SBTS student ministering in aftermath of small town murder

Communications Staff — February 25, 2005

LOUISVILLE, Ky.—For Jon Pearce, this was no ordinary funeral.

He scarcely knew the deceased—a young girl—as she had been involved in the church’s Wednesday evening AWANA program for only a few weeks.

And much of the nation was watching—reporters from media giants the likes of ABC News, the New York Times and USA Today were among the 600 persons who gathered at Crothersville Community School on Feb. 6 to remember the girl who had been an energetic, bright-eyed fourth-grader at the school just days earlier.

Pearce, pastor of First Baptist Church of Crothersville, Ind., and a Doctor of Ministry student at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, was selected by the family to deliver the eulogy at the funeral because of the girl’s recent attendance of youth activities at the church. For Pearce, it was an opportunity to set before a hurting community both the sinfulness of fallen man and the goodness of a sovereign God.

“I was pleased that God chose me to do the funeral, but at the same time, I was scared about what to say because this wasn’t any ordinary funeral,” Pearce said. “But this was a bereaved family and I knew that almost the entire community would be there. I felt the community was looking for an answer as to why this happened. I wanted to make sure that I glorified God in it.”

For this quiet southern Indiana town, this was no ordinary death.

Crothersville sits tucked in the woods just off Interstate 65, some 40 miles north of the glare of the city lights of Louisville. It is a place where neighbors have known each other for generations, a place where one can still buy goods from a family-owned business, and a place where things like this are not supposed to happen.

But on Jan. 30, the peace of Crothersville was shattered like a monster-filled nightmare interrupting the sleep of a child. That day, law enforcement found the lifeless body of 10-year-old Katlyn “Katie” Collman in creek 20 miles outside of town. The heartbreaking discovery ended a search that began after Katie had gone missing on Jan. 25. It was the first homicide in Crothersville, population 1,600, in 25 years.

Investigators believe Katie stumbled upon a lab where methamphetamine was being manufactured and sold in an apartment complex near her home. Katie had apparently visited one of the apartments to inform its occupants that their dog had been killed on the railroad tracks that crawl past the town.

Investigators believe Katie was killed because she saw too much, that those operating the “meth lab” abducted and murdered the girl to keep her from informing others, perhaps even law enforcement, of their illegal activities.

“It was one of those things that you never really think of happening in a small town,” Pearce said. “It surprised a lot of people. But as Christians, we know that evil is everywhere, even in small towns.”

To the minds of the citizens of Crothersville, the alleged offender was no ordinary criminal.

It was not a nameless drifter who was arrested in connection with the crime. Nor was it a random assailant who turned off the interstate and onto the streets of Crothersville with evil motives. That might have been easier to swallow.

Instead, one of Crothersville’s own stands accused of the crime. Three days after locating Katie’s body, law enforcement arrested 20-year-old Crothersville resident Charles James “Chuckie” Hickman and charged him with murder. Police say Hickman has since confessed to Katie’s slaying. Authorities are still seeking accomplices who seem to have driven the girl to the place in the country where her she died. Apparently, Hickman does not know how to drive, Pearce said.

“There are a lot of immigrants in that part of town and so people were saying that it was perhaps one of them who had killed Katie,” Pearce said. “Or they thought ‘it had to be somebody off the interstate; it can’t be anybody from our town.’ They were really shocked to find out that it was a person that everybody had seen hanging out in town, a young guy they called a ‘meth head.’”

Pearce, who also received his master of divinity from Southern in 1998, said the shocking reality that a local resident is charged with carrying out such a heinous act has given him a platform to speak on the existence of evil in the human heart. He has sought to demonstrate that evil is not peculiar to large cities but is found wherever fallen people live. The murder has led to a reawakening of moral outrage in the town, he said.

“For some it has been a time to blame God,” he said. “For others, it has been a questioning of how God could allow this to happen or asking the question, ‘is there evil in the world?’ I have been able to talk to a lot of people about that…Many first assumed that it was a foreigner or somebody off the interstate who did this, but come to find out, they see that evil is close to home.

“It is a good opportunity to point out to people the problem of evil in the human heart, the need for a redeemer and the righteousness that is found only in Christ—that we will stand before God and that our sin nature can only (ultimately) be taken away and punished through Christ.

“It has also awakened people to the need for justice. The people are starting to get together and say, ‘hey, this is our town; we’ve got to take it back.’ At the funeral I really focused on the quote of Edmund Burke that ‘evil triumphs when good men do nothing.’”

And Pearce is hoping for no ordinary response from the citizens of Crothersville to Katie’s murder.

Already, Crothersville residents are acknowledging the need to drive away with the light of truth and justice the moral darkness that local drug traffic has brought with it, Pearce says.

Methamphetamine labs are becoming a fast-spreading cancer in Crothersville, he said, as evidenced by a local home that had its roof blown off last month when the lab operating inside it exploded.

“Nothing was really done about it,” he said. “And no arrests were made…I talked to a lady just before the funeral who was with an organization called Parents of Murdered Children. Her daughter had been shot in a similarly stupid incident. She told me, ‘there is going to be a lot of outrage and it is all going to be internalized and it will all dissipate within two weeks if you don’t do something about it from the very beginning.’”

Pearce, who has pastored First Baptist for more than five years, hopes to help the town capitalize on its desire for justice with the result that Crothersville becomes a safer environment for children, all the while pointing them to Christ.

In the three weeks since the funeral, already Pearce has been instrumental in helping the town to consider a new community watch program in which neighbors watch each other’s backs and group together to pressure through legal means neighboring houses that are peddling dope.

A group in Crothersville is lobbying to have the apartment complex from which Katie was abducted razed and a memorial to the murdered youth put in its place. Last Sunday, Pearce marched alongside 380 Crothersville citizens through the streets—the “Walk for Katie”—as both a memorial to the slain youth and a public declaration of the town’s war on drugs.

The incident has also instilled in the local citizenry a deeper love for and watchfulness over their children, said Pearce, who has been interviewed by multiple national media outlets and appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” regarding the murder.

“This has awakened people to be responsible for not only their own children, but also the children of others,” Pearce said. “I have been able to point out that our children are precious, that they are made in God’s image, and that one day, we will give an account for them.”

First Baptist is the largest church in Crothersville, but Pearce said he is convinced that Katie’s family selected him to speak at the funeral not due to the church’s prominence, but because it is respected for its ministry to children.
In addition to the standard youth group, First Baptist offers many activities for children and makes them one of the central aspects of its ministry, said Pearce, whose wife Michele is expecting the couple’s third child in the spring.

Above all, Pearce wants to see God’s glory manifested in His people being light during these darkest of days in Crothersville.

“Thom Rainer (Dean of Southern Seminary’s Billy Graham School of Evangelism, Missions and Church Growth) said more than 80 percent of all persons saved come to Christ before the age of 20,” Pearce said. “We have a lot of youth programs at the church and we really care about children. I think the community knows that. If not, we want them to know that.

“As Christians we’ve got to be light and one thing light does is take away darkness. In this situation, as in all others, that is what we want to do.”

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