Arlington church finds strength a year after pastor's slaying

ARLINGTON -- For about a month last spring, everybody bypassed the chair.

When the pastoral staff at First Baptist Church of Arlington would gather around the conference table for its meetings, the Rev. Clint Dobson's favorite spot remained vacant. To occupy it would be to acknowledge that the outgoing and talented 28-year-old pastor was really gone, that he, of all people, had really been robbed and killed on March 3, 2011, in his office at the north Arlington satellite church operated by First Baptist.

In particular, the younger staffers, who shared a special bond with Dobson, struggled to shake free of their disbelief.

"It took a while before anybody would sit in that seat," said the Rev. Dennis Wiles, senior pastor of First Baptist.

As an adjunct faculty member, Wiles taught Dobson in a seminary class, recognized his unique gifts and recommended him to the congregation of NorthPointe Baptist Church.

For all involved, coping with the unimaginable horror -- one in which Dobson's assistant was also savagely beaten -- was an excruciating, slow-motion struggle.

Wiles, himself grieving and conscious of his role in bringing Dobson to Arlington, had to comfort two families, reassure two congregations and manage a very public crisis, the likes of which he had never expected to encounter. At the seminary, he said, no one teaches you how to deal with a high-profile homicide.

"In a time of turmoil, you have to hold on to the big truth," he said. "We held on to the fact that God is still the God of the universe and the Gospel is still the truth."

A year after the crime, the sense of loss lingers for those who were close to Dobson. Yet theirs is also a story of brave souls finding their way along a dark and broken path with the help of their faith and their love of one another.

"It's almost like when we lost Clint, we found each other," said Jeanne Tabor, who has attended NorthPointe for three years and serves on a committee that charts the church's direction.

What do you do when your house of worship, the place where you normally find refuge during a tragedy, becomes the place where the tragedy occurred?

For one thing, you make sure that evil doesn't win, church members said. NorthPointe, stabilized by a veteran interim pastor, continues to serve its purpose.

"The Gospel is still being preached in north Arlington," Wiles said. "That promise and that power are still alive. You can take the life of a young pastor, but you can't take the message that he stood for."

Church attack

That fateful Thursday was sunny and warm, a stark contrast to the darkness that took place at the church at 2001 Brown Blvd.

Somehow, police say, Steven Lawayne Nelson, now 25, an Arlington resident with a decade-long criminal history, entered the church, where Dobson and his assistant, Judy Elliott, were working. Just three days earlier, Nelson had been released from a three-month anger management program at a state correctional facility -- a requirement of a plea bargain.

If Dobson unlocked the door to help a stranger, that would surprise no one who knew him.

Few details about the crime have been made public. But when it was over, authorities said, Dobson had been suffocated with a plastic bag and Elliott lay gravely injured, presumably left for dead. Her 2007 Mitsubishi Galant was missing.

As the day wore on, and Dobson and Elliott hadn't been heard from, Elliott's husband and a friend of the Dobsons' went to check on them at about the same time. Finding the church doors locked, the friend peered into a window and spotted somebody lying on the floor. At about 4:15 p.m., police were summoned.

Investigators later discovered that around the time those events were unfolding, Elliott's credit cards were being used at The Parks at Arlington mall, about nine miles away. Surveillance footage from one store showed Nelson and Anthony Gregory Springs, now 20, also of Arlington, making purchases, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

In a search warrant affidavit, detectives indicated that Springs told them where to find Elliott's car. He insisted, however, that he didn't meet up with Nelson until after the robbery and slaying. Police believed otherwise, that he, too, had been at the church.

Two friends of the suspects independently told investigators that on the night of the slaying, Nelson and Springs laughed and made inappropriate comments about Dobson's death during a television report on the case, according to an arrest warrant affidavit.

Prosecutors sought indictments against both men on charges of capital murder and attempted capital murder, but a Tarrant County grand jury no-billed Springs. He was indicted on an unrelated charge of aggravated robbery stemming from a November 2010 complaint.

Nelson's capital murder trial is expected to start this summer, said Melody McDonald Lanier, spokeswoman for the Tarrant County district attorney's office. He remains in the Tarrant County Jail, with bail on the two charges set at $1 million.

His attorney, Bill Ray of Fort Worth, did not respond to messages requesting comment.

Springs also remains in jail, with bail on the aggravated-robbery charge set at $150,000.

'Trusting in God'

As police sealed off the church, teary-eyed congregants and members of First Baptist gathered in the parking lot, praying together, asking God to sanctify the building and sharing hugs.

The next day, well-wishers stopped by to show their support, and flower arrangements were left near the door. A candlelight vigil that evening drew a sizable crowd.

In the hospital, Elliott began her long road to recovery, one that has included several surgeries. On Sunday mornings, she and her husband can be found in their usual pew.

Although her family has declined to speak with the news media since the day of the crime, Wiles reported that she continues to improve spiritually, emotionally and physically.

"We're very pleased with that," he said. "She has proved to us to be quite a resilient lady."

That also applies, he said, to Laura Rozeman Dobson, who lost her husband just as their life together was beginning. She moved back to her hometown of Shreveport to be with her parents; a group of First Baptist staffers stays in touch with the family.

"Of course, this has been a life-changing experience for her," Wiles said. "She has also proved to be very strong. She has healed as well as can be expected."

Laura Dobson declined to comment for this report, citing the pending trial. But Clint Dobson's sister, Sarah Mitchell of Dallas, released a statement to the Star-Telegram on behalf of the family: "Clint was a wonderful, loving and generous person. Our family misses him dearly and continues to feel this terrible loss. The outpouring of love and concern from those who knew Clint, and from those who did not, remains a great comfort to us.

"It is a true testament to Clint and to the life he led. We hope that Clint's life and his joyous spirit will continue to impact others as they have continued to impact us."

At NorthPointe, members consoled one another as best they could. Various pastoral staffers from First Baptist led Sunday worship until Mother's Day, when the Rev. Linn Self, a semiretired pastor and former Baptist school president, took over as interim pastor. Church members knew him from when he preached there for three months in 2007.

He gave them space to heal and reminded them that they were not alone. One Sunday, he spoke about the Gospel story of Jesus walking on the Sea of Galilee.

"It's the whole concept of trusting in God in the good times and the bad," he said. "Jesus will come to us in the middle of the night, in the middle of the storm, in the middle of the sea. I felt like that was something [the congregation] needed to hear."

A time for healing

The second Sunday after the crime, NorthPointe members received special visitors: the Rev. Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church in Fort Worth, and his wife.

In September 1999, a mentally ill man walked into a youth rally at Wedgwood and began shooting. Seven people, including the gunman, died, and seven more were wounded.

The anniversary date will always be painful, Meredith said Friday, but it's important for the traumatized not to put their emotions aside and pretend nothing ever happened.

"That's the worst thing you can do," he said, "because it's there. And if you just try to forget it, it will come back to bite you. It's painful to remember, but that, too, is part of the healing."

As time goes by, a sense of normalcy returns, he said, but it is a new normal.

NorthPointe members say that is exactly how they feel.

Now, instead of just giving each other a warm smile, they are likely to share a hug, said Tabor and Jamie Bauman, another NorthPointe member on the leadership committee.

Instead of seeing another person across the room, they see a friend.

They don't take loved ones -- or earthly life -- for granted. They are more plugged in spiritually, more focused on what matters most.

The church feels alive with God's presence in a way that it didn't before, even when Dobson was there, Tabor said.

"I can't figure out why people haven't seen the glow that comes from us in here," she said. "I can't figure out why they haven't come to the door asking what it is."

Perhaps, in his nearly three years as their pastor, Dobson gave them all the preparation they needed. Perhaps, as hard as it is to accept, his work was actually complete. Perhaps it was time for someone else to take his seat.

In his final days as a student at Baylor University's George W. Truett Theological Seminary, he delivered the sermon at a community worship gathering. He spoke of a favorite line from the movie Cast Away, in which Tom Hanks' character spends years stranded on an island before being rescued.

"They asked him, 'All those days when you felt completely alone, when you felt completely by yourself, how did you keep moving forward? How did your persevere during that time?'" Dobson told the audience in Waco. "And he said to them, 'You know, I thought to myself every day: Tomorrow the sun will rise, and who knows what the tide will bring?'

"For us, we know that the Son did rise," Dobson continued. "I'm not talking about the sun in the sky. We know that the Son did rise on that Easter Sunday, and that is our hope as we struggle, as we find things to be so difficult: We know that the Son did rise."

Patrick M. Walker,817-390-7423

Twitter: @patrickmwalker1