Pastor found guilty

A Miller County jury Tuesday found South Texarkana Baptist Church pastor Travis Payne guilty of sexual misconduct with a 3-year-old girl and sentenced him to five years in prison.

After several hours of deliberations during the guilt-or-innocence phase of the trial, the jury sent 8th Circuit Judge Brent Haltom a note indicating they were deadlocked. Haltom instructed the jury to continue deliberating, and about an hour later, the jury returned a guilty verdict.

"We are very grateful to the jury for their time and effort throughout this difficult trial and deliberations," said deputy prosecutors Connie Mitchell and Stephanie Black.

Mitchell and Black noted that Payne's case is unique, pointing out sexual-assault cases rarely include eyewitness testimony.

"We are very grateful this eyewitness came forward on behalf of the 3-year-old victim who could not speak for herself," Mitchell and Black said.

Miriam Spiros told the jury she and her husband, Phillip Spiros, entered Payne's church about 6:45 p.m. April 25, 2011. Miriam Spiros testified she circumvented the sanctuary, where a revival service was to begin at 7 p.m., to make a quick trip to the restroom. But on her way there, in a hallway behind the sanctuary, Spiros said she met with a disturbing sight.

"I heard a man say, 'Be still. I won't hurt you,' and a child's voice saying, 'No,'" Miriam Spiros said.

Miriam Spiros told the jury the girl was standing on a piano bench with her shorts pulled down and her genitalia exposed. Payne, 67, had his hand between the girl's thighs, touching her private area, Miriam Spiros said.

"I panicked. I darted in on them," Miriam Spiros said.

Payne quickly pulled up the child's pants and set her on the floor, Miriam Spiros testified. The girl reached for her, said something about wanting mommy and uttered a few other words she didn't understand. She said she asked Payne what the child had said.

"He said, 'I don't know. I can't understand a word she's saying,'" before picking the girl up by the waist and carrying her away, Spiros testified.

Miriam Spiros said Payne was intently looking through a crack in a door next to the piano and bench, looking out into the church's sanctuary, when she walked up and saw him touching the girl.

Miriam Spiros, a licensed vocational nurse, testified Payne was touching the girl in a sexual manner.

"I was in shock," MIriam Spiros said. "How could he do that in God's house?"

Miriam Spiros said that a short while later, Payne handed her a visitor's card requesting her email address and cellphone number, as she sat in the sanctuary.

Phillip Spiros, a music minister at Macedonia Baptist Church in Fouke, Ark., said he could tell something was wrong when his wife of 15 years entered the sanctuary a few minutes later.

"I could tell she was upset. She was distressed," Phillip Spiros said. "Her eyes were watery, like she was holding back tears."

The Spiroses testified they were at the revival April 25 because Phillip Spiros had agreed to perform that night.

Phillip Spiros said after his wife told him what she'd witnessed, he contacted Wallace Edgar, an evangelist who was participating in the revival and who had previously pastored one of Texarkana's larger Baptist churches, for advice.

"After we talked, I expected everything would be taken care of," Phillip Spiros said.

Phillip Spiros said he contacted Scott Page, Deacon Committee leader at South Texarkana Baptist Church, and asked if Payne was still pastoring.

Phillip Spiros said that when he realized nothing was being done, he and his wife contacted law enforcement.

Texarkana, Ark., police Detective Wayne Easley told the jury under questioning by Mitchell that Payne described Miriam Spiros as a "lady of the street," and claimed Edgar and Page both suffer from Alzheimer's disease.

Payne denied he ever encountered Miriam Spiros at the church.

He testified that he first became aware of an allegation concerning him and a child when he received a call from Edgar a few days after the revival.

Mitchell asked Payne if he inquired of Edgar about the nature of the allegations or who had made them. Payne testified he had not.

Mitchell argued Payne didn't ask questions.

Payne testified he had been in the back hallway of the church twice to stop the child because she was banging on the piano. He said he was looking through a crack in the door from the hallway each time to the sanctuary because he was looking for his wife, so he could take the child to her.

Mitchell questioned why Payne would need to look into the sanctuary a second time when he'd already located his wife when he looked out the first time.

Payne denied he pulled the girl's pants down or that he ever touched her inappropriately.

Payne told the jury the girl was wearing a colorful skirt with ruffles, which Texarkana defense attorney Jeff Harrelson produced during his questioning of Payne.

Under questioning from Mitchell, Payne testified he could not recall what the girl wore on the other nights of the revival, which lasted from April 24 to April 29.

MItchell also questioned how the skirt came to be in Payne's possession, since he has been forbidden to have contact with the child.

Miriam Spiros told the jury the girl was wearing a light-colored pair of shorts.

In closing arguments, Harrelson argued that Miriam Spiros misperceived what she saw transpire between Payne and the girl in the church hallway.

Following sentencing, Haltom made sure all jurors were seen to their cars before allowing the courtroom, which was filled with a large number of Payne's supporters, to empty.

Payne was taken into custody after the trial. Besides serving time, he must now register as a sex offender.

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