Man's disappearance linked to local church?

Eyewitness News Investigators exclusive

New York- WABC The Eyewitness News Investigators'/September 14, 2006
By Sarah Wallace

Eyewitness News has a look at the mystery of a missing New Jersey man who vanished two years ago this month.

Tim Carney was a member of a controversial Christian church which the Eyewitness News Investigators first reported on last night. The question: Did Carney's disappearance have anything to do with his involvement in the church?

What makes this case so fascinating is that Carney was apparently torn between his devotion to his church and his commitment to his close knit family. So what happened? And did that internal conflict have anything to do with his appearance almost two years ago to the day.

Carney's parents are no closer to the truth than they were two years ago when their then 25-year-old son vanished, leaving almost no clues behind.

"We have his clothes, we have his shoes, we have all his furniture," Carney's mother said.

He left his apartment building in Butler, New Jersey on the morning of September 28th but never showed up for his job at the Department of Labor in Elizabeth. Police found his car four days later at this intersection in Newark. A few days after that, records show he made one mysterious bank withdrawal.

"A thousand dollars from his account," his mother said.

Back when he was a college student at Montclair State, Tim Carney joined a church called Gospel Outreach. Over the years, his family says he became more committed to the church and controlled by it -- and they became increasingly concerned.

"It was like he no longer had his own thoughts. He would just quote them," Carney's father said.

Sarah Wallace: "You thought they tried to take him away from the family."

"Oh yeah ... they definitely did because they would always say constantly, "oh, this is your family now," Carney's sister said.

The family blames the pastor of Gospel Outreach, Jim Lethbridge, who rents space above a Christian bookstore on Route 23 in Pompton Plains.

Sarah Wallace: "When you tried to bring up the church?"

"He would get very defensive&like, what are you talking about? My church is a regular church just you're your church," Carney's sister said.

Gospel Outreach members now meet at an American Legion hall on Sunday mornings to hear Pastor Lethbridge's preachings.

"I'm very angry at the church for manipulating my son, for taking our son away from us," Carney's father said.

Before he left Gospel Outreach a few years ago, former church member Kevin Wilke roomed with Tim Carney.

Sarah Wallace: "What was strange about how the church reacted to his disappearance?"

Wilke: "It seems like they were more worried about protecting themselves than looking for him ... I'll tell you this, there are a couple of people who left the church who haven't talked."

A former Butler detective, now retired, spent hundreds of hours investigating the Carney case.

Sarah Wallace: "No sign of foul play?"

Detective: "No, no blood, no nothing."

The detective believes Tim Carney planned to disappear and that someone is helping support him.

Detective: "He had to plan how to get out of it"

Sarah: "Do you believe he's with the group?"

"I'm kind of torn. Either he's with the group and they know where he is and you know he's just hidden somewhere ... or, he was trying to get away from them," Carney's sister said.

We wanted to ask Pastor Lethbridge about Tim Carney and the family's concerns. The preacher had no words for us and then called the police, saying he was being harassed. In a lawsuit recently dismissed by a federal judge, Lethbridge accused ex-members and other critics of knowing Carney's whereabouts and hiding him.

Ron Rhodes: "I think that's ridiculous, where would I be hiding him?"

Angelo Failace: "It's there way of diverting attention away from themselves."

Time Carney's family just wants closure.

"I want to know he's okay ... I want something to know that he's alive ... just call," Carney's sister said.

The Butler Police Department still lists Tim Carney's as an open case. The Carney family has spent thousands of dollars on private investigators to try to locate him -- even tried a psychic.

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