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Hartselle ex-minister sentenced to 6 months

By Eric Fleischauer · 340-2435

Former Hartselle minister Gradson L. Tanner, 48, was sentenced Tuesday to six months in prison, three months less than the government recommended in a plea agreement.

The news came from a press release by the U.S. attorney four hours after the hearing. Tanner’s attorney, Jake Watson, said the timing of the statement was inappropriate.

“I thought we had a gentlemen’s agreement,” Watson said Tuesday evening. “That flies in the face of it.”

On Feb. 21, a federal jury in Decatur found Tanner guilty of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor, on Flint Creek Trail at the Wheeler National Wildlife Refuge in Morgan County.

Tanner also was charged with abusive sexual contact, a felony. There was a hung jury on that count. The government dismissed the felony charge at Tuesday’s sentencing hearing, meaning there will not be another trial.

“Tanner will report to prison on April 17,” said U.S. Attorney Alice H. Martin in a statement. “Upon completion of his prison term he will serve a year of supervised release and must register as a sex offender.”

Watson said the required sex-offender registration is limited. Tanner must notify the sheriff of his conviction, but no ongoing community notification is required.

Watson complained about the government’s publication of his client’s citation and sentencing.

“They were out there doing a sting, and somewhere along the line the U.S. attorney said we need to ratchet this up to a felony,” Watson said. “I won’t speculate why, but that’s an abuse of power. It was only later that they decided to press a felony charge.”

Tanner, now unemployed, lost his pastorate with the Salem United Methodist Church after he was cited. He testified he since has been separated from his wife and children because of the incident and will never be able to preach again.

Assistant U.S. Attorney David Estes, the prosecutor, did not return calls Tuesday afternoon.

Watson said his client agreed not to appeal the misdemeanor conviction in return for a dismissal of the felony count. He also agreed not to contest the nine-month prison sentence recommended by the government.

The court, on its own, reduced the sentence to six months. “That says a lot,” Watson said. “Mr. Tanner accepts his responsibility and is remorseful. He appreciates the judge sentencing below the recommended sentence.”

At trial, Tanner said he went to the trail at the handicap fishing pier off Alabama 67, in part because he knew of its reputation for homosexual activity.

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

He said an undercover agent with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service solicited him.

Refuge Officer Greg Blanks, based in Savannah, Ga., was the only undercover agent in the four-day operation, conducted at Beaverdam Boardwalk Trail, Arrowhead Landing and Flint Creek Trail. More than two dozen were cited in the operation for homosexual conduct allegedly directed at Blanks.

Tanner testified that he fondled himself through his pockets while Blanks watched. Blanks was physically aroused, Tanner testified, before he touched the agent’s crotch.

Blanks testified that Tanner approached him and, without provocation, grabbed his crotch and exposed his own genitals.

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

There were no witnesses to the contact. A local Wheeler official said he had been promised audio and video equipment for the operation, but at the last minute the Fish and Wildlife Service reneged.

Tanner testified he has struggled with homosexuality all his life, but does not have a “practicing lifestyle.”

Watson said his client would have pled guilty to the misdemeanor charge before trial, but the government said any agreement required a guilty plea on the felony.

“What he’s been through has a lot of biblical significance,” Watson said. “He’s lost everything, but has gained a lot of understanding about himself and others. I’ve gained a lot of understanding from representing him.”

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