Starting in early 2013, a young man named Matthew Fenner started telling local law enforcement officers near the western North Carolina town of Spindale about a 2 hour long beating and humiliation that he had suffered in the sanctuary of the Word of Faith Fellowship. Fenner and several supporting witnesses were prepared to testify about what had happened to Fenner and how that kind of violence was a fairly regular form of discipline administered at the headquarters of the religious cult founded and dominated by an evangelist named Jane Whaley and her husband Sam, a former Oklahoma used car dealer.
Fenner described being forced to the floor, pounded on the chest, tugged by his arms, and relentlessly showered with verbal abuse for some 2 hours, “to expel his homosexual demons.”
He told his story to the local district attorney, and to the then-assistant, now US Attorney for Western Carolina, to the local sheriff and a deputy, and to at least 2 agents of the FBI. None was will willing to press charges.
The Sheriff did tell him, in North Carolina, one citizen can file misdemeanor criminal charges against another, and so Fenner did, against 5 members of the Word of Faith congregation. Today, more than 3 ½ years after the alleged beating, one misdemeanor case has come to trial but quickly ended in a mistrial. It’s been re-scheduled for September, but otherwise, all quiet on the legal front.
Matthew Fenner was one of 43 former congregants of Word of Faith Fellowship who talked to our guest Pulitzer Prize and George Polk Award-winning AP investigative reporter Mitch Weiss about, not just the abuses regularly committed by leaders of the Fellowship against members, but about the strange ineffectiveness of local law enforcement when confronted with complaints about Jane Whaley’s religious dictatorship.
Mitch’s investigative reports were published in late February. He talked with us about the story March 20, a program easily found in the HERE & THERE archive at davemarash.com.
AP’s global distribution of this story certainly stirred some interest in Spindale and North Carolina, but not a notable amount of law enforcement investigation. At both the local and federal levels the attitude seemed to be, “What happens in Spindale, stays in Spindale. So go away.
But Mitch didn’t just go away, he and his AP colleagues went to Brazil, which with Ghana is the major foreign outpost of the Word of Faith Fellowship. And there, in two towns in southeastern Brazil where the Fellowship has affiliate churches, they found more than a dozen people who said they had been sent to Spindale, expecting spiritual guidance and chances to sample American life and get an American college education, and wound up as …well one word several of them used in the AP interviews was…”slaves.”
They were forced, they said, to work cleaning the Fellowship church, baby-sitting for church-members’ children, and in many cases working construction and maintenance jobs for businesses owned by church leaders. They were, they said, never paid anything beyond their room and board, even though they often worked several jobs, often for as much as 16 hours a day.
And, they all told Mitch and his colleagues, they were in the US on tourist or student visas. BINGO! The unpaid work they described is not legal for people on those visas.
So, now, at least 10 American and more Brazilian witnesses say they’ve been contacted or questioned for investigations now underway at North Carolina law enforcement agencies and the FBI, the State Department and Brazilian Police.
Mitch Weiss is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist for The Associated Press. Over the last 20 years, he has investigated government corruption, white-collar crime, police misconduct and clerical sexual abuse. In 2003, he was assigned to an investigative series that uncovered the longest string of atrocities carried out by a U.S. fighting unit in the Vietnam War. In recognition of the series “Buried Secrets, Brutal Truths,” which led to an investigation by the Pentagon, he and Michael D. Sallah were awarded the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. Weiss and Sallah turned the series into a book, Tiger Force, which was published in 2006.
Weiss also wrote two books with Kevin Maurer. The first was about a failed Special Forces mission in Afghanistan. The critically-acclaimed book was published by Penguin Books in 2012. Weiss’s second with Maurer was a sweeping narrative about a Special Forces team that helped capture and kill Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Bolivia in 1967. Weiss currently works for The AP on special projects, and an investigative series he landed about corrupt real estate appraisers won several national awards in 2009. He also won a George Polk Award in 2010 for coverage of the massive Gulf Oil Spill.