My Very Own “Cult Scare” (A Public Defender’s Observations)

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In a few short years, about half of my life will have been spent learning first-hand about the anti-cult movement and the current colloquial trends surrounding the use of the word “cult” to describe varied and diversified new religious movements. Let me just say, every step along the way was worth it to know what I know now.

In 1983, when I was 32, I was a public defender in northeastern Vermont who was assigned to represent a so-called cult member accused of simple assault for a supposedly vicious beating of a pre-teen girl. The details of the charge were particularly horrific,1 so much so that I almost refused the case, thinking that my emotions would be too affected to give my client the legal representation that he deserved. The local and statewide press at that time was replete with scandalous, inflammatory, and defamatory publicity both about him personally and also his church group, referred to then and there as the Northeast Kingdom Community Church.2

After much soul-searching and heartfelt discussion with my partner at the time, I concluded that “everyone deserves a vigorous defense, even if he is accused of something awful, so I am at least going to meet this fellow. I will handle the case unless I no longer can, due to my own conscience.” And that was how it all began. Every step along the way I determined to follow my own heart, despite both predictable and surprising pulls in opposing directions.

First off, when I met my client in mid-August 1983, I was impressed by his composure and his faith. He was not abnormal, remote, or beady-eyed. He looked me straight in the eye, answered my direct questions, and did not exhibit any strange auras. A couple of months later I took him up on his offer for me to visit his church group, the Community in Island Pond. When I decided to attend a church wedding, I was taken aback by the apprehension and fear my colleagues and friends had for my safety, as if I might be entering an unknown “Twilight Zone” with a distinct possibility that I might not return the same as they had known me, or even that I might not return at all.

But, quite the contrary, I had an exceptionally good time, both surprising and alluring. There were several hundred people — joyful men, women, and children — singing, dancing, and showering their love on the couple being married. It was a Friday. My client was not present, but as it happened the leader of the group was in attendance, just returning from a trip. Someone introduced me to him, and, lo and behold, he spent a lot of time with me, personally explaining the significance of all that was happening. All of it was fascinating to me, intriguing, enlightening and meaningful, but not the least bit strange or off-putting. I drove home that evening very excited about what I had just encountered, convinced in my own heart that I had not witnessed abused children or abusing parents, which was the main charge against the group at the time. It was just not believable.

But what began to work inside me was a question that only grew more gnawing as the months passed: Why was this group so controversial, and who was it that was against them?

An early experience that invoked my intuition occurred when I returned to work that Monday and the local daily paper was sitting on my desk. There I was, in a large picture on the front page! It was a photo of Gene Spriggs and me talking. I was unnamed, but my colleague had drawn in a cloud over Spriggs, saying “Cult Leader!” I was mildly shocked and somewhat amused. The significance of my visit eluded me, but somehow there was a reporter present from a statewide newspaper who captured the moment. In the ensuing months “covering the cult” became his obsession. What consumed me was my desire to understand all the hype and the hysteria. Everyone in my office was curious to hear about my visit. Questions abounded.

Over the next year my boyfriend and I visited the community often, usually on Sundays when everyone gathered for a big celebration. We were welcomed, our many questions were answered, and we were more and more intrigued by what we saw. At the same time, negative press coverage only escalated, and it was the Attorney General’s office that handled the case, rather than the local county prosecutor. Momentum against the group was gaining and some of my friends were becoming distant.

As I became more involved with the case, I awaited the deposition (questioning under oath) of the alleged victim with anticipation. I knew her demeanor and her answers would reveal a lot. I had determined that my client would be present. I wanted to observe her in his presence. But when the day came, her father objected in every way. “No way is my daughter going sit across the table from him!” he exclaimed. The state lawyer pleaded with me to remove my client. “It’s his constitutional right to be there and he’s not giving it up.” I retorted. Both men were present. As I asked the questions, observed the girl, and heard her answers, one thing became crystal clear to me: the girl was not afraid of my client. It was obvious that she considered him her friend, confirming exactly what he had told me.3

Somewhere along the way I saw the need for my client to speak for himself in court. He was articulate, knew what needed to be said, and it was his faith at stake, not mine. We decided to ask the judge whether we could be co-counsel, and the judge granted our request. Not long after, at a hearing about “excessive pre-trial publicity,” my client called me as a witness, a somewhat unorthodox move. The judge that day was a different one and he did not like what was happening. He warned me that my client would be giving up his attorney-client privilege if we proceeded this way. My client spoke up and said “That’s alright, Your Honor. I have nothing to hide.” The point that he drew out of me was that I, too, had been afraid and skeptical of his church group until I had visited for myself. “Why?” he asked me. “Because of all the lies that I read in the newspaper! Until I could see for myself, I believed them — or at least I was affected by them.” I said unequivocally.

As the case meandered through the court for two years, my relationship with the church community grew. I got to know many members individually, learning what drew them to the group. One thing I concluded early on was that it was clear that each one of them served the same God, despite diverse backgrounds, income levels, and educational achievement. I was also exposed to many teachings and gatherings. All I knew was that the group had life and that they loved each other with a pure heart. The more I got to know them, the stranger it seemed to me that there was such a furor over these people. What was going on behind the scenes that I was unaware of?

I just went forward one step at a time, following my heart and my instincts. I decided to depose the Attorney General himself, as he had said in a radio broadcast that he was “confident of a conviction” in my client’s case. Now this is something that prosecutors are not supposed to do, comment on a pending case, as it violates ethical canons. He was obviously uncomfortable and fidgety. He didn’t really know anything about the group, but it was as if he was “on a mission.”

In due time the charges against my client were dismissed. The state police lost a key tape that they should not have lost, and the prosecutor was found guilty of an ethical violation for pursuing a conviction rather than the evidence. It was June 1985.

The Raid

Meanwhile, I was still getting to know the little church community that lived as the Bible described in the Book of Acts (chapters 2 & 4). One evening about a year earlier, I was visiting the community and was invited to spend the night. It was already dark, my boyfriend was on a hiking trip, and it seemed like a good idea. I stayed up late talking with two of the women, and then went to bed in a room by myself. The next thing I knew it was 6:45 the next morning and a state trooper with a big hat and a long, huge flashlight burst into my room and pointed its glare right at my face. He said “Get up, get dressed, we’re here to take the children!”

It was Friday, June 22, 1984. Ninety Vermont State troopers in bulletproof vests and fifty social workers raided 19 homes in the pre-dawn hour, demanding the names of the children and the children themselves. They waved papers as if they had a flag of victory demonstrating the State’s conquest over the religious beliefs of the individuals involved. A local judge had signed a search warrant to legitimize the round-up of the unsuspecting children, so the zeal of the social workers became unleashed to confidently intrude into the lives of these little ones as if they were doing them a great favor, rescuing them from the abusive clutches of their fanatical parents. 112 children were unlawfully seized that morning because of the religious beliefs of their parents.4

We were transported, in custody, to the courthouse in Newport, Vermont, some 20 miles away, where each family awaited its turn to appear before a judge who would decide whether they would be separated or kept together. Happily for the parents, Judge Frank Mahady was a man who respected the State Constitution of Vermont as well as the U.S. Constitution, and who did not judge by the barometer of public opinion. As he properly called the lawyers from the State Attorney General’s Office to provide evidence of abuse to justify the seizure of each child, the State of Vermont was left with nothing to say, except to speak against the faith of those brought to court.

Court continued late into the night, calling each child by name. Each one was sent home with his parents, as there was no basis to keep even one for examination by the state’s battery of doctors, social workers, and psychiatrists who sat to no avail nearly an hour away at a ski resort, waiting to perform their scrutinizing rituals. At around 9 pm, Judge Mahady had to decide what to do with the large group of children whose parents would not give their names, according to their constitutional rights, despite the coercion of law enforcement’s threatening tactics. After hearing the arguments, he released them all to return home with their parents. He gave the opportunity for any parent who had something to say to speak. Many passionately told the story of their day and spoke of their deep gratitude for a judge who ruled justly. By 11 pm, a bus of tired, but rejoicing families headed home to Island Pond, singing the praises of their God and giving thanks for the judge whose humble response was, “I’m only doing my job.”

I was thankful to have been an eye witness to the State of Vermont’s “grossly unlawful, unconstitutional scheme”5 to destroy the Church in Island Pond. Although I already knew that something was very, very wrong, it was not until fifteen years later that it could be proven that there had been a deliberate plan afoot to destroy the little group. It was written, six pages long, and conceived by a mercenary anti-cult zealot named Galen Kelly for the price of $1000. He devised it at the request of Priscilla Coates, then director of the Cult Awareness Network. The two had visited the Attorney General’s office in Vermont on August 9, 1983, and persuaded the state government to execute the steps of the plan. It did so meticulously. They had actually deceived government officials to simply go along with their plot, such was the powerful effect of their lies, their tactics, and their agenda.

The faith of community members and their trust in their God prevailed. No one knew back then that it was not simply the result of inadvertent good intentions. I knew it in my spirit, but the facts and the evidence to prove it were elusive and remote, taking time, diligence, and divine providence to accumulate.

Nevertheless, I was drawn to the spirit of the group, their love for each other, and their God. In September 1985, I left my former life behind and joined the Community Church in Island Pond. Over the years, the missing pieces of the puzzle surfaced to reveal a hateful and malicious scheme to destroy the group.

The anti-cult movement is alive and well around the globe, on its mission to squelch religious freedom by promoting fear of new and different religions, as if individuals are not entitled to “grope for God.” The bad press and lies from Vermont in the early ‘80s has circulated to Canada, Europe, and Australia, influencing governments, anti-religious “sect commissions,” and individuals, to the detriment of the truth.

The anti-cult movement is calculated and deceptive, with intentions to plant fear and use scare tactics through the media to execute plans to destroy small groups. It is worldwide in scope, and its nature is to accuse, to point the finger. Evidence is not necessary. They can manufacture it somehow. It is the nature of the evil one to accuse. As the world careens toward the brink of destruction, the eternal battle between good and evil dominates the world stage. No one can deny that it is getting worse and worse. As for me, I am thankful that I could find out for myself what the truth was and follow it, and not be deceived by the lies and tactics of the anti-cult movement.

My hope in writing this is that you will not be taken in by their lies, but instead, heed the wisdom of Proverbs 17:4, “An evildoer gives heed to false lips; a liar listens eagerly to a spiteful tongue.”

~ Jean Swantko Wiseman

  • 1.
    I have written extensively about this case and the details can be found elsewhere. “The Twelve Tribes Communities, The Anti-Cult Movement and Governmental Response,” Jean Swantko, in Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe, James Richardson, Ed., Plenum Publishing (2000) pp.185-186.
  • 2.
    Over the past 35 years, the international group now known as the Twelve Tribes Communities has been known by different names since its inception in 1972: the Vine House, the Light Brigade, the Northeast Kingdom Community Church, the Church in Island Pond, Vermont.
  • 3.
    For an account of how this girl’s father was used by the anti-cult movement, see the 1998 Affidavit of Roland Church.
  • 4.
    See Opinion in: In Re C.C., 22-6-84 Osj (1984), J. Mahady, Vermont District Court, Unit III, Appendix B
  • 5.
    Swantko, Jean, supra at f.n. 1; video entitled “The Children of the Island Pond Raid: An Emerging Culture,” 2004.