Bill Murdock, head of Eblen Charities in Asheville, N.C., was a school teacher in the 1980s when he was charged with a sex crime involving a teenage student. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge but says he's innocent.

A servant to the poor: Was he 'a wolf in sheep's clothing'?

Updated 12:33 PM ET, Wed March 20, 2019

Asheville, North Carolina (CNN)A congressman paid tribute to him, the county school system dedicated a library in his name and a state university awarded him an honorary degree, calling him a source of inspiration and emulation.

Bill Murdock has led Eblen Charities, one of western North Carolina's largest nonprofits, for nearly three decades, cultivating a reputation as a humble servant to the poor and a disciple of Mother Teresa.
But a CNN investigation into his background paints a different picture. Murdock was charged with a felony sex crime with a child in 1988 and pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in a deal that one prosecutor initially involved in the case now considers an injustice. And he earned prestige with a resume built on exaggerated and dubious achievements.
One award that has burnished his image, the Mother Teresa Prize for Global Peace and Leadership, sounds impressive but came from a company he incorporated out of his home. He claims an educational background from some of the country's most prestigious universities -- Harvard and Stanford, where his attendance consisted of one-week courses in nonprofit management.
A familiar face in Asheville, frequently appearing in the local media, Murdock, 63, has risen to prominence in this tourist mecca nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains while his criminal record has remained largely unknown.
When his conviction has surfaced, as it did last year after the University of North Carolina at Asheville chose him for an honorary degree and to be its commencement speaker, Murdock offered this explanation: A woman came on to him, he rebuffed her and she retaliated by falsely accusing him of sexual misconduct with her teenage daughter.
That account satisfied the UNCA Board of Trustees at the time. It also has satisfied the Eblen Charities board and an influential group of Asheville powerbrokers.
But CNN tracked down the victim from that case, who has silently watched Murdock's stature grow. The Murdock she knew was her eighth-grade teacher, the 30-year-old married man who she says rubbed his body against hers, promised a future together and sexually abused her throughout her freshman year in high school.
"He would go into very elaborate stories about our dating, our wedding, and he always played himself as the hero," said Shelley Love Baldwin, now 47. "My family was struggling financially. I was struggling. I just felt like he targeted us.... He saw vulnerability, and he swept in."
Shelley Love Baldwin was a middle school student when her teacher Bill Murdock inappropriately touched her, she says.
The abuse left Baldwin suicidal and in therapy much of her adult life, she said, and traumatized her entire family.
"It's been painful for years, and it just comes in waves of emotion for all of us," said her brother, Scott Love, a pediatrician in Asheville. "And my family, I think we've all learned how to deal with it in some ways and never learned how to deal with it in others."
Murdock maintains his innocence and denies ever abusing Baldwin. He said he became close to the Loves while separated from his first wife and that the family was unhappy when the couple reunited.
Murdock gave a 90-minute interview to CNN and refuted the allegations of the victim and her family. "There's a whole lot more to this," he said. "I don't mind telling you the whole story....I just want to make sure I'm doing it the correct way." Murdock said he needed to consult his lawyer first but never explained further, despite reporters' follow-up phone calls and another visit to his office. The lawyer who Murdock mentioned told CNN he did not represent him. He referred questions to Murdock's defense attorney from the 1988 case, who did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
CNN interviewed Baldwin's parents, a former classmate and two medical professionals who said Baldwin told them years ago that she was sexually abused by Murdock. In addition, her siblings and a couple who worshipped with the family said they witnessed interactions between Shelley and her teacher that concerned them. Murdock himself admitted to an inappropriate emotional relationship with the girl in an audiotaped confrontation surreptitiously recorded by her father in 1988.
After learning the details of CNN's investigation, the UNCA Board of Trustees rescinded Murdock's honorary degree on March 8, citing questions about his background, awards and academic credentials.
Other organizations affiliated with Murdock refused to answer questions, including the Buncombe County schools. The same school district that accepted Murdock's resignation the day before his arrest nominated him to a community college board in 2016 and named a school media center in his honor in 2018.
Shelley Love was a student at Clyde A. Erwin High School in 1987.
Many in Asheville see Murdock as the head of a charity that helps the destitute, a man whose awards and accolades are testimony to his character. How could he be capable of abusing a child?
"This is a cautionary tale about how we deny our suspicions and how we don't listen to victims and how we're willing to look at the good someone has done when they have done very bad things in their past," said Wiley Cash, a New York Times best-selling author and writer-in-residence at UNCA.
But attitudes are changing. Decades-old accounts of sexual abuse are being re-examined in many cases.
More than 30 years after a young girl said she fell prey to her teacher, Baldwin, like many victims, is speaking out publicly for the first time.

Her abuse -- and his denial

In an exclusive interview with CNN, Baldwin, her parents and siblings recounted what the family described as calculated grooming and sexual abuse by a teacher they trusted. Reporters shared those details with Murdock, who acknowledged a closeness with the family but provided a different recollection of events.
This is the Loves' account:
Shelley was a shy, bookish eighth grader in 1985. Placed in the gifted program at Clyde A. Erwin Middle School, she felt excited to learn Bill Murdock would be her math and science teacher. A gregarious guy and chummy with students, Murdock was popular. He kept her after class, working on math problems.
"The uncomfortable stuff started pretty early on with him bringing me to his desk," she recalled. "His whole leg would be against my leg. His whole upper body would be against my body. [I'd] feel his breath on [my] face. I mean, he would just be all over me right there."

'I was suicidal for years'

Shelley Love Baldwin says Bill Murdock sexually abused her. He pleaded guilty to a reduced charge but says he is innocent. Three decades later, she says, "The truth is important...my story is important."

Audio has been edited for length and clarity.

During P.E., as Murdock played sports with the boys, Shelley said, he gave her his jacket, watch, college ring and tie to wear. It was kind of flattering, she recalled. It was also mortifying.
"I already felt awkward. I spent most of my middle school years trying to be invisible and not get attention. I just remember just wanting to melt away into the bleachers."
One evening, the eighth-grader told her mom, "I think Mr. Murdock likes me."
Carolyn Love remembers that moment and wishes now that she'd responded differently.
It's probably okay, she said.
The touching continued throughout the school year, Shelley said, including holding her hand just moments before her mother was to pick her up. She felt trapped, pressured and confused. She was relieved when middle school ended. Erwin High School would be her escape, she thought -- until she learned Murdock had taken a teaching job there.