While his loyal followers toil in shops and factories or work the fields for the common good of the Twelve Tribes, the controversial cult's elusive leader Elbert Eugene "Yoneq" Spriggs travels the globe, bedding down in palatial homes in southern France, Brazil and Cape Cod, former members say.
"They have lots of money and they give most of it to Yoneq," 18-year-old former member Zebulun Wiseman says. "He's constantly flying around. He lives a life of luxury." Spriggs, the sect's reclusive 64-year-old "super apostle," founded the fringe fundamentalist group after claiming he received a "vision" from God on a California beach in 1971.
A former carnival barker and high school guidance counselor from Chattanooga, Tenn., Spriggs is a thrice-divorced, self-anointed messenger of God who spends most of his time touring his religious empire of shops, cafes, workshops and communes with his fourth wife, Marsha, aka "Ha-Emeq." The controversial cult has homes and businesses in Dorchester, Hyannis and Plymouth, in addition to several locations in Vermont and New York.
Constantly scoping out sites for new compounds, ex-members say Spriggs' life is a nonstop whirlwind global tour filled with frequent stays in private digs in Sus, France; Sao Paulo, Brazil; and a lakefront home in Brewster. Throughout his travels, Spriggs spreads his gospel to his loyal followers, handing down bizarre New Testament interpretations, some of which promote racism, homophobia, child abuse and child labor.
"They are controlled by an absolute totalitarian leader. (Spriggs) runs the show," said noted cult expert Rick Ross. "He rules in a very singular role of absolute authority. He sees himself as an intermediary between God and the world."
While members live humbly in clusters of 50 or more, Spriggs has his own private quarters in several locations, including a secret four-bedroom getaway pad overlooking Canoe Pond in Brewster. The $402,000 home, nestled in a swank residential neighborhood, is owned by a Rhode Island realty trust but ex-members say Spriggs stays there when in the Bay State, often with his close underling, 39-year-old Marcel Masse. Most of the cult's New England properties, including homes in Dorchester and Hyannis, are in Masse's name.
Spriggs also has plush new chambers - including marble floors and intricately carved oak fixtures - in the group's newly renovated house, a former nursing home, on Route 3A in Plymouth. While his followers turn over their vehicles, property and bank accounts to the group, Spriggs travels by chauffeured car and often goes on expensive shopping junkets with his wife, ex-members say.
"She gets to shop and fly around the world while all the other women are in the communities taking care of children," Wiseman, son of the group's second-in-command, Charles "Eddie" Wiseman, said. "And all the other men are working their butts off, but Yoneq is out living it up."
"This man is viewed as being like Moses," Robert Pardon, a cult deprogrammer who helps Twelve Tribes defectors, said of Spriggs. "But people's lives are ground up by this group. People die in this group."
Twelve Tribes members, however, sing Spriggs' praises, saying he is merely the group's highest ranking apostle who strives for nothing more than peace for the community. "There's no better man than him," said member Andre "Kepha" Masse. "He's one of the most humble men I know. I have great respect for him."
William "Kharash" Smith, an elder at the sect's Bellows Falls, Vt., community, denied Spriggs is a flashy, free-spending cult leader. "He doesn't wear jewelry or own cars. If he's got money, it's really well-hidden," Smith said, describing Spriggs as a "traveling teacher" comparable to the Catholic apostle Paul. "He lives no differently than the rest of us."
Spriggs has no permanent address and messages left for him at several Twelve Tribes houses were not returned.
Spriggs' rise from hippie-era Christian to mysterious cult leader took him from Tennessee to California to the Northeast Kingdom in Vermont. A former high school football player who held various factory jobs over the years, he spent time preaching to ski bums in Jackson Hole, Wyo., and worked with the homeless in California before creating the Vine Street Church in Chattanooga in the early 1970s.
Disenchanted with mainstream religion and frustrated with increasing scrutiny of his teachings in Tennessee, he moved the growing cult to Island Pond, Vt., a remote town of about 1,000 people just a few miles from the Canadian border. There, the sect flourished with 300 members living in 14 houses while other compounds sprung up around the world.
The Island Pond community was the site of a 1984 raid in which 112 cult kids were snatched by the government amid horrific abuse allegations. The charges were later tossed out, but the group now only has two houses and about 70 members living in Island Pond. There are an estimated 3,000 members living in more than 30 locations worldwide, including at least seven New England compounds.
Ross, who has butted heads with the Twelve Tribes on national TV, says the cult's finances are a complex "labyrinth" of corporations and trusts - none of which are in Spriggs' name but all of which line his pockets. He draws comparisons between Spriggs and doomsday cultists like David Koresh of the Waco, Texas, Branch Davidians and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon of the Moonies, saying Spriggs is creating a brainwashed mass of blind followers whose very existence hinges on his every word.
"He preaches that his followers have a vital role in the end of the world," Ross said. Their religion is largely based around the inevitable coming of the end of the world and some of the group's writings at the turn of the new millennium hinted at an apocalypse. One newsletter ran a rambling cover piece titled "The Last Day."
The group recruits lost souls, guaranteeing salvation from an eternity in the "Lake of Fire," which they say awaits non-believers. While there is no evidence that Spriggs has a sinister plan for violence or mass suicide, experts and former members say the blind obedience of the cultists could be a recipe for disaster one day.
"On the day they're instructed to do something stupid, they'll do it because they don't have the ability to reason," ex-member Kris Wetterman of Tulsa, Okla., said. "It's a dangerous cult. It's sick."
Wetterman was a Twelve Tribes member for two years, living in compounds in St. Joseph, Mo., Colorado Springs, Colo., and Warsaw, Mo. She says she left the group after witnessing a possibly preventable stillbirth and unbearable child abuse and neglect - including against her own son. She said children are "broken" through relentless verbal abuse and beaten "mercilessly" until they admit to sin, regardless of their guilt. Any adult is permitted - even obligated - to discipline any child as deemed fit, she said.
Since threatening to call 911 and fleeing the Warsaw, Mo., house last year, Wetterman has been in a bitter custody dispute with her ex-husband, Chris Wetterman, who remains in the cult. Their 11-year-old son lives with her in Oklahoma but her husband wants the boy to rejoin him in the sect.Part one of this article.