A judge found probable cause at a hearing Wednesday to believe that former Sarcoxie minister Donald Peckham may fit the legal criteria for a sexually violent predator requiring commitment to the Missouri Department of Mental Health past completion of his prison sentence.
Circuit Judge David Mouton sustained a petition filed in Jasper County Circuit Court by the state attorney general's office seeking a court order to have Peckham held beyond his scheduled release from prison.
Peckham, 83, was convicted in 2004 of first-degree statutory sodomy and second-degree statutory sodomy and was sentenced to concurrent terms of 15 years and seven years. With credit for good behavior behind bars, the former pastor of the Jubilee Christian Fellowship Church in Sarcoxie is scheduled to be released from prison on Wednesday of next week.
State law provides for the commitment of inmates who fit the criteria for sexually violent predators past completion of their prison terms. But there first must be a determination by a judge in a civil court proceeding that probable cause exists to believe that the inmate fits the criteria. The inmate then must be evaluated and a trial conducted on the proposed commitment.
State law requires three criteria to be met for designation as a sexually violent predator. The inmate must have committed a qualifying offense. They must demonstrate and have been diagnosed with a mental abnormality, and they must be deemed "more likely than not" to commit another offense if released.
Gregory Goodwin, an assistant attorney general, noted in the petition of the court that Peckham's crime of first-degree statutory sodomy is a qualifying offense under the law.
Angela Webb, a psychologist who evaluates offenders prior to release from the Farmington Correctional Center, testified for the state at the hearing that Peckham has a dual diagnosis of paraphilic and personality disorders and is, in her opinion, "more likely than not" to re-offend.
She said Peckham has demonstrated attraction towards underage males and committed offenses with an unknown number of them — believed to be somewhere between five and 100. She said the problem is that he has been inconsistent in his reporting of the number of victims.
His two convictions pertain to acts committed with a 13-year-old boy and 14-year-old boys in the 1990s. But he told investigators when those crimes were first reported in 2004 that he had committed similar acts with 50 to 100 boys, and it is unusual for an offender to claim more victims than they actually have, the psychologist said.
"In the interview with me, he did deny that (high a number of victims)," Webb said. "He said he was forced to say that."
She said Peckham reported just nine victims to her but disclosed 10 to others during treatment in prison.
While Peckham completed sex offender treatment in prison, Webb believes he did little more than "skim the surface" of the program, and that he continues to demonstrate a lack of accountability and regard for his victims.
"He felt that what he was doing was not hurting (them)," she said.
Susan McCarthy, the attorney representing Peckham, got Webb to acknowledge on cross-examination that her client's attraction would appear to be limited to post-pubescent boys. Webb further acknowledged that there are those within her field who do not consider attractions to post-pubescent teens to be "deviant."
McCarthy also questioned Webb on why she did not contact Peckham's family prior to grading him on certain factors included in the risk assessments she made, including family support and stability of relationships. McCarthy pointed out that her client's 61 years of marriage to his wife did not appear to be properly valued as an indicator of stability in relationships.
The psychologist said the score she gave him on those particular factors was the score generally assigned to inmates who had been incarcerated in recent years.
In one of the two measures Webb used to assess the risk Peckham posed, she determined that he fell in with a group that had a five-year recidivism rate of 5.6 percent, which represents a relatively low risk. In the other measure, he tested as a moderate to low risk, she said.
Webb's conclusion from those two assessments drew criticism from McCarthy in closing arguments.
"I don't think you can take moderate to low and pump it up to "more likely than not" with just sheer speculation," she said.
Peckham's crimes came to light after he disappeared on June 21, 2004, while purportedly on his way to visit an ailing member of his congregation at a Joplin hospital. He was located by detectives 17 days later in San Antonio, Texas, and brought back to Missouri, where child sexual-abuse allegations soon surfaced.
It eventually came out that his escape to Texas was prompted by a letter from an alleged former victim in Kansas, where he had been a minister at several Methodist churches prior to moving to Sarcoxie in the 1970s. Allegations that arose at four churches in Kansas between 1958 and 1972 fell outside the state's statute of limitations and were never prosecuted.
A psychologist testified Wednesday that a subsequent owner of the house where Donald Peckham lived in Sarcoxie reported finding 'a secret room' in the basement in 2014 that contained a bed with stains on the mattress.
Peckham's younger brother testified that there was nothing secret or sinister about the room, that he and others in the family all knew about it. Larry Peckham said it originally was kept as a safe room for storms and later was converted into 'a Y2K room,' with food stored there against the dire prospects predicted by some with the turn of the millenium.