SARASOTA, Fla. (WWSB) - In 1989, when he was 11-years-old, a man told Sarasota Police he was molested by the founder of a Sarasota church and that the abuse continued for several years. In a news conference Wednesday, police said the man was not alone and there are potentially dozens of victims.
Police began investigating 72-year-old Henry Lee Porter, Sr. in October 2019 after learning of a video on social media alleging sexual abuse. Detectives reached out to the alleged victim, who told them that Porter sexually abused him beginning in 1989 when he was 11 after his parents went out-of-state for an extended period of time to stay at a hospital.
The man told detectives the abuse went on for several years while he was a member of the church Porter founded in 1980 in Sarasota, the Westcoast Center for Human Development, and its associated elementary school, which Porter founded in 1981.
But perhaps just as alarming, one member of the community said everyone knew.
“We are ashamed. We are not pleased with where we’ve been these last 40, 50 years because this man did not just become who he is today," said Fredd Atkins, the former Mayor of Sarasota and a candidate for the Sarasota County Commission.
Atkins said ‘everyone’ in the community had heard the rumors.
“If you didn’t, you were dead," he explained. "It was never a secret. The police department knew it, the sheriff’s department knew it, the public defender knew it, the state attorney knew it, all of them had heard of this at one point in time over the last 40, 50 years.”
Detectives say there are other alleged victims. So far, police say they have spoken to a total of 14, speaking to 10 alleged victims before Porter’s arrest and four who came forward after news broke the former bishop is now facing charges.
Police say the alleged victims, all of whom were boys between the ages of 12 and 19 when they say the abuse occurred, told remarkably similar stories about how the abuse started and where it took place, including at the church on North Washington Boulevard in Porter’s inner office, Porter’s home on 47th Street, and church and school trips.
But Porter, who was arrested on January 2, is only facing a single count of sexual battery on a child under 12 years of age connected to the case from 1989. Though police say his crimes span at least 30 years, they’re limited by the statute of limitations and a lack of evidence, issues that have come up before in two prior investigations into Porter, including one in 1990 and another in 2001-2002.
In the second investigation, an anonymous letter identified 40 alleged victims and 20 of those outlined their alleged sexual abuse that occurred at the Westcoast Center, on mission trips across the country and church-sponsored trips, but police say the statute of limitations prevented charges from being filed.
Police say what made the difference in this most recent case is there’s corroborating evidence, it’s within the statute of limitations, and they have a victim who is willing to testify. That allowed them to bring the case to the State Attorney’s Office.
Detectives believe there may be additional victims. Though he stepped down in 2016, police say as recently as two months ago, Porter was at the church serving as a minister.
Even if the statute of limitations is up, police say coming forward and giving statements helps provide credibility to other victims and there may be details that can help with the current case. Police say they can also provide resources for the alleged victims to help them with the healing process.
If you have any information, contact Sarasota Police at 941-263-6028.