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Antonio Henry admitted during jailhouse interviews that he attacked a local pastor with a stick, but only after he claims the minister repeatedly pressed him to perform a sex act for $100.
The Rev. David Strong was left bound and bleeding on the floor of the pastor's home, Henry admitted, but he said Strong was alive. The autopsy shows Strong also suffered a multitude of stab wounds.
"I swear, when we left, when I stepped over that man, the man was breathing; he was praying," Henry said. "I really don't see how he died. I don't appreciate them labeling me as no killer, man. I ain't pleading guilty to that."
Henry, 25, of Chattanooga, is due in court Monday to face charges of felony murder and especially aggravated robbery.
Chattanooga Police Department investigators say Henry and his 16-year-old cousin, Brendan Barnes, intended to rob Strong, the pastor of St. Paul AME Church, and tortured him with a stick and a knife when he would not hand over his bank card's personal identification number.
Police say the cousins also hit Strong with a vase and cut his throat.
Yawning, stuttering and biting his nails to the quick, Henry granted exclusive interviews Friday and Saturday to the Chattanooga Times Free Press and continually disputed the police account of Strong's killing.
The red jail jumpsuit Henry wears at the Hamilton County Jail indicates he is a "high-risk" inmate. During the interviews, his dreadlocks bounced while he spoke and his expression shifted from empty stares into nowhere to animated outbursts.
"We did not demand no money," he said. "This stuff happened because this man would not listen up and let us up out that house."
Henry said Strong refused to let him and Barnes leave his house at 404 Glenwood Drive until they gave in to his sexual demands.
"I'm sorry he's, you know, gone and stuff like that, but he's a disgrace to his church," Henry said.
Officials with the Chattanooga Police Department did not return calls seeking comment. But Lt. Kirk Eidson said last week that police are exploring whether Strong's sexual preference was a motivating factor in the crime.
"The possibility existed that Reverend Strong was gay," Eidson said.
However, the pastor's youngest sister, Terri Strong, rejected that speculation.
"He is not gay," she said, adding that her brother's Facebook page lists him as single and interested in women.
Asked at a memorial for the pastor last week, his nephew, Andre Strong, said he had never heard any rumors that his uncle was gay.
During Friday's interview, Henry acknowledged that he has used cocaine and has an extensive criminal history -- records show 11 guilty pleas since he turned 18 in 2003. He also said he tried suicide twice and has a history of depression and of hearing voices, a symptom of schizophrenia.
Social Security Administration records from 2005 show Henry suffers from depression, mood disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorder, learning disabilities, attention deficit hyperactive disorder, emotional disorder and personality disorder.
Still, he said, "You got to do something to me to push me to the edge."
Henry said Strong called and invited him and Barnes to hang out and clean the pastor's house on Oct. 5. He said he'd met Strong twice before and suspected the pastor was gay but went to Strong's house with his cousin to "get away."
"He was going to pay us to help clean his house," Henry said. "Little change in your pocket ... [but] we didn't even get started."
He said Strong, dressed in a robe and briefs, showed them into the bedroom and offered Henry the remote control, telling him to find a scary movie on television. He claimed the pastor also provided pizza and marijuana. Sitting on the pastor's bed, after all three smoked a "blunt" -- a marijuana cigar that Henry said he rolled -- the pastor wanted Henry to expose himself and masturbate, Henry claimed.
"I do not get down like that," Henry said he told Strong.
The pastor changed the subject before offering $100 for the same sex act three more times, Henry said.
"That's when I snapped."
Henry said he picked up a walking stick resting near the side of the bed and struck Strong's head and leg as his cousin ran to the kitchen to get a knife.
A report from the Hamilton County Medical Examiner's Office showed 18 stab wounds on the right side of Strong's torso, dozens of lacerations and evidence of blunt force trauma.
"I ain't gonna lie that I hit him with the stick, man, because me and my cousin's life was in danger," Henry said.
Henry said the house had deadbolt locks that could be opened from the inside only with a key. Strong wasn't offering a key "until he got what he wanted," Henry said, so "in case that man reached for a gun or anything," he tied the pastor's wrists with part of a shirt they found in the house.
Police also found the pastor's ankles bound, but Henry said he doesn't know what Barnes used to tie the pastor's ankles.
During the struggle, Henry said Strong offered his debit card PIN and "anything we wanted, but it wasn't about money."
"We did not demand nothing," Henry said. But he admitted they stole the pastor's car, saying it was too far for them to walk from the pastor's Glenwood house to Brainerd, where they were staying.
Using the pastor's debit card, the cousins withdrew about $200 from an automated teller machine.
Five days later, police discovered Henry driving the pastor's PT Cruiser. Hours after that, they found Strong dead in his own hallway.
But Henry said the pastor "shouldn't have died."
Strong's death prompted communitywide sorrow and several public outpourings of grief last week.
Hundreds of people mourned him in a packed church service Friday night. The crowd was so large, some people had to watch from a television in the church's fellowship hall. Mourners remembered Strong as a generous man of God who put others before himself.
"He was strong, like his name said, but also he was humble," said St. Paul member William Rob Green. "As my mentor, he was able to see things in me that I didn't see in myself."
Those who knew Strong described him as helpful and humorous.
Kenny "Super T" Simpson, who worked with Strong in a mentoring program, said the pastor would reach into his pocket to give money to homeless people.
Henry denied that he had had a prior sexual relationship with Strong, calling any suggestion "out of the question."
"I'm not gay, man," he said. "You can call all my girlfriends. ... Really, I don't care because I know and my females know."
Henry said he dropped out of Howard School for Academics and Technology in 10th grade and joined the Vice Lords gang when he was about 16, but the gang now is in his past. He's never seen or spoken to his father, who lives in Atlanta.
"Maybe if he would have been in my life, man, I probably wouldn't be in this predicament," he said.
Because he didn't wake up early enough, he failed the jail's inspection Friday, so Henry said he can't use the phone or shower until his Monday morning court hearing.
While in jail, Henry bumped into another inmate who turned out to be an old friend. The pair used to run track together at the East Chattanooga Recreation Center, Henry said, and he spent part of Friday reminiscing with the man about winning medals at Hardy Elementary and Orchard Knob Middle schools.
"Them was the fun days back then, man," he said. "That's when I wasn't getting into no trouble. Running track, going to school, man."
Staff writer Yolanda Putman contributed to this story.
Chris Carroll covers federal politics for the Times Free Press. A Chattanooga native, he went to Red Bank High School and graduated with honors from East Tennessee State University. Chris investigated violent crime, municipal government and hospitals before taking the political beat. For tornado coverage, he and Pam Sohn won a first-place Tennessee Associated Press Managing Editors deadline reporting award. In 2010, Chris won the Golden Press Card Award of Merit and another deadline reporting ...