Judge Not

Randall Zimmerman was branded a child molester. A jury finally set him free.

She told the same story to Byron Holz, who had met Zimmerman at the Moody Bible Institute and then wound up at Denver Seminary with him and later worked as a youth sponsor at Grace Chapel. "She had talks with me about how she'd been molested by this coach and how it haunted her. She told me she had nightmares of a dark figure standing over her bed, and she wondered whether it was demonic," Holz says. "I wondered whether she had post-traumatic stress disorder. Also, she was intensely attached to peers and was very moody. Her best friend one week would be her enemy the next."

Holz, a licensed professional counselor who evaluates disturbed kids, says extreme admiration and then hatred of someone is symptomatic of borderline personality disorder. And for a while, Mary idolized Zimmerman. In fact, a lot of the girls developed crushes on him. But Mary's feelings for Zimmerman seemed to extend beyond that. Holz says she told him during a church retreat that she was having erotic fantasies about Zimmerman. Mary's extreme feelings for and against friends continued, so Holz and Zimmerman urged her to see a church counselor.

At the same time, Zimmerman's disillusionment with Grace Chapel was growing stronger. Not only did he and Barnes differ on ideology, but they disagreed on their mission. Zimmerman and others who used to work there say Barnes was unhappy with the influx of "alternative" kids in the youth group because their parents weren't also attending -- and therefore not bringing money into the church. "I wanted to serve troubled kids, and he wanted to grow a mega-church," Zimmerman says. (Barnes declined to comment for this story.)

John Johnston
Former student Hillary Smith says Zimmerman was 
everyone's favorite teacher.
John Johnston
Former student Hillary Smith says Zimmerman was everyone's favorite teacher.

The beginning of the end came when Zimmerman shared his thoughts on Grace Chapel's policy regarding the role of women in the church. A kid from youth group asked why there were no female elders there, and Zimmerman said if it were up to him there would be. Word got back to Barnes, who was furious. Relations between the two continued declining, and a couple of months later, the church elders asked Zimmerman to resign. All the kids were upset about it, but Mary "was inconsolable," Holz recalls. "She pleaded with Barnes not to let him go."

The departure was hard on Zimmerman, too. "The ministry itself was a wonderful experience. It was the best job I ever had in terms of being meaningful," he says. "But I didn't want anything to do with churches after that."

That was in February 1994, and Zimmerman hasn't been back to church since. But he didn't lose his passion for helping kids, and teaching seemed like a natural next step. He earned his teaching license while working at the Larkspur campus of the Emily Griffith Center, a residential treatment facility for troubled boys, where his students voted him teacher of the year. After that, he went to Sci-Tech Academy (now called Collegiate Academy), a charter school in Jefferson County where, in 1997, students again elected him teacher of the year.

Zimmerman was popular with kids wherever he went, and they always addressed him by his first name. Despite the lack of formality, those close to him say Zimmerman knew where to draw the line between respecting his students and being their friend. He didn't tolerate troublemakers, whom he regularly expelled and suspended, and his students respected him for it -- even those on the receiving end of the discipline.

After a year at Sci-Tech, an administrator at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning, where Zimmerman had done his student teaching, encouraged him to apply for the dean of students position. At RMSEL, Zimmerman continued to practice tough love with his students. "Teens would get upset when he disciplined them, but he was still everyone's favorite," says Hillary Smith, who graduated from RMSEL last year. "The kids that got in trouble would get over it and realize that he was just doing his job."

After two years there, Zimmerman moved into an assistant principal position at Mrachek Middle School in Aurora.

Through all of this time and work with new students, he never forgot about the youth group kids. He'd even kept in touch with a few, including Mary, who called him sporadically. One of those calls came after she returned from a missionary trip to Chile. "She said they'd done exorcisms there and then told me that I was a false teacher in her life," Zimmerman says. "I asked her what she meant, and she said, 'You taught us to question way too much. You needed to just tell us right from wrong.' I told her they were old enough to think for themselves."

Zimmerman wondered whether it was her, her parents, or Grace Chapel talking. After all, Barnes had called him a heretic after he left. But Mary seemed to get over it, because she called him up crying in the spring of 2000; she had gotten pregnant, she said, and her parents wouldn't let her marry the father because he wasn't Christian. All Zimmerman could do was console her. He wouldn't hear anything more about Mary for another year.

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