For Feigley, prison was new beginning

Harrisburg Patriot-News, Pennsylvania/August 10, 2008

George Feigley was so charismatic that he persuaded parents, including a psychiatrist, to hand over their children for "religious training" that involved sex acts performed on children, starting from birth.

Two prison escapes, a deadly breakout attempt, and a conviction for a sex-related crime while in prison followed in the years after George Feigley's 1975 conviction for raping three girls he was teaching at a school he opened four years earlier.

Those events helped to secure Feigley's place as one of Dauphin County's notorious criminals. His sordid tale can be found in a patchwork of newspaper clippings, court records and recollections of those who grew up in the cult.

Feigley was 34 when he went to prison, and he'll be 68 when he's released from the State Correctional Institution at Laurel Highlands this week. His release adds another twist to his 35-year saga.

Church founded in 1971

Before he was labeled a cult leader and sex offender, Feigley was known as George G. Stoctay, who fancied himself an astrologer, a rare-book dealer, a photographer and local historian. He published two books on Dauphin County's history and was considered a knowledgeable source on history books about sorcery, witchcraft and erotica.

In 1971, the Philadelphia native founded a church and private school, which he ran at his home in the 1300 block of Derry Street in Harrisburg. The Neo-American Church School operated under Feigley's leadership for four years before it came under suspicion.

A mother of two of the school's students went to the Dauphin County district attorney's office in early 1975 to explain her suspicions of sexual abuse. Feigley denied having sex with the girls, blaming their accusations on rebuffed schoolgirl crushes, but a jury didn't believe him and he was convicted of raping three girls, ages 11, 13 and 15.

His wife, Sandra Feigley, was found guilty in the same trial of corrupting the morals of a minor. She served 2 years' probation while her husband was sent to prison.

When Feigley was sentenced Dec. 30, 1975, Dauphin County Judge William W. Caldwell told Feigley, "You must be [censured for] hiding your sexual gratification and appetite behind a mask of religion and a license to operate a school. ... These were calculated and knowing acts."

Prisoners' stories often end when they are sent to prison, but for Feigley, it was a new beginning.

Cult member looks back

"J," a former cult child, recalled hearing about Feigley's 1976 escape from SCI Rockview when her parents joined the group two years later. She was 5.

Feigley had scaled the prison wall and jumped onto a waiting motorcycle with another person and disappeared with his followers.

J, who asked that her real name not be used, is now a 35-year-old woman. The Patriot-News does not reveal the identities of victims of sexual crimes.

Back then, attorneys involved in the case said Feigley was "too smart" to get caught. It took police two years, but they found him living in a commune he established on a farm in Grafton, W.Va., in September 1978. The group had started a private school and had two students enrolled at the time of his arrest.

J was introduced to George Feigley at that West Virginia farm. There, she and other children given to Feigley by their parents were abused mentally, physically and sexually by the man who referred to himself as "The Light of the World." The abuse by cult members, at Feigley's direction, went on even after police descended on the farm to take him away.

Feigley was back in prison less than a month when he persuaded a fellow prisoner to help him escape from the county jail while waiting extradition. James Gilbertson of Grafton had 45 days left on his 6-month sentence for petty theft when he came back early from his work-release job, threatened the lone jail keeper with a gun and ordered him to set Feigley free. Authorities said George Feigley gained control of Gilbertson by "showering him with sexual favors."

Clearly still in control of his flock, George Feigley and his followers moved from town to town to evade police. J has memories of those places, including a farm in the mountains near Sneedville, Tenn., where FBI agents tracked him down and returned him to prison two months after his second escape. Feigley has been in prison since then.

Those whom George Feigley left behind when he was returned to prison became obsessed with freeing him, devising elaborate escape plans involving hot-air balloons and helicopters that were never carried out.

One of their less eccentric plans killed Gilbertson, who joined the cult, and another one of Feigley's followers.

2 in cult died in sewer line

The August 1983 deaths of Laura Seligman, 26, and Gilbertson, who had changed his name to James Gilbert, 27, rattled the group, J said. She was about 10 when the two cult members drowned in a sewer line close to Western Penitentiary near Pittsburgh, where Feigley spent time after his second escape. They were swept into the Ohio River by a sudden rain that flooded the line.

"I really loved Laura," J said of the former Hampden Twp., Cumberland County, woman. "It was kind of freaky how they died. We were all devastated."

The fatal effort happened when J and other children and cult members were living in a rundown farmhouse in Marianna, Washington County, which a prosecutor later declared a "house of horror."

Police found hundreds of photos of J and other children in sexual poses, similar to 15 pictures confiscated a couple of months earlier from a woman visiting Feigley at the prison. The discovery prompted the escape attempt that killed Seligman and Gilbert.

By the time troopers descended on the farmhouse, all but one of the cult members had gone. The one who remained told troopers she didn't know anything about the people or children who were supposed to be there.

That time was a blur for J, who remembers constantly moving to avoid the police. The "foreigners," as they were called by the cult members, wanted to break up the cult. But it wasn't the police who led to the group's descent. J said the adults, including her mother, became disillusioned with Feigley over the years and had started to break away by the time police caught up to what was left of the cult.

"We knew we wanted to escape, but we were afraid of what would happen if we left, that we would be stricken with some horrible disease if we didn't obey his rules or the law he laid down," she said. "He was very powerful. Even when he was in jail, he had a strong hold on the group's members."

Only a core group, consisting of Sandra Feigley and a couple others, remained by the time the authorities caught up to them at the place where Feigley's domination began. They had returned to the Derry Street house.

In November 1983, a trooper posed as a furnace repairman to get into what he described as the filthiest house he'd ever seen. While inside the house, the trooper saw children playing with pornographic books and about 30 boxes of sexual devices.

Four children were removed from the home, including a 5-year-old girl who told police she had been locked in a closet, abused with dildos and photographed nude. Police found those pictures along with a manual, reportedly written by Feigley, describing how his "children" were to be indoctrinated. Girls were to be prepared for their "owners." Charts described the number of sex acts to be performed daily on varying age groups, starting at birth.

Authorities returned the children and the cult members to Washington County, where, during a December 1983 hearing, a judge placed the children in foster care after ruling they had been sexually abused and exploited.

Sandra Feigley and two other cult members eventually pleaded guilty to corruption of minors in exchange for jail terms of 6 to 231/2 months.

Criminal charges against a fourth cult member were dropped, since neither she nor her daughter appeared in the photos. Her daughter, whom the group had renamed "Sunflower," was returned to the woman, a reputed priestess of the cult who lived near Sandra Feigley's house on Derry Street.

Years later, Sunflower was at the center of another sex case involving the Feigleys and a Dauphin County work-release prisoner.

Feigley ran cult from prison

Steven Shaffer was allowed to work for Sandra Feigley through the work-release program at the Dauphin County Prison. Sandra Feigley, who was operating a boardinghouse at her Derry Street home, and her inmate husband had been long forgotten by the time Shaffer got the job.

Shaffer and Sandra Feigley had started an affair at George Feigley's direction and, some time later, Shaffer was asked to have relations with Sunflower, a 14-year-old cult youth whom George Feigley wanted "broken in.

Feigley directed the sex encounters between the work-release inmate and his wife, and Sunflower, from prison. Sandra Feigley described the encounters to her husband via a remote telephone headset, Shaffer told police.

Sunflower gave a different story, telling detectives that Shaffer, prosecutors' key witness against the Feigleys, raped her and that she was never abused by the Feigleys.

The case dragged on for three years because Feigley filed motion after motion from SCI Huntingdon, where he was confined at the time. It abruptly ended in 1995 with unexpected pleas to lesser charges from the Feigleys and Sunflower's mother.

In exchange for 4-year probationary sentences, Sandra Feigley and Sunflower's mother pleaded guilty to conspiracy to hinder Sunflower's apprehension. George Feigley was sentenced for conspiracy to commit involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, which added 3 to 6 years to his sentence.

Shaffer was never charged in the matter.

If not for the 1995 conviction, George Feigley would have been released in 2002. Instead, he is to be released later this week, which appalls prosecutors and at least several of his victims.

"Prison is not a place that gives people like him support for mental health. It's a system of punishment. He's probably more emotionally stunted now than he ever was," J said. "He's not a man who should be out with society. I mean, he's mentally unstable, psychotic. He needs to be in a mental institution."

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