A church at odds with the law

Critics claim congregants of the Church of God in Upland are under the control of a leader whose teachings have deadly consequences.

Los Angeles Times/February 14, 2002
By Gene Maddaus

Rancho Cucamonga -- Betty Garges first thought she might have breast cancer in 1996. Eventually, a doctor came to see her but did nothing to treat the illness -- not because he didn't want to, but because she wouldn't allow it.

"We were offering her everything," Dr. Bhagwant Singh said. "She did not want it, and we respected her."

Garges died of the disease at age 59, believing that healing comes not from doctors but from faith in God. It is a belief, prosecutors say, that is shared by Richard and Agnes Wiebe, a Rancho Cucamonga couple facing criminal charges for not taking their dying child to a doctor. The difference is that Garges applied the belief to herself, while the Wiebes, authorities say, applied it to their 11-month-old daughter, Julia, who died of meningitis in July. The Wiebes are scheduled to appear in court today for a preliminary hearing on charges of manslaughter and cruelty to a child.

The Wiebes have declined to discuss their beliefs. But their story and others offer glimpses into a church sometimes seriously at odds with the law.

Singh works with Inland Valley Hospice, and by the time he first saw Garges, she was terminal.

"The cancer had eaten the bone," said her brother James Linch. "She never took anything, no pain killers, no medication at all. And when she did have suffering and pain, she would call for prayer and be relieved. I know that works."

Indeed, Singh describes the pain Garges felt as "moderate, but not excessive," though he did not see her during the last couple of months of her life.

At one point, she fell and broke a leg but would not allow doctors to set the fracture. Instead, she called for church leaders to anoint her with oil and pray, as described in the Bible in James 5:14. Months later, Linch said, another X-ray revealed the bone had healed.

"The doctor was surprised to see that," he said. "He said, 'Something must have happened here.' "

Singh recalls it differently.

"It never healed," he said. "Not totally."

At 5:55 p.m. Oct. 29, 1998, a hospice nurse called the coroner's office from Garges' home on Valley View Street in Rancho Cucamonga to report that she had died.

The funeral was performed by Danny Layne, the controversial leader of a sect of the Church of God.

Layne's church has congregations in Canada, the United States, Germany, Mexico and Africa, with a membership estimated between 500 and 1,000. Church members consider him a wise and spiritual man. But critics say he is a controlling leader whose teachings may have deadly consequences.

The group is intensely private and managed to avoid the notice of the outside world until last summer, when authorities began to investigate whether members' close reading of the Bible amounted, in some cases, to child abuse.

Two days before Julia Wiebe died, seven children were removed from a Church of God home in Aylmer, Ontario, Canada, on suspicion that they were being beaten. The local Family and Children's Services agency has never said what they think happened in the home, but Steve Bailey, the agency's executive director, said, "We would not be involved to the extent we are if it was just spanking."

The children were returned weeks later, after the parents agreed to allow authorities into their home for checks and authorities agreed to learn more about the church.

Nevertheless, dozens of families reportedly fled to Ohio and Indiana, where the laws on corporal punishment are more lax. Layne was defiant.

"Switching is used as a last resort," Layne told the Washington Post. "But the Scriptures clearly call for it and we won't give it up."

During the same time, the San Bernardino County homicide detail was investigating the death of Julia Wiebe.

According to a coroner's investigation, Richard and Agnes Wiebe told detectives that Julia got sick on July 2 and was running a temperature of 100 to 101 degrees. She could eat only Enfamil formula and tea. On July 4, she started to have seizures. The morning of July 6, Agnes Wiebe was lying with her daughter on a mattress in her living room, when she heard the girl take one long deep breath and then stop breathing. She called 911. Paramedics tried CPR for four minutes but pronounced the child dead at 11:10 a.m.

Julia had bacterial meningitis and could have been saved by any number of antibiotics, according to Claudia Spencer with the San Bernardino County Department of Health.

The district attorney's office filed charges against the Wiebes in September, and the couple were arrested at their home on Deerbrook Street.

Since then, Danny Layne has not granted any interviews, and he repeatedly declined to be interviewed for this story.

He may be called to testify today.

Layne's sect is based on the teachings of D.S. Warner, who broke away from the church and whose ministry and writings formed the basis of a Church of God reformation in the late 19th century. The church came out of the Restorationist movement, "an attempt to get back to a true New Testament lifestyle," said Samuel Scheibler, director of religion and culture at Claremont Graduate University's School of Religion. "It was very simple worship, and a simple lifestyle."

But Warner's followers soon found themselves in trouble with the law. According to "Tell Me Another Tale: Further Reflections on the Church of God," as early as 1898, three believers were charged with murder in the case of a woman who died from complications of childbirth in Marion, Ind. Her husband and two church members supported her decision not to take medicine prescribed by a doctor. The case went to trial but ended with a hung jury.

In a pamphlet about his life, Danny Layne said he discovered the church in 1981, after 19 years as a heroin addict on the streets and in the jails of San Francisco and Los Angeles.

In the 20-page testimonial, which was written in 1984, Layne said that at one point he had needle marks in his hands, feet and neck, lived off what he could steal from corner groceries and weighed less than 100 pounds. He tried to kill himself with overdoses and said he once attempted to chop both his arms off with a meat cleaver before discovering the logical flaw with that and passing out at a bus station.

"Basically, he's a person that should be dead," Linch said.

Unable to kill himself, Layne found God.

"I am thankful that when I came to the end of my rope, and it came time for me to get saved, that I came to the one who could really save me," Layne wrote. "I don't have to sin any more. God delivers, praise the Lord!"

Layne's critics are skeptical of the pamphlet, and have found no independent corroboration for many of its claims.

Layne began to meet with the Church of God in Guthrie, Okla., where his testimonial, titled "He Lifted Me Out," was published.

A month before the publication, Layne experienced his first conflict between God and the law, when 4-year-old Vickie Sorrell died in Guthrie of Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Vickie's parents, Thomas and Connie, were Church of God members, and prosecutors alleged they did not seek appropriate help for Vickie. They were charged with second-degree manslaughter. After a two-day trial in April 1985 that generated a lot of publicity, the Sorrells were acquitted. The jury deliberated for about an hour.

Guthrie Deputy Police Chief Rex Brown recalled a similar case two years later in which Church of God members hid a child sick with meningitis from the authorities. Brown said that the police finally found the child at the home of a church member, after getting an anonymous tip. The child survived after police took him to the hospital.

During these years Layne began building his own ministry and soon came into conflict with the rest of the church, according to Stanley Dickson, now the pastor of the Guthrie congregation.

"He developed radical views and ideas," said Dickson, who has not been to a doctor's office in the 25 years since his conversion. "He was not pushed out or asked to leave. ... Basically he pulled away."

Layne wrote a letter to the Guthrie church in February 1989 announcing his split with the church and enumerating the reasons for it: "Apostasy, compromise, spiritual deadness, intellectualism and man-rule."

The split was an emotionally draining one.

"It's not fun to go through," Dickson said.

What Layne was trying to do, former Church of God members say, was return to the teachings of D.S. Warner.

"There seemed to be a seriousness about what they were doing that was obviously attractive," said David Kauenhowen, a former minister from Steinbach, Manitoba. "They were strong on the message of restoration, of restoring what has been lost."

"It was exciting," said Ron Walters, a former minister from Chilliwack, British Columbia. "We were drawn into that. The people were honest, sincere and very serious about their Christian walk."

Layne recruited heavily among Mennonites, inviting them to church meetings in the Midwest and in Canada. The Wiebes were among the early recruits, and there are now about 50 members of the family in the church.

Culturally, the church mirrors the Mennonites, many of whom speak Low German and sometimes Spanish, thanks to 50 years of exile in Chihuahua, Mexico. A large group fled Canada in 1917 to avoid the draft and establish German-speaking schools, said Liz Coletta, Richard Wiebe's aunt. After thinking of settling in South America, they opted for Mexico, finding it most hospitable. Many remain there.

Layne established a large Church of God group in Aylmer, Ontario, where Richard Wiebe was born, and others sprouted up in Farmland, Ind., and Dayton, Ohio.

As people joined, they went off medications and, Coletta said, started to die.

Helena Wiebe, Richard's paternal grandmother, joined Layne's church in 1991 and simultaneously went off several heart medications.

"She told me that God had healed her, and that God would give her a new heart," Coletta said. But Helena Wiebe's condition deteriorated, Coletta said, and when she couldn't talk her mother out of her decision, Coletta went to the police.

They told her nothing could be done.

Seven weeks after joining the church, Helena Wiebe died of congestive heart failure, family members said.

In August 1995, Coletta's father, Abe, also died. He was diabetic and had been off his medication since joining the church.

In September 2000, Anna Thiessen, Richard's aunt and Coletta's sister, died of untreated breast cancer.

The members of the family who did not join the Church of God have turned their anger on Danny Layne.

"He's definitely controlling them," Coletta said. "He doesn't have a conscience or he wouldn't be doing this to people."

It wasn't always adults who died. In late 1995 or early 1996, a baby boy was born prematurely to Judy and David Peters, members of the Church of God congregation in Chihuahua, Mexico. The child seemed to have a heart problem and had difficulty breathing. The family called for a local nurse, Marlene Wiebe, who is not related to Richard Wiebe and is not a member of Layne's congregation.

"I gave the baby mouth-to-mouth," Wiebe said. "He started pinking up. He hadn't been pink since he was born."

Wiebe told the parents the child needed oxygen, fast. The family asked where they could get it, and Wiebe told them to ask the local doctor. They said they couldn't do that.

"I said, 'Oxygen is a natural thing that God provided. ... I'll go get the oxygen tank,' " Wiebe said. "They refused any advice. The baby died the next morning."

Mexican authorities never investigated, Wiebe said.

Agnes Wiebe endured her own hardships and was investigated at least once before Julia died. According to coroner's officials, she had two previous stillbirths in San Bernardino County, in 1996 and 1999. After the second child, Michael, was born dead with two knots in his umbilical cord, the Sheriff's Department referred the case to the district attorney's office, suggesting homicide charges might be filed. The district attorney's office turned the case down.

"I don't see a crime there," Chief Deputy Dist. Atty. Richard Maxwell said recently. "She didn't get prenatal care, but that's not a crime."

Former members say the deaths reflect a broader strictness and rigidity in the interpretation of the Bible that borders on the cultic.

Kauenhowen, Walters and at least 100 others have left the church in the past two years because they feel Layne is too controlling and too judgmental.

"We believe that when a person shows you something, you can't shove it down their throat and make them accept it," said Linch, Garges' brother, who is a member of the Church of God but never joined Layne's branch. Layne "felt like he needed to tell people how to live, dress, raise their children, and do a lot of things we don't believe in," he said.

Former members say a network of spies began to enforce Layne's decisions. He began requiring men to wear beards and dark clothes. Women had to wear long, dark, collared dresses, and if they wore underwear with lace, someone might inform on them and the lace would be cut off.

"He was starting to talk about how he would have to approve marriages and approve what kind of work someone would do," said Charles Tull, an attorney who represented Walters, the ex-minister from British Columbia. "Ron Walters felt this was control, and not what his congregation wanted to do."

Walters did not go to the hospital when he fell off a roof and broke his leg, but members of his congregation routinely went to the doctor for childbirth or children's health problems.

Walters was eventually dismissed as pastor because his congregation did not keep pace with the new rules, which led to a leadership crisis when Walters refused to go. Layne finally sued him for ownership of a church campground, and the suit wound up in court in Bellingham, Wash.

Walters won the case, after the judge decided that his congregation owned the campground, valued at $300,000, and the congregation voted to part ways with Layne and keep Walters as pastor. Layne then excommunicated all of them.

Layne has denied accusations of control in published reports.

"Openly, he'll say, 'We don't control people that way,' " Kauenhowen said. "But there's internal pressure, very strong pressures."

Former ministers disagree over whether the deaths are the result of innate religious conviction or of coercion.

"It's almost criminal the way things are going," Kauenhowen said of the Wiebe case. "I don't think they're really to blame. It is the man that is controlling their lives who's to blame. ... Messages are given to people that they have no faith if they go see a doctor."

He said the Wiebes would have faced shunning if they had taken Julia to a doctor.

But Walters doesn't see it that way.

"I do feel for this young couple," he said. "But it would be wrong to cast them in the light that they're controlled by Mr. Layne. They're a very wonderful young family that are caught up in the whole church thing and don't understand the extent of what it's become."

Scheibler, the religion professor, first heard of Layne's Church of God in February 2001 and went to learn more about it. He was intrigued by members' opposition to medical care and began talking with some members about their beliefs.

He found them to be "extreme" even for those who don't believe in medical care.

Though people usually are eager to talk about their faith, soon the membership withdrew and stopped talking to Scheibler.

"They don't trust outsiders very much," he said. "If you're not a believer, they don't want to talk to you."

Scheibler encountered difficulty, even though he was speaking to them before Julia Wiebe died, before seven children were removed from a Canadian home on suspicion of abuse, and before the Wiebe's newborn baby boy, barely two weeks old, was seized last month and placed in foster care.

"Even if they are not persecuted, if they feel even the general hostility of the community, they tend to withdraw to themselves," he said.

Having said that, Scheibler disagrees with the more sinister view of the group.

"These are people with sincerely held religious beliefs, who are working out the understanding of the Bible in their daily lives," he said. "They're not brainwashed. They're not zombies."

James Linch, though he, too, has his problems with Layne, agrees:

"My sister did not walk into this blindfolded."

Based on experience, Church of God members are confident that the Wiebes will not be convicted, that the case will somehow go away, according to those who have spoken with them.

But if they're wrong, Coletta said, they are said to be preparing a contingency plan: fleeing to South America.

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