'Jesus Freaks': Author tells about sex, God and rock n' roll in Windsor area cult

What really happened at Fortney Road? New York author Jeff Stevenson publishes tell-all book

Star Beacon, Ohio/June 9, 2015

By Justin Dennis

he late 1960s and early 1970s were a turbulent time in American history. Public push back against the Vietnam War; the shooting deaths of four protesting Kent State students; Charles Manson's "helter skelter" and the Tate-LaBianca murders — all captured national headlines.

During that era of unrest, along a sleepy country road in Windsor Township, the Rev. Larry Hill — a self-proclaimed prophet, but now known to others as a charismatic, enthralling and cruel “sociopath” — began amassing followers who he would "train" for the end of the world. He said God gave him a vision of a "great war" that would engulf the country.

What happened at Hill's Fortney Road farm — which he called the "Church of the Risen Christ" — would ruin and end lives.

For years, Hill's followers endured a relentless cycle of physical, psychological and sexual abuse. Three members of Hill's cult, including Hill's eldest son, died in an auto accident, one was grievously injured — all due to sleep deprivation — and a young girl's life was forever changed by repeated physical and sexual abuse at the hands of the cult's leader.

“On the day you hear Reverend Larry Hill has died, remember to wear thick-soled shoes because hell will be stoked up extra hot,” one reporter told New York author Jeff Stevenson.

Stevenson spent more than seven years piecing together what really happened at Fortney Road through interviews with more than a dozen people who spent time at the farm. His book, “Fortney Road: Life, Death, and Deception in a Christian Cult,” was released last week.

'Jesus freaks'

"There's really never been a book about a cult that comes from all different perspectives — 17 different people," Stevenson told the Star Beacon in a phone interview before the book's release. "It really made for a unique writing experience."

He said he became interested in Larry Hill in much the same way many of Hill’s cultic followers did, through a Christian folk rock band that grew out of the Fortney Road farm, called All Saved Freak Band — more specifically, the band’s star Blues guitarist, Glenn Schwartz, a former member of Cleveland rock group James Gang and California's Pacific Gas and Electric.

“I’d always enjoyed that Blues rock music, and so when I saw his name linked with this band I’d never heard of before, I was curious. I didn’t know whatever happened to him after he left Pacific Gas and Electric,” he said. "To have an artist of that caliber in a fledgling 'Jesus music' band was a huge deal."

As Stevenson tells it, Schwartz, a guitar virtuoso who had a “conversion experience” while with PG&E in California and began preaching to those around him — including rock idols of the era like Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Janis Joplin — returned to Ohio and met with Hill after playing a set at a Cleveland Heights bar. After joining Hill’s Fortney Road commune in 1971, Schwartz joined Hill the rest of the band and began playing and recording.

Their songs had been broadcast on WREO-FM, and one had become the closing song for a local Saturday night Christian radio broadcast called "Time for the Risen Christ." At the time, Stevenson said, Hill was a well-known pastor in the area, who would help drug-addicted youths kick their habits and find faith.

"During the 'Jesus' movement, so many hippies were coming into church and the church didn't know how to deal with it. Larry welcomed those people — they were going to change the world and preach the gospel to the community," Stevenson said. "When they met him, they just found this kindly pastor and his goal was to help kids get off drugs and the way he did that was to bring them to this community where they would pray and read the Bible and that sort of thing."

After the Kent State shootings in 1970, Hill took the act to the campus. His ministry swelled with regular Sunday services there — the Kent New Generation Church along Water Street. Fortney Road residents drove back and forth from Windsor to Kent. The band's first album, "My Poor Generation," recorded a year after the shootings, evoked the pervading social discord.

Around 50 people eventually joined Hill's congregation, drawn by either the music or Hill's outreach.

The "Jesus freak" movement of the era gave rise to several folk bands and artists that preached Christian salvation from the epicenter of 1960s counterculture — but All Saved Freak Band was unique, Stevenson said.

“There’s really no music out there like what All Saved Freak Band created,” he said. "There's no other band that sounds like them or has that kind of talent or really being able to communicate what they believed."

There was classical violin and cello and Hill would sometimes read Bible verses over instrumental passages. The group's second album, "For Christians, Elves and Lovers," wove evangelist themes with fantasy elements from J.R.R. Tolkien's "The Lord of the Rings."

Stevenson said Blues guitarist Glenn Kaiser told him about one of the band's shows, leaving him with a question that nagged him for years.

"He said the one thing he remembers is the women could never look at the men in the audience — they always had to look at the ground," he said, and he wondered why. That "spark" led him deeper into the story of Fortney Road. "(Hill) believed that in the Garden of Eden, when Eve was seduced by the snake — if she had not made eye contact, there never would have been the fall of man."

Stevenson reached out to many of Hill's former followers, eventually joining them for a reunion in 2007. More and more pieces of the story fell into place, he said, and the full, sinister scope of what Hill's followers went through began to take shape — the sexual abuse, the sleep deprivation, the brainwashing, the six-foot-long whip Hill dubbed the "White Judge," with which he meted out punishments, and far worse. Stevenson said his lawyers advised him to remove certain testimony from cult members that was deemed too foul.

"A few times writing this, I would kind of wake up with nightmares because it gets so dark and so disturbing thinking about what people can do to one another," he told The Star Beacon.

Some of those from Fortney Road told Stevenson, "You don't know the half of it."

'This is the voice of God' 

In the summer of 1965, while at his mother’s home outside of Jefferson, Larry Hill claimed to have received a vision from God. God showed him a “great war” between the U.S., China and Latin America — one that would consume the nation in fire. It’s what set Hill down the path to Fortney Road, according to Stevenson.

The dozens of followers ensnared through his claim of divine providence — men, women, children — were worked hard for, on average, 10 to 12 hours a day, whipped as punishment and deprived of sleep.

The Fortney Road farm was Hill’s “ark of safety,” Stevenson said. If a member decided to leave, if only to escape the brutal and inhumane daily regimen or the ongoing cycle of abuse — which Hill claimed was “training” for a “great war” he saw on the horizon — they would be condemned to hell.

“The people that stayed there stayed out of fear,” he said. But many did flee, he said, thinking, “It’s better if I leave here and go to hell than stay here and live this hell.”

The book’s official website, FortneyRoad.com, outlines a typical day under Hill’s command:

4 a.m.: After only a few hours of sleep, followers wake up and begin 45 minutes of tough exercise — hundreds of push-ups, sit-ups and a two-mile run. Those who don’t immediately rise got a “punch in the stomach” or lashes from a whip.

5 a.m.: The men rushed to feed the farm animals and clean their stalls. They then filed into the farmhouse by six for breakfast, which was prepared by the women, save Hill’s romantic interest and second-in-command Diane Sullivan and a few other women, who Hill considered “prophetesses.”

6 a.m.: Hill led his followers in their morning devotion before breakfast. Some began to “nod off” but were nudged by others — “the fear of being caught sleeping when they should be listening keeps everyone on edge and awake.”

7 a.m. to 5 p.m.: Followers set on their daily tasks — men tended to the animals, repaired buildings or worked the fields. “The select few who own broken down vehicles struggle to stay awake as they drive about doing errands or completing their farm duties.” Women rigorously cleaned the farmhouse each day. “We clean cracks on the floor with a toothbrush,” said ex-follower and band vocalist Carole King Hough.

5 p.m.: Those with day jobs returned home to complete their evening chores, which included tending to the animals’ stables. “The animals live better lives than we do,” one ex-follower named Leon told Stevenson.

6 p.m.: Some ate dinner, but not all. Fasting was a spiritual choice, or a penance from Hill — one that did not apply to him.

7-11 p.m.: Punishments for the previous day’s failures were doled out. “One person is told to run 10 miles for the crime of not washing the goats properly before milking, while another person is told to run five miles for failing to wake up on time,” Leon said. Hill made each follower commit one chapter from each testament of the Bible to memory, so that if all Bibles were lost in the coming war, it would live on in his followers’ memories. Each week, they recited all the verses they memorized.

11 p.m. to midnight: Hill, believing the “great war” could begin at any time, set eight men on a rotating guard duty each night. A small group of men were dropped off at remote locations around Geneva, tasked with digging a series of tunnels near spots that overlooked the Grand River. Charles Manson also made his followers dig tunnels, in which they hoped to endure “helter skelter,” an apocalyptic race war. “We get home with just enough time to get a couple house of sleep before the 4 a.m. alarm and then we’d be off to our day jobs,” said ex-follower and founding band member Joe Markko.

4 a.m.: The alarm clock rang and it started all over again.

“And, of course, nobody could challenge (Hill),” Stevenson said. “Because he was saying, ‘This is the Voice of God.’”
'The crack in the facade'

The constant state of sleep deprivation kept Hill’s followers muddled and easily suggestible, making them easier to brainwash, Stevenson said. It also made them less aware of the liberties Hill was stripping from them one by one and the effect of Hill’s harsh abuse, like the daily beatings and whippings of men, women and children that lived at the farm.

“It didn’t occur to a lot of people that anything we were doing was wrong,” said Ron Taggart, a former follower who now helps others learn about and recover from cult behavior through the Akron-based nonprofit Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio. He said sleep deprivation is a common tactic in what are called “high demand groups” — one that’s designed to break the follower’s will.

“To help people understand how a group could get that bad, you have to understand that this is a gradual process,” he said. “These practices are introduced very slowly. ... You already have this emotional investment (in the group or the leader) — you have ties to this person, you see the benefit to being with this person. Then you start to make choices.”

That could mean giving up possessions, or isolating oneself from friends, family members or anyone else who could be critical of the group. The victim begins losing perspective about their life and what’s normal and acceptable in a relationship, he said.

“After you’ve done that, (leaders) can introduce more stringent controls,” he said. “They would hide those demands from a new member for quite a while.”

It starts as a friendly face, an empathetic ear, welcoming arms — all little deceptions that instill trust. After leaving Fortney Road, Taggart said he hired a private investigator to infiltrate Hill’s cult and find out if Hill was still trying to recruit children.

The female investigator had recently lost her father to cancer. That would make her appear more vulnerable to Hill, Taggart thought. They arranged a meeting.

“He (told her), ‘I understand — I lost my leg to cancer,’” Taggart recalled — but that wasn’t true at all. Hill lost his leg in a car accident.

The investigator later told Taggart, "If I had not known you and understood your story, I would have thought I had met the nicest person I had ever met in my life."

Hill was a “sociopath,” Taggart said — “an evil person.” Stevenson said many were fooled by the “persona” he put forth. But after the savage whipping of 8-year-old Bethy Goodenough, a child whose parents gave her to Hill to raise, at his command — at “God’s” command — and Hill’s repeated sexual abuse of the child, the veil began to fall, Taggart said.

“The way most people leave these groups — and not just really intense ones like Larry’s — is they do see some kind of hypocritical behavior,” Taggart said.

“That provides the ‘crack in the facade.’”

'I lived in fear'

Bethy Goodenough said she was in kindergarten when Hill and his “prophetess” Diane Sullivan began coming to her parents’ home in the evenings.

Her parents, along with dozens of others, joined Hill’s Church of the Risen Christ. They moved into the farmhouse in the early 1970s and began following Hill’s word — “the voice of God.”

What followed was a years-long cycle of physical and sexual abuse for the adolescent Goodenough — near-daily molestation by Hill, relentless flaying by a fearsome 6-foot-long whip Hill dubbed the “White Judge” and even deeper psychological scars that the girl, now 49-year-old Beth Smith, still mends.

Some who endured Hill’s “living hell," as well as Stevenson, said the whipping of 8-year-old Bethy Goodenough was likely the tipping point that caused Hill’s Church of the Risen Christ to begin to dissolve, with Hill fleeing to Pennsylvania as the FBI closed in.

Smith said when she was 8 years old, Hill told her parents, who were in their twenties, that they were unfit to raise her, and that they should turn her over to him — it was a command from God, he said, and they obeyed. Her parents were then moved off the farm, and not permitted any contact with their daughter.

“If they would come for meetings, (they) would sit separately. I wasn’t allowed to talk to them or anything,” Smith told The Star Beacon in a phone interview. “Later on, my mom had a really hard time with it. She faced up to my dad and my dad said, ‘Larry knows best.’

“The hardest thing for me in all of it was that they even would allow him to take me.”

Eventually, Smith said she was pulled out of school and Hill’s followers began homeschooling her and the other children.

“It seemed like for a while, we didn’t go to school at all,” she said.

Smith said she and the other children who lived at Fortney Road were held to the same grueling regimen as other members — the early wake-up calls, the Bible memorization, the rigorous physical exercises — as well as the punishments.

Being the subject of Hill’s sexual abuse only made Sullivan — who was Hill’s romantic interest and, later, his wife — more wrathful, Smith said.

“She put my head through a wall I don’t know how many times. I had black eyes and was bruised up most of the time because of something I would say or something I would do or even the way I would look at her,” Smith said. “It almost seemed after the sexual abuse — she just hated me.

“A lot of times we would go running — a lot of times, Diane would come up behind me with a horse whip and make me keep up,” she said.

“There was those small times I really could ‘escape,’” she said.

She said she enjoyed spending time with the farm animals Hill’s followers cared for, listening to the band practice or playing piano — something she hasn’t done since those days.

“Those were the times that were good — they were not very long,” she said. “The majority of the time there, I lived in fear.”

'Manipulation to destroy others' 

The nonstop work schedule and weariness that Hill imposed caught up with his followers in different ways — often, just punishments for falling asleep.

For Brett Hill, the reverend’s eldest son, Randy Markko, the brother of All Saved founding member Joe Markko, and Tom Miller — one of the “Kent 25” indicted for demonstrations on the campus in 1970 — it was fatal. All three were killed in auto accidents caused by sleep deprivation.

A sleep-deprived Joe Markko, a guitarist and vocalist in the band, suffered a work accident and was electrocuted with 27,000 volts. It cost him the use of both his hands.

Taggart said one would think that after Brett’s death, Hill might become more lenient, but that wasn’t so. Hill’s followers were meant to be the “remnants of God’s people” after Hill’s prophesied “great war” — they needed to be resilient, he said.

“Hill’s cult is an example of manipulation to destroy others,” he said. “Violence in these groups is not that common, but the groups that use exploitative mind control are not that rare.”

The young Bethy Goodenough, however, was whipped until she fell silent. It was how Hill broke his followers. Usually, the abuse took place behind closed doors, Smith said, but this time, it was in the open. Two of Hill’s followers, Carole King Hough and Millie Romanchik, were silent, paralyzed witnesses.

“It broke my spirit — I mean, it really changed me that day,” she said. “I think (King and Romanchik) really started seeing him for who he really was. … I’m really thankful those two were there. Most of the time I was abused, no one witnessed it — there was no one to corroborate my story.”

Soon after, FBI agents began investigating Hill’s cult on child slavery allegations, and King and Romanchik stepped forward — but there were far more horrors to tell, Stevenson said.

To hear some of the cult members tell it, the Church of the Risen Christ was worse than David Berg’s “Children of God,” a sexually-charged cult from the same time period in Huntington Beach, Calif.

“There were a lot of instances of child abuse (at Fortney Road),” Stevenson said. “There was a whole other family that had their children sexually abused.”

After the compound was raided, 12-year-old Bethy Goodenough was returned to her parents. Others also began to escape, and some had simply disappeared throughout the years, Taggart said, tired of the physical regimen there, “which was just brutal,” he said.

Hill fled to Pennsylvania while the investigation continued, Stevenson said, but Diane Sullivan stayed behind and stood trial for what happened at the Windsor Township farm. Hill later returned to Ohio, but the statute of limitations for his alleged crimes had expired.

'Healing' what was broken

Over the following decades, some who survived their time in Hill’s Church of the Risen Christ reached out to each other and reunited. In 2007, many met with Stevenson, who was already underway on his book, at a large reunion in West Virginia. He gave them manuscripts to read and clarify or correct details.

“A lot of them cried when they read it. A lot of them were angry when they read it,” Stevenson said. “I think one thing people forget is when you’re in that situation, you’re basically fighting for your own survival.

“The main reaction people have is kind of this sudden awareness of what really happened,” he said. “They only had a piece of the puzzle — what they dealt with. For many of them, it was the first time they realized what Carole went through, or what Joe went through, or what Bethy went through.”

Smith, who attended a later reunion hoping to “fill in the blanks” in what she remembered of her time at Fortney Road, said everyone still remembered her as a little girl, defenseless against Hill. She said they all expressed remorse for what she endured. Smith said was eager to tell her story to Stevenson and give her real name.

“The day I decided to even do this book was the day I decided to go past Fortney Road and the farm (in 2008) — I saw children sitting on the porch. … (Hill) was still able to bring people in,” she said. “If I can save one child from having it happen to them like it happened to me, it’s worth it.”

Taggart said it’s estimated up to 3 percent of the U.S. population are involved in some form of exploitative group.

“For every group like Larry Hill’s, there are 100 that don’t hit people but they’re psychologically manipulative,” he said. “The difference about this group is they did not harm other people. They thought they were doing what was right for God. They harmed themselves, they harmed their children, but they did not harm others.”

Smith is now married with step-children, but she said Hill’s constant abuse left lasting emotional damage.

“I think it affects me in my relationships — especially in my relationships with men,” she said. “I’ve had a lot of anxiety over the years. I’ve seen counselors almost all my life.”

Smith said she didn't begin to forgive her mother and father for allowing her to be taken away and abused until she was well into her thirties. As she matured, she said she was able to better understand the mindset of her then-20-something parents. Her father once wrote her a letter asking for her forgiveness.

“After he got away from Larry, he realized how wrong that was, but he didn’t realize what was happening to me until he read the book,” she said.

Smith said she finds solace in telling others about what she went through.

“It’s healing for me,” she said. “It helps every time you tell the story.

“I don’t know if they can do anything about Larry, but I hope it opens someone’s eyes and someone gets in there and does something. He’s a sick man.”

Hill still lives at the Fortney Road farm, along with Sullivan and at least one former member of All Saved Freak Band. Taggart said it’s likely he’s still living off those who continue to follow him. As far as he knows, Hill hasn’t had a job since the early 1970s.

“He’s always trying to get new people involved with him — more people for him to exploit,” he said.

Stevenson said he tried to meet with Hill in 2007, during one of the Church of the Risen Christ reunions. He wanted to ask Hill about his visions from 1965. Hill refused to speak with him.

“He just said, ‘I’ve checked into you — you’re a liar,’” Stevenson said. “As we drove away, he actually opened the screen door and yelled at me, ‘I hope you sell a lot of books.’”

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