A leader of a secretive evangelical congregation has persuaded a magistrate to issue trespassing charges against a North Carolina state Senate candidate who brought supporters and a TV crew along to a scheduled meeting at the church.
Democratic candidate David Wheeler says he was invited by Jane Whaley, the leader of the Word of Faith Fellowship, to visit the church in Spindale, North Carolina. The church has been accused of beating congregants to expel demons. Wheeler told The Associated Press that Whaley and other members invited him so he could see for himself that it is an open and loving church.
But when Wheeler arrived Tuesday with a former congregant, a church critic and reporters, he was told to leave. The next day, Wheeler and two people who accompanied him — a man who ran for county sheriff and a former church member — were charged with trespassing, based on another church leader's complaint.
"If the Word of Faith thinks they are going to intimidate me they truly are living in a different world," Wheeler said in an email to AP. "This is not Russia. Jane Whaley is not Vladimir Putin. We live in a country where open courts provide a lot of answers and I'm looking forward to our hearing to discuss their ridiculous charge."
The complaints were filed by longtime minister Jayne Caulder. Wheeler was charged with second degree trespassing, along with John Huddle, who left the church in 2008, and Wayne Guffey, a Word of Faith Fellowship critic who was defeated earlier this year in the Republican primary by the incumbent sheriff of Rutherford County.
District Attorney Ted Bell said he can't comment on pending cases. Wednesday's charges now go to court, with initial hearings scheduled for Aug. 24. A trespassing conviction is punishable by up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.
"John Huddle, Wayne Guffey and I will fight this all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if we have to on behalf of all of the other people that have been victims of or intimidated by the Word of Faith," Wheeler said.
Wheeler's attempt to meet with Whaley was livestreamed on Facebook. Video shows that when Wheeler walked inside, a church member asked what he was doing there. He said he had a meeting with Whaley.
At that point, Caulder can be seen in the video. When Wheeler asks if he could see Whaley, Caulder wouldn't answer the question and repeatedly asks everyone to leave.
Guffey, a critic of local officials he accuses of turning a blind eye to the abuse, said the trespassing charge "has the stench of retaliation all over it."
"If they think they can intimidate me, they are sadly mistaken," Guffey told the AP. "I will keep speaking out. It's time for people in this county to get their head out of the sand."
Guffey himself pressed charges against a church member for stealing one of his campaign signs, a theft he caught on camera.
Josh Farmer, an attorney and Fellowship member, told AP in an email that Wheeler's group initially refused to leave.
"Mr. Wheeler barged in at the church well before the scheduled time for the meeting with members of the media and several critics of the church, none of whom were invited," Farmer said in an email. "They were asked to leave numerous times and only did so after they heard that someone at the church was calling for the police. Mr. Wheeler's behavior was deceptive and the behavior of all in the group was appalling and unacceptable in their refusal to leave."
This all began when Wheeler, a businessman, talked about restoring trust in state and local government at a news conference last week. Wheeler has criticized how local authorities have handled complaints of abuse involving the church, which has been the focus of an AP investigation. Wheeler said two church members then invited him to visit, and he followed up in an email. Wheeler said there were no restrictions on who he could bring along.
The Fellowship, claiming some 750 members in North Carolina and nearly 2,000 at church branches in Africa and Brazil, has been the focus of ongoing AP investigation.
In a series of stories beginning in February 2017, AP has cited dozens of former members who said congregants were regularly punched and choked in an effort to beat out devils. The AP also revealed how, over the course of two decades, followers were ordered by church leaders to lie to authorities investigating reports of abuse.
AP also outlined how the church created a pipeline of young laborers from its two Brazilian congregations, who say they were brought to the U.S. and forced to work for little or no pay at businesses owned by church leaders.
Those stories led to investigations in the United States and Brazil. In March, Brazilian labor prosecutors filed suit to close one of the churches and its school in Sao Paulo, saying its leaders "reduced people to a condition analogous to slavery."
In May, two church members pleaded guilty to federal fraud charges for taking part in an unemployment benefits scheme that former congregants said was meant to keep money coming into the sect. Two other members, including a church leader, were indicted a month later with conspiracy to commit wire fraud in connection with a similar scheme.