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Ex-pastor admits contact
Says agent in sting gave his permission

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

Former minister Gradson Tanner testified Tuesday he engaged in sexual conduct with a male undercover officer, but that he did so with the officer's permission.

Tanner, 48, pastor of Salem United Methodist Church in Hartselle before his arrest, was among more than two dozen cited for sexual conduct with the same agent during a four-day operation at Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in July. His trial began Tuesday.

Tanner said refuge officer Greg Blanks was obviously, physically aroused and gave other verbal and nonverbal indications that he was interested in sexual activity.

Tanner said that, with his hands in his pockets, he touched himself while the agent stared at his crotch. He said he then touched the agent's crotch and later exposed himself.

Tanner is charged with abusive sexual contact, a felony, and indecent exposure, a misdemeanor. Both are federal charges because they allegedly occurred on federal property. If convicted, Tanner may have to register as a sex offender.

Tanner is married and has two children.

Tanner said he was on his way to his mother-in-law's farm, from a gas station north of Hartselle, when he drove through portions of Wheeler on Alabama 67. While it was not his planned destination, he said, he pulled off at the handicapped fishing pier on the north side of Alabama 67, across the road from the Wheeler visitor center.

Tanner said he has struggled with homosexuality all his life, but does not have a "practicing lifestyle."

He said he was aware the handicapped pier area had a reputation for homosexual activity.

“I knew there had been some sexual activity out there, and I had curiosity about that,” Tanner said.

Tanner said after exchanging conversation with people fishing on the pier, he walked down Flint Creek Trail. As he crossed the second of two boardwalks, he saw Blanks staring at him. He stopped to talk.

“As I was talking, I noticed he began staring at my groin area,” Tanner testified. “I had my hands in my pockets and I was fondling myself. Several times he looked down directly at what I was doing.”

Tanner said he had never entered the area before for the purpose of sexual activity.

Tanner testified he began rubbing his crotch and Blanks said, “If you’re not careful, you’re going to rub a hole in your pants.”

Blanks and Tanner agreed that Tanner asked, “Are you a cop?” and that Blanks said he was not.

After seeing that Blanks was physically aroused, Tanner said, he touched Blanks’ groin with the back of his hand.

Tanner said after he touched Blanks, Blanks said, “No, let’s not do that.”

Tanner said he asked how far the trail went into the woods and whether there were people there. He then headed down the trail, he testified, and Blanks followed him.

“I did unzip my pants and expose myself. He asked me what I was going to do with that. I said I didn’t know.”

At that point, Tanner said, Blanks pulled out his badge.

Blanks, who said defendants have touched his crotch at least 15 times in this and similar operations, called the contact by Tanner “shocking. To be grabbed like that is never comfortable.”

His other operations, also in plain clothes, have been in South Carolina.

“This is not fun, what I do,” Blanks said. “I do it to try to help the public.”

Blanks said he said nothing to encourage Tanner. He also denied following Tanner down the trail after Tanner touched him. Blanks said he immediately identified himself as a federal officer when Tanner touched him and exposed himself, which he said happened at the end of the second boardwalk, 300 yards from the trailhead.

Emotional moment

One of the officers involved in issuing a citation to Tanner after the incident said Tanner was emotional, crying and saying repeatedly that he was sorry.

To convict on the abusive sexual contact charge, the jury must find that Tanner touched Blanks without Blanks’ permission. On the indecent exposure charge, the jury must find Tanner exposed himself under circumstances in which he knew his conduct “was likely to cause affront or alarm” in a public place.

Tanner said he initially refrained from telling his wife or church members about the citation, which was issued on a Saturday. He said he preached a sermon the following day.

“I was scared about my wife finding out about this, my boy and my girl. Being a pastor, I was concerned about the church finding out.”

He discovered it had been made public when he received a call from a reporter, at which time, “in a panic,” he told the reporter and others that he had been cited when an agent saw him urinating at the park.

According to an article in The Daily at the time, Tanner said, “I stepped to the edge of the woods and took a leak. Two men came out in camouflage. I tried to talk with them, but they weren’t having mercy on anybody. They said I illegally exposed myself. I was totally dumbfounded. I didn’t think I was in view of anyone. I didn’t see nothing lewd about it.”

The prosecuting attorney referenced the article.

“You lied to protect yourself?” asked Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes.

“There was more than myself concerned,” Tanner responded.

He said he told his wife the truth four days after it happened, the day after the article was published.

Since then, Tanner said, he has lost his church and become separated from his wife and children. He said he will never be able to preach again.

Closing arguments are scheduled for Wednesday morning.

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