The congregation of the Baptist church here stuck by the preacher even when whispers turned to criminal charges.
“Brother Travis” Smith would never sexually assault a teenage girl; the flock refused to believe it.
He was married. Beautiful wife, beautiful kids, including young twins. He was handsome and charismatic — his powerful sermons stirred the soul. The church grew since his arrival. One member said Smith “could have been a TV preacher.”
And sure enough, Smith was acquitted of the charge in 2011.
But then another girl came forward. And another. And then another — and now Smith, 45, is headed to prison.
He entered an Alford plea last week to charges of statutory rape and statutory sodomy of a 16-year-old victim who said she and Smith, at the time her youth pastor, used to have sex late at night in a country cemetery until being caught by her father in 2005.
As part of the plea deal, Smith pleaded guilty in cases involving two other teenage girls.
After the later arrests, most members of the First Baptist Church in Stover, population 1,081, near the Lake of the Ozarks in Morgan County, continued to show up Sundays to hear Smith, who was out on bond.
Not Cheryl and Tom Howser. They stopped going, even when Smith’s wife called to ask why. Cheryl Howser told her they would not be back until Smith resigned or was found not guilty.
“When I would sit there on Sunday and look to the front and see his wife and kids, I saw pain,” Cheryl Howser said Tuesday in her living room. “I couldn’t do it anymore. The first time — maybe. But the others — how could that be?
“I heard him deny it, deny it all, and I didn’t believe him.”
Others did. Some so strongly that when Smith did resign, they went to his farm near California, Mo., where he continued to conduct Sunday services.
Smith entered his plea last week in Laclede County Circuit Court in Lebanon, Mo., after a jury had heard the case against him and reached a verdict, but before the verdict had been announced.
In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict him.
Smith then pleaded guilty in the two other cases, which were filed in 2012 and 2013.
Court documents say Smith assaulted those girls years earlier — in 1998 and 2000. One of the assaults allegedly took place in the back seat of Smith’s truck while a friend of his sat in the front.
The trial victim was a girl at Pilot Grove Baptist Church in unincorporated Moniteau County, where Smith served as youth pastor.
During testimony, Smith acknowledged the sex took place, but he said the acts occurred after the girl turned 17, the legal age of consent.
Smith’s attorney, according to a story on LakeExpo.com, argued that testimony from the girl’s father indicated the man discovered the relationship during raccoon season. If the sex had occurred during coon season, the attorney argued, it must have been after the girl’s birthday.
According to court records, the jury began deliberations at 3:30 p.m. April 19. Six hours later, the jury announced that it had reached a verdict. By making the Alford plea before the court had accepted the jury verdict, Smith avoided the possibility of a longer sentence. He got four years.
Camden County Prosecutor Michael Gilley said the plea deal was offered after consulting with victims and their families.
“All three victims were present in the courtroom to listen to Mr. Smith admit to his crimes and go from a free man to being placed into the custody of sheriff’s deputies to await transport to the Department of Corrections,” said Gilley, who served as special prosecutor in the case.
On Tuesday, Tom Howser shook his head when asked what the long ordeal was like for a church in a small town.
“Hell on earth,” he said. “And it’s not over yet — we still don’t have a permanent preacher.”
But one is filling in for the time being.
Across the street from the Howsers, Misty Brosius said some of the people who left the church had returned.
She never left. Not because she believed Smith’s claims of innocence, but because the church was her church. The place was her home and the people there her family.
Travis Smith nearly tore it all apart.
“He thought he was a ladies’ man,” Brosius said. “But it’s not me he has to worry about on Judgment Day.”
Donald Bradley: 816-234-4182