Colleton County Chief Magistrate Richard Wood dismissed two of the four charges facing accused minister Ralph G. Stair Tuesday afternoon at a preliminary hearing in his office.
Stair, 69, was arrested on May 16 and charged with two counts of breach of trust and two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree. The preacher is being held at the Colleton County Detention Center after 14th Judicial Circuit Court Judge denied his bond on May 22.
The self-proclaimed prophet, who preaches over AM and short-wave radio to a worldwide audience of followers, has an Internet-based ministry that crosses international lines. Additionally, Stair operates approximately 100-person strong religious community in Canadys, called Overcomer Ministry, for which its residents must sell all their worldly possessions and sever ties with family members and friends before entering.
After being delayed nearly two hours for the hearing, State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) Investigator Travis Avant addressed the two breach of trust charges. Brought on behalf of former followers Lawrence and Linda Skenandore, who left the farm in November, 2000, after being there only a few months, say they gave Stair their retirement savings with the understanding that these funds, some $3,079.07 and $26,556.40, would be invested for them, Avant said. When the time came to file taxes this year, the complainants discovered the cash was not invested in their names, but in that of Faith Cathedral Fellowship, and organization the Skenandores did not know even existed at the time.
But Stair's attorneys, brothers Joenathan and Mathis Chaplin, paint a different picture of the Skenandores. Saying the Skenandores know they were giving money to the church and not a man, Mathis Chaplin accused the couple of running a money laundering scheme in which they make a charitable donation, claim it as a deduction on their taxes and then ask for the cash back without reporting the money received on their taxes again.
Mathis Chaplin presented cancelled checks showing when the Skenandores left the community, Stair gave them $27,000. Though Avant acknowledged this information, he said the law does not. The fact that any amount of money was returned does not change the fact that the Skenandores feel they were tricked out of their money, Avant said.
"Would your church give back every dime you've ever given?" asked Mathis Chaplin of Avant. "He's (Lawrence Skenandore) trying to take out his pound of flesh from his former minister."
Making a motion for Wood to dismiss the charges, Mathis Chaplin attacked Avant's work on the case.
"The investigation was not thorough and you have not shown probable cause to bring these charges," Mathis Chaplin said "They are using you as a hammer to attack R.G. Stair in a fraudulent scheme."
Wood dismissed the two financial charges.
Concerning the criminal sexual conduct charges, Avant read the victim's statements, which contained explicit sexual content detailing several encounters between the minister and the women. Avant also described the physical and mental fear the girls had of the minister that led to their involvement with him.
Saying the affairs were between two legal adults and were completely consensual, Mathis Chaplin argued that Stair "made a full disclosure to a packed church" about the encounters. Though Avant claimed this confession was not a full disclosure" as Mathis Chaplin said, the investigator said the victims did not contradict Stair during the acts because of fear.
Pointing out that one of the victims admitted to lying to Stair about being on her menstrual cycle to keep from having sex with the minister, Joenathan Chaplin said she was not a reliable witness.
Again saying Avant did not have enough evidence to warrant these charges, Mathis Chaplin made reference to case law. Avant, Pointing out he was not a lawyer, reminded Mathis Chaplin that the hearing was only a preliminary one.
The criminal sexual conduct charges were bound over to the grand jury. Though Wood dismissed the breach of trust charges, the state still has the option of direct indictment through the grand jury.
None of the state's complainants were present at the preliminary hearing, but Avant assured the court that they would be willing to testify in the criminal proceedings.
Aside from these charges facing Stair, the minister has also been confronted with allegations of neglect from family members of a follower who recently died at the community. An autopsy revealed Stanley Crawford Bean, 27, died of cerebral herniation of Tuesday, May 28, according to Chief Deputy Coroner Willard Long.
"I believe foul play is involved. He walks in there healthy and comes out on a stretcher," said George Bean, Stan Bean's father. "I really have the feeling myself that something was done to Stan to make him have a hemorrhage of the brain."
But Teresa Stair, who is the minister's wife, explained that her church doesn't believe in medical care and Stan Bean wanted to die.
"He (Bean) wanted to go," she said in an earlier interview. "He really wanted to be with the Lord. He said, 'Sister Stair, I am so happy if I am going to be with the Lord.'"
In another death-related case, SLED last week exhumed the remains of a baby found at The body has been autopsied and the investigation into the cause of death concerning the baby is ongoing.
Though Buckner denied Stair's bond, the defendant will have the opportunity to file for another hearing at the next term of circuit court, which begins July 29.