Editor's note: Names of victims and their associates in this story have been changed to protect their identities.
This story has been updated since it was originally published.
The men circle the block in the car they'd rented after flying into Richmond International Airport. It's Thursday, Dec. 27. The temperature is hovering in the mid-40s — about 20 degrees colder than Lafayette, La., from where they departed that morning.
Two vehicles are parked at the bed and breakfast on West Washington Street in Petersburg. The travelers assume the beat-up old Mazda compact pickup is his, the 30-year-old Mercedes hers.
They're nervous, hearts racing. They've suffered at his hands. And 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 hostelry. 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're slaying a dragon, and exposing the dragon to his loved ones is the first step. They'll also notify his colleagues, his social circles, the nonprofits for which he volunteered, the police.
But they won't have to. They're unaware of it on that chilly December night, but the dragon is consuming himself in his own fire. David Primeaux is dead.
Primeaux (pronounced "primo") was a popular professor and civic leader. He was beloved in Petersburg, where he was an active member and past chairman of the Historic Petersburg Foundation, a nonprofit that restores old buildings in the historic city. For nearly two decades he taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, where he served as a computer science professor.
In addition to his graduate degree in computer science from the University of Tennessee, Primeaux held a doctorate in philosophy from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium. His academic interests included nontraditional artificial intelligence — heady topics that, buttressed by his philosophy degree, threw smart, dreamy VCU undergrads into a swoon.
But on Dec. 27, 2012, Petersburg police received a call from Primeaux's wife telling them he'd left the house distraught. Cops made brief contact with the professor via cell phone, but he said his phone battery was about to die and ended the call. The next day in a rural neighboring county, a resident found Primeaux dead inside his 1986 Mazda pickup parked beside a gravel pit. Cause of death, carbon monoxide poisoning; manner of death, suicide, according to the state medical examiner's office, which released the results this spring.
Members of the Petersburg and university communities were shocked and dismayed. Newspapers and television stations reported less on Primeaux's death — suicide, after all, is a delicate topic — focusing instead on his popularity, and on the tooth-gnashing his death occasioned. No one, by these accounts, saw it coming. Primeaux was 62.
The gushing, heartfelt condolences at his Legacy.com obituary testify to his status: "Words are not enough. A true friend. Someone you could always count on for a kind word, support and humor. He loved to debate theoretical ideas. He was passionate about his students — about all the students. I will miss him immeasurably. He would understand that this is an 'uncountably infinite' loss," writes one mourner. "Dr. Primeaux provided me a wondrous opportunity and I wouldn't have had the experiences in my life had he not been not only an excellent mentor but a superb role model," writes another.
But until 1985, Primeaux was a priest in South Louisiana, mainly in Lafayette Parish. A priest who molested children. A priest who benefited from the willingness of the Diocese of Lafayette leadership — eagerness, it could be argued — to play shell games with its most toxic clergy, moving them around after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced. A priest who got away with it.
- Historic Petersburg Foundation
- Since David Primeaux’s suicide in December 2012, the truth behind scattered rumors came to light: that in a former life, he was a pedophile priest.
The Rev. David Primeaux was, in many ways, forgettable. It was the mid-1980s, when there was an explosion of pedophile priest accusations and lawsuits. An especially infamous saga in Louisiana, that of priest Gilbert Gauthe, began spilling its messy entrails in 1983. Gauthe probably molested hundreds of kids in Vermilion Parish, although he was prosecuted on only a fraction.
About the time that priest was convicted and sent to prison in the mid-'80s, Primeaux, a native of Abbeville, La., slipped quietly out of his collar. The story is sketchy for almost the next decade. He taught a few years in the mid-'90s at Troy University in Alabama. He landed an assistant professorship at VCU in '96.
About the time he was completing his computer degree in 1991 — he received the doctorate in the mid-'70s as lagniappe on the church's dime after completing seminary — Primeaux and the Roman Catholic Diocese of Lafayette were named as defendants in a lawsuit alleging sexual misconduct. Perhaps experiencing priest-sex-abuse fatigue, Louisiana news media hardly noticed.
The suit was brought by the son of a former lay employee at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Milton, La., where Primeaux served as pastor from 1982-'85. We've chosen not to identify the plaintiff. According to a brother who agreed to speak on the condition we not identify the family, struggles with depression and chemical dependency, which he blames in large part on having been molested by Primeaux when he was 12 and 13 years old. Anthony Fontana, an Abbeville attorney who has filed several molestation suits against the church, represented the victim.
"David was smart — very, very smart — with an engaging personality," recalls Fontana, who coincidentally knew Primeaux first as childhood friends: The two were altar boys together at St. Mary Magadalen Church in Abbeville. "In fact, I remember going to his first Mass. Your first Mass is always back in your home town, so it was here at St. Mary Magdalen.
"Every now and then over the years I ran into him. Very, very hip looking. Younger than most priests. Wore glasses that turned color."
According to Fontana and other accounts, once Primeaux settled on an intended victim, he used hunting and fishing trips — adventures that required overnight stays at Primeaux's house due to the next mornings' early departures — to getting the victim isolated. He also employed his favorite pastime, sailing, to lure young boys.
But by the time Fontana's client came forward with allegations — eight years later — Primeaux had left the priesthood and Louisiana, and the statute of limitations for prosecuting him had kicked in. The two sides settled the suit before it went to trial.
We'll never know with certainty why the professor killed himself. Primeaux left no known suicide note. Calls and emails to VCU colleagues and to associates with the Historic Petersburg Foundation in the weeks after his death largely went unanswered for this story.
Only one person in Petersburg, City Councilman W. Howard Myers, responded to a query about Primeaux. Myers was one of three friends of the late professor who spoke at his memorial service at an Episcopal church
in Petersburg, praising Primeaux's gift for finding common ground and getting things done on behalf of the community.
"I have nothing to add or withdraw from the statements made during Dr. David Primeaux's ceremony or interview with the VCU student newspaper," Myers writes in an email. "I will confirm the history of a decent, well-respected man and loving husband whom I've known for the past 10 years. With that said, he was a remarkable man amongst his peers."
Myers didn't address a question about whether he or others were aware of or had even heard rumors of Primeaux's ecclesiastical past.
But Primeaux's history as a priest, though it appears to have been a well-manicured secret, had a toehold in innuendo. A law enforcement official in Petersburg who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of Primeaux's death, says he'd heard the priest rumor when his daughter attended VCU several years ago. But it was merely that — a rumor. "Someone said that they found him on a list of abusive priests," the official says. "You have the background that we were hearing. Once he disappeared and was found [dead] it was no longer our issue."
Petersburg police only assisted in the Primeaux investigation because he committed suicide in another jurisdiction. While Petersburg is a relatively small city, the official who spoke isn't sure how widely known Primeaux's past was within the community. "The people that I do know that eat downtown all the time, have drinks downtown all the time, said, 'Oh, he was a really great guy. I really liked him.' But nobody ever said, 'Jeez, his past caught up with him.'"
There's no question, however, that Primeaux was a child molester. He admitted it to psychologists in evaluations beginning in 1980. A 16-page report on two of those sessions — one seven hours long, the other six — in November and December of 1984 was obtained by Fontana during the discovery phase of the civil lawsuit, and now is publicly available. The sessions were conducted by Edward Shwery of Metairie, La. The report was originally sent to Kenneth Bouillion in Lafayette, who was contracted by the diocese to counsel priests, including Primeaux.
"David reported that the first instance of sexual abuse of an adolescent occurred when he was 27 years old and teaching at St. Benedict in Covington, Louisiana," Shwery writes in the report to Bouillion. "During the 14 months when he was on staff as an instructory [sic], he engaged in sexual contact with 5 students. One of the students (18 years old) disclosed this to the rector who then confronted David.
"David adamently [sic] denied the allegation and the matter was dropped. After several months, another student also reported sexual involvement with David to the rector and the rector once again confronted David. During the confrontation he refused to accept David's denials and instructed David to suspend his teaching duties and leave the institution at once."
Primeaux landed in Lafayette where he managed a media outreach office for the diocese.
Shwery continues: "As we discussed this he recalls, 'it gave me a good cover, they said they needed me in the diocese and so I could more comfortable [sic] explain my leaving St. Benedict.' David then disclosed to Father Paul Metrejean (the Vicar for the clergy) and Father Al Sigur that he had been asked to leave for problems of sexual molestation. Both priests encouraged David to seek psychological help from you and, as you know, he saw you for treatment in 1980. …
"He reports that he sought the professional help only because he was encouraged to do so, but had little consideration privately for such help."
- Walter Pierce
- Primeaux was head pastor in the early 1980s at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Lafayette Parish County, Louisiana, before leaving the priesthood for good in 1985. A history on the church website says, “Fr. Primeaux left to continue his studies on the East Coast in April 1985 and did not return to the parish.”
The Rev. Al Sigur, one of the priests in whom Primeaux confided his dark past, later was elevated to monsignor. There's now a Lafayette diocesan office, the Monsignor Sigur Service Center, that "offers financial assistance and case care management to individuals and families experiencing unexpected crises in the areas of housing, utility, medical, transportation, funeral and other emergencies," according to the diocese website.
Sigur's role as confidante wasn't happenstance: After being ordained in the spring of 1976, Primeaux's first assignment was at Our Lady of Fatima Catholic Church in Lafayette under Sigur. Primeaux was at Fatima for a couple of years, until he accepted the teaching job at St. Benedict in Covington, La. — the position from which he was banished within 14 months.
But during his brief stint at Fatima, according to Shwery writes, "he became attracted to children who were available through the church to accompany him on hunting and fishing trips. Two of the children in the 8th grade were molested by David."
There's no evidence Sigur was aware of Primeaux's transgressions at Fatima, but Shwery's report shows Sigur knew about the molestations in Covington.
Primeaux briefly left the media outreach office following disagreements with diocesan hierarchy over operations of the office. It's unclear how he served the church in the interim, but, according to Shwery's report, he soon "received a call from Father Sigur who was starting a new Catholic high school in Lafayette. David was asked to assume the directorship of the adult education center which was attached to the school. He accepted the position which he filled for 18 months."
That high school is St. Thomas More. Now digest it: A confessed pedophile priest is asked by a superior who is aware of his pedophilia to work at an office headquartered in a high school.
Primeaux was at the school until 1982, when he was transferred to St. Joseph in Milton, La., as pastor. He left the priesthood for good in 1985. A church history on the St. Joseph website says only that "Fr. Primeaux left to continue his studies on the East Coast in April 1985 and did not return to the parish."
"David stated that confrontation with those with whom he had sexual contact was very infrequent, 'because of the way I choose to do it. I planned it so it seemed like it was accidental, but it really wasn't,'" Shwery quotes Primeaux, adding later, "David reports that since he began as a parish priest at Milton, he had sexually [sic] contact with 7 altar boys from the ages of 13 through 16 years."
These psychological examinations conducted by Shwery in 1984 were concurrent with Primeaux's tenure in Milton.
One of the altar boys mentioned in Shwery's report is the brother of the victim represented by Fontana, the Abbeville attorney. The brother says he initially didn't report the sexual contact with Primeaux to anyone of authority — especially not his mother, who worked with Primeaux in Milton — only to a therapist when he, too, struggled with chemical dependency during his 20s, and eventually to his mother when, he admits, he was high on ecstasy.
"He would have me sleep at his house," the brother writes in an email exchange. "Usually because we were leaving early in the morning to go sailing.
"After trust is established he would make his move while you were sleeping in the same bed with him. You never thought anything about sharing a bed with an adult because you had done it with your parents. He didn't make his move the first time — but later."
Primeaux also appears to have selected victims based on what he perceived to be vulnerabilities. In the case of the lay employee's sons, that vulnerability was a Vietnam vet father who, when he wasn't distant, was abusive.
"He appeared to be generally interested in what you had to say, what your interests were and he was good at validating you," the brother recalls. "He was accommodating, adventurous, engaging and fun.
"As a kid who had a strained relationship with his father, it was nice to feel like you were OK, that you weren't the idiot you were told you were; there was nothing wrong with you. It was nice that an older male took an interest in you and seemed to care. He did all of the things that one would think a father would do. I'm sure this is part of the manipulation used to gain trust and to get you to drop your defenses."
Fontana corroborates that characterization, referring to Primeaux and a generation of predatory priests as cool, hip and accessible to young people. They drove sports cars and had motorcycles and boats and pursued "youthful" pastimes.
"That's how they do it," Fontana says. "They are the best manipulators of giving the most positive image to your kids.
"And what's better? The rapist puts on the ski mask; the preacher's got the collar.
"Now we know. Nobody would believe that back then."
In fact, when the allegations started to come out about Gauthe and a few other priests, heavily Roman Catholic South Louisiana didn't rally around the victims.
"Nine boys were the first group to report all this stuff. But they caught hell from the community; people didn't believe this," Fontana recalls.
The brother of Fontana's client says his mother was devastated when she learned almost 10 years after the fact what Primeaux had done to her sons. "In some ways I think she had it worse," he writes. "It could be called spiritual rape.
"She had a strong faith and thought Primeaux would be a good influence and make up for the lack of a father figure. She trusted him and the church, only to be taken advantage of."
- Scott Elmquist
- After teaching at Troy University in Alabama, Primeaux became an assistant professor at VCU in 1996, where he taught for nearly two decades. Before he died he was a computer science professor in the School of Engineering.
On that day in December 2012, Primeaux's past literally knocked on his front door in Petersburg.
The men who flew to Virginia 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 Smithson managed to deal with the trauma, becoming a successful businessman, husband and father, others weren't so lucky.
The other man who traveled to Petersburg that day was Roger Port, a longtime friend of Smithson's. Port 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 Smithson, his wife, Judy, and Port vowed to confront Primeaux, although it would take them five years.
"Peter was just going up to say, 'You know what? Hey, fuck 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," Judy says.
Those four, and another former Primeaux victim, Gregg Gallagher, had formed something of an informal Primeaux victims' support group. Now in their 40s, they were friends going back to middle school who shared common interests, but the thing that bound them — and binds the abuse survivors to this day — is Primeaux.
They would get together frequently to socialize, and their conversations always found their way back to the priest who preyed on them and their trusting parents and managed to slip away without ever facing criminal charges.
After Bradford Port killed himself, the exigency of confronting Primeaux was palpable. Google quickly told them where he lived, but still they waited, planned.
This spring, Judy was still dealing with guilt: Had she caused Primeaux to commit suicide? Those feelings have subsided, replaced with a confidence that she was ultimately saving children in Virginia who could have fallen victim.
"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?'"
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 extracurricular pursuits. When they got the report back 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.
Roger Port has mixed feelings about Primeaux's suicide. Not so much with Smithson, who was molested by the former priest. "I was relieved," he says. "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.' … 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."
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 Smithson and Port set out from Lafayette Regional Airport on Dec. 27. But that's not to say that revenge wasn't also a motivation. These men, in varying degrees, say they still carry wounds inflicted by Primeaux.
"The intention was to just slowly tear down his life, piece by piece and destroy him like he did so many people," Port 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." S
Walter Pierce is managing editor of IND Monthly, an alternative newspaper and website (theind.com) in Lafayette, La., where this story first appeared in the April and May issues. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.