Mistrial Vindication for Cult Chief

Associated Press/May 23, 2001
By Luis Cabrera

Everett, Wash. -- Christopher Turgeon has denounced his defense lawyer as "an agent of Satan," preached about the end of the world being just three years away and claimed he is the second coming of an Old Testament prophet.

The apocalyptic cult leader's lawyer says his client is "nuts," but jurors deciding his first-degree murder trial weren't able to make such a determination - or decide on a verdict.

A judge declared a mistrial Tuesday after jurors came back deadlocked, providing a vindication of sorts for the cult leader who was accused of orchestrating the killing of a follower. Turgeon is already serving an 89-year sentence for his part in a July 1998 crime spree in San Diego that prosecutors said was meant to trigger the downfall of the United States.

"He's been going on and on about how he's not insane, and that really anybody who thinks he is is doing the devil's work," defense lawyer Royce Ferguson said.

"I think the guy really is nuts, though," he added. "That's the way we presented it, even though he really didn't want us to." Jurors reported to Snohomish County Superior Court Judge Joseph Thibodeau that they were deadlocked 11-1 in favor of convicting Turgeon, 37, and fellow sect member Blaine Applin, 30. Jurors said they saw little hope of reaching a unanimous decision.

Prosecutors likely will move for a retrial at a hearing before Thibodeau on Thursday, county Deputy Prosecutor David Kurtz said. "We're certainly not going to let this matter drop," he said. Neither suspect denied taking part in the March 29, 1998, slaying of former cult member Dan Jess, 40. But their attorneys argued Turgeon and Applin were innocent by reason of insanity.

Turgeon told jurors that he is the second coming of the Old Testament prophet Elijah and has the same divine authority to punish sinners. He also offered jurors an elaborate set of calculations, scriptural and symbolic evidence to support his claim that the world will end on March 22, 2004. He also pulled out a dollar bill and demonstrated for the jury that it contained codes that are part of a federal government conspiracy.

Turgeon, who mostly made his living as a resident apartment manager, started the Gatekeepers cult as a Bible study group in 1991. He persuaded members to progressively isolate themselves from what he termed the evil forces of pornography, homosexuality and witchcraft in the world.

The dozen or so sect members, including children, moved several times north of Seattle because of concerns that they would be investigated by Washington State Child Protective Services, court documents show. Finally, in 1997, they moved to a compound near Pala, Calif., a small town about 40 miles north of San Diego.

Jess declined to go. He was targeted after accusing Turgeon of writing a $2,000 bad check to an Everett transmission shop. "God's calling us to a mission to destroy the enemy," Turgeon told a Gatekeepers member in California shortly before he and Applin drove north to target Jess.

Applin shot Jess seven times with a Glock 9mm after Jess opened his camper-trailer door, court documents said. Applin and Turgeon were linked to the shooting after their capture in the string of San Diego-area robberies and other crimes about three months later. The gun was seized from Applin, who later was sentenced to 101 years in prison for his part in the spree, including a high-speed chase in which Turgeon drove and Applin fired a rifle into a police car.

Jurors in Everett began deliberations on Friday, after a three-week trial in which 11 psychiatrists and other experts offered conflicting testimony about Turgeon's and Applin's sanity. Applin's lawyer, Pete Mazzone, argued his client was helplessly under Turgeon's charismatic sway.

Turgeon's lawyer acknowledged that his client's powers of persuasion are strong.

"Some of this stuff makes sense that he says. If you listen long enough, you can kind of come to understand," he said. "In the back of my mind - way in the back - I'm thinking, what if he is Elijah?" "This is a very unusual case," said Kurtz, the prosecutor.

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