AP: Authorities delayed investigating gay ‘demons’ case
SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — For two years, Matthew Fenner said he pleaded with authorities to investigate his allegations that a group of fellow congregants at the Word of Faith Fellowship church had punched, slapped and choked him to expel his “homosexual demons.”
An Associated Press investigation found that Rutherford County investigators and then-District Attorney Brad Greenway delayed investigating and told Fenner his only option was to pursue misdemeanor charges against the church members he said assaulted him for nearly two hours in the evangelical church’s sanctuary.
The AP’s conclusions are based on more than a dozen interviews, court documents and secretly made recordings that were provided of Fenner’s meetings with law enforcement authorities, including Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis.
In February, the AP detailed how many Word of Faith Fellowship congregants were regularly attacked both physically and verbally in an attempt to “purify” sinners by beating out devils.
The church has come under scrutiny by law enforcement and social services authorities on numerous occasions with little effect, mostly because followers refused to cooperate. But Fenner’s relentless pursuit eventually led to the indictment of five congregants, who were charged with kidnapping and assault.
“The whole investigation should have taken a month,” said Michael Davis, who spent 15 years as a Rutherford County sheriff’s investigator before retiring last year, and was not involved in the Fenner case.
Greenway said he couldn’t recall details of the Fenner case, but initially believed it wasn’t a “big deal” based on what he said the sheriff told him. Francis said Greenway made the decision not to pursue charges early on.
In May, longtime minister Brooke Covington became the first of the five church members to go on trial in proceedings that attracted national attention due to the AP’s investigation.
A mistrial was declared during jury deliberations. Covington will be tried again Sept. 11.
During the trial, Fenner, now 24, testified that he didn’t call police the night of the Jan. 27, 2013, attack because he was afraid and was living with Covington at the time. When Fenner fled to his grandparents two days later, they called authorities.
The AP found that Fenner not only told local and federal law enforcement agencies what happened to him, but also warned of larger ongoing abuse.
Word of Faith Fellowship was founded in 1979 by Jane Whaley, a former math teacher, and her husband, Sam. It has grown from a handful of followers to a congregation of about 750 in North Carolina and nearly 2,000 members in churches in Brazil, Ghana and affiliations in Sweden, Scotland and other countries.
Fenner initially talked to a Rutherford County sheriff’s deputy the day after fleeing the church, but wasn’t ready to press charges.
“I was still confused and hurt. I needed time to think,” he told the AP.
But on Jan. 31, 2013, he met with FBI agent Fred Molina, who was investigating a complaint from another congregant who said he was beaten because he was gay. Fenner detailed what happened to him, along with the abuse of other congregants, six people told the AP.
When he received a letter months later saying the FBI wasn’t going to investigate, he said he was told it was because the other church member had recanted.
The FBI referred questions to the Charlotte office of U.S. Attorney Jill Rose, who said Fenner’s allegations did not meet the requirements of a federal crime.
Fenner said he talked to sheriff’s detective Joey Sisk about the assault on June 7, 2013, and pressed Sisk for updates for months.
On an October 2013 recording obtained by the AP, Sisk said Greenway read Fenner’s statement and decided no criminal charges would be pursued. Sisk told Fenner that his only recourse would be trying to file misdemeanor charges with the local magistrate, which experts say rarely works.
Fenner met in January 2014 with Rose, then an assistant U.S. attorney in Charlotte, hoping to get help under a federal hate crimes law. On a tape obtained by the AP, Fenner and four supporters told Rose about the abuse.
Rose, who was once an assistant prosecutor in a district that included the church, told the group that she would think about her next step, but Fenner said she did not return any follow-up calls.
Rose told the AP that the assault Fenner described did not fully meet the requirements of the federal hate crimes statute for sexual orientation because there was no element of interstate commerce, or movement of across state lines.
Fenner had been repeatedly pressing for meetings with Greenway and Francis, the sheriff, and finally landed a meeting with Francis in August 2014.
“I have not looked at one thing in your case file,” the sheriff said in a recording of the meeting, adding that Greenway had “personally reviewed” the allegations and decided not to prosecute.
After camping outside his office, Fenner met with Greenway in October with five family members and friends. When the group told Greenway that both Francis and Sisk earmarked him as the one who declined to prosecute, Greenway responded that he didn’t know details of the case because he hadn’t seen an incident report.
In an interview with the AP this February, Greenway said he could not recall much about Fenner’s complaint. “The sheriff told me early on it was not a felony kidnapping case,” he said, though Francis disputed that characterization.
In the interview, Greenway called the church influential and said its accusers weren’t always reliable. “You just got tired going against them,” he said.
In December 2014, a month after Greenway lost his re-election bid, a grand jury indicted the five Word of Faith members.
“If it wasn’t for our pressure,” said Fenner’s aunt, Lynn Rape, “nothing would have happened.”
Mohr reported from Jackson, Mississippi.
Read more of AP’s investigation of the Word of Faith Fellowship here: http://apne.ws/2lmuzDA
The AP National Investigative Team can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org