Charges dropped against man who converted sex shop to Bible bookstore

Posted: Friday, April 18, 2003

PUTNEY, Ky. (AP) Some of the same churchgoing neighbors who tried to run Michael Braithwaite and his adult novelty shop out of town later rallied to his aid, prompting a judge to drop obscenity charges against him.

Why the change of heart? A religious conversion that Braithwaite insists and townspeople believe is real.

The Bible says the Lord will make a way where there seems to be no way,'' said Braithwaite after Judge Phillip Hamm dropped the charges against him earlier this month. If convicted, Braithwaite could have faced jail time.

But after charges were filed against him last year, he decided to burn all the leather gear, magazines and sex toys in his shop and convert his business into a Bible bookstore.

Prosecutor Mike Pace said his office was besieged by calls from friends, family, even preachers, who wanted the charges dismissed.

Harlan County Sheriff Steve Duff, who charged Braithwaite with distributing obscene material after neighbors complained about his store, said he's happy about how things turned out.

I've known him all his life,'' he said. If something hadn't changed his life, he would have fought those charges as far and as long as he could. He's strong-headed.''

Defense attorney Scott Lisenbee said this tiny eastern Kentucky community is standing behind Braithwaite, despite previous concerns that he may have feigned religion to avoid prosecution.

Everyone seems convinced that's not the case,'' Lisenbee said.

Braithwaite, 42, said an automobile accident served as a spiritual wake-up call. He said he was fortunate to come away with scrapes, bruises, torn ligaments and four ruptured discs in a crash so severe that he could have been killed.

Had that happened, Braithwaite asked himself, Where would I spend eternity?''

Braithwaite said he wrestled with the question for the next two months, then headed to services at a little country church.

They were kind of surprised when I walked in,'' he said, chuckling at the memory. A lot of them were happy to see me there. A lot of others wondered what in the world I was doing there.''

After his baptism, Braithwaite dropped his business' old name, Love World, and now calls his store Mike's Place. He covered the formerly red outer walls with a fresh coat of white paint and the words Jesus Saves.'' Inside, shelves of Bibles and other Christian books are displayed where pornographic magazines and other merchandize used to be.

Rosie Madden, who attends services with Braithwaite at the Dizney Pentecostal Church, attributes his new lifestyle to the life-changing power of Jesus Christ.

He wants to be in church all the time,'' Madden said. You can tell when someone is sincere. You can feel it.''

Russell Alred, an attorney who represented residents in their fight to close the sex shop, said everyone is confident that Braithwaite doesn't intend to reopen Love World. The community wanted time to see that he really had changed before the charges were dropped,'' Alred said.

Some of his former customers have been shocked to find Bibles in the store. Braithwaite explains that he is now serving the Lord, and encourages them to do likewise.

At the time I operated that business, I felt like I was just making a living for my family,'' he said. Now, I understand it was wrong. It's not how much money we make that counts. Working for God is the main thing.''

Marcia Bartenhagen, news editor of Christian Retailing Magazine in Lake Mary, Fla., said Bible suppliers were so touched by Braithwaite's story that several sent him books and materials to help stock his store.

It was just a complete 180 degree turn for someone who had been selling sex products to be so passionate about his Christian faith,'' Bartenhagen said. He took a chance on a completely new business, not knowing if there was a market for it, just to say he's following God now. It was such an encouragement.''

Braithwaite opened his Christian bookstore with every shelf bare, right after local ministers helped him burn his entire inventory of adult materials. Frank Howard, pastor of Closplint Church of God, said Braithwaite was eager to burn the merchandise after his conversion and baptism last October.

I stopped and got 10 gallons of diesel fuel, and we packed load after load of stuff out of there,'' Howard said. We were hauling it out by the wheelbarrow.''

If Braithwaite had sold those materials, he said he would have had money to restock his shelves with Bibles and other books. He said he opted instead to trust God to provide for him.

Morally, I couldn't sell it any longer,'' he said.

Braithwaite only recently removed the ashes from his parking lot. He had left them as a sign of his new life.

He has an amazing testimony,'' Bartenhagen said.

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