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Context of 'October 2010 - July 2011: ’Cult’-Like Group Leader Murders Four-Year-Old Boy for ‘Act’ing Gay, ‘Common-Law Wife’ for Being Unable to Bear Children'

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Part of the Westboro Baptist Church as it appears in recent years. The URL “godhatesamerica.com” is written on a banner hanging in front of the church.Part of the Westboro Baptist Church as it appears in recent years. The URL “godhatesamerica.com” is written on a banner hanging in front of the church. [Source: Ask (.com)]The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) in Topeka, Kansas, holds its first services under the auspices of Pastor Fred Waldron Phelps. Phelps, his wife, nine of his 13 children, and their spouses and children make up the core of the WBC’s small congregation. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) will describe the church as a virtual cult led by Phelps. Phelps and his extended family members live in houses on the WBC compound in Topeka, with the houses arranged in a box formation and sharing a central backyard. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] The congregation will quickly begin shedding members because of Phelps’s vitriolic preaching, and for a time Phelps will attempt to support the church by selling vacuum cleaners and baby carriages door-to-door. For years, much of the church’s income comes from Phelps’s children, who regularly sell candy door-to-door. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Atmosphere of Fear, Abuse Alleged - According to one of Phelps’s estranged children, Nathan Phelps, Phelps uses violence and abuse to keep the members in line; in the SPLC’s words, “cultivating an atmosphere of fear to maintain his authority.” Nathan and his two siblings, Mark Phelps, and Dortha Bird, will later leave the church and family, and all three will allege physical and psychological abuse in multiple newspaper and television interviews. Fred Phelps will dismiss all the allegations as “a sea of fag lies.” Nathan will allege that his father beat him with a leather strap and a mattock handle until he “couldn’t lie down or sit down for a week.” They will also allege that Phelps beat his wife, forced his children to fast, and other charges. No child abuse charges brought against Phelps will ever result in convictions, usually because the children will refuse to testify out of what Nathan Phelps will call fear of reprisal. Children in the Phelps family are kept close to the church, and, the SPLC will write, “their upbringing offers them few opportunities to integrate into mainstream society. It is common to see young children from the Phelps family at WBC pickets, often holding the group’s hateful signs. These children casually use the words ‘fag’ and ‘dyke’ in interviews, and the older children report having no close friends at school. The Phelps family raises its children to hold hateful and upsetting views, and to believe that all people not in WBC will go to hell.… The children quickly grow alienated in school and in society, leading them to build relationships almost exclusively within the family. This helps to explain why nine of Fred Phelps’ 13 children have remained members of the church.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Phelps, who dropped out of the fundamentalist religious Bob Jones University, was ordained as a Baptist minister at the age of 17. He met his future wife Marge Phelps after his California street ministry against dirty jokes and sexual petting was the subject of a Time magazine profile. Between 1952 and 1968 the couple will have 13 children. Phelps will go on to earn a law degree from Washburn University in 1962, though he has some difficulty being admitted to the Kansas bar because no judge will be willing to vouch for his good character. Between 1951 and 2010, Phelps will be arrested multiple times for assault, battery, threats, trespassing, disorderly conduct, and contempt of court. He will be convicted four times, but will successfully avoid prison. He will decorate his WBC compound with an enormous upside-down American flag. He will go on to vilify both liberal and conservative lawmakers, including future President Ronald Reagan, and will praise enemies of the nation such as Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Mark Phelps will later call his father “a small, pathetic old man” who “behaves with a viciousness the likes of which I have never seen.” All three estranged children say that Phelps routinely refers to African-Americans as “dumb n_ggers.” Bird later says, “He only started picketing in 1991, but I want people to understand that nothing’s changed, he’s been like this all along.” She will change her last name to Bird to celebrate her new-found freedom away from the family, though she will continue to live in the Topeka area. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Fundamentalist Doctrine - Phelps teaches a fundamentalist version of Calvinist doctrine called “Primitive Baptist,” in which members believe that God only chooses a select few to be saved, and everyone else is doomed to burn in hell. The WBC Web site will later explain: “Your best hope is that you are among those he has chosen. Your prayer every day should be that you might be. And if you are not, nothing you say or do will serve as a substitute.”
Successful Lawsuits Help Fund Church - In 1964, Phelps will found a law firm specifically for defending the church against civil suits; the firm employs five attorneys, all children of Phelps. Phelps himself is a lawyer, but he will be disbarred in 1979 by the Kansas Supreme Court, which will find that he shows “little regard for the ethics of his profession.” The church does not solicit or accept outside donations; much of its funding comes from successful lawsuits against the Topeka city government and other organizations and individuals. The SPLC will explain, “Because the Phelps family represents WBC in court, they can put the fees they win towards supporting the church.” As of 2007, many Phelps family members will work for the state government, bringing additional revenue to the church. [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Nathan Phelps will later say that his father routinely files frivolous lawsuits in the hope that his targets will settle out of court rather than face the expenditures of a bench trial. (One extreme example is a 1974 class action suit demanding $50 million from Sears over the alleged delay in delivering a television set. In 1980, Sears will settle the suit by paying Phelps $126. Another, more lucrative example is a 1978 civil rights case that earns Phelps almost $10,000 in legal fees as part of the settlement of a discrimination case.) [Southern Poverty Law Center, 4/2001]
Reviling Homosexuality - One of the central tenets of the church’s practices is the vilification of homosexuality, which the church will use to propel itself into the public eye (see June 1991 and After, 1996, June 2005 and After, September 8, 2006, October 2-3, 2006, and April 2009). The church’s official slogan is “God Hates Fags.” The church will begin its anti-gay crusade in the late 1980s with the picketing of a Topeka park allegedly frequented by homosexuals. In the early 1990s, WBC will launch its nationwide anti-gay picketing crusade. The church will win international notoriety with its picketing of the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a gay student brutally murdered in Wyoming (see October 14, 1998 and October 3, 2003). After the 9/11 attacks, the church will begin claiming that God brought about the attacks to punish America for its tolerance of homosexuality (see September 8, 2006). The church will also begin picketing the funerals of American soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2005, claiming that God is punishing America for tolerating homosexuality and persecuting the WBC (see June 2005 and After). The church will win notable victories in court regarding its right to protest at funerals (see March 10, 2006 and After and June 5, 2007 and After). Nations such as Canada and the United Kingdom will ban WBC members from entering their borders to engage in protest and picketing activities (see August 2008 and February 2009). [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] Phelps will write in an undated pamphlet detailing the “message” of the WBC: “America is doomed for its acceptance of homosexuality. If God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for going after fornication and homosexuality then why wouldn’t God destroy America for the same thing?” In 2001, a Topeka resident will tell an SPLC researcher: “I’m so tired of people calling him an ‘anti-gay activist.’ He’s not an anti-gay activist. He’s a human abuse machine.” [Southern Poverty Law Center, 2012] According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL): “Though the group’s specific focus may shift over time, they believe that nearly all Americans and American institutions are ‘sinful,’ so nearly any individual or organization can be targeted. In fact, WBC members say that ‘God’s hatred is one of His holy attributes’ and that their picketing is a form of preaching to a ‘doomed’ country unable to hear their message in any other way.” [Anti-Defamation League, 2012]

Entity Tags: Fred Waldron Phelps, Matthew Shepard, Kansas Supreme Court, Mark Phelps, Dortha Bird, Marge Phelps, Anti-Defamation League, Nathan Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, Southern Poverty Law Center

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

A cease-fire ends a violent, bloody conflict between the Branch Davidians, a group of religious separatists in their Waco, Texas, compound, and agents from the Bureau of Tobacco, Alcohol and Firearms (BATF, sometimes abbreviated ATF), who launched a raid on the compound to serve search and arrest warrants on Davidian leader David Koresh (see 5:00 A.M. - 9:30 A.M. February 28, 1993 and 9:30 A.M. and After, February 28, 1993). The cease-fire goes into effect after about 90 minutes of the two sides exchanging gunfire. Four BATF agents are dead and 16 are wounded, some severely. The agents retreat to a safe distance, where they mill around aimlessly; the commanders have not given the agents a plan for retreat or failure. The Davidians also withdraw inside their compound. Five Davidians, including a woman nursing her baby, are dead, and several, including Koresh, are wounded; Koresh suffers gunshot wounds in the hand and the side. (Two of the Davidians may have been killed by their fellows after being gravely wounded by BATF fire.) Three Davidians attempting to get to the main building from a warehouse on the property are apprehended by BATF agents; one is killed, one is arrested, and one escapes. In total, six Davidians are killed. [Dean M. Kelley, 5/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995; House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996]
Media Contacts - During the raid, CNN receives calls from Davidian Steve Schneider. CNN producers verify that Schneider is indeed inside the compound, and set up an interview with Koresh for this evening (see 5:00 p.m. February 28, 1993 and After). [New York Times, 3/1/1993]
Negotiations and Implementation - The cease-fire takes some time to implement. Senior BATF agent James Cavanaugh succeeds in convincing Koresh and Schneider to agree to a cease-fire. Schneider has to walk through the main building to tell his people to stop firing; Cavanaugh has no direct radio link to his agents, and has to go through team leaders to tell them to stop firing. The cease-fire has been agreed upon for several minutes before the shooting finally concludes. As part of a 1996 House investigation of the Davidian debacle (see August 2, 1996), Cavanaugh will say: “I called the compound directly on the phone from the undercover house. I reached… Schneider. I told him I was an ATF agent and I wanted to talk to him about this situation. As should be expected, the activity inside the compound was very frantic, people were screaming and yelling, and there was still shooting going on both sides. Steve was very excited and very hostile. I wanted to negotiate a cease-fire, and he [Schneider] was agreeable. I am not going to be good on the time of how long it took, but it took a little while to negotiate that. He had to go throughout the compound, which is very large, telling everyone not to shoot. While he was doing this, there was still shooting going on both sides. I had to get on the command net frequency and tell the commanders on the ground there not to shoot, and they had to relay that to all 100 agents, who were around there, so it took a little time to arrange it. Once I returned to the rear command post I called back in on the telephone to the residence about 2:00 p.m. and I spoke with Steve and David Koresh about what was going on. We had long conversations about the warrant, and we also had a lot of conversations about Biblical passages and Mr. Koresh’s belief that he was the Lamb of God, who would open the Seven Seals. As you might assume, he was very hostile, very angry, and very upset.” [House Committee on Government Reform and Oversight, 8/2/1996] In the following days, Koresh will tell local reporters by phone that he is shot in the “gut” and his two-year-old daughter is dead from BATF gunfire. He will also leave a message on his mother’s answering machine in Chandler, Texas, which says in part: “Hello, Mama. It’s your boy.… They shot me and I’m dying, all right? But I’ll be back real soon, OK? I’ll see y’all in the skies.” [Newsweek, 3/15/1993] The body of the Davidian slain while trying to return to the compound, Michael Schroeder, will lie untouched in a gully for four days before authorities retrieve it; those authorities will wait 11 days before informing Schroeder’s parents of his death (see March 11, 1993).
Death Toll - The four BATF agents slain in the raid are: Conway LeBleu, Todd McKeehan, Robert Williams, and Steve Willis. The six Davidians slain in the raid are Schroeder, Winston Blake, Peter Gent, Peter Hipsman, Perry Jones, and Jaydean Wendell. [Dallas Morning News, 2/27/2003] (Initial reports of the death toll inside the Davidian compound range from seven to 15; those reports are later determined to be wrong.) [New York Times, 3/3/1993]
FBI Takes Control - Within hours of the raid’s conclusion, the FBI will take control of the situation and besiege the compound (see 12:00 p.m. February 28, 1993).
Criticism of BATF Tactics - Soon after, the FBI publicly criticizes the BATF’s decision to storm the compound in a frontal assault. “It’s against our doctrine to do a frontal assault when women and children are present,” one FBI agent says. BATF spokeswoman Sharon Wheeler explains: “We were outgunned. They had bigger firearms than we did.” But former New York City Police Commissioner Benjamin Ward says of that explanation: “‘Outgunned’ is a euphemism for ‘outplanned,’ or ‘unplanned.’ They did it backwards. The accepted way is to talk first and shoot second.” Vic Feazell, a former district attorney for the area, says of Koresh and the Davidians, “They’re peaceful and nonaggressive unless they are attacked.” By going in, guns blazing, the BATF played right into the group’s apocalyptic vision, he says. “They would see this as a holy war provoked by an oppressive government.” [Newsweek, 3/15/1993]
Standoff Will End in Fiery Conflagration - Most of the Davidians, including Koresh, will die in a fiery conflagration after a 51-day standoff with FBI agents (see April 19, 1993). After the site is secured, Texas law enforcement officials will recover over 300 firearms from the compound, as well as numerous live grenades, grenade components, and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition. [US Department of Justice, 7/16/1995; PBS Frontline, 10/1995]

Entity Tags: Peter Hipsman, Sharon Wheeler, Robert Williams, Steve Schneider, Vic Feazell, Todd McKeehan, Steve Willis, Winston Blake, Peter Gent, Perry Jones, US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, Jaydean Wendel, Benjamin Ward, CNN, Conway LeBleu, Branch Davidians, Federal Bureau of Investigation, David Koresh, Michael Schroeder, James Cavanaugh

Timeline Tags: 1993 Branch Davidian Crisis

Jadon Higganbothan before his murder.Jadon Higganbothan before his murder. [Source: WRAL-TV]A four-year-old boy and a 28-year-old woman are killed, apparently through their contact with a small North Carolina religious cult. Peter Lucas Moses, the head of a “family” made up of four women and nine children, is charged with first-degree murder in the deaths of four-year-old Jadon Higganbothan and 28-year-old Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy; prosecutors say they will seek the death penalty. Group members, all women and children, call Moses “Lord” and reportedly fear him. Prosecutors say Moses killed Higganbothan because he believed the child “act[s] gay,” and McKoy because she found out she could not bear children and wanted to leave the group’s home in Durham, North Carolina. In February 2011, a woman escapes from the group’s home and contacts police. Her identity is not made public. She lived at the home with Moses, Higganbothan, McKoy, and three other women also charged in the slayings: Higganbothan’s mother, Vania Rae Sisk, 25, Lavada Quinzetta Harris, 40, and Larhonda Renee Smith, 40. Sisk, Lavada Harris, and Smith face first-degree murder charges in McKoy’s death and charges as accessories in Higganbothan’s death. Investigators believe some of those involved in the deaths are members of a religious sect known as the Black Hebrews, which claims it descends directly from the ancient tribes of Israel. The unnamed woman informs police that two people were killed in the house. Court records show that police had a confidential informant in the case. The women call themselves “wives or common-law wives” of Moses, according to Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline. “The arrangement was the women would periodically occupy the master suite with” Moses. Cline refuses to call the group a cult. Moses is the father of all the children except for Higganbothan; according to prosecutors, Moses feared that Higganbothan might be gay because his father had left Sisk, and Moses told her to “get rid” of the child. “In the religious belief of that organization, homosexuality was frowned on,” Cline says. In October 2010, Moses becomes incensed after learning that Higganbothan had struck another child in the rear, begins screaming, “I told you to get rid of him!” begins playing loud music, takes Higganbothan into the garage, and shoots him in the head. The women put the child’s body into a suitcase and place the suitcase in Moses’s master suite; he later orders the women to remove the suitcase because it is beginning to smell. On December 21 or 22, prosecutors will say, McKoy is also murdered by Moses. She attempts to go to a neighbor’s house and call her mother in Washington, DC, but Moses drags her back to their home and beats her throughout the day, sometimes joined by some of the other women. He then attempts to strangle her with an extension cord, and finally takes her into the bathroom and shoots her to death. The neighbor will later say she did not call police because she thought that it was a group home and that McKoy might be mentally disturbed. Prosecutors find diary entries written by McKoy begging “Lord” not to kill her. The group throws a party later in the week, and Moses displays McKoy’s corpse to several of his relatives, including his mother, brother, and sister, who are later charged as accessories in McKoy’s death. McKoy’s body is stored in a black plastic garbage bag. Eventually “family” members bury both bodies in the back yard of a house that was Moses’s mother’s former residence. Plumbers find the body in June 2011. Prosecutors find shell casings and blood in the garage and master bedroom of Moses’s house. They also find a .22-caliber gun matching the shells found in the house on the roof of a Colorado townhouse, where the “family” moves in February 2011. The other eight children, who say they feared Moses would do to them “what he did to Jadon,” according to Cline, are taken into foster care. McKoy’s mother, Yvonne McKoy, says she is still numb and cannot believe her daughter is gone. “I’m just grateful to God that justice has been served and God is going to do what God is going to do,” she says. [WRAL-TV, 7/8/2011; Associated Press, 7/8/2011]

Entity Tags: Larhonda Renee Smith, Black Hebrews, Antoinetta Yvonne McKoy, Jadon Higganbothan, Lavada Quinzetta Harris, Peter Lucas Moses, Vania Rae Sisk, Yvonne McKoy, Tracey Cline

Timeline Tags: US Domestic Terrorism

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