By John Balch
A former area youth minister charged with sexual assault pleaded guilty to an amended charge Wednesday, Sept. 16 in Howard County Circuit Court and was sentenced to time in the state prison.
Jonathan Burnett Neeley, 32, pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault and was sentenced to 18 years in the Arkansas Department of Correction with five years suspended. Neeley, who was initially charged with first-degree sexual assault, will also have to register as a sex offender upon his release from prison.
(UPDATE: Neeley entered in plea deal Monday, Sept. 21 in Pope County where he was charged with four counts of third-degree sexual assault, according to Prosecutor Bryan Chesshir. He was sentenced to 10 years in the ADC on one count while the other charges were “nolle prossed.” The sentence will run concurrently with the sentence handed down last week in Howard County.)
An investigation of Neeley began earlier this year when females ages 17, 18 and 18 informed authorities that in 2009 and 2010 they had sexual contact with Neeley when he was a youth minister at the Mineral Springs Church of Christ. The charge filed in Howard County was the result of his contact with the female who was a minor at the time. The incidents took place mostly at his home in Nashville, according to Nashville Investigator Amy Marion.
Officer Marion, her husband, Larry, who is also a Nashville criminal investigator, and city officer Tim Bowlin traveled to Illinois earlier this year to interview Neeley. During the interview, he admitted to having sexual intercourse with “Victim A” and sexual contact with “Victim B” and “Victim C” while he was employed by the church. He was arrested at that time and brought him back to Arkansas.
According to information filed on the case, Victim A became familiar with Neeley when he became her youth minister at her church, and that she looked up to him and his wife. Texts and talk between the two eventually led to them having sexual intercourse and sexual contact numerous times between January 2009 and May 2009.
“Victim A stated that on one occasion Jonathan pulled out a Bible and made her place her hand on it. Jonathan had her swear that she would continue to have sexual intercourse with him after she was married,” according to case information.
In regards to Victim B, the situation was similar and she thought Neeley and his wife “were cool.” Texts and talk between the two became more frequent and led to sexual intercourse and sexual contact on several occasions at his residence in Nashville.
Victim B stated that after she went to college Jonathan continued to pursue her, showing up outside her window. The two had sexual relations in a hotel that day. She also stated Neeley made her swear that she would continue to have sex with him after she was married.
When the victim attempted to break off the relationship, Neeley reportedly left voice mails threatening suicide if she did not answer or return his calls. Victim B told authorities that she informed Neeley’s wife of the incident.
Victim C said she and Neely had sexual contact but never had sexual intercourse. She stated Neeley also made her promise that he could be her first sexual encounter the night before she got married. Neeley reportedly wrote Victim C’s parents a letter apologizing for in appropriate relationship with their daughter.
After Neely left the area, he was a campus minister for a time at a student center at the Arkansas Tech University campus in Russellville before taking a job in Illinois. An alleged victim, an intern under Neeley, has also come forward regarding having a sexual relationship with Neeley.
Neeley was charged in Pope County for his alleged involvement with the intern working under him at the student center in Russellville, according to an article published by the River Valley Leader.
Neeley turned himself in to Pope County authorities on July 10 after learning about the warrant for his arrest. Case information stated that between July 1, 2012, and June 30, 2013, Neeley sexually assaulted the intern working directly for him at a student center.
The victim told authorities that during the time they worked together at the Church of Christ Student Center at ATU, Neeley, who is described in court documents as the victim’s “campus minister/counselor,” began to ask her about her “past experiences with boys” and making comments about how beautiful she was, according to court documents. She said their relationship became physical, and it happened nearly every time they were together, court documents state.
During counseling sessions with Neeley, the victim confessed that she was concerned about committing adultery, and he allegedly told her “God wants this.” Neeley also allegedly told the victim that they had not been caught because their activities were something that God wanted.
Court documents also state that Neeley later confessed to having sexual relations with the victim. He faces four charges of third-degree sexual assault, in which a member of the clergy uses their authority over a victim in a position of trust to engage in “sexual deviate activity,” according to court documents.
Neeley’s trial dates in Pope County were scheduled for the end of October, but he entered the plea agreement Monday.