Admission of guilt: Former church volunteer pleads guilty to 37 charges related to sexual abuse of teen boys
By Samantha Perry
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
April 19, 2016
|In court...Timothy Probert, 57, waits for counsel to return from the bench during a hearing before Judge Charles M. Vickers Monday morning. Probert pleaded guilty to 37 charges related to the sexual abuse of teen boys while he served as an elder and youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield and as a mentor for the Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect (WE CAN) program.|
PRINCETON — As rows of victims and their family members watched in stoic silence, a former church volunteer quietly uttered the words “guilty” when asked how he was pleading to a myriad of child sexual abuse charges before him.
Timothy Probert, 57, of Princeton, pleaded guilty Monday morning to 37 charges related to the sexual abuse of teen boys while he served as an elder and youth volunteer at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Bluefield and as a mentor for the Working to Eliminate Child Abuse and Neglect (WE CAN) program.
Probert entered the plea before retired Fayette County Judge Charles Vickers, who was assigned to the case in 2015 after Mercer County Circuit Court judges Omar Aboulhosn, Derek Swope and William “Bill” Sadler recused themselves citing conflicts of interest.
Probert pleaded guilty to seven counts of first-degree sexual abuse, three counts of third-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree sexual assault, one count of first-degree sexual assault, 24 counts of sexual abuse by a parent, guardian or custodian, and one count of delivery of a controlled substance.
He now faces 171 to 489 years in prison and as much as $50,000 in fines.
Probert originally faced 50 charges relating to the sexual abuse of children. His trial was scheduled to begin Monday.
“Although it is natural to assume that Probert pled pursuant to a plea agreement, there was no plea agreement,” Mercer County Prosecuting Attorney Scott Ash said. “In final preparation for trial, (assistant prosecutors) Kelli Harshbarger and George Sitler believed there were several counts that did not have sufficient evidence to take to trial and those counts were to be dismissed as an ethical obligation prior to trial. Thereafter, we were advised by defense counsel that Probert intended to plead ‘straight up’.”
During the hearing, Harshbarger told Vickers the 13 counts were being dropped because “one victim did not want to testify at trial ... and insufficient evidence.”
“This is not a plea agreement,” Harshbarger said. “This would just be an admission of guilt to 37 counts.”
As Vickers read Probert the many charges against him and asked how he wanted to plea, Probert, speaking quietly, responded “guilty.”
Vickers explained the penalties to Probert, including the prison time and fines, then asked, “Is this what you want to do?”
“Yes, your honor,” Probert responded.
Vickers asked Harshbarger what evidence the state would have presented at trial.
Harshbarger said the state would show that Probert was a “respected member of the community and church” and, as such, parents would allow their children to stay at his home. She said Probert would provide alcohol and pornography to the boys and “encourage masturbation.”
“Sexual exploitation also includes masturbation,” Harshbarger noted.
Harshbarger said there would also be testimony by victims of oral sex, anal sex and attempted anal sex by Probert.
“Is this what happened?” Vickers asked Probert.
“Some did occur, some did not occur,” Probert responded after a long pause.
Probert’s attorney, William Flanigan, then told the court that the defense was not objecting to or contesting the charges.
Vickers allowed Probert to remain free on bond, scheduling a hearing on Friday to address the issue.
“We’re going to be requesting that bond be revoked,” Harshbarger said after Monday’s hearing.
Following the adjournment, several victims and their family members at the hearing were visibly upset. One victim asked Sitler why Probert was being allowed to “walk free” after he had pleaded guilty, and questioned whether other children were in danger.
Sitler responded that Probert was on home confinement.
Following the hearing, Westminster Presbyterian Pastor Jonathan Rockness said the church was “thankful” for Probert’s decision to plead guilty. “It was the right thing to do, and it spared the survivors from having to relive painful events in a public setting.
“At the same time, it would have been better for this acknowledgment of guilt to have taken place long ago,” Rockness said. “For almost two and a half years, Westminster Church has been living with dark storm clouds overhead. Further, and more importantly, the survivors who have courageously stepped forward as witnesses have lived the last two-plus years in great anguish, turmoil and anxiety, as they have contemplated how a public trial would bring great upheaval to their lives.
“Their actions — their very difficult and brave actions — finally forced this legal matter to a resolution,” Rockness added. “Without their determined efforts, no guilty plea would have been entered today. They have made this world a better place, and potentially thwarted further abuse.”
Probert was arrested in December 2013 on 38 counts of child sexual abuse related charges. However, the number of charges grew to 50 when he was indicted in February of 2015.
The 12 new charges stemmed from another victim coming forward and additional charges being added in other cases, Sgt. M.D. Clemons, with the Crimes Against Children Unit of the West Virginia State Police, said in a previous report.
Probert’s original charges included 27 counts of sexual abuse by a custodian, 17 counts of first-degree sexual abuse, three counts of third-degree sexual assault, one count of second-degree sexual assault, one count of first-degree sexual assault and one count of delivery of a Schedule IV controlled substance.
Clemons said the abuse occurred between 1986 and 2010, and all the victims were male teens.
During a preliminary hearing in February 2014 on the charges, Clemons gave graphic testimony of the alleged acts, which included “mutual masturbation” between Probert and the victims, as well as oral and anal sex. She testified that the youths would come to Probert’s house, where he would give them alcohol and provide them with heterosexual pornographic movies.
Clemons’ investigation into Probert’s alleged acts began when she was contacted by Rockness about an initial incident. At that point, there was not enough evidence for authorities to pursue criminal action, so church leaders began their own investigation.
After more allegations were revealed during the church’s query, Clemons was able to move forward with a criminal investigation.
In a previous statement, Rockness noted Probert was never employed by the church but had volunteered in various capacities, including youth trips that required chaperones.
In a pre-trial motions hearing in December of 2015, the defense argued that Rockness violated the priest-penitent privilege when he told Clemons about disclosures involving Probert’s actions with young boys.
At the hearing, Rockness testified that the church began the investigation after the initial report. “Our suspicion, our concern, was that this may be more widespread.”
Rockness also testified that Probert did not come to him to confess. “We went to him to investigate. I was not acting as a pastor but an overseer of the safety of the church. It was not a matter of someone coming to me with a penitent heart to confess.”
Judge Vickers later ruled that Rockness had not violated the priest-penitent privilege.
At the motions hearing, the brutality of the incidents became apparent when defense attorney Flanigan requested an examination of one of the victims “to look for scarring.”
Flanigan noted that one victim spoke of bleeding after anal and rectal sex with Probert. The victim said he had to “use tampons to control the bleeding,” Flanigan said when arguing the motion.
Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Kelli Harshbarger objected to the motion, saying the victim was abused one time more than 20 years ago and had “healed from it.”
“He was humiliated,” Harshbarger said. “He had to steal tampons from his mother to stop the bleeds.”
The court did order that the examination take place, and a report from it was provided to defense counsel.
Probert was accused of similar crimes in 1999 but no charges were filed at that time.
Charges against Probert include alleged acts against a male youth in the WE CAN program who, along with his brother, would stay at Probert’s Bluefield home on the weekends, according to a criminal complaint filed by Clemons.
In the complaint, Clemons stated that the youth said the accused would watch them shower, give them wine during dinner and come into their room at night and touch them inappropriately. The youth stated he would “wake up with the accused touching him inappropriately.”
After this occurred twice, the youth said he told his mother what happened and she made a complaint to the WE CAN program, according to Clemons’ criminal complaint.
Joanne Boileau, director of the Children’s Home Society of West Virginia, the parent organization of WE CAN, told the Daily Telegraph in a previous report that police were notified in 1999 when the accusation was made.
“We closed that match and terminated the mentor (Probert),” Boileau said.
“We had made our decision,” she added. “He was too high risk to try any additional matches with him.”
The 1999 incident was investigated by the Bluefield Police Department. The case was brought before Mercer County’s Multidisciplinary Investigative Team (MDIT), whose members include representatives from the prosecuting attorney’s office, Child Protect, law enforcement, the Department of Health and Human Resources and more. At that time, it was determined there was not enough evidence to proceed and the case was closed.
In a Daily Telegraph story last month, the mother of one of the victims said she was losing faith in the justice system after the case had dragged on in the courts for more than two years.
“I would have felt angry and betrayed no matter who the person was, but the fact that it was someone from a church made it even worse,” the mother, who was interviewed on the condition of anonymity, said. “Probert had spent a long time earning the trust of victims and their parents. It’s hard to say how many lies he told to convince people in the church that he was really the person he claimed to be. He’s the best example I’ve ever known of someone living a double life. He pretended to be a friend to his victims and their parents. He violated children under the disguise of being a Christian. I can’t think of any worse betrayal.”
The mother said the abuse has brought “horrible emotional pain.”
“As a parent, I’ve felt a lot of guilt — like it’s my fault that Probert hurt my child. Good parents protect their kids, but I didn’t protect mine.”
She also said the many delays in the case caused the family to start losing trust in the justice system.
“We believe the people on our side are doing a good job, like Sgt. Clemons and all the people in the prosecutor’s office, but it seems like the system allows too many ways for guilty people to keep things dragging on,” the mother said. “I know the law says that a person is innocent until proven guilty, but Probert confessed to the police that he did these things to my son and to other children. Why was he ever allowed to be home after his arrest?”
Rockness thanked the victims and Mercer County’s public servants who, he said, “have helped bring justice to a heartbreaking situation.”
“We are also grateful that in the midst of the dark storm clouds, Jesus Christ has provided a lamp unto our feet, guiding us on this painful path,” Rockness said. “We will continue to look to Him to provide further healing to all those who have been impacted by this situation.”