Fulwider call with accuser detailed
‘If there had been a witness ... they would have called the police’
Over the course of 52 minutes, as the Rev. Bryan Fulwider talked to a woman police say he had repeatedly raped starting when she was 14, he stressed one point several times: She was under no obligation to tell church investigators that anything had happened between them.
“You can say … ‘I’m not participating in this,’ ” Fulwider, the former senior pastor of First Congregational Church of Winter Park and co-host of the popular “Friends Talking Faith” radio show, said about halfway through the Oct. 1 call. “The stronger you want to say that, the better, frankly.”
A recording of the call obtained by the Orlando Sentinel shows Fulwider repeatedly acknowledged having had what he described as a “relationship” with the woman when she was too young to legally consent. The recording has been altered to disguise the accuser’s voice.
In addition to confirming the statements cited by police when they arrested him the following
day, the recording reveals other incriminating comments by Fulwider, who presents himself as a victim of grudge-holding church officials and a “community-destroying allegation.”
The call took place under the supervision of Winter Park police Detective Pamela Woehr. In it, Fulwider tells the woman he recently learned he was under investigation by the Florida Conference of the United Church of Christ for having a “sexual relationship with a minor over a period of years.”
What he didn’t know was that, earlier that day, the woman had detailed to Woehr years of abuse by Fulwider, during the period he ran the Winter Park church. The victim said Fulwider began grooming her in 2005, when she was 13, and started raping her when she was 14, including in his office at the church.
“Do you think anyone saw us in the office ever?” she asked, about 14 minutes into the call.
“No,” Fulwider replied. “But the door was open sometimes,” the woman pressed.
“Look, if there had been a witness to anything, they would have called the police, you know?” Fulwider said. When the woman expressed uncertainty, Fulwider added: “Of course they would.”
He also told her that he wanted “to crawl under a rock.”
“Honestly, if I died in my sleep tonight, it would be OK,” he said.
Out of jail on bond and facing the possibility of life in prison, Fulwider killed himself at his Altamonte Springs home the night of
Oct. 27. Prior to his death, he had denied any wrongdoing through his attorney, Jacob V. Stuart, who did not respond to an email seeking comment Friday.
“I’ve been better,” Fulwider said as the call began. “I’ve been better.”
He revealed what had him worried: He’d gotten a call from the Rev. John Vertigan, minister of the church’s Florida Conference. A “fitness review” had been launched in response to an allegation about a sexual relationship with a minor that could represent a “breach in [his] ministerial standing.”
Next, Fulwider apologized for “the way I behaved earlier this year.” It’s unclear from the recording to what he was referring, but he said he’d “had a hard time forgiving myself.”
Fulwider lavished adulation on the woman, praising her “good instincts,” judgment, “strong spirit of good” and “heart of kindness.”
“I wanted to say those things, because I don’t know where this is going to end up,” he added.
Fulwider went on to explain what was at stake: His credentials as a minister of the church. His future with the Interfaith Council of Central Florida. His career.
“I don’t care about credentials but this is a ... community-destroying allegation and, if they determine that they think it’s credible, or right or, whatever — true — I don’t know the extent to which I will have to exit this situation,” he said. “… I would probably leave the area … and, even if it doesn’t go terrible, something like this is career-destroying for somebody with clergy relationships.”
While he had faced a fitness review before — in 2008, after three women complained to the Florida Conference about inappropriate conduct, including drinking and sexually charged text messages — he said this time was different, because his credentials had been suspended at the probe’s outset.
He also speculated as to who had reported him to the conference, naming several people involved with the church “who had grudges against me — strong grudges.”
But throughout the call, though he often stressed that the woman could tell church investigators anything she wanted, he repeated that it would be best for him if she chose to keep quiet.
“You can say, ‘There’s no truth to this and I am not going to talk to anybody about anything related to this, or something,” he said. “… That, for me, would be the best thing. … If you decide to talk about anything with anybody … it would be so helpful if I knew that you were going to say anything other than that.”
The accuser replied, “I don’t want anyone finding out about us.”
“I know, and I don’t either,” Fulwider said.
‘Quote, the victim’
The recording confirms and expands key exchanges police relied on in arresting Fulwider:
After the accuser asked if there was “anyone else,” Fulwider responded vehemently: “No, no, no, nothing, nothing, nothing ever, ever, ever. Never ever. Nobody. Nothing. I mean, honestly, they could line up every female related to the church and if everybody except for one told the absolute truth, they would have zero.”
“You mean me?” the woman asked.
“Well, yeah,” Fulwider replied. Later, when the accuser asked if she could be found at fault for what happened between them, Fulwider replied, “Oh heavens, no.”
“You would be considered, quote, the victim of this,” Fulwider said. “It would be as if I were a predator and you were victimized by me. And you know, that was never, ever where I was coming from.”
She asked: Where was he coming from? “With you? Love,” Fulwider said.
It was one of several times throughout the call that Fulwider expressed his love for the woman, who told police that, starting when he was her pastor and she was 14, he raped her dozens if not hundreds of times in his office, his car, hotel rooms and on church trips across the country.
“I love you more than I love anybody in my life and have ever loved anybody in my life,” he said. “All I really want for you, now, in your life, is to be happy and have a good life.”
About 39 minutes into the call, he told her their “relationship is our business and not anyone else’s.”
According to the accuser, the inappropriate interactions began after Fulwider discreetly approached her at the church, asking her to write her AOL screen name on a note pad and not tell anyone. He would later send her images of his genitals and give her a “burner” phone so her mother wouldn’t find out.
‘Not a legal matter’
Despite his clear concern about the allegations surfacing, Fulwider seemed confident in the call that he wouldn’t face criminal repercussions.
“Do you think they have a duty to call the police?” the woman asked.
“No,” he replied.
He explained that the church might decide to “defrock” him, but “it’s still just a church matter.”
“It’s not a legal matter,” he said. “I think someone would have to make an independent complaint. and the police of course have a much higher standard of that kind of complaint. I don’t think they can … listen to somebody secondhand on something like this. It’s called hearsay. It’s not admissible in court.”
“I believe you would have to say something,” he added.
Near the end of the call, Fulwider, who was senior pastor at First Congregational from 1999 to 2012, lamented someone deciding to come forward after years had passed.
“Seven years after I leave the church and, therefore, many more years past … some alleged thing, to start dragging that out and writing letters about it — what the hell?” he said.
“So crazy,” the accuser said. Fulwider added, “I think it’s some sort of sickness, frankly.”