Nineteen months before he allegedly pulled out a gun at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Larry Dawson sat before a regulatory panel in a nondescript room in Nashville trying to explain why God had called him to send sexually suggestive letters to a 15-year-old girl.
At issue was whether the Tennessee Board of Funeral Directors and Embalmers should grant him a license. More specifically, whether Dawson had the “good moral character” to hold such a license given, among other factors, that he once said he considered the girl to be the Virgin Mary and wanted her to have his baby.
“As my faith was tested,” Dawson acknowledged to the funeral directors board in a video-recorded session, “I kind of got into some problems.”
In the past, Dawson, 66, has worked as a pastor, funeral home director, car salesman, school bus driver and security guard — a history that is drawing attention after the chaos Monday afternoon at the visitor center. Authorities said Dawson entered the center and pointed a weapon at police before officers shot him.
Dawson suffered wounds to his chest and thigh, according to officials familiar with the case. He has been charged with assault with a deadly weapon and assault on a police officer while armed. No officers were injured, but a female bystander suffered what appeared to be a minor injury, authorities said.
Why Dawson was in Washington remains unclear. But there are hints, based on previous altercations at the Capitol and information posted on the website of St. Luke’s Community Church in Antioch, Tenn., where Dawson is listed as pastor.
In a video on the site, Dawson is holding a sign that advocates raising the minimum wage from $7.25 to $15. Text that appears with the video states that Dawson will be “taking a journey” to Washington to push for the increase and seeks donations for the trip.
Dawson has made three recent trips to the D.C. area, according to the website. It’s unclear when the video was posted. The website states that St. Luke’s was founded in 1972 but “recreated” in 2009.
On a trip to Washington last year, Dawson was in the House gallery, “where he began shouting Bible verses which disrupted the normal flow of Congress,” authorities said.
A police officer tried to grab his arm to escort him out, according to an arrest affidavit, but he pulled away, broke free and ran toward an exit, where he was caught by officers and handcuffed.
In a subsequent letter to the court — after he was freed pending his next hearing — Dawson indicated that he wouldn’t be complying with legal demands to return for an appearance. “No longer will I let myself be governed by flesh and blood, but only by the Divine Love of God!!!!” he wrote.
Several of Dawson’s family members could not be reached for comment Tuesday, and one declined to be interviewed.
Dawson grew up in Tennessee, according to records at the funeral directors board, and graduated from mortuary science school in Kentucky in 1968. His grades there were modest — a D in the opening quarter of embalming, for instance, but later a B in mortuary management.
He served in the Army and was commended for service in the Army’s Mortuary System in Europe, according to a 1971 article in the Daily Herald newspaper that was included in the records of the funeral directors board. He said he also opened a funeral parlor in Franklin, Tenn.
Starting in 1980, Dawson worked on and off for the Williamson County (Tenn.) school district as a cafeteria worker and bus driver, a schools spokeswoman said.
In the spring of 2001, Dawson was fired for writing inappropriate letters to a female student, the spokeswoman said. A short time later, the school system received a letter from Dawson containing comments “that were perceived to be threatening,” according to Franklin police records.
A year later, a 15-year-old student received harassing letters from Dawson, who formerly drove her school bus. According to one letter, Dawson told the student that he wanted her to have his child. “He sees her as the Virgin Mary,” police wrote in an incident report. “He feels that the Lord sent him here for her to have his baby. Mr. Dawson is a reverend.”
Dawson was charged with harassment, police records show.
In 2003, according to police records, the same student told police that Dawson was writing her again, saying he was doing God’s work. He also wrote that he and the girl were to be the “Mary and Joseph” of the next millennium, according to the records.
The earlier case, police wrote, had been retired so Dawson could “get some help.”
According to records from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, Dawson was found not guilty by reason of insanity on two counts of harassment, and another charge in the case was dropped.
At the 2014 funeral directors board hearing, members of the board grilled Dawson about criminal charges against him. Dawson told board members that he was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
“You are quoted in here as saying: ‘It was the word of God that told you to write these harassing letters to this 15-year-old girl,’ ” one board member said incredulously as she reviewed materials.
Dawson described the incident as a “test” and said he had to write the letters even though he would suffer consequences.
“Anytime that a minister is being led by God and he gives you a direct command to do something, it’s not up to you to do it or not to do it,” Dawson said of the incident.
The board denied Dawson’s request for a license.
Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.