Child's death renews scrutiny of local church

Members say accused Georgia parents innocent of murder

The Tennessean/February 2, 2007
By Anita Wadhwani and Heather Donahoe

The murder trial of a Georgia couple accused of whipping, confining and then beating their son to death shines a spotlight on the child discipline practices of a controversial Brentwood church.

Josef Smith, 8, died in 2003 on the day he was whipped with foot-long glue sticks, locked in a closet and told to pray to a picture of Jesus. Ex-members of the church say the punishments were in line with the discipline advice they heard while attending Remnant Fellowship Church.

But church leaders, including Gwen Shamblin — the charismatic woman known for creating the best-selling Christian weight-loss program called the Weigh Down Workshop — say the trial under way this week in an Atlanta suburb is their chance to set the record straight.

The church condones discipline, not abuse, said Shamblin. In an exclusive interview, she called spanking a "loving," "time-tested, ancient teaching from the Bible."

"Parents need to know that spankings and traditional groundings are not against the law," she said. "I abide by the law.

"We don't leave marks."

Both sides say they hope the truth about the Remnant Fellowship Church will emerge from the trial.

Boy died after whipping

Remnant Fellowship is a far-flung group, with 130 outposts called "fellowships" across North America. Outlying members tune in to worship services through a video Webcast from home, but many make their way to the handsome, 650-seat Brentwood flagship church for religious holidays and church celebrations.

Joseph and Sonya Smith lived in the Atlanta suburb of Mableton, Ga., and joined the church in 2000. Former church members recall seeing the Smiths at church functions in Brentwood. One remembers seeing the boy, Josef, dancing happily in church.

On Oct. 8, 2003, emergency crews were called to the Smiths' home in Georgia after the couple reported Josef was having trouble breathing. He died the next day at an Atlanta hospital.

Sonya Smith told police that on the day he died the couple had disciplined Josef with a series of glue-stick whippings, delivered in increments of 10. She said the boy was locked in a closet and made to pray to a picture of Jesus affixed to the ceiling. He was monitored in the kitchen via a camera in the closet.

A grand jury indicted the Smiths on murder charges, saying the couple struck him with unknown objects and confined him to a wooden box. The indictment included five counts of first-degree cruelty to a child, two counts of false imprisonment and three counts of aggravated assault, including beating him with glue sticks, the kind sold at craft shops to load into a hot-glue gun.

The Smiths were arrested in December 2003 and spent four months in jail before Remnant church members posted their bond.

The following May, Georgia investigators raided the Franklin headquarters of the Weigh Down Workshop weight-loss program, collecting files and computer disks over two days.

Police did not say what they found. No charges have been filed against church officials or anyone else in the case.

Members support couple

Sonya Smith's attorney says she is innocent. Joseph Smith's attorney did not return calls.

In an interview last week, Shamblin said her personal contact with the Smiths was limited and that she was only vaguely familiar with the family. She said the couple is innocent.

Hundreds of Remnant church members have prayed and decided to collectively foot the Smiths' legal bills, Shamblin said.

Shamblin wouldn't go into detail about the case, saying she didn't want to say anything that might jeopardize the Smiths' chance at getting a fair trial. She said she does not know of any Remnant members who will testify.

"It has been three years now, and I am more sure of their innocence than ever," Shamblin said. "The forensic evidence that will come out in court will prove the innocence of the Smiths."

Part of the evidence police have collected is a tape recording of a women's group meeting in which Shamblin praises Sonya Smith for disciplining her son, the magazine Christianity Today reported in 2004. Prosecutors won't comment on what evidence will be introduced at trial.

In the recorded church conference call from 2003, Sonya Smith tells Shamblin she had locked her son in his room from Friday to Monday with only a Bible, the magazine reported.

"That's a miracle," Shamblin responded. "You've got a child going from bizarre to in control. So praise God."

At the trial on Tuesday, defense attorney Manny Arora cautioned jurors they would see photographs depicting the boy's injuries that "may make you sick to your stomach." But, he said, those injuries "did not cause Josef's death." Josef slipped and fell on a banister, he said.

Baby-sitter was uneasy

Laura Boone, 17, has been called to testify as a witness in the trial this week. Boone, who will graduate from Brentwood High School this spring, began baby-sitting for Remnant families when she was in junior high school.

Occasionally, she and her friends were hired to provide child care during conferences and special events.

In April 2003, Boone baby-sat during an event at Weigh Down's Seaboard Lane headquarters, where she says the Smiths had come for a weekend visit.

"There were more than 20 kids total there," she said. "All the adults were getting ready to go into the worship room, and Josef Jr. was crying really hard in the corner. I asked his dad what he wanted me to do, and he looked right at me, and he hit his fist into his hand really hard."

Boone said Smith Sr. told her to hit his son, "Hit him hard," she recalled Smith telling her.

"I just told him I didn't feel comfortable hitting his son," she said. "So, he took Josef in the little room next door, and we could hear Josef crying really hard and his dad hitting him."

Boone said Josef returned to the nursery area still crying but with no visible marks on his body.

That was the last time Boone or her friends accepted a baby-sitting job at Remnant or for a Remnant family, she said.

Boone says she is testifying because she "wants to be a voice for Josef Smith Jr."

Some disenchanted

Some former church members say obedience to church leaders, called "getting under authority," is paramount for adults. Children's disobedience is a sign of sin, they say.

Ex-members have created an online support group called City of Refuge. Former member Adam Brooks, a Philadelphia psychologist, says the online group has attracted about 100 people, ex-members and family members cut off from those still in the church. They are closely watching the trial coverage, he said.

Like other members, Steve Miozzi and his wife joined Remnant after taking a Weigh Down class at their church in east Cleveland, Ohio. He said he and his wife were initially enthralled.

"You walked into the church, and you thought this is what heaven must look like," said Betsy Miozzi.

Everyone was thin, their teeth white, the children well behaved, and many appeared to be financially successful, she said. And everyone was "lovebombing" the couple, she said, using the church's terminology for friendly embracing of new visitors.

But when Steve Miozzi sought help on how to deal with an 11-year-old boy misbehaving during worship services, he said he was told by church leader Ted Anger to beat the back of the boy's thighs with a glue stick. If the boy didn't behave he was to keep repeating the procedure, and if the boy continued to misbehave he was to put him in a room with nothing but a Bible, Miozzi said.

Miozzi says that when he visited the Brentwood church for worship services, there were "glue sticks sticking out of diaper bags" in the aisles.

Anger dismissed Miozzi's account last week, saying he never prescribed a specific way to spank a child.

"I didn't sit there and give people manual instructions about discipline," Anger said. "It's always been about teaching principles. It's about putting the parents back in control with love and boundaries."

Child discipline is not what Miozzi says prompted him and his wife to leave the church.

They left after three years because of a church philosophy that he said did not allow any questioning of church leaders. The strict obedience to their authority "destroyed my personal relationship with Jesus Christ," he said.

Also, he said, he was taken to task for not losing enough weight.

Parents, daughter differ

Support group member Susan Warren of Oklahoma says she feels she has lost her daughter to Remnant. Her daughter, Cary, joined the church seven years ago at 17 after baby-sitting for a church couple.

One day, Warren said, she and her husband stopped by the home where her daughter was baby-sitting three small children. She said she spied two long white glue sticks on the kitchen counter.

"We were in the kitchen with the kids," she said. "We saw the glue sticks on the counter, and I said, 'why do you have to keep glues sticks out like that?' She (Cary) said they were necessary, that she didn't have to use them very often, but she did have to use them" to discipline the children, Warren said.

Cary Warren said she doesn't remember the incident, and her parents never visited while she was baby-sitting.

"She could refresh my memory, but I don't recall that," said Cary Warren, who now lives in Brentwood. She said she loves and honors her parents even more after joining Remnant but believes they are getting misinformation from "groups that are against Remnant."

Her mother said she hopes the trial will expose Remnant.

"I hope it finally breaks (the church) open, and we can have our daughter back," Susan Warren said.

Members back leaders

Shamblin said that the criticisms leveled by a handful of former church members distort reality. Miozzi, for example, has spoken with the media before.

"Talking to someone who left our church in anger is like talking to someone's ex-boyfriend," Shamblin said. "People have learned they can get on television if they have something bad to say. It's really exciting being Gwen Shamblin's enemy."

The handful of church critics must be weighed against thousands of more who have found joy in the church, she said.

"Nobody is told what to do here," Shamblin said. "They do it because they're under conviction to do so. If they don't like it, some of them leave on their own. It's not my way or the highway."

And church members have rallied around their leader and the institution.

"By nature I'm a skeptical person, so I asked every single question I could think of," Remnant member Kent Smith agreed. "All the questions I had were addressed, and they never made me feel badly about asking so many questions. They were very patient."

Smith moved his wife and four children from Oklahoma to live near Remnant and said their experiences were far different than those relayed by former church members.

Cliff and Lisa Peters are typical of the church experience, according to Shamblin. They moved to Williamson County from their home near Fresno, Calif., to be near Remnant. Cliff Peters says it was the spirit of camaraderie in the congregation that compelled him to move his wife and three children across the country in June of 2005.

The family had been attending an evangelical Christian church, where Peters says he "felt we had really gotten away from what the Scriptures teach."

"Even before Remnant I had felt burdened by that," Peters said. "But when we came to Remnant, we realized we had not really been following the Word and being obedient to God and seeking him in everything we did."

Peters said that those who allege Remnant is a cult don't understand what goes on at the church.

"I think it's the fear of the unknown for a lot of people," he said. "If someone came here and really found out for themselves, they'd see lives being changed and marriages being healed through this relationship with God."

Defamation suit filed

Shamblin said the church does not promote or condone child abuse, adding that she differentiates between hitting and spanking.

"Spanking a child is very different from hitting a child," she said. "Hitting is not spanking. Hitting is inflicting pain in anger. Spanking is a reluctant feeling that is necessary, and it does hurt the parent more than the child."

She called spanking a "time-tested, ancient teaching from the Bible. … Every child is different, and some parents in the Remnant, all they have to do is give the child a disapproving look, and some children are strong-willed. Teaching and constant direction in the form of both positive and, very occasionally negative, reinforcement is the most loving way to raise a child."

The 1,200-member church has gone on the offensive to put to rest the criticisms, hashed out in national magazines, blogs and newspaper accounts, that have trailed it since Josef's death, church leaders said.

Shamblin and 78 church members also have filed a

$3.3 million defamation suit against Rafael Martinez, who operates the self-described cult-watch organization Spirit Watch, saying statements that described church members' use of "extreme discipline" such as "harsh spankings and whippings" were a "lie and a falsehood."

The suit, filed in November, goes to court next month.

It's "been a series of media sound bites that have been taken out of context for three years," Shamblin said last week in a four-hour interview she sought out with The Tennessean. "This is unfortunate for the Smiths, and this will soon come to light the truth of what happened."

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