Lake City -- In the beginning, there was an elderly widow who owned a modest brick house in the most heavenly part of town. One year she decided to put her "home place'' on the market, and along came a dapper gentleman and his adoring wife, cash in hand.
The gentleman, who was 67, must have been a preacher, it was rumored, for he often could be seen strolling about his new yard in a funereal suit and necktie, even on the muggiest of summer days, with a countenance of serenity and beneficence that could belong only to a servant of the Lord.
But there was something disquieting about this man, too, something inexplicable that made his neighbors uneasy whenever he greeted them by politely touching the brim of his fedora.
By every measure, the old man and his wife were model citizens. They were early risers. They didn't cuss, drink, smoke, pry or gossip. They drove a gleaming, burgundy Cadillac (with gilded trim and hubcaps).
So, as months passed, the suspicions faded, dismissed as a small town's old-fashioned discomfort with outsiders.
After all, as the neighbors could plainly see, this couple was quite beloved. Cars with tags from South Dakota, Illinois, Indiana, Montana and Texas arrived at all hours, and out stepped the cleanest-cut, most sharply tailored couples imaginable, and their winsome children, too, so cutely awkward in their Sunday clothes and shoes. In no time, they set about remodeling the dwelling of the preacher, whose name was Charles Meade.
For weeks, the hammering and sawing did not cease. New rooms were added. To the roof were affixed cedar shingles in red, rippling waves, until the crown of Meade's home looked like a gingerbread house. At the head of the driveway rose two great stone columns and an iron gate.
Along the boundaries of Meade's property, evergreens were planted, three rows deep. And then, when all was primped and tidied, a triple-layered privacy fence went up around the 2.44-acre lot.
It was topped off with three strands of razor wire.
The year was 1984, and property in Southwood Acres, the subdivision where Meade's house was located, didn't fetch the dollars it does today. But members of Meade's flock, dribbling in from the Midwest to join him, were willing to pay almost anything for a house in the subdivision. The closer the lot to the old man's residence, the more they were willing to shell out.
A real estate agent named Charles Sparks, one of the first of Meade's followers to move to Lake City, made the rounds in the neighborhood, knocking on people's doors and offering to sell their homes for them -- regardless of whether they had any intention of moving.
Finally, a few longtime residents approached these newcomers. What, they asked them, was so special about their little corner of the universe to merit such offers?
The answer they got was this:
Lake City was the Promised Land. It was holy ground for the world's true Christians -- meaning the lucky few whom Meade had chosen to follow the teachings of his End Time Ministry.
They had come to establish God's perfect community on Earth, to prepare for Armageddon, which, their leader had warned them, was imminent. Those who followed Meade would be saved. Unbelievers would be banished to eternal damnation.
Why, though, should anyone believe him?
Meade had told them he'd walked with God along the Milky Way and heard the Lord's very word.
Lake City stands on the hill country of northern Florida, where the surrounding Columbia County countryside, with its drooping live oaks and meadows ablaze in redbud and phlox, is more Deep South than tropical.
By reputation, it seemed an unlikely location for the Promised Land. Here, Doc Adams, a numbers racketeer, was killed by his mistress (who was also the wife of his rival); college football coaches had been known to treat their players to the "Big House,'' a parlor of sporting ladies; Ted Bundy, the serial killer, picked up a sixth-grader near her school and never took her home.
Back in 1984, most homes were one-story affairs. The older ones, dating to the Civil War, had deep, wraparound porches festooned with gingerbread. The men, many of them, wore plaid shirts, bow-brimmed caps, and heavy-soled boots. The little money that was made came from the exploitation of quick-growing pine, peanut farming, and by serving drive-thru visitors and truckers whose gas tanks and stomachs needed filling.
Inhabitants of the county, who numbered 36,000, seemed content with the lives they'd built: to work, go to church, swim in glassy ponds, and spend hours waiting for a twitch at the end of a fishline.
But since the summer of that year of Orwell, little has been the same for the people of Lake City. Over the next 20 years, their habits, their economy -- their community -- would be transformed by Charles Meade's brand of Christianity and the End Time empire he willed into being.
The End Timers would bring energy, ingenuity and an entrepreneurial spirit. But they would also bring something else. Soon, neighbors would come to demonize one another, not wave to one another. Townies would characterize the newcomers as weird, even dangerous; End Timers would dismiss the locals as sinful and intolerant.
In the end, Lake City would find itself more prosperous but badly divided -- a place awash in mistrust and suspicion.
In the months after the Meades settled in Lake City, about 50 End Timers from the Midwest joined them. They kept coming. By 1989, Meade's Florida flock numbered 700, according to the local newspaper, the Lake City Reporter, which had begun publishing articles on the newcomers -- "ETs,'' as the locals now called them.
By 1989, the End Timers owned no fewer than 39 businesses in town and had a substantial chunk of the market in roofing, landscaping, lighting, electronics and pool installation.
Sparks, who was Meade's son-in-law, cornered the real estate market in Southwood. Though some "ETs'' rented apartments in town, half of the 60-odd homes in Southwood Acres were occupied by sect members by 1990, county records show. Before long, according to residents, only End Timers wanted into the neighborhood, but they wouldn't buy unless Sparks brokered the sale.
He was the End Time version of Donald Trump -- sharp, intuitive, with an air of prosperous thrift. Before long, he would become one of the most powerful men in the county, a broker, investor and lender whose face would stare down from billboards all over town.
Although the people of Lake City didn't realize it, what was happening to their town had happened before and would again: a religious sect migrating to a small community and reshaping its economy and its way of life.
It has happened in Schell City, Mo., with the Church of Israel; in Spindale, N.C., with the Word of Faith Fellowship; in Hildale, Utah, with the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; in Abilene, Texas, with the House of Yahweh; in Bellevue, Wash., with the Life Tabernacle Church; in Grants Pass, Ore., with the Foundation of Human Understanding; in Attleboro, Mass., with The Body.
In each case, the outsiders were able to exert influence through hard work, ingenuity, a bit of intimidation, and lots of money, says Steven Hassan, the author of two books on controversial sects -- what he calls "destructive cults.''
"The pattern is for the leaders of these sects to move their followers all at once into areas that are sparsely populated, low-income, on hard times,'' Hassan says. "Then they buy up real estate or cottage industries on the cheap, making them power players in that county overnight.''
Since the Internal Revenue Service classifies them as non-profits, member donations are tax-exempt, he says. So it doesn't take them long to accumulate millions, and the leader can use his followers' money as he or she wishes.
As a group, the End Timers sure did look successful. Different, though, just the same.
End Time women wore ankle-length dresses and never used makeup. (Meade cautioned them to beware of the "lipstick spirit.'') The men didn't grow facial hair or wear digital wristwatches. (Mustaches, according to Meade, were of the "homosexual spirit,'' and anything containing a digital chip was evil.)
And nobody ever saw an End Timer with a pet. (Animals, even pictures of animals, harbored demons, Meade told his followers.)
As it turned out, there were quite a few objects of evil in the world of Meade: newspapers, TV, chewing gum, earrings, even Dr. Seuss books. Illness, Meade preached, was the work of the devil, best healed not by doctors but by faith. All holidays, including Christmas and Easter, were banned as pagan rituals.
Meade and his followers, locals observed, were creatures of pattern. Often their movements around town could be timed to the minute.
On Monday mornings, tellers at Community National, State Exchange and First Federal Savings could expect to see Meade in one of his Armani suits, looking much like Lawrence Welk, on line to make his weekly deposit.
He would stand self-assuredly, as though smiling to himself, and when his turn came he would stride to the counter with multiple bank bags, each stuffed with $3,000 to $11,000 in cash, checks and rolled coins, according to eyewitnesses and bank employees. (In later years, he switched to briefcases and went straight into the vault.)
To the people of Lake City, Meade was the mysterious stranger; they knew little of his past.
Public records show that he was born in Kentucky in 1916, quit school in the seventh grade and served with honor in World War II, earning eight Bronze Stars. Three years after the war, he stabbed a man in Indiana and was given a suspended sentence after pleading guilty to assault with intent to commit murder.
He worked for years as a shipping clerk in an Indiana glass factory, but he'd been unemployed for some time when he joined a Pentecostal group in the late 1960s. A few years later, he started his own church, recruiting college students from Illinois, South Dakota and Montana. Meade's teachings weren't that different from other Pentecostal preachers' until he began making some unusual claims.
"I've soared into the heavens in the supernatural,'' he declared during one taped sermon. "God's picked me up many times. I've been in the heavens. I've looked down over the Earth!''
Meade did not respond to two requests for an interview sent by registered mail. Sparks, whom former members speculate is next in line to lead the ministry, said no End Timer would agree to be interviewed; turns out, he was right.
As Meade's dwelling continued to mushroom in size, he withdrew from his neighbors. He no longer stopped to shake their hands, and his drapes and blinds were usually drawn.
According to residents and former End Timers, sentinels appeared behind Meade's triple fence, studying passing cars through binoculars. Sometimes, men in khakis stood posts around the neighborhood. They whispered into walkie-talkies, packed 9 mm pistols.
Cars that slowed near Meade's driveway were tailed; roadblocks went up at Southwood's two entrances. Men with flashlights would wave cars to a stop, shine a beam in the drivers' eyes, and ask where they were headed, and why.
The sheriff ordered a halt to the roadblocks, but no arrests were made.
Sunday nights, large numbers of End Timers could be seen gathered around four heart-shaped fire pits on "The Land,'' a park Meade had created along Rose Creek. There, they would sing and listen to Meade preach about the apocalypse.
Lake City's mayor at that time, T. Gerald Witt, didn't share other residents' growing unease. "Really,'' he told a reporter in 1990, "I don't see much difference between them and Christian Scientists.''
Some reported seeing 200 End Timers lining the roadside in front of Meade's house, holding hands and waiting for their leader to return from a journey.
Then, one morning in 1989, a stray dog was found in a trash bin, headless.
In the weeks following, several other canines turned up in people's yards, stiff as logs. Poisoned, several residents, including Judy Ayers and her daughter, Laurie, said. Sandra Smith, who had spoken out in the local media against the End Timers, said she walked out her front door one morning to see her five kittens beheaded on the walkway.
Complaints were filed at the sheriff's office, residents said, but no one was arrested. (Records of complaints are routinely destroyed after five years, local officials said.)
Meanwhile, night after night, trucks rumbled through Southwood, stopping to unload crates. Judy Ayers, who lived a stone's throw from the Meade residence, recalls how End Timers would renovate their homes through the wee hours.
"We'd wake up to this loud pounding,'' she says, "and there they'd be, up on roofs or scaffolding or ladders, hammering and sawing with these blinding, white lights shining on them. It went on for months and months and months.''