Walterboro, SC -- Protected by a "Keep Out, No Trespassing" sign and the word of God, Ralph Gordon Stair's religious community, The Overcomer Ministry, has been a mystery to Colletonians for decades - that is until his arrest Thursday.
A self-proclaimed profit of God, who broadcasts daily his message to thousands over AM and short wave radio, Stair was charged with two counts of criminal sexual conduct in the second degree and two counts of breach of trust, according to an arrest warrant.
The arrest of Stair, 69, of Canadys, was a result of an ongoing investigation by the State Law Enforcement Division.
Backing up these charges are former community members, who allege sexual misconduct, financial irregularities and disregard for building regulations.
Prior to his arrest, The Press' attempts to contact Stair were unsuccessful.
On one occasion, a message requesting an interview was left on an answering service. On three other occasions, a woman named Margaret said she would give Stair the message.
"If he's interested (in an interview), he'll call you back," she said on the first two occasions. Margaret hung up on the third call.
The preacher - or as he prefers to be called, "prophet" - sermonizes on numerous AM radio stations across the country, and his Internet-based and short-wave radio ministry crosses international lines. Stair's community members sell all of their worldly possessions, turn over the proceeds to him and move to Colleton County to live a life of farming and prayer.
But once these followers have severed all their ties to the outside world, some say things change. Two girls say Stair had sex with them over 70 times against their will. Stair's wife Teresa says he admits having sex with several women at the community, but it was completely consensual. (See related stories in this issue.)
Aside from the girls' claims, other residents say the entire camp was subject to constant degradation. On a regular basis, they say Stair would chastise any member of the community for a variety of things ranging from potatoes with too much seasoning to someone having inappropriate expression on their face. Grown men say they cowered from the prophet while in his presence.
Radio time is the community's most expensive expenditure - and its lifeline, these former followers say. As a result, Stair relies on his followers to finance his broadcasts. Many of these people have turned over anywhere from $5,000 to $500,000. If they decide to leave, followers say little, if any, of the money is returned.
Living conditions, also, are less than adequate and possibly in violation of S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control laws and building codes, say former residents. Primitive plumbing in the form of buckets as toilets and haphazardly constructed live electrical cables are all over the farm, they say, and mobile homes and other structures are not up to building codes.
For years, Stair's non-denominational community has drawn national media attention, many times comparing his organization to a cult. Stair, who has been head of the community for more than 20 years, denies such claims.
"One day, I looked up the word 'cult,'" he said in a 1988 interview. "It means, 'A group of people that have a strong leader who demands obedience and enthusiasm from his followers.' Well, I said, 'Then that's Christianity.' You've got a strong leader. His name is Jesus Christ, and he demands, or asks, us to obey him. And we should be excited about it."
Seems most of Stair's followers are excited about his preaching. Because he tells them to get out of the cities, they sell all of their possessions - cars, houses and other belongings - to get back to nature and live the simple life. Alcohol, tobacco and profanity are not allowed in Stair's community.
All the while loud speakers blare his preaching, women prepare big, shared meals each day, do all the household chores and raise the children. The men who do not have jobs off of the farm raise vegetables, care for the livestock and do maintenance.
Though these standards seem moderate, Stair is anything but that, according to former follower Josh Bennett, who left in 1997. Free will is a distant dream, he says, as people give up everything once they enter the farm.
"No one has a dime except chiefmen. Everyone is forced to work and attend tabernacle, even if they are very ill. Doctors are permissible, but if used, the patient must leave and not return," Bennett wrote in an April 2000 testimonial after he had moved to Alabama. "No jewelry - all attire must be plain and simple, hiding any natural beauty. No sugar, no TV - all entertainment is provided by the prophet and that consists of popcorn and ginger ale on Wednesday night and dessert on Friday night.
"Fraternization is strictly forbidden between (the) opposite sexes. (There is a) communal kitchen, communal bathroom, no food in (the) living quarters, limited and sometimes no hot water, sometimes no heat in winter. (There is) no air-conditioning, except for prophet's family. Anyone who communicates with friends or family outside are enemies of the commune and (are) eventually black-balled, even though he encourages it on the air. Laughter is not permitted and is associated with Exodus 32:6.
"Sex between married couples is discouraged, unless approved by prophet. (The act) is then discussed in open forum with the rest of the community, as well as the children, concerning the couple, which is to engage in the act. In the event that a child is conceived without prophet's blessing, then conception occurred as a result of lust. Therefore, the child is born with a spirit of anti-Christ.
"No one has need of traveling outside the grounds except prophet. Prophet has authority to separate man and wife and give the wife to another man," Bennett wrote.
Though Stair asserts his followers are free to leave whenever they choose, their departure ensures damnation, according to Kathleen Duval, a former follower who moved with her husband and two sons to Bamberg County. Many who have left say it took many months to get their spiritual life back in order, she said.
"I'm almost to the point of having a nervous breakdown, because now I can think," said Duval. "I can think. What happened there is tearing me apart.
"My husband and I still have huge fights. (Whenever) he tells me to turn down the radio or something, I tell him I'm not in a cult anymore. It's really a cult. We all know it's a cult now. I can't keep this in. I can't keep this in.
"When we came today (to the interview on Jan. 12), we got lost, and I almost fell apart. I was always very self-assured, and it's going to take me a long time, a long time."
For months after leaving, Kathleen still believed what Stair preached - that if you left the farm, you were going to hell.
"When (other former Stair followers) called us and said, 'You're not going to hell.' Because I kept thinking I was, because we were told to leave. I looked in the Bible, and I couldn't see His mercy and His forgiveness. I know what went wrong. I put a man before my savior, Jesus Christ. I believed him (Stair) before God."
Complete control is Stair's goal, according those close to the prophet. The fact that his church is non-denominational results from his not wanting supervision, like many other churches, which have some sort of church-wide hierarchy.
"He doesn't like being part of a denomination, because he has people over him," said Brenda Hart, Stair's daughter. "He wants to be in control, but he doesn't mind having people under him."
Stair's need for control has taken a sinister turn though, according to Stacey Belford and Laquiela Horn, who both say the prophet had sex with them against their will on numerous occasions. Now, the two have escaped to Victory Community, a religious organization in Jefferson, S.C.
Belford, whose parents moved the family to the farm in 2000, had been there over a year before Stair assaulted her, she said. One day he invited her to go for a walk with him. After learning she was 18 years old, Stair, who was 68 at the time, reportedly told Belford he would be her boyfriend.
"He hugged me and kissed me on the forehead," she said. "I thought he was kidding."
Several days later, Stair assigned her to a new chore, washing dishes. This particular job had to be at a certain time each day, she said.
"He knew when I was doing those dishes," Belford said. "On several occasions, he would come in the dishwashing area to check on her and to get a hug, she said. One Sunday, Stair came in to get more than an embrace.
"He asked if I wanted another hug," she said. "I just shrugged my shoulders. I couldn't answer him. I knew what was fixing to happen, but I was afraid of what would happen if I didn't."
Stair then grabbed her, she said, saying "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to do something for you. You know I love you."
He started hugging her and then pulled her clothes off.
"'Can you handle this? Do you want me to make love to you?'" said Belford, remembering her version of Stair's words. "'You may not like it now, but you'll like it eventually.'
"I just stood there. I wouldn't talk to him," Belford said. "When he first tried, I pushed him, but he put all his weight on me. I put my hands over my face and waited for it to be over with."
Belford, who said she was a virgin before Stair assaulted her, said he kept coming back for more. So much in fact, she kept a calendar recording each event. In a span of seven months, Stair had sex with her 56 times, she said.
"Sometimes I would be on my period," she said. "He would make me perform oral sex on him. He always wanted to try filthy stuff."
Stair would catch Horn alone too, usually when she was cleaning the house on Fridays when the boys were in school, she said. Like Belford, on several occasions, he would come in to visit her and to get a hug.
"He got me up against the wall. I thought, this hug is going a little too far," she said. "I just froze."
Horn was brought to the farm by her father after their parents divorced.
No female was safe, according to Latrice Jackson, who is the wife of one Stair's assistant ministers and most trusted elders, David Jackson. The couple and their daughter moved to Colleton County in 1995, and after about a year, Stair reportedly approached Latrice Jackson for sexual favors.
"He would find me alone and ask if I missed him. He asked me for hugs. I began to feel pressured - I sensed him following me around," she said. "It didn't take me long to realize he was after more than that. I believe he was trying to get me to go to him willingly."
Latrice Jackson, who was 30 at the time, believes her maturity saved her from being assaulted herself.
"It was a very difficult position to be in. This is the man you trust to show you the way, and he does things that you know are absolutely wrong," she said. "It just got to be too much for me."
Though she was afraid he wouldn't believe her, Latrice told David Jackson what had been happening. After much prayer, her husband confronted Stair, who said he was sorry, but he had been "taken by the spirit."
"He just made the fatal mistake of choosing me as one of his elders. I wasn't going to let it get swept under the rug," said David Jackson, who also lives at the Victory community in Jefferson.
Both Horn and Belford agree they knew what he was doing was not right, but Stair told them God wanted them to do it.
"I know stuff like that is wrong," Belford said. "I asked him, 'Is God okay with this?' He said, 'God can always forgive. He is faithful, and He can always forgive.'
"He had some sort of control over you," she added. "He would make you think you were part of it and not a victim."
But Belford's turmoil would get much worse before it got any better.
"In August (2001), I was waiting to get my period, but it didn't come," she said. After over a week of waiting, Belford told Stair she thought she was pregnant.
"Oh, you're just nervous," he told her. "I've been too cruel to you."
Stair then gave Belford specific instructions for her to fill a bathtub with the hottest water she could stand, pour Epsom salt in it and sit in the mixture for 30 minutes.
"He said, 'Make sure the water gets inside,'" she said. If the water started cooling off, Belford was to add more hot water.
The first time she tried it, Belford says she could only tolerate sitting in the water for 10 minutes. After reporting this to Stair, he told her to do it again - this time making sure she stayed in there for the full 30 minutes, she said.
"I did it and went for a walk afterwards," she said. "When I came back, I was bleeding. I went to bed about 11 p.m. and started having intense pains. Every time, I would black out or throw up. I just threw up until I was dry heaving. I just laid there for a while. But then I thought, I'm dying, and I didn't want to die by myself."
Belford woke up her brother, who sat with her on the couch the rest of the night.
Because Belford's pregnancy was never confirmed by a doctor, it's hard to say whether or not she was actually pregnant, according to Dr. Karen Evans of Women's Health Specialists in Walterboro. Though the procedure Belford described wouldn't abort the pregnancy, it certainly wouldn't benefit a developing fetus.
"If (the water) burns her, that's not good," she said. "Increased heat can cause neural tube defects in early pregnancies."
Some experts believe about half of conceived fetuses do not make it to full term, she said. "It's thought about 50 percent of all pregnancies end in miscarriage, anyway," said Evans.
People who come to Stair's community are searching for something else, but they're not sure exactly what, according to his family members. No matter what they are looking for, they find something totally different once they arrive at The Overcomer Ministry.
"I'll be honest with you, he wants to be worshipped as God. If you're not going to do that, then he doesn't want you there," said Tim Butler, a former follower who now lives with his wife, Pearl, in Orangeburg County. "That's why so many people left, because they weren't going to worship him as God."
Not only was he not willing to worship him, Butler feels Stair's purpose is less than spiritual.
"He would say many times, 'Damn you. Damn you.' You know the Bible says, 'What is in the heart of a man proceedth out of the mouth.' He didn't want to see us saved. He wanted to see us damned," he said.
Most of the followers say they couldn't wait to get to the farm. It was almost as if just being there ensured their salvation, they say. But once they arrived, it was a different story. Stair, who his former followers describe as being a micro-manager, criticized every action.
"He would get on to us for how our faces were - we weren't happy and receiving everything he said with oh such joy," Butler said. "If we didn't have the right face on, he would get so angry at us. Even on the air, international short-wave."
Many of his sermons were contradictory, they say. On one hand, he would criticize them for not thinking on their own.
"He used to call us peanut-brains," Butler said.
On the other, he would chastise their exerting free will.
"He would constantly throw up inequity on us. What inequity is, is self-will," he said. "Anytime you did something that you were just led to do, he would say, 'You did it out of your own self-will. You were full of inequity. You are sinning. You are going to hell.'"
On one occasion, Pearl Butler was preparing potato wedges for breakfast. Because seasonings are one of the things not allowed, she had to make do with some shrimp and crab flavoring she found in the kitchen.
"Somewhere between baking them and getting them out of the table, they were hot. Because we don't get hot food, spicy food, everyone likes spicy food for the most part, the potatoes were gone."
To make matters worse, Stair and his family did not care for Pearl's potatoes, so after breakfast "he got on me for making those hot, spicy potatoes," she said. "Too many spices in the food. Too much honey in our drinks. Too much of anything - we all got yelled at. You couldn't do anything right to please him, unless you were one of the women he was wanting or had."
Tim Butler agreed, saying most everyone was fair game for criticism, but there were a select few who were free from fault.
"He's an equal-opportunity basher. It all depends. If he has designs on a woman, he will just flatter the daylights out of her," Tim Butler said. "If you were one of the girls who spurned him, he would be telling you, 'There's someone here mocking me. (There's) somebody here despising me.' He would preach it in the dining hall, and the girls knew who he was preaching at."
In most cases, Stair would be warm and inviting over the telephone, but once they were living in the community, they just became worker bees.
"Stair has a pattern about him," said Pearl Butler. "One of them was, he never talked to you. He always held you off at a distance. He'd never say hi. He'd never smile at to you. He wouldn't even wave - unless he had a use for you."
Most families left comfortable homes and well-paying jobs behind when they came to Stair's community. But prior to leaving their homes, many of them sent Stair large amounts of money.
It was what he was saying, they say. He was so compelling over the airwaves that they believed everything he preached. In retrospect, Stair's former followers say they are largely ashamed of themselves for allowing themselves to be duped.
"He is a crook. He is a con artist," said Tim Butler. "He is after people's money. He is after people's daughters. He wants to rule over people. It's all about power with him and what he can get with that power. He takes people's money, and people who send money in good faith, he uses it for the radio ministry so he can enlarge it to get it bigger so he can draw more people.
"One brother, he gave $2 million. Can you imagine that? A young man - 30 years old. He almost lost his life in an accident, a construction job. There was a suit, and he got $2 million out of it. He gave it all to Stair. That's how he bought the station in St. George - 810 AM. That's how he pays for all his radio time. He normally spends $150,000 a month on radio, but boy, he don't hardly spend any money on the farm, for the people."
The list of followers who have relinquished their entire life's savings is extensive.
Some of those include Colletonian Larry Hartley (no longer a part of Stair's community) who turned over $185,000 to Stair, the Butlers who turned over $80,000 and the Duvals who turned over $200,000. Of this cash, little, if any was returned, they say.
"After he got our money, we were not an asset," said Kathleen Duval.
Maureen Walker turned over $170,000 to the church, according to Kathleen Duval. She was then accused of being a witch and kicked off the farm with only $3,000 to take with her, according to Kathleen Duval.
Ranging from open sewage to single electrical meters serving multiple buildings, former community members allege Stair's community is so antique that it appears to fail to meet health regulations.
"There are violations up there," said Michael Duval. "When they put in part of that place, it fell under the grandfather clause. Some of those houses that fell under the grandfather clause were replaced or added onto - now they don't fall under that.
"There are septic systems that have been put under there with no permit. There's electrical work that's been done. There are trailers that have been put on there that haven't been inspected or anything like that."
A S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control spokesperson confirmed that the agency must be notified prior to putting in a septic tank.
Michael Duval says he did some research on the county's building inspection laws.
"I went to Colleton County to get a copy of the building requirements - just to check out," he said. "(One of the standards calls for) one electrical meter for one trailer. That's not the case up there. They have multiple trailers. It's like a drop cord city. They have multiple trailers on the same electrical outlet."
Confirming Michael Duval's claim that only one electrical pole can be used for a mobile home, Colleton County Planning and Development Office Director Kevin Griffin said various other steps must be taken before a mobile home can be moved onto someone's property.
The office has no record of any permits being issued under the names Overcomer Ministry or Ralph Stair, within the last three years, which is the time period required by the state to keep such documents, Griffin said.
Longtime inspector's office employee Teddy Reed remembered the community applying for a mobile home permit and inspection six or seven years ago, though he was not certain on the exact date, Griffin said.
"He said it was quite a while back," said Griffin.
The problem with these violations is they endanger those living on the farm, says Michael Duval.
"If something should ever happen up there, or something should ever happen to one of those trailers, (like if) they burn down, who do you think is going to be holding the bag? The building inspector in Colleton County," he said.
Other allegations, made more sinister since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, have arisen of illegal aliens residing than the building codes.
"There's two people there that aren't citizens of this country. One has an expired visa and the other one has no permit to be in this country," said Michael Duval.
One way Stair saves money is by registering vehicles out of state. That way, the community does not have to pay vehicle taxes.
"He would license the vehicles out of Tennessee so he wouldn't have to pay taxes," Michael Duval said. "He was very smart, because he would have the individuals do it. He would say, 'Well, it's not mine.' He always says he has nothing in his name.
Stair was born on May 3, 1933, in Bethlehem, Pa. - a fact he proudly touts, as his birthplace shares the name of the city in which Jesus Christ was born. He grew up in what family members describe as being a good home environment.
As a young man, it was apparent Stair had an affinity for the opposite sex.
"Of course, he liked the girls," said Hart. "He was always the ladies' man."
Stair met his first wife at one of her father's camp revivals in 1950. They dated about six months, and when he was 18, he married the 22-year-old woman on June 30, 1951.
"If they had still been together, they would have been married 51 years," said Hart.
The union, however, was anything but blessed, Hart recalls. Stair was physically and mentally abusive to his wife throughout their marriage, she said.
"He (Stair) was always verbally and physically abusive to her, especially when she stopped traveling with him," Hart said.
Additionally, Stair had many extramarital affairs, one of which resulted in a pregnancy, Hart said, but the child was never born as the woman had an abortion.
"He had affairs that my mom knew about, but she was sure there were some she didn't know about," Hart said. On several occasions, the couple separated, but Hart's mother always went back to him, because "he was a sweet talker."
Stair's wife always believed he would change, as she prayed for him to do so.
"He changed one time, but it didn't last long," Hart said.
After getting married, Stair began his ministry in Allentown, Pa., a calling his family says was started with good intentions.
"He had a normal kind of church, but he didn't believe in medical care. Even though my father and his personal life are nuts doesn't mean God hasn't used him to do good," Hart said. "The Bible says what it says for a reason. Sometimes God uses people in spite of themselves."
Stair's daughter described times when she witnessed people being miraculously healed.
"I saw people get out of their chairs and walk," she said.
The family moved from Pennsylvania to Alabama in the late 1950's. In the early 1960's, they moved back to Pennsylvania. A few years later, the family migrated to Los Angeles, finally ending up in Georgia in the mid-1960's.
"When they traveled, they lived in old cars, trucks, school buses and motels," she said. "They never had a set place to live, because he moved them so much."
Different from his beliefs today, Stair watched television and had church services on Sunday rather than Saturday in his early ministry.
"He's just gone totally extreme now," Hart said.
After 27 years of marriage, Stair, who had been legally separated from his wife for four years and been living in New York, instructed her to file for divorce in 1978.
"He made her file, because he wanted to be able to say it was her fault, not his," Hart said. Stair's first wife did as she was instructed and filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences as the cause. Stair paid all the costs, Hart said.
After marrying his current wife Teresa, who was an opera singer from Boston and had converted from Roman Catholicism, Stair moved to South Carolina. The couple has one child, a 15-year-old daughter, who currently lives with them on the farm.