By Jeff Lehr
JOPLIN, Mo. —
James Terry and his wife took the witness stand in his defense on the second day of his trial Thursday after three more alleged victims testified that he molested them in recent years.
Testimony concluded late in the day, and Circuit Judge Gayle Crane sent jurors home for the night, with closing arguments yet to be made in the trial of Terry, 64, that began Wednesday in Jasper County Circuit Court in Joplin.
Two girls, ages 12 and 14, recounted Thursday that the Webb City man they knew through church as “Uncle Jim” often came to their home to watch television, play video games and jump with them on their trampoline when they were between the ages of 6 and 9.
They would play a game called “Bull,” in which he would playfully knock them down on the trampoline and tickle them. The younger girl said he began doing more than that, furtively touching and rubbing her where he should not. She said it made her so “nervous” that she could not bring herself to tell her mom or dad. By the time she was 9, she testified, she had learned to stay seated when he came to their house so he would not be able to touch her.
When it was the older girl’s turn to testify, Assistant Prosecutor Kimberly Fisher began by asking if she knew why she was in court.
“Because James did something wrong to me, and I want to do something about it,” the girl said.
She recounted a memory of “Uncle Jim” sitting her up on a fence in her yard and reaching up between her legs to touch her when she was between 7 and 9 years old. He touched her in a similar manner while she was getting a driving lesson from him in his car, she told the court.
Terry is being tried on three counts of first-degree child molestation for alleged contact with those girls about six to seven years ago, and with a girl now 9 years old in 2007 and 2008, when she was 3 and 4 years old.
The 9-year-old girl testified Wednesday that the defendant molested her on multiple occasions in King Jack Park, beneath the Praying Hands statue in Webb City and while she was staying overnight in his home.
Terry also is being tried on a single count of attempted statutory sodomy involving a girl who was about 11 years old when the abuse allegedly took place in 2001 or 2002. Now 21 years old and married, she joined the younger witnesses in testifying against the defendant on Thursday.
She described a game of “airplane ride” or “flying” that Terry played with her and other children in the game room of an area church. He would give them the ride by reaching up between their legs from behind with one arm and around their torsos with his other arm, and picking them up and whirling them through the air, she said. But when he picked her up, he also began sliding his hand down the front of her pants, she said.
“The more I struggled, the tighter he held on to me until he let go,” she said.
She said she kept the matter to herself until several years later, when she made a partial disclosure to the boyfriend who would become her husband, later still to a leader of her college Christian life group and finally to a church counselor.
Through cross-examination of the alleged victims, the defense has sought to raise doubts about the perceptions of the girls at the time of the alleged incidents. Defense attorney William Fleischaker in particular asked the 14-year-old girl about statements she made at a preliminary hearing last year that suggested she may have wondered in the past if her memories were all just a dream. The girl replied that he was misunderstanding what she had said.
“I thought before that maybe it was just me (who was being abused),” she said, “because (the 12-year-old girl) never said anything about it. But it happened.”
The defense called a nephew of Terry to testify that he often accompanied his uncle to the two girls’ home and would play on the trampoline with them. He said he never saw his uncle touch any child inappropriately.
Denise Terry, the defendant’s wife, told the court that the girl who testified that she would awaken to him abusing her in his home at night never slept in their spare bedroom as she remembered. She said the girl would always sleep with her, and her husband would sleep out on a futon.
“The way our bed is set up, he would have had to go over me to get to (her),” Denise Terry said.
James Terry told the court that he indeed took the one girl to the park and to the Praying Hands on more than one occasion. While he may have touched her legs in the course of catching her or assisting her coming down the slide at the park, he never molested her, he said.
While he often went to the other two girls’ home to play with them in the course of his involvement in the youth ministry of their church, he never abused them either, he testified. He said he did recall that the girl who is now married did not like the “airplane ride.” He noticed “immediately” a tension, or “tightness,” in her, and she asked to be put down, and he set her down.
She wasn’t in the air but about 10 seconds, he said.
“It just seemed so odd for all this time to go by and to not hear anything,” Terry said.
When asked point-blank by his attorney if he tried to put his hands down her pants, he said he had not. That could not have been done without running a risk of dropping her, he explained.
JAMES TERRY testified Thursday that he grew up in New Mexico and moved to this area several years ago with his family. He worked in construction, property management and real estate before taking a job with Modine Manufacturing. He and his wife of 36 years have three adult children who live in the Joplin area.