April 28, 2014 12:00 PM

On New Year’s Day, Richard Shahan, a beloved Southern Baptist children’s pastor and father of two adult sons, checked his bags at Nashville International Airport to begin a three-year mission abroad to help needy kids in Kazakhstan. Hailing from a family of respected ministers, Shahan, 54, “was looking to make a fresh start in life,” a cousin says.

He never got on the plane. Cornered by Homeland Security before boarding, Shahan was instead charged that day in the July 2013 brutal stabbing of his wife, Karen, 52, in their suburban Birmingham, Ala., home. Police allege Shahan was not leaving to do God’s work but was attempting to flee the U.S. in order to settle in the U.K. with a boyfriend he wanted to marry. “He had no intention of returning,” Jefferson County prosecutor Leigh Gwathney said in court on Jan. 16, adding Shahan was carrying $27,000 in mixed currencies. “He planned to become a citizen there and begin a new life with his boyfriend.” The affair, says Gwathney, was discovered after reviewing 3,000 of his e-mails.

Claims that Shahan was a fugitive from justice are “absolutely untrue,” says his lawyer John Lentine, who declined to comment about the alleged infidelity. “My client had nothing to do with his wife’s death. This trip was announced well in advance, and the cash was simply for travel.” Says the cousin, who, like many, is baffled by Shahan’s supposed affair: “In our hearts we don’t believe Richard could do such a crime.”

Shahan’s congregation is still reeling from the accusations. “I do not know any minister of children anywhere equal to Richard Shahan,” First Baptist Church of Birmingham Rev. Charles Carter said during Karen’s July 2013 memorial. And Karen, an arts-and-crafts-store manager, says Carter, was “always by [Richard’s] side helping.” Karen “spoke lovingly of her husband. She was proud of his ministry,” a former coworker tells PEOPLE. “If it’s him, then it’s more of a tragedy than I could’ve ever imagined.”

Now, as Shahan remains under house arrest awaiting a possible indictment, his lawyer says the pastor’s good name will be cleared in court. But that offers little solace for those who knew Karen. “She was the last person on earth,” says the coworker, “to deserve this.”

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