Is the Church of Wells, considered by many to be a cult, sacrificing children at the altar of religious belief?
[Lamar Hankins was Thorne Dreyer‘s guest on Rag Radio, Friday, September 12, 2014, on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin. On the show they discuss the Church of Wells, the death of Faith Shalom Pursley, and other issues raised in this article. Listen to the podcast: on The Rag Blog or at the Internet Archive.]
WELLS, Texas — The death of three-day old Faith Shalom Pursley in Wells, Texas, more than two years ago was a result of child neglect and satisfied the criteria for injury to a child, criminally negligent homicide, and manslaughter under the Texas Penal Code. The latter two charges, if applied to the case, would make the child’s death a form of criminal homicide — what most people call murder.
Faith’s parents — Kristin and Daniel Pursley — and their religious leaders — “elders” in the Church of Wells — decided their religious beliefs took precedence over seeking medical treatment for the Pursleys’ new baby. As a result, Faith died of a routinely treatable condition. The Pursleys and their religious group, at the insistence of the “elders” of the sect (three 20-something young men — Sean Morris, Ryan Ringnald, and Jacob Gardner), chose prayer, rather than the services of a competent doctor, to “treat” Faith’s obvious medical distress.
Faith’s symptoms leading up to her death were reported to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department investigators and to Child Protective Service caseworkers. Those symptoms would give a parent of normal sensibilities great cause for alarm. After her home birth, assisted by her father but unattended by any medical professional or mid-wife, the baby would not suckle.
Her father provided the baby breast milk through an eyedropper. The baby slept all night without waking for feeding, or crying — behavior the father reported as “strange.” The baby’s extremities turned a blue tint one or more times. In the hours before death, the baby experienced what the father termed “respiratory distress.” The parents’ response to the respiratory problems was to have “20 or 25” of the Church of Wells members visit their apartment to pray for the child to get better.
According to an eyewitness to the events surrounding the baby’s illness and death, Ryan Ringnald was the “elder” most involved with counseling the parents and directing the decision to seek God’s will in whether to take the baby to a doctor. According to the eyewitness, Ringnald reasoned that God can heal the sick, so they should rely on God to decide whether the baby would live or die. He believed that the baby could die either way — whether they relied on God or on a doctor — so it was better to rely on God. If God wanted the baby to receive medical care, He would let them know, or perhaps would miraculously provide it.
The background of the case
The Church of Wells is a fundamentalist evangelical Christian sect. However, it is not a group that routinely shuns medical care. The parents’ decision to deny Faith medical care was influenced by the strong encouragement of the “elders” of the sect — particularly Ringnald.
Were they trying to prove the healing power of God by denying medical care to the newborn?
Were they trying to prove the healing power of God by denying medical care to the newborn? Were they trying to gain prestige in the evangelical community and within their own group by saving the baby or resurrecting her only with prayer? We don’t know the answers to these and similar questions because the “elders” and the Pursleys have refused interviews on the subject, and they never have been required to testify under oath.
But we do know, based on eyewitness accounts and a Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS) report, that, after Faith died, her body was taken to Ringnald’s residence, where church members, scattered throughout the small town of about 800 residents, went by to pray for the baby’s resurrection. This went on for 15 hours, according to my sources and a statement made by Daniel Pursley to the Cherokee County Sheriff’s Department.
An autopsy of the infant’s body by the Southwest Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas concluded that the child had been born with a birth defect — pulmonary valve stenosis, a narrowing of the heart valve that pediatric cardiologists commonly treat successfully, often without major surgery.
This case raises several questions: What are the rights of a child (especially an infant) to medical care? May parents be excused from honoring the rights of children if they are following their religious beliefs about the efficacy of prayer over medical care before the child is old enough to consent to foregoing medical treatment?
If parents follow their religious beliefs, are they excused from allegations of criminal neglect when the child dies? Do people’s religious views exempt them from a charge of recklessly causing a death? Should the state take action to protect a family’s other children for fear that the parents’ religious beliefs will again take precedence over medical care if a child becomes ill?
Apparently, in Cherokee County, Texas, a child is completely at the mercy of whatever religious beliefs her parents may hold.
Apparently, in Cherokee County, Texas, a child is completely at the mercy of whatever religious beliefs her parents may hold, no matter how extreme. The right to medical care guaranteed by the Texas Family Code and the right to be free from negligent or reckless parental behavior under Texas law seems not to apply in Cherokee County. I wanted to discuss these and related matters with Cherokee County District Attorney Rachel Patton, but DA Patton refused to return three phone calls over two weeks and finally had her secretary call me to say that Patton would not speak to me.
Patton’s unwillingness to talk about the rights of children in Cherokee County came as a surprise to me because of news reports that praised her when she left the Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office to go into private practice in 2011. Patton was an Assistant DA in the Cherokee County District Attorney’s Office from January 1, 2006, until the end of June 2011. The DA at the time, Elmer Beckworth, praised her for her successful prosecution of child abuse cases. Patton defeated Beckworth for the DA position in 2012. However, child abuse appears no longer to be a priority for Patton.
The rights of children under Texas law
The Texas Family Code delineates the rights and responsibilities of parents in section 151.001: “A parent of a child has . . . the duty of care . . .[and] protection of the child”; “the duty to support the child, including providing the child with . . . medical . . . care”; and “the right to consent to the child’s . . . medical . . . care . . . and surgical treatment.”
In the Pursley case, the child was not properly cared for, protected, or provided with medical care in keeping with the standards widely accepted in Texas, including in East Texas. But the parents’ rights to consent to medical and surgical care were exercised by withholding such care. Kristin and Daniel Pursley have not been held accountable for their conduct surrounding the death of their child Faith, nor have the “elders” of the Church of Wells. That this happened demonstrates a failure of the criminal justice system of Texas more than of the child protective services system.
The Family Code provides that neglect of a child includes “placing a child in or failing to remove a child from a situation that a reasonable person would realize requires judgment or actions beyond the child’s level of maturity, physical condition, or mental abilities and that results in bodily injury or a substantial risk of immediate harm to the child” and “failing to seek, obtain, or follow through with medical care for a child, with the failure resulting in or presenting a substantial risk of death, disfigurement, or bodily injury . . .”
The Department of Family and Protective Services apparently took seriously its responsibility to investigate the death of Faith Shalom Pursley.
The Department of Family and Protective Services apparently took seriously its responsibility to investigate the death of Faith Shalom Pursley. Its investigation concluded that the parents did neglect their child under the terms of the Family Code. There was, in the stilted parlance of DFPS, “Reason to Believe for Medical Neglect of the deceased child” on the part of both the mother and the father. That is, the DFPS found that there was good cause to hold both the mother and father responsible for medical negligence in the death of the baby.
The DFPS provided its report to both the County Attorney and the District Attorney for Cherokee County. At the time the report was completed, the Pursleys had three other children, who were removed from the home by the DFPS and placed for their protection, for about six weeks, with Cory and Ashley McLaughlin (also members of the Church of Wells), rather than with other family members.
Both DFPS rules and state law favor placement of children who are removed from their parents’ custody with other family members. However, if parents agree to a voluntary temporary placement, those parents have the right to decide who will care for the child or children during the temporary placement. The Pursleys chose their friends, and close sect members, Cory and Ashley McLaughlin to care for their children. DFPS found the McLaughlins a satisfactory temporary placement – they had no criminal background, nor had they been accused of child neglect or abuse.
Because the placement was voluntary, DFPS did not place the children with the maternal grandparents, Karen and Ronnie Dean, though they were available, willing, and able to care for their three grandchildren. Karen Dean had contacted the DFPS immediately after she learned of Faith’s death to offer to care for her three grandchildren, but DFPS failed to explain to the Deans how voluntary placements work in Texas.
Because Kristin had cut off most contact with her parents, following the tenets of the Church of Wells, she was not interested in having her children cared for by her parents. Besides, the placement with the McLaughlins meant that very little would change for her children or for the Pursleys, except where the children slept at night. The Pursleys had virtually unlimited access to their children during the six-week investigation.
Given the communal nature of the Church of Wells, the Pursleys lost no control by turning over their three children to the McLaughlins. Apparently, all children of church members are picked up each day from their homes and cared for together in a common location or locations.
While other records within the DFPS are privileged and not subject to public inspection, it is likely that the Pursleys convinced DFPS that their other children would receive appropriate medical care in the future. According to the Court Coordinator for the Associate Judge who hears child abuse and neglect cases in Cherokee County, there is no record of any court involvement with the Pursleys; this lack of court involvement suggests that the Pursleys voluntarily placed their children with the McLaughlins.
Something else suggests that such an informal understanding about medical care was reached with the Pursleys regarding their other children: during the six weeks that the three children were cared for by the McLaughlins, DFPS caseworkers frequently asked the parents whether they had any reasons to oppose providing medical care for their children. The Pursleys always responded that they had no reservations about seeking medical care for them.
Another event that suggests an informal understanding with DFPS is that Kristin Pursley gave birth to another child on January 3, 2014, at the Woodland Heights Medical Center in Lufkin. But there is no assurance the Pursley children are not in danger if any develop medical problems and the Pursleys decide once again to rely on prayer in lieu of medical care. They got away with medical neglect once without serious consequence, why not again?
The grand jury and possible criminal charges
We don’t know what criminal case or cases, if any, Cherokee County District Attorney Patton presented to the grand jury because DA Patton won’t reveal to the public how she has done her job.
A review of Texas criminal law reveals that the grand jury could have considered at least three possible criminal charges.
A review of Texas criminal law reveals that the grand jury could have considered at least three possible criminal charges: (1) injury to a child, which occurs if a person “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or . . . omission, cause(s) to a child . . . serious bodily injury”; (2) criminally negligent homicide, whereby a “person commits an offense if he causes the death of an individual by criminal negligence”; and (3) manslaughter, in which a “person commits an offense if he recklessly causes the death of an individual.”
All three of these charges depend on the mental state of the responsible party — the parents, in this case. The Texas Penal Code defines “reckless” this way:
A person acts recklessly, or is reckless, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he is aware of but consciously disregards a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that its disregard constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.
The phrase “viewed from the actor’s standpoint” refers only to the facts that the actor was aware of, not his religious views or beliefs.
Injury to a child is defined in the Texas Penal Code, sec. 22.04, to include “intentionally, knowingly, recklessly, or with criminal negligence, by act or intentionally, knowingly, or recklessly by omission” causing “serious bodily injury” or “bodily injury” (emphasis added). Without question, the failure to provide medical care for Faith Pursley was an omission of a duty the parents had.
Criminal negligence is explained in Texas law this way:
A person acts with criminal negligence, or is criminally negligent, with respect to circumstances surrounding his conduct or the result of his conduct when he ought to be aware of a substantial and unjustifiable risk that the circumstances exist or the result will occur. The risk must be of such a nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise under all the circumstances as viewed from the actor’s standpoint.
In the case of the Pursleys, there should be little doubt that their actions were completely outside what most people would do in such circumstances.
In the case of the Pursleys, there should be little doubt that their actions were completely outside what most people would do in such circumstances; that is, their behavior was “a gross deviation from the standard of care that an ordinary person would exercise” knowing what the Pursleys knew. Kristin Pursley had three other children — ages 2, 3 and 4 — when Faith was born. Before the birth of Faith, she had had one or more miscarriages. She was familiar with the medical system. Indeed, neither parent had any objection to modern medical care, but they behaved differently in this situation. The question is “Why?”
The answer appears to be that they were influenced by religious beliefs as they were taught by the “elders” and by the counsel of “elder” Ringnald (and perhaps others) to follow those religious beliefs even when they conflicted with their legal duty to a child. Ringnald’s assertion, made in a conversation with the parent of a church member, that he, the Pursleys, and the other “elders” didn’t know Faith Pursley would die is belied by Ringnald’s alternate assertion that the baby could have died whether they sought medical care for her or instead relied on God to make her well. Clearly, they knew the baby was in medical distress, based on the symptoms reported by her father and observed by many others.
As to the culpability of the “elders,” Texas criminal law includes what is termed “the law of parties.” That provision provides in relevant part that a “person is criminally responsible for an offense committed by the conduct of another if . . . acting with intent to promote or assist the commission of the offense, he solicits, encourages, directs, aids, or attempts to aid the other person to commit the offense” (emphasis added).
Reports of the behavior of the Church of Wells “elders” make clear that they encouraged and solicited (and perhaps directed and aided) the parents of Faith Pursley to deny Faith the medical attention she needed. There is little doubt that the “elders” intended to deny Faith medical care that she needed to have a chance to live. The culture of the Church of Wells includes enormous control over its members by the “elders.”
The culture of the Church of Wells
When I went to Wells in July to try to talk with the Pursleys and the “elders” of the church of Wells, a friend went with me. We went to the church headquarters, the R & R Mercantile store, the closest thing to a grocery store in Wells. I asked a Church of Wells member, Sean Sanders, if I could speak with Sean Morris and the Pursleys. He said he would try to contact them and would let me know.
While sitting at a table in the cafe section of the store waiting for word about an interview (which I learned about an hour later would not happen), my thoughts were broken by a religious question from the only other person sitting in that section of the store — a young man who identified himself as Cory (later identified as Cory McLaughlin), a member of the Church of Wells. He wanted to know if I believed in the Bible.
My friend asked if his Native American ancestors were all sent to Hell by God and His Son Jesus Christ because they knew nothing of Christian teachings.
During the ensuing discussion, my friend joined us. He is a descendant of the Cherokee tribe. During what became a bizarre discussion, my friend asked if his Native American ancestors were all sent to Hell by God and His Son Jesus Christ because they knew nothing of Christian teachings. Cory assured him that everyone who does not accept Jesus Christ as their personal savior and have a relationship with Him will burn forever in Hell, whether or not they have heard the Christian message.
Perhaps the best response to such delusional thinking is found in the words of Seneca Chief Red Jacket, of the Iroquois Confederacy, in 1805. He was responding to a request by a Christian missionary society to proselytize among the Iroquois:
Brother, our seats were once large, and yours were very small; you have now become a great people, and we have scarcely a place left to spread our blankets; you have got our country, but are not satisfied; you want to force your religion upon us.
Brother, continue to listen. You say you are sent to instruct us how to worship the Great Spirit agreeably to his mind, and if we do not take hold of the religion which you white people teach, we shall be unhappy hereafter. You say that you are right, and we are lost; how do we know this to be true? We understand that your religion is written in a book; if it was intended for us as well as you, why has not the Great Spirit given it to us, and not only to us, but why did he not give to our forefathers the knowledge of that book, with the means of understanding it rightly? We only know what you tell us about it. How shall we know when to believe, being so often deceived by the white people?
Brother, you say there is but one way to worship and serve the Great Spirit; if there is but one religion, why do you white people differ so much about it? Why not all agree, as you can all read the book?
Brother, we do not understand these things. We are told that your religion was given to your forefathers, and has been handed down from father to son. We also have a religion which was given to our forefathers, and has been handed down to us their children. We worship that way. It teacheth us to be thankful for all the favors we receive; to love each other, and to be united. We never quarrel about religion.
Our discussion with Cory was often more of a harangue by the young man, who told us that he graduated from Southwestern University in Georgetown, my own alma mater. He repeatedly told us that we were sinners and depraved, and our souls would be condemned to the everlasting fires of Hell unless we are born again and have a personal relationship with Jesus, who is the only one who can forgive our sins. He frequently would ask a question and not wait for the answer before continuing a religious harangue with ever increasing volume that could fairly be described as shouting or screaming.
Between harangues, we engaged in some back and forth, enough to learn that Cory’s belief in the absolute truth of every word of the (King James) Bible is based on a complete ignorance of the history of the development of the Bible, not to mention the different versions accepted by various Christian traditions. He believes that the authors of the gospels are the people whose names are assigned to them — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — although Bible scholars from every religious tradition are virtually unanimous in concluding that we do not know who the authors were of these texts. The names were assigned to the tracts, perhaps hundreds of years after they were written and copied dozens, perhaps hundreds of times by unknown scriveners.
My impression of Cory is that he is a person with few social skills other than manipulation, something my friend and I are simply too old to succumb to. I think we both felt sorrow for Cory’s inability to think critically about any subject we discussed. He is a “true believer” in the sense that Eric Hoffer uses the term: fanatic, zealot, ideologue, “red hot” for the object of his belief (a phrase Cory used to describe himself in a testimony found on the Church of Wells website), propagandist, manipulator, conspiratorialist. But I am sure the group offers some kind of support for its members. Without the group delusion that only the members of the Church of Wells know the truth about God, many (if not most) of the members would undoubtedly be lost.
After listening to some of the sermons and reading some of the testimonies at the Church of Wells website, and conversing with Cory McLaughlin and others, I have no doubt about the sincerity of the “elders” and members of the group. However, sincerity has little to do with child neglect or reckless behavior toward babies, nor is the lack of experience and immaturity of the “elders” in running a commune of 75 to 100 people (along with a half-dozen businesses that provide money to meet the needs of the members) an excuse for inappropriate, inadequate, or criminal decision-making.
Nor is reckless and negligent behavior excusable for the ‘elders’ and members of the Church of Wells because they are ‘filled with the Holy Spirit.’
Nor is reckless and negligent behavior excusable for the “elders” and members of the Church of Wells because they are “filled with the Holy Spirit” or “saved by the blood of Jesus.” They live in a secular society and must be judged by the civil authorities using the same standards expected of everyone, regardless of religious belief or practice. Their “holier than thou” attitude should carry no weight when judged against the laws of the state, but such is not the case.
A religious website, Liberty for Captives, in an article by Stephen Smith, Th.M., explains the culture of the Church of Wells and its relation to the death of Faith Pursley this way:
[The separation of the group from society has led to] an environment of information-control, group-think, and fear of outsiders. Biblical passages are interpreted by the elders without outside input, and church members live in a world where information is filtered through the grid of the leaders’ interpretation. Not incidentally, the elders also place great stake in revelations from God, which in the case of Faith Pursely [sic] led to the decision to pray over the child rather than to take her to the hospital.
The author goes on to explain further:
In the case of Faith Pursely (sic), the elders believed that to avail themselves of medical treatment was a lack of faith, i.e. a lack of spiritual fruitfulness, and that if they believed hard enough the baby would be saved. Their “faith” in God was actually a misplaced sense of duty to believe, i.e., a work they had to perform. This is shown by the fifteen hours of corporate prayer devoted to the child after her death in hopes that God would respond to their great faith and raise the child. As Morris tellingly related in his memorial sermon, “Sadly, we did not have [enough] faith to see the child healed.”
The Church of Wells as a cult
Many have called the Church of Wells a cult, not in an ancient sense, but in a more modern way. I have avoided that label up to this point, but the basic characteristics of cults, first discussed by the sociologist Max Weber and by many others since, especially religious cults, seem apt to describe the Church of Wells: authoritarian leaders, isolation from birth families, exclusivity (especially as to worldview and associations), psychological manipulation and control through shame and guilt and ritual practices, strong opposition to independent thinking, disdain for outsiders who can’t be lured into the group, fear of being separated from the group, group cohesion induced by the fear of persecution by others for their beliefs, and the fear of being disfavored by God and condemned to an everlasting Hell if not a part of the group.
The Church of Wells is also rigidly paternalistic. All decisions are made by men. The “elders” receive messages from God about who should marry whom, though psychologists might call such messages whims. Generally, members don’t talk to outsiders about the group without permission from the “elders.” Women are not allowed to work outside the group or live apart from the group. One female member who is not married is almost always in the presence of another member, usually the wife of “elder” Sean Morris, Preethi David Morris, apparently out of fear that she will leave the group, something she has attempted on several occasions.
Only women who bring financial support to the Church of Wells through their families seem to have any freedom of movement or independence.
Only women who bring financial support to the Church of Wells through their families — an exception to the circumstances of most of the women — seem to have any freedom of movement or independence from the rigid control by the men of the group.
Cherokee County may well have a serious problem on its hands. If the megalomaniacal behavior of David Koresh manifests itself in the present “elders,” tragedy could befall the group, nearly half of whom may be children. Certainly, the death of the infant Faith Shalom Pursley resulted from an unwillingness of Kristin and Daniel Pursley and the “elders” to allow medical intervention for the baby that likely would have saved her life.
Because the criminal justice system failed Faith Pursley by not holding accountable the adults who controlled her life, the leaders and the group have reason to continue to behave arrogantly about their legal responsibilities and duty to children, all of whom, apparently, are home-schooled. They continue to demonstrate that they have no regard for the psychological well-being of children as evidenced by an incident earlier this year.
Several Church of Wells members were street-preaching during a parade through the town of Wells on April 5. At one point, “elder” Sean Morris and others from the group were yelling near some small children that they (and the adults they were with) were sinners and would go to Hell. At least one parent couldn’t abide this abuse of children and physically intervened. The Texas Family Code defines abuse as “mental or emotional injury to a child that results in an observable and material impairment in the child’s growth, development, or psychological functioning.”
Harangues such as Morris’s are traumatizing to small children. When my 5-year old granddaughter came home from an evangelical indoctrination session at a local day care center a few years ago, she was clearly emotionally disturbed and worried that she was going to Hell, even though she didn’t know exactly what that was. She had been frightened, if not terrorized, by preaching directed at her and her classmates about sin, eternal damnation, and the fiery environs of Hell to which they would all go if they didn’t accept Jesus as their Savior.
We notified the owner of the day care facility about the inappropriateness of the program she had allowed to enter her facility. Fortunately, she agreed with us and has never again allowed the group to make presentations at her child care center. But parents whose children encounter such disturbing ideas in public have few options to stop the abuse.
According to a report by television station KETK, which covers the Tyler, Longview, and Jacksonville areas, Morris denied that any insulting language was directed at children, though he did not deny that there were children present when he and others were doing what the “elders” often do: “We were preaching the gospel. This town is steeped in crime, drugs, and religious hypocrisy and we care about their souls, so we open air preached the gospel message like Jesus did!”
Sean Morris’s claims about not preaching at or to children are belied by the regular activities of the “elders” and church members who go on public school campuses to preach directly to minors. Trespass warnings against Church of Wells members have been issued related to both Wells ISD and Lufkin ISD. Jacob Gardner was arrested in Kilgore because he and three others went to a Christian youth event, sneaked in without paying, and began telling the youth they were all going to Hell and were being lied to. When they were asked to leave, the others did, but Gardner resisted, was arrested, and spent the night in jail.
Based on my reading of the Bible, I don’t remember anything about Jesus shouting at people, especially children.
Based on my reading of the Bible, I don’t remember anything about Jesus shouting at people, especially children, while standing a few feet from them, screaming that they are all going to Hell. This is a technique honed to a less-than-artful form by the “street preachers” among the Church of Wells. It is hard to accept the lesson being “taught” under such circumstances, but it does leave a lasting impression on both children and adults — perhaps horror, fear, or revulsion, or all three.
Misfeasance by Cherokee County public officials
Because we live in a society that values free speech, we tolerate the style of preaching of the “elders” (at least when directed at adults), but we should not tolerate the absence of medical care for children who are within the ambit of the Church of Wells. Those children deserve the protection of the full force of the state and her county officials, but that protection is not being provided. The indifference to the welfare of those children is amply demonstrated by the unwillingness of the Cherokee County District Attorney to even take a phone call to discuss the legal rights of those children.
As I visited with residents and public officials about the Church of Wells, I detected a reluctance by public officials to openly criticize the group out of deference to their claims of being devoutly religious, even though the Church of Wells “elders” and members believe all those who follow other religious beliefs are infidels. People who consider themselves Christians usually don’t take kindly to being called infidels and hypocrites. It both angers and embarrasses them.
East Texas is a vital part of the Bible Belt. Often, if you claim to be religious, that is all that is necessary to establish that you are an upright person, at least for those who are not members of the Church of Wells. Most East Texans don’t like to challenge people about their religious views — as long as the views are Christian-based. So the exclusionary and dogmatic members of the Church of Wells have largely escaped public criticism by most officials in the area.
The public officials I spoke with in Cherokee County don’t want to publicly challenge the beliefs of anyone claiming to be born-again Christians, walking in a special relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. And so they have not insisted that anyone be held responsible for the death of Faith Pursley.
But the same has not been true of many citizens of Wells and Cherokee County, Bible belt notwithstanding. Comments critical of the Church of Wells are common. There is a Facebook site dedicated to opposing the harmful practices of the Church of Wells that has nearly 6,000 followers. Some local ministers pray that the Church of Wells will leave and become the Church of some other place. Other county residents see the group in more sinister terms and are actually frightened by them.
The Cherokee County Grand Jury
The grand jury process in Texas is so secret that all we know about it is that 12 people decide by super-majority vote (nine of 12) whether to indict someone for an alleged crime. All that is necessary is for nine grand jurors to find that there is probable cause to believe that the person violated the criminal law. The Cherokee Grand Jury that served during the first six months of 2014 failed to indict anyone for the death of Faith Pursley. However, we don’t know that DA Patton presented the case to the grand jury, though ABC’s Nightline Prime reported that an indictment was considered, but not returned.
The members of the Cherokee County grand jury that failed, apparently, to indict anyone in the death of Faith Pursley are Sergio Hernandez, Robert Sadler, Lue Ann Williams, Dawn Bauer, Owen H. Seamands, Terry Burroughs, Gordon Cole, Doug Lewis, Jason Wofford, Steven Pate (foreman of the grand jury), W. A. Riza (alternate foreman), Brenda Davis, O. V. Rhodes, and Barbara Ford.
It is a running joke among Texas lawyers that a District Attorney can ‘indict a ham sandwich.’
It is a running joke among Texas lawyers that a District Attorney can “indict a ham sandwich” if she wants to. Prosecutors largely control the grand jury process by forcefully presenting the cases they want to prosecute, and diminishing those they aren’t interested in, or just not presenting them. Since neither the Pursleys nor the “elders” were charged for their criminal behavior, it seems fair to conclude that Cherokee County District Attorney Rachel Patton had no interest in seeking justice for Faith Pursley’s unnecessary death caused by the reckless and negligent conduct of her parents and the “elders” of the Church of Wells. If she had been willing to talk to me, I would have asked about legal accountability in Cherokee County.
Still, another puzzle remains: Law enforcement officials in Cherokee County seem to agree that a crime was committed related to the death of Faith Pursley. After making four requests and clarifications of requests for government records under the Texas Public Information Act, I was denied access to all recordings of witness statements and to all of the summaries of witness statements made by investigating officers because that information is exempted from public disclosure as “information held by a law enforcement agency that deals with the detection, investigation, or prosecution of a crime that did not result in a conviction or deferred adjudication” (emphasis added).
If no crime was committed, the information I requested should be made available. I conclude, then, that a crime was committed, but District Attorney Patton will not hold anyone responsible under the laws she is duty-bound to honor.
But another incident sheds some light on how Cherokee County officials behave toward the Church of Wells. Just after 1 a.m. on May 18, a citizen called the Cherokee County Sheriff’s office to report a possible assault and/or abduction of a young woman. A female, whom witnesses identified as Catherine Grove, a Church of Wells member who has demonstrated ambivalence on several occasions about continuing to stay with the group, was attempting to leave the area of the R & R Mercantile store, walking down Hwy. 69 toward the edge of town, when five men “forced her” into a car, a Jeep Cherokee. One report says that she was “pulled into the car head first” after a 10-minute conversation with the men, during which she repeatedly was seen shaking her head in a manner indicating “no.”
Two witnesses to this incident were yelled at by some of the men. The witnesses, both women, felt threatened enough to quickly leave the scene.
Thirty-five minutes after the report of the incident was made, and after what was essentially no meaningful investigation, the Sheriff’s log indicates that “no offense” was found. No investigative report was ever filed. Catherine Grove’s parents believe that Catherine was trying to leave the Church of Wells and was forcibly — even criminally — prevented from doing so by male members of the group, with the acquiescence, if not the connivance, of Sheriff’s deputies.
From my many years working on both sides of the criminal justice system, including advising two police departments over seven and a half years, the failure to make independent inquiries of those involved in such a situation in an environment that is not coercive to any of the individuals, and in which they will feel safe and supported in revealing their true feelings and the true facts, is not proper law enforcement procedure.
If Catherine Grove was taken forcibly or against her will by the men early on the morning of May 18, as eyewitness reports suggest, she was entitled to protection by law enforcement officials. But the two Cherokee County Sheriff Department employees involved, Sgt. Donald Williams and Deputy Keith Jones, failed in their legal duty to protect her.
Once again, the Church of Wells was treated deferentially by Cherokee County authorities, who seem unable to perform the jobs they were elected and hired to perform. So we are compelled to ask, how many more young women will be manhandled by the men of the Church of Wells before authorities enforce the laws against assault and abduction? How many more children will be emotionally abused by the street preachers from the Church of Wells? And how many more babies will die from medical neglect before state and county officials decide to enforce the laws?
Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog.
[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, city attorney, also blogs at Texas Freethought Journal. This article © Texas Freethought Journal, Lamar W. Hankins.]