A cult leader's 'visions' result in murder trial

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/May 11, 2001
By David Fisher

Everett -- When the Prophet Elijah sat at his piano to play, witnesses say, the members of the Gatekeepers sect knew what to expect. The voice of God was about to speak.

As Elijah played, eerie music filled the room, and strange sayings tumbled from their lips. Sometimes the voices spoke through Elijah. Sometimes through the clan. Always, though, it was Elijah -- Christopher Turgeon to the rest of the world -- who told them what it meant.

One day, the voice told them to beat the children. Another day, to shoot a dog. Finally, it told them to kill a man.

Turgeon, 37, and follower Blaine Applin, 30, are on trial this week in Snohomish County Superior Court, charged in the murder of former cult member Dan Jess, who was shredded with six bullets on the night of March 29, 1998, at the front door of his Mountlake Terrace trailer.

Neither has denied killing Jess. The jury is being asked to determine whether the pair were insane when they shot him, so deluded by the belief that they were carrying out God's will that they were incapable of seeing it as wrong.

In another sense, the trial is a deeper look at the ways in which people can be driven to surrender their wills, their families and their wealth -- and can even be driven to kill -- through the seductive attraction of a cult.

Sometime around 1990 in the suburbs around Everett, an intense, intelligent, articulate young man named Chris Turgeon appeared on the scene of some of the local charismatic Pentecostal churches. He claimed to have a gift for prophesying -- for sensing the will of God on earth, and divining its direction -- said Joe McIntyre, pastor of Word of His Grace Fellowship in Bothell.

That, in and of itself, isn't a rarity in charismatic churches, where the congregations believe the Holy Spirit is alive and active on earth. Speaking in tongues, experiencing visions, or simply feeling a divine intervention is commonly part of the experience.

Intense beliefs

But there was something different about Turgeon, McIntyre and Herb Marks, a Lake Stevens pastor, have told the jury. To the point of obsession, he harbored intense beliefs about the evils of the world around him, ranging from a hatred of homosexuality and pornography to an abhorrence of feminism. He disdained alternative points of view. Instead, he knew the Bible from cover to cover, and used his quotations like a tool to rivet people to his conclusions.

In the summer of 1992, McIntyre preached against Turgeon to his congregation after Turgeon -- in the midst of a season of local church arsons -- told his followers they "had to get as many people out of there as they could because (the) church was going to be destroyed."

"I said that, while there might be certain gifts present in Chris, the motivation was in serious question," McIntyre testified this week. "And I considered him a dangerous person." Not everyone listened.

Turgeon started his own home Bible study group, and started to weave his influence around those who came to hear him.

Steve Chapman, 30, a middle-of-the-road student, was floundering when Turgeon met him in 1992 or 1993, psychologist and cult specialist Abraham Nivod would later testify. He had no solid career prospects or ambitions, and little understanding of religion. He hated himself for his relatively minor drinking and tobacco use. Mostly, he longed for direction.

Applin, Chapman's best friend, was the product of a successful father and distracted mother, Nivod testified. His father had high expectations of him, but Applin -- a dim student with an IQ that placed him close to the bottom third in intelligence -- couldn't measure up. He was frittering his life on drinking and drugs when Chapman brought him to the group.

Brian Stevens was in college, but felt lost, Nivod said. He, too, longed for a life with greater meaning. Along with the women they would later marry, the group became the core of Turgeon's burgeoning cult.

From the beginning, Turgeon was adept at picking out each member's weakness, and what they should do next, Chapman testified this week. His directions were delivered as the word of God, as mouthed through the prophet Elijah, whom Turgeon claimed to be.

Chapman said Turgeon threatened followers with damnation if they chose to reject him. "I just knew that I needed some answers," Chapman told the jury. "And these were the only ones I could find."

As the group became increasingly dependent on Turgeon, he became increasingly wrapped in his belief that the world is controlled by evil forces, and increasingly focused on the apocalyptic visions of the Book of Revelations, Stevens testified. By 1996, he was drawn to survivalist literature, and started arming the group.

Move to California

Turgeon urged his members to separate themselves from family and old friends, convincing them they would lose their souls if they continued to touch evil influences. When the parents of Applin's wife...pressured the group to allow contact with her, Turgeon moved them all to a desert outpost outside San Diego.

Isolated in California, and dependent on the group and on Turgeon for food, shelter and emotional sustenance, the members listened as Turgeon's teachings became "less about God's law and more about the laws of Chris," Stevens said. Resentment and doubts grew, he said. But "the choice of going against Chris would mean losing my soul."

The "judgments" for disobeying Turgeon grew increasingly violent, Stevens said. One night, the group's children were lined up and beaten. The older children were hit with paddles. A 7-month-old was beaten with a spoon. Stevens was ordered to shoot a Dalmatian after it scratched one of the children. For Jess, the judgment would mean death.

By 1998, Turgeon had convinced the group that he and Chapman -- said to be the incarnation of Moses -- would be chosen to deliver judgment to humanity in the final time of tribulation. They would do that at Mount Daniel in Washington's central Cascades -- chosen, Chapman said, because Turgeon had a dream about two babies, which he equated to two nearby lakes, which exist at an elevation with several sevens in it -- "God's number."

Jess, who knew about the Mount Daniel location, later left the group. To protect God's plan from the evildoers of the outside world, Turgeon told the group, God wanted Jess dead. In the two months after Turgeon and Applin, his chosen "warrior," traveled to Washington to kill Jess, they erupted in a frenzy of crime in California, Stevens testified, "plundering evil" by robbing businesses and toying with thoughts of murdering homosexuals and abortion doctors.

The two have been convicted of 17 offenses in California. Turgeon has been sentenced to 89 years in prison for the string of robberies, and for trying to kill a police officer; Applin is also serving time for the robberies.

The tools with which cult leaders claim "undue influence" over their followers were all there in the Gatekeepers, Nivod said: recruit from a pool of idealistic, but directionless and vulnerable, people; isolate them from old connections; create a siege mentality that pits the group against the world; and finally, foster utter dependence on the leader. Nivod theorizes that Turgeon is a psychopath -- a manipulative, intelligent but conscienceless personality.

Meredith Friedman, a forensic psychologist, disagreed, saying she thinks Turgeon is genuinely delusional, convinced that he is on a mission from God. The former followers, meanwhile, are trying to transition back to normal life. Chapman, who now says he had no idea how "Moses" was supposed to judge the world from an icy Washington mountain, said the memory is "humiliating."

Stevens continues to search for the ultimate truth. "I still believe in hearing God," he told the jury. "Just not the way that we did."

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