By Bob Allen
An Alabama children’s minister charged with multiple sex crimes remains in jail after his lawyer withdrew a motion for reduced bond and waived a preliminary hearing on Feb. 18.
Attorney Billy Underwood had filed a motion on behalf of Jeff Eddie, longtime associate pastor for children and church administration at Highland Park Baptist Church in Muscle Shoals, Ala., asking for his bond of $1.03 million to be reduced from $30,000 per count to $5,000 per count.
After conferring with prosecutors at a Tuesday morning hearing in Colbert County district court, however, Underwood advised his client to waive the preliminary hearing and allow the case to proceed to a grand jury in March.
“We didn’t want to inflame the public with what would come out from the preliminary hearing,” Underwood told the Times Daily in Florence, Ala. “And if the bond was lowered enough that he could get out, there might be more charges filed against him and he would be back in jail. So, nothing would be gained by reducing the bond today.”
Eddie, 42, is charged with 31 counts of second-degree sodomy, three counts of sexual abuse of a child younger than 12 and two counts of possession of child pornography of children younger than 17 years of age.
The abuse charges involve one boy who was 11 at the time the alleged abuse began, but authorities say they have talked with several other children and expect additional charges to be filed.
According to arrest documents, Eddie — a staff member at the church affiliated with Colbert-Lauderdale Baptist Association, the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions and the Southern Baptist Convention since 1998 — first aroused suspicion when a staff member walked into his office and observed him with one arm around the waist of a minor and the other hand underneath the child’s shirt. The witness said Eddie appeared startled and removed his hands from the child.
Disturbed by what she had seen, the witness reported the incident to Pastor Brett Pitman and Worship Pastor Jeff Beech, who looked into the matter and asked Eddie to turn over his church-issued laptop, cell phone and tablet.
Police were contacted after Beech found two images of child pornography among Eddie’s computer files. During police questioning Eddie reportedly confessed to sexually abusing so many minors at his church that he could not remember the number of victims.
The Muscle Shoals police chief commended church leaders for contacting authorities as soon as they became aware of a potential problem, but one television news report questioned whether the 10 days that elapsed between the initial incident and the calling of police violated a state law requiring those on a “mandatory list” to report suspected abuse immediately.
Pitman, a former student minister who joined the Highland Park Baptist Church staff in 2006 and became lead pastor in 2010, brought in a guest preacher the first Sunday after Eddie’s arrest but returned to the pulpit Feb. 16. On Sunday night the church held a forum for parents, grandparents and children’s workers about how to talk to kids, while children were treated to a movie.
Pitman said a separate bank account has been set up to help with long-term counseling for “families that were directly impacted,” a term he admitted sounds vague but has to be for legal reasons.
“We’re just going to keep trusting Jesus and helping families,” Pitman said. “That’s all we know to do.”
Pittman said somebody called him the previous week and told him: “Brett, you handled this differently than any pastor I’ve ever seen …. I think you guys have handled this very well. What led you to do what you’re doing?”
“I said, ‘Maybe dumb luck, I don’t know,’” Pitman said. “But I said: ‘Honestly our heart was we just wanted to help people heal. More than anything, we put that at the top of our priority.’”
“We wanted to help people heal, so that’s what we’re going to try to do, and we’re going to keep trying to do that,” he said. “We’re going to keep moving forward in that direction, so just keep praying.”