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LAS VEGAS (AP) — Sex was no taboo in Otis Holland's storefront church congregation, and a jury in Las Vegas heard Thursday that it wasn't uncommon for parents to go to the man they knew as "Reverend Otis" to counsel their children against misbehavior like skipping school or smoking cigarettes.
"The congregation was more like family," defense attorney Carmine Colucci said during opening statements in Holland's trial on child sex charges that could get Holland life in prison.
Holland was a "dynamic, charismatic speaker to whom people went for advice," the defense lawyer said.
But prosecutor Robert Langford said Holland focused on sex as a path to spirituality, and taught from the pulpit that most women have burning desires blocked by sexual hang-ups that he could teach them to get past, if given the chance.
"You're going to hear that parents gave permission for counseling," Langford told the Clark County District Court jury. "They had no idea that it was literally going to be sex acts."
Holland, now 59, denies wrongdoing. He has pleaded not guilty to 17 felonies, also including lewdness and conspiracy to destroy evidence.
Holland's long-delayed trial began some five years after he became an international fugitive featured on the television show "America's Most Wanted." Langford said he fled following his initial arrest in December 2010. He was arrested in January 2012 in Tijuana, Mexico.
One alleged victim, now 21, testified Thursday she knew Holland since she was 7 and she was about 14 when Holland first took her after Sunday church services to a limousine with a back seat that reclined into a bed and used a sex toy on her.
The woman's name is being withheld because The Associated Press typically does not identify people who say they have been hurt in sexual assault cases.
She told authorities Holland told her he wanted to teach her something that would relieve tension and frustration. She has also conceded that she didn't tell anyone about the alleged sexual acts for about a year — including her mother who would drop her off on Sundays at Holland's house.
"The limousine wasn't used solely for sexual activities, it was used for transportation," Colucci told the jury as he cast Holland as a generous leader who shared vehicles with church members when they needed wheels.
Holland also had at least two ongoing sexual relationships with adult women in his congregation, Colucci and Langford said, and church members rallied behind him when he was first accused. They turned against him after other girls made similar allegations.
"Everything isn't always as it appears," Colucci told the jury.
He suggested his client's teenage accusers may have concocted stories about being abused because they thought they loved Holland and were jealous of his adult relationships.
Colucci hasn't said whether Holland will testify. Langford said he expects he will. Trial is expected to continue into next week.
The conspiracy to destroy evidence charge against Holland alleges that he instructed a girl's mother and her ex-husband to destroy computer hard drives, sex toys and church counseling session paperwork after he was approached by police.