Wednesday, May 1, 2013
[Editor’s Note: Names in this story, save for that of David Primeaux, have been changed to protect the identities of those involved.]
The men circle the block in the car they had rented that morning after flying into Richmond International. It’s Dec. 27, 2012. The temperature is hovering in the mid 40s — about 20 degrees colder than Lafayette from where they departed that morning.
Two vehicles are parked at the bed and breakfast on West Washington Street in Petersburg, Va., about 25 miles south of Richmond. They assume the beat-up old Mazda compact pickup is his, the 30-year-old Mercedes hers.
They’re nervous, hearts racing. They’ve been talking about doing this for five years now. Today is the day.
Once more around the block and the pickup is gone, so they go to a convenience store, buy soft drinks, screw their courage to the sticking place and drive back to the B-and-B. They knock on the door. A woman answers. She’s wary. They introduce themselves and begin a hurried spiel, showing her a packet of information about her husband — proof that, in a former life in Louisiana, he was a priest who molested boys.
The encounter lasts a minute. Maybe two. She snatches the papers from them and orders them off her porch. That night at the hotel bar in Richmond they get drunk and congratulate themselves on the successful hatching of their plan. They are slaying a dragon, and exposing the dragon to his loved ones is the first step. They will also notify his colleagues, his social circles, the nonprofits for which he volunteered, the police. In due time.
But they won’t have to. They are unaware of it on that chilly December night in Richmond, but probably while they are knocking back those cocktails in the hotel bar, the dragon is consuming himself in his own fire. David Primeaux is dead, although the men won’t know it until a week later.
A few days after our April cover story, “The One Who Got Away,” hit the streets last month, an IND staff member got a call from a friend — a call that addressed the essential question that went unanswered in the story: Why did David Primeaux, the popular Virginia Commonwealth University professor, community activist and former pedophile priest from Louisiana, drive off in his pickup truck on Dec. 27 of last year and commit suicide?
Now we know: Primeaux’s past literally knocked on his front door.
We don’t know exactly what transpired after the men left his house on Dec. 27, but we can assume Primeaux arrived home from whatever errand he had run, was confronted by his wife and realized the jig was up.
The men who flew to Virginia that day had a personal interest in confronting Primeaux. Peter Smithson is a former altar boy who was molested by Primeaux more than 30 years ago. While Peter managed to deal with the trauma, becoming a successful Acadiana businessman, husband and father, others weren’t so lucky.
The other man who traveled to Petersburg that day is Roger Port, a longtime friend of Peter’s. Roger is the nephew of Bradford Port, a Primeaux victim who descended into alcohol abuse and busted relationships he could never repair. In 2008 Bradford committed suicide with a handgun. It was that day that Peter, Roger and Peter’s wife, Judy, vowed to confront Primeaux, although it would take them five years to finally do it.
“Peter was just going up to say, ‘You know what? Hey, f**k you. What you did to me was pretty damn shitty, and I just want to tell you I still think about it today.’ That’s all we were doing,” says Judy.
Peter, Judy, Roger, Bradford and another former Primeaux victim, Gregg Gallagher, had formed something of an informal David Primeaux victims’ support group. Now in their 40s, they had been friends going back to middle school who shared common interests, but the thing that bound them — and binds the survivors to this day — is Primeaux.
They would get together frequently to socialize, and their conversations always found their way back to the common denominator, to the priest who preyed on them and their trusting parents and managed to slip away without ever facing criminal charges.
After Bradford killed himself, the exigency of confronting Primeaux was palpable. Google quickly told them where he lived, but still they waited, planned.
It was Judy who called our staff member last month. She was still dealing with guilt: had she caused Primeaux to commit suicide? Those feelings have subsided, replaced by a confidence that the former priest was still molesting children and that their plan and its unforeseen consequence had ultimately saved children in Virginia.
“The night [Bradford] died we talked about going up and confronting David Primeaux,” Judy recalls. “We didn’t do anything, but some years go by and whenever we’d see [Roger], inevitably this would come up and we would discuss, ‘Are we going to go talk to David Primeaux?’
“Right after [Bradford] died we found out where David Primeaux lived. Over the years we would talk about how [Bradford] would want this.”
Last fall, as the holidays set in, Judy hired a private detective to learn more about Primeaux, his address, his day-to-day activities, his extra-curricular pursuits. When they got the report back from the PI in December and decided that the week between Christmas and New Year’s was the best time to confront Primeaux, they bought the airline tickets. The packet Primeaux’s wife snatched from them on the porch Dec. 27 contained information from the Bishop’s Accountability website with proof that the Lafayette diocese acknowledged as part of a 2002 lawsuit settlement that Primeaux was a child molester. The packet also had a copy of Bradford Port’s obituary.
“I think he was still involved in these acts, which is why he so abruptly got up and committed suicide,” Roger theorizes. “You don’t go from doing this for 30 years to just stopping. I’m confident that in that town he was living in he was probably involved in the same acts.”
Roger has mixed feelings about Primeaux’s suicide. Not so much with Peter, who was molested by the former priest. “I was relieved,” Peter says of hearing that Primeaux had committed suicide. “But we felt like it was just a stepping stone. We didn’t go there to have him kill himself. We went there to say, ‘You can’t do this anymore. People are watching you. People are going to know what you have done.’
“I just feel like he was still doing it. And we were going to do other things to make sure that people knew who he was. He was not going to be able to do this anymore to anybody.
“Originally I kind of felt bad for his wife — she probably got into this without knowing anything and I didn’t have anything against her and I didn’t go there to hurt somebody. We didn’t go up there for him to kill himself; we went up there to protect people from him. The thing about a pedophile is, there are kids everywhere. I don’t know where you can go that you can be around just adults.”
Adds Roger, “The intention was to go up there and expose him. We didn’t feel like we had to do everything in one day.”
Indeed, a belief that they were protecting children and hopefully helping recent victims of David Primeaux confront their trauma now rather than let it fester for decades were objectives with which Peter and Roger set out from Lafayette Regional Airport on Dec. 27. But that’s not to say that revenge wasn’t also a motivation for the flight to Virginia. These men, in varying degrees, still carry wounds inflicted by David Primeaux.
“The intention was to just slowly tear down his life, piece by piece and destroy him like he did so many people,” Roger says. “In the end he did it in a much better way — much faster — but our intention was to make a slow, painful progress of his destruction.”
The question, “Why now?” has been asked more than once. With David Primeaux pushing daisies going on four months, why even do a story, much less a follow-up? Why expose a dead man’s secrets?
My answer is Peter Smithson and Bradford Port (not their real names, as the preceding story indicates), and the many other victims of Primeaux, most of whom quietly and anonymously carry the anger and shame of what he did to them — emotions made even more raw by a church hierarchy historically inclined to protect its shepherds rather than its sheep. Most of the victims, I suspect, had no idea where Primeaux melted off to, what he was doing or that he was dead. Don’t they deserve to know?
Some of them, like Peter, managed to move on with their lives and become successful adults. For them, the trauma of molestation is a shadow that trails them, and shadows have no substance — they’re just an absence of light. But for others, like Bradford, the emotional wound never closes, and self-medication through substance abuse — and the dysfunction it engenders (and in Bradford’s case, suicide) — is a ready remedy.
The men who traveled from Lafayette to Petersburg, Va., last Dec. 27 (Peter and Roger Port, Bradford’s nephew) were propelled by a complexity of motivations. Exacting revenge for the emotional wreckage Primeaux wrought and then left behind without legal repercussion was one of them. But I believe them when they tell me altruism — isolating David Primeaux, rendering him a pariah to prevent him from ever preying on children again — was the flag waving highest on their pole.
“Pedophilia in the Catholic Church is not new now. I think getting the families out there to try to pull that from their children to see if anything happened will be long-term for the greater good,” says Roger. “I think we have an obligation, if there are people in that town he was doing it to as [Peter] and I suspected, that the community and families can approach their kids. That’s the Christian outcome to something like this.”
As Judy Smithson, Peter’s wife and the de facto moderator of the informal David Primeaux survivor support group here in Acadiana, puts it, “You can live as a victim or live as survivors, and it’s a choice you make. You can blame Father Primeaux your whole life, or you can say, ‘You know what, what happened to me took away what I can’t fix, but I can maybe help the next person.’”
But helping the next person is made the more difficult by the Richmond media’s uncanny aversion to this story. Soon after its publication I sent a link to “The One Who Got Away” to all the major media in Richmond — the TV network affiliates, the daily. Only two reporters reached out to me: a staff writer for The Commonwealth Times, Virginia Commonwealth University’s student newspaper, with whom I shared information (but as of this writing I have yet to see any reporting); and an investigative reporter for one of the TV stations, who replied, “Hi Walter, fascinating story. I had no idea. If he wasn’t dead already, I’d jump on it in a heart beat. I’ll have to think about whether this is worth tackling and run it by my boss. Thanks for the heads up.”
I never heard back from him.
Pedophilia is a psychiatric disorder. There are treatments to suppress it — counseling and pharmacological intervention — but there is no cure short of chemical (or physical) castration. Was David Primeaux still molesting children? We may never know. But there is some evidence that his volunteer activities might have given him access to adolescents. Counseling for those kids, if they were violated, could prevent decades of anguish. Just ask Peter and Bradford.