Ex-convict John D. White knew the victim, Rebekah Gay, 24, and regularly watched her 3-year-old son while she worked, friend Donna Houghton said. White even told investigators that after killing Gay and dumping her body, he returned to her mobile home to dress the boy in a Halloween costume before taking the youngster to his father, authorities said.
White was in jail without bond Friday, a day after he was charged with first-degree murder in Gay's death in a rural area in Isabella County, 85 miles northwest of Lansing.
White said he drank four or five beers before going to Gay's mobile home and repeatedly striking her head with a mallet and strangling her with a zip tie, according to a court filing. He said he stripped her but does not remember if he carried out his fantasy of having sex with Gay's dead body.
"He just basically said he was attracted to her, thought she was a very cute girl. It's a crazy, tragic situation," Isabella County Sheriff Leo Mioduszewski told The Associated Press.
White confessed after investigators told him Gay's body was likely to deteriorate in the cold, wet weather, Mioduszewski said.
Houghton, who had a role in hiring White three years ago to be pastor at Christ Community Fellowship, a church with just 14 members, said she and others are "absolutely floored."
"I protested his innocence until I had the absolute news that he confessed. Then he had no leg to stand on," she told AP.
Houghton said White had planned to marry Gay's mother, who regularly attended his Sunday sermons. She said White and Gay lived in the same mobile home park in Broomfield Township.
White led investigators to Gay's body in a wooded area a half-mile away. He told authorities that after killing Gay in the wee hours Wednesday, he dressed her son, Conway, for Halloween and took the boy to meet his father in a store parking lot.
White "really liked this young man," said the sheriff, who added that White occasionally ferried the child to the father, who had joint custody with Gay.
"I don't think the father thought anything was unusual," Mioduszewski said.
But that changed when Gay didn't appear in the same parking lot later Wednesday to pick up Conway, the sheriff said.
Houghton said she spoke to White before he was arrested. He had called her to ask that she contact other church members and start a prayer chain for Gay, who still was missing at the time.
"He was pretty shook up. He said the police were giving him a hard time," Houghton said.
She said the tiny congregation was aware of White's criminal past when he joined the church. He was released from prison in 2007 after serving nearly 12 years for manslaughter in the death of a 26-year-old woman in Kalamazoo County, according to the state Corrections Department.
White also was sentenced to probation for choking and stabbing a 17-year-old Battle Creek girl in 1981.
"He was absolutely contrite," Houghton, 76, said. "All kinds of people turn around and meet the Lord and they are a different person. He was doing a lot of good in the community. ... He was doing a lot of good and Satan did not want him doing good and Satan got to him."