Saturday, June 03, 2017

Courtroom Art

I'm working as a courtroom artist with WLOS TV (the ABC station in Asheville) on the trial of the minister of the Word of Faith church in Spindale, NC.  This is a real horror story of a cult that demands obedience to church leaders in matters as major as choosing your partner in marriage, to as minor as the proper way to manage a roll of toilet paper.  They practice communal living with multiple families in a house so that everybody will be under observation at all times.  These people are a Christian equivalent of the fundamentalist Wahabi sect of Islam, which features rigid adherence to strict rules for everyday matters, intolerance of individual thought, and hostility to outsiders.
The more I heard, the more I was stunned that this kind of behavior can go on in this country.

But go on it did, for many years.  Two Assistant District Attorneys were members of the church, along with several sheriff's deputies, and they killed any attempt to file charges against the church.  Additionally, I was told that two officials in the county clerk's office were members, and they would pass on anything they heard to church leaders within minutes.

One of the church's practices was something called "blasting".  The official name for it was a "prayer session", a much more innocuous term, and I noticed that is the only way that the defense attorney refers to it.  Basically, in a "prayer session" or "blasting", a person who is deemed to need help with staying on the right road is surrounded by many other church members who scream at the individual, hit, push, shake, and otherwise use very violent means to drive out any demons.  That anybody would voluntarily submit to this just boggles my mind.

This trial is about one particularly violent blasting.  The church minister, Brooke Covington, learned that one young member, Matthew Fenner, was gay.  This is a major sin in the Word of Faith church.  She called for a blasting on him and it went on for 2-5 hours, depending on the witness.  He was choked, pounded, bruised, shaken, and screamed at over that entire time.  He could not ask for it to stop because that would just make it worse.  When it was over, he was taken back to his church group house.  The next night, he was able to sneak out of the house and get to safety.

The minister is now on trial for assault and kidnapping.  The assault charge is for the particularly brutal "blasting" that Matthew endured.  The kidnapping charge is based on the fact that he was under constant control of other members of the church and not allowed to leave.  Four other people have been charged in this case and their trials will come later.  From what I have heard, I fully expect other charges to come down.  The FBI is apparently still investigating the group, so possibly some federal charges will be pending.

How much of this did I know beforehand?  About zilch.  I had heard of a cult in the area that had been in trouble with the law over the years and that was about it.  On Wednesday, I got a call from WLOS asking if I could be a courtroom artist for them.  The judge had prohibited cameras from the courtroom, so an artist was the only option.  I jumped at the chance, since I find courtroom artist duties to be challenging and fun.

So here are some of the drawings from two days in court:

Judge Gary Gavenus and the defendant, Brooke Covington, the minister of the Word of Faith church.  The judge is outstanding: he runs a tight courtroom.  He's done some things that I've never seen a judge do, but he's keeping both the prosecutor and defense attorneys on their toes.

This is Matthew Fenner, the young man who survived the "blasting" session brought on by Covington.

Sarah Anderson was one of the participants in the blasting.  She was supposed to be "in authority over" Matthew - a church term meaning that she was responsible for keeping him on the straight and narrow.  She and her husband lived in the group home with Matthew and many other people.  Since then, she has left the church and divorced her husband.  She's one of the others facing charges in this case.  The fact that she voluntarily gave testimony that could be used against her in her own trial was an indication to me that she's trying to make things right.



Danielle Cordes is another former church member who participated in the blasting.  She was a close friend of Matthew's and she left the church just a few weeks after the event.  The stories that Sarah and Danielle told fully corroborated Matthew's claims of really horrific treatment.


For more information on the case, check the first day and second day of WLOS reports that include my drawings.  An AP report that has a bit more informatio has been printed in multiple newspapers around the country; try the one at the LA Times.  For much more information, check the blog of John Huddle, a former member of the church who has been providing many details of church operations over many years.


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