The "Rev." Larry Gazelka says he's merely helping followers establish a relationship with God. But former members of his Built Anew Ministries say Gazelka crosses the line into verbal and emotional abuse. He needs to be stopped, they say.
Recently widowed and battling cancer, Tulsa, Okla., resident Marilynn Gann thought she'd found salvation when she stumbled onto the Web site of the Great Falls-based Built Anew Ministries four years ago.
Within a month, the head of the ministry, Larry Gazelka, and his wife, Helen, had personally moved Gann 1,282 miles to Great Falls to be closer to her "spiritual family."
At Gazelka's instruction, Gann tore to pieces almost all the photos of her late husband. She put in 18-hour days in her new job as his secretary. She made Gazelka the beneficiary of her life insurance policy, gave him a slew of computer equipment and contributed as much as $500 a month of her veterans disability check to his ministry.
But three months ago, Gann walked away from Gazelka's organization. Today she's doing everything possible to sabotage what she is convinced is, in reality, a religious cult.
"I don't want Larry Gazelka to hurt anybody else," Gann says.
That few local residents have ever heard of Built Anew Ministries is understandable. Instead of a sanctuary, Built Anew operates out of the basement of a modest house at 3417 Central Ave. In place of a pulpit, it reels in would-be converts via the Internet.
Despite its humble setting, Built Anew is no innocent operation, Gann and other former members allege. They say Gazelka is a charlatan who alternately belittles and then praises "disciples"-- jerking them around on so short an emotional leash that they become psychological slaves.
Several marriages have been sacrificed in the process, the ex-members claim.
"Larry is misrepresenting God and Jesus Christ, that's the bottom line. And people are being led astray because of it," said Mike [M], a Helena resident who was affiliated with Gazelka for 21 years before parting ways two years ago.
Gazelka, 54, turned down repeated requests to discuss his ministry. In a brief phone interview he blamed the concerns raised by former members on "sour grapes."
"We don't try to build up a following, we just try to get people into a relationship with God," Gazelka told the Tribune. Gann appears to have made considerable headway toward dismantling Built Anew. Two years ago, when she left the organization briefly, she created a rival Web site aimed at exposing Gazelka's background. Within days of its appearance, according to Gann, participants in Built Anew's chat room dwindled from 50 to 60 to fewer than a dozen.
Gazelka's Web site address is www.builtanewministries.org. Gann's Web site is www.whoischrist.net.
Today, only a handful of people remain closely tied to Built Anew. Except for Larry's wife Helen's part-time job at Target, the couple appear to subsist solely on member contributions. They live reportedly rent-free in the windowless basement of the Central Avenue home of Dave Kupferschmidt, a custodian at Great Falls High School.
To most people, the word "cult" calls to mind mohawked Hari Krishnas crooning unintelligible chants. In fact, many cults appear deceptively normal on the surface, argues Mary Alice Chrnalogar, author of "Twisted Scriptures: A Path to Freedom from Abusive Churches."
"You'd be surprised," Chrnalogar said. She and other experts say religion-based cults are prevalent in the United States, orchestrated by people who may appear ordinary to outsiders but hold followers spellbound.
There's no question these cults are harmful, Chrnalogar said.
"If they're breaking up families, moving people and all of a sudden getting them to cut off contact, we need to look at it and say it's destructive," she said.
Gazelka got his start 21 years ago in Minneapolis. Midway through an Assembly of God crusade, he announced that God had called him into the ministry, the pastor conducting the services, Ron Morey, recalled.
Mike [M] was 20 then and just emerging from a drug rehab program. He and an acquaintance, Greg Giefer, began attending Gazelka's services in the basement of the Evangel Temple.
From 1981 to 1985, "there was some pretty solid fellowship going on," [M] said. "It was a good thing."
[M] lived with Gazelka and his then-wife, Sandy, for a time and persuaded his younger brother, Jeff, to join the group. Jeff wasn't as enamored of Gazelka, however, and left the organization after a year.
Even then, Jeff said, Gazelka expected followers to fork over 10 percent of their earnings -- too much, Jeff thought. Nor did he appreciate Gazelka's declaration that the [M]'s mother was going to "burn in hell" because she was divorced.
When a young woman who had left the group developed cancer, Gazelka instructed his Bible-study group not to visit her in the hospital "because she was dying of her own sins," Jeff recalled Gazelka explaining.
That did it for Jeff.
"When you're young and you're aiming toward God and people tell you those things, that's just sick," said Jeff, now 39 and living in Baltimore.
Much of what Gazelka's critics describe represent their own accounts of their dealings with him. Gazelka refused to comment.
Gazelka left the church in the mid-1980s after starting a "horrible story" about Morey in the pastor's own church, Morey said. He brought Gazelka before other pastors, where he said Gazelka confessed that the rumor was false.
At about the same time, Mike [M] said, Gazelka left his wife and children abruptly for his high-school sweetheart, Helen, and Helen left her family for him. They moved to Great Falls.
Two of Gazelka's Bible-study members, Kupferschmidt and Mike [M], followed them to Montana, as did Gazelka's two sons, Dale and Kenny. A year later, Giefer moved to Great Falls, too.
Both of Gazelka's offspring have had run-ins with the law.
Last year, Kenny Gazelka pleaded guilty to trying to solicit underage girls for sex over the Internet, a felony. He served time in federal prison and is out on supervised release.
July 10, Dale Gazelka's wife, Mary, obtained a temporary restraining order against him for allegedly striking and pinching his children and stepchildren repeatedly as well as abusing her. She later dropped the charges.
Larry Gazelka held a series of jobs in Great Falls, former members say: at an automotive shop, installing windows and peddling Excel phone services.
He and Helena lived outside Augusta for a couple of years before moving into Kupferschmidt's basement. By his own account, Gazelka was "hiding out" from God.
Gazelka had let his Bible-study group go dormant. But in 1995 he began mailing weekly newsletters to anyone who was interested. A year or so later he started a chat room on the Internet.
Chockful of Bible verses, Gazelka's Web site seems harmless on the surface. When he writes "We should be seeking first the kingdom of God and His righteousness. The kingdom of God should always be our chief aim," he sounds like many other preachers on a Sunday morning.
The Web site even notes the time of day in London, Japan, Calcutta and Shanghai, which implies that Gazelka's ministry seem much bigger than it really is. The "outreach efforts" he refers to consist of a handful of followers in Finland and Australia. Built Anew offers to conduct outside Bible seminars, but has never actually done so, former members say.
By the time Gazelka launched himself into cyberspace, [M] had begun losing faith in Built Anew. He credits that in part to his wife, Marianne, a former Cody, Wyo., jailer who "saw right through" Gazelka, [M] said.
"He's tried to divide our marriage by playing my wife against me," [M] said. "What he does is, he'll talk about one partner to the other. And it's subtle. I honestly don't think he really realizes what he's doing. But by doing that, it's not building up a marriage, it's slowly tearing it down."
[M] finally left the group for good in 1999 after confronting Gazelka about his controlling behavior.
"He was trembling," [M] said. "You know why? 'Cause I know what he's doing is wrong and so does he. But I'm one of the only ones who will stand up to him and say, 'What you're doing is wrong.' "
That same year Gazelka kicked Gann out of Built Anew, partly, Gann said, because she wasn't donating as much money to the ministry as he thought she should.
For a time, she flourished. She bought a 1996 Chevy Blazer, drove it to Minnesota to research Gazelka's past and emptied her findings into her own new Web site.
But the pull of the group was too great. Two months later Gann begged to return.
"I came in humble, beaten down, no self-esteem, pride or self-confidence," she writes on her Web site. "They could have beaten me with chains and I would have taken it just to return to the life where I at least knew what to expect."
She dismantled the Web site when she returned to Built Anew (she resurrected the site this summer). At Gazelka's insistence, Gann said, she stopped payments on the Blazer, knowing it would be repossessed.
Gann doubled her contribution to Gazelka, giving him at least a $1,000 a month, more when she could afford it.
Meanwhile, Gazelka had found a new recruit: Judy [M], a sister-in-law of Mike and Jeff [M]. Judy had corresponded with Gazelka for several months from her home in Cannon Falls, Minn., before abandoning her husband, Leonard, and two teen-age children and hopping a bus to Great Falls in 1999.
For three years Gazelka had mailed Judy a copy of his newsletter, "Spirit of the Sword," but she'd never responded. Hoping to smoke her out, Gazelka deliberately withheld the newsletter for a couple of weeks, Gann said. The strategy worked: Judy called to ask why the newsletter had stopped coming. The campaign to win her over began.
Leonard [M] was just starting his own plumbing business. He said Judy began driving the 10 miles from their home to Cannon Falls at 5 a.m. each weekday morning to log on to his office computer and take part in Gazelka's on-line Bible study.
Soon, she was hooked. To guarantee Judy unimpeded access, Gazelka sent Gann to Cannon Falls to hook up a second computer at the [M]'s home. Throughout the winter of 1998-1999, Judy spent most of the day corresponding on-line with her new confidantes, growing "extremely distant" from her family, Leonard said.
Leonard discovered a diary of Judy's in which she thanked "father" for "sending the apostle Paul back to earth again." He called the FBI to ask if there was any way to stop Gazelka. There wasn't, he was told.
The last photo he took of Judy shows her sitting at the computer in the living room, her back to her husband and their two teen-age children, Leonard says.
"If we interrupted her, she oftentimes became enraged," he said.
In August 1999, the same month Gann left Built Anew for the first time, Judy [M] drove 15 miles to a bus station and climbed aboard the next bus headed west. Three days later, Leonard said, she phoned her family to say: "I just want you to know I didn't do this to hurt anybody. I'm at peace now. I'm with my spirit family."
Leonard and Judy [M] have since divorced. She lives in Helena, works as a waitress at a Perkins restaurant and spends weekends in Great Falls.
Judy [M] did not respond to phone calls and e-mail seeking comment for this story. But her sister, Kimberly Stafford, who lives in Chicago, and her brother Rick Stafford, of Minnesota, dispute Leonard's account of the couple's break-up.
Kimberly Stafford contacted the Tribune to say Judy left home for good reason. "She spent her entire life doing everything for her family and finally let herself out of the birdcage to fly," Kimberly said.
"She's perfectly fine. I talk to her all the time," she added.
Rick Stafford said: "As far as I know, she'd decided to dedicate her life to Christ." He said she maintains contact with her children, siblings and mother.
But Judy's daughter, Monica [M], said she has spoken to her mother only twice in two years. The first call from Judy came a year and a half after she'd left home. Monica had broken her back in a car accident; Leonard phoned Judy and pleaded with her to contact her daughter.
Judy called collect and didn't talk long, Monica, now 19, recalled.
"She said, 'Hi, honey,' like nothing had happened, and I just bawled hysterically. Like, I couldn't handle it," Monica said.
When Judy left, "she didn't even tell us where she was going," her daughter said. "I wasn't sure where she was for three days. Those were the worst three days in my life. She doesn't even understand it. Like they warped her memory or something."
Judy referred to herself in the plural, telling her daughter, "We love you." The two have spoken only once since, in a phone call initiated by Monica.
"As far as I'm concerned, my mom's dead," Monica told the Tribune. "One of my sociology classes last year in school did a study on cults. There's no question in my mind that she's in a cult."
Her father believes it, too. He says he'd like nothing better than to witness the collapse of Built Anew.
"I may never have the mother of my children back with her family ... but to see Larry Gazelka spiritually molest other marriages and families makes my skin crawl," Leonard [M] said.
Built Anew participants Helen Gazelka and Cheryl DeLappe, a state employee in Helena, declined to comment about the organization, as did former members Michelle Carr, who has since returned to Massachusetts, and Alberta resident Cheryl Todd.
Giefer, now a Great Falls city bus driver, commented briefly.
"This is a matter that it's hard to explain," he said. "If you choose to work on a story, that's your call."
In a subsequent on-line Bible study, Giefer warned participants: "So this day, a strangers (sic) voice may come along, but by not giving heed to it and following it, you will have that peace that goes beyond our understanding."
For the time being, anyway, Giefer is overseeing the daily studies. Earlier this month Gazelka left for Australia, home to one of his members. He'll return in November, according to Built Anew's Web site.
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