Every single night.
That’s how often the victim in the first of Ronnie Gorton’s three cases said he endured being sexually abused.
“It just never stopped,” he said.
The abuse began the day he moved into Gorton’s Drummonds home and, said the teenager, intensified over the next year and a half. He testified Gorton, who was then the pastor of The Awakening Church in Atoka, used the Bible to manipulate him into believing his inappropriate behavior was okay.
“I forget the verse, but he said holding each other is just a way to show love,” he told the court. “He said it was normal.”
For three hours and 16 minutes Tuesday, the emotional 18-year-old shared the intimate details of being abused for several hours every night, being manipulated and trying to find a way out.
“I know how he is and who he is from how he set it up perfectly from separating me from my friends and my family and how he played the mind games of how everything’s my fault,” he said. “As time went on, he kept getting more and more control over me.
“I was just shocked the whole time. I didn’t really know what to think about everything. I was lonely, everyone that I’ve every known I was cut off from them. I was stuck in a situation with no way out.”
The victim, whose trial is just one of three Gorton is facing, testified he had a friend stay the night. Gorton provided the boys with alcohol and engaged in inappropriate behavior with both of them.
“I didn’t know he was going to come after my friends, too. I thought I’d be more safe, but … it didn’t turn out that way.”
The testimony about the abuse was graphic, with both the victim and Gorton’s ex-wife breaking down on the stand, but Gorton stayed expressionless behind the counsel table for the second straight day.
Both the victim and Gorton’s now former wife, Rhonda, testified his appearance was important to him.
“I had to put on an act,” the accuser said. “I didn’t know what was going to happen … anything could have happened.”
Pastors are supposed to love their congregations, and Gorton seemed to, but this case’s victim said that wasn’t necessarily the case.
In regards to the people who worked at or were volunteers with the church, he testified Gorton “called multiple people some very negative things” when mistakes were made.
“He always had something to say about them, even with a little slip-up. As long as everything’s right with the worship team, with the volunteer team, if everything was right that day … he wouldn’t talk as bad about the church people being in those seats listening to him. One mistake was a big deal.”
During cross examination, defense attorney Blake Ballin passed photos to the victim and asked him to read the captions and describe what was going on. He was taken to concerts and on out-of-state vacations, things he’d never done before. He had a father figure for the first time in his life, was doing well in school and liked photography.
He looked happy. They all did.
“Those are just pictures!” the victim yelled at Ballin. “Why can’t you understand the facts?!”
“He was so afraid someone would say something that would unravel the whole thing,” Rhonda testified about the man who is now her ex-husband. “He had become very volatile by this point.”
Knowing how quickly his demeanor could change, and stay that way for awhile, the victim was hyperaware of his behavior and trying to stay in Gorton’s good graces.
Tuesday morning, Rhonda told the court even though she knew as far back as 2012 Gorton had an addiction to pornography and served alcohol to teenaged boys, she kept it to herself.
“I was very quiet when it came to the way I portrayed Ronnie,” she said through tears. “He was supposed to be a man of honor and I tried my best not to tarnish his reputation.”
She said she and Gorton saved themselves for marriage, that Gorton was affectionate until they were wed in August 2001.
“I woke up the next morning and it was like I was married to a different person.”
They moved from church to church, planted one in Union City and felt called to work at The Awakening Church. With no children of their own, they “always had people in and out” of their house.
“We adopt kids into our home like some people adopt pets,” Rhonda testified.
She and Gorton were not intimate much and, “nine times out of 10,” she said she slept alone in her bed.
The victim testified Gorton often slept with him.
Though there were several red flags, Rhonda didn’t realize what was happening when Gorton was left unsupervised with minors. She said she was told allowing teens to drink with adults was “just a thing that’s done in the South,” that Gorton and the victim spending so much time together was part of the mentoring he was doing.
“I didn’t let myself go to that place in my mind,” she said. “I wanted to think the best and hope the best. I just thought we were helping kids.”
She filed for divorce and moved out of the house in December 2017.
On Jan. 31, 2018, Gorton told her the victim was missing, so she drove by his great aunt and uncle’s home in Atoka. The street was lined with police cars. While she was on speakerphone with Gorton, a detective told her there were allegations against him, but no specifics were given.
Through tears she testified she asked Gorton, “‘If there’s anything I need to know I need you to tell me now.’ He swore to me there was nothing.”
Five weeks later Gorton was indicted for 47 different sex crimes – five counts of aggravated sexual battery, 17 counts of sexual battery by an authority figure, two counts of continuous sexual abuse of a child (Child Protection Act), 16 counts of statutory rape by an authority figure, two counts of exploitation of a minor by electronic means, two counts of contributing to the delinquency of a minor, two counts of purchasing alcohol for a child and one count of rape.
He was charged in another 44-count indictment with similar accusations and two more victims in July 2018.
Gorton has been living in Union City since his arrest and his mother has died while he’s been awaiting trial. Rhonda saw him at her wake and he told her he looks forward to telling her what really happened.
“He said things aren’t always as they seem.”
Rhonda feels responsible for what allegedly happened, though.
“I blame myself for not seeing it because I didn’t want to or because it was hidden, either way.”
The third day of testimony will begin Wednesday with Gorton and his father taking the stand. Closing arguments are expected in the early afternoon.