SPINDALE, N.C. — From all over the world, they flocked to this tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lured by promises of inner peace and eternal life. What many found instead: years of terror — waged in the name of the Lord.
Congregants of the Word of Faith Fellowship were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to "purify" sinners by beating out devils, 43 former members told The Associated Press in separate, exclusive interviews.
Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons.
"I saw so many people beaten over the years. Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists," said Katherine Fetachu, 27, who spent nearly 17 years in the church.
Word of Faith Fellowship, an evangelical church with hundreds of members in North Carolina and branches in other countries, also subjected members to a practice called "blasting" — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.
As part of its investigation, the AP reviewed hundreds of pages of law enforcement, court and child welfare documents, along with hours of conversations with Jane Whaley, the church's controlling leader, secretly recorded by followers.
The AP also spent more than a year tracking down dozens of former disciples who scattered after leaving the church. Many initially were reluctant to break their silence because they had hidden their pasts from new friends and colleagues — and because they remain afraid of Whaley.
Those interviewed — most of them raised in the church — say Word of Faith leaders waged a decades-long cover-up to thwart investigations by law enforcement and social services officials, including strong-arming young victims and their parents to lie. They said members were forbidden to seek outside medical attention for their injuries, which included cuts, sprains and cracked ribs.
The former members said they were speaking out now due to guilt for not doing more to stop the abuse and because they fear for the safety of the children still in the church, believed to number about 100.
Several former followers said some congregants were sexually abused, including minors. On one recorded conversation, Whaley admits to being aware of the sexual assault of three boys but not reporting it to authorities.
In the past, Whaley has strongly denied that she or other church leaders have ever abused Word of Faith members and contended that any discipline would be protected by the First Amendment's freedom of religion tenets.
She and church attorney Josh Farmer turned down repeated AP requests for interviews to discuss the fresh allegations from the dozens of former congregants. But hours after the AP's stories were released, the church posted a statement on its website calling the allegations false and contending they were made by "certain former members" out to target the church.
"We do not condone or allow abuse — in any form — at our church. Period," the statement said.
The ex-members said the violence was ever-present: Minors were taken from their parents and placed in ministers' homes, where they were beaten and blasted and sometimes completely cut off from their families for up to a decade. Some male congregants were separated from their families and other followers for up to a year and subjected to the same brutal treatment.
Teachers in the church's K-12 school encouraged students to beat their classmates for daydreaming, smiling and other behavior that leaders said proved they were possessed by devils.
"It wasn't enough to yell and scream at the devils. You literally had to beat the devils out of people," said Rick Cooper, 61, a U.S. Navy veteran who spent more than 20 years as a congregant and raised nine children in the church.
Word of Faith Fellowship has been scrutinized on numerous occasions by law enforcement, social services agencies and the news media since the early 1990s— all without significant impact, mostly because followers refused to cooperate.
Some former members offered a more doctrinal explanation for their decades of silence — frequent warnings by Whaley that God would strike them dead if they betrayed her or her church.
"We were warned to keep the abuse to ourselves. If we didn't, we knew we would be targeted. ... You lived in total fear," said Liam Guy, 29, an accountant who fled in 2015 after nearly 25 years in the church.
Word of Faith was founded in 1979 by Whaley, a petite former math teacher with a thick Southern accent, and her husband, Sam, a former used car salesman.
They are listed as co-pastors but all of those interviewed said it is Jane Whaley — a fiery, 77-year-old Christian Charismatic preacher — who maintains dictatorial control of the flock and also administers some of the beatings herself.
She has scores of strict rules to control congregants' lives, including whether they can marry or have children. At the top of the list: No one can complain about her or question her authority. Failure to comply often triggers a humiliating rebuke from the pulpit or, worse, physical punishment, according to most of those interviewed.
Under Jane Whaley's leadership, Word of Faith grew from a handful of followers to a 750-member sect, concentrated in a 35-acre complex protected by tight security and a thick line of trees.
The group also has nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil and Ghana, and affiliations with branches in other countries.
It was Whaley's personality as much as her message — "strong prayer" and deliverance turn around troubled lives and assure salvation — that attracted people to the church, former members said.
When she started Word of Faith in her early 40s, some of the former members recall her as a motherly figure offering hope to those struggling with alcohol and drugs, or stuck in bad marriages. She filled a spiritual and emotional void, showering new congregants with love and attention.
Those attending the church's twice-a-year international Bible seminars were encouraged to move to Spindale, a community of 4,300 midway between Charlotte and Asheville. It wasn't until they sold their homes and settled in North Carolina that the church's "dark side" gradually emerged, former members said.
By then — isolated from their families and friends, and believing Whaley was a prophet — they were afraid to leave, they said.
Looking back, some former members told the AP they that consider Word of Faith a cult.
"You had a strong leader who controlled everything in your life — where to live, work, who to talk to," Guy said. "You couldn't do anything without her permission. And she had people around her enforcing her law. Soon, you couldn't think for yourself. You had to do everything she said."
SEXUAL ABUSE AND SCHOOL BEATINGS
The church's obsession with controlling sexual thoughts and "ungodly" carnal pleasure — especially lengthy interrogations of pre-teens and teens about masturbation — spilled into every aspect of congregants' lives, the former members say.
And, they say, when allegations of sexual abuse arose within the church, Whaley not only didn't report it but tried to hide it.
In 2012, in a three-hour conversation with a former congregant recorded without her knowledge, Whaley acknowledged she was aware of several instances of sexual abuse at Word of Faith.
In one case involving two boys, she said she failed to report the incident "because it had all stopped, and they were serving Jesus, and I found out about it way later." She also said that "because of ministerial confidentiality, I don't have to."
In fact, there is no such waiver for clergy in North Carolina. Whaley is required to report even allegations of abuse.
On the recording, Whaley explained why she had kept secret the sexual abuse of "an older youth" by another church member, saying she'd asked the victim: "'Do you want me to go to someone and report it? I'll report it to the police.' And he said no because it would smear his name."
One of the former members interviewed by the AP said he was sexually assaulted by a church member in 2009, when he was 15. The man, whose name is not being used because the AP does not identify victims of sexual assault, said Whaley convinced him not to go to the authorities by telling him he would be forced to relive the terrible details in court.
He said he didn't know then that Whaley was wrong when she warned him his "name would be in the newspapers. ... She said she was protecting me. She didn't want me to face an investigation."
Another former member said he was molested by a male church leader but was "too ashamed" and scared how Whaley would react to tell anyone. He said he saw the same leader inappropriately touch several male teens living in the minister's house, but did not report those incidents for the same reasons.
According to court records, a church leader was convicted in 1995 of molesting a 13-year-old girl placed in his home. Of that victim, Whaley said on the 2012 recording, "She was 13, but she looked 20."
Whaley recounted telling the local district attorney that the girl was partially responsible for the abuse because she previously had been sexually assaulted by a family member and others.
Whaley's teachings are rooted in the modern Word of Faith Movement, founded by the pastor Kenneth E. Hagin of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who preached the "prosperity gospel": Pray loud enough and God will answer your prayers.
Hagin said that if his followers faithfully prayed — and tithed generously to church leaders — they would see their reward this side of heaven, including financial riches, good health and sobriety.
It's a philosophy adopted by many televangelists with millions of followers, including Joel Osteen, Joyce Meyer and Creflo Dollar.
But while other evangelical churches practice loud prayer and deliverance ceremonies to cleanse worshippers of devils, all those interviewed said Whaley's methods routinely carry discipline to violent extremes: She believes the devil has to be beaten out of sinners.
"I've seen her on multiple occasions ask: 'Did you throw her on the ground?' And when the person says 'Yes, we got the demon out,' Jane will say: 'I love it. I love it. Thank you, Jesus!'" said Sean Bryant, 29, who left the church last year.
Jay Plummer II of Tulsa, Oklahoma, now 28, remembers being subjected to deliverance as a teenager, where "they would shove you backward and grab your head — and just shake your head back and forth."
While a group of people screamed in his ears, Plummer said others jolted and hit him, "screaming and yelling: 'Come out devil!' 'You're unclean!' It was so violent — all those people around you, beating you, shaking you, yelling at you."
For several years, men and boys perceived as the worst sinners were kept in a four-room former storage facility in the compound called the Lower Building. They were cut off from their families for up to a year, never knew when they would be released, and endured especially violent, prolonged beatings and blastings, according to more than a dozen of those interviewed.
There is little Whaley does not control at Word of Faith, the former followers said:
Members can't watch television, go to the movies, read newspapers or eat in restaurants that play music or serve alcohol. Men cannot grow beards, and no one can buy a house or even a car without permission.
Sexual thoughts and intercourse are considered "ungodly" or "unclean," so adult members need permission to date, get married and even have sex after marriage. Ministers dole out condoms because couples are not allowed to have children without Whaley's authorization.
Several couples said they had to wait up to a year after their weddings before they were allowed to have sexual relations.
Two former members said a 20-year-old woman was repeatedly smacked and punched by a church leader who blamed her late menstrual cycle on pregnancy, when she hadn't obtained church permission to have a child. In fact, the victim said she'd never had sex with her husband; they'd only kissed — once.
"That was one of the worst beatings," said Rachael Bryant, 28, who left the church last year. "She started punching her in the chest, punching her in the stomach, slapping her in the face. It went on and on."
Sixteen of the former members said they were hit or beaten by Whaley, including two who said she banged their heads against a wall repeatedly. Another 14 said they saw her smack or assault others — including grabbing crying babies at services and aggressively shaking them to drive away the demons.
Tim Cornelius, 44, a nurse who left in 2013 after more than 20 years in the church, said that in the eyes of Word of Faith leaders, "The baby isn't hungry or needs to be changed. The baby is crying because they're possessed by a devil."
Some of the worst abuse involving children and teenagers took place inside the church-run school, according to former congregants.
Nearly half of the 43 ex-members interviewed said they themselves were hit dozens of times as students with wooden paddles and other objects, leaving deep welts, cuts, lacerations and other bruises that often made it difficult for them to sit and walk.
Among their transgressions: Smiling too much or not enough. Fidgeting in their seats. Answering a question too slowly.
Most of those interviewed said all it took to prompt a beating was for a teacher to believe a student was possessed by demons.
Whaley believes in all types of devils, the ex-members said. Ask too many questions, it's the "sneaky devil." It's the "buddy-buddy devil" if you become too friendly with another church member, and the "birthday devil" if you celebrate your special day. Worst of all is the "unclean devil," linked to dirty thoughts.
"You lived in fear," recalled 34-year-old Natasha Cherubino, who broke with the church in 2015 after nearly 20 years. "You could hear the yelling and screaming and the teachers being verbally abusive. You would sit at your desk and think 'I don't want to be hit like that.'"
Fourteen of those interviewed reported being blasted or beaten by classmates or having witnessed such attacks, violent behavior they said was sometimes encouraged by their teachers, including Whaley.
"I can't tell you how many times, in the middle of class, one child will turn to the other and say they have demons and the others will surround the child," said Rebeca Melo, 28, who taught at the school until she left Word of Faith in 2015."They're thrown to the floor and they're beaten. We're told not to stop it," she said.
Natasha Cherubino and her husband, Tiago, recall a time their then-6-year-old was giggling in school when classmates surrounded her.
"They started praying for my daughter and grabbed her by the neck. They started strangling her," Tiago Cherubino said.
John Cooper, who spent a few years working as a teacher's aide in Jane Whaley's class, said Whaley encouraged the violence and warned students not to say anything to their parents.
Many of those interviewed recalled frequent interrogations focused on sexual thoughts and practices, especially masturbation by boys and young teens.
"They wanted to know how I masturbated," said ex-member Jamey Anderson, 28, who spent much of his childhood inside Word of Faith. "They just had this creepy obsession with sex. Why would you ask kids about masturbation? Most of us didn't know what the word meant."
'THE TRUTH NEEDS TO BE TOLD'
Over the years, various investigations into Word of Faith Fellowship have failed in large part because of the lack of cooperation from church members, according to the hundreds of pages of documents obtained by the AP.
In 1995, for example, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation interviewed dozens of former members, along with Whaley and other sect leaders, about abuse allegations.
Even though investigators determined congregants, including children, had been abused — and a few said they'd be willing to testify — the district attorney ultimately declined to prosecute. Then-DA Jeff Hunt concluded that the evidence was weak and any prosecution would be stymied by most victims' recalcitrance.
Many of those interviewed said they were ordered at an early age to lie to and mislead investigators to protect Whaley and her closest confederates.
They said strategy sessions were convened where children and parents were coached on how to answer key questions. Several church members who work in local government offered insider advice on how to sidestep pointed inquiries, the ex-congregants said.
Whether the injuries were black eyes, cuts, bruises, bloody noses, sprained limbs or possibly broken bones, the former members said victims were ordered by ministers to "take hold" and deal with any pain internally.
In the one pending criminal case related to the church, five congregants were indicted on kidnapping and assault charges, accused of trying to beat the "homosexual demons" out of member Matthew Fenner during a Jan. 27, 2013, deliverance session.
"I thought I was going to die," Fenner told the AP.
Fenner said he spent nearly two years pushing law enforcement to investigate before the district attorney finally presented the case to a grand jury. Four ex-followers interviewed by the AP said they witnessed the attack.
The case remains pending and has been delayed multiple times due to legal wrangling, including an unsuccessful attempt by the church to have the same law firm represent all five defendants. The law firm's principal partners are Word of Faith members.
The legal delays have raised concerns among those interviewed that the abuse might never be stopped.
"Jane's core beliefs are blasting and violent deliverance. She will not stop until she's put in prison," Sean Bryant said. "Everybody inside the church — especially the children — are at risk."
Bryant spent more than half of his life in Word of Faith, but said he left to protect his wife and their 1-year-old daughter.
He recounted a time in 2015 when Whaley interrupted her sermon to grab his crying daughter from his wife. When a worshipper asked Rachael Bryant what happened, Whaley snapped, he said.
"Jane started screaming at her to shut up and to stop releasing the demons at the baby," he said. "She totally humiliated her in front of 500 people. I was so freaking mad, but I just stood there like stone."
Many former members said they also are upset that prior investigations have gone nowhere or resulted in "slaps on the wrist."
"I feel like the truth needs to be told because the truth has been hidden for so long," said Benjamin Cooper, the 30-year-old son of Rick Cooper.
Given what they characterize as Whaley's record for retribution against those she sees as traitors, the former members said they hope there is strength and protection in speaking out in numbers.
"For most of my life, I lived in fear. I'm not scared anymore," John Cooper said.
Many of those interviewed by the AP were young children when their parents joined the tight-knit Word of Faith community. As mandated, they attended the school on the compound grounds and were ordered to mix only with other congregants when off church property.
Almost all the church's followers live clustered in neighborhoods near the compound, with as many as two dozen disciples crammed into a single house.
Fifteen of the former members spoke of being removed from their parents and made to live with church elders, sometimes shuffled from house to house. During that time, they said, they were mostly forbidden to have contact with their parents.
Some of those ex-followers said they were made to work in businesses owned by the ministers housing them, often for little or no pay.
"We grew up as if we were orphans because our parents were so removed from our life. All of us were to the point that we believed that there was almost no chance we would be saved," said Benjamin Cooper, one of those kept from his family for a decade.
Most of the abuse occurred within the compound, the former followers said, but 12 of those interviewed said they were beaten in the homes of church leaders.
Another Cooper sibling, Jeffrey, a 34-year-old attorney, said he's still haunted by an attack he witnessed in 2013.
Hearing screams from down a hallway, he said he opened a bathroom door and saw a church leader standing over a teenager pinned to the floor.
"He hit him at least 25 times. You could hear the whacks down the hall," Cooper said, fighting back tears.
Cooper said he considered the violence "felony child abuse." But like others interviewed, he said he didn't try to stop the beating or report it to police because he was afraid he would become a target of God's wrath — or Whaley's.
John Cooper recounted what happened to him at a meeting of nearly three dozen young ministers on April 12, 2012, when he was 19.
One by one, the ministers were sharing stories of how they were serving God. When it was Cooper's turn, a church elder interrupted and accused him of "giving in to the unclean" — a catchall phrase covering a wide array of sins. Suddenly, Cooper said, he was pinned to the floor and pummeled for a half-hour, accused of having erotic fantasies.
When the assault ended, Cooper said his body was covered with bruises and he had trouble breathing for weeks.
Danielle Cordes, a 22-year-old business major at the University of Florida who spent 17½ years inside Word of Faith, recalled numerous beatings by Whaley and other church leaders.
Seemingly innocuous behavior warranted a beating to expel the devil — perhaps asking a question, or wanting to play outside.
"We would be in the bathroom for hours and hours and hours," she said. "They would hit you 12, 15 times, then they would stop and pray for you, and shake you. Then they would do it again."
"When you're young, you don't understand what's going on, why they're hitting you," said Cordes, who left Word of Faith in 2013. "You didn't do anything wrong. You weren't causing trouble, but you think you're a bad person because they're beating you in the name of God."
Former member Anna Eiss recalled a sexually tinged incident at the church school, when she was 6. While resting on the floor during naptime, she said she put her hands between her legs to keep warm. A teacher saw her and accused her of masturbating.
"I didn't even know what that meant," said Eiss, now 20 and a military policewoman in the South Carolina National Guard.
Eiss said she was forced to sleep with her hands touching her head and that the ministers she was living with would wake her and beat her if her hands weren't in the correct position.
"You're living in total fear," she said. "There's no one to help you. You're all alone."
For the former church members, the memories — and the nightmares — never seem to fade, and they said they live in fear for their family members and the children still inside.
Cordes said she has deep psychological scars from spending more than three-quarters of her life in Whaley's world.
She remembers the last time she tried to visit her parents' house, three years ago. Her father slammed the door in her face without saying a word.
To this day, whenever she calls, family members hang up.
"I need my family and they're gone," she said.
Many spoke of experiencing severe depression and anxiety.
Greg Parker, 42, who changed his surname to his grandfather's when he left in 2003, said he went to therapists for years.
"They likened it to someone being in a war and coming out," he said.
In May, 10 years after fleeing the church, Jamey Anderson graduated from the University of North Carolina law school. But he remains emotionally broken; his mother and brother still belong to the church and will have nothing to do with him.
"What they did to us was sick," he said of the church's leaders.
The patriarch of the large Cooper clan agrees.
"You're cut off from everyone in the world. The church — and Jane — is the only thing you know," Rick Cooper said. "You believe she's a prophet — she has a pipeline to God. So you stand by while she rips your family apart. I'm not sure how you ever get over that."
Recalling other church groups that have led to deadly confrontations, John Cooper said it is critical to break the "cycle of abuse" before the violence escalates.
"What's going on now isn't right," he said.
Added Melo, the former teacher: "The children are in danger."
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org