Pastor is charged with secretly filming under woman's short skirt

Saturday, March 15, 1997

Monica Scandlen
The News Herald

A Tennessee pastor and university instructor was arrested Friday on a misdemeanor charge of secretly filming under a woman's skirt at Panama City Mall.

Robert Stephen Coombs, 45, of Norris, Tenn., told police he is pastor at the Norris Religious Fellowship Church and an instructor at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, according to Panama City Police Detective Richard Carleton.

Dr. Connie Steele, who heads the Child and Family Studies department at the university, confirmed that Coombs teaches evening classes on family relationships part-time and that he earned a Ph.D. from her department.

According to police, Coombs went into The Shoe Dept at the mall about 11:30 a.m. with a Sony Handicam hidden in a black tote bag. The camera was positioned to film through an opening in the bag.

When he spotted a saleswoman wearing a short skirt, he positioned his bag and camera and filmed up the saleswoman's skirt, police said.

The saleswoman did not notice Coombs, but three other shoppers did.

``They saw the guy was filming under her dress,'' Carleton said.

The shoppers immediately told the woman what had happened, and Coombs overheard them, Carleton said.

Coombs hurriedly left the store and headed to nearby JC Penney. The three witnesses caught up with Coombs and contacted mall security officers, who called police.

Police seized the video camera, bag and the video tape.

On the tape, there were three other similar incidents that were recorded in a two-floor mall, Carleton said. Coombs told police those were taped in an Alabama mall.

Despite Coombs' misdemeanor charge, of disorderly conduct, the nature of the filming concerned police.

``Though (Coombs) was only charged with disorderly conduct, we consider it a sexual deviant crime,'' Carleton said. ``Unfortunately, there is nothing (he did) that falls under a sexual deviant crime. But look at what he's filming.''

Coombs told police the four incidents were the only times he has filmed under strangers' skirts. But after viewing the tape, police aren't so sure.

``He obviously knows what he's doing and we suspect he's done it before,'' Carleton said.

Ironically, Coombs, who got his Ph.D. in 1994, teaches a class about Family Stress and Spirituality and the Family, according to Steele.

She called his dissertation ``outstanding'' and his skills in graduate school ``exemplary.''

``It's not my image of Dr. Robert Coombs in any way, shape or form,'' Steele said. ``I would trust my life with Dr. Coombs.''

``I just wonder if this is someone posing as Dr. Coombs. I'm still sitting here thinking it just can't be Rob,'' she said.

Coombs, who told police he was passing through Panama City, will appear before a Bay County judge today.

A call to the Norris Religious Fellowship Church Friday afternoon was answered by machine. A man's voice on an answering machine identified himself as ``Dr. Coombs'' and gave a pager number for ``Dr. Coombs.''