Secrets of Tyler Deaton's prayer group emerge

Insiders describe leader Tyler Deaton, whose wife was found dead, as charismatic, controlling

The Kansas City Star/November 19, 2012

Tyler Deaton gathered his followers one more time to his wife's Kansas City funeral.

It was November 6, and they wept for Bethany Deaton, dead at 27. They chose this spot, a Longview Lake funeral home, looking out its picture windows on the same serene water where, by all appearances, Bethany had gone to take her own life a week before.

She loved the water, Deaton said, according to someone who was there. She loved the lakeside woods and its simple animals, its birds and squirrels.

While Deaton spoke in calm and assuring tones, at least one of his closest inner circle apparently was starting to come undone.

Three days later, investigators say, 23-year-old Micah Moore would go to police and uncork the terrible secrets that allegedly occurred over several months at a Grandview home where Deaton and other members of his religious group lived.

Witnesses told of a clan of young adults making sex part of their religious experience, of men in the group sexually assaulting Bethany over months, and of Deaton's role as their "spiritual leader."

But Moore's darkest admission, according to court records, was that Deaton feared Bethany was about to reveal the group's secrets.

Moore confessed that he had murdered Bethany and tried to make it look like suicide, and, according to court documents, he said Deaton told him to do it.

Moore alone has been charged, with first-degree murder. Deaton and others in the group are under investigation, prosecutors said.

Neither Deaton nor Moore could be reached for comment, but The Star, using court documents and interviews with people close to the Deatons and Moore, has pieced together a glimpse of life inside the group.

The group's members found each other at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas, where a former classmate remembered that Moore and Bethany were "really good friends."

"I can't believe this would happen," she said. Like many of the people interviewed for this story, she asked that her name not be used because of the nature of the case.

She and others who knew Moore and Bethany described them as sweet and generous. They were young, like all those who joined Deaton's prayer group at Southwestern.

It was a pastoral campus, said a parent of one of the students in the group. "A super bunch of kids … very sweet and innocent - too easily becoming followers."

Deaton and several others graduated in May 2009 and migrated to Kansas City to continue their religious exploration at the International House of Prayer's booming school and ministry for missionaries. Bethany went, too. The parent who saw them as innocent followers watched them go as young people of strong faith, imagining lives as missionaries.

"How, in three years, does all this come to pass?" she wondered as she reflected on the allegations. "How did they fall down that slippery slope? How did one person have this much control?"

Tyler Deaton had the looks.

His senior portrait in the 2005 yearbook for Corpus Christi's Calallen High School captured his arresting eyes and easy smile wrapped by his soft cheeks and a strong chin.

And a spunky arrogance.

"Be intolerant," read his quote attached to the portrait, "because some things are just stupid."

He was a member of the National Honor Society and the Young Republicans. He played jazz piano and won first place in the school's talent show.

And when it came to debating, he was a champion, said his teacher, Charlene Dietrich.

"He could think logically," she said. "He could argue his case. He is really personable. He's smart, articulate and driven."

He competed hard, learned from his losses and held steadfast in his faith and his convictions, she said.

The reach of the fresh allegations out of Kansas City are beyond anything the teacher could ever have imagined, but not the descriptions of his magnetic appeal.

"I could see him becoming known in his faith," she said. "I expected good things out of Tyler. I could see where he would become a leader."

Southwestern University, a small liberal arts college of some 1,400 students on a wooded, 700-acre campus, fit the model of what students almost invariably called "close-knit."

The university, affiliated with the Methodist Church, included among its student offerings organizations where they could find religious fellowship.

It didn't take long for Deaton to become a religious force on campus, schoolmates said.

Two things about Deaton stand out in the memory of one woman who often found herself debating him in Bible study.

"Everything had to go his way," Christy Little said. "One time he said there would be no discussion until everyone agreed that the King James version was the only true version of the Bible. Well, I was Catholic so I had a problem with that. So we argued and of course Tyler won everybody over because that's what he did."

When the sanctioned campus organizations fell short of what Deaton wanted, he started his own group, students said - one that was not an official campus group, Southwestern officials said last week.

His group prayed longer. Sang stronger. And held its members to stricter interpretations of the Bible.

They used the campus chapel at all hours - before the university decided to bar them from it - so they were easily discovered by students wandering across the campus.

One student who joined the group described her first encounter.

Deaton was leading the praying with song, playing the keyboard and singing that God breaks every chain in your life.

"He had this awesome singing voice," she said. "A really powerful voice. It was really moving."

And when she met him, his intelligence and his warmth swept over her.

"He really knew the Bible," she said. "He could teach out of it in a way that made sense. He was casual and intellectual and I was really affected by that."

The group she knew, and that others in the group knew, was nothing dangerous. It wasn't exclusive. New members came and went, they said. They loved Deaton, but never felt controlled by him.

They saw nothing that reconciles with the horrific allegations unleashed in Kansas City.

If anything, the students in his group at Southwestern were zealous in what they believed was possible in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Many believed in "holy laughter," the notion that the spirit sweeping through one's body could loosen its control.

Deaton believed that "God gloried in your having fun," a former participant in his group said. "God would bestow laughter on you."

At least once, some students said, Deaton with others attempted to raise a paraplegic student out of a wheelchair. Another time they tried to make a blind woman see.

"He believed God could fix things," a student said.

That included, Deaton told people, fixing himself.

One of his group's stark positions on Scripture was that homosexuality was wrong. Deaton's stance against it weighed heavily because members said he had "struggled with being gay."

"He struggled with it, but he overcame it," a member of his group at Southwestern said. "It was a victory."

By his senior year at Southwestern, 2008-2009, Deaton had had enough of the sanctioned campus organizations.

He told his members who still associated with the other groups that it was time to make a choice.

The last straw may have been some of the campus homecoming skits in the fall, one of the Southwestern group members said.

Performers with the sanctioned groups put together a comedy parodying a range of campus groups. At the end, they parodied themselves, dancing and singing while dressed in large, cardboard Bibles.

"He called people to the chapel after that," the member said. "A lot of people were ticked off."

At some point, the university administration decided Deaton's group should not use the chapel anymore. That was fine with Deaton, the member said, because he didn't want his to be a campus group.

By then, he and many of its members were already setting their sights on Kansas City.

The International House of Prayer had great appeal to the group, said a former member. They loved the Kansas City organization, which brings thousands of people to its retreats, its school for missionaries and its 24-hour prayer center.

They loved the strong evangelism and the dedication to following Scripture, the former member said. Many shared a belief that the "end times" were at hand. And they loved IHOP's music.

"Everyone (in Deaton's group) was big into Christian music," the former member said. The first group was graduating from Southwestern in the spring of 2009. And younger group members would follow after their graduations.

At this time, Bethany was a close member of the group, but people who were there didn't describe a romantic relationship yet between her and Deaton.

Southwestern students who had moved between Deaton's group and the sanctioned organizations described a tug of war, trying to pull some of their friends back from Deaton.

The sanctioned men's religious fraternity in particular lost many of its members, one of them said.

"I asked, ‘Why are we so small? Why is there not a Christian unity? Why are we not getting along?'?" he said. "The answer was it was because of Tyler."

Some of the staff at Southwestern grew uneasy with Deaton's group and the pipeline it was laying to Kansas City.

One staff member remembered particularly wishing that Bethany wouldn't join the exodus.

"I was terribly worried," the staff member said.

In the 7300 block of East 122nd Street in Grandview, neighbors soon noticed that the street would fill with cars on Wednesday night. Dozens of people, mostly men, flowed into the Deaton house. One woman said the group would sometimes move to an adjoining property for a late-night drum circle.

At Southwestern, the group that Deaton started carried on. They never gave themselves an official name, but because many of them wore IHOP T-shirts, people around the campus began calling them the IHOP group, or "IHOPpers."

Deaton and some of the other members in Kansas City, maybe six to 10 at a time, would go back to visit the group at Southwestern once or twice a semester. And for at least two years, the contact between the two was frequent and strong.

But the 2011-2012 school year brought a change, the member said. Deaton informed the group at Southwestern that the Kansas City contingent wasn't going to be as close with the Texas members as before.

"They said it would be best for everyone involved," the member said. They were "more disconnected … more hands-off."

It's only in hindsight now that the member frets at the separation, that "if the kind of horrible things (the court records describe) happened, it had time to brew."

Those in Texas had no suspicion that anything so troubling was unfolding.

When news came on Valentine's Day by Facebook and phone calls that Deaton and Bethany were engaged, the members in Texas celebrated. The wedding came in August.

"These were people we really loved," the member said. "We were all excited. It was awesome."

Now, many of the outlying members and friends and family fear for members of Deaton's group in Kansas City.

Some said they hadn't spoken for weeks or months.

One mother told The Star last week that her son fell in with Deaton's group three years ago and she hasn't seen or heard from him since. She thinks her son is probably in Kansas City.

Family and friends don't know who was living where in south Kansas City. They don't know who else was in the Grandview house where the alleged attacks occurred.

They don't know who else is under suspicion.

Bethany's body had been released to her family for a funeral Nov. 9 in Arlington, Texas.

It was the day of that second funeral when Moore went to the Grandview Police Department. At some point - court documents are unclear on the timing - he confessed many details to Shelley Hundley, a reverend and member of the executive team at IHOP. Investigators with the Jackson County sheriff's office began questioning other people who lived in the house.

Bethany, whose body had been found the night before Halloween in the back of her van beside Longview Lake, with a bag over her head and a suicide note left on the console, was no longer considered a victim of suicide. Her body was returned to Kansas City.

Friends and family, already reeling from the false news that Bethany had killed herself, now had to fathom so much more.

Bethany was sexually assaulted over a period of months while drugged with someone else's prescription anti-psychotic, witnesses in the house told authorities. This was happening, the witnesses alleged, in a period of time that male members in the house were involved in sexual relationships with Deaton, one saying it was part of a "religious experience."

The statements unfolded with Moore allegedly saying that people in the group feared Bethany was about to tell her therapist about the assaults, and that he killed her with the plastic bag over her head at Longview Lake.

He did it, his statement to detectives said, because Deaton told him he knew Moore "had it in him to do it."

A friend of many of the people who went to Kansas City is haunted now, remembering the close friendship and like-mindedness she saw in Moore and Bethany.

"They were both introspective, quiet-mystical people," she said.

She watched them go from Southwestern, the same as so many others year after year, to join the evangelical adventure.

"It's like they believed they were going into a storybook," she said. "They were going to be equipped for the end times. For them it was heroic."

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