses testified Thursday.

In one of the previous cases, the alleged sexual molestation of a teenage girl, authorities dropped the charge after pressure from influential members of Wellborn's church, witnesses said. The other charge involved an alleged act of sodomy in a Roswell department store.

After a six-hour hearing, DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Daniel M. Coursey Jr. denied bond for Wellborn, 53, accused of murder in the May 13 stabbing death of Lawrence F. Burmeister, 46.

In a courtroom packed with members of Wellborn's congregation and family, including his wife and grown daughter, a K mart security manager testified that he arrested Wellborn and another man last year after he caught them engaging in sodomy in the men's room.

Bert V. Nouhuys, security manager of the K mart store on Holcomb Bridge Road in Roswell, said K mart officials decided not to prosecute the men, but issued a warning to them to stay out of K mart stores or risk prosecution.

Defense attorneys, in cross-examination of Nouhuys, noted that the incident had been investigated by a commission from the United Methodist Church, including the use of polygraph tests, and no action was taken against Wellborn.

In the other incident, a 24-year-old woman testified that Wellborn had fondled her after pushing his way into the bathroom while visiting her home in 1978, when she was a teenager.

A Cherokee County deputy sheriff, called by the girl's family to their home after the incident, testified that Wellborn drew a .22-caliber revolver on him when he attempted to make an arrest. Retired Detective Sgt. Bob Duncan said Wellborn told him he had been at the house "to counsel the young folks."

Duncan told the judge that then-Sheriff Newt E. Adams ordered charges dropped "after he was approached by certain influential people in Cherokee County" who were members of Wellborn's church at the time.

"I was ordered to drop the charges, and I enjoyed my job, sir, so I did what I was told," Duncan said.

Prosecutors introduced a "diversion agreement" from the incident in which Wellborn agreed to seek counseling.

Wearing a navy blue jail uniform, Wellborn sat quietly throughout the hearing, at one point taking off his glasses to wipe his eyes after a courtroom description of the wounds inflicted on Burmeister.

About 10 character witnesses, including fellow United Methodist ministers and members of his congregation, appeared to testify on Wellborn's behalf.

Linda Winkler, who once worked as Wellborn's secretary, described him as "a very kind, gentle, wonderful person."

But District Attorney Bob Wilson told the judge that Wellborn's colleagues and congregation saw the image Wellborn created.

"He is not lily white as he would have these honest people who came to testify for him believe," Wilson said. "The past he has obviously intended to keep under wraps has surfaced today."

Wilson told the judge that Wellborn's release would pose a danger to others. "When a rat is caught in a trap, he is at his most dangerous," Wilson said. "When he's backed into a corner, he's most likely to bite."

"This was a brutal and savage murder," Chief Assistant District Attorney Bob Morton told the judge. "It was one by a very, very cruel person."

Defense attorney Joe M. Salome argued that Wellborn - approximately 5-foot-7 and 170 pounds - is too small to have killed Burmeister, described as 6-foot-2 and 298 pounds.

Salome also asked the judge to discard testimony about Wellborn's alleged involvement in the homosexual incident.

"Whether or not the Rev. Wellborn has sexual proclivities we don't all lean to or approve of is not the issue," Salome said. He said his client was not admitting any such proclivities, "but we want to deal with it."

Salome said the issues to be decided were whether Wellborn would pose a risk if released. "I ask this court to set a reasonable bond," Salome said. "I assure you he will be here to stand trial."

In denying bond, Coursey said, "There is probably no group for whom this court has more respect than ministers. But based on the evidence this court has heard today - particularly evidence of other alleged offenses - I'm going to deny the bond."

Earlier in the hearing, DeKalb County Detective Charles E. Buis testified that he had evidence that Burmeister was homosexual. Pornographic magazines, several showing nude males, and sexual paraphernalia were found in a nightstand in the bedroom where Burmeister died, according to testimony.

DeKalb Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph Burton testified that Burmeister bled to death from about 30 major knife wounds in his upper torso and upper extremities. Many other superficial wounds were also present, Burton said.

Besides random knife wounds, he said, Burmeister's killer methodically slashed both wrists, inflicted deep chopping wounds more than 4 inches long to the back of the head, and almost severed a thumb. Burton said Burmeister probably died very quickly after a stab wound in his heart.

The number and severity of wounds were a case of "overkill" that suggests "torturing or punishment," and the intensity of the attack seemed to indicate an emotional bond between the victim and his killer, Burton said.

"In most cases like this, you have a strong emotional overlap between the victim and the perpetrator," Burton said. "Certainly, there was some emotional bond."

Wellborn was identified as a suspect in the case after witnesses saw his car leaving Burmeister's home about the time of the murder, police said.

He surrendered several days later and told police that he had been at Burmeister's house on the afternoon of May 13. But Wellborn said he had been attacked by an unidentified assailant, he found Burmeister wounded but alive inside the house, and he claimed he left after Burmeister urged him not to "get involved," Buis testified.

Salome said Wellborn's actions were more consistent with someone who had been stunned by walking into an attack than with someone who had committed a crime.

But Morton called Wellborn's story "a preposterous statement given by a despe rate man." He added that Wellborn's story conflicts with those of other witnesses and the physical evidence.

Burton testified that injuries on Wellborn's hands seemed to be inconsistent with being slashed at by a knife-wielding attacker.

Buis, in his testimony, said there was no indication of a struggle in the kitchen and dining room area inside the house to confirm the story Wellborn told.

Buis also said Wellborn told detectives that he approached neighbors, trying to alert them to the attack against Burmeister.

But William F. Owens, one of the neighbors, testified that as he and his wife were pulling out of their driveway about 1:45 p.m. on May 13, they saw a red Buick later found to belong to Wellborn speed off as though to avoid them.

Notes: Photo: DeKalb deputies escort the Rev. Rance Wellborn during break in bond hearing/Steve Deal The last paragraph did not appear in the final edition.

Copyright 2003 The Atlanta Journal and The Atlanta Constitution