Prosecutors accused by ex-church members of thwarting abuse cases no longer working for DA's office
Updated: Two assistant district attorneys, a social worker and other lawyers who are or were members of a secretive evangelical sect in North Carolina helped thwart repeated investigations by authorities into beatings of congregants—including children—to cast out devils, raising serious ethical and potentially criminal violations, according to an extensive Associated Press investigation.
On Friday, District Attorney David Learner announced that the the two prosecutors, Chris Back and Frank Webster no longer worked for the his office, WNCN reported.
“I, along with my staff, have worked very hard in the past two years to rebuild the reputation of the DA’s Office, and I cannot allow the integrity of the office to be called into question. My administration is dedicated to the fair and impartial administration of criminal justice for the citizens of Burke, Caldwell and Catawba counties,” Learner said Friday.
On Wednesday, two days after the AP report was published, Learner called for the State Bureau of Investigation to look into the accusations against his two employees, the Associated Press reported at the time. North Carolina prosecutors, by law, are not supposed to give legal advice or be involved in other cases in any manner. Criminal charges could be filed for offering advice to help someone avoid prosecution, as well as legal ethics charges. A spokesman for Learner had told the Associated Press that Back and Webster keep working while under investigation but did not clarify whether they would continue to prosecute cases. The AP says Back and Webster have not responded to requests for comment.
The Word of Faith Fellowship, which as a 35-acre compound with 750 members in Spindale, between Charlotte and Asheville, has been investigated by law enforcement authorities, social services agencies and news organizations numerous times over the past two decades. But through combative responses by the sect, which included lawyers observing or helping coach congregants in giving false and evasive answers to investigators’ questions, authorities repeatedly gave up.
The alleged abuses included “blasting,” in which members of the sect surround a member thought to be a sinner and scream at them for hours in a kind of exorcism. In addition, children were beaten with paddles and rods, and adults had been “physically restrained and assaulted,” the AP reports, basing its investigation on interviews with former congregants, law enforcement officials and others, as well as reviewing extensive police reports, court documents and conversations secretly recorded by congregants who left the fold.
Others have alleged being imprisoned on the church’s compound, punched, choked and thrown through walls.
Back and Webster, who are assistant district attorneys in nearby counties and members of the church, allegedly helped coach other congregants to avoid giving truthful answers to outside investigators. Their receptionist at the Burke County Courthouse told AP reporters that the prosecutors were “too busy” to speak with them, and the two also did not respond to a note seeking comment.
Another lawyer who is a former member of the sect, Chad Cooper, said that in a January 2013 mock trial for congregants facing charges of harassing a former member, Back helped coach them to lie or avoid telling the truth. He played the role of a prosecutor trying to trip up a defendant under cross-examination. When one of them made a statement against the sect’s interests, Webster would tell them, “There are better ways to say that.”
“We protected Jane [Whaley, a founder and leader of the sect],” Cooper said. “We protected the church. We should have protected the children.”
Cooper’s brother, Jeffrey Cooper, also a former member of the church and a lawyer, said Back and Webster helped stymie a 2015 investigation by the Rutherford County Department of Social Services. Jeffrey Cooper said he was present at a meeting to head off an investigation of students beating classmates in the church’s K-12 school, again as a kind of exorcism, that included longtime social worker and congregant Lori Cornelius, who worked in a nearby county.
Reached at her home by the AP, Cornelius said “I don’t want to talk” and slammed her door.
Cooper said he was so fearful of Whaley and repercussions that he went against his obligations as a lawyer and did not tell authorities about the problems in the 2015 investigation of students who, with the encouragement of Whaley, had been beating classmates.
“I’m a lawyer, and I can tell you that Lori [Cornelius] completely obstructed the official investigation,” said Cooper, who left the church last year. “Everyone in that room obstructed justice, including me.”
Jeffrey Cooper also alleges that then-District Attorney Brad Greenway leaked grand jury information to church lawyers as he worked with a grand jury in 2013. The case concerned allegations by a man who said he had been imprisoned in a building on the compound along with others, where they were beaten almost daily.
Greenway told the AP that he had spoken with Cooper and other lawyers with the church about the investigation but denied giving them “inside information.”
The former prosecutor said it is extremely difficult to bring a case against the church, as accusers often change their stories and church members of some prominence in the community will say they’re lying. “I had personally dealt with Word of Faith for 10 years, and I can assure you that you would get nothing of any prosecutorial benefit by interviewing anyone from Word of Faith,” Greenway said.
There is, finally, a criminal case underway. Five church members have been charged with kidnapping and assault in the case of a man who in 2013 said he was leaving a church service and, he alleges, about two dozen of them beat and “blasted” him for two hours to expel his “homosexual demons.”
The man badgered law enforcement agencies for two years before the charges were brought, and only now, about two years after that, there still are no trial dates. The AP reports that the delays have resulted mostly from efforts by defense lawyers who belong to Word of Faith.
Last updated March 10 to note that the lawyers in question are no longer employed by the district attorney’s office.