From rage to restoration, murder victim’s father finds faith
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Gary Christian stood in an East Tennessee church pulpit on a sunny August Sunday, speaking about pain and death and faith and God. It’s not a place — or a point — where the father of murder victim Channon Christian would have been 18 months ago.
For 10 years Christian never talked to the Lord he had loved all his life. He left God behind after his beautiful, compassionate, smart 21-year-old daughter was carjacked, tortured, raped, beaten and murdered in January 2007.
Then, last April, kneeling at his child’s grave and surrounded by friends, Christian asked for God’s help.
God had been waiting. He’d never left.
“He restored me,” Christian says.
Now Christian, 62, gives his testimony to churches and other groups. He’s spoken to some 30,000 people at more than 64 locations. His website, garychristianseminars.com, lists his schedule and how to contact him to speak. There’s no charge.
His message is a straight-line story of a man who abandoned his faith after overwhelming tragedy, who found God again after a decade of anguish and who now witnesses for Christ.
His seminars often last more than an hour. He remembers his love for a daughter who loved dogs, shoes and clothes. He recounts the brutality of her torture and murder. His testimony incorporates the apostle Peter, Jesus’ crucifixion, the work of missionaries and God’s unwavering love. Photos of a happy, radiant Channon Christian, often with her dad, are shown in an accompanying visual presentation.
On Sunday, Aug. 12, Christian ended his message at Alcoa’s Grace Memorial Church with an altar call.
“I’m telling you there’s not a dark enough, black enough, cold enough hole for you to crawl in that our Lord cannot restore you. I am living, breathing, real-life proof that God will never forsake you for anything.”
Gary Christian took his first step straight into his own dark, cold, hellish hole on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2007.
That’s when law enforcement told his family Channon’s body had been found.
Family and friends had searched for her two days, even before police got involved. They began looking after the always reliable University of Tennessee student didn’t get to work or answer her cell phone.
What happened to Channon Christian and her boyfriend, Christopher Newsom, 23, was one of Knoxville’s most horrific crimes. The young couple was ambushed and carjacked the night of Jan. 6, 2007, in a North Knoxville apartment parking lot. Bound by their attackers, they were taken in Channon’s Toyota 4-Runner to a house on Chipman Street in East Knoxville.
Both were beaten, tortured and raped. Christopher died first, shot three times. His burned body was found on railroad tracks near Chipman Street the afternoon of Jan. 7. Two long days later, Channon’s battered body was found in the Chipman Street house. She’d been hog-tied, wrapped in garbage bags and left to die stuffed in a trash can.
The anguish never leaves Gary Christian’s voice when he remembers being told his daughter was murdered.
“That was my baby,” he says.
Officers were still talking that January Tuesday when he walked out of their parking lot command center. He got to the lot’s far edge, away from anyone, and looked toward heaven.
He screamed at God. Then he turned from him.
“I told him I am done with you. I don’t want you in my life. I don’t need you in my life, and I don’t trust you with anything.”
It was a dramatic turn, a first step into his hell on earth. Saved at age 8 at a Baptist church in Henderson, Texas, Christian had grown up in church. If the doors were open, he was there. He went on mission trips, played drums in a Christian band and witnessed for Christ. “I loved the Lord,” he says emphatically.
Then, as a parent, every morning, he prayed. In every prayer, he asked God to watch over Channon and her older brother Chase.
Then God failed him.
“All I asked him to do for my kids was to protect them. And he didn’t.”
Five people were charged with the crimes. Three — Lemaricus Davidson, Letalvis Cobbins and George Thomas — were convicted in state court for the murders and rapes.
Davidson was sentenced to death; Cobbins and Thomas got life sentences. Cobbins’ girlfriend, Vanessa Coleman, was convicted as an accessory and is serving a 35-year sentence.
Knox County Criminal Court Judge Richard Baumgartner presided over the 2009 trials. But in 2011 Baumgartner pleaded guilty to official misconduct for buying pain pills from a felon on probation in his court and resigned from office.
When it was discovered Baumgartner sometimes held court while high, some high-profile defendants in cases he’d presided over got new trials. Thomas and Coleman were among them. Each was convicted again.
A fourth man, Eric Boyd, was convicted in 2008 in federal court of harboring Davidson after the crimes. He’s serving an 18-year prison term. Now Boyd also faces state charges in the murders. This March a Knox County grand returned a 36-count presentment against him; its charges include murder, kidnapping, rape and robbery.
What happened to Channon Christian and Christopher Newsom struck a deep chord in East Tennessee and beyond. The trials were streamed live on the internet; people around the world watched.
They often saw the near tangible anger of Gary Christian. Hands clenched, face red, eyes hard, he frequently rocked back and forth in the courtroom pew.
That anger, mixed with deep hate and a desire for vengeance, that was all he felt for years. He existed in a cold, dark abyss. Even in a crowd, he felt alone.
“I couldn’t depend on nobody; I didn’t trust anybody,” he said. “Alone had a lot to do with everything.”
About a year after the initial trials, Christian found a way to keep Channon’s memory alive. He bought a motorcycle and started the Shepherds RC riding club.
Members’ leather vests are adorned with large patches showing a strong female angel. The club hosts an annual Channon and Chris Memorial Ride to raise money for charity.
The ride is one way the families remember their children while helping others. The Christian family began the Channon Gail Christian Foundation, giving an annual scholarship to a Farragut High School female graduate who attends UT. Christopher’s parents, Hugh and Mary Newsom, sponsor an annual Halls baseball tournament in his memory. Christopher played the sport at Halls High.
The families also pushed for legal changes, including the 2014 Channon Christian Act. The law puts new restrictions on what criminal defendants and their attorneys can do if they try to portray a victim negatively to a jury.
For Gary Christian, Shepherds RC was a constant way for people to remember his child. “Every time they saw us together, in my mind, it was going to remind people — those are the Shepherds, they ride for Channon,” he says.
The club advocates self-defense and personal safety. For Christian, it also became a brotherhood.
“I wanted to have a group of people that no one who was a member would have to go hunt for their daughter or their son or a member of their family alone,” he says. “I wanted somebody watching my back and I wanted to commit to people that I would watch their backs.”
Last spring, the Shepherds rode Christian back to a place he didn’t want to go.
Some club members asked him to attend their church, Dotson Memorial Baptist in Maryville. Come to Easter service, they said. It was almost like a dare. He didn’t want to go. But he did, mostly just to shut them all up.
“I never denied God. I just didn’t want to have anything to do with him,” he says.
He knew Easter service would be about the crucifixion. But the Rev. Jim Cummings first preached about Peter, the disciple who denied Jesus and whom Jesus restored. Then he talked about Christ on the cross.
Two weeks after Easter, Christian was back at Dotson Memorial. “I got convinced to go again,” he says with a wry smile.
That Sunday was the day of the Shepherds’ club-only ride to remember Channon’s April 29 birthday. This year, before the ride, Christian and other Shepherds went to church.
Cummings’ sermon was different than his Easter message. But Christian felt it directed right at him. “I couldn’t shake what this guy said the first time, and he’s doing it again.”
It’s about 24 miles up Pellissippi Parkway from the church to the cemetery. The whole ride that last April Sunday, Christian says, “the Lord was tearing me up.”
When he got off his bike at Channon’s grave, “I was just so tired. I just couldn’t do it anymore.
“I went down on my knee, and I asked him, ‘Just like you did with Peter, restore me.’ And he did.”
When he got to his feet, he realized the Shepherds around him “were all Christians . Everybody in the club then, some longer than others, had been praying that one day I would find my way back.
“I hadn’t done that when I started the club. Never once did I ask a man about his faith. But all I knew that day, all the ones standing there with me were Christians.”
He knows now how it happened.
“When I turned my back on God, he never left me. He never stopped loving me. He never stopped protecting me. He never left my side. And I didn’t even know it.”
God’s grace gave Gary Christian a mission.
Witness for the Lord.
But to talk of restoration, he must speak of death, loss and anger.
Lori Christian helps schedule her husband’s seminars and goes with him when he speaks. They’ve been married almost two years. He credits her with showing him it was OK to smile and laugh again.
Lori Christian once asked her husband if he was certain he wanted to relive the pain time after time.
“He said, ‘I told the Lord that I would spread his word to every corner of the world that I could when he restored me. And if one person is saved or one person rededicated their life, it’s all worth it,’” she says.
Channon Christian would be 33 if she were alive. Gary Christian thinks she would be happy with what he’s doing.
“When I think of Channon, she was an example of what I ought to be. I know Channon is happy for me now. I think Channon would not have wanted me to be the man I was. I think she would want me to be the man I’m trying to be.
“I think she would want me to stand up for people that aren’t as fortunate as others. I think she would want me to tell people about Christ.”
Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com