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Old 04-19-2009, 11:33 AM
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Default Killer Turned Pastor

Despite the son's anger, something positive for a change. It's a great story.

Killer-turned-pastor preaches redemption, but victim's son outraged

MADISON, Tenn. – Maury Davis doesn't look like a low-life murderer.

Striding across the platform of Cornerstone Church, flanked by massive television screens, a choir and a small orchestra, he looks like the successful preacher he is.

Middle-aged. Impeccably groomed. Beloved pastor of a church with more than 6,000 members, host of a Sunday television show watched by 125,000. International evangelist. Husband of 23 years, father of four.

He's all of that – but he's also a killer.

"I did something heinous, not just awful," says Davis, who slit the throat of 54-year-old Jo Ella Liles in broad daylight in a peaceful middle-class Irving neighborhood in 1975. "Unless you go to a Charles Manson level, it's out there."

After a jailhouse conversion and eight years in prison, Davis became a prominent evangelist, inspiring many with the story of his remarkable redemption. It has brought him phenomenal success.

Davis' achievements, clean record since the crime and the high regard in which he is held leave his victim's son disheartened.

"I'm seeing somebody who had great success at my expense, at my mother's expense," says Ron Liles. "How can you not feel a little hostile?"

Davis says he tells his story to draw people to church and to help others "understand that throwaway people may be salvageable," not for profit.

The story raises uncomfortable questions: How much punishment is enough? At what point is someone redeemed? When is it time to forgive?

Those questions haunt both men, because while Davis' salvation may have been bought with the blood of Jesus, the Liles family also paid a price.

When Davis gives his testimony – in church, on radio and television, at prayer breakfasts and on his Web site – he refuses to talk about the killing.

"The psychology of people is when things get too gory they cannot listen to the redemption part of the story," he says. His victim remains nameless.

"There's no benefit to them to know the victim," he explains. "I'm trying to make them understand their need to know God."

But Ron Liles remembers his mother.

"She was a good mom and a fantastic cook," says her 66-year-old son.

People knew she could be found at Oak View Baptist Church whenever the door opened. Her pastor, Wallace Philpot, says she was a quiet woman "well loved" by the congregation.

She also enjoyed canasta and the occasional trip to the horse races.

The year before her death was busy: Her husband passed away, and her only son, a recent graduate of pharmacy school, married.

Ron Liles, who owned a home across the street from his parents' house, listed it for sale. His mother was "very friendly," he says, and when she saw two young men looking at his place, "she would probably have walked over there with a smile on her face and said, 'Hi, how are y'all doing?' "

Maury Davis, 18, was one of those men.


Davis' background

Davis came from a well-to-do family with four kids, a strong work ethic and harsh discipline. What it lacked, he says, was church.

On Sundays, "we went to the lake," where his stepfather and mother owned a home. At Christmas, the family opened presents, and on Easter, "we hunted Easter eggs."

In junior high, he says he fell in with kids who did marijuana, then amphetamines, then LSD. In high school, wanting to kick his drug habit, he asked his parents to send him to military school.

Chapel attendance was required, but, "It was so boring and so irrelevant, I just checked out," he says.

After graduation, a family friend gave him a job at a truck yard and offered to pay his way through college. Davis says he took the money but didn't attend class. He partied hard and financed an escalating drug habit by dealing dope, robbing mailboxes and burglarizing houses.

Davis says he doesn't remember why he and his friend Ricky Payne stopped by the empty house that day – he says maybe he planned to burglarize it later. He says when Jo Ella Liles showed them the house, he spied paint cans next to a hot water heater and offered to move them.

According to court testimony noted in newspaper accounts, Davis "snapped" after Liles made a dismissive remark about the painters who'd left the cans behind. Today, Davis says that he became enraged because the paint spilled on his cowboy boots.

Whatever the reason, he hit Liles, stabbed her and cut her throat. His attorney says he used a buck knife.

"The meth addict in me" couldn't control the anger, he says. "There is no reason. It was rage."

A passing postman heard Liles' "death gurgle," says former Irving Detective John Looper.

Looper, 70, remembers the brutality of the Jan. 27, 1975, slaying. "It was horrible," he says. Liles "was just trying to help those two old boys, and they killed her for it."

As the two men drove away, the postman wrote the license plate number of their car on his palm.

Davis took his bloody clothes to the cleaners and went to lunch.

When he and Payne were arrested the next morning, Looper says he asked Davis one question: "Why?"

"He said, 'I don't know, man. I just went [expletive] crazy.' "

Davis never denied killing Liles. When he called his father after his arrest, he said, "Daddy, I'm in jail for murder. And I'm guilty."


Jailhouse conversion

When talking about his road to redemption, Davis' eyes occasionally well up and his voice trembles.

But right after the crime, Davis says, he felt no remorse.

"You have to understand," he says. "A person that's been on drugs as hard as I'd been, with as little sleep as I'd had, giving themselves to a totally lascivious lifestyle ... does not cognize any of their effect on other people, nor do they maintain any sense of normal conscience."

Looper agrees that Davis exhibited no remorse but says that other than a little marijuana found at his apartment, "drugs never came into it."

When the attorney his father hired, Dennis Brewer, visited Davis in jail, he tried to get a feel for his new client. Brewer recalls the conversation:

"Maury, it's been less than 24 hours since you killed this woman," Brewer said. "You don't seem to be that upset about it."

"Yeah," Davis replied. "I didn't even know that old lady."

"Well, it's kind of like if you run over a cat or a dog," Brewer said.

"No, man," Davis said. "I like dogs and cats."

Brewer was hired by Davis' family because of his legal reputation, and Davis says he naively expected the attorney to get him out of jail quickly.

Six months earlier, the hard-living attorney had become a Christian. After they met, Brewer asked Davis to pray with him. Davis declined.

Undeterred, Brewer asked J. Don George, an Assemblies of God pastor at Calvary Church in Irving, to visit. Davis, "was blasé about the whole thing," the pastor recalls.

But he continued to visit, as did other preachers. None had any discernible effect.

Davis says it took weeks for the drugs to work their way out of his system, and then he began to listen. The most effective evangelist was another inmate, who exuded a sense of peace.

"Everybody else is saying ... 'They're going to fry you,' and he's saying, 'You know what? Everything's going to be all right.' "

Davis studied the Bible, and after about eight weeks, he says one evening he quietly gave his life to Christ.

The next day he woke up with "this tender conscience I hadn't had since I was a little boy," he says. "Guilt, and all the emotions you should have, I had."

He says he didn't know how to process what he'd done. "I went from 'be glad when this is over' to the realization that it's not ever going to be over."

At trial, Brewer mounted a "not guilty by reason of insanity" defense.

Davis testified that he didn't know why he killed Jo Ella Liles, that he felt as if he'd witnessed someone else committing the crime. He told jurors that demonic possession was the only explanation.

Today, Davis says, "I believe that drugs open a door for spiritual derangement and possession. ... I don't believe that a person in their right human mind does what I did."

Ron Liles didn't buy the demonic possession argument, and he doesn't now. Liles grew up in the Baptist Church and says he is still a believer, though not a regular churchgoer. He believes in demonic possession, he says, but not in this case.

When Davis testified, Liles says, he never heard him apologize.

Davis says he's sure he apologized.

"I don't remember the verbiage or the place in the trial, but at that moment I was sorry," he said. "So I'm sure I expressed ... you have to remember, the day I gave my life to Christ I expressed my guilt and remorse, so 'sorry' was never an issue from then on."

Liles wanted Davis to be sentenced to death. He recalls a conversation with Davis' mother in Brewer's office, in which she asked if he thought her son should never be able to walk the streets again.

"My answer was, 'I think he should be able to walk the streets when my mother is able to.' "

Brewer doesn't recall any meeting. Davis was not eligible for the death penalty because he had not committed another crime when he killed Jo Ella Liles, but Brewer warned Davis to prepare for a long sentence.

Davis was sentenced to 20 years.

He says he was not surprised by the light sentence. Several weeks earlier, while sitting on his bunk reading his Bible, "the Lord spoke to me," Davis says. The message was "you're only going to get 20 years."

After it was announced, Liles says, Davis "had a big grin on his face. It was like he knew he had just slicked somebody."

The charges against Payne, who testified against Davis, were dropped.


Unexpected release

Davis not only survived prison, he thrived.

In sermons today, he regales listeners with tales of field work on the "hoe squad" and his early, clumsy efforts to win followers to Christ.

Retired chaplain Dick Kastner says Davis aggressively promoted his faith. "He stood up for what he believed," he says, even when threatened or harassed for his faith.

Leo Miller, who served time for armed robbery, remembers hearing Davis preach. He was "a very dynamic speaker," says Miller, now a pastor himself. Davis' sermons "really resonated with all of us inmates."

Both Kastner and Miller have seen their share of convicts finding "jailhouse Jesus" only to lose religion later. But they never doubted Davis' commitment.

"It's easy in prison for a person to, I guess, play the role for a while," says Kastner. "But it's hard to play it for a long period of time."

When not working or studying the Bible, Davis made belts in the leatherwork shop to earn money for college courses.

His parents visited frequently, as did George.

George's church, which Davis' parents joined, accepted Davis into membership in absentia. He attended services on a weekend furlough – a practice unheard of today – and was greeted warmly.

George and Davis grew close – they still talk every Saturday night.

In 1983 Davis was discharged because of prison overcrowding. Not paroled, with restrictions, but discharged, his debt to society ostensibly paid.

For Davis and his supporters, his release at age 27 was more evidence of God's grace.

"I know my life is the exception," Davis says. "I don't know anybody that went to Texas [prison] with the crime I committed, and got out in any time like I did."

For the Liles family, it was another slap in the face.

"We have a criminal system," Ron Liles says. "We don't have much of a justice system."


Rebuilding a life

Davis had a huge support group and a job waiting for him at Calvary Church.

That doesn't mean his presence didn't give others pause. One member – a police officer – left the church when he was released, George says.

And longtime member Jim Guinn recalls traveling with Davis on a church trip. "I was going to sleep in this room with this guy who went to prison for murder," he recalls, adding that he had a fleeting thought: "I hope I wake up."

For the first few months, "the church pastor kept a pretty tight rein on him," says Guinn, who is now Cornerstone's auditor and a friend of Davis. "He carried Pastor George's briefcase. He had to be with him every waking moment."

George even took Davis on family vacations, to show him "how to act around a family as a Christian man."

When Davis, who worked as a church janitor, began dating, George suggested he consider the church's piano player, Gail Daniels, as a possible wife. Davis says he never expected to marry someone like Gail, a self-described "third-generation church mouse" with a master's degree in music.

"I thought I'd have to marry a hooker that got saved," he says, laughing. "I didn't think some good girl was going to marry me."

Gail, who was new to Calvary, didn't believe it when Davis told her he was an ex-con. "I asked somebody later, 'Did Maury Davis really go to prison?' " she says.

The couple married in 1985, had triplets the following year and later another son.

Gail says she has never glimpsed the man that committed that vicious murder. "I have lived with him now all these years and ... that person truly is buried with Christ," she says.

The day they wed, Davis was promoted to youth pastor with the blessing of influential parents at the church.

"They said, 'We believe he will be a great youth pastor because of what he had gone through and because of what he had become,' " George says.

"It was such a wonderful example of God's grace."


Unimpressed

No one told Ron Liles that his mother's murderer was free. He heard it from a friend. Then he began to hear that Davis had been hired at Calvary and was starting to make a name for himself by giving his testimony in area churches and on local radio.

Driving down the highway one day, he saw a giant likeness of Davis on a billboard.

Liles says his reaction was: "Con artist, flim-flam man."

Later, when Davis was named youth pastor, "I wasn't really impressed," Liles says with a shrug. "There's a lot of conversions in prison."

Lon Womack, Ron Liles' stepson, says he watched a tape once of Davis' testimony but never showed it to his dad. "To watch them go around telling the story and benefit from that is just a little bit hard to swallow sometimes," he says.

Womack says his dad doesn't talk about Davis and the crime. "He's just kind of bottled it all up all these years."

Liles says he occasionally fantasized about retribution. But finally he decided, "if I'm going to have any kind of a life with my family, I have to just put this aside and go on."

The murder didn't shake his faith in God, he says. But "it caused me to re-evaluate the importance of family and time. You realize how short, maybe, time really is."


Controversial preacher

In 1988, Davis hit the road to tell his story as an evangelist.

Three years later, Cornerstone, a struggling Assemblies of God church outside Nashville called him to be its pastor.

The 250-member congregation knew about his past, but, "it was just like a perfect fit," says administrative assistant Gloria Myrick, and few, if any, give his past a second thought.

They have "heard his testimony and heard his preaching," she says, "have seen him walk the walk, talk the talk."

She's heard others say they'd never attend a church with a pastor who committed murder, which she describes as narrow-minded. "How can they know the love of God?" she wonders.

Under Davis' leadership, attendance has soared, and the church now sprawls over a rolling campus. Services, sometimes attended by state leaders, can be startling.

On the Fourth of July, fireworks erupt inside the building. On another occasion, Davis has released live chickens to make a point.

He's also controversial. Davis staunchly opposes abortion and homosexuality, and preaches that Islam is evil. He also warns about laziness and gluttony.

One topic he never touches is the death penalty. "Nobody will believe that I have an objective opinion," he says.

Davis says some criminals, including himself, deserve to die. But he opposes the death penalty. Recalling Jesus' words to those wanting to stone an adulterous woman, he says, "I don't believe we have the right to throw the stone."

As pastor of a megachurch, Davis earns an ample salary on par with his peers, according to the church auditor. He has a lovely home, with a pool and volleyball court. He enjoys vacations in Florida and New Mexico.

Davis says profits from his video testimony, available on the Internet, are funneled into prison ministry, one of Cornerstone's many outreach efforts.

He doesn't believe he is capitalizing on his crime. "My experience with God is my experience with God," he says.

"You know Paul was a murderer, and yet he wrote a majority of the New Testament," he says. "Moses committed a murder. ... David was a murderer. ... If it weren't for inmates, you wouldn't have the best part of your Bible."

That's a "tongue-in-cheek statement," Davis says, but "It's true."


Reaching out

Davis says he's always believed the Liles family didn't object to his sharing the story.

After his release from prison, he says, he went to George and said: "I've always thought 'I'm sorry' was pretty cheap for what I did. But I owe this family and ... I want to make it right."

Davis says George talked to Philpot, the Lileses' pastor, who talked to the Lileses. And George returned to say, "They're glad you're doing good. They wish you well in your journey, but they don't want to talk about it.

"And that was the end of the discussion."

No one else remembers that episode. George says he never had more than a "passing conversation" on the topic with Philpot.

Philpot, now retired, doesn't recall any meaningful discussion about Davis. But he had the impression the Lileses were "glad for his redemption, but they didn't want to relive it."

Ron Liles says maybe another relative was contacted, but "nobody talked to me about it."

Time has mellowed him, he says, and he's glad Davis has stayed out of trouble. But, "I don't really like the idea that he uses that particular instance to further his career."

After interviews for this story began, a Liles family member contacted Davis, who responded by asking what he could do for the family.

Nothing, Liles says. And his opinion hasn't changed.

His mother probably has forgiven Davis, Liles muses, but "I don't even know that I want to." He acknowledges that's not a Christian attitude, but says, "Maybe my faith is not strong enough."

Asked what Davis could do for forgiveness, Liles is blunt. "Nothing would have been enough."

That is the one subject on which the two men agree.

"What I did, you can never fix," Davis says. "There is no reparation, restitution. There's not anything you can do."

At Cornerstone, he is loved and admired, an inspiration to many. But "knowing that my life still brings pain to people is a bitter pill to swallow."

His supporters who don't question his good faith, are confident, as George says, that Davis is "a trophy of God's amazing grace."

But to Ron Liles, "he's still Satan's angel."

Law enforcement veteran Looper says Davis didn't serve enough time, but "it took a lot of guts to do what he's done," since leaving prison.

Davis is "either making a real good living and he's conned a lot of people – or he is truly converted," Looper says.

"And, it's not up to me to judge him."
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Old 04-19-2009, 2:39 PM
PeteS in CA PeteS in CA is offline
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Here's the source info for this article:

Killer-turned-pastor preaches redemption, but victim's son outraged
10:24 AM CDT on Sunday, April 19, 2009
By DIANE JENNINGS / The Dallas Morning News

That's a very sobering article. I'm glad at Davis's apparent redemption. After 25 years of walking the talk, either he's a world-class Oscar contender or real. I'm sorry for, but cannot blame, Liles take on the killing and release. I don't know that I would do better ... than either of them.

Going a little deeper, I think this shows the (separation? division?) between human justice and God's redemption. Becoming a believer, being forgiven by God, does not, IMO, negate the punishment due for crime.
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Old 04-19-2009, 10:20 PM
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Quote:
Becoming a believer, being forgiven by God, does not, IMO, negate the punishment due for crime.
The punishment due should be followed and it's temporal. The eternal decision belongs to God.
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Old 05-26-2009, 2:31 PM
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U can never predict what will happen with murderers...The get behind bars but sometimes they let them lose to kill another inocent or such...This guy got away from jail and got into a church and he is going to participate in telling people how to live their life... Isnt that really unfair .How can anyone not try to get him behind bars?
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