After twelve and a half years in litigation, Stephen Wootten, member of the Twelve Tribes Communities, has been completely exonerated of all charges against him.
November 7, 2001 - After all charges were dropped
When I left the State of Vermont with my sons in September of 1989, 12 and a half years ago, I did so as their sole legal custodian. Nathan was 10. Seth was 6.
On the 5th September that year, a Family Court Judge in Essex Co. refused to consider my sincere pleas that visitation between the boys and their mother desperately needed supervision. I had made it crystal clear to the Court that I had to have the assurance that their mother, Laurie Johnson, wasn’t a carrier of the HIV Virus.
After Laurie’s previous desertion of our family when the boys were only 4 and 8 years old, she engaged in an extremely dangerous sexual lifestyle for 8 months. By her own admission, Laurie’s sexually immoral exploits included 19 different men. With her full awareness, one of these men she was sexually involved with was dying of full-blown AIDS. And it was unprotected sexual activity. She then continued bringing risk to the other men that followed.
After returning to our family and to the Community in Island Pond, Laurie didn’t divulge her dangerously risky sexual involvements for 6 prior months. When things finally came to light, she refused to be tested for AIDS which was offered as a first step toward the possibilility of reconciliation. Rejecting this provision, she left the boys and me.
Within months, she initiated divorce and visitation proceedings. In my answer to the Court, I didn’t contest the divorce but made it clear that the only visits I could allow Laurie with my sons were supervised visits.
As mentioned earlier, my pleas to the Court were not given any consideration and went unheeded regardless of the degree of her unfaithfulness and untrustworthiness. Not knowing where I could then turn, I followed my conscience as the sole legal custodian of Nathan and Seth, and for their safety and welfare, I left.
Shortly following my departure with the boys, Laurie and her lawyer Jan Paul, went to the Essex Co. Courthouse notifying the Court that I failed to provide her visitation and was no longer able to be reached. Her lawyer attempted to convince the Judge, John Meaker, that if he would transfer custody to Laurie, then Law Enforcement was ready to charge me with the felony of custodial interference. Judge Meaker temporarily transferred custody to Laurie because I didn’t attend the hearing, but understanding the law, the Judge made it clear that my denial of her visitation rights didn’t meet the crime they were looking to have me charged with.
Portraying herself a victim, my ex-wife and her attorney persuaded the later Judge Fisher into signing an arrest warrant for the felony charge of custodial interference. Judge Meaker knew there wasn’t probable cause for a felony because I was the custodial parent when I left.
In the years to follow, while I attempted to raise my sons amidst extremely difficult circumstances to keep them protected, Laurie and her lawyer, Jan Paul, and her allies resorted to a wide assortment of measures aimed at gaining sympathy and discrediting the legitimacy of my faith while making me appear as a fugitive and cult member.
One of these measures was to stage raids on various Twelve Tribes Communities - similar to the one in Island Pond in 1984, which the late Honorable Judge Mahady noted was the grossest act of injustice against children since Herod the Great.
Media sources, both famous and obscure, were used to generate sympathy for my ex-wife’s supposed plight as a victimized mother of children held captive by their father – a "cult member." For instance, talk show host Jerry Springer was engaged by my ex-wife to use his mainstream popularity to sensationalize and stir up the fears and prejudices of the ignorant and misinformed public. In an effort to cover up her own accountability as a grossly negligent mother, Laurie gladly used Mr. Springer’s tactics to gain sympathy for herself and portray me as the villain on national TV. Mr. Springer was only one of many who were used to arouse suspicion and anatagonism. Another prime time media personality went so far as to say "that the twelve tribes were worse than Satanists…"
All these maneuvers were very successful at shifting the focus away from the real issue.
In March of 1997, I was apprehended and arrested at my residence in Havana, Florida by the FBI. Nathan and Seth, who were then ages 17 & 14, were given to the Department of Social Services who placed them in a detention center for three days, as if they needed to be jailed as criminals. The actual purpose for their detention was simply to keep them off limits in order to assure their upcoming sessions with the so-called "cult experts" – who would be later portrayed to the courts as mere "counselors."
My sons spoke privately in chambers with a local Family Court Judge in Gadsen County, FL. They explained their realistic fears of living with the mother who had abandoned them. My sons expressed their desire to continue to live with me. The Judge noticed that it was obvious that the boys were healthy, intelligent and sociable.
Laurie flew in from New York to get the boys. The judge was in no hurry to turn the boys over to her. He mentioned that after speaking with them that she needed to get an AIDS test. Her reply was that she had already taken 7 tests. Therefore, the judge handed the boys over to her. She spoke of how she would have them "counseled" — a word that connotes "advice," "counsel," "guidance."
The man she chose, Rick Ross, is the one most responsible for fostering the suspicion and antagonism that fueled federal officials – culminating in the disaster at the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, TX. An FBI interview report from the time period of the infamous Waco tragedy includes the note that Rick Ross has a "personal hatred for all religious cults" and would willingly aid law enforcement in an attempt to "destroy a cult." When my sons were taken to New York, they were subjected to this man’s coercive tactics of slander and lies day and night for over a week.
This was anything but "counseling." It was actually coercion and manipulation on children in the formative and impressionable years of their youth. This was all done in an attempt to turn them against me and their own faith. Was this "deprogramming" or was it "brainwashing," the very thing that their mother was accusing the Twelve Tribes of doing?
When these deprogrammers saw the bond between my sons and I, they rather cleverly decided it would not be wise to say anything directly against me. Instead, they portrayed me as the victim of an evil, mind-control cult. They were accosted into believing that my decisions regarding their life were not based on conviction in my conscience, but on the control of the abusive authority of a "cult," as if I too was under the persuasive sway of men like David Koresh or Jim Jones.
She’s had the audacity to request the court to require me to pay the fees of these so-called "expert counselors," which in fact is at the very root of what has separated my sons from me for the past four and a half years. My sons were pressured and confused into thinking that I had been brainwashed and that everything that had happened to them was to be blamed on the Twelve Tribes Communities. This kept the focus off Laurie’s responsibility in the destruction of our family, and the agony of separating my sons from the life they used to love in the community.
Meanwhile, my bail was raised to $750,000, which was more than a defendant who had been arrested for the murder of a NH Policeman. Jan Paul convinced the judge, while I was locked up in Florida, that the high bail was necessary because she feared that my church would otherwise raise the money and get me out. She was working for her former client to make sure that there would be no disruption in the efforts to deprogram Nathan and Seth.
This same lawyer later had me arraigned a second time, alleging I had violated the conditions of my release by writing a letter to my boys, asking them if they had caught any fish. Judge Wright threw out the charge, realizing its absurdity.
In December of 1998, after a year and a half in court, the case against me was dismissed by Judge John Meaker for lack of jurisdiction on the part of the State. He was the same judge who refused to sign the arrest warrant back in 1989. Within days, his decision was appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court. The appeal of the Attorney General’s Office was supposed to have revealed if there had been an error of law made by Judge Meaker in my dismissal.
Instead, The High Court heard an emotional appeal from the State, all of which was based on lies from Laurie. In writing her opinion, Supreme Court Justice Johnson in effect rewrote the law concerning jurisdiction in cases like this and then applied it to me retroactively – overturning Judge Meaker’s dismissal of the case. The High Court ignored the lawfully sound decision of Judge Meaker, failing to find one legal mistake in his dismissal. The case was sent back to Essex County to be tried by a jury.
After 4 and a half years of defending myself against erroneous charges, the Attorney General’s Office came with an offer to plead "No Lo Contendre" (meaning No Contest). Persuaded of my innocence, I declined the offer. Shortly thereafter I received another offer. Rather than pleading no contest to the felony charge of custodial interference, I was given the offer to accept a misdemeanor charge for failure to provide visitation to my ex-wife.
After being separated and alienated from my sons, put in jail for three months with a $750,000 bail placed over me, all because of the supposed dangerous nature of my charges and my alleged deviant and untrustworthy behaviour towards law enforcement – and after 3 and a half years of the Attorney General’s Office’s dogged pursuit of a conviction, which included an appeal to the Vermont Supreme Court and the efforts of Essex County State’s Attorney Office pursuit of 9 years, and just prior to my long-awaited opportunity to tell my story to a jury of my peers — all of the sudden the State without explanation has quietly maneuvered to dismiss the charges.
I’m reminded of Mark Twain, who said the following:
"A lie travels half way around the world before the truth gets its boots on."
This is my story. It’s always been my story.
I am very glad that eventually the truth will catch up, and as another wise man said:
"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed."