- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) - It was the most dreaded place on the Word of Faith Fellowship grounds - a one-story, four-room structure that former members of the sect say was reserved for the most brutal physical and emotional punishment.

Called the Lower Building, the former storage facility was used to house those deemed to be the worst sinners, according to Associated Press interviews with 43 former members of the evangelical church.

And it was there, tucked away in a wooded area behind the sect’s sanctuary, that the beatings were especially prolonged, violent and often focused on sexual behavior, according to many of those speaking out.

Former members recounted dozens of vicious assaults, including one in which a mentally handicapped man was repeatedly punched in his face as he begged for help. Those interviewed also recalled elementary school-age boys placed in the make-shift penitentiary with teens and adults - and felons from the church’s prison ministry.

“No one wanted to be sent to the Lower Building. No one,” said Rick Cooper, 61, who said he was held captive there for a year. “It was a prison without bars.”

Added Randy Fields, who spent 24 years in the church including time as a security guard, “When you’re in Word of Faith, your manhood is taken away from you. You don’t go against (pastor) Jane Whaley, even when you know what she’s doing is dangerous. You become passive. You become accepting. You become a follower.”

The church began using the building to “discipline sinners” in early 2010 after Whaley told her congregation too many men and boys were having erotic thoughts.

Over the next three years, dozens of males designated by Whaley and other senior ministers were effectively kidnapped and forced to live in the building until presumably the demons had been beaten out of them. Under North Carolina law, being restrained or kept against one’s will is considered kidnapping, especially if the victim is beaten or terrorized.

Several of those interviewed said that as many as 30 at a time were crammed into the relatively small quarters.

While allegations of physical and emotional abuse about the church have circulated for more than 20 years, the existence of the Lower Building had not previously been disclosed publicly.

Of the 27 males interviewed by the AP, 13 said they had “served time” at the Lower Building. All of them said they had been beaten and/or had witnessed beatings.

Those confined to the Lower Building were not allowed to communicate with family members or friends and had no idea how long they would be kept or what they had to do to secure release, according to those interviewed.

During many hours of idle time, captives were commanded to sit in silence and listen to recordings of Whaley’s sermons or read the Bible.

Many of those remanded to the Lower Building said they were allowed out only when forced to perform free labor at nearby businesses owned by different church leaders.

Cooper, who spent more than two decades in the church before leaving in 2014, said he went broke stuck in such a non-paying job and ultimately had to declare bankruptcy.

Many of those interviewed said beatings could occur suddenly, at any time.

Five spoke of a 2012 attack on Alan Eiss, then 17.

Without warning, the ex-members said, a minister pushed Eiss to the floor and started beating him. When Eiss noticed blood on his arm, the minister screamed that Eiss was more concerned about his wound than “opening his heart” to God. The young man was pummeled harder, said several who said they witnessed the attack.

“I regret I didn’t call the police…But it was such a common occurrence for those kinds of violent outbreaks,” said Benjamin Cooper, an attorney and one of Rick Cooper’s sons.

In a separate interview, Eiss told the AP he knew he couldn’t fight back. “You’re so scared. You just want it to end. But the beatings go on for hours.”

As did sessions of blasting - a Word of Faith practice where many ministers and congregants surround one of their own and shout in their face, supposedly to chase the devil, according to those interviewed. Some said they were forced to blast others, whenever they supposedly had sinful thoughts, even in the middle of the night.

“If you didn’t join in the blasting, you could quickly become a target. They’d turn on you,” said accountant Liam Guy, 29, who said he spent a year confined to the building.

According to a diagram furnished by an ex-member, there were four walled-in areas turned into bedrooms, a small common area and 1½ bathrooms.

Beds were in short supply. At the peak, 12 sets of bunk beds were crammed into the rooms. Even then, some had to sleep on the floor.

“The living conditions were terrible,” said ex-member Sean Bryant, 29, who as a youth minister counseled followers there. “The men were walking around like zombies.”

He said blasting targets were jumped on, in “big dog piles. It was out of control - people throwing people around.”

While there were no bars on the windows, people knew they couldn’t leave, said Guy, who spent almost his entire life in the sect before leaving in May 2015.

Twice while he was in the Lower Building, people fled. But both times, the runaways were found; they were beaten upon their return, he said.

“You can’t imagine the loneliness, the despair. You just wanted to…” Guy stopped mid-sentence. “You felt so hopeless you wanted to die.”

Another of Rick Cooper’s sons, Jeffrey, an attorney, said that Whaley stopped imprisoning congregants in the building in October 2012. He said she told ministers she feared a surprise law enforcement visit after a former congregant complained to authorities.

The raid never occurred; many of those interviewed said the most violent forms of abuse were simply moved to other locations within the Word of Faith compound.

___

The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at investigate@ap.org

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