Texas Observer Exclusive: Waco religious group accused of child abuse, beatings and cover-ups
This story was originally published Friday, Feb. 10. We have reposted it following a recent report on Homestead Herritage by WFAA in Dallas.
This story has been corrected (see below).
Driving up to the pretty café, built of log and stone and nestled among cedars at the side of a single-track road, you would think you’d stepped into another era. This is the public face of Homestead Heritage, a 500-acre religious community of about 1,000 people seven miles northwest of Waco. Visitors see traditional craftsmen and women who bake their own bread, sow their own crops, make their own furniture and build their own homes. They’re well known in this city of 125,000 along the Brazos River as harmless religious folk devoted to an earlier, simpler way of life. Every November, Homestead Heritage members show off their crafting, woodworking and agriculture skills at the well-attended Homestead Fair. The Waco Convention and Visitors’ Bureau includes Homestead Heritage on its list of recommended attractions for schools groups. George W. Bush even got them to build his ranch in Crawford.
But dig a little below the surface, and the idyllic veneer of this place begins to peel and crumble. A Texas Observer investigation has found allegations of child sex abuse involving at least six members of the Homestead Heritage community. Three members have been convicted of sexually assaulting minors. A fourth has been charged and will likely soon plead guilty. The Observer found more allegations of sexual abuse of children that have never been reported to the authorities. Church elders failed to promptly inform law enforcement of sexual abuse of children, as required by state law. Church policy, according to internal documents, states that religious matters within the community are not “the proper province, of the corporate State and its investigative, police and judicial services.” In fact, our investigation has exposed a litany of tragedy: families broken apart, child abuse and allegations of mind control, cover-ups and secrecy. It is a community that former members say represses sexuality, tries to deal with crimes “in house” and is controlled by an authoritarian regime; a community, former members say, that operates very much like a cult.
The church began life as a mission on the Lower East Side of New York City in the mid- 1970s. It was founded by Blair Adams, a tall, imposing, bearded man, and his wife Regina, who according to one former member, had broken away from a Pentecostal church in Austin a few years before. Adams, now in his mid-60s, taught that the end times were near and his followers needed to learn to live off the land. The group first tried community living at a ranch in Colorado, but eventually settled on a 500-acre farm in McLennan County, near Waco. Over the years, the church has been called, variously, New Life Fellowship, Fellowship of Christ, Emmaeus Fellowship, Koinonia and Heritage Ministries. Women wear long dresses and long sleeves. The children are all home-schooled. Services are held every Friday night and Sunday, but for its members ― and they currently number about 1,000 ― Homestead Heritage is a way of life.
For this story, I spoke to 14 former members of the community. Each disclosed their name, together with details of the years they were in Homestead Heritage or one of its earlier incarnations, but some, fearing reprisals, asked to use pseudonyms. Others helped with the story but, because they still have family members inside the community, refused to speak publicly. Homestead Heritage claims most criticisms amount to secular attacks on religious freedom, but all of the ex-members the Observer spoke to still consider themselves religious.
If there is one thing on which most ex-members agree, it is the level of control the leaders of the group exert on their followers. But it is the cases of child sex abuse that are most disturbing.
When Bill DeLong gave himself up to officers at the McLennan County Sheriff’s office in Waco in June 2004, he was in tears. Officer Brad Scaggs escorted the bulky 54-year-old to the interview room and pressed the record button on the video machine. DeLong then told the officer that sometime around March 2003, he sexually assaulted a 6-year-old girl, according to his statement. He went into some detail, saying it happened “about five times.” DeLong said he had told an elder at his church about the abuse shortly after the first time it happened. But rather than report DeLong to police, as required by law, that elder, George Klingensmith, decided to pray about it with him instead, according to both DeLong and Klingensmith’s statements to officers. A full year would go by before DeLong once more talked with Klingensmith about the abuse, court records show. Only then did he give himself up.
This was no isolated incident. In 2009, another member, 23-year-old Joseph Ratliff, was sentenced to 100 years for aggravated sexual assault and indecency with a child. A year after that, Bill DeLong’s 23-year-old son Andrew was told he would serve 15 years in prison after admitting four counts of sexual assault against two children. And in July 2011, 31-year-old Richard Santamaria, another member of the community, was charged with continuous sexual abuse of a minor. He intends to plead guilty, according to the McLennan County DA’s office.
The McLennan County Sheriff’s office wouldn’t release details of the cases against Bill DeLong, Andrew DeLong or Joseph Ratliff, even though they are part of the public record. My requests to interview Ratliff and both DeLongs in prison were turned down, and none of the men replied to letters sent by mail.
In the case of Bill DeLong, the fact that George Klingensmith, the church elder, knew about his child sex abuse a year before DeLong turned himself in, meant he too may have committed a crime under Texas law. In his statement to police, Klingensmith conceded that DeLong had informed him of the abuse a year earlier. “After about a year it was clear to me this act that Bill had done was weighing very heavy on him,” Klingensmith wrote in his statement. “I suggested to him that he should turn himself in and he said he would.”
Under Texas law, ministers and clergy are required to report any suspected child abuse ― sexual or otherwise ― to authorities within 48 hours of being told, otherwise they too are committing a criminal offense. A child is defined as anyone under the age of 18.
Lt. Clay Perry of the McLennan County Sheriff’s office told the Observer that officers decided not to pursue a prosecution against Klingensmith. “When you work these cases, you need all the help you can get as far as testimony is concerned,” he said. “George had been telling this man to turn himself in. He did everything he could shy of getting involved.”
In his statement to police (warning: graphic material), DeLong said he also told his wife, Carolyn, about his crimes a year before he gave himself up and that the couple “just prayed and cried over what happened for a long time.” The officer asked him if his wife ever told him to turn himself in and he said “they just prayed and were hoping something would change.”
DeLong told the officer he was “part of a religious community at that time which is called the Heritage Ministries,” and that he had “had a problem with masturbation since he was young,” describing it as “one of the biggest problems” he ever had to overcome.
Joseph Ratliff was convicted of five counts of sexual abuse, sexual assault, and indecency with a child. According to court papers, his victim was an 8-year-old boy.
One former member, who asked to be identified only by her married name, Birkbeck, told me Ratliff was allowed to remain in the community for seven weeks after he admitted to elders his sex offenses against children. Birkbeck said she spent time each weekend with him, and even though she was not assaulted in any way, she is concerned she was left alone with a child molester. “They let me do this and didn’t have enough concern to take him away,” she said. “I was told the leadership was trying to get him counseling and help before they turned him in because they didn’t want him to go to jail.”
Bill DeLong’s son Andrew, then an employee of Brazos Walking Sticks, a company affiliated with Homestead Heritage, pleaded guilty to four offenses of child sexual assault, waiving his right to a jury trial and his right to appeal. His female victims were 11 and 17 years old. His attorney, Darren Obenoskey, told me what the church did or didn’t know about his client’s crimes never came up. “It was a cut-and-dried case,” he said. “He pleaded guilty and didn’t offer up anything in mitigation. It was dealt with swiftly.”
Of all the interviews I conducted for this story, one was particularly distressing. I sat down with “Sandy” (not her real name), for whom every day is a struggle coming to terms with what happened to her at Homestead Heritage. From age 5, Sandy said she was sexually abused by two different men. She told an elder about the abuse she suffered, who in turn informed other elders in the church. But instead of taking the matter to police, Sandy said, the elders dis-fellowshipped the individuals she said were culpable and forced her to accept responsibility for “her part” in what they deemed “immoral relationships.” The Observer has urged Sandy to go to the police to report the individuals responsible.
Today, with the help of friends, Sandy is recovering in a Texas city away from Homestead Heritage. She told me she is considering counseling. “I’m going to hurt other people emotionally if I don’t,” she said. She finds it hard to date people and often worries about the children still living in the community of Elm Mott outside of Waco. “There are things I just can’t forget.”
The Observer has learned from a number of different sources of other cases of sexual abuse within Homestead Heritage. But the alleged victims refused to speak publicly, and the details of their stories couldn’t be independently confirmed.
The Observer asked Homestead Heritage for an in-person interview with Blair Adams or other elders, but our interview request was denied. In an email, one elder, Dan Lancaster, wrote of the group’s concern “that countering in a public media forum a laundry list of ‘sour grapes’ accusations and distortions would, at best, simply lend credence to a characterization of our community that is misleading.” Instead, Lancaster suggested meeting in person to talk “completely off the record.” The Observer asked for a telephone interview instead. This was also refused. The church later declined to answer emailed questions from the Observer and instead chose to issue a statement: “We’ve become very familiar with the character and agenda of the former members behind these slanderous and inflammatory, yet typically subjective and unverifiable, accusations against us. Their storyline as a whole presents a blatantly false and misleading characterization of our non-violent, peace-loving Christian community.”
While the church refused to answer questions about allegations of abuse, it did move aggressively to respond on its own terms, setting up a web page to rebut a story it hadn’t seen (the site remained “under construction” as this story was going to press). The church also created an online petition asking former members to sign a statement that said although they were no longer associated with Homestead Heritage, the church ministry “would never tolerate, much less promote, make exception for, or cover up the heinous crime of sexual abuse of children.” The petition said any publication associating the ministry with “such behaviors” is defamatory.
Among the signatories is Carolyn DeLong, Bill DeLong’s wife, who according to court records, also knew about her husband’s pedophilia a year before he went to police, allowing the abuse to continue.
I wanted to understand whether there was something about the culture inside Homestead Heritage that could allow these abuses to happen ― or worse, foment them.
A clue is in the leadership structure. An ex-member told me, “To join, first of all you have to say you’ve heard from God that this is a place you’re supposed to be. That’s the anchor that’s got you. They tell anyone on the outside there’s a plurality of elders but in a regular church, those elders are chosen by the members. At Homestead Heritage there’s an order to the authority: Blair Adams is at the top. The other elders are beneath him. He chooses the elders; they choose the group leaders; the group leaders choose the members.
“At the family level, fathers are above wives and children. If he says take out the trash, you don’t question it; if he says the sky is green, the sky is green; if he says he has to put his hand there, you have to let him. You don’t question it.”
Most members of Homestead Heritage are so closed off from the outside world, ex-members say, that it’s exceedingly difficult for anyone to alert the authorities if they suspect wrongdoing. As another former member told me, “Who will believe a child over somebody else in the fellowship? And if a child is brave enough to tell, it’s going to take an awful lot of guts for anyone inside to do anything about it.”
One ex-member I spoke to, John (not his real name), said members of Homestead Heritage are repressed emotionally, spiritually, psychologically and sexually. “And when you don’t find joy in everyday life, you go looking for pleasure elsewhere, anywhere you can find it. The kids there get married at 18, 19, and they’re so anxious to get married in order to get out from under mom and dad’s control and to feel like they’re free, but when they do, the elders start telling them what to do, and they discover that they’re not free at all.”
Former member Katherine Beechner told me that elders even interfere with sexuality within the confines of a marriage. “We were told sex was strictly for reproduction,” she said. “I know of someone who felt like he was doing something wrong because he had sexual feelings toward his wife. It was seen as lustful. The whole realm of pleasure, which God gave us is held suspect in so many ways by Homestead Heritage.”
Jeremy Crow, 35, joined Homestead along with his parents when he was 8 years old. His father eventually became a leader and, as Crow puts it, he grew up in the “upper clique,” spending most of the week at church leader Blair Adams’s house. Crow’s sister is married to Adams’s eldest son. Crow, who left the group seven years ago, said young men growing up in the community are made to suppress their desires and sex drive. “You’re not even allowed to talk to girls, and masturbation is forbidden,” he said. “And I think that’s why some people turned to child abuse. I firmly believe that. It’s because of their doctrine. It’s forcing people not to be human.”
Janja Lalich, a sociology professor at California State University and author of two books on recovering from cults and abusive relationships, said sexual repression is one of most powerful ways that a group can exert control. She cites the example of Heaven’s Gate, the UFO religion founded by Marshall Applewhite in which 39 members committed suicide in 1997. “Before they died, its members couldn’t keep suppressing these normal human feelings and emotions so some of the men had themselves castrated. They’re existing under enormous psychological pressure.”
In 2005, Roger Olson, a professor of theology at Baylor University, wrote a gushing piece about Homestead Heritage for Christianity Today, headed: Where Community is No Cliché. The story served as an introduction to the church to anyone outside Texas. Olson described the sect as a mix of “Pentecostal fervor with Anabaptist simplicity and accountability.” He wrote although they don’t use the word Trinity in teaching about the Godhead, his “close questioning” detected “no aberrant teachings about God.”
Olson noted that the group made decisions by consensus; babies were typically born at home; and prayer and medicine were combined for health and well being. He described the food served in the café as “heavenly.”
I was given a copy of a letter sent to Christianity Today in response to Olson’s piece by ex- member Bob Beechner, Katherine’s husband, of which the magazine chose to publish a very small extract. In the full version, Beechner said Olson should have questioned the leaders more closely than he did; that members believe Blair Adams “has a special revelation from God”; that baptism into the group involves making a “blood oath” promising “undying faithfulness to the group and obedience to the group’s leaders” and a promise never to leave under any circumstances. “‘Do you confess,’” Beechner quoted Adams as saying, “‘that …your baptism is a commitment to be discipled by men He has sent to teach you obedience to His commandments.’”
Anyone who leaves the group, Beechner claimed, is shunned and denounced as being the spirit of the antichrist.
He also wrote the reason outsiders were forbidden from attending Sunday church meetings was that they’re reserved for disciplining members in front of the entire congregation. Beechner contended this could be for “sullen countenances, wearing cowboy boots with tall heels, plucking eyebrows or eating chocolate.”
This public condemnation from the pulpit can escalate, he wrote, until the leaders “are shouting and pounding the lectern. It is a terrifying display, as anyone who has witnessed it can attest.” And if a member doesn’t buckle, he can be officially dis-fellowshipped, he wrote. He said the leaders attempt to control every aspect of a member’s life.
Professor Olson ignored repeated requests to talk to me for this story.
Ironically, it was technology, something the church generally shuns, which would provide the vehicle through which ex-members could finally, publicly, channel their discontent ― and in many cases, their extreme anger and despair. Using pseudonyms, they continue today to post their testimonies on online forums like F.A.C.T.net, a resource for those recovering “from the coercive practices of cults and religions,” and on Topix.com, a web-based discussion community.
In 2007, the Waco Herald-Tribune ran a feature that voiced some of those concerns of “spiritual abuse” but after its publication, ex-members claimed the story didn’t go nearly far enough.
A number of former members the Observer spoke to said they believed Blair Adams sees himself as a messenger from God. Adam Alexander recalls how Adams used to scream and yell at his congregation in church, on one occasion slamming the pulpit and demanding: ‘Never again shall you see my face until you can say: blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’”
Professor Janja Lalich said if a leader has convinced his followers that he is a messenger from God, it’s very hard for people to leave his congregation because their salvation is tied to him. “And as long as the leader is allowed to act without any checks and balances, they tend to become more and more domineering.”
Homestead Heritage has made new members sign and notarize a resolution obtained by the Observer, which states, among other things, that each “openly, voluntarily, under no coercion … agrees, even should [they] leave the fellowship … to never bring before the public outside our church any disagreement the individual may have with the church, any accusations of wrongdoing or any charge or suit or court action against any of its members.”
It says all disputes should be “settled within [italics theirs] the confines of the church covenant.”
Tellingly, it also states: “Since the church is the Bride of Christ, we do not view its marriage relationship to God as a public spectacle; nor for us is religion an agent, or the proper province, of the corporate State and its investigative, police and judicial services.”
Ex-Homesteader Jeremy Crow told me if anyone in the community “sinned,” they couldn’t be forgiven unless they confessed to a leader. “Then only if they decide you can be forgiven can you be forgiven,” he said.
Crow tells the story of seeing a woman struck by her husband several times. Years later, he asked her about it, but she denied it had ever happened. Crow told her he wasn’t imagining it, and she replied that she had forgiven her husband and that the Bible said if something is forgiven it’s forgotten. Crow said with that mindset, people could lie about anything. “In other words if the leaders forgive you, it’s forgotten, and it’s like it never happened.”
One ex-member of Homestead Heritage sent me a copy of “commonly asked visitors questions” ― a publication not meant for anyone outside the church. It lists hundreds of questions, including controversial ones like “Did you find it necessary to cut off relationships with old friends and family when you joined this fellowship?”; “What do you believe about dating?”; “Who is your leader here?” and “Are you a cult?” Blair Adams composed a number of the answers.
As former member Katherine Beechner said, “I don’t know of any other church that puts out a book that trains its members how to answer questions from visitors. We literally had meetings in which we were trained to memorize these.”
Beechner said they were trained to answer in a way that deflected the question. If, for example, a member was asked whether the children there are allowed to go to college, she said they were taught to say something like: “Well, if anyone really felt God leading them to do that, then of course he would be able to.” The problem with that, she said, is that what they meant by God leading them actually meant if the leadership tells them God wants them to do that. And most of the young people that wanted to go to college left the group because they weren’t allowed anyway. Today, she said, some of the kids of group leaders do online college ― what she refers to as “their cameo students.”
If children at Homestead Heritage misbehave, many parents practice corporal punishment. According to Christina, who asked that her surname be redacted, Blair Adams began preaching about corporal punishment shortly after the group first moved from the East Coast to Colorado. Christina was a member back then, and she recalls Adams quoting scripture as he went into some detail about what fathers should use to beat their children with; what kind of switches to utilize and what they could be made of. “The Bible says you’re allowed to discipline children, but everything was magnified with Blair,” she said.
The law in Texas is gray here. A spokesperson for Child Protective Services said that every case is different, but using something other than your hand, leaving marks or bruises, or hitting in the face could constitute abuse. An attorney I spoke to said one defense to a charge of assault can be “force necessary to discipline a child.” To make matters more complicated, when a religious community is involved, the state is reluctant to interfere.
Interestingly, though, the Texas Administrative Code on minimum standards for discipline in child-care homes says corporal punishment, which includes hitting a child with a hand or instrument and placing a child in a locked or dark room with the door closed, constitutes “harsh, cruel or unusual treatment.”
Adam Alexander grew up in Homestead Heritage. When he was 12, he said a then-member of the church beat him for breaking the door of a trailer. “He dragged me by the ear, threw me down on the floor, took a wooden spoon and beat me until I was black and blue,” he said. “And not just on my ass. My legs, everywhere. He was furious.”
Alexander said his mother told a church elder about it, but that the elder in question did nothing. The abuse continued until he turned 18. One day, the church member found a CD in his room and asked where Alexander got it. Alexander said the man snapped it in half. “Somehow we ended up in a scuffle and he took my thumb and started bending it into my arm so I kicked him in the knee and punched him. He limped for about two weeks after that. But he backed off.”
Again, an elder was called, but his solution was that Alexander simply needed to be baptized. “It just blew my mind,” he said. “And at that moment I knew I was never going to another meeting.”
The member who Alexander said abused him is no longer in the church. Still, Alexander said, his family was eventually dis-fellowshipped.
Another former member, Robin Engell, admits she once locked her 7-year-old child in a room for two weeks. “We hadn’t been in the fellowship very long and a member who had been there a while told me that was what was necessary. I didn’t think about the effect this would have on a child, particularly one who was home-schooled and all he had was his family. At end of two weeks, he had taken pencils and drilled holes in the wall. He told me he didn’t even realize he’d done it. It was so bad when he came out; he shook all the time. As obedient as I was as a member of Homestead Heritage, I swore to myself I would never do that again. I would have gone to hell rather than do that again.”
John, who also requested that his real name not be used, is one of eight children and for the past decade since he left Homestead Heritage, he has slowly learned to adapt to life outside. His parents were teenagers when they joined the group, and his dad was a one-time leader.
John, too, said he was beaten as a child until he had bruises on his skin. “We all were. But my parents didn’t have a clue. They were doing just what they were supposed to do, and their discipline was absolutely effective. It had to be, because they were terrified of being berated by the elders. They lived it to the core. I remember as a kid listening through the door while mom was on the phone to leaders’ wives. They’d talk about different implements to use that wouldn’t leave marks.”
Once he got too old for beatings, John said he had to endure being berated by the elders for two or three hours at a time. “It’s a process that never stops. My dad’s in his 50s now and is still being disciplined.”
John’s comments echo those of Christina. “When we were in Sunday meetings, the screaming and yelling and belittling of people was so atrocious,” she said. “And at a moment’s notice the elders would dis-fellowship you, and suddenly you were seen as an outsider among your brothers and sisters in the church. The psychological impact of this was terrible.”
Former members say Sunday meetings began at 10 a.m. and often lasted until after 3 p.m. Throughout, they would vacillate between positive and negative, and all meetings were conducted by the imposing Adams, standing behind the lectern with his booming voice. “In the beginning, he’d shower you with love and praise,” John said. “Then he’d berate somebody on the spot. It would go on and on like this.” It was, he said, an intense mix of “Pentecostal preacher with fire-and-brimstone judgment.” John said his father was a leader one minute and demoted the next.
Experts say this is a classic tactic employed by cults to maintain control; that members (and elders) are reprimanded in front of the rest of the congregation one day, and ‘love-bombed’ the next. According to several ex-members I spoke to, the only person who has never “fallen from grace” in this way is Blair Adams.
Interestingly, John said the children in the congregation would actually look forward to Sunday meetings ― an intense drama they couldn’t watch on TV or listen to on the radio because both were banned. “I wanted to see who got cut down; who got berated,” he said. Then, after the negativity of Adams condemning someone, the service would once again become uplifting. People would dance in the aisles and speak in tongues. And throughout, John said, all eyes were firmly fixed on Adams. “He was the greatest thing that ever lived. If he walked by and patted you on the shoulder, it was as if God shined down on you. I remember Blair walking past where we were sitting and touching my dad on his shoulder, and my dad started trembling and then fell to the floor.”
After he left, Adam Alexander went to church for a few years but then stopped. “I believe in God but I don’t believe in religion,” he told me. “The two controlling factors in life are fear and love, and I think churches have so much potential to be a positive thing, but in the end they end up controlling people by fear.”
Alexander’s faith has been shaken by Homestead Heritage, and he is not willing to join another institution that claims to help him reach God. He said his parents split up because of what the church did to them; that it leaves a path of broken homes.
As for John, he said his effort to maintain a relationship with his parents, who are still members of Homestead Heritage, has been emotionally taxing. “They would fare so much better if they broke free like I did. We could be a family again. My children could have grandparents.”
One particularly poignant reminder of just how devastating the impact of leaving a closed religious group like Homestead Heritage can have on an individual can be found in an excerpt from an open letter one ex-member wrote to her mother and father who are still in the group. “I pray to God and cry my tears. I smile on the outside though sometimes I am dying on the inside. I love you, yet you pushed me away. I wish you were proud but you are not. You brought me into this world and gave me my name. All I want is for you to love me. For after all, I am your daughter.”
Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we incorrectly reported a detail of the child sexual abuse at Homestead Heritage. Due to an editing error, we incorrectly reported that Bill DeLong told police he continued sexually abusing a young girl after admitting his abuse to a church elder. In fact, according to court records, DeLong claimed the abuse stopped after he confessed to a church elder. It’s not clear when or if the abuse ended. But we incorrectly reported the timeline that DeLong gave to police. The Observer deeply regrets the error.