Family accuses pastor of brainwashing teenager

Anchorage Daily News, March 9, 2000

PALMER, Alaska - It sounds like a made-for-TV movie: a church accused of brainwashing a 15-year-old girl into believing her parents were possessed by demons and telling her she had to run away from home.

But the trial unfolding this week in a courtroom here is no work of fiction. On trial is Wasilla Ministries, a small Pentecostal church led by pastor Marion Sands, who believes, among other things, that God speaks directly to her and has allowed her to discern demons in others.

At issue is whether church members six years ago overstepped their bounds in their dealing with Jodi Hejl. Her parents claim the church interfered with their right to raise their child, and that it cost them thousands of dollars in counseling, travel and other expenses.

Hejl, now known by her married name Jodi Logan, ran away from home three times to be with church members during 1993 and 1994. She has since reconciled with her parents.

The family filed a lawsuit against the church in 1994 and the case is just now going to trial, which is expected to last 10 weeks.

Logan and her parents claim Wasilla Ministries is a cult that used a program of "persuasive coercion" to brainwash Logan into leaving her parents. They say Sands told Logan that her parents had demons and that the church they attended, Living Word Fellowship, was influenced by demons.

They accuse church members of helping Logan run away from home, including buying her a plane ticket to escape from a treatment center in California, and persuading her to make false charges of sexual abuse against her father.

Logan has since recanted those charges.

"They can have any kind of worship they want," family attorney Ben Whipple said in opening statements Wednesday. "They can have any kind of beliefs they want. But they don't harm the community in the way they cross boundaries and family lines."

Wasilla Ministries' attorney Tim Lamb said the case grew out of lost love and bad family feelings.

"This is Romeo and Juliet," he said.

Six years ago, Logan was a young girl struggling to find her identity. The real reason she ran away from home was simple _ teenage love, Lamb said. She wanted to be with the object of her affection: Sands' son Will. The two dated and even talked about marriage, but Logan's parents would not let her see him.

In testimony Wednesday, Sands said she was called by God to start the ministry.

"The Lord spoke to my heart and he told me he wanted me to pastor and wanted me to pastor in Wasilla," she said. "My heart's cry and desire is to raise up people to do the things God called them to do." She denied trying to control people, although she agreed other people have had that impression.

More than 50 witnesses are scheduled to testify, including cult experts, members of Wasilla Ministries, two of Sands' daughters, and Logan's former boyfriend Will Sands, who is in a wheelchair due to a shooting accident. The lawsuit seeks damages from the church corporation, which is insured by State Farm Insurance.

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