Thy Neighbor's Wife

When a jealous husband and a suspicious congregation discover a pastor's secret affair, all hell breaks loose.

Dena Canfora Mark Canfora Gary Coiro
Mark Canfora was horsing around with the kids when he realized his wife was missing.

It wasn't that Mark minded watching the kids, but Dena had disappeared more than 20 minutes before. She said she was going to warm up in the hot-water pool. They were visiting Splash Lagoon, an Erie, Pennsylvania waterpark, on their way home from a family vacation. Where is she?

Mark had reason to worry. Dena was a woman who provoked male attention. At 29, her body remained trim and tight, a tribute to her years as a high school track standout. Bottle-blond bangs framed bright blue eyes and full lips. She was like Barbie come to life.

So Mark grabbed Dominic, their three-year-old, and set off in search of his wife.

He found her relaxing at the pool, where the air was humid and smelled of chlorine. She was talking to a man who bore a slight resemblance to Ted Danson in his Cheers prime. He'd draped a casual arm over her, a flirtatious smile tugging at his lips.

Mark loomed over them just long enough to make it uncomfortable. "Are you going to join us?" he asked his wife, brandishing their son before storming away.

He waited for Dena to follow. Seconds ticked by. What's she waiting for?

He charged back to the pool, finding Dena locked in conversation with her new friend. "Are you coming?" he asked again, his voice this time loud enough to echo.

Dena climbed out, her head hung low. Mark stared past her at the leering stranger.

The man regarded him with a sneer. "Have a nice day," he responded, his tone doused in sarcasm.

Unbeknownst to Mark, that wasn't the first time Dena had talked to the man. Nor would it be the last.

They'd met earlier that day, on the Lazy River ride. He'd handed her his inner tube and helped her situate Dominic in the slippery doughnut.

Dena never expected to see him again, so she was surprised when he approached her in the hot-water pool.

"You guys been here before?" he asked.

"No," Dena said, adding that she was from Bath, Ohio.

What a coincidence, the man said. He was from Kirtland.

The man introduced himself as Gary Coiro, reverend at Willo-Hill Baptist Church, where his flock numbered about 600.

A born-again Christian, Dena was eager to hear more.

After Mark interrupted and stormed off, she asked Coiro, "Did I do anything wrong?"

"I don't think so," he said.

Then Mark came back and demanded she leave. As she climbed out of the pool, she felt the eyes of nearby families regarding her with pity. Poor abused woman.

Out of earshot, Dena scolded Mark for making a scene. "I can't believe you!" she hissed. "He's a pastor! I was talking to him about church!"

"I don't care who he is," Mark said. "No pastor I know would act like that."

Dena couldn't stand to be around her husband when he was like this, so she took nine-year-old Julianna and retreated to a far corner of the park. They were walking through the food court when Julianna slipped and skinned her knee.

Dena was at the first-aid station when Coiro poked his head in. His face was a portrait of concern. "I just want to make sure you're OK," he said.

Dena was grateful for the chance to explain. It wasn't as bad as it looked, she said. Mark wasn't abusive -- just jealous.

Coiro smiled and nodded, but insisted on handing her a scrap of ripped napkin. "Here's my e-mail address," he said. "Do with it what you will."

Sitting at her desk at Sweet Briar Homes, a real-estate developer in Summit County, Dena debated whether she should write to Coiro.

The truth was, she needed someone to talk to. The incident at Splash Lagoon was emblematic of larger problems in her marriage.

She'd met Mark when they were both experiencing hard times.

His first marriage in ruins and well on his way toward alcoholism, Mark was considering suicide. Then Dena walked into Happy's Fun Center, a Chuck E. Cheese knockoff he owned in Norton. The moment they started talking, they just clicked. So when Dena offhandedly remarked, "I could run this place," Mark hired her on the spot.

Dena had recently signed up for the Army, intent on becoming an MP, but Uncle Sam was steering her toward a job as a medical assistant. A naive 17, Dena didn't know where to turn. Mark, who was 16 years her senior, offered advice and helped extricate her from the service contract.

A friendship blossomed, which evolved into romance. They moved in together after she graduated from high school. Three months later, she was pregnant with their first child. They married early in her second pregnancy, then had a third; Mark had already fathered two children in a previous marriage.

Now Dena was wondering whether marriage had been a mistake. She'd fallen into it when she was young, before she really knew who she was. Although Mark was a good father, he was prone to jealous rages. Over time, the outbursts had increased in both frequency and fury.

Coiro seemed uniquely qualified to offer counsel. After all, he'd seen Mark in action.

"I'm not that great with words and explaining -- especially with feelings and stuff like that," Dena says. "Here's a person who had firsthand observation. I thought that would be helpful."

Dena Googled Coiro's church and found his bio. Yes, he was indeed a senior pastor. What did she have to lose?

She dashed off a quick missive, apologizing for the scene at the waterpark and assuring Coiro that she was no battered woman. But she did have some questions for him.

Coiro replied, and soon she was spilling out her heart. But when Dena asked his opinion on the biblical grounds for divorce, Coiro begged off. He couldn't be "pastorally objective," he said. "I've been bitten by the Dena bug."

Coiro visited her at work. They chatted casually and parted with a hug.

A week later, they met at a nearby park. Dena took off her shoes and walked barefoot through the mud. Coiro took her arm and offered support. They sat on a log by a covered bridge.

The next week, they met again at a different park. This time, they parted with a kiss.

Soon after, Dena called Coiro in tears. She couldn't believe what they had done, she said. They were both married, for God's sake.

Coiro soothed her guilt. This was but one of many sins Dena would commit in life, he said. Thank God for the cross.

The more Dena listened, the more she believed.

When Dena told Mark she was getting counseling from the pastor she'd met at Splash Lagoon, he blew up. She called the police. He moved out.

Meanwhile, Coiro seemed to be going through a midlife crisis. He talked about leaving the Baptist church. Although he wouldn't discuss divorce, he hinted at the possibility of a future with Dena.

They decided to give domesticity a dry run of sorts. They arranged to "bump into" each other at Dave & Buster's in Westlake. They chatted casually, like new acquaintances, while watching their children play.

A few days later, on June 4, Dena showed up at a prearranged meeting spot in the parking lot of a Macedonia theater. When Coiro arrived, they drove to a nearby hotel and did what they'd both been thinking about for weeks.

At 3 a.m., Dena felt restless. Coiro begged her to stay, but she got up and left. The drive home gave her ample time to consider this strange turn of events.

"It just seemed surreal," she says. "I remember pinching myself and thinking, 'This is not my life.'"

Twelve days later, Dena spent a three-day weekend with Coiro in Marietta. A week and a half after that, she invited him to the home she once shared with Mark.

It was a mistake.

At 2 a.m., Dena's cell phone started ringing. It was Mark. Someone was banging on the wall outside her bedroom. That was surely Mark too.

Coiro hid in the furnace room, leaving Dena to deal with the situation. She called 911. The dispatcher told her that police were on the way. A neighbor had called to report a suspicious man with a flashlight prowling around Dena's back deck.

The police saw Mark on the way over. He admitted to being the prowler. Later, he called Dena to apologize.

But it was all too much for Coiro. "I made a promise to God and myself in that furnace room that I was getting out of this," he later recalled. "I was done."

Mark wasn't the only one harboring suspicions. The office staff at Willo-Hill Baptist Church was beginning to ask questions.

Janine Haines had been a congregation member for 17 years and office manager for 4. A pretty blonde with a chirpy voice and pink handbag, she resembles an older Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde.

Haines had long been skeptical of Coiro's motives with women. "Gary would compliment me at times on my dress and hair," she says, "and there were times I would catch him eyeing me as a man does."

In May 2003, Coiro appeared in her doorway to ask about his cell-phone minutes. It was an odd question, coming from him. In his seven years as leader of Willo-Hill, he had almost never used his cell.

Haines explained that the church calling plan provided 400 minutes to be shared among Coiro and two associate pastors.

Coiro was worried that he might run over. Just let him know, and he'd pay out-of-pocket, he said, explaining that he was offering crisis counseling.

This also struck Haines as unusual. Coiro was about to start a sabbatical. He'd argued vigorously for the break, claiming he was burned out. Taking on the burden of someone else's problems didn't exactly scream "vacation." And he rarely offered such counseling to church members, preferring to pass the duty on to the associate pastors.

So when that month's cell-phone bill arrived, Haines gave it closer scrutiny. Two long-distance numbers jumped out. There were numerous calls to both, some of them lasting as long as an hour and a half.

Money was tight at the church; the previous year had ended almost $10,000 in the red. Employees weren't supposed to make personal calls on the congregation's dime.

Haines brought her concerns to Zan Harmon, the church's bespectacled financial secretary. After detailing her evidence, she circled around to her conclusion: "He's either looking for another job or having an inappropriate relationship."

"Do you know what you're saying?" Harmon asked.

"Yes," Haines said, "and I hope to God I'm wrong."

Coiro was a controversial figure at Willo-Hill. Many long-standing members bristled at his domineering CEO style. He was aloof and distant, more likely to preach about obeying God than finding salvation. If members sinned, he'd drag them before the congregation to confess. Scores of families had left the fold.

Haines was among the dissidents, but she stayed, hoping to reform the church from within. She once attended a meeting of a group of disgruntled parishioners who wanted to air their grievances. When Coiro found out, he viewed it as an attempted coup. He was particularly hard on Haines, telling her: "Either I go, or you go -- and I ain't going."

She wasn't about to stick her neck out again, but Harmon wasn't so circumspect. When Haines was on vacation, Harmon called one of the two numbers she'd circled on the phone bill.

Dena answered.

"What's the nature of your relationship with Gary Coiro?" Harmon asked.

Dena stumbled: "What did Gary say our relationship was?"

Soon after, Coiro sent the church business manager into the bookkeeping office, demanding the pastor's cell-phone records and threatening criminal prosecution against those who had allegedly violated his privacy.

Less than 48 hours later, Haines received a series of messages on her voice mail.

The first was from Coiro: "It would do well for you to make contact with me and see if we can avoid prosecution in this case."

The next was her boss, church administrator Joe Williams. He told her she was fired and wasn't welcome in the office "unless escorted by a ministry staff member."

The last message was from Coiro again: "Your reconciliation must begin with direct one-on-one dialogue with the person you have sinned against. That's mainly me."

During marital counseling with Mark, Dena admitted that she had an affair with a minister. She was willing to reconcile with Mark on one condition: He must promise not to seek the reverend's identity.

Mark had no desire to see his children grow up from a distance, so he swallowed his pride and accepted. But he never stopped searching for the pastor.

At night, when Mark lay awake in bed, he imagined the minister as a wolf lurking in the darkness, waiting to take his family away. Mark had to go on the offensive, and the only way to do that was to find out who this guy was.

One evening, after Mark and Dena had yet another of their many loud fights, Dena marched downstairs to sleep in Dominic's bedroom.

This was Mark's chance. He locked the bedroom door and rifled through her purse. He found a piece of paper with numbers on it and zeroed in on two with distant area codes.

The next day, he dialed one of the numbers. A woman answered. It was Carol, Coiro's wife.

"Is your husband a pastor?" Mark asked.


"Were you at an Erie waterpark on Easter weekend?"

"Go on."

The shortness of her answers gave Mark the impression that her husband was in the room. Sensing the urgency, Mark quickly unspooled his story, explaining that her husband was having an affair with his wife.

"I have to go cook dinner for my children now," the woman announced curtly. "Goodbye."

Mark hung up and dialed the second number. He got a receptionist at Willo-Hill Baptist Church.

"Do you have a pastor in his early 40s, Italian with five children?" Mark asked.

"Yes," she answered. "That's our senior pastor, Gary Coiro."

Mark looked up Willo-Hill on the internet and found Coiro's picture. It was the guy from the hot tub.

Becoming born again had saved Mark from alcoholism. For years, he'd run a mission out of his garage, holding barbecues in the ghetto, handing out food, clothing, and toys to the poor.

As Mark wrestled with his wife's infidelity, he sought the Bible's counsel. He found his answer in Matthew 18:15-17:

Moreover, if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: If he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother.

Mark called Coiro. The minister denied everything and hung up.

But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.

That Sunday, Mark drove to Willo-Hill with three-year-old Dominic. They were quickly intercepted in the parking lot by the cops, who'd been warned by Coiro that Mark might show up.

Mark said he would leave after he spoke to Coiro. After some debate among church members on hand, the minister was summoned. He emerged looking jittery, a scared man in an expensive suit.

"Does that heat running through your body mean anything to you?" Mark asked.

"No," Coiro answered.

"That's the refining fire of the Lord," Mark said. "You need to go in and tell your elders what you've been doing to my wife and family.

"Since you told me 'Have a nice day' in the hot tub that day, I haven't had one nice day," Mark continued. "As a matter of fact, you've brought more pain and suffering to me than anybody in my entire life."

"I'll tell you again: Have a nice day," Coiro hissed. "And get off my property."

And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church . . .

After the showdown in the parking lot, Mark got a call from Harmon, who arranged a meeting with church board members to hear Mark's story. They brought their concerns to the church's two associate pastors, who contacted Dena. She offered a written statement, admitting everything.

That week, an emergency board meeting was convened to vote on whether to retain Coiro. His wife, Carol, stood up and declared that her husband was not having an affair. It would be a sin to deprive their family of its livelihood over a baseless accusation, she argued.

The board voted to keep him.

When news reached the associate pastors, they resigned. They could no longer serve with Coiro in good conscience.

Facing a crippling loss of staff, the church was in a bind. Board Chairman Rick Main offered a way out: Rather than fire Coiro for adultery -- an unproven allegation -- the board could dismiss him for being a divisive leader.

By Sunday morning, Main counted enough votes to oust Coiro. One board member called Mark's cell phone to tell him: Coiro was being removed and wouldn't preach that day.

"Good," Mark replied from behind the wheel of his car, which was headed for Willo-Hill. "Then you won't mind if I show up to make sure that happens."

Mark wasn't going in alone. His 17-year-old son, Mark Jr., was riding shotgun.

During the turmoil with Dena, Mark had confided everything to his boy. Now Marky would be his wingman when he confronted the enemy.

This time, Mark got a warmer reception, thanks to his new allies in the church. They ushered him through the heavy wooden doors to a pew in the front row.

All was going according to plan -- until Mark spied Coiro. He was standing off to the side, preparing to preach. Apparently, the church board hadn't done its job.

Mark settled into his pew. This could get interesting.

Coiro began his sermon with a metaphor. "If a bird flies in the room, you don't ignore the bird," he said, explaining that you chase the bird out, then get back to business.

"I guess we're the bird," Mark whispered to his son.

The pastor asked if there were any visitors to the church; Mark and his son dutifully raised their hands. Coiro directed another church member to bring over a welcome packet, then approached Mark to offer his hand in fellowship.

"Unless you tell the truth today, don't shake my hand," Mark spat. "And don't touch my son's hand, unless you're going to go back to the pulpit and tell the church what you've done."

The pastor finished his sermon, but never mentioned the affair. So Mark rose to address the congregation.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Mark began, "I'm sorry that it's come to this, but I want to tell you what your pastor has done to my wife and family . . ."

After Mark concluded his tale, the only sound was of stifled tears.

Suddenly, the cops burst in. "We want you to leave," the officers told Mark.

While Mark was speaking, one of Coiro's allies had phoned 911. Mark protested that he'd been invited to attend. He wasn't budging.

"I've had enough," one officer said, and grabbed Mark in a headlock.

Mark dug his fingers into the pew. The cops dragged him onto the floor and pulled until he let go. They slapped on the cuffs. Cold metal dug into his rug-burned skin. Sitting in the back of the police cruiser, Mark watched as the cops arrested his son in the parking lot.

At his arraignment the next day, Mark learned that he'd been charged with felony counts of breaking and entering and stalking. He was facing up to 10 years in prison.

After the chaotic service, the church board followed through on its plan to fire Coiro.

Dena didn't shed any tears. In denying the affair, he had made her out to be some kind of crazed stalker. What happened to getting divorced and starting a life together?

That Monday, Dena called Coiro and taped the conversation, hoping to get proof that she was telling the truth.

"Hey, Gary, did we have sex or not?" she asked.

"You rolled, and you know the truth," Coiro answered, sensing that the conversation was being taped. "And if you want to recant --"

"Okay, are you calling me a liar?"

"I will read to you the same thing I read to the church, that I have a clear conscience before the Lord and before my wife . . ."

Dena bailed Mark out of jail. As soon as they got home, she told him she had hired a divorce lawyer. She packed her things and drove off alone.

A frazzled mess, she checked into a Canton hotel. "I was just really upset, like I should kill myself so this will all go away."

She decided to give Coiro one last chance. She dialed his number. When he answered, she told him she was contemplating suicide.

The disclosure was greeted with a prolonged silence.

"He didn't have to say anything; just his hesitation and the fact he said nothing -- it kinda made me mad, because I thought: All I've done was sacrifice for this guy. And then he's got the nerve to hesitate?" Dena recalls.

She hung up. Moments later, Mark called. He immediately sensed that she was in despair.

"It's OK. It's gonna be OK," Mark said. "Don't do anything stupid. I'll leave you alone; just go to your mom's."

That was all she needed to hear.

Despite Mark's words on the phone, the couple was still careening toward divorce.

Then, just weeks before they were to make it final, Dena called and asked: "Have you read today's Dear Abby?"

That morning, Dena had been praying for a sign. She found her answer in black and white:

Dear Abby: I have a problem. I had an affair with my pastor . . .

The letter went on to describe how the woman had been seduced by her minister, lost faith in the church, and was now uncertain what to do about her husband and children. It was signed: Fallen and Want to Get Up.

Dena read Abby's answer as if it were scripture: Ask God for forgiveness, and also for the strength to stay away from that Pastor. Then talk to your husband. The two of you should report Pastor Jones to your church headquarters.

The article mentioned Hope of Survivors, a victims' support group. Mark looked them up on the internet and discovered that the group's founders, Steve and Samantha Nelson, had a story remarkably similar to their own.

Samantha had gone to her pastor for counseling, but it had evolved into a sexual relationship. At a seminar on clergy abuse, a light bulb went off: She realized that she wasn't an adulterer, but a victim of abuse.

The Dear Abby article brought Mark a similar revelation.

"This is how we had got to the knowledge of clergy sexual abuse," he says. "I had been calling it 'an affair' and 'adultery.' And she thought she was equal in it because of all the brainwashing."

The couple began to see themselves as allies against a common enemy. In October 2004, after both Mark and his son beat the criminal charges, the Canforas filed a lawsuit against Coiro, accusing him of sexual battery, infliction of emotional distress, and clergy malpractice.

It was during a deposition that Dena learned that she wasn't Coiro's first affair, as he'd claimed. There had been at least two others.

At 3:30 a.m. on July 12, 2005, Mark heard the phone ring. Like all parents, he had a natural dread of early morning phone calls. Mark answered with trepidation.

"Daddy," said his daughter, Carly, "Marky's dead."

Mark felt as if he'd been swept up by a wave and pile-driven into the sand. "What happened?" he stammered.

"He hanged himself," she said. His body had been found in a park.

Marky had been having a rough time. In one year, the popular high school senior had fallen from baseball star to juvenile delinquent. His rap sheet was a catalog of rage -- drunk and disorderly at a football game, putting his fist through a window. Four days earlier, his close friend had killed herself.

But Mark never imagined it would come to this. He got dressed in a daze and aimed his car toward Akron General. Halfway, it dawned that his son wouldn't be there. Marky was dead. He'd be at the Summit County morgue.

The father arrived just as EMTs were unloading the body bag.

"I think that's my son," Mark said.

"Who?" asked a paramedic.

"Mark Canfora."

"Yeah, it is."

Mark helped unload his son's body and pushed the gurney into a private room. He wanted to say goodbye.

"Sir, are you sure you want to do this?" asked the medical examiner.

"Yes," he answered. "I have to see my child."

Mark unzipped the body bag. He saw the rope burns on Marky's neck and traced the ugly bruises with his finger. He asked God to resurrect him, but the Lord wouldn't listen.

Then Mark saw a vision. He was back in the hospital on the day Marky was born. The umbilical cord was wrapped around the baby's neck. Marky was choking. Miraculously, the cord came untied. Marky gasped for breath. He was alive.

The meaning was clear: God had already resurrected his son once.

The revelation brought Mark peace. In the coming weeks, as those close to Marky wrestled with his death -- Was there something I could have done? -- Mark shared his testimony with anyone who would listen: Marky's death was nobody's fault. It was God's will.

But as time passed, and Mark began to gather evidence in the unfolding civil case against Coiro, he came to question that belief. He talked to a psychiatrist who had counseled Mark Jr. She said the skirmish at Willo-Hill had been the beginning of his decline.

"Mark Jr. felt angry over the whole affair," Dr. Jackie Jones wrote."In my professional opinion, this event led Mark Jr. to commit suicide."

On April 3, 2006, the case of Canfora vs. Coiro was called to order by Summit County Judge Paul Mitrovich. During opening arguments, William Whittaker, the attorney for the Canforas, argued that Coiro had taken advantage of his position as a counselor to seduce a confused young woman.

"This is a case about lies, deception, and the abuse of a professional relationship," Whittaker told the jury.

But Coiro's attorney argued that it was a consensual affair. Yes, Coiro had sinned against God, but he had not violated the laws of man.

On the second day, the courtroom hushed as Coiro took the stand to defend himself. His fine suit and crisp collar reflected the stature he'd once held. But as he confessed to an impressive list of sins, he began to resemble Jim Bakker during his famously weepy televised apology.

"I deceived my wife, I deceived my church, I deceived Dena," Coiro testified, breaking into tears as he described confessing the affair to his family and friends.

But the most convincing evidence was Dena's signed confession, which Coiro's team had blown up to the size of a poster.

In it, she proclaimed that early in the relationship, Coiro told her he couldn't give her advice on her marriage, because he couldn't be "pastorally objectionable." Though she'd mangled the words, the meaning was clear: Coiro wasn't acting as a clergyman.

The shadow of that giant confession was too much for Whittaker to overcome. At the end of the weeklong trial, it took the jury less than three hours to return its verdict: not guilty.

Coiro pumped his lawyer's hand while Mark rolled his eyes in disbelief. But both men left the court with the same conviction: Someday, their actions would be judged by a higher power, and the stakes would be much, much greater.

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