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Westboro Baptist church
Westboro Baptist church is the name given to Fred Phelps' family congregation. They are activist evangelical Christians who seek to garner maximum attention by pushing the boundaries of politically-incorrect protest. They often appear at somber social events and suggest gays, the government, soldiers, etc. get what they deserve for not following the Old Testament style bible rules. The Phelps' love to berate gay people, telling them their behavior will land them in hell.
Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church exposed
Important notes from the anti-Phelps underground
On June 29, 1994 Jon Michael Bell, a former reporter hired to investigate Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church by Stauffer Communications, Inc.,filed a lawsuit in Shawnee County District Court in Topeka, Kansas against Stauffer Communications alleging the Topeka Capital-Journal owed him compensation for overtime and to clarify ownership of his notes and work product. The work product in question, "Addicted to Hate" chronicling the life and times of Fred Phelps, was attached to the lawsuit as Exhibit A making it, therefore, a public document. Learning of the suit, members of Topeka's anti-Phelps underground delivered a certified copy of the lawsuit to a copy shop near the courthouse.
Within 48 hours, Stauffer Communications had written all area media outlets and issued veiled warnings about using the information contained in "Addicted to Hate". A rival Topeka newspaper, the Metro News, announced it was considering publishing the lawsuit in it entirety. The Kansas City Star abided by Stauffer Communication's wishes, but several other media outlets aired or printed portions of the manuscript. Within 48 hours of the filing, Stauffer Communications persuaded a judge to seal the suit so the Clerk of the District Court could no longer make copies for the public. No matter - no such order was issued to the copy shop or to the hundreds of citizens that already had copies.
On July 8 the Capital-Journal, which had deep-sixed the Phelps project and fired the publisher who authorized it when it was completed last fall, suddenly began its watered-down, copyrighted series on Phelps that they had earlier claimed they wouldn't print. Bell also withdrew his suit the same day. By this time, however, TV networks, wire services, and eastern newspapers had obtained copies of the manuscript, and Stauffer's unprecedented attempt to suppress media discussion of the document attracted the interest of several major East Coast newspapers on First Amendment grounds.
Phelps, a self-proclaimed advocate of the First Amendment, whose 'free speech activities include libel, slander defamation of character, intimidation, obscene language, battery, promptly denounced Stauffer Communications and denied the allegations of child abuse, spouse abuse, and other illegal activities. Anyone familiar with Phelps and his children who remain loyal to him, however, can clearly see these adult children and his wife suffer from the grotesque and obvious behaviors symptomatic of severe, long-term abuse. Where and how the twisted saga of Fred Phelps will end is anyone's guess.
About this document
The volunteer distributors of this file wish to emphatically state that Jon Michael Bell did not suggest, encourage, or take part in the transfer or distribution of his typewritten manuscript (Exhibit A) to ASCII format. Volunteer distributors make no guarantees either expressed or implied and cannot be responsible in the use of this file.
Jon Michael Bell, one of the authors of "Addicted to Hate", seeks no compensation for his work. If, however, after reading "Addicted to Hate", you would like to make a contribution in his name to organizations in Topeka assisting AIDS victims, abused children and battered women, please send your donations to:
1. Hospice for AIDS Victims c/o Topeka AIDS Project 1915 S. W. 6th Street Topeka, Kansas 66606
2. Project Safe Talk 200 S.E. 7th Street Topeka, Kansas 66603
3. Battered Women Task Force 225 S.W. 12th Street Topeka, Kansas 66612
Let the word go forth that the overwhelmingly vast majority of Topekans and Kansans DO NOT support Westboro Baptist Cult and Fred Phelps' hate campaigns against all who disagree with him. The District Attorney in Shawnee County (Topeka) has filed several criminal cases against members of the Westboro Cult ranging from disorderly conduct and battery to felony charges of aggravated intimidations of victims and witnesses. Prosecution of these cases are delayed pending the outcome of the second of the lawsuits filed in federal court by Phelps Chartered. There will probably be more. Fred and his lawyer offspring and in-laws continue to abuse the judicial system much as Fred did before his state and federal disbarments. The case is expected to be heard in federal court in early fall, but few expect that this will be the end. Please let Topeka officials and Federal Judge Sam Crow know that many of Fred Phelps' and WBC activities (as outlined in the above paragraph and documented by both "Addicted to Hate" and the Capital-Journal series) are NOT protected by the First Amendment and encourage them to take whatever steps are necessary to prosecute Phelps for those activities which are clearly crimes to the fullest extent of the law. Please do it today!
The Hon. Sam A. Crow Frank Carlson Federal Courthouse 444 S.E. Quincy Topeka, Kansas 66603 (913) 295-2626
Joan M. Hamilton Shawnee County District Attorney 200 S.E. 7th Street Suite 214 Topeka, Kansas 66603 (913) 233-8200 Ext. 4330
Commissioner Don Cooper Chairman, Board of Commissioners 200 S.E. 7th Street Topeka, Kansas 66603 (913) 233-8200 Ext. 4040
The Hon. Butch Felker Office of the Mayor 215 S.E. 7th Street Topeka, Kansas 66603 (913) 295-3895
Chief Gerald Beavers Topeka Police Department 204 S.W. 5th Street Topeka, Kansas 66603 (913) 354-9551
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF SHAWNEE COUNTY, KANSAS DIVISION 7 JON BELL, Plaintiff, vs. Case No. 94CV766 STAUFFER COMMUNICATIONS, INC., Defendant.
PETITION FOR DECLARATORY RELIEF (Pursuant to K.S.A. Chapter 60-1701 et. seq.)
COMES NOW the Plaintiff Jon Bell and states:
1.Plaintiff is a resident of Kansas.
2.Defendant Stauffer Communications, Inc. is a corporation organized under the laws of Kansas and may be served by serving its resident agent The Corporation Company, Inc., 515 S. Kansas Ave., Topeka, Kansas 66603.
3.Plaintiff was an intern and employed by Defendant to work for its newspaper Topeka Capital Journal, in Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas.
4. As part of his work he was assigned by the managing editor to prepare stories and/or manuscripts concerning one Fred Phelps, pastor of Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.
5. That Plaintiff's employment was originally undertaken for compensation of $1300 per month (37 hours per week at $8.00/hour). As the scope of the Phelps project expanded to book length, Plaintiff indicated his willingness to do a book for the compensation he was being paid. It was represented to him by the managing editor, Mr. Sullivan, that the publication of the book would have such value to Plaintiff's reputation as an author that the publication plus the salary was just compensation. In reliance upon the representation that the book would be published by Defendant, he continued with the project to the point of final manuscript and dedicated overtime hours (for which he was not separately compensated) having a reasonable value in excess of $10,000.
6. Plaintiff has been advised by Mr. Hively, the publisher of the Topeka Capital Journal that Defendant does not intend to publish the book or any portion of it.
7. Plaintiff has been separately advised by the defendant's attorney that Defendant does not grant Plaintiff permission to publish the book (Ex. B attached).
8. Plaintiff claims that he has intellectual property rights in the manuscript and desires to publish it and that in the absence of compensation for his overtime or because of his reliance on Mr. Sullivan's representation if Defendant chooses to waste the work that he has the right to publish the book.
9. In that Defendant has asserted superior rights to the manuscript, but, has likewise has declared an intent not to publish and the fact that the material may become dated, or alternatively, lose its timelessness (the subject of the manuscript is currently running for the Democratic nomination for Governor of the State of Kansas), it is important to resolve the rights of the parties in and to the manuscript as it relates to the contract of employment which previously existed between Plaintiff and Defendant, and terminate the controversy over rights to the manuscript which gives rise to these proceedings.
10. Plaintiff feels uncertain and insecure of his legal position in the absence of a judicial declaration of his rights, and for that reason, brings this action.
WHEREFORE, Plaintiff prays that the Court construe the terms of his employment and his rights to publish the manuscript marked as Ex. A and attached hereto, and permit the Plaintiff the right without restriction, and subject to any fair accounting to Defendant, to publish the manuscript.
(Signature of Jon Bell) Jon Bell, pro s 82 (Home address intentionally omitted) Lawrence, KS 66044
(Document contains the seal of the District Court of Shawnee County, Kansas and the signature of Leslie Miller, Deputy Clerk of the District Court of Shawnee County, Kansas and dated 6-29-94.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS EXHIBIT B
(Letterhead of the law firm of Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds & Palmer) 515 South Kansas Avenue Topeka, Kansas 66603-3999 913-233-0593 Telecopier: 913-233-8870)
June 2, 1994
Mr. Jon Bell (Home Address Intentionally Omitted) Shawnee, Kansas 66216
In re: Topeka Capital-Journal Our file: 31143
I understand that you are in some way marketing or trying to develop an interest in the Capital-Journal's investigatory work on Fred Phelps.
Be advised that you are not authorized to engage in this activity. This work is the property of The Topeka Capital-Journal, and does not belong to you. My client will make all decisions regarding the piece. You are not authorized to speak on behalf of The Capital-Journal regarding this work, or even to reveal its existence for that matter. If you are taking any steps to develop a market or other interest in this work, you are required to cease immediately.
Meanwhile, please advise Pete Goering at The Capital-Journal of any steps you have taken in this regard.
Very truly yours, (Signature of Michael W. Merriam) Michael W. Merriam
MWM:ah cc: Mr. Pete Goering
(Note: This document contains the time stamp of the Clerk of the District Court, Shawnee County, Kansas showing the document was filed with the Clerk at 1:05 p.m. of June 29, 1994.)
TABLE OF CONTENTS EXHIBIT A
Addicted to hate
By Jon Michael Bell with Joe Taschler and Steve Fry
(Note: The contents of the following document shows the time stamp of the Clerk of the District Court, Shawnee County, Kansas and shows that the document was filed at 1:05 p.m. on June 29, 1994.)
"And be sure your sin will find you out." (Num. 32:23)
A frequent quote of Pastor Fred Phelps
Cast of characters and Phelps family tree
Reverend Fred Phelps: lawyer and Baptist minister; head of the Westboro Baptist Church; 89 years old. Disbarred.
Marge Phelps: wife of Fred; mother of his 13 children; 70 years old. WBC member.
1. Fred Phelps, Jr.: lawyer and employee at the Kansas Department of Corrections; 40 years old. Oldest son. WBC member.
Betty Phelps (Schurle): wife of Fred, Jr.; lawyer and owner-operator of a day-care home; 41 years old. WBC member.
2. ***Mark Phelps: businessman in Southern California; estranged from the family cult; 39 years old. 2nd son.
Luava Phelps (Sundgren): wife of Mark; childhood sweetheart; 36 years old.
3. ***Katherine Phelps: lawyer; suspended from the bar; living on welfare; 38 years-old; oldest daughter. Not in WBC.
4. Margie Phelps: lawyer and employee of the Kansas Department of Corrections; 37 years old; 2nd daughter. WBC member.
5. Shirley Phelps-Roper: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; 36 years old; 3rd daughter. WBC member.
Brent Roper: husband of Shirley; lawyer and businessman in Topeka; 30 years old; WBC member.
6. ***Nate Phelps: businessman in Southern California; estranged from family cult; 35 years old. 3rd son.
7. Jonathon Phelps: lawyer; 4th son; 34 years old; WBC member. Paulette Phelps (Ossiander): wife of Jonathon; 33 years old; high school graduate; WBC member.
8. Rebekah Phelps-Davis: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; 32 years old; 4th daughter; WBC member.
Chris Davis: husband to Rebekah; 38 years old; raised from childhood in the WBC.
9. Elizabeth Phelps: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; night house manager staff at Sheltered Living, Inc. Topeka; 31 years old; 5th daughter; WBC member. Former counsel for the Shawnee County Sheriff's Department.
10. Timothy Phelps: lawyer and employee of the Shawnee County Department of Corrections; 30 years old; 5th son; WBC member.
Lee Ann Phelps (Brown): wife of Timothy; lawyer and employee of Shawnee County Sheriff's Department; 27 years old; WBC member.
11.***Dorotha Bird (Phelps): lawyer practicing independently in Topeka; 6th daughter; not a WBC member; changed her last name to avoid family's notoriety. 29 years old.
12. Rachel Phelps: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; YMCA fitness instructor; 28 years old; 7th daughter; WBC member.
13. Abigail Phelps: lawyer and employee at SRS-Youth and Adult Services, Juvenile Offender Program; 25 years old; 8th daughter; WBC member.
Fred Wade Phelps: the Rev. Phelps' father; he lived in Meridian, Mississippi. He was a railroad bull.
Catherine Idalette Phelps (Johnson): the Rev. Phelps' mother; she died when he was a small child.
Martha Jean Capron (Phelps): the Rev. Phelps' only sibling; a former missionary to Indonesia, she now lives in Pennsylvania; the brother and sister have not spoken for years.
- Denotes a Phelps child who has left the family cult.
(Note: The next portion of Exhibit A contains some handwritten notes denoting ages of the Phelps' children, some names of some of the non-Phelps WBC members (George Stutzman, Charles Hockenbarger, Jennifer Hockenbarger, and Charles Hockenbarger), names of some of the Phelps' grandchildren (Benjamin, Sharon, Sara, Libby, Jacob, Sam, and Josh), and 2 items pasted onto the document which are published documents showing the Phelps family tree and a map of the area surrounding Meridian, Mississippi.)
He rang the doorbell. It was winter, and with his thick gloves he could barely feel the button.
He waited. A cat, caught like him on this cold night outside, walked along the porch rail. Toward him.
He watched it.
In the street behind them a solitary car passed. Like urban sleigh bells, the chains on its tires chimed rhythmic into the pounded street snow.
No one was home. The cat. Was rubbing against his leg.
He set the candy down and picked it up. It purred. And purred more when he tucked it under his warm arm. Like a football. Against his thick coat.
He could see into its eyes. Up close. He liked it that way.
When he wrapped his thick fingers round its tiny neck...
Pinning its legs against his side, he slowly squeezed, watching the eyes widen in alarm. Feeling it push against him. Desperately struggle. For a long time struggle.
The lids droop slowly down. The light pass from the eyes.
He let go. Another car rattled metal links by in the snow.
Watching the light return. The animal terror that followed. Flooding the look in those helpless eyes. It pierced his soul.
A shock wave of remorse flamed hot. In all his cells he could feel it.
Or was it love. Yes, warm love for this tiny being.
I want to do it. Again. Now.
Yes, I want to know what it's like once more.
He squeezed the cat's thin neck. And when it has succumbed, he felt the same pity again warm flooding him.
And only horror at himself. As he did it once more.
And when it was over he...
But this time the cat mustered the last of its tiny animal ferocity and writhed free.
He felt...watching it streak away...he felt jarred awake somehow...as it ran from him...yes, he was awake now...
Had anyone seen him? Would they know?
In a panic he ran
Home to his father's house...
1. Introductions All Around
"Introductions All Around"
A TIME magazine article from 1950 hangs framed on the wall. It's about a college student's crusade against necking on a campus in Southern California. That student's office in Kansas today is aclack with fax machines and ringing phones, but the chair behind the great mahogany desk is empty.
When the former campus evangelist finally bursts in, he is trailed by grandchildren-so many sixth-grade secretaries-gophering, sending faxes, fetching papers-and a glass of water for the reporter.
Thoughtful. It's 93 outside.
"Sit down," says Fred Phelps, rumored ogre, with an effusive Southern graciousness. "But I got to tell you, you know we're going to preach the word, the same thing I've been preaching for 46 years, and it's supremely, supremely irrelevant to us what anybody thinks or says. "You get a little bit of this message I'm preaching, you can't ask for anything more. God hates fags-that's a synopsis."
Phelps, 63, a disbarred lawyer and Baptist preacher from Mississippi, is on a mission from God. His face lights up like a kid's on Christmas morning when he talks about how the nation is reacting to his anti- homosexual campaign. He contends the Bible supports the death penalty for sodomy:
"I'm not urging anybody to kill anybody," he adds, then matter-of-factly explains how his interpretation of the Bible calls for precisely that:
"The death penalty was violently carried out by God on a massive scale when the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by fire and brimstone," says Phelps. "I am inclined to the view that the closer man's laws come to God's laws, the better off our race will be."
Phelps has found the national spotlight by disrupting the mourners' grieving at the funerals of AIDS victims. His followers carry picket signs outside the services with such stone-hearted messages as GOD HATES FAGS and FAGS 3DDEATH.
Last spring, he and his tiny band traveled to Washington, D.C., to taunt the gay parade, creating a near-riot. Since then, Phelps has been the subject of a 20-20 segment, appeared on the Jane Whitney Show twice to mock homosexuals, and is now regularly interviewed on both Christian and secular radio across America.
Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in the Kansas capital of Topeka, since 1990 has also been an unsuccessful candidate for mayor, governor, and United States Senator. Currently he is negotiating his own radio show-one that will be heard throughout the Midwest.
His message is simple: God hates most everybody and He's sending them all to hell. Makes no difference how they lived their life.
For the Pastor Phelps, except for a handful of 'elect', the human race is composed of depraved beasts. God hates these creatures and so do His favored few. The world is divided sharply and irreversibly between the multitude of the already-damned (called the reprobate or the Adamic Race) and those chosen by God to attend Him in heaven. Those selected to be elect were tapped, not for the rectitude of their lives, but by what could best be described as the Supreme Whim of the Deity.
While this is the theology of predestination, one that in less vengeful minds is a mainstay of many Protestant sects, in Fred Phelps' mind it has become a green light to hatred and cruelty.
Recently, Pastor Phelps has added a corollary to this thesis that God hates the human race: God reserves His most pure and profound hatred for the homosexuals among the Adamic race.
At 63, Phelps is a triathlon competitor who bikes or runs every day. The strongest thing he drinks is what he calls his 'vitamin C cocktail', consisting of Vitamin C, Diet Pepsi, and water.
The pastor basks in the heat of the outrage triggered by his campaign against homosexuals.
"If you're preaching the truth of God, people are going to hate you," he grins. "Nobody has the right to think he's preaching the truth of God unless people hate him for it. All the prophets were treated that way."
Phelps delivers this with all the drama, fire, and brimstone of a man who used to be a trial lawyer and is still a preacher. His voice and tone are spellbinding and chilling. He doesn't stumble over his words. Clearly, he believes he is a modern day prophet.
Phelps says he and his family have been hated and persecuted almost from the time they arrived in Topeka in 1954. "The more opposition we get, the more committed we get," says Liz Phelps, one of the pastor's daughters. "Nothing, short of the elimination of homosexuality in the world, will make us stop," announces the pastor. In an unexpected reprieve from the anticipated 'sodomite' label pasted on all who disagree-especially the press-the former vacuum cleaner salesman gives his visitor a warm smile and immediately takes to calling him warmly by his first name. He leads a brief tour through his church. It adjoins his office: a long room, with a low ceiling and a rusty red carpet and dark, oaken pews. It has enough seating for twice the current congregation of 51.
The reporter asks to go to the bathroom. A stocky teenage grandson with training in judo is sent along. He waits outside, no dummy, for the reporter to finish. Then it's upstairs to the study, a high, spacious room filled with books of biblical exegesis dating back to the Reformation. Fred is eager to prove his Bible scholarship, and perhaps frustrated, even contemptuous, when he realizes he is talking to a Bible-ho-hum humanist. Downstairs, the pastor leads to the garage where their wardrobe of picket signs is kept. Stacked high against the walls are messages for every occasion-all of them gloomy. No good news here.
Outside, one would never guess they were at a church. Westboro Baptist is actually a large home in a comfortable Topeka neighborhood. In fact, Phelps and his wife have lived in the house for almost 40 years, and raised their 13 children within its walls. For many years, his law office was also located in the residence Fred Phelps insists is still his 'church'. The pastor's large family has always composed nearly all of his congregation and loyal following. As his children grew up, they bought the adjoining houses on the block, creating a tight compound around the church. Today, one finds a citadel of modest homes joined by fences, sharing a common backyard.
In a small revolution in urban design, the space behind their houses has not been sub-divided, but made into a wide grass park, complete with swimming pool, ball court, and trampoline. The grandchildren wander from their separate houses to play together. The effect on the nervous reprobates outside the walls is a sense of Waco in the air.
>From his compound, like a knight sallying forth from the Crusaders' citadel of Krak, Pastor Phelps and his child band make war on the Adamic race. When not doing TV talk shows, radio interviews, or appearing on the cover of the national gay magazine, The Advocate, Phelps lays siege to his hometown, nearby Kansas City, and local universities.
The Westboro congregation pickets public officials, private businesses, and other churches, many of whom have had only tenuous connection to some form of anti-Phelps criticism. Until a city ordinance was passed against it, the Westboro warriors even picketed their opponents' homes. For the last two years, this tiny group, by virtue of their tactics, dedication, and discipline, have held the Kansas capital hostage. Fred Phelps has been able to intimidate most of the residents of Topeka into a fearful silence, though he himself is a shrill and vigorous defender of his own First Amendment rights. Those who would disagree with his brutal remedies to his perception of social ills face a three-fold attack: Lawsuits: If the rest of America has justly come to fear the anonymous lone nut with a gun, it has yet to experience a community of eccentrics stockpiling law degrees. Picketing: One prominent restaurant in Topeka is now failing after being picketed daily for almost a year. "Patrons just got tired of the harassment," sighs the owner. The cause of the pickets? One of the restaurant's employees is a lesbian.
Faxes: Phelps has gone to court and won on his right to fax daily almost 300 public officials, private offices, and the media with damaging and embarrassing information from the private lives of his opponents-most of it false, wild, and unsubstantiated. One city councilwoman was called a "Jezebelian, switch-hitting whore" who had sex with several men at once. A police officer saw his name faxed all over town as a child molester, one who had lured young boys to a park outside the city and had sex with them in his patrol car. Despite his daughter Margie's assertions that Phelps has the evidence to prove such accusations 'big time', no such proof has ever emerged. Over the weeks, one learns about the family. Of Fred's 13 children, nine remain in the community. Five of them are married and raising 24 grandchildren. All of the members of Westboro Baptist-children, in-laws, and grandchildren- participate in the pastor's anti-gay campaign. Despite their image from the pickets, most of the adults are friendly and socially accomplished. Each of them has a law degree, and some have additional postgraduate degrees in business or public administration. The adults pay taxes, meet bills, and obey the laws. The grandchildren are perhaps less demonstrative than most children, but in an earlier day that was called well-behaved. Many of their parents hold or have held important jobs in local and state agencies. The pastor's first-born, Fred, Jr., and his wife, Betty, were guests at the Clinton inauguration. The former northeast Kansas campaign manager for Al Gore in 1988 has a stack of VIP photos, such as the one of him, Betty, Al and Tipper, and even soon-to- be Kansas governor Joan Finney smiling and yucking it up at the Phelps' place just a few years ago. Clearly these are not street corner flakes taken to carrying signs. The only discordant note here is the Pastor Phelps, pacing about in his lycra shorts and windbreaker, looking like a triathlon competitor who made a wrong turn, ended in a bad neighborhood, and had his bike stolen. But he can easily be discounted while listening to his wife reveal just exactly how she managed to raise those thirteen kids. How? Well, for starters, the woman born Margie Simms of Carrollton, Missouri, had nine brothers and sisters herself. Her own tribe she raised by the same five rules she grew up under: keep their faces clean, their hands clean, and their clothes clean; keep the house clean and keep 'em fed. No Game Boys, college funds, and cars on sixteenth birthdays. She did most of the cooking at first, and her grocery bill, she estimates, would be over two thousand a month today. Many of the 24 grandchildren still spend time at Gramp's house, she said, and their food costs are over a thousand a month, even now.
Mrs. Phelps smiles. Before the kids got old enough to be finicky, she could fill one tub and bathe them all, then line them up to brush their teeth and clean their fingernails. They had six bedrooms furnished with bunkbeds, and everyone wore hand-me-downs. Her laundry pile was so huge, she needed two washers and two dryers: "I'm afraid that Maytag repairman wasn't lonely with us. He was always out at our house. We went through washers and dryers every three years. They worked all day long. "The part I dreaded most about raising so many children? When they were sick. Then you had to pay all your attention to that one-and hope the others would make out all right." Later, she adds, the older kids took over most of the chores and her job became considerably easier.
The children used to listen to their father preach twice on Sunday, says daughter Margie. Once at eleven and again at seven that evening. "But there's too many conflicting schedules now. So we only have the one sermon at eleven-thirty," Margie tells how their household was abuzz with political bull sessions. All the candidates and wannabes came through there: "My dad was complete activity and whirlwind. My mom was the calm at the center of the storm. She's the one who inspired our closeness. Getting us to look out for our brothers and sisters; bond with each other." Mrs. Phelps describes how everyone had to take piano lessons. They had two pianos in the garage and three in the house. (Chopsticks in fugue-five as a backdrop to any childhood might explain why the adults seem so tense today.) Margie tells of their family choir. How they practiced a cappella and harmony. Even today, their counter-protestors grudgingly admit the Phelps sound good when they raise their collective voice in hymn from across the street. Once for their father's birthday, says Margie, the children learned to harmonize "One Tin Soldier", the theme song from the film, "Billy Jack". She laughs at the memory. "He was of two minds about that: flattered that we'd done it. And not too pleased by the lyrics. ("...go ahead and hate your neighbor...go ahead and cheat a friend...do it in the name of heaven...you'll be justified in the end... ") "We had good times...lots of good times," says Mrs. Phelps. "I would not have had any other childhood but that one," adds her daughter. If they're not holding harassing signs saying, 'God Hates Fags', calling deaf old dowagers 'sodomite whores', or bristling at startled churchgoers, Fred's kids are back at home being model parents and neighbors, attending PTOs and Clinton coronations. The stark contrast of the two masks-decent and repulsive, hateful and considerate, forthright and devious, stupid and clever-creates a polarity that begins to weigh on the observer. Contrasts frequently are the visible edge of contradiction. And contradictions sometimes arise from very deep and secret undercurrents. Currents of pain. One day in the pickup with the pastor and his wife, driving the signs to the picket line, Fred suddenly jams on the brakes and pulls over.
"Why'd you do that?" asks the mother of 13. "We're gonna make sure those kids are safe," the pastor replies. The objects of his concern are in the yard across the street. There is absolutely no chance he could have hit them. It's odd and unnecessary and exaggerated behavior.
His wife knows it; even the children know it-they've pulled back and are watching the truck suspiciously. Mrs. Phelps gives her husband a strange look. As if she had some secret knowledge. It's obvious Fred intended this as an awkward display of altruism for the press. The message is: "The pastor loves kids". But the message one gets is a warning from Hamlet: "The play's the thing wherein we'll catch the conscience of the king." Because that boy, now a man, ran home to his father's house. The house of Fred Phelps. Where all good things end.
Where any family counselor will assert that a child who strangles pets has almost certainly been brutalized as well.
2. Daddy's Hands
Mark Phelps feels nauseated whenever he remembers that night. He was hit over 60 times and his brother, Nate, over 200 with a mattock handle. Nate went into shock. Mark didn't. A boy who became a compulsive counter to handle the stress, Mark counted every stroke. His and Nate's. While their father screamed obscenities and his brother screamed in pain. Every 20 strokes, their mother wiped their faces off in the tub. Nate passed out anyway. That was Christmas Day.
Though he believes he should be the next governor of Kansas, Pastor Phelps has never believed in Christmas. A mattock is a pick-hoe using a wooden handle heavier than a bat. Fred swung it with both hands like a ballplayer and with all his might. "The first blow stunned your whole body," says Mark. "By the third blow, your backside was so tender, even the lightest strike was agonizing, but he'd still hit you like he wanted to put it over the fence. By 20, though, you'd have grown numb with pain. That was when my father would quit and start on my brother. Later, when the feeling had returned and it hurt worse than before, he'd do it again. "After 40 strokes, I was weak and nauseous and very pale. My body hurt terribly. Then it was Nate's turn. He got 40 each time. "I staggered to the bathtub where my mom was wetting a towel to swab my face. Behind me, I could hear the mattock and my brother was choking and moaning. He was crying and he wouldn't stop." The voice in the phone halts. After an awkward moment, clearing of throats, it continues: "Then I heard my father shouting my name. My mom was right there, but she wouldn't help me. It hurt so badly during the third beating that I kept wanting to drop so he would hit me in the head. I was hoping I'd be knocked out, or killed...anything to end the pain. "After that...it was waiting that was terrible. You didn't know if, when he was done with Nate, he'd hurt you again. I was shaking in a cold panic. Twenty-five years since it happened, and the same sick feeling in my stomach comes back now..." Did he? Come back to you?
"No. He just kept beating Nate. It went on and on and on. I remember the sharp sound of the blows and how finally my brother stopped screaming... "It was very quiet. All I could think of was would he do that to me now. I could see my brother lying there in shock, and I knew in a moment it would be my turn. "I can't describe the basic animal fear you have in your gut at a time like that. Where someone has complete power over you. And they're hurting you. And there is no escape. No way out. If your mom couldn't help you...I can't explain it to anyone except perhaps a survivor from a POW camp." Last year, Nate Phelps, sixth of Pastor Phelps' 13 children, accused his father of child abuse in the national media. The information was presented as a footnote to the larger story of Fred Phelps' anti-gay campaign. But the deep currents that lie beneath the apparent apple-cheeks of the Phelps' clan were stirring. A series of interviews with Nate resulted in an eyewitness account of life growing up in the Phelps camp. These reports contained allegations of persistent and poisonous child abuse, wife-beating, drug addiction, kidnapping, terrorism, wholesale tax fraud, and business fraud. In addition, Nate described the cult-like disassembly of young adult identities into shadow-souls, using physical and emotional coercion- coercion which may have been a leading factor in the suicide of an emotionally troubled teenage girl.
The second son, Mark Phelps, who according to his sisters was at one time heir to the throne of Fred, had refused comment during the earlier spate of news coverage. He and Nate have both left the Westboro congregation and now live within four blocks of each other on the West Coast. But, like the icy water that waits off sunny California beaches, the deepest currents sometimes rise and now Mark has surfaced with a decision.
"My father," says the 39 year-old, now a parent himself, "is addicted to hate. Why? I can't say. But I know he has to let it out. As rage. In doing so, he has violated the sacred trust of a parent and a pastor. "I'm not trying to hurt my father. And I'm not trying to save him. I'm going to tell what happened because I've decided it's the only way I can overcome my past: to drag it into the light and break its chains."
Mark believes that Fred Phelps, no longer able to hate and abuse his adult children if he hopes to keep them near, by necessity now must turn all his protean anger outward against his community. Mark has decided to tell the truth about his father so that others will be warned. He and his brother have now come forward with specific and detailed stories, alarming tales, ones that could be checked and have been verified. Mark's testimony supports Nate's previously, and both men's statements have been confirmed by a third Phelps' child. In addition, the Capital- Journal has uncovered documents which substantiate this testimony, and interviewed dozens of relevant witnesses who have confirmed much of this information. "One of my earliest memories...," the voice in the phone pauses, painful to remember: "was the big ol' German shepherd that belonged to our neighbors. One day it was in our yard and my father went out and blew it apart with his shotgun."
Mark says he has no memories prior to age five. "Living in that house was like being in a war zone, where things were unpredictable and things were very violent. And there was a person who was violent who did what he wanted to do. And that was to hurt people, or break things, or throw a fit, or whatever he wanted to do, that's what he did. And there was nobody there to say different."
One day when Mark was a teenager, he came home to find his mom sitting on the lip of the tub, blue towel on her head, her lips pursed with anger and hurt. "Do you know what your father did today?" she asked. To Mark, it felt surreal. His mother never spoke out nor vented her emotions. She seemed quite different just then.
He looked at his father. Pastor Phelps was standing across the room with his arms folded, smiling (the bathtub was in the parents' bedroom). "No," said Mark. "I don't know." His mother stood up and whipped the towel down her side. "He chopped my hair off," she announced, tears coming to her eyes. The son stood aghast at the grotesque head before him. His mother's former waist-length hair had been shorn to two inches- and even that showed ragged gouges down to the white of the scalp. "Why?" he asked. "Your father says I wasn't in subjection today," she replied. According to Mark and Nate, all of the Phelps children were terrified of their father: "Usually we had to worry what mood we'd find him in after school. You didn't make any noise or racket, or cut- up; you had to walk on eggshells, tiptoe around him; you didn't fight with your siblings; you did your jobs, performed your assigned tasks, and hoped not to draw his attention." If you did draw it and he was in a foul mood, say the boys, summary punishment at the hands of the dour pastor involved being beaten with fists, kicked in the stomach, or having one's arm twisted up and behind one's back till it nearly dislocated.
Sometimes Pastor Phelps preferred to grab one child by their little hands and haul them into the air. Then he would repeatedly smash his knee into their groin and stomach while walking across the room and laughing. The boys remember this happening to Nate when he was only seven, and to Margie and Kathy even after they were sexually developed teenagers. Nate recalls being taken into the church once where his father, a former golden gloves boxer, bent him backwards over a pew, body-punched him, spit in his face, and told him he hated him. Mark's very first memory in this life is an emotional scar: their mom had gone to the hospital to give birth to Jonathon. Mark remembers being very upset, since now they would be alone in the house with their father, his threatening presence left unmitigated by her maternal concern. Though only five, already Mark could use the phone and, one day while his father was out he dialed the number she'd left.
When he heard her voice, he told her, "Mom, I'm scared. I need you." But before she could respond, the Pastor Phelps came on. He had gone to visit the new mother. "What the hell are you doing calling here?" the father shouted into the phone. "Don't you ever call here and bother her again!" That is Mark Phelps' earliest memory. That, and the feeling, when his father hung up, that there would be no rescue and no escape from the fear and pain contained in the word, 'daddy'. When Fred Phelps came home, he beat the little boy's first memory of the world in to stay. From that moment, Mark whispers softly in the phone, "I resolved to be a total yes-man to my father. If I couldn't escape his violence, then I'd get so close to him he wouldn't see me. I'd survive that way."
"We had clothes and food," adds Nate. "What we didn't have was safety. He could throw fits and rages at any moment. When he did, the kids would respond by turning pale and shaking, standing there shivering and listening-Mark would pace and count the squares in the floor." "But I learned exactly what I had to do...to stay safe around him," continues Mark. I did a good job of it." He admits he used to beat his brothers and sisters if his father ordered
him: "If you fell asleep in church, you got hit in the face. Once I hit Nate so hard, it knocked over the pew and blood splurt across the floor." After a moment, he tells us quietly: "My brothers and sisters are entitled to hate me." Physical abuse? Nonsense, say sisters Margie and Shirley. They laugh.
Well, maybe during their father's period of preoccupation with health food. Every morning they were required to eat nuts and vitamins, curds and whey. "I hate nuts," says Margie "We'd take the vitamins and drop them in our pockets. Throw them out later." She adds: "Little Abby was the only one who liked curds and whey. Poor kid. She'd have to eat every bowl on the table when my dad wasn't looking."
Against this charming story is set another. For all her reputation as a minotaur of the Kansas courtrooms, Margie Phelps was like a second mom to the younger children. Today, she remains well-liked by her siblings, including Mark and Nate. When her father was beating someone and screaming at the top of his lungs, frequently Margie would take her terrified younger brothers and sisters away for several hours. When they thought it was over, they'd come back like cautious house cats, sneaking in softly, Margie on point, to see if the coast was clear. The boys tell how one day their father was in a barbershop and noticed the leather strap used to sharpen razors. It struck his fancy as a backup to the mattock handle, so he had one custom-made at a leatherworker's shop near Lane and Huntoon.
"It was about two feet long and four inches wide. It left oval circles- red, yellow, and blue," says Mark. "Usually the circles would be where it would snap the tip-on the outside of your right leg and hip...because he was righthanded." According to Mark and Nate, their father wore out several of the leathermaker's straps while they were growing up. As Mark Phelps became the angel-appointed in Fred's family cult, Nate was assigned the role of sinner. For Mark, his brother was the needed scapegoat. For the rest of the family, Nate was a problem child, the delinquent of the brood. Brilliant like his dad (Nate's IQ has been measured at 150), the middle son followed another drummer from the time he was a toddler. When he was five, he remembers his father telling him, 'I'm going to keep a special eye on you'. The regular beatings started shortly thereafter.
Nate endured literally hundreds of such brutalities before walking out at one minute after midnight on his eighteenth birthday. His siblings both inside and outside the church agree that Nate got the lion's share of the 'discipline'. "Nate was a very tough kid," says Mark. "I don't know how he endured it, but he did. He'd get 40 blows at a time from the mattock handle. He was just tougher than the rest of us and my father adjusted for that."
Today, raising his family in California, Nate is a devout Christian and a warm, friendly, considerate, mountain of a man. But at 6'4" and 280 pounds, it would be...instructive...to see father and son in the same room today with one mattock stick between them. "I sensed early on this man had no love for us," says Nate. "He was using us. I knew it. And I always made sure he knew I did."
in fact, Mark adds, Nate's obstinate resistance so angered his father that, by age nine, when a family outing had been planned, frequently Nate not only missed it, but Fred would remain behind with him. "And during the course of the day, my father would beat Nate whenever the spirit moved him. " Mark remembers the family coming back once to find Pastor Phelps jogging around the dining room table, beating the sobbing boy with a broom handle; while doing so, he was alternately spitting on the frightened child and chuckling the same sinecure laugh so disturbing to those who've seen him on television. When he wasn't allowed to go along, says Mark, "Nate would literally scream and chase mom as she drove off with us kids in the car. He knew what was coming after we left." The older brother remembers the little one racing alongside the windows, begging for them not to leave him until, like a dog, he could no longer keep up. Mark sorrowfully admits he felt no empathy for him, only relief it wasn't happening to himself. "I just stared straight ahead. I didn't know what he was yelling about. I was just glad to get the hell out of there." But how could their mom tolerate that? Wouldn't the maternal instinct cut in at some point? Wouldn't the lioness turn in fury to protect her cub?
It turns out Mrs. Phelps was herself an abused child, according to her sons. "The only thing she ever told us about her dad was that he was a drunkard who beat them. She said she'd always run and hide in the watermelon patch when he was raging." Though most of her nine brothers and sisters either settled in Kansas City or remained in rural Missouri, Mrs. Phelps has had virtually no contact with them during the last 40 years. Not since she married Fred. "My father was very effective at jamming Bible verses down her throat about wives being in subjection to their husbands," Nate says. "She was a small woman and very gentle. She felt God had put her with Fred and she had to endure." "Oh, mom would try to interfere," adds Mark. "She'd come running out, finally, into the church auditorium as the beating would escalate, and yell wildly, 'Fred, stop it!" You're going to kill him!' "And then my father would turn on her. I remember him screaming, 'Oh, so you want me to just let them go, huh? You don't believe in discipline, huh? Why don't you just shut your goddam mouth before I slap you? Get your fat hussy ass out of here! I'm warning you, goddamit, you either shut up or I'm going to beat you!' "And then," Mark continues, "she'd shut up till she couldn't take it anymore, then she'd start again. When she did, he'd start beating her and hitting her with his fist, and sometimes she'd just come up and grab him. Sometimes she'd run out the front door, and sometimes he'd just slap her and beat her until she'd shut up. "I can remember times when she'd get hit so hard, it looked like she'd be knocked out, and she'd stagger and almost fall. She would give out this desperate scream right at the moment when he would hit her.
"Sometimes, after he'd get done beating her, he'd have forgotten about the kid. Sometimes he'd go back to the kids and beat even harder. Then he'd blame the kid for what had happened." The phone line falls silent. "Out in public," recalls Nate, "she wore sunglasses a lot." Mrs. Phelps was beaten even when she wasn't interfering. After Nate and Kathy, the boys figure their mom was victimized the most. They remember their father finishing one session by throwing her down the stairs from the second floor. "It had 16 steps," says Mark. "And no rail," continues Nate. "Mom grabbed at the stairs going over and tore the ligaments and cartilage in her right shoulder. The doctor said she needed surgery, but my father refused. We had no medical insurance back then. She's had a bad shoulder ever since. My father often chose that same shoulder to re-injure when he was beating mom. He'd grab her right arm and jerk it. She'd yelp." The voice in the phone sighs: "But...I guess I do still feel that very deeply...that she betrayed a gut, primitive bond when she drove off and left me. I do love my mom. But I wish she'd put a stop to it. She could have and she didn't." Pastor Phelps denies beating his children or his wife. "Hardly a word of truth to that stuff. You know, it's amazing to me that even one of them stayed." He grins, referring to the nine daughters and sons who remain loyal to him. Why?
"Because teachers have the kids from age five. And children are besieged by their own lusts and foreign ideas. "Those boys (Mark and Nate) didn't want to stay in this church. It was too hard. They took up with girls they liked, and the last thing them girls was gonna do was come into this church. "Those boys wanted to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. I can't blame them. I just feel sorry for them that they're not bound for the promised land." Margie is the second-oldest daughter and the fourth Phelps child. Her mom goes by 'Marge", so she is 'Margie'. Some say Margie is the de facto head of operations for her father's war on the community. Anticipating bad reviews from Nate, at least, she explained: "My brother is furious with his father because he (Nate) is married to another man's wife. My dad and our whole family do not accept that." On the abuse issue, her denials take a softer tone: "There were times in our childhood when each of us had bruises on our behinds. My dad had a capacity to go too far. In what he said even more than what he did...yet, as obnoxious as he can be one minute, he's the most kind, caring person another minute. "I have a marvellous relationship with my father as an adult. He respects me. He listens to me. And he helps me. Most people, when they get older, they don't have that kind of relationship with their parents." Margie, as a single woman, adopted a new-born infant boy nine years ago. "Jacob doesn't have a father," she says, "and my dad fills in there. He's one of Jacob's best friends. He's just a wonderful grandfather to him." For his part, Nate remembers Marge bringing home bad grades one day and going running to avoid a beating. When she got back, she was in an exhausted state. Fred beat her anyway. So badly, she lost consciousness and lay in a heap on the floor. The Pastor Phelps kicked his daughter repeatedly in the head and stomach while she out. "I saw her interviewed on television," adds Nate. "And she said we weren't abused, just strictly brought up." He was concerned when he heard her say that: "If she remembers that as a 'strict upbringing', then there's no moral suasion there for her not to 'strictly bring up' her own child, the adopted Jacob. "Nate would have ended in the penitentiary without his father's discipline," says his mother. "I believe it's him who's the bitter one. He needed a lot of discipline." That's fair. All large families have a black sheep. But this one has four: Nate and Mark rebelled, accepting they'd be turned back from the gates of heaven by their father who was acting as St. Peter's proxy. They later received an official letter from the Westboro Baptist Church, informing them they had been 'voted out of the church and delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh'. Katherine and Dottie suffered the same fate but continue to reside in Topeka. "Dottie only cares about her career," says her mom. "Family is an embarrassment." And Kathy? "She's been a bitch since high school," says Margie.
"Mark," reflects Mrs. Phelps, "was always well-behaved. Of the ones who left, he was a surprise." According to Mark and Nate, fathering to Pastor Phelps meant the rod and the pulpit. "My dad never once stood with me, or sat with me, or worked with me to teach me anything about the practical life of a Christian," says Mark. "It was just preach on Sunday. There was no focus on the human heart or being a human-you know, how we were supposed to do that."
When it came to their formal education as well, Fred's input to the curriculum was limited to the rod and the wrath of God. "Our dad had no use for education. He wanted us all to be lawyers, and for that we needed good grades. But he would sneer at our subjects, never helped us with our homework, never went to any school meetings and skipped our graduations. All he cared about were the grades. On the day they arrived, that was the one day he got involved in our education-usually with the mattock." "The only time he met our teachers," adds Nate, "was when he was suing them ." Mark remembers a day when the boys had gathered in one room to do their homework. They'd been working quietly for some time when the dour pastor walked in.
After staring in simmering malevolence at each of them, he intoned: "You guys think you may be foolin' me. But on a cold snowy day, the snow will be crunchin' under the mailman's tires, and under his boots, when he puts that letter in our box. Your grades. And that's when the meat's gonna get separated from the coconut..." When the report cards arrived from Landon Middle School one day in January, 1972, it wasn't snowing. But Jonathon and Nate's grades were poor and the meat got separated from the coconut. The beatings were so severe, the boys were covered with massive, broken, purple bruising extending from their buttocks to below their knees. Neither Jonathon or Nate were able to sit down, and the blows to the backs of their legs had caused so much swelling they were unable to bend them. Today, Nate has chronic knee complaints whose origin may lie in early trauma to the cartilage. And after the beatings came the shaming. It was 1972-the age of shoulder locks. Both boys had begged their father not to have crewcuts. They already felt exposed to enough ridicule as the odd ducks whose father didn't believe in Christmas, whose home no one was allowed to visit, and who were forbidden to visit others' homes. Jonathon and Nate had a teenage dread of braving the corridors with flesh-heads in an era of long manes, and their father had relented. Their hair had been allowed to touch their collars. But when the grades turned bad, out came the clippers. No attachments. Brutally short. Shaved bald. "It was not a haircut," says Nate. "It was a penalty. And a further way of cutting us off from the outside world."
On the following day-a Thursday-the boys came to school wearing red stocking caps. When asked to remove them in class, they declined. This upset their teachers almost as much as their refusal to take their seats. One instructor demanded Nate remove his headgear. Finally, Nate did. The teacher stared at his bald head. So did his classmates. "On second thought," said the charitable man, "put it back on."
For gym class that Friday, the boys had a note from their mom excusing them all week. By now, the faculty had a pretty good idea what the clothes, notes, and funny hats were covering, and Principal Dittemore asked Jonathon to come into his office. Waiting for him were the school nurse and a doctor from the community.
They asked the 13 year-old to show them his bruises. He refused. Feeling their hands were tied, the staff released Jonathon, only to have the pastor himself show up a few hours later. During a stormy second meeting, Phelps accused the school, first of slackness and poor discipline, then, paradoxically, of beating his sons and causing the bruising themselves. He threatened to slap a lawsuit on anyone who pursued the matter.
Not a man to be intimidated, Dittemore reported the suspected child abuse to an officer of the Juvenile Court. On Monday, the same routine occurred-unable to sit down and insisting on the stocking caps. Until it came time for gym once more. The note had excused them for a week, but now the coach demanded they show it again, saying he'd thought it was only for a day. The boys had left their note at home.
The coach took Nate into the locker room and stood there, waiting for him to get undressed. Nate refused. At that point, the faculty relented, and Jonathon and Nate thought they were off the hook. But, as they walked out of Landon to their mom's station wagon after school, they saw two police cars waiting. One of the teachers pointed the boys out to the officers. Before he knew it, Nate was in a squad car on his way downtown. "I was terrified. Not because I was afraid of the police. I was afraid of my dad. I kept thinking it was all over but the funeral. What would my old man do? This was my fault and he was going to beat the daylight out of me and I could still barely walk from the last one." At the station, Nate remembers everyone was very kind to him. They spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to allay his fears and coax him to allow them to photograph his naked backside. Finally he did. When the police allowed Mrs. Phelps to take her boys home, Nate's worst nightmare came true. After nearly getting arrested for delivering a tirade of obscenities and threats to the juvenile detectives, the dour pastor rushed back to the house and delivered a fresh beating to his exhausted sons.
For the moment, however, it had gone beyond the pastor's control. Police detectives investigated the matter, and it was filed as juvenile abuse cases #13119 and #13120. Jonathon and Nate were assigned a court- appointed lawyer, as a guardian-ad-litem, to protect their interests. The assistant county attorney took charge of the cases, and juvenile officers were assigned to the boys.
In his motion to dismiss, the ever-resourceful Phelps filed a pontifically sobering sermon on the value of strict discipline and corporal punishment in a good Christian upbringing. "When he beat us, he told us if it became a legal case, we'd pay hell," says Nate. "And we believed him. At that time, there was nothing we wanted to see more than those charges dropped. When the guardian ad litem came to interview us, we lied through our teeth."
Principals involved in the case speculate the boys' statements, along with superiors' reluctance to tangle with the litigious pastor, caused the charges to be dropped. The last reason is not academic speculation. The Capital-Journal has learned through several sources that the Topeka Police Department's attitude toward the Phelps' family in the '70s and '80s was hands off-this guy's more trouble than it's worth'.
Three months later, the case was dismissed upon the motion of the state. The reason given by the prosecutor was "no case sufficient to go to trial in opinion of state". The boys were selling candy in Highland Park when they learned from their mom during a rest break the Pastor Phelps would not go on trial for beating his children. "I felt elated," remembers Nate. "It meant at least I wouldn't get beaten for that."
But if Nate's life was so full of pain and fear, why didn't he speak up when he was at the police station and everyone was being so nice to him? Nate laughs. It's the veteran's tolerant amusement at the novice's question. "We'll do anything not to have to give up our parents," he answers. "That's just the way kids are. That's the way we were." "Besides, when it (abuse) occurs since birth, it never even crosses your mind to fight back," interrupts Mark. "You know how they train elephants?
They raise them tied to a chain in the ground. Later, it's replaced by a rope and a stick. But the elephant never stops thinking it's a chain." The loyal Phelps family are of two minds on the case. Margie admitted it had occurred. Jonathon denied it. The pastor never decided. Instead, he launched into a lecture on the value of tough love in raising good Christians.
Since their juvenile files were destroyed when the boys reached eighteen, but for their father's vindictiveness, there might have been no record of this case. As it was, he sued the school. This caused the school's insurance company to request a statement from Principal Dittemore, who complied, describing the events which led to the faculty's concern the boys were being abused. The suit was dropped.
When contacted in retirement, Dittemore confirmed he'd written the letter and acknowledged its contents. The family now accuses Nate of fabricating his stories of child abuse. They claim he is spinning these lies out of the malice he has over their opposition to his marriage (Nate's wife is divorced). But Nate was married in 1986. The described case of abuse was a matter of record 14 years earlier-and 21 years prior to Pastor Phelps' controversial debut on national television. The Phelps family has since maintained that, while the case did exist, the charges were invented by the school to harass their family. They say they were raised under loving but strict discipline, and that is how they're raising their children. Jonathon Phelps, who admits he beats his wife and four children, for emphasis reads from Proverbs, 13:24: "He that spareth his rod, hateth his son. But he that loveth him, chasteneth him betimes." Yes...but...where does it say the purple child is a child much-loved? Betty Phelps, wife of Fred, Jr., glowers at the questions. Anytime you spank a child, you're going to cause bruising, she explains. And sneers: "I'll bet your parents put a pillow in your pants." Jonathon, staring straight ahead and not looking at the reporter, states in a barely controlled voice of malevolent threat that, should the reporter tell it differently than just heard, said scribbler is evil and going to hell. Assuming there'll be space, the doomed dromedary of capital muckraking must tell it differently.
To begin with, the reporters on this story were raised in the same era and locale as the Phelps boys. They also grew up under strict discipline, and one of their fathers was, at one time, a professional boxer. Daddy's hands sometimes swung a mean leather belt, but only a few strokes, and it left no bruises. After a few minutes, one could sit down again. The moving force behind the pastor's hands was not 'tough love', as he so often claims, but malice aforethought. The Capital- Journal has established from numerous sources conversant with the case that the injuries to Nate and Jonathon Phelps in January of 1972 went far beyond the bounds of a 'strict upbringing'-even by the standards of the strictest disciplinarian. Those injuries would have been seen as torture and abuse in any era, at any age, in any culture.
Mark's front porch tale is instructive. Any psychologist hearing the story about choking that cat today would know immediately to investigate the child's home life for abuse. Back then it was not the case. That child would have been left to find his own way out of the terrible subterranean world another had made for him. Most don't. Research shows nine out of twelve die down there.
In their heart. When the light in their soul goes out. If their bodies live on, they grow up mangled and mangle those closest to them. And it all takes shape down there. In the dark new universe of a young child's mind. Mark Phelps escaped.
His father did not. That man came to the Kansas capital instead. And, after 40 years, he still haunts its porches, tormenting its innocents. The Capital-Journal went south...Mississippi...to see if it could learn where and when...perhaps how...the light went out for Fred Phelps.
It followed him to Colorado and California, Canada and New Mexico. For three months, it turned every stone in Topeka, seeking the truth about this man. What follows is the monster behind the clown, the street corner malevolence mocking the cameras.
3. God's Left Hook
The air hangs heavy, torpid, and hot. Pulling the warm steam into one's lungs leaves only a disturbing sense of slow suffocation. Under the harsh subtropic sun, the magnolia blossoms slip from the black-green leaves, falling like wet snow-petals to perfume the red-clay earth. In the heat, it leaves a heavy, hanging smell...the wealth of Dixie. Fred Phelps spent his first years here.
Outside the courthouse, flags sag limp and breezeless. Above the doors are cut the words: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy Neighbor It's Meridian, Mississippi, town of old store fronts, mouthwatering cornbread, and 40,000 people. Surrounded by 100-foot pine forests, its business is lumber. Trucks and flatbed railcars loaded with freshly cut logs rolls slowly by. To the sensual fragrance of the magnolias is added the sweet aroma of pine. While great pyramids of logs await processing into lumber at the plant on the west side, Navy jets roar overhead...the other source of revenue. The federal government threatens to close the base down; the locals fight to keep it. Meridian was sacked by General Sheridan during the Civil War. The implacable bluecoat burned the town and tore up what, till then, had been a rail hub of the South. The town has since recovered. The railroad did not. In the cemeteries can be found gravestones of the Confederate dead. Among them, a more recent marker reads: Catherine Idalette Phelps, Age 28 Fred's mother used to open all the windows in the house and play the piano, according to Thetis Grace Hudson, former librarian in Meridian and a neighbor of the Phelps family during the Depression. The other households on her street were too poor to afford any entertainment, she says, so everyone remembered Catherine Phelps for her kindness.
Apparently she played well. Whenever she was at their house, Hudson remembers she used to ask Mrs. Phelps to play the hymn "Love Lifted Me" on the piano. Fred's mother always obliged, even if she was busy. But, after an illness of several months-those who still remember the family say it was throat cancer-Catherine Phelps died on September 3, 1935. Fred was only five years old. Since the little boy's uncle was the mayor of nearby Pascagoula, and his father was prominent in Meridian, the honorary pallbearers at her funeral included the local mayor, a city councilman, two judges, and every member of the police department. Ms. Hudson says young Fred was bewildered at the loss. After his mother's death, a maternal great aunt, Irene Jordan, helped care for Fred and his younger sister, Martha Jean. "She kept house for the daddy," adds a distant relative who declined to be identified. At times, work caused the boy's father to be away from home and Jordan raised the children. The woman Fred Phelps has referred to as 'his dear old aunt' died in a head-on collision in 1951 as she was driving back to Meridian from a nearby town. The boy had lost two mothers before he'd turned 21.
Family friends remember Fred's father was a tall, stately man. A true Southern gentlemen, they say. And a fine Christian. But the elder Phelps also had a hot temper, according to Jack Webb, 81, of Porterville, Miss. Webb owns a general store, the only business in Porterville, a town of about 45 elderly people. "If he got mad, he was mad all over," said Webb. He was ready to fight right quick. He was mad, mad, mad." Webb is a frail man, slightly hard of hearing. Walking into his general store is like stepping back into the 19th century. The shelves, all located behind a 100-foot wooden counter, are stocked with weary tins of Vienna sausage and dusty bottles of aspirin. Coke goes for 30 cents. Glass. No twist-off.
Despite the temper, Webb adds, the elder Phelps was an honorable man. In Meridian, he had been an object of great respect. Fred's father was a veteran of World War One, and throughout his life suffered from the effects of a mustard gassing he'd taken in France. He found work as a detective for the Southern Railroad to support his family. The railroad security force or "bulls", as they were called, had a reputation for brutality when they patrolled the yards to prevent the itinerant laborers, washed out of their hometowns by the Depression, from riding the freights. "My father," says Pastor Phelps, "oft-times came home with blood all over him." Suddenly he stands up, turning his face away, and exits. Several minutes later he returns, smiling, apologizing: "You got me thinking about those days," he offers, then bravely charges into a round of the town's official song: "Meridian, Meridian... a city set upon a hill; Meridian, Meridian... that radiates the South's good will."
The elder Phelps was a "bull" throughout the Depression, says Thetis Hudson, and the pay was good. The family lived comfortably at a time when the other families in town were being ravaged by hardship. What was the son like? "Fred Phelps had as normal and beautiful a home life as anyone ever wanted," commented a relative who didn't want their name used. "His childhood was very good," says Hudson. "There was nothing in his family out of the ordinary." "All I know is it's a tragedy, and it stems from within Fred Phelps," adds the anonymous relative, referring to the homosexual picketing. "It has nothing to do with his upbringing."
As a teenager. Fred was tall and thin and sported a crewcut. He was extraordinarily smart, but thought to be a bit overbearing about it at times. A reserved and serious high school student, he never dated anyone while there. "He was not a real socializer, but he knew a lot of people. Everyone had the greatest respect for him," says Joe Clay Hamilton, former high-school classmate, now a Meridian lawyer. The future Pastor Phelps earned the rank of Eagle Scout with Palms, played coronet and base horn in the high school band, was a high hurdler on the track team, and worked as a reporter on the school's newspaper. In a class of 213 graduates, he ranked sixth. When he was voted class orator for commencement of May, 1946, received the American Legion Award for courage, leadership, scholarship, and service, then honored as his congressman's choice for West Point, Fred Phelps was only 16 years old. A year later this young man, touted as the quiet achiever, had turned his back on West Point, his former life, and his future promise. The summer of '47 would find him a belligerent and eccentric zealot, antagonizing the Mormons in the mountains of Utah. Because of his age, Phelps had to wait one fateful year before entering the military academy. During that time he attended the local junior college. While waiting for his life to start, Fred, along with his best friend, John Capron, went to a revival meeting at the local Methodist church. It was there the budding pastor felt the 'call', and the dreams of going north to West Point melted like the river ice washed down and marooned on the hot mud of the Mississippi banks.
Fred Phelps, by his own description, "went to a little Methodist revival meeting and had what I think was an experience of grace, they call it down there. I felt the call, as they say, and it was powerful. The God of glory appeared. It doesn't mean a vision or anything, but it means an impulse on the heart, as the old preachers say." The revival had a profound effect on both Phelps and Capron. "The two of them 'got religion'," said Joe Hamilton. Friends and relatives claim the two boys became so excited, they were unable to distinguish reality from idealism-they were going off to conquer the world. One relative still in Meridian described it this way: "Fred, bless his heart, just went overboard. If you didn't accept it, he was going to cram it down your throat."
Was this radical change in behavior a characteristic of the conversion experience? Or was there something hidden in the young man's character that drew him to the experience and its consequent license for loud and abusive behavior? If the latter, then some heart should be heard pounding beneath the floorboards in the old Phelps' house. Yet, there is little to be heard.
Fletcher Rosenbaum, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force who lives in Meridian, went to high school with Phelps. "He was good at whatever he tried," Rosenbaum says. "He was a first-class individual. I would be surprised if he wasn't a top-notch citizen in Topeka." Picketing AIDS funerals and the fax attacks on members of his community by Phelps surprised Rosenbaum: "He was very reserved in high school. Very quiet. I'm surprised he would be involved in aggressive activities. To me, it would be out of character for him." This observation may not be entirely accurate. One woman, a librarian at the Meridian Public Library, said she remembers Phelps and went to school and church with him. "He doesn't bend," she observed. "He never did." She also described him as "spooky", "different", and "a preacher prodigy." "You tell him not to do it, and he'll do it," said another Meridian woman. "He was a very determined person. That's to be admired, but it can be taken too far." Even Fred himself remembers differently. He was a boxer throughout high school and, reminiscing briefly about his days in Meridian, he chuckles to himself. If any of the other boys came to class with a puffy face or shiner, their friends would ask if they'd been sparring with Phelps. He always left his mark on them, he tells me proudly.
Sid Curtis, a grade-school classmate of Fred's, remembers the future pastor drew well, even then. What did he draw? Boxers.
A golden glove contender in high school, Fred fought twice in state meets, winning matches which, according to him, were head-on slugfests. Not aggressive? Not the Bull of Topeka yet, but clearly it was in his character. A story in the high-school paper, predicting the futures of Phelps and his classmates, reads: "Fred Phelps will box in Madison Square Garden next June, 1954. Young Phelps will fight for the world championship." One can only wonder what deep currents rose in the teenager whenever he climbed into the ring. Recalling the earlier testimony of his sons, Nate and Mark, and remembering that research has proven abusive behavior is passed with high probability from one generation to the next, the question must be raised: Was the Pastor Phelps equally abused as a child? In the South, there is an unwritten code you don't bad-mouth one of your own. Strangers are welcome unless they ask too many questions, or speak ill of Southern folks and ways. In fact, if ET had come down in Meridian instead of Southern California, and a yankee inquired about that today, folks would probably scratch their chins, figure the carpet-baggers with a knowing eye, and say he was a quiet boy, little short for his age...but had good hands for the piano... If the stories his sons have told are true, the outside observer has two choices in understanding Fred Phelps: either there's a pounding heart under the floor in that old house or the teenager's Saul- into-Paul experience produced the character change. However, many Christians might find it difficult to believe that discovering Jesus would render a good-natured, quiet lad into the bullying hostile whose trail we will shortly follow from Vernal, Utah to Topeka, Kansas. If something did happen to throw Fred Waldron Phelps off track, something that mangled him for life, no one in Meridian wanted to say. Doing that no doubt would be to speak ill of the dead-something Pastor Phelps also was taught to avoid.
Yet, suddenly at 16, the child has become the man: fanatic, unempathic, combative, and vindictive. If there is an answer to the question, 'why does Fred hate us all so much?', perhaps it lies in those years, age five to 15, when his father was largely absent and Fred and his sister were cared for by Irene Jordan.
"If he were dead, I'd talk," says Fred's sister, Martha Jean Capron, now residing in Pennsylvania. "But as long as he's alive...that's up to him..." Following the revival experience, Phelps abandoned plans for West Point. He moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where he attended Bob Jones College, a non-denominational Christian academy.
John Capron went with him. While Fred and his boyhood chum would eventually separate over religion, Martha Jean and Capron never would: they were married and moved to Indonesia as missionaries. John was a minister there for ten years. Later he would smuggle Bibles into Communist China. Pastor Phelps' brother-in-law died of a heart attack in 1982.
Perhaps it's a shame Phelps didn't go to West Point. An army career could have provided a healthy outlet for his aggression, been more compatible with his demanding and commanding nature, while his strong body, mind, and will would have been an asset to the service and his country. If he'd survived Korea as a 2nd lieutenant, probably he'd have been a lieutenant colonel by Vietnam. There he'd almost certainly have chipped his Manichaean mandibles of dualism on that war's hard bone of moral ambiguity. Either he'd have ended on a river somewhere, whispering "the horror...the horror..." to bewildered junior officers, or gained a wider horizon and returned home to retire an urbane cynic and Southern gentleman. But in 1946, Fred Phelps had a year to kill instead of Nazis or North Koreans. The revival took him from Meridian to Bob Jones; from there the future pastor found another outlet for his anger. This one gave instant gratification and conferred adult license to abuse almost overnight: lip-shooting preacher; revivalist minister. And, unlike Vietnam, here God was unequivocally on his side...
As part of a Rocky Mountain mission assignment in summer, 1947, Phelps and two other students from Bob Jones were to seek out a fundamentalist church, convert non-believers to Christianity and steer the converts to that church. The three men chose Vernal, a town in northeast Utah. They would be working to convert, not secular hedonists, but a population that was predominantly and staunchly Mormon. When Fred and his friends got there, they set up a meeting tent brought from Bob Jones in the city park. A local Baptist minister provided them food and lodging (B.H. McAlister, who would later ordain Phelps). During the day the do-it- yourself apostles went door-to-door, seeking converts to the good news. At night, they conducted revival meetings in the tent. Only no one came.
So Ed Nelson, one of the trio, had an idea. He went to a local radio station and asked if he might buy a block of time. Nope, was the reply. Not if you're going to attack the Mormon church. Ok, said Ed, can I announce I'll be giving an address tonight at the tent?
Sure. So Ed Nelson announced on the radio he'd be doing just that. And the title of the speech? 'What's Wrong with the Mormon Church?' says Ed, over the air. That night, continues Nelson, now 69 and a traveling Baptist evangelist based in Denver, a huge crowd arrived. It was so large, the trip had to roll up the sides of the tent. Ed was nervous, but he gave his speech. The crowd listened politely. When the young evangelist was finished, a man in the crowd asked would there be questions. Sure, said Ed.
But the very first one stumped him, Nelson confesses disarmingly, and he panicked. Flustered, he announced there would be no more questions. Several in the throng protested, saying that, after sitting in courtesy, listening to their religion attacked, they weren't going to let the young men off so easily-that they should be willing to answer the crowd's questions.
At that, Fred rushed one of the men speaking and started to throw a punch, but Ed grabbed his arm and shouted: "Fred! Fred! No! Don't you do it!" "And," Nelson recounts, "Fred looked at that guy and he said, 'you shut your mouth, you dirty...' something or other."
Which, to Ed, only compounded their troubles. Fred's companion then raised his arms and shouted, "Folks, the meeting's over! It's over!" And he rushed out and killed the lights inside the tent. This discouraged any further theological discussion.
It would seem this format-speak one's mind, then take violent offense at anything less than complete agreement, and suppress all opposing views by any means handy-was the major life lesson learned by Fred Phelps during his sojourn among the Vernal heathen. "He was hot-headed and peculiar," remembers Nelson about Fred then. Eventually the minister decided to cease his association with Phelps because of his hostility and aggressiveness. "The last time I saw him, he was traveling through (on the road preaching). My wife and I gave them a hundred dollars and a bunch of handkerchiefs." When told of what Phelps was doing today, Ed said: "I'm not surprised. He was heading that way. He was so brilliant, he was dangerous. He was getting involved in the idea that only he was saved...going into heresy..." Though vandals damaged the tent, the boys from Bob Jones continued to hold nightly meetings there during the rest of their vacation. No one came, but Nelson reports they did manage to convert two teenage girls-at least for the summer.
At the end of their stay, Fred got ordained. Ordained? At 17? Isn't that too young? "No, it isn't," replies B.H. McAlister, who did the ordaining. "If he can pass the test, he is eligible. I don't think the word of God is bound by age."
Phelps was at least three years younger than most when they become ministers. Southern Baptists do not require a candidate for the ministry be a graduate of seminary. McAlister, who has helped ordain hundreds of ministers, said an examination board of 10 to 20 ministers would ask a candidate questions about doctrines and scriptures. Not everyone passed. Fred Phelps did-but only after McAlister and a missionary convinced the teenager he was wrong on a scriptural fine point. Which point was that? According to McAlister, Phelps considered the local church to be more than a place of fellowship-for him, membership in the local congregation directly corresponded to membership in the Body of Christ. Phelps may have conceded the point to be ordained, but, for 40 years, his family and church members in Topeka have been controlled by his threat that, if they depart his congregation, they must carry a letter of permission from him. In addition, they must join a congregation that he approves. Otherwise, as with Mark and Nate, the pastor Phelps draws up the dreaded missive ordering the straying sheep to be 'delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh.' "We barely knew him," admits McAlister, who settled upon Fred the distinction of having been both baptized and ordained in a single eventful summer.
Phelps returned that autumn to Bob Jones, but left after a year without graduating. Later he would say he did so because the school was racist. In 1983, the IRS revoked the tax exemption of Bob Jones, accusing it of practicing racial discrimination. From there, Fred went north to the Prairie Bible Institute near Calgary, Alberta. But after two semesters he moved on.
Sources have disclosed the head of the college felt pastor Phelps might be clinically disturbed. Compatible with that diagnosis, Fred's next stop was Southern California. There he enrolled at John Muir College in Pasadena.
Campaigning to change community sexual mores with a sign and a sidewalk harangue has been a four-decade effort for Fred. His implacable efforts at John Muir to root out necking and petting on campus and dirty jokes in the classroom reached the pages of TIME magazine (11 June 1951). After being forbidden to preach on campus and getting removed at least once by police from college property, Fred finally found a following that cheered his defiance of authority when he returned to harangue from a sympathizer's lawn across the street. TIME speculated it might presage a movement back to more solid values by the younger generation. Phelps cashed in on the notoriety of the TIME article to become a traveling evangelist again-this time with more success than in Vernal.
In return for spending a week or two preaching at an established church or giving a revival, he would receive a bed, his meals, and a small stipend for gas to the next assignment. It was during one such ministry in Phoenix that he met his wife, Marge. She was a student at Arizona Bible School and an au-pair with the family that took in the itinerant evangelist. Today's Mrs. Phelps remembers being curious about the minister who'd been in TIME magazine. Laura Woods, the mistress of the house who gave voice lessons during the day, remembers Fred was the perfect guest. He helped build a room, mowed the lawn, made the beds, and washed the dishes, she said. When the couple decided to get married, Mrs. Woods made Marge Simms two dresses-a wedding gown and an outfit to travel in. They were married May 15, 1952. Laura and her husband, Arthur, remain friends today with Fred and Marge Phelps. The couple moved to Albuquerque for a year, where Marge kept house while Fred traveled a circuit around the Southwest-one that took him from Durango, Colorado to Tucson, Arizona. Fred Jr., the first of their thirteen children, was born May 4, 1953.
The family then lived in Sunnyslope, Arizona for a year while pastor Phelps continued his itinerant ministry. Mrs. Phelps was eight months pregnant with Mark when Pastor Leaford Cavin at the Eastside Baptist Church in Topeka invited Fred to come and preach.
On Fred Jr.'s first birthday, the family arrived in the Kansas capital to find it an auspicious day indeed: May 4, 1954 was the day the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic decision, Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, the landfall desegregation case which ruled separate but equal schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional. The Pastor Phelps saw the coincidence of the Brown decision -just as he was deciding where to settle-as a sign telling him that Topeka was The Place. On that watershed day for America, if the new arrivals visited the state capitol building, perhaps Phelps was struck by the dramatic mural of the raging giant on the burning prairie, rifle in one hand, Bible (law book) in the other. Perhaps, as he has hinted, Pastor Phelps came to Topeka, saw it had become a national forum on black civil rights, saw the power of the legal profession, and decided it had fallen to him: Kansas would have a new John Brown.
4. Dog Days for the Pastor
Before greatness could be thrust upon him, however, this new John Brown would suffer his dog days. At first, the new arrivals sailed smoothly into the Eastside Baptist community. Fred was roundly admired for his thunderous preaching, and was quickly hired an associate pastor. The ladies at Eastside all liked Marge and made the young mother welcome in their circles.
Things went swimmingly. The Eastside congregation was planning to open a new church across town, and it seemed natural when their pastor, Leaford Cavin, asked Fred to fill the job. The Eastside church issued bonds to purchase the property at 3701 12th Street. To help Brother Phelps get underway, the congregation re-roofed the building, painted it, and bought the songbooks necessary. A start-up group of about 50 former members of Eastside volunteered to attend services at Westboro. The church formally opened on May 20, 1956. Fred had it all. A fine church and a congregation of his own. What went wrong?
What did provides an insight into the man who craves a greater and greater role as a moral arbiter of our times. "We gave him his church; painted; roofed it; even bought his songbooks; and after only a few weeks, he turned on us," says a long-time member of Eastside. Apparently not everyone in Leaford Cavin's church was enthusiastic about Phelps. One from that time recalls Fred, Marge, 2 year-old Fred, Jr., and 10 month-old Mark were in the pews one Sunday with the rest of the congregation, listening to Cavin preach. Mark began squirming suddenly. To the appalled amazement of his fellow worshipers nearby, the junior pastor repeatedly slapped the infant across the face with an open palm and backhand, snapping Mark's tiny head to and fro. Afterwards, several of the men in the congregation confronted Fred and told him never to do that again. Mark Phelps laughs to hear that story relayed: "My mom once told me-proudly, as if she'd effected a big change in his behavior-that my father had beaten my older brother when he was only five months old. She said she'd argued with him about it and he'd agreed to hold off beating the kids till they were a year old." "Phelps was wrapped pretty tight, even back then," recalls an old member of Eastside. "He was very severe with his children and a lot of people didn't care for him. But we all thought he was a man of God."
Within weeks after receiving his new status, building, and congregation, Fred Phelps warmed on the hearth of Eastside's hospitality and but the hands that had helped him. He and Leaford Cavin had an almost immediate falling-out over whether God hated the sinner as well as the sin. "Today, Fred will tell you it was theological differences," says an acquaintance of Cavin, "but those differences didn't seem to bother him when he needed out help." Adds another: "Theological differences? Brother Cavin was a very staunch Baptist." But not staunch enough for Fred?
"I don't know if there ever was a man more strict than Leaford Cavin. Really, it was the anger in Fred, not doctrine, that caused him to act the way he did." When a man in Fred's new congregation came to him for marital counseling, the pastor recommended a good beating for the wife. The man followed his spiritual guide's advice.
Later, he called the pastor to ask for bail: apparently separation of church and state didn't apply to assault and battery. Phelps paid the confused Christian's bail, but stuck to his guns: a former members of the early Westboro community remembers the following Sunday Pastor Fred was fiery in his message that a good left hook makes for a right fine wife: "Brethren," preached Phelps, "they can lock us up, but we'll still do what the Bible tells us to do. Either our wives are going to obey, or we're going to beat them!" "Leaders," observes B.H. McAlister, the minister who ordained Fred, "break down into shepherd and sheep-herders. The first lead, the second drive the sheep. If love is absent, the pastor is one who drives the flock; with love, he leads it."
Mark remembers his father used to frequently tell of the time he purified the flock and paid the price for his courage. Apparently a female member of that early Westboro congregation was discovered having an affair with a soldier from Ft. Riley. Only the males in the congregation were allowed to vote, and the pastor prevailed upon them to cast the Madeleine from the midst. Away from the effects of his heated rhetoric, however, many of those swayed felt first remorse, then disgust at their part in the moral lynching. Mark remembers his father always referred to this incident to explain why his congregation had deserted him.
In later years, Phelps was convinced he was alone in his church with only his children to listen because those who'd opened Westboro were too weak for the harsh truth of God: that He hated sinners as well as the sin; and therefore His elect must also hate the sinners-even those who might be assembled with them. If the local Baptist churches were still unsure about the new fire and brimstone brother from Arizona, shooting his neighbor's dog didn't help. Aside from etching one of his children's earliest memories, shotgun-blasting the large German shepherd that had wandered into his unfenced yard quickly got the novice pastor notice in his community. The incident was discussed in the papers, and the dog's owner sued the arrogant minister. Fred defended himself and won, an action his son Mark believes may have encouraged his father's turn to the law.
But the irrationality and violence of the act sent the last of his congregation scurrying back to Eastside. For weeks after the shooting, one church member recalls, someone placed signs on the lawn in front of Westboro at night that declared prophetically: "Anyone who'd stoop to killing a dog someday will mistake a child for a dog." Soon it was clear no one wanted any part of Fred's god not if he hated like Fred. And that posed a problem for the Pastor Phelps: he still owed 32 dollars a week on the bonds for the church, and no one was paying for his hate show on Sundays.
To cover his mortgage and support his family, the failed pastor turned his pitch from God to vacuum cleaners. During the following five years, he went door-to-door in Topeka, selling those and baby carriages and, finally, insurance. In a pattern that held ominous overtones for the future, Phelps at some point sued almost everyone who employed him during that period.
He also carried on a running feud with Leaford Cavin at Eastside Baptist. Cavin spent several years trying to discover how to repair his mistake and stop the nightmare unfolding at the Westboro church. "Eastside held the mortgage on Westboro," remembers one churchgoer who was involved in the finances there, "and we always hoped Fred would miss a payment so we could foreclose. But he never did."
To save money, the pastor moved his wife and children into the church. Since the congregation at Westboro was essentially the Phelps family, Cavin convinced John Towle, county assessor, that Westboro should be taxed as private residence. The controversy was covered in the media, and the exemption for 3701 West 12th was lifted. But again the fighting Pastor Phelps taught himself enough about the law to successfully contest the decision before the Board of Tax Appeals. For good measure, he sued Cavin and Stauffer Communications for libel. He lost the suit, but the lines of his future had now been drawn: Fred Phelps had his castle and his church and he'd learned how to defend them.
His chosen community detested him, but that was to be expected when one was elect and immersed in a world of damned souls. Fred was content that his god hated those who questioned him. And he was content to remain in his private La Rochelle and sally forth occasionally to smite the reprobate. One old member of Eastside is philosophical about the feud with Pastor
Fred: "I'll tell you one thing, we can feel awfully lucky he turned down that slot at West Point. Right now, he'd probably be a general-with his finger on the button." It was during this period that the Pastor Phelps cut the final ties with his original family.
When talking with friends, Fred's father never discussed the son he had in Topeka, says Fred Stokes, a retired army officer who lives outside Meridian. Stokes was a close friend of the elder Phelps and a pallbearer at his funeral in 1977: "He had some fundamental beliefs that were unshakeable, but he didn't force them on anyone." In his later years, Stokes says, Fred's father was active in the Methodist Church. "He was a very kind, grand fatherly person. He was at peace with himself and didn't have any rancor toward anybody at the time of his death." Marks tells how his grandfather, Fred, (whose name he learned only recently from Capital-Journal reporters) once came to visit them in Topeka when Mark was a child. What he recalls most vividly is standing on the platform at the railroad station with his father and grandfather. As they waited to put him on the train back to Meridian, the preacher told the weeping old man never to come back, not to call, nor to write. "I remember my grandfather was crying. He told my father to get back in the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense."
Pastor Phelps admits there was a rift between him and his father. "He was disappointed when I didn't go to West Point, which is understandable. He worked hard to get that appointment for me, and he was a very active Methodist, so he was disappointed in that. But my dad was a super guy that I loved deeply and I miss him." Relatives in Mississippi said the elder Phelps never really got over his abandonment by his son. "It grieved him a lot," remembers one.
When Pastor Phelps was 15 and in his last year of high school his father, 51, married a 39 year-old divorcee named Olive Briggs. The son would leave home soon after and grow up to be a fierce critic of divorce. Olive's sister, who didn't want her name used, said Olive was a kind Southern lady who never had children and treated Fred and his sister, Martha Jean, as if they were her own. The new Mrs. Phelps often talked to her sister about the trouble between the former railroad detective and his son, the Baptist preacher. "Olive would say he grieved over that every day of his life. That he never would have parted ways. It was his son who parted ways."
Other relatives recalled that, each year, the grandparents sent birthday and Christmas presents to their grandchildren in Topeka. Each year they were returned unopened. Photos of grandpa and grandma the pastor gave his extra touch: "When they once sent him pictures of themselves for us kids to have, I remember watching my dad cutting them meticulously into little pieces with a pair of scissors. Then he placed them in an envelope and mailed them back."
When the elder Phelps died in 1977, and Olive Briggs in 1985, of the two not inconsiderable wills, Fred's father left him one-eighth and his sister, seven-eighths. Fred's stepmother left her entire estate to Martha Jean. There would be no relatives dropping by from mother's side either. Though Marge Phelps had nine brothers and sisters still living in rural Missouri or nearby Kansas City, with one notable exception, her own children never met them or so much as knew their names. And the firm pastor forbade his children to play or talk with the rest of the youngsters in the neighborhood. Says Mark: "I wanted friends to share with and talk to, but felt it was the wrong thing and felt guilty. They would initiate conversation or want to play, and I would feel real scared and not know what to do or say. Sometimes I couldn't avoid talking, and it made me feel real uneasy and scared that I would get caught. "My dad used to make me go and tell the neighbor kids they couldn't play by the fence, or talk to us, or come in the yard. He'd say, "I'm tellin' you, if those fucking kids are in this yard again and I catch them, it's you I'm going to beat!"
"I used to have to fight the kids sometimes, or yell at them, or push them out of the yard; or I'd turn my back and ignore them so they wouldn't want to talk or be friendly and get me in trouble." While this is in keeping with the 'fortress Phelps' mentality the pastor embarked on shortly after opening Westboro, it is interesting to speculate how much of the strange goings-on within the fortress the pastor feared his children might reveal had they been allowed outside confidants. When Fred's sister, Martha Jean, and her husband, Fred's teenage best-buddy, John Capron, returned to the U.S. on a year sabbatical from their Indonesian mission, they came to see Fred. In part, they'd come to arrange a reconciliation between the brittle pastor and his devastated father.
They never got started. "He wouldn't even talk to me," Fred's sister told her nephew, Mark. The good pastor bid her also leave and never return. Mark remembers riding his bike along in the street, both curious and embarrassed, watching his aunt go weeping down the sidewalk for three blocks from their house.
With that, the vengeful minister had succeeded in cutting all lines leading to his captive congregation. Anyone in the outside world who might know of their existence or be concerned for their welfare had been driven off. After he had sold insurance for several years, Phelps had amassed enough commissions off the yearly premiums to allow him to stop working and go to law school. He had already transferred credits from Bob Jones and John Muir to Washburn, then taken course work there to receive his degree. Fred Phelps had guts. When he entered Washburn Law School, he had a wife and seven children. When he graduated, his family had grown by three.
Phelps was editor of the Law Review and star of the school's moot court. He is remembered by some of the faculty as perhaps the most brilliant student ever to pass through Washburn Law. If the public performance was impressive, however, the private life grew even more dark.
"It was a very rare occasion," says Mark, "when he would come anywhere in the house that the kids were. While he was studying the law, he'd fly into rages because we were making noise. Mom would hide us-for the good of all." In fact, Phelps began to spend more and more time in his bedroom, cut off from his family except when they were needed to run errands for him; cut off except for his wife, whom he forced to remain with him in his bedroom for days at a time. Apparently the pastor's sexual appetites were voracious, and his emotional dependency even greater: Says Mark, "Mom had to spend the major portion of her day sitting next to him in bed, trying to say the right things to keep him calm, while he bitched and moaned and complained and railed and carried on. "He left the older children to take care of the younger ones while he monopolized our mother's time and attention. We were literally left on our own for the major portion of our childhoods." While the pastor lolled now grossly overweight in his bed like some Ottoman pasha, rolling in his law books and 100 pounds of excess blubber, lecturing the wife and walls on the evils of the reprobate, wallowing in gluttony and goat-like sexual appetites, he resembled, not so much the John Brown of his earlier ambitions, as he did an esquired Jabba the Hut.
"The kids would sit in grime and scum and filth for hours at a time," says Mark, "tied into their high chairs or strollers by mom, for their safety, until she could sneak away from him to give them a diaper change, redo their ties, and set it up for the older kids to feed them, so she could get back to him.
"I remember when she'd come downstairs, all the kids would cluster around her like a swarm of bees, just to touch her and talk to her." Mark goes on: "I started doing most of the grocery shopping, by bike, with my brother Fred when I was only seven or eight, because our mom had such a hard time getting away. We had baskets on our bikes. We were given money but it was never enough. It was humiliating because we would hold up the line at the checkout while the cashiers would ask us what we wanted to keep or take back, and then they'd do the figuring for us," Mark sighs in the phone: "When he wanted a chicken dinner, he'd stay in bed and have me ride my bike two miles each way to get him one. He never thanked me. "We'd run errands for that, or he'd send us out for a piece of apple pie with cheese on it. And we had to get back fast. Damn fast, or he'd complain his apple pie wasn't hot enough. "It was a mile or two back, the pie riding in a mesh basket, and we had to get it to him hot." Mark pauses. "It's pretty unbelievable when I think about it. At breakfast, my father got bacon and eggs; the kids got oatmeal and grits. At dinner we'd have beans and rice while he ate chicken or hamburger. Now that I'm a father myself, that just seems incomprehensible to me. "My father had to take care of us each year when my mom went into the hospital to give birth. Whatever he had to do, he'd always lose his temper and start screaming.
"We'd be too scared of him to eat-and then he'd beat us for not eating. My saliva would not work when he was in the room and mom was gone, so, to clean our plates, we'd throw our food under the table or into our laps and flush it down the toilet later. "When he took care of us, I tried to stay out of the same room with him at all times. He would be real hard on the little ones when he dressed them. He'd push and jerk and tug real hard. My father was so impatient and unpredictable. You never knew what to expect or how to act." When the children did run into Jabba-the-Dad out of his bed, it was usually unpleasant. Mark tells of one such time: "The day my brother, Tim, was born, Fred, Jr., and I were in the dining room fooling around and Fred started to chase me out the back door. I ran right into my dad."
According to Mark, the pastor started screaming at them not to horse around. He punched both boys several times and ordered them outside to work in the yard. On his way out, Mark rounded a corner and inadvertently stumbled into his father a second time. Enraged, the pastor connected with a hook to the side of his son's head. Mark fell down dazed and stunned. The pastor began to kick him, and kept kicking him, but Mark couldn't get up. His father screamed at him to go out in the yard, but the boy's legs felt like jello and "the room was rolling in vertigo". Finally, his father left him there, sprawled and dazed like a defeated boxer. When Mark could stand up, he joined his older brother already at work.
Three hours later, their dad called them in. "He told us to get into bed and not to move. He told me to turn my face to the wall. For hours I lay like that, too scared to roll over because I thought he might still be standing there, watching me. Finally, I fell asleep.
"When we woke up the next day, we found he'd been at the hospital with mom the night before. And we had a new baby brother." Their father often slept all day and got up in the afternoon, remembers another Phelps child. "And then everyone would hide because 'daddy was up'. "He habitually had violent rages that included profane cursing, beyond any sailor's ability to curse, where he threw and broke anything he could get his hands on," states Mark. "My father routinely demolished the kitchen and dining room areas, as well as his bedroom. He would not only beat mom and the kids, he would smash dishes, glasses, anything breakable in sight; he'd even throw everything out of the refrigerator.
"He'd literally cover the floor with debris. I remember seeing so much broken crockery once it looked like an archeologists's dig. There was ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise splashed across the walls, cupboards, and floor like a paint bomb had gone off in there. "Afterwards he'd go upstairs to the bedroom-and force mom to go with him. It would take hours for us kids to clean up after his rages. He never helped-he'd just dump on us and leave.
"But he wouldn't stop raging. While we were cleaning the mess downstairs, he'd force mom to sit at his bedside upstairs while he continued to curse and complain to her about whatever had gotten his goat." Nate and Mark confirm the pastor's dish tantrums occurred regularly, usually once or twice a month. Sometimes there'd be several in one week.
"It established a life habit for me," says Mark. "Even today, the moment I get home, I'm thinking 'Is Daddy mad?' "Our walls were stained with food," he continues. "And my mom used to cry because she couldn't keep good dishes. My father would also bust holes in the walls and doors. If they were on the outside, he'd fix them quickly. On the inside, he'd leave them unrepaired for months.
"And, remember, whenever my father was beating us, or if he was tearing up a room, the violence might only last a few minutes, but he would keep up his tirade for hours on end. "I'm not exaggerating. My father would literally scream-not talk-scream-of-consciousness non-stop insults at us for hours. "His mouth was, for all the years I knew him, the most foul, vulgar, cursing mouth you've ever heard. There's nothing he wouldn't say, including cursing God openly. I watched him, one day, stand at the back of the church auditorium just outside the kitchen door, and literally jump up and down and scream curses at the top of his lungs, like a grown-up two year-old man." The content or nature of those tirades is instructive. If, in fact, Phelps did maintain this kind of vitriol for hours one end, it indicates an individual who is seriously clinically disturbed. Since one man's scandal might be another's vernacular, the Capital-Journal asked Mark and Nate for a sample of one of their father's marathon four-hour tirades. The following, if read in a loud and angry voice (not everyone can scream), will have a very different effect on one than if it is only scanned. It offers a sudden and shocking subjective experience of what it must be like inside the pastor's head-of the twisted rage and volcanic hate that must seethe in there-assuming the sample is accurate. Most functioning individuals are able to carry on the following Fauve impressionist vitriol for only a minute or so...Phelps reportedly maintained it for hours: Shitass, Goddam, tit-ass, piss-ass Goddam, ass-hole bastard, piece of shit, dick, son-of-a-bitch God forsaken filthy measly-assed piece of fucking shit Goddam horses ass. You're not worth shit. You're a no good, no account, God forsaken piss-assed little bastard. Get your ass in there and lean over that Goddam bed, you're going to get a licken. Bitch. Fucker. Prick, Fucker, Prick, Goddam fucker, Goddam prick, asshole, prick, prick, fucker, fucker, fucker, fucker, fuck you, you Goddam fucking piece of garbage. Go to hell. Fuck you. Go to hell. Prick. Fucker. GODDAMN YOU, you fucker. You worthless piece of shit. Goddam you, you worthless piece of shit of Goddam fucking shit. Fuck you. Go straight fucking to hell you Goddam fucking son-of-a-bitch. God Damn You! God Damn You!!! God Damn You!!! You Goddam asshole son-of-a- bitch. God Damn You! How dare you, you asshole bastard prick turd. You turd. You lying, mother fucking stinking piece of fucking shit. Fuck you, you lying sack of shit, you. Get the fuck out of my face. Go to hell. I hate you, you bastard. I hate you, you asshole. You Goddam prick asshole bastard, dick, piece of fucking rank stinking fucking garbage that's as full of shit as anyone could ever be. Get the hell out of here, you fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Go to fucking hell you bastard. Piss- ass. Horses ass. Goddam fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. FUCKER! FUCKER! FUCKER! Asshole. You bastard. You sick Goddam son-of-a- bitch. You worthless little bastard. You Goddam asshole prick bastard. God Damn It!! God Damn YOU!!! GOD DAMN YOU!!! Fuck you, you bastard. You're going to hell. You little Tit-ass. Shit-ass. Fucker Tit-ass. You little Shitass. Piss-ass little bastard. You Goddam little bastard, I'm going to teach you. Get the hell up there. Why did you do this to me? Say!! What's the big idea? What the hell do you think you're doing, bringing reproach on the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? I'm not going to put up with your sissified wimpy asshole ways. Shut up. God damn it. God damn it. God damn it. Keep those Goddam kids quiet. I'm not going to tell you again. What's the big idea making all of that Goddam racket? Say! Didn't I tell you to not make a fucking sound? You think you're so Goddam smart thinking for yourself, when I told you what the fuck I wanted. Keep those Goddam kids quiet or I'm going to beat the hell out of all of you, you bitch. You bastard. You bitch. Fuck you. Fuck you, God damn it. I'm going to beat the hell out of you; I warned you and now you're going to catch it. Where do you think you're going. Get the fuck back over here you son-of-a-bitch and take your beating like a man. Fucking asshole bastard son-of-a-bitch chicken shit piece of crap, no good little bastard. What the hell do you think you're doing, for Christ's sake? I'm not going to put up with you, do you understand me? Do you? I won't tolerate this bullshit. God Damn you!! I'll beat the living shit out of you. Watch it. I'm warning you. I warned you what I'd do. It's your own God Damn fault. I warned you, for Christ's sake. What's the big idea getting this family in trouble like this? I'll beat you until you can't stand up or sit down. God damn son-of-a-bitch, asshole. I told you what I'd do if you didn't get them Goddam grades up. You little prick. How do you like that? Does that hurt, does it? Goddam it, does it hurt? It better hurt. If it doesn't I'll make sure it hurts. Are you fucking crazy? Are you crazy? You must be insane. Jesus Christ, how many Goddam times am I going to have to beat you? When are you going to learn? Say! Say! Is that right? Is that right? When you are going to learn? You no account little bastard. In the old testament they used to take kids like you out and stone them to death. That's what you deserve. You ought to be taken out and stoned. At least parents in that time had some Goddam solution to a problem like you. That's what would cure you. You've been nothing but Goddam grief to your mother and I since the fucking day you were born. I wish you were dead. I hate you. Jesus Christ, I hate you. I can't stand you. I can't stand the sight of you. You're sniffing after some whore, for Christ's sake. You got your dick wet and now you've just gone crazy sniffing after that fucking whore. You hot blooded little bastard. Keep your Goddam pants on and keep your fucking dick inside. Horse piss, bullshit, balderdash, crap, lying bastard, son of belial, reprobate. ballamite, Goddam Horses Ass! God damn you God, you lying asshole letting them do this to me. God damn You God, how could you let them do this to me! What the hell do you think you're doing? God damn you God. You son-of-a-bitch. Hey you bitch, got any good words for me? You better say something or I'm going to kick the living shit out of you. Speak up. Say!!! What the hell good are you? Say, what the hell good are you? What the hell is on your Goddam mind? Speak the hell up. I'll slap the living shit out of you until you fucking can't see straight. You pussy whipped little bastard. You horse manure. Fuck you. Go to hell. You're going to hell. Go to hell. Shitass. Bastard. Bitch. Horses ass. God damn chicken shit bastard son-of-a-bitch little fucker, get the fuck out of my sight. You little chicken shit. You piece of garbage. You're God damn worthless. You'll never amount to a God damn thing. You're a loser and always will be. You go along fine for a while and then you do something like this to fuck it all up. You little asshole. You'll never amount to anything. You're a God damn loser. You'll end up in jail you God damn deadbeat. Shut your big dumb ape mouth, you look like some kind of fucking idiot with your big Goddam dumb mouth hanging open. I'll beat that foolishness out of you. Look at that foolishness leaving him, I can see it with every hit of this Goddam mattock. It does my heart good to hear those screams and see that foolishness leaving. What's the big idea doing that to me? Say! Why did you do this to me Say! Say! How could you treat me this way? How could you treat me this way you little bastard? What's the big idea? Say! I'm not going to put up with this kind of bullshit. You're going to get a beating. Lean over there Goddam it. You think I'm going to put up with you? You think I don't know how to deal with the likes of you, you God forsaken little bastard? We know how to deal with asshole kids like you. I'll beat you. I'll beat you like the Bible says to beat you and you won't die. Dammit woman, you know the Bible says that if you beat your child they won't die, so shut your Goddam mouth or I'll slap you. Do you want me to beat you fat ass? You Goddam hussy. You fat Goddam hussy. You'd think you could give me some Goddam fucking support instead of always fighting me and causing me all of this Goddam fucking grief. I'm not going to put up with your Goddam sassy mouth talking back to me or telling me what to do, you fucking bitch. I'm telling you; Goddam it; I'm warning you, I'm going to slap the hell of out of you; you're going to catch it if you don't shut your Goddam God forsaken mouth and back off. I'm not going to tell you again. The next time I'm going to turn my Goddam attention to you and you're going to be sorry. I'll cuff you around and give you a Goddam beating. Don't interfere with my beating of this Goddam bastard one more time. I want this fat off of that ass. I'm not going to put up with that fat ass. If you don't lose by tomorrow, you'll get another beating. I want that fat ass off of you, you fat bitch, you Goddam fat slut, do you get it, you think headed bitch?
"My sisters and brothers just stood around and shaked and farted and looked scared when dad was throwing a fit," brags Mark uncharacteristically. "but I learned how to control my fear by working with my hands and getting things done. "I used to stand in the back room of the house, which was called the dryer room, and fold clothes for hours upon hours. I learned to feel secure if I was getting something done that was bottom line."
The voice pauses. "Still, he'd wake us up at night with mom screaming from fear as he threw his fits. I'd come awake and lie there feeling afraid and upset. "I wasn't worried about being woken up, that he was upset, or even that he was hurting mom. I was worried about survival. About what could happen if it got worse. I was thinking about lying still in case he came in, so he wouldn't know I was awake. "Because, he was so crazy, we didn't know that someday he wouldn't kill us all." Back in those days, during the '60s, when Fred was in law school and then a young lawyer, the neighbors would often see Marge on the porch.
"She'd just be sitting out there, crying her heart out," remembers one former neighbor. "We all felt so sorry for her. But none of us ever went over there to comfort her. Her husband had us all intimidated." But if life with father was bad already-it was about to get worse. According to Mark, who was 10 when his father graduated, Fred Phelps became heavily dependent on amphetamines and barbituates while in law school. Every week for 6 years, from 1962-1967, their mother would give Mark a 20 dollar bill and ask him to go down and pick up his father's 'allergy medicine'. Mark always got the bottle of little red pills from 'the tall blond man' at the nearby pharmacy. He was told they were to 'help daddy wake up'.
He also picked up bottles of little yellow pills that were to 'help daddy get to sleep'. But the beast already so poorly penned within Fred now came out. Under the conflicting tug of speed that wouldn't wear off and the Darvon he'd taken to sleep, the Pastor Phelps would often wake his family in the middle of the night while doing his imitation of a whirling dervish whose shoes were tied together: "With all the drugs, he had very little body control," remembers Mark, "so we weren't really scared of him then. But he would fall and break the bed apart; get up and knock over all the bedroom furniture. "Mom would start screaming and call Freddy and me to help her get him under control and put the bed together.
"My dad's face would look totally stoned, and he couldn't focus his eyes. He couldn't walk in a straight line, and sometimes he couldn't even get up off the floor." Adds Nate: "Another time when he was stoned on drugs, my dad started going after my mom. She was yelling for help. My two older brothers, probably 12 and 13 at the time, went running upstairs and tried to force my dad back into his bedroom. He was ranting and raving like a lunatic. "They managed to get him inside his room and slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside. He started pounding on the door and screaming incoherently. "Finally, he actually broke the door down. That seemed to calm him a bit, and he fell back on the bed and passed out."
Without referring to his records, the pharmacist named by Mark immediately denied he had ever filled any kind of prescription for the Pastor Phelps-except once. Blessed with preternaturally accurate recall, the pharmacist claimed that, since 1962, he'd only filled one order for the pastor-a skin cream several years ago.
Questioned again later, the pharmacist admitted he'd been filling prescriptions written to Mrs. Phelps for decades. But he denied ever selling her amphetamines. According to Mark, the physician who wrote those prescriptions delivered all or most of the Phelps children, and was their family doctor when they were growing up. During the period in question, he at least twice reported his doctor bag stolen and its narcotics missing. The thieves were never caught. When this physician shot himself in a Topeka parking lot in 1979, he was under investigation for providing drugs illegally to his female patients in exchange for sexual favors. What kind of drugs?
Amphetamines. "There was fighting one night," Mark recalls. "In the middle of the night. Dad was stoned on drugs again. He shot the 12-gauge into a roll of insulation.
"It was probably a suicide attempt. Only my mom and he were in the bedroom, and it was during the middle of the night. "What I think happened was, he was so under the influence, he was so screwed up, and he was so mad that he was doing one of those things...you know...I'll show all of you...I'll just get rid of this whole problem by killing myself.
"And I think he just did it. I think he did it for the dramatics of it- of course, he missed. "After the incident, that roll of insulation sat in their bedroom for almost a year. "Our mom tried to keep things quiet and keep things contained," says Mark. "She acted as a mother to him as well as us. Having him in our family was like having a little 2 year-old in an adult's body-with an adult intellect. But it's a 2 year- old that can do whatever it wants, because there's no adult discipline, instruction, or correction involved. My father does not subject himself to accountability of any kind. "He didn't care about our mom, except for how she could meet his needs. He treated her like an animal.
"We had two dogs-Ahab and Jezebel. I used to throw rocks on top of their dog house and Ahab would viciously attack Jezebel. I thought it was funny. "That was the way my dad treated my mom. If anything would happen that my dad didn't like, he would beat on her, blame her, make her life miserable, and take it out on her-even if it was out of her control.
Mark remembers one morning when he was downstairs and heard a tremendous racket coming from their bedroom above. Furniture crashing. Fred screaming. Their mother begging him to stop. Then her screaming too. This went on for 20 minutes until finally his father stormed out. All quiet.
Mark stole up the stairs, afraid his father would come back. He peeked in. (At this point, Mark's voice breaks. It takes him a long time to describe this, speaking in short phrases, interrupted by long pauses to control his emotions.) The mattress was thrown from the bed. Sheets were ripped away. Drawers were flung out of the dresser, and the dresser kicked over. Lamps and tables, everything was smashed and strewn about the room.
"Mom?" he called. He couldn't see her. "Mom?" Mark heard a sob. Then a long, low agony moan. He walked stiffly into the mess. Picked his way across the floor. In the corner, behind an open closet door, he found his mother cowering. Her face in her hands as the sobs wracked her body, she told her frightened child over and over: "I can't take this anymore...I can't take this anymore...I can't take it...I don't know what I'm going to do..." For awhile she did nothing.
Mark remembers there were times when his mother would get out and go to the store, especially when his father was asleep: "She'd go to Butler's IGA. And after she'd go to the bowling alley and the little coffee shop there. Four or five times I saw her in there when she didn't know I did. It made me feel sad, because it was such a lonely thing to see her, sitting with that coffee and donut, and know it was her safe harbor, the only time she had alone. She looked so unhappy and despairing, sitting there staring at nothing, the coffee getting cold and the donut untouched." Then one winter Saturday afternoon when Mark was 9 years old, his mother called him over to her. She whispered: "I've had it. I can't take it. Would you get the children's clothes and load as much as you can in the trunk and the back seat?"
Mark packed the clothes in the old white Fairlane 4-door. When the pastor, luxuriating in his bed upstairs, fell asleep around 4 p.m., their mother came down softly. She had Mark gather the rest of the kids. "We're leaving," she told them. Somehow they all fit inside the car, the mother behind the wheel, and the 9 kids wherever they could find space.
"We looked ridiculous," admits Mark. "And I remember the toll-takers at the turnpike laughed at us. But I'll never forget that day...the feeling I got as we drove away from that house. "It was a cloudy day, and cold, but I remember feeling hopeful. Thinking we were headed to a new life. And it was going to be better than the one behind us."
Marge fled the good Pastor Phelps with her flock to Kansas City. She went to her sister Dorotha's apartment. Most of her original family hadn't seen Marge in 15 years, not since she'd left for school in Arizona. Dorotha's Profitt's husband drove a truck for a renderer, a business that collected dead animals for glue. Marge Phelps' sister no doubt gave her the bad news: driving for a rendering company didn't bring in enough to feed 10 extra mouths; and the apartment couldn't possibly hold them all; she couldn't stay there... In fact, there was no place for a pregnant woman with 9 children to run except back to the man who beat her, but paid the bills. Mark remembers his mother stoically dialing the number for the Westboro church. Silently, the children crawled back into their niches among the clothes-filled car. When they arrived home that night, the pastor was waiting for them. His son recalls he had arms folded and he was smiling. It was a cold leer that Mark will never forget: "It was smug, it was cruel; and it said, 'there is no escape'."
5. The Children's Crusade
The pastor's heavy drug use continued from 1962 until late 1967 or early 1968, according to Mark Phelps. Confined to itself and tormented by an increasingly explosive, abusive, and erratic father, the family hung on day-to-day. Finally, Fred's system could no longer withstand being wrenched up by reds in the morning and jerked down by barbituates at night. One day, he didn't wake up. Mark remembers seeing the long, gray ambulance in the driveway. His father had slipped into a coma from toxic drug abuse. Fred Phelps remained in the hospital for a week, while Mrs. Phelps told the children he had suffered an adverse reaction to an 'allergy medicine'.
When he emerged, Phelps was drug-free and powerfully resolved to regain control of his body. If it was the temple to his soul, he had neglected it. With an astounding strength of will, he immediately plunged into a water-only fast, dropping from 265 to 135 in 47 days. During the fast, "he looked like a scarecrow," says Mark. "He stalked about the house with a scarf around his head, clutching a bible to his chest." But the Pastor Phelps broke his addiction and never relapsed. To keep his weight down, he turned first to health foods and then to running. Emaciated at 135, Phelps today is a trim 185 on a 6'3" frame. One day, after he had been running for some time, the pastor read about the new science of aerobics on the back of a Wheaties box and decided the entire family should join him. Fred loaded the ten oldest children in the station wagon, drove them to the Topeka High track, and, not unlike Fred's Foreign Legion, ordered them to march or die. Actually, they were told to run or get beaten. Their ages when this concurred were 5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 16. Of the three youngest, two were little girls. They were forced to run five miles a day-sun, rain, or snow-and then the pastor upped it to ten. By the summer of 1970 a year later, Phelps decided they were ready for the marathon. Every weeknight the 10 children, now aged 6 through 17, ran 10 miles around the track. On Saturdays they ran a marathon. Only on Sundays were they allowed to rest. "We'd run from the courthouse in Topeka, down Highway 40 to the courthouse in Lawrence," says Mark. "Or from Topeka to Valley Falls or St. Mary's. My mom would follow with the three toddlers in the station wagon, going up to the lead, and coming back to the stragglers." According to Mark, that lead runner was usually him, with the pastor a distant second. "I was the ultimate yes-man all the time I was growing up," he confides, "but not that. I decided every time we ran I was going to beat him-do it bad." And run he did. Mark reports that, by the time the family entered the Heart of America marathon in Columbia, Missouri, he was climbing off his daily 10-mile training runs in 60 minutes. He placed 17th overall in the Columbia race. He was only 16 years old. Tim, the six year-old who'd turned seven a few weeks before the race, finished last behind his father and nine siblings. It took him seven hours to complete the course. "It's one of the more difficult runs in the U.S.," observes Mark Thomas, owner of Tri-Tech Sports in Lenexa, Kansas. He has spent over 20 years as an athlete and sports consultant. On his staff are current and former members of the U.S. National Biathlon and Triathlon Teams.
He remembers the 1970 Heart of America race. A runner's club he had organized in Sedalia, Missouri competed there. "I remember several in our group came back disgusted as what they had seen. Apparently some of the smaller Phelps children had told them they weren't running voluntarily." In general, says Mark Thomas, experts don't recommend running marathons under age 16. (Prominent sports physicians contacted by the Capital-Journal concur, but they declined to be named in an article on Fred Phelps.) "It's just not a wise idea, especially for a six year-old," continues Thomas. "Even without medical advice, common sense and a minimum of parental concern is all you need to see the stupidity of that,"
Among the potential negatives reviewed were soft tissue damage; developmental problems in the knee joints; high vulnerability to fatal heat stroke; and hitting the 'wall' (running out of glycogen) long before the adult limit at 20 miles. The last is important, advise sports doctors. A small child forced to run through the physical agony of their 'wall' can be emotionally damaged by the experience. To put it simply, forcing six, seven, and eight year-old children to run 26 miles is nothing short of brutally abusive. However, Runner's World found the running Phelps newsworthy, not once-but twice. They were featured in an article about the Columbia marathon in the November, 1970 issue, and again in November, 1988. Though Pastor Phelps had given up speed and downers, ate healthy, and ran daily, the radical mood swings, rages, and aggression remained "One day my father and I were running down at the track inside the YMCA. There was an old blind man who always jogged on the inside lane because he could feel the edge of the track with his cane. "My father was in a sour mood that day, and the old man was weaving a bit as he worked his way around the track with his stick to guide him. My father began to threaten him each time he lapped him, telling the blind jogger if he didn't stay out of my father's way, my father would knock him out of the way. "Finally, the old man started crying. He left the track and stood there crying-I guess what were tears of frustration-and then he left. "I never saw him back there again."
Phelps was also a poor loser, according to his sons. Sometimes Mark and the pastor would go on long runs around the town. They started to race on the home-stretch once, and Mark beat him back by several blocks. At first his father took it with grace, says Mark, observing his son 'has really shifted gears and left him behind'. Minutes later however, when were standing in the kitchen, each with a large glass of icewater, suddenly the elder Phelps flung his hard fist into his son's face. And stalked out.
If his body was healthy, Pastor Phelps had yet to achieve wealthy and wise. More trouble was ahead for him-money trouble. According to Mark, in 1968 their finances were still very tight, even though Fred had passed the bar. The son remembers his mother opening the mail one day and showing him a $100 check. "It's all we have for a month," she told him, and she started crying.
Later, the pastor was melting some World's Finest Chocolate to make chocolate milk. In the midst of stirring it, he suggested someone should take the rest of the candy and see if they couldn't sell it around the neighborhood. Mark jumped at the chance "I watched my mom cry and cry when the checking and savings accounts were empty. I watched her cry when the mail box didn't have a check in it because dad hadn't worked in so long. "So I worked. I worked so my dad would like me. I worked so mom would love me. I worked so dad wouldn't beat me. I worked so I would feel like I was on the team. I worked when dad was throwing his rages. I worked when I saw mom crying. I worked because mom said, 'you're my good little helper, and I need you to do this because I have to be with him'. I worked because mom would cozy up to me and ask me to work, like a confidant and partner would ask another close partner to stand with them to get through a tough circumstance. But it was never enough." Not long after, Fred Phelps was suspended from the bar two years for cheating and exploiting his clients. During that period, the candy sales would be the family's only source of income.
The Phelps children were up to the challenge "Basically, we had to raise ourselves," says Mark. "It would have been a lot easier if we'd just been left alone to do our own parenting, but we also had to look out for a crazy father. I mentioned Fred Jr. and I began doing all the grocery shopping when we were only six and seven years-old? And the kids did all the household chores? So, working for a living we just took in stride with the rest of our adult responsibilities."
During the school year, Mrs. Phelps would pick the children up after class and take them directly to that day's targeted area. The vertically challenged sales staff would then divide into teams of two or three for safety, canvassing neighborhood homes and businesses. Every hour, they would rendezvous back at the LZ for resupply from mom at the station wagon. Workshifts on weeknights went from 3 30 to 8 p.m. On weekends and during the summer, the candykrieg blitzed major metropoles within a 4-hour drive of Topeka Kansas City, Lawrence, Wichita, Omaha, and St. Joseph. Hours, including wake-up, preparations, and transport, stretched from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. "There were a lot of times when we would be out there well after dark, and snow was on the ground," says Nate. The Phelps family selling candy door-to-door at night and in the snow attracted the attention of Topeka police, who received occasional queries about the welfare of the children, a law enforcement source recalls. But detectives found no violation of the law, and no charges were ever filed. "We sold candy, and we sold candy," observes Mark.
"It was an art," agrees Nate. Family loyalists Margie, Jonathon, and Shirley are quick to defend their memories. Public sales taught them a lot about the world outside their church, they insist. And they learned a good deal about human nature, adds Margie. Today, the Phelps children are full of stories about their adventures on candy crusade.
Jonathon and Rachel tell of selling in a bad part of Kansas City one night and realizing the women on the sidewalks around them were actually men. The boy is father to the man, and Jonathon immediately held forth with the latest 'fag' joke making the rounds at his junior high. One transvestite pulled a switchblade and gave chase. Jonathon grabbed little Rachel (age 8) and, clutching their boxes under their arms, they fled down an alley pursued by the man in high heels.
Jonathon, say Shirley and Margie, laughing till tears come to their eyes, can still remember the sound of the candy rattling inside his boxes and the click of high heels on pavement behind him. The end of the tale? It was a blind alley. Jonathon Phelps got 'bitch-slapped' by a guy in a dress to teach him a lesson, chokes Margie. Many of the stories center around Tim, the youngest Phelps son-the tough little kid who spent his sixth year training for the marathon. According to the Phelps sisters, 9 year-old Tim was slightly built, with red hair, a freckled face, and big blue eyes. But he had a booming voice that belied his frail size and innocent appearance. "He sold the most candy, by far," says Margie. "He did it on cute." Once, giving his carnival pitch in his King Kong voice on a crowded elevator at the Merchants' Bank in Topeka, Tim overwhelmed a modeling scout who happened to be riding down with him. The scout got him a job in a television ad for Payless Shoes. On another occasion, the host of a radio show in Wichita heard Tim hawking his Coco Clusters one night, and invited the lad to open the show. So Tim did, bellowing out "It's Diiiiiiick Riiiiiiipy!" The owner of a restaurant in North Topeka felt sorry for Tim, his sisters report. Whenever Tim went there, the man always bought all of his candy, then gave him a coke and let him sit at a table to rest his feet and daydream. One night when he was doing just that, Tim overhead a diner speaking ill of his father. Up popped the little boy, gripping his ice-cold glass. Determinedly, he marched over the offending table and flung the Coke in the surprised man's face. If the diner was outraged, he was in for another surprise the restaurant's owner kicked him out and let Tim stay.
"During those years," Margie observes, "we learned more about dealing with people than most learn during their entire lifetime." While Mark and Nate also have funny stories to tell from their time on the candyblitz, according to them, the Phelps' sisters are selective in their recollections.
At first, say the brothers outcast, their father asked them to sell on commission. "That didn't last very long," adds Mark. "One night we came home and he said he'd changed his mind-he wanted us to hand over our share. We kids were reluctant at first. We'd worked hard for it and now he was going back on his word. Then he went into a rage and-believe me-we turned it over real quick." From there, things went from bad to worse. The former door-to-door vendor of baby carriages and vacuum cleaners knew about sales quotas and target volumes. "If we sold enough candy that day, my fatherwould be in a good mood that evening and everyone could relax. But if we came back not having generated the amount expected, my father would take it and then get real moody. Sooner or later, he'd find something to get mad about and one of us would get a beating that night." Mark goes on to explain how he became the 'bull' in charge of motivation in the field. If one of his siblings hadn't sold their share of the candy, in the car on the way home suffered the 'chin- chin'. The offender, sitting in back, had to lean forward and rest their chin on the front seat. Mark, sitting in front, would then slug them in the face. The laggard peddler was called to justice by the harsh command (So-and-so) Chin-chin! "We never celebrated the holidays." Mark's voice is sad with memory. "We sold candy instead. You know the only Christmas cheer I ever saw as a kid? Sometimes I'd ring the bell and there'd be a big gathering inside for Christmas dinner and they'd invite me in and give me pie or a plate of food. I'd sit there and eat and watch everyone and wish it were my family and that I never had to leave." Sources connected to law enforcement assure the Capital- Journal that Margie's glowing memories of the candy campaign are indeed selective. Because of the mounting pressure from their father to return with larger cash sums, the children allegedly began to steal from purses and unwatched registers in the offices and businesses they frequented to sell their sweets. In many of the cases, complaints were filed with statements from eyewitnesses. Nate Phelps admits he was one of the thieves. He seems ashamed, though he never spent the money on himself-although in a way he did When the day's take was disappointing, it was often Nate who drew the black ball in the pastor's secret lottery for violent retribution. Among police sources, another Phelps child is remembered as having the hottest hands. That child was allegedly connected to purse pilfering in a legion of stores. On one occasion, the culprit was questioned by juvenile officers concerning cash theft from the old historical museum on 10th and Jackson in Topeka. Allegedly the child then confessed to a string of similar crimes. Charges were never filed, say law enforcement sources, not even in the museum case. Apparently no one in the D.A.'s office wanted to tangle with Fred Phelps or his children unless the crime was serious and the evidence airtight.
But if the Westboro Baptist Church's gang of urchin vendors is remembered for anything by law enforcement officials, it is their alleged raid on the general offices of the Santa Fe Railroad. There, on three separate floors, witnesses observed one child allegedly distracting employees while other Phelps children allegedly rifled those employees' purses. Nate Phelps states he knew nothing about that caper.
According to sources, the reports of theft grew so numerous that Topeka police suspected the Pastor Phelps of running a 'Fagin operation' (from the character of that name in the film "Oliver" an older man provides food and shelter to a horde of orphans and street urchins in return for their working as pickpockets).
Both Nate and Mark Phelps insist this was not the case. The stealing was strictly the kids' idea, they say. But it was usually done to top off the kitty so they wouldn't get beaten. "My family sold candy from 1968 until 1975," says Nate, "and some of those places we'd gone into a hundred times. By then, everyone knew the candy sale was a scam. But, even if I'd been told 'no' a hundred times, I still had to go back eventually for the 101st. And, if they said 'no', I still had to bring home cash to show my dad. So..." In the evenings, reports the boys, if their father didn't fall into a rage and select one of his children out for a beating, then he usually remained upstairs in bed-and demanded his wife stay with him. Whether it was to listen to his tirades or 'comfort' him (Fred's biblical euphemism for, one trusts, the missionary position exclusively), the result was the children were left nightly to their own resources.
Since most of them were unable to care for themselves, and Mrs. Phelps no longer tied the younger ones in their high chairs while she was gone, the older kids had their hands full downstairs. "Just trying to control the younger ones, and get them down for the night without any noise to piss the old man off was task," says Nate.
As a consequence, the house was frequently left uncleaned. Then, in the middle of the night, the Pastor Phelps would "wake us screaming and cursing and raging," says Mark, "hollering we had all gone to bed without properly cleaning everything. He would have us do a thorough cleaning of the house then, between 2 30 and 4 00 a.m. While that was going on, he would come up behind and kick us, push us into walls, hit us with hand and fist on the head, beat us.
"He would make us vacuum around the edges and cracks, wash dishes, etc. I would get up shaking physically from the sudden awakening, and from getting out of bed so quickly in such a frightening situation. "I would be real scared and try to work hard and fast, so he wouldn't do any more than he'd already done. I'd try to appease him quickly so he'd calm down and stop his violence.
"It's weird how you can feel secure in a situation like that. I'd work hard to get warm, and the concentration and physical work would help me get through the fear and back to a point where I felt relief from the intense anxiety and shaking." Mark continues "My father would usually quiet down before the cleaning was done. He'd go back to doing what he wanted watching television and eating in bed. It was such a relief when he'd gone back upstairs, that a lot of my siblings would knock off and stop working. "I was too mad and upset to do that. I would keep working a lot longer. I was real mad, and I was going to work and work and work until he apologized, or at least until I showed him that I could take whatever he did to me."
Even after a night like that, reveille was always at 5 a.m. in the Phelps household, adds Mark. "He'd take his big brass bell and go through the house ringing it with a great big grin on his face." Five a.m. brought more chores and errands before going off to school, say the boys. After class their mom would pick them up for candy sales until 8 p.m. As soon as they got home, they'd have to change into their running clothes, drive to the Topeka High track, and stride out 10 miles.
The runner would not return home and clean up before 10 or 10 30. After that came dinner. "Our family never ate together," says Nate. "Mom or one of our sisters usually made something and left it on the stove for people to eat when they got the chance."
Sometime after dinner and before they fell asleep, the children were expected to cover their homework. Trying to stay awake for that, after having run 10 miles, humped over suburban hill and dale selling peanut brittle, and spent a day at school, was frequently physically impossible. Yet, if they brought home bad grades, they were beaten and savage abandon.
In addition, it was usually during the homework period from 10 30 to 1 a.m. that their father would go on a rampage, or their mom would be called up to him and leave the babies with the older kids. With this as their daily schedule, Fred Phelps allowed his young family an average of only four to six hours of sleep each night. "In general, he was happy to keep us busy or gone," observes Nate.
Mark agrees "My father could tolerate no human needs outside his own. If you had a problem, it was not appropriate to turn to a parent for comfort, advice, or a solution. He would get outraged whenever one of us had some difficulty that focused attention off himself. To have a problem was to get a beating, regardless of what kind of a problem it was, or even if it wasn't your fault.
And if it was? Mark takes a deep breath. He recalls one time very clearly when he drew attention to himself. "One night, Nate and I were out selling candy together. We were in a residential area, and while we were selling, we'd unscrew a tiny Christmas light from the evergreens outside people's houses. One of those tiny bulbs on a string? "We were only doing it occasionally for kicks. We'd 'launch' them over the street and listen to them pop on the pavement. We didn't think anything about it. Nate was 10 and I was 14. "Well, I remember very clearly when we got home. I walked into the dining room where the bottom of the stairs were, going up to his bedroom. He was coming down those stairs just as I came in. "Mainly I remember the look on his face. He said, 'Who was selling on Prairie Road tonight?' "It took me a few seconds to register that, first of all, he was really angry, and secondly, it was Nate and me who had been selling on Prairie Road that night. I got sick to my stomach immediately. I remember the intense fear that came over me. I didn't know much yet, but between the look on his face and the questions, I knew something was wrong." Nate Phelps "Nobody answered. He asked again. By that time, Mom had come in. Her face was white. She said, 'Why?'" Mark Phelps "He said, 'I got a call from some guy who told me that there were two boys that had come by his house tonight, and that he was a retired police detective. Was this the church that the boys were selling candy for. I told them it was, and asked why. He told me that, he was sorry to have to report it, but that I should know the boys were stealing light bulbs from Christmas trees and then trying to sell them door-to-door. Who was it?' (The truth was, we were at the time also selling 'Paul Revere' light bulbs that had a lifetime guarantee). Before I could say a word, someone told him that it was Nate and I. He said, 'Let's go.'"
Mark Phelps "We went upstairs. He never asked me or Nate one word about whether it was true. He never asked us for our side of the story. All he said, after we got upstairs was, 'How could you endanger the church like that, after all the problems we have? How could you do it, bring reproach on the church like that?'" Nate Phelps "By that time, I was so scared, all I can remember saying was, 'I'm sorry, Daddy. We didn't mean it. We're so sorry'." What followed was the brutal, 200- stroke beating with the mattock handle described at the beginning of Chapter Two. Nate proceeds to describe more of life in the house of Fagin. His father would pass through periods of manic, frenetic activity and bombast, then spend days in bed, watching television and eating as he had in his days of obesity. Despite their full schedules of school, running, and child labor, the pastor had yet one more task for his offspring during his days abed he kept a bell on his headboard to ring for service. "For food, or drink, or Mom, or even the tiniest thing," remembers Nate.
"He just wouldn't get out of bed. And we'd all try to avoid going up there. Eventually, he'd get really mad and ring and ring and one of us would have to go. It would usually turn out he wanted a glass of water or something like that-only a few steps away." It would seem to be reminiscent of their father's Jabba-the-Hut days, when the fat pastor sent his eight and nine year-old sons out, four miles round-trip on their bicycles, to fetch him a chicken dinner or a piece of hot apple pie while he wallowed in bed-except Fred Phelps no longer ate those kind of things with a newly experimental palate, he was in hot pursuit of his fading youth. His eye on Methuselah, he was searching out new foods that, paradoxically, might postpone his assured arrival among the elect in the heaven of his hating god. If the children living in the house of Fagin already performed the functions of domestic servants, financial underwriters, and kickbags, now they also had to endure the role of lab rats for Fred's eccentric diets a-la-Ponce-de-Leon. Returning from their 10-mile runs after 10 p.m. each night, not having eaten since noon lunch at school and having paced the pavements for five hours selling candy, the starving children of the earnest Pastor Phelps frequently faced such enticing entrees and one-half head of steamed cabbage and a handful of brewer's yeast tablets. Nate remembers
"He'd read a book and one month we'd get nothing but raw eggs in a glass twice a day. Then he'd read another book and we weren't to eat eggs, period." Nate has a different perspective on Margie's charming tale about the curds and whey
"My father would buy a sack of powered milk and mix it with water in a five gallon stainless steel pot. Then he'd leave it uncovered for a week beneath the stairs. After it smelled enough to make you throw up, he'd skim the curds off the top and make us eat it in bowls. It smelled so horrible, some of the kids would have to go in the bathroom and vomit." Given the massive caloric cost of being teenagers, walking a sales route, and running 10 miles each day, it's no surprise the Phelps children turned to the nearest, richest source of calories to satisfy their needs the candy they carried at work and which was stored in their very bedrooms. For a period of about six years, the brothers report, the sweets they sold were also the principal element in their diet. So principal, that some of the children began to gain weight. This visible development, particularly in Nate and his sister, Katherine, caused the pastor great upset, says Nate. First, after his own successful battle against obesity, Fred Phelps had little patience for it elsewhere in the family; second, the Captain suspected some of the crew might be eating the strawberries. Jonathon Phelps admits he was of them "You don't muzzle the oxen when you want them to tread the grain," he remembers with a laugh. It is difficult to imagine anyone who runs 10 miles a day becoming obese. In fact, Nate reports that, at the time his father imposed his Nazi Weight Loss program, the teenager was 5'10" and 185. Not leathery and lean, but not worthy of comment on a large-boned male. But to the pastor Phelps, that extra thickness on his son meant thinner profits from the children's crusade. So, in what, for those who didn't have to endure it, may begin to read like a Marx Brothers script, Fred Phelps took steps. He designed a weight-loss regimen for Nate and Kathy. "We were required to weigh ourselves in front of him each night," says Nate. "On his doctor's scales sitting outside his bedroom. If we didn't weigh less than we had the day before, we got beat." Sometimes the two were beaten every night of the week with the mattock.
"I'd eat lunch," Nate says, "but I'd throw up before going home. Or take Ex-Lax. So would Kathy. His expectations were impossible, so we learned to manipulate the scales. "We'd place a small piece of tape with several metal nuts attached in the palm of our hand. As we stepped onto the scales, we'd stick the tape to the backside of the balance beam. This would show our weight to be lower than it actually was. "Unfortunately, one day the tape wouldn't stick properly and fell down. The old man didn't see it fall, but he did see that my weight was eight pounds higher than expected. "'You've been eatin' my goddamed candy again!' he yelled.
"This led to an 10 hour ordeal of beatings, followed by marathon running sessions, followed by more beatings, followed by running. "The net result was that, at the end of the day, I'd lost 14 pounds and seriously injured my hip. The irony is that, since that weight loss was all fluid dehydration, when I replaced the fluids, I regained the weight. But I didn't know that, and neither did my father."
The next day, when Nate had mysteriously shot up 14 pounds, the vexed pastor fell into the frustrated fury reserved for benighted reformers, and son Nate got beaten once more. The incident manifests Pastor Phelps' trademark career combination of ignorance and violence. Afterwards, the teenager was literally forbidden to eat until he lost those extra pounds. Breakfast, Nate never got after that. And when the family lined up for the food cooked in the great pots, Nate wasn't allowed to eat with them. If the menu called for cabbage, curds, or liver pills, his siblings would envy him. But if Fred relented, and something tasty awaited the hungry children-chicken spaghetti, or stew- Nate was never given any.
Today, the man is philosophical about the trials of the boy "I'd just sneak food from the fridge later, or eat candy from the boxes," he observes. Incredibly, this father-enforced fast went on for five years. All the while, Nate's weight continued the same, and the pastor continued to accuse him of eating candy.
"Well...duh!" laughs Nate today. "If, after five years, I was still alive, I must have been eating something, right?" On his daughter, Kathy, the good pastor imposed an even harsher solution she was locked in her room for the biblical 40 days, given only water to drink, and allowed exit only to the bathroom.
Kathy is the oldest daughter and the third-oldest child. She shared a bedroom with Shirley and Margie, the fourth and fifth of the Phelps kids. All three were close at the time. Both Nate and Mark remember that either Margie or Shirley once smuggled Kathy a glass of tomato juice. Fred caught his eldest daughter with it after she'd taken it to her room.
When Kathy refused to tell who'd given her the tomato juice, the boys report their father yelled and swore and beat her for nearly two hours. They remark it was one of the worst beatings she ever received. It was delivered by both fist and mattock handle to what was, literally, a starving teenage girl. Even Mrs. Phelps was not immune to the weight- watcher from hell.
"He got mad at her once. Said she was getting too fat," remembers Mark. "Right in front of me, he beat her with the mattock. I mean...it was a real...real degrading, humiliating kind of experience to watch your mother treated like that." Fred Phelps wears a bullet-proof vest to all his pickets yet his new-found notoriety may not hit him in the chest, as he fears.
No, if fame hath its costs, the pastor may need a padlock for his checkbook, for ancient creditors do stir. The man who stands so self- righteously on streetcorners daily, denouncing the sins of others, it seems forgot to pay for a lot of candy. When sued for payment by his suppliers, the spiritual leader of the Westboro Baptist Church claimed under oath that the candy received was broken, stale, and melted; consequently, it was unsuitable for sale. The fact that his children had already sold it was considered a testimony to their upbringing. However, since it had been sold and there was none to return, the court decided the pastor should pay for the 'melted' candy, irrespective of whether Topekans in the gallery were eating peanut brittle or peanut puddles. Joe Sanders, of the Money Tree Candy Co., in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to whom alone Fred still owes $20,000, including simple interest, has retained a lawyer to resuscitate the debt. "Back in '72, we got a court lien, but we could never find his account," Sanders explains.
Mr. Sanders may find Mark and Nate Phelps willing to testify how their father coached them perjury, suggesting the impressionable teenagers state under oath that the candy, which was fresh and good, was in fact stale and melted. This litany of greed is not yet done.
After two years of the candy sales, the house of Fagin diversified. A notice was placed in the paper asking for pianos to be donated to an unspecified church. Another notice was placed in the sales' column, advertising pianos. According to Mark and Nate, this arrangement flourished from 1971 through 1972, until someone in the Attorney General's office connected the two ads. Fred was ordered to stop. And did.
"But we moved a lot of pianos before then. And we made 150 to 200 bucks each from them," says Mark. Also, starting in 1970, for three summers, Mark and his older brother, Fred, Jr., were cut loose from the candy sales to run a new Phelps enterprise, a lawn care/trash hauling general clean-up business. Mark describes it
"At age 16, I had a pick-up and my brother had a pick-up, and we had three lawn mowers. My dad paid for these items from our work selling candy. "He was dispatcher and the scheduler. We were the ones that did the work. He arranged things so tightly, we just plain worked our butts off from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"He'd rush us out before dawn, no showers, no breakfast, and we'd be out to the dump to empty our trucks and begin our first job. "He wouldn't budget us money, nor schedule us time for lunch. My dad had me so intimidated, I would have gone along with it, but Fred Jr. usually said otherwise. He'd insist we take time and dollars to go to McDonald's. Then I'd have to overbid the next job, and we'd have to finish early so our dad wouldn't catch us."
The children's candy crusade at Westboro Baptist carried on for seven years, from 1968 to 1975. Its stated purpose was to raise money for a new organ in the church. The one finally purchased had two keyboards and nine to twelve foot pedals, say Mark, who, along with Fred, Jr., played it at church services. "It was a Baldwin."
The equivalent organ today sells for around $4,000, far more than it did 20 years ago. During the later years of the fundraising campaign, Pastor Phelps claimed the church needed the money for a new carpet. At, say, 100 square yards, it would cost $3,000 to lay a moderately priced carpet in the present church, far more again than in 1973.
The target goal of the fundraising could then be safely placed at $7,000. Mark and Nate Phelps have submitted their estimates of the daily cash flow volumes during the candy sales from 1968-1975. These are not wild guesses, as Mark was the accountant for the operation he collected the money and counted it at the end of each day.
Candy that was sold to our best recollections estimated dollars
half the year, 1968 $22,710
The entire year, 1969$45,420
Half the year, 1975 $22,710
Estimated total dollars from candy sales:$317,940.
We estimate the average dollar amount sold for the specified days:
Weeknights during the school year $75/night
Saturdays during school year $300/Saturday
Six days a week during the summer $220/day
Based on this, you can follow the figuring below:
Nine months of the school year, approximately would be:
Five week night x $75/night = $375
Total per week $675$
675 x 36 weeks, approximately $24,300
Three months of summer months, approximately would be:
$220 x six days = $1,320 per week
$1320 x 16 weeks = $21,120
$24,300+$21,120 = $45,420/year
As one can see, $318,000 does significantly overshoot the stated goal's estimated cost of $7,000. Which leaves $311,000 unaccounted for, plus the income from the piano sales.
The candy was marked up 100 to 200 percent from the suppliers' price. Assuming an average 150 percent markup, $191,000 went to the Phelpses and $127,000 to their suppliers. But a cursory search of local court records for the years 1971 to 1974 alone turned up almost $11,000 in unpaid debt to three separate candy companies.
According to Joe Sanders at the Money Tree Candy Co., the Pastor Phelps placed an order with them in 1971. The company first sent him only a small order to determine if he was trustworthy. When they received payment, they were happy to fill a much larger order, one amounting to thousands of dollars. They never got their money.
Sanders believes the Pastor Phelps may have been running a scam where he paid for the first order and stiffed the suppliers on a much larger second one. "There were so many candy distributors back then, it would have taken him years to work through the list," observes Sanders. Most of those suppliers have long since gone out of business. Their records disappeared with them. But, if a cursory local spot check can show that almost 10 percent of Fred Phelps' debt to his suppliers went unpaid, the inquiring mind might ask how many other companies never went to court, but accepted partial payment or wrote it off as a bad debt. Assuming the boys' estimates upon which these figures are based are correct-and that as equal a portion of unpaid debts were written off as went to court-a very rough guess of the income off candy sales for the seven years, 1968-1975, would be $210,000-or $30,000 a year. Twenty-five years ago, that was nearly three times the annual salary of the average Topekan. Some organ. Some rug.
What happened to the rest? "It's obvious isn't it? says Nate. "We used it to live on." In fact, Pastor Phelps defrauded his community of over $200,000 earmarked for a non-profit religious enterprise. It was instead consumed as personal income without paying a single rusty penny in taxes.
While a church must originally file an exemption from income tax as a non-profit organization, separation of church and state mean that, unlike other non-profit groups, a church is not required to file the annual form 990-a yearly accounting of its cash income and outlay. Nevertheless, a church is required to keep books and records and be able to demonstrate to IRS auditors that all income has been properly outlaid.
The burden of proof lies on the church audited. When Westboro Baptist was incorporated in May of 1967, ominously close to the start of the candy crusade, the church was to be used for religious purposes only- including weekly public services, public prayers, singing of gospel songs and hymns, receiving of tithes and offerings, and observance of baptism and communion. 'Receiving of tithes and offerings' might well have meant legal fees in the pastor's mind. For 11 years, his law offices were located in the building on which he paid no taxes because it was a church. So, too, was his domicile: In 1960, the Eastside Baptist Church, holder of the original lien on the property at Westboro, attempted to foreclose and evict Phelps. The cause, as discussed in Chapter Four, was his altering the function of the property from a public congregation to a private residence. Indeed, with only a few exceptions, since 1958, the 'congregation' at Westboro has been just the Phelps family. The benefits of calling one's own family a church?
First, one can go into fundraising for oneself instead of gainful employment. Each of us can at last be our own favorite charity. Second, banco to those pasty property taxes. Third, if one owns a business, they can operate it from within their church at a fraction of the honest overhead.
To an observer, it seems remarkable that someone who has paid no personal, property, or corporate taxes for a profitable operation-a.k.a. "religion"-would have the inaccuracy to lecture his community ad nauseam about its misuse of taxes. Mark Phelps estimates the summer lawn and hauling enterprise of 1970, 1971, and 1972 netted between eight to ten thousand a season. Since it was turned over to their father, no doubt it was declared by him as taxable personal income for those years. After the pastor was reinstated to the bar in 1971, the older children were required to put in long hours assisting at the law office. By 1975 and the end of the candy sales, they were coming out of law school, ready to take their place in the trenches against the Adamic race, and willing to underwrite their dad's fantasies with an estimated 10 to 25 percent tithe on their personal incomes. The final irony of all this? In the actual Children's Crusade of 1212, fervent Christian children from all over France were inspired to free Jerusalem from the Moslems. Over 20,000 youths, most of them between the ages of seven and twelve, marched across France to the port of Marseille, where they hoped the pope would provide them ships to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the ship captains were mostly pirates. When the fleet sailed, it wasn't to Jerusalem, but to the slave ports of North Africa. A generation of child idealists were sold into chains and never heard from again. Of course, the pirates probably weren't ever heard from either. Certainly they never became moral commentators or social reformers. But, back then, pirates had more grace and self-knowledge. That is, if Gilbert and Sullivan can be trusted.
6. The Law of Wrath
Nowhere was the volatile and abusive nature of Fred Phelps more visible than in the law courts. Six years before the bar, the ill-tempered reverend had already discovered the law was a perfect mattock-handle to punish the world outside his walls. Between 1958 and 1964, Phelps filed 14 lawsuits against his employers, his customers, Leaford Cavin (the Baptist minister who'd given him his new church), the radio station TOP (Phelps had paid to broadcast for 15 minutes each Sunday morning, but then had his show terminated as too inflammatory), Stauffer Communications, former friends, and public officials. In addition, according to a local attorney who recalls those early days when Fred sold baby carriages and cribs door-to-door, Phelps flooded the equivalent of the small claims courts with requests to garnish the wages of young couples who'd missed their payments-however briefly.
In one case, Fred Phelps vs. Rattus Lewis, which reached the District Court in 1961, Phelps was accused by Lewis and his wife of tricking them with lies: when they thought they were signing a note vouching for the good credit of another couple, they were actually buying a baby-stroller for a baby they didn't have. The Laces were an uneducated black couple.
Phelps was just entering law school seeking, in his words, "to relieve the oppressed" and to achieve social justice via the courtroom-or what he called "the judicial remedy". There seemed, even then, no limit to the pastor's greed and no grasp of decency in his actions: "I remember we were amazed," one member of the court recalls, "that anyone who hadn't been to law school could be so robustly treacherous." One of those must have been Judge Beryl Johnson, who threw more than one of Fred's cases out of court. And, apparently, the judge would remember the pastor's avarice and utter lack of ethics. To be admitted to the bar, Phelps needed a judge to swear to his good character. The process is usually routine. Not for Fred. No judge was willing to do that. Phelps claims it was the same Beryl Johnson, now deceased, who lobbied the other judges not to sign the young graduate off. Eventually, the pastor was able to gain entry after providing numerous affidavits from other character witnesses.
Phelps is still bitter about that today. He claims 'they' were closing ranks against his Bible message and against his stated intent to use the courtroom to attack social injustice. In a 1983 interview with the Wichita Eagle- Beacon, Fred defined the 'they' who tried to keep him from the bar as "the leading lights of the Jim Crow Topeka community...the presidents of the First National Bank, Merchants National Bank, Capitol Federal Savings and Loan, and the Kansas Power and Light Company..."
The pastor states that, though 'they' tried to stop him, he knew what he had to do: "I was raised in Mississippi. I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated," he says. He also accuses Lou Eisenbarth, a Topeka lawyer, of having led a delegation of attorneys who tried to block Phelps' admission to Washburn Law School.
Eisenbarth just shakes his head in quiet surprise. "Not me." He remembers beating Phelps in one of the pastor's law school civil rights suits, but says there was no delegation to block Phelps going to Washburn. And the judges unanimously refusing to sign off? "If that did happen, it was Phelps' bad temperament and poor judgement that had alarmed community members enough to strenuously object to him practicing the law. It was his litigious and malicious behavior-not fear of any future civil rights work." A few months after Phelps told Capital- Journal reporters, 'I was raised in Mississippi; I knew it was wrong the way those black people were treated', the following incident occurred: A black woman, having to walk through the anti-gay pickets outside the courthouse and minding her own business utterly, politely asked Jonathon not to thrust the camera in her face. Pastor Phelps, unaware a member of the press had come up behind him, screamed at the black woman so loud the pavement should have cracked: "YOU FILTHY NIGGER BITCH!" Once inside the bar, within two years, the young esquire provided his elders' fears were not unfounded. As the court-appointed attorney from October to December, 1966, for a man arrested in a forgery case, Phelps received $200 from the defendant's ex-wife to bond the man from jail. Several days later, the ex-wife hired Phelps to handle a divorce she now sought from her current husband. She paid the pastor $50 to do the legal work. The divorce was granted. Phelps kept the $200 for himself, preparing court records to show he had been paid $250 for the divorce. Meanwhile, the lady's ex-husband remained in jail. In the year prior, there had been more unethical conduct. Phelps had been hired to represent another woman seeking a divorce in March, 1965.
Before firing him as her attorney a month later, the woman had paid the pastor $1,000 of the $2,500 fee he was charging her. Phelps had filed an attorney's lien for the balance of the unpaid bill. But a Shawnee County District Court judge had ruled Phelps' services weren't worth more than the $1,000 already paid by the woman, and disallowed the $1,500 lien. So Phelps had filed a lawsuit against the woman in the same court, seeking the $1,500.
The Kansas Supreme Court said that amounted to harassment of his client. It stated Phelps' conduct in the case "demonstrates a lack of professional self-restraint in matters of compensation." Assistant Attorney General Richard Seaton would later observe that Phelps had shown a pattern of conduct illustrating "an uncontrollable appetite for money-especially the money of his client."
The pastor didn't agree. In May, 1966, he filed for the Democratic nomination to the Kansas House, 45th District. "As a Democrat, I am liberal in my thinking," he announced, "but conservative in spending the people's money." Meanwhile, behind the walls of Westboro, the pastor lay up for days in bed, addicted to drugs, beating his wife and helpless toddlers, and sending seven year-olds to fetch his hot apple pie. A potential public servant perhaps-but one straight out of ancient Rome. In l969, Phelps was brought before the State Board of Law Examiners on seven counts of professional misconduct.
Seaton and then Attorney General Kent Frizzell argued that the Westboro minister's conduct as an attorney "is one of total disregard for the duties and the respect and consideration owed by an attorney to his clients. Where money is concerned, the accused simply lacks any sense of balance and proportion. Whatever the reason for this, it appears to me a permanent condition."
Frizzell and Seaton wanted Phelps disbarred. Instead, State Supreme Court Justices chose in 1969 to suspend the pastor for two years. Phelps landed on his feet however: the children's candy sales took up the slack in family income-and then some. But the court's sanction did trouble him. It was on the first anniversary of his suspension that Phelps decided his wife wasn't in proper subjection to him and shaved her long hair down to a bad crewcut. Mrs. Phelps later told the children: "He's just upset; it's been one year today since he was suspended." Nine months after he was released from the penalty box for cheating and exploiting his clients, Phelps had the temerity to place his name on the ballot for District Attorney of Shawnee County.
At the same time, not only had he just been disciplined for his lack of professional ethics, but he was also being sued by three different candy companies, having stiffed them for almost $11,000. To make matters worse, he had also just eluded criminal charges for beating Nate and Jonathon, and danced in front of his children at the news his oldest son's fiancee had committed suicide.
One can only imagine what new turns the pastor's hate would have taken, invested with the power of the D.A.'s office. Because no one else had filed in a race against a popular Republican D.A., Phelps ran unopposed in the August Democratic primary. However, the D.A. was required to have practiced law in the county for five years prior to holding office. As a result of his suspension, Phelps had those years cumulatively but not consecutively. He held he qualified. The State Contest Board held he did not. Phelps appealed first to the District Court, then to the Kansas Supreme Court. He lost. He was disqualified September 28, 1972, leaving the Democrats only five weeks to find another candidate. They lost.
Since then, the pastor has maintained bitter relations with a succession of D.A.s-none of them Fred Phelps. Having stumbled at the start of his public career, Phelps returned to private practice and quickly confirmed his colleagues' fears: the angry reverend's working preference was for largely unfounded lawsuits which the defendants would settle out of court to avoid the nuisance of litigation.
"I was waiting in the Denver airport with him. We were working a civil rights case," remembers Bob Tilton, a former Democratic state chairman and an acquaintance of Phelps. "He told me had to file 20 lawsuits to get one judgement. I said to him, "But what about the other 19 people you sue? It costs them a lot of money and heartache to defend themselves.' He just laughed at me." Phelps sued Kentucky Fried Chicken for $60,000 when a female client claimed she'd discovered a 'bug' in her breadroll; at the same time, he sued a restaurant owned by Harkies Inc. for $30,000 because the same woman claimed to have dined there and found abone in her barbecue. The client admitted she hadn't eaten either the bug or the bone, and that she'd sought no medical treatment, yet she claimed personal damages totaling $10,000 and punitive damages of $80,000.
KFC settled out of court for $600. Harkies likewise for $1,000. In a third case (all three of which were first described in the 1983 expose of Phelps by Steve Tompkins of the Wichita- Eagle Beacon), Fred sued a Denny's restaurant for $110,000. He claimed slander against his client when the man was accused of palming a dollar bill lying beside a register.
The restaurant settled out of court for $750. For the most authentic taste of the law according to Pastor Fred, however, one must turn to Sylvester Smith, Jr. versus Kevin P. Marshall. Excerpts from the opinion of the court, delivered by Judge J. McFarland, tell all: "On May 30, 1975, the plaintiff was a passenger in a car driven by the defendant. The defendant drove his vehicle to the left curb of a one-way street in Topeka, Kansas. Plaintiff exited the vehicle from the passenger side and walked in front of the vehicle. Defendant attempted to put the vehicle in reverse, but instead put it in neutral or drive. The defendant's vehicle moved forward. The plaintiff's lower right leg was caught between defendant's vehicle and a parked automobile. These facts are not in dispute. The residual effect of plaintiff's injury was a discoloration of a small area of skin on his leg."
The discoloration was the size of a quarter, and the plaintiff's skin was black. A chiropractor, called by the plaintiff to testify, made a gallant attempt: "That is a scar right here. If you hold it just right, you can pull it and see a scar."
In effect, Phelps had tied up first the District Court, then the Court of Appeals, and here, the Supreme Court of Kansas over a bruised shin-a quarter-sized scar the pastor insisted constituted a $100,000 disfigurement. To garner the real flavor of civil litigation behind the looking-glass, the lay reader is invited to listen in on the court's discussion of the point at issue: "The record should show that the Court did observe the right leg of Mr. Smith. The parties should also note the Court's observations, the Court did run his finger on the leg in the area that Dr. Counselman described. And the Court's observation, from just a visual and from a touch indication, was that there was no scarring as we understand broken skin with a lesion over the scarring. In other words, it was a smooth feeling.
"That area that the Court did observe was ascertainable, discernible, it being more of a, at least to the visual view of the Court, it was more of a discoloration of Mr. Smith's leg. "The record should show Mr. Smith is black. The area in question was darker. It was more of a dark brown area. It was about an inch and a quarter in length and in the middle point running North and South on the leg toward the center, as Dr. Counselman indicated, and toward the center of the area. It extended to, perhaps, about a half an inch. But I would say it would be East and West across the leg and about an inch and a quarter long. Now that is what the visual observation indicates..." That Phelps could get a bruised shin all the way to the Supreme Court certainly testifies to his persistence. It also reveals the predatory, surreal and parasitic nature of civil litigation in our society.
However, before the reader loses all faith in a fast-fading institution, we hasten to point out that reason did prevail. The Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the decision of the trial court which had found in favor of the defendant: "Assuming it to be permanent, I cannot believe it is the type of 'disfigurement' intended by the Legislature to support this plaintiff's claim for $100,000 in damages. It seems to me this is a prime example of those 'exaggerated claims for pain and suffering in instances of relatively minor injury' the Court recognized in Manzanares, and just the type of 'minor nuisance' claim the Legislature intended to eliminate." The appellation of 'minor nuisance' may, in the end, sum up the life, law, and ministry of Fred Waldron Phelps.
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of the pastor's apparent obsessive need to chisel for chump-change is the $50,000,000 lawsuit filed against Sears and Co. When Mark and Fred, Jr. placed a color television on Christmas layaway in September of 1973, they didn't realize it had been set aside on paper, not actually taken off the shelf and held in the stockroom. When they paid the balance in November, they were told their TV would be ready at Christmas-as they had originally contracted. Three days later, the pastor filed suit in his sons' names and those of 1,000,000 other Sears' layaway customers. "We didn't have anything to do with it," says Mark. It was strictly his idea. In fact, when I left home that year right after Christmas, it put him in a bind. He had a case that was missing a plaintiff."
Court documents show Sears called the Phelpses and told them the television would be available later in November. The two Freds chose not to accept it. Instead, they pressed their suit. Nearly six years of litigation followed. Motions and counter motions were filed. Lawyers argued aspects of the case in front of judges. A judge threw out the class action section of the suit.
Finally, after countless hours of legal work and an original request for $50,000,000, the case was settled in favor of the Phelpses for $126.34. The boys had originally paid $184.59 for the set, but they never received it. These are not the files that will one day inspire a new Earl Stanley Gardner. By 1983, according to the Wichita Eagle- Beacon, there had been "more complaints filed against Phelps, and more formal hearings into his conduct, than any other Kansas attorney since records have been kept." If in fact he did lead the judges' conspiracy to block Fred Phelps from the bar, few would fault old Beryl Johnson today.
In 1976, the reverend-esquired was investigated by the Kansas Attorney General's office. In 73 percent of the pastor's lawsuits, the inquiry discovered the defendants had settled or agreed to settle out of court. In the 57 cases already settled, Phelps had demanded a total of $75,200.00-but then taken an average of only $1,500 per case to walk away. Litigation would have cost his adversaries far more. It was naked extortion, nothing more. Phil Harley, the Assistant Attorney General who led the investigation, now an attorney in San Francisco, confirmed to the Capital-Journal a statement he made to the press 10 years ago: "Based on my experience with him, I reached the personal conclusion that Mr. Phelps used the legal system to coerce settlements and abuse other people." In an opinion filed in a 1979 civil rights case, Federal Judge Richard Rogers-no stranger to the pastor's ways, a significant portion of his docket was taken up by Fred's lawsuits- supported Harley's conclusions: "I feel Mr. Phelps files 'strike suits' of little merit in the expectation of securing settlements by defendants anxious to avoid the inconvenience and expense of litigation." In fact, when those sued by Phelps did not blink, but forced him into court, the angry pastor lost 75 percent of the time-an astonishing record that explodes the myth of the invincible Fred Phelps, a myth which intimidates his community even today.
On November 8, 1977, the state filed a complaint seeking to have Phelps disbarred in its courts. The complaint centered on the pastor's behavior in a lawsuit filed against Carolene Brady, a court reporter in Shawnee County District Court. Phelps sought $2,000 in actual damages and $20,000 punitive damages, alleging Brady had failed to have a court transcript ready when he'd asked for it.
According to court documents, prior to filing the lawsuit, Phelps allegedly told Brady "he had wanted to sue her for a long time". During the trial, the pastor called Brady to the stand, had her declared a hostile witness, and cross-examined her for several days. Phelps not only attacked Brady's competence and honesty, he also attempted to introduce testimony about her sex life.
The Kansas Supreme Court would later observe: "The trial became an exhibition of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady. His examination was replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo, belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire to hurt and destroy the defendant." The Supreme Court went on to comment, after the jury had found for Brady and Phelps sought a new trial: "The jury verdict didn't stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene Brady." In asking for a new trial, Phelps prepared affidavits swearing to the court he had new witnesses whose testimony would weigh in dramatically on his side. Brady obtained affidavits from eight of those witnesses, showing they would not testify as the pastor had claimed, that, in fact, Phelps had lied to the court.
The formal complaint against Phelps would not be for harassing Brady, but that he had "clearly misrepresented the truth to the court". Phil Harley, the same Assistant Attorney General who had investigated Phelps in 1976, represented the state in the 1979 disbarment proceedings. Harley wrote:
"When the attorneys engage in conduct such as Phelps has done, they do serious injury to the workings of our judicial system. Even the lay person could see how serious Phelps' infractions are. To allow this type of conduct to go essentially unpunished is being disrespectful to our entire judicial system. It confirms the layman's suspicion that attorneys are 'above the law' and can do anything they please with impunity." Harley continued: "Phelps has now been given two chances to show that he is capable of conducting himself in a manner that is expected of an attorney. On both occasions, he has flagrantly violated the oath he swore to uphold. He should not be given a third opportunity to harm the public or the judicial system. Fred W. Phelps should be disbarred." The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, adding: "The seriousness of the present case, coupled with his previous record, leads this court to the conclusion that respondent has little regard for the ethics of his profession."
The date was July 20, 1979. Even so, the vindictive pastor would have his revenge cold, however small the portion: When Mark Bennett, the attorney chairing the state grievance committee originally recommending Phelps be disbarred died, the aggrieved Fred came to the wake and signed the guestbook. Beside his name, Phelps wrote the numbers of a chapter and verse from the Bible.
When the shattered widow looked it up, it said 'vengeance is mine'. Based on his state court disbarment, Phelps was banned from practicing law in federal courts from October, 1980 until October, 1982. Amazingly, the pastor was back in trouble almost immediately following his return. Demand letters sent in 1983 to people Phelps planned to sue brought him right back up for disciplinary charges in federal court. Initiated by Wichita lawyer Robert Howard, the complaint charged that Phelps sent letters to businesses and individuals he intended to sue, informing them of litigation unless they paid money to the pastor's client.
Called before a panel of three federal judges barely two years after he had returned to the law, nonetheless Fred and his family of flyspeckers had been busy: Phelps Chartered had almost 200 lawsuits pending in the U.S. courts. In one, the pastor was suing Ronald Reagan for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican. In others, he was demanding an injunction against moments of silence in schools; suing a local teacher who had criticized the doctrine of predestination' and asking $5,000,000 in damages for libel from the Wichita Eagle-Beacon for the story it ran in 1983. All of these suits would come to nothing. The sheer number of cases generated out of Phelps Chartered, and the family's genius for antagonization set the stage for the next conflict:
Fred on the deserted platform, waiting to stare down the federal judges arriving on the noon train. Too late, Phelps would learn that, in a staring contest with a federal judge, one should be a fish if they expect him to blink first. The hard lesson would soon take the 'esquire' out of the irascible pastor. Of the five active federal judges in Kansas, two of them, Earl O'Connor of Kansas City and Patrick Kelly of Wichita, had already voluntarily removed themselves from hearing any cases involving Phelps Chartered. Lawyers from the family had filed motions accusing them of racial prejudice, religious prejudice, and conspiring to violate the civil rights of the seven Phelps attorneys. At first, the judges were only too happy to comply: they were as eager to be rid of the Phelps brand of tawdry courtroom hysteria as the pastor and company wanted to be done with them. Kelly, in fact, even told the pastor "good riddance" to his face during a special hearing the judge had called to upbraid Phelps-a hearing for which Kelly would later be reprimanded. Believing he had intimidated them, Fred made his fatal, final mistake as the bad boy of the Kansas courts: he went for a third judge. The pastor publicly accused Richard Rogers of the U.S. District Court in Topeka of racial prejudice, dislike of civil rights cases, engaging in a racially motivated vendetta against the seven Phelpses, and conspiring against them with Judge O'Connor. Rogers counter- charged the Phelpses had launched a campaign to disqualify him from hearing Phelps litigation in an attempt to go 'judge shopping'. Even if Rogers had wanted to remove himself, his hands were tied. Almost 90 of those 200 lawsuits generated by Phelps Chartered had been assigned to Rogers; court-approximately one-fifth of his entire caseload. If Rogers bowed out, it would leave only two federal judges, Dale Saffels of Kansas City and Sam Crow of Wichita, to handle the swarm of 200 Phelps suits, as well as their dockets from the rest of the state. "I'll grant you it creates a logistics problem," admitted Margie Phelps at the time, "but I didn't create the problem. If it takes going to the other end of the United States...to get another judge and bring him in to hear our cases, that's what the law requires." When Rogers refused to acquiesce to the pastor's demands, Phelps began a campaign of innuendo and wild accusations that Topekans today will recognize as pure Fred. An article in the Capital-Journal, January 16 of 1986, describes this early forerunner of the Phelps' fax campaign:
"The judge has disputed affidavits filed by Phelps clients who say he has made derogatory comments about the Phelpses at the Topeka County Club, the YMCA, in an elevator at the First National Bank, and at a judicial conference last September in Tulsa. "For example, the Phelpses accuse Rogers of telling Chris Davis, a Topeka man who attended the Tulsa conference, "You had better not plan on practicing law with the Phelps firm in my court, because I intend putting them out of business before much longer'. "They also quote an affidavit given by Brent Roper, a Topeka man who said Rogers became angry at the conference banquet when a band leader drew attention to the Phelps attorneys. Rogers is said to 'stalked from the ballroom', saying, 'Those - - Phelpses, they're everywhere showing off,' and 'It will be harder now, but I will destroy them.'" The irony here is that both 'Topeka' men quoted as apparent uninvolved bystanders were, in fact, Fred Phelps' sons-in-laws, or soon to be. Chris Davis was one of two families, the Hockenbargers and the Davises, that remained in the Westboro Church. He married the seventh Phelps child, Rebekah, in 1991. The other "Topeka man", Brent Roper, joined the Westboro community as a homeless teenager, was put through law school by the pastor, and married Shirley Phelps. The image of a federal judge stalking from a ballroom uttering darkly, "it will be harder now, but I will destroy them," it seems, on its face, a rather amateurish dip in slander. These are lines from the movies, from a Lex Luthor, and not a Richard Rogers.
It is noteworthy here to mention that Roper is also the author of a privately published book that argues AIDS was first introduced to the United States by Truman Capote, following a book promotion in South Africa. According to Roper, both JFK and Marilyn Monroe contracted the disease simultaneously from Capote during a touch football game in the White House Rose Garden. The CIA was forced to kill the fab couple, he says, to keep them from spreading the deadly virus to the rest of the nation.
Copies may be difficult to find. After Rogers remained stubborn despite the slanderous attacks, he claimed the Phelpses threatened to sue him on behalf of a client Rogers didn't know. It was not an empty threat. In August, 1985, the pastor Phelps and his daughter, Margie, had brought a suit against Judge O'Connor on behalf of a former federal probation officer. Though the man had been removed from his position by a vote of the full court of federal judges, the suit named O'Connor. At the time, O'Connor was under pressure from the Phelpses to disqualify himself (and did) from a 30-judge panel that would rule on the pastor's 1983 demand letters. The family Phelps had started a shooting war in the wrong neighborhood.
On December 16, 1985, a complaint signed by every federal judge in Kansas was lodged against the Phelps lawyers. It called for the disbarment of the seven family attorneys-Fred, Fred, Jr., Jonathon, Margie, Shirley, Elizabeth, and Fred's daughter-in-law, Betty, and the revocation of their corporate charter. The 9 angry judges accused the Phelpses of asserting "claims and positions lacking any grounding in fact", making "false and intemperate accusations" against the judges, and undertaking a "vicious pattern of intimidation" against the court. "Time and time again," says Mark Phelps, "I can remember something would happen in the way of actions or lawsuits being filed against him or one of his clients. He would fume and cuss and strain and spew and carry on. Then, he would come up with his plan of attack.
"He'd get real excited after his deep depression, and he'd carry on around the law office crowing about the cunning, brilliant strategy he had come up with. He'd put it into action, and he'd just thrill over it. "He'd say: 'Do we know how to deal with these types? You bet we do. We goin' to sue the pants off of them. We goin' to slap them with the fattest lawsuit they ever did see. We goin' to frizzle they fricuss and burn all the lent right out of they navel. When they get this, they goin' think twice about messin' with ol' Fred Phelps.' "He'd have a ball thinking about how he was going to get even-and even better than even-and then he'd go into action. "Next thing you knew, they'd respond with some action. And I guess he always thought they'd be like his won family-willing to take anything he dished out. I guess he just naturally expects people to roll over and play dead. So, when they'd come back with a logical, predictable response to his behavior, he'd go crazy: "'These heathen! These Sons of Belial! These enemies of God and His Church! God's gonna get them! He won't let them (get) by with this!' "My father would complain and yell at God, and throw a fit at Mom, and carry on at the kids."
In September of 1987, the federal judicial panel investigating the demand letters sent by Phelps found evidence to sustain two of the four charges against him. The pastor had been accused of demanding money and other relief for claims he knew to be false. The panel of judges issued a public censure of him.
In layman's terms, Pastor Phelps had attempted to strong-arm money from the innocent and been caught. And, come high noon, there would be one less Phelps at the bar. When the nine judges first entered their complaint in 1985, Margie, the spokeswoman and courtroom representative for the family in the matter, said: "The bottom line is we will fight every charge, every way."
But, upon hearing the extent of the evidence collected against them, the Phelpses asked the judges and investigator to find a way to end the case without resorting to litigation. They agreed to the punishment specified in the consent order. Margie signed the order, acknowledging her family accepted it voluntarily and waived any right to appeal.
The resulting compromise singled out those who, according to the investigator, were the three worst offenders: Fred, Jr. was suspended six months from practicing in federal courts. Margie received a one-year suspension, in part because she had maliciously misrepresented a conversation she'd had with Judge O'Connor. Having been suspended from the state courts for cheating his clients, and then barred from them for lying to a trial judge, having been censured in federal courts for pursuing claims he knew to be false, the angry pastor was now barred from them forever because he had lied about the judges in an attempt to impugn the integrity of the court. The leopard may be older, but it still has its spots.
The federal disbarment deprived Fred Phelps of his last arena of legal abuse. Unless he could find a new outlet for his hate, the defrocked esquire from Mississippi was now just an angry eccentric, no lawyer, not even a pastor-except in the fear-conditioned eyes of his family. Nonetheless, Fred Phelps has always held that all the bad things happened in his law career because he was a tireless Christian soldier, battling for black civil rights. A careful examination of his more salient cases, however, reveals once again how, with such odd regularity, some men of the cloth seem to confuse community service with lip and self-service. The hallmark of a devoted civil rights reformer who is also a lawyer ought to be a record of court decisions that, taken together, create legal precedents influencing future cases and, therefore, future society. Sadly, close inspection of Phelps' civil rights record shows he followed the same greedy star he did in the rest of his cases. Lawsuits were filed, but rarely went to trial-and even more rarely reached a decision. Instead, Phelps practiced what he always had: 'take-the-money-and run'. A settlement out-of-court has zero impact on legal precedent. Both sides continue to maintain they were right, only one party pays the other a little money to shut up and go away. In what are probably Fred Phelps' three most famous civil rights cases, he did exactly that each time. In the multi-million dollar Kansas Power and Light case, Phelps filed a class-action on behalf of 2,000 blacks who had accused the utility of discrimination in their hiring and promotion practices.
Fred settled out of court for the following: *Two black employees received $12,000 each. *$100,000 was paid out to the other plaintiffs. If one counts the original 2,000, that made for 50 bucks each.
- Phelps scooped $85,000 in attorney's fees and expenses. *KP&L admitted no wrongdoing and suffered no coercion to alter its allegedly racist policies. KP&L officials claimed they'd settled to avoid an expensive legal battle. "It's unprecedented what we just did," the pastor crowed.
Certainly it left no precedent. In the American Legion suit, which stemmed from a police raid on a Topeka post with a largely black membership, again Phelps settled for small cash outside of court.
Perhaps his most publicized case was the Evelyn Johnson suit, touted as son of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school desegregation case filed against another Topeka USD 501 school in 1955. Brown vs. Board of Education, along with the Selma bus case, became the basis for the civil rights movement in the sixties. In 1973, Evelyn Johnson's aunt and legal guardian, Marlene Miller, sue the Unified School District, number 501, a state entity which contained the Topeka area public schools. Miller, represented by Fred Phelps, claimed the district had failed to comply with the ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education. It had not provided the same educational opportunities and environments to the black neighborhoods as it had to the white areas of the city. Phelps boosted Miller's complaint into a 200 million dollar class action suit. When that was tossed out, he pressed on with the individual action on behalf of Mrs. Johnson. In 1979, the pastor agreed to settle out of court with the district's insurance company. Phelps accepted the company's condition the settlement be sealed from public scrutiny to discourage others who might have been inclined to sue for the same reasons. Hardly the act of a hard-knuckled civil rights reformer. When the contents of the settlement were revealed later, it turned out the pastor had collected $19,500 from the insurance company- $10,600 himself, and $8,900 in a trust for Johnson. If the attorneys for Brown had settled for cash outside the courtroom instead of a decision, there would have been no legal grounds for the federal government to pressure a segregated America to conform to the new social standards, and quite possibly no civil rights movement. In light of that, it is difficult to understand how $8,900 in trust to a 15 year- old, uneducated girl was going to remedy either her or her school-mates' problem. After the settlement, Evelyn Johnson attended Topeka High School, rated one of the best in the nation. She performed poorly and dropped out without graduating. Certainly her life and prospects, and those of her peers, remained generally unchanged by the out of court pay-off. Since no ruling was made and no precedent established to reinforce Brown vs. Board of Education, nothing came from six years of Phelps' litigation except $10,600 for himself and a reputation, however undeserved, as a civil rights hero.
In other instances, the issue of civil rights was so flimsily connected, and the case so absurd, that any serious interest in social change on Phelps' part has to be questioned: In 1979, the pastor sued Stauffer Communications, owner of WIBW-TV, for over $1,000,000 on behalf of a 23 year-old black man, Jetson Booth, who had appeared in footage aired by the station. Booth was shown surrounded by police during camera coverage of a shoot-out involving the officers and two unidentified men. "If plaintiff had been a white man, defendants (WIBW-TV) would not have treated him in this fashion," Phelps asserted in the suit. The case was dismissed for lack of cause shown. In 1985, Phelps Chartered was order to pay attorney's fees amounting to $7,800 for police officer Dean Forster after the firm had sued him for civil rights violations of a client. It turned out Forster had no connection to the incident in question, and, furthermore, the Phelps lawyers had known that from the beginning of their litigation. In an astonishing number of his cases, it would seem the pastor thought 'civil rights' was an open sesame to the good life-for himself. In 1979, Phelps was sued by a Wichita law firm that claimed he had "tortuously interfered in the lawyer-client relationship". Three black women and two of their children had been grievously injured in an auto accident. One of the women was in a coma for years. Allegedly, Pastor Phelps learned about the case through local black ministers. He also somehow discovered that the liable insurance company's coverage was not the $100,000 they were claiming-but 1.1 million, of which the lucky attorney representing the victims would scoop up 35 percent . The aggrieved law firm protested Phelps had wooed the clients with his erstwhile reputation as a civil rights advocate. Because of his interference, they asserted, the goose of the golden eggs had fired its midwife attorneys and taken their 35 percent to Phelps Chartered. Phelps responded the other law firm was "all white", and that, in part, they'd lost their clients because of their "racially biased and overbearing treatment of said black people." In the final settlement, however, the judge awarded $644,000 to the victim and $366,000 to the lawyers-of which only $122,000 went to Fred.
Disappointing work for one who'd chased his ambulance with such laudable ethnic sensitivity. Probably the most bizarre and ludicrous example of Fred Phelps exploiting the title of 'civil rights crusader' was in 1983, when three of his children failed to make the cut for Washburn School of Law.
The pastor filed suit in federal court on behalf of Tim, Kathy, and Rebekah, claiming his children should be granted minority status because of his civil rights work. Furthermore, Phelps argued, Washburn Law's record on affirmative action was inadequate. They needed to accept more blacks into their freshman class each year.
"It is important to note this case is brought by white applicants who are asking to be treated as blacks," observed Carl Monk, dean of the law school. "They would not be asking to be treated as blacks unless they felt such treatment would help them." That case was still in court the following year when Washburn allowed Timothy in but again denied admission to Kathy and Rebekah.
The reverend filed suit once more, but this time with a twist. In the second suit, he offered his children were the victims of reverse discrimination because they were white. He complained the law school had admitted blacks in 1984 who were far less qualified than his own offspring. So much for the family commitment to affirmative action. U.S. District Judge, Frank Theis, was not amused. Ruling on the 1983 case, he stated first that, "the plaintiffs simply were not qualified for admission to law school," and second, that the new 1984 case weakened the case before him from 1983. The judge told Phelps he could not argue the school discriminated against blacks, and then sue again, saying it preferred blacks over whites, and be taken seriously. Katherine and Rebekah eventually got their law degrees down at Oklahoma City University. Phelps Chartered got spanked with a $55,000 assessment by the court to pay Washburn's attorneys' fees. It was negotiated down, and Pastor Fred signed the check over at $12,000 in restitution for bringing a 'frivolous suit of no merit' against the college. In Phelps' eyes, it had been another blow against empire for the bold pastor. There is an interesting sidebar to this story. When the Phelps children were first turned down by Washburn in 1983, they appealed to the law school's internal grievance committee. It found no race-based discrimination in the rejection of the three Phelps. However, one of the panel members, Karl Hockenbarger, a Washburn University employee, filed a dissent, stating it was clear to him the three had been "denied admission to the law school because of their identification with Fred Phelps Sr., and the cause of civil rights for blacks." Hockenbarger went on to add: "Blacks in Kansas generally depend on the Phelps family and firm as their last and best hope for attaining equal justice." He is, of course, the same Karl Hockenbarger who daily pickets with the Phelpses, and one of the few non-family members who still attends the pastor's church at Westboro.
Mr. Hockenbarger's shared concern with his pastor for the plight of Kansas blacks may not be as deep as it appears: Police surveillance of the Westboro community has allegedly tied Hockenbarger to white supremacist groups like the Posse Comitatus and the Ku Klux Klan. "Civil rights lawsuits presented a vast opportunity to make money back then," says Nate Phelps. "My father used to say he had a huge target and all he had to do was shoot. I don't blame him for choosing a lucrative area of the law, it's just that he was not motivated by some noble, altruistic desire "to champion the case of the downtrodden." Asked if he filed "nuisance lawsuits" once, Pastor Phelps replied: "They think it's a nuisance if you call a black man a nigger. That's just trivial to them, bit it's not trivial to him, and it's not trivial to his children."
During their teenage years, both Mark and Nate worked as law clerks in their father's office. "When a black client was in there," recalls Nate, "my father would play the 'DN' game with us. It stands for 'dumb nigger'. We would all try to use the acronym as often as possible in the presence of the person involved." In the 1983 interview with the Wichita Eagle-Beacon, Phelps intoned, echoing Abraham Lincoln: "The air of the United States is too pure for racial prejudice to keep going, and the nation can't long endure half-slave and half-free. There is not any doubt that the problems of this country derive, in my humble opinion, from the way this country continues to treat black people." But according to his sons in California, part of the theology of the Old Calvinism Fred taught held that blacks were a subservient race because they were the sons of Ham, the son of Noah. Cursed for ridiculing Noah's nakedness, Ham's children were born black, according to the Bible. Some scholars attribute apartheid in South Africa to the fact that the white minority is predominantly Calvinist and takes the Ham story to heart.
Mark definitely recalls that his father taught the Ham story and took it to its Calvinist conclusions: the black race was cursed and meant to be the "servants of servants" - i.e., subservient to whites. Nate agrees. "He taught that in Sunday sermon many times while we were growing up." Both boys recall their father used to tell black jokes.
"And he'd imitate them after they'd left our office," remembers Mark. However, the piece-de-resistance in the ongoing saga of Phelps hypocrisy is the pastor's relationship with the Reverend Pete Peters of La Porte, Colorado.
Peters is the guru-philosopher of the Christian Identity Movement. Known simply as "Identity", the movement believes the white race is God's true Chosen People. They assert the Jews are animal souls that rewrote the Old Testament to give themselves the Chosen's birthright. Blacks are "mud people" who also possess animal souls-meaning they are not immortal and cannot go to heaven. According to Identity, blacks and Jews want to eliminate the white race and rule the earth.
Randy Weaver, the man arrested in the Idaho mountaintop shout-out with F.B.I., was a member of the Posse Comitatus and a follower of Identity. Peters broadcasts his shortwave radio program, "Scriptures for America", around the world, calling for death to homosexuals and warning against the international Jewish conspiracy. Fred Phelps has done broadcasts on "Scriptures for America", and tapes of his anti-gay message and offered for sale in Peters' mail order catalogues. When asked about it, Pastor Phelps only smiles enigmatically and offers that Pete Peters owns the rights to those broadcasts and can sell them if he wants. But Peters, reached by phone at his church in La Porte, says: "If he (Fred Phelps) didn't want them out, even if I had a right, I wouldn't put them out. I have the greatest respect for him." The militant white supremacist then adds ominously, "He's got the support of god-fearing people across this country that are not afraid to back a man who tells it like it is. "And he's got my support if he needs help-whenever he needs help." Not empty words.
Though Peters himself was cleared, it is still widely believed by Klanwatch and other groups monitoring extremist activity that the right- wing hit team that killed Alan Berg, the Denver talk radio host, came from or were associated with Peters' congregation. Reverend Fred Phelps, friend of the struggling black?
Listed next to one of Fred's tapes in Pete Peters' catalogue is one by Jack Mohr, a man who describes himself as the "Brigadier General of the Christian Patriot Defense League", but whom the F.B.I. has identified as a weapons instructor for the Ku Klux Klan. Why in the world would a person with these associations proclaim himself a civil rights' crusader?
In the words of 'Deep Throat', "follow the money." And in those of Richard Seaton, the Assistant Attorney General who led the first attempt to disbar Phelps back in 1969, the pastor had "an uncontrollable appetite for money-especially the money of his clients."
7. Nightmare on Twelfth Street
"Since no one else would join, my father sired us for congregations," observes Mark. "We were the only members because we had no choice. When we got old enough to make our own decisions, choose our life's work, and our life's mates, did you think he'd permit that?
"Without his children, my father had no church and he has no income."
Fred Phelps' bizarre behavior toward his children as struggled to become adults is as disturbing as it is revealing.
Growing up in the pastor's family meant going from door-to-door sales, domestics, and wage earners to lawyers and tithe payers. To Phelps, adulthood for his children meant soldiers for his wars. To accomplish this, he would attempt to arrest and redirect each child's path to fulfillment. They were not to leave his nest, nor learn to fly: "The Bible may say you're gonna be the head of your house. But I'm tellin' you right now, goddammit, that ain't gonna happen! I'm gonna be the head of your house! And you better start gettin' that through your head right now!" Mark pauses at the memory. "You know, he couldn't say, I desperately need you; please don't leave me." His heart was too closed off by some devastating unknown injury, and his mind was so sophisticated, so intelligent, he could weave a steel cape around us we couldn't get out of.
It was emotional. And it was the use of religion." But how could Fred Phelps maintain control of the lives and dreams of his children? Against his desire for a family that would be an extension of himself were arrayed some formidable forces: the adolescent's yearning for independence was one; the pull of hormones and the heart of another. In addition, the harshness of the children's upbringing left them with little genuine respect or love for their father. Then what wrought such conformity? Two obstacles, both too high for 9 of the 13 to surmount. They are the twin secrets of Pastor Phelps' sway over his troubled flock. First, and most important, while they may not be overly enthusiastic about his job as a father, the Phelps' children still accept, respect, and obey him as the head of their church. Since, in their belief, the Elect may reach heaven only through the portal of The Place, he who runs The Place holds the keys to the gates of Paradise. The children weren't afraid to disobey or argue with their father when, in later adolescence, they didn't seize the hand beating them or leave the place holding them. Rather, they were terrified to oppose the will of heaven's gatekeeper and imperil their souls. Literally, to was the fires of hell and not the mattock whose heat they felt in all their choices. "My father established early on the expectations of each child in the family for their entire life," says Nate, "and the consequences if those expectations weren't met. According to him, each of us would finish college, get your law degree, work for him, and marry whom he chose, when he chose. By no means were we allowed to leave that situation, or it would be seen as 'abandoning the church'. If we did that, we'd be excommunicated." Besides being groomed as lawyers, Mark says he and his siblings were constantly told they were different. "We were taught we were abnormal from the time we were able to learn," he says. "That the rest of the world out there was evil. That we The Place. And inside The Place, people were good and going to heaven. "Outside The Place they were all damned and going to hell. And, if that other world ever got us down, we were taught to find strength by imagining the terrible horrors that would happen soon to everyone outside The Place."
'The Place' was how his father referred to the church, add Nate. "If you left, you were forsaking the assembly and you were delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. He had his repertoire down. "Of course, he justified it by manipulating various passages in the Bible. "One passage refers to a child 'leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife'. He interpreted this to mean a child was not to leave his parents until he was married. But, since he decided who and when we were to marry, he controlled this. "Another passage mentions 'not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together'. Since he had long ago established in our minds that his church was where the Elect came to assemble, that it was 'The Place', he could lead us easily to the belief that to leave home was to 'leave' the company of the Elect, to join the innumerable multitude of the damned." And the second of the twin secrets? "To cast the world beyond The Place as evil and fatal to the soul. Then manipulate the local community so they would react with hostility and aggression whenever a kid would venture out. It's why my father insisted we go to public school, you know. Thanks to him, we were hated before we even got there on Day One. And people were so mean to us, that, when we came home, Fred could say, 'See, I told you so. They're evil and reprobate. They're not like us.'" The family does not believe in Christmas, states the Pastor Phelps, because there is no mention of it in the Bible; nowhere does it say Jesus Christ was born on December 25. (The date for many Christian holidays, in fact, derive from pre-Christian Europe: Christmas from the winter solstice on December 21; Easter from the vernal equinox on March 21; All Souls for Halloween from the Feast of the Samhain or the Day of the Dead, on October 31.) While accurate, if somewhat unnecessary theology (since Christmas in America is really a shopping, not a religious, holiday), as sociology, Fred's 'bah-humbug' to the season of comfort and joy did significantly add to the burden of 'otherness' that caused the world outside to repel his children and grandchildren back to The Place.
"From kindergarten, we were not allowed to stay in the classroom if there were Christmas activities going on,: says Nate. "We always had to go to another room, usually the library. My father threatened to sue the schools if they did not remove us during those times." The man pauses, remembering the sorrows of the boy: "Our humiliation was constant."
Even so, from suing the schools to shooting his neighbor's dog, Fred Phelps' personal and litigious behavior would have ensured his children a cool reception in their community-without an encore as the pastor who stole Christmas. "We weren't allowed to participate in any activities at school," adds Nate. "Not through most of our childhoods."
"No sports, not even track," says Mark. "Until my senior year. "And no outside friends. No one was allowed to visit, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere. To birthday parties or anything. Then, shave our heads. My father wanted the world to reject us. It would drive us right back to him. To the Place. The world-within-a-world. The one that was Fredcentric." Spouses were not welcome in such a world-except as a last resort to hold the child. There were to be no girls for the boys. And no boys for the girls. "If my dad had his way," confesses Shirley, "none of us would have gotten married. He'd just as soon keep everyone away, thanks."
"Kathy's was my father's favorite," remembers Margie. "She had blue eyes and dark hair. She was very pretty and he would spoil her. He used to bounce her on his knee and sing 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' to her. But after she was about 15 or 16, they had nothing to say to each other. She'd be home, but she kept her distance from him. "And she was a bitch throughout her teen years. She was very mean to the rest of the kids. Kathy became very self-destructive back then, and she's stayed that way since." Concludes Margie: "I never understood why." Perhaps her brothers on the West Coast have a clue: "Then came a time when suddenly Kathy got in my dad's doghouse," relates Mark. "A boy had called once or something. From that time on, he commenced to beating her, and he stayed on her and stayed on her rear end that wouldn't l; because of how often and how severely she got beat. "He'd beat her routinely in the church, against the foundation pole. He'd beat her with mattock and then twist her arm behind her back. She'd be screaming- bloodcurdling screams-and all because someone had called her up on the telephone.
"Later, it got so if the phone rang and they hung up, he'd assume it was a boy looking for Kathy, and that she was 'doing' him, and then she'd get beaten for that. "And, on top of that, she and Nate were getting beaten several times a week for their weight. "Later, when Mark and Fred were in college," says Nate, "Mom would take everyone out to sell candy, but she'd leave Kathy home alone with Fred. She'd get beaten during those times, just like I had." Kathy tried to escape the nightmare called 'home' at the Westboro Baptist Church at least three times between the age of 17 and 18. Each time, the pastor found out where she was living and led a Phelps' quick-reaction team to literally snatch her away from her life and bring her back. In one incident, Kathy was living in a quiet Topeka neighborhood and dating a boy Mark knew from high school. "It was the summertime, about 6:30 in the evening," Nate recalls. "Her boyfriend pulled in to pick her up on a date. We'd been waiting for her to come out of the house, and when she did, we just swooped in. We had two cars. Mark was driving one and my dad the other. It was real 'Starsky and Hutch'. We blocked off the departing vehicle, and pulled her out of the car while her date just sat there stunned." "At home my father beat her terribly," says Mark. "It was then she was locked in her room for 40 days on nothing but water." Mark remembers one of the 'parental intercessions' was actually a kidnapping: Kathy was 18 when it occurred. Though she eventually finished college and graduated law school, according to some of her siblings, Kathy has yet to find resolution to her anger and self- destruction. In recent years, she has allowed her active status at the bar to lapse, waitressed at Topeka's Ramada Inn, been laid off, gone of public assistance, and been convicted on passing bad checks.
"My sister, Kathy...," reflects Mark, "...everything my father's done to her...she's just been so deeply hurt as a human being, I don't think she can cope out there..." Nate has one memory that sticks in his mind. Once, while she was going to college and living in the compound, Kathy went jogging late one night, as was her habit. But, this time, the sight of a woman running through a darkened residential neighborhood after 1 a.m. caught the attention of a patrol car. When the officer tried to question her from the rolling vehicle, Kathy turned and ran the other way. When he overtook her on foot, humped ahead of her and tried to block her passage, she kept on him like a wild animal. Other officers were called and Kathy fought them with the same grim ferocity. She was finally subdued and arrested. When the case went to court, Nate was there: "The judge asked why she fought when the officer tried to stop her. She turned to him-and I was shocked by how hate was in her face-and she almost spit out the words: 'I can't stand for a man to touch me!'" Continues Nate: "That face full of hate I'll never forget. My sister was very, very angry about something."
In high school, says Mark, "I couldn't grasp the concept of career day." The only one he and his brothers and sisters were told they could consider was the law. Says the pastor with a groan: "Hell, I think everybody today should have a law degree. You need one to defend yourself. Yeh, got to have one now or you can't take care of yourself or family."
Adds Mark: "His attitude was always that school was bullshit, but you had to get As and get out so you could have the law degree. With that you could support and defend the church. "To say 'no' would have been the same as drafting-dodging during WWII: it was every kid's duty to enlist in the bar and protect our homeland against the evil that threatened from without."
But Fred Jr. wanted to be a history teacher. "Ever since he'd been a kid, he wanted to do that," Mark says. "At Washburn he was a masterful history student. He wanted to teach it, and he held on to that. He'd say: 'I have that right', and my dad would try to beat it out of him. My father would make it clear to Fred Jr. that he wasn't going to teach history. He'd yell: 'You guys are mine and you're never gonna leave me!'" "Then always follow with: 'And you better start gettin' it through your head right now!' "I can remember my father beating Fred when he was 19 or 20 about that. I couldn't believe my brother would even try to argue with him! My father wouldn't hear of it. Fred Jr. was going to be a lawyer. "Eventually, I think, my brother's spirit was broken and he became one. But it wasn't the beatings that caused him to lose heart-it was Debbie Valgos." What follows may be the saddest tale found during this investigation. It is a profound and tragic example of the fruits of hatred when it is directed by the angry against the innocent. Says Mark: "He was deeply in love with her, a girl from St. Vincent's Orphanage several blocks from our house. They were just crazy in love... "She was a free spirit. And a great looker. Noisy. Loud, hearty laugh. She was very warm, and friendly, and loving."
"She was cute, thin, blonde, and sexy," laughs Nate. "That name...," sighs one of the nuns from the orphanage, "is like a punch in the stomach..." Debbie was not an orphan. She lived with her mother, Della A., and her stepfather, Paul A., on Lincoln Street in Topeka.
When she was 11 years old, for reasons undisclosed, Debbie was placed in St. Vincent's. She went to Capper Junior High and later attended Topeka West High School. When she was 14, Debbie sent this poem to her mom: I settled down west from town, though no one knew I was a clown, My face was clean, and all around were children, though I heard no sound. She signed it, 'Mom, I love you very much!' with seven asterisks for emphasis. Bernadette, an older sister who still lives in town recalls: "She sang. She had a beautiful voice. And she played the guitar. She was a pretty little thing." Debbie's mom has an album of photos taken by the nuns of her daughter while she lived at the orphanage. Pictures of her as a cheerleader at Capper; smiling on a dock at the Lake of the Ozarks with some other girls from St. Vincent's; clutching her pom-poms, watching the players; pictures of her 15th birthday party at the orphanage.
They met at the skating rink. Sometimes Fred and Mark would trick their father. When he thought they'd gone out on their obligatory 10 mile run, instead they'd go skating. Or if they'd had a good night on candy sales, Jonathon, Nate, Mark, and Fred would knock off early and hit the rink before going home. "Debbie was a good skater," remembers Mark. "She came to the rink with other kids from the orphanage. She skated fast and reckless." The voice over the phone sounds as if it's smiling at the memory. "At first my brother saw her secretly, during stolen moments. Then he'd go by the orphanage when the four of us boys were out selling candy."
Mark stops. "You should know, when I was 9 and Fred 10, we began to hear degrading, insulting sermons from my father about how no good it is for boys to have girl friends: "You'll meet a girl someday and she'll start saying things like, "Aren't you cute; aren't you handsome; ooooooh, you're really something", and like some kind of ignorant, stupid lamb being led to slaughter, you'll fall for it, and the next thing you know, she'll want to kiss you or some bullshit like that. I'm telling you now, I'm not going to put up with it. If you think you're going to have some whore coming around sniffing after you, you better know right now that I'm not going to put up with it. You better start gettin' it through your head right now. You just have to trust the Lord to provide you a good woman who will subject herself to the authority of the church...'" Mark clears his throat. "They met, I think, in the fall of 1970. On the candy sales, Fred would drive and I'd ride shotgun, with Jon and Nate in back. We'd pick Debbie up on the way out and she'd sit between us. "When we got there, the rest of us would sell candy, and Fred and Debbie would stay behind in the car. "Boy, did they kiss. Every time was for the last time. Like Bogart and Bergman at the Paris train station.
"She was cute, but it wasn't only sexual. Those two were very, very much in love. I was there. I saw it. I watched them together-kissing, walking, being together. Fred and I shared the same bedroom and I knew my brother. "It was obvious they were meant for each other. That romance had so much voltage, it could have lit the city."
Fred and Debbie's special song was "Close to You", by the Carpenters, but that didn't keep them from fighting. Says Mark: "Debbie had a hot temper. She was very intense and dramatic. So they kissed and fought, kissed and fought. But they loved each other terribly hard-none of us doubted that." Debbie also got a kick out of hanging around with all of Fred's brothers, remembers Mark. "She used to say it was her instant family." Many of Debbie's teachers still remember her vividly. And they remember her long-lasting romance with Fred Phelps. "She was craving a family environment, with all the emotional outlet and loving she imagined went with it," recalls one. "When she was dating Fred, she thought she'd become an adjunct member of his family and she wanted to be a part. When she thought she was, she was very happy."
"She was such a warm, sweet girl," remembers another, "it's just a shame what happened to her." "In the car on candy sales and at the skating rink was the only time they could see each other," says Mark. Apparently Debbie was either narcoleptic or suffered from epilepsy.
"Periodically she'd pass out. I saw it happen 10 to 12 times. Suddenly she'd stop talking and when you looked, she'd be limp, her head back and eyes closed, though still breathing." Debbie told Fred what it was, but Mark's brother never revealed it. After they'd been stealing time together for several months, Fred Jr. somehow found the resources to buy Debbie a gold band with a tiny diamond.
Mark remembers her showing it off proudly in the car that day. Fred was 17, she was still 16. They began to talk of getting married. "Before you jump to conclusions about another teenage marriage," Mark observes, "remember my family didn't believe in dating around. We believed God would send us our mates. That it would just happen one day, and we would know it in our hearts. When it happened, that was it-whether you were 16 or 66. "Of course, my dad thought he was the god in charge of that. But I wouldn't assume Fred and Debbie's union would have been another miscast teenage marriage-and therefore my dad was right to do what he did." Why not?
"Because my wife of 17 years, and my best friend for 22, is the same Luava Sundgren I met at the rink that May of '71. We've been together since I was 16 and she, 13, and we're still totally nuts about each other. "You see, I think God has a hand in these things. And maybe it's naive of me, but I think all that we went through as kids made us a lot wiser about people than most grownups."
Mark estimates the passionate romance was kept from their father through the New Year of 1971. Sometime shortly after, however, the Pastor Phelps caught wind of his son's happiness. "After that, my father forbade Fred to see her. He tried everything to get Fred to stop."
Though Mark's brother was only a few months shy of 18, the pastor regularly took the mattock to him to stop his 'slinkin' with that whore'. In February of that year, Debbie left the orphanage and moved back in with her mother and stepfather in the house on Lincoln Street.
The boys would swing by and pick her up there. Shortly after she moved, Fred and Debbie moved again: they made their bid for a life together free of their burdened pasts. They eloped. Mark remembers they took one of the family cars, a '66 Impala wagon. "And I had a pair of top-notch skates. They cost me a hundred bucks. I was a serious skater back then, and I carried them around in a slick black case and felt very professional. But my brother Fred took them along for gas money. He sold them at a rink in Kansas City for ten bucks. Fred's next younger sibling sighs. "I missed my skates, but I wasn't mad at him. Back then, we had no sense of personal boundaries. If you needed something, you just took it. Besides, I wanted them to get away." He laughs: "Just wish he'd gotten more for those skates. Ten bucks was insulting." With a borrowed car and a tank full of gas, the intrepid couple hit the great American highways-though not with that era's open agenda of 'wherever you go-there you are!' To Fred Jr., the available universe consisted of two addresses and the highway that connected them. One was on 12th Street in Topeka, the other was the home and church of Forrest Judd in Indianapolis. "My dad and Judd met at a Bible conference. Forrest was a Baptist preacher and they hit it off. They used to come to Topeka and visit a lot. He and my dad were doctrinally alike, but Forrest was a very different personality. He was a jolly fat Santa type of guy-a factory worker and a really neat fella. He had three sons of his own, but he'd become sort of a 'good' father figure to a lot of us kids.
"His church was the only one my dad approved of-and the reason that was important to Fred Jr. is the same reason he's-they all-have been unable to escape. "You see, no matter what differences we had with him as the head of our house, none of us questioned his authority as head of our church. It was a certified gathering of the elect, remember. And the only way to get to heaven was to do that, to assemble with the elect. "My dad interpreted that, and we accepted it, as membership in a physical congregation certified by him as elect...The Place... "And there was only one Place besides his-Forrest Judd's. "So my brother had nowhere to run, you see. Not if he wanted to get to heaven. To a believer, even the most wonderful love in this world isn't worth an eternity in the fires of hell. "As long as we accepted my father had the power to so that-send us all to hell-he had the trump card in any showdown over our choices." After Judd and the Pastor Phelps conferred by phone, the father figure convinced Fred Jr. there'd be no room on the Indy bus to heaven. If he wanted to get there, he'd have to go back to Kansas. A member of the staff at Topeka West remembers the pastor called the school to rage at them, holding them responsible and threatening to sue: "As I recall, the father stopped the marriage; and he was demanding the school go and get them. He wanted returned separately so they wouldn't 'fornicate' on the way home.
"School officials tried to point out to him that Fred and Debbie were teenagers, and they'd been alone together for over a week-the damage was done." From the moment the disappointed lovers started down the road they had came, the clock began to tick toward tragedy.
Back in Topeka, Debbie moved in with her mom again, and Fred counted the weeks till his 18th birthday. Though his father did everything in his power to separate them, "those afternoon candy sessions went on just as they had before," says Mark. In May of 1971, the pastor changed his strategy. It would be OK for Fred Jr. to see Debbie, but only when she came to services on Sunday.
By this time, Mark had met his future spouse, also at the skating rink, and Luava was convinced to come to church as well. "The only way we could see his sons officially," says Luava, "was if we came to his church for Sunday service. They had no social life; they weren't allowed to date." So they came to service. Luava remembers that first Sunday: "When I arrived, Debbie was already there, sitting in one of the pews, waiting for it to begin. She looked back at me and smiled. I was nervous and her warmth touched me. She was quite radiant and seemed very happy that day." Luava fared better than Debbie under the pale-hearted pastor's basilisk eye. She had long hair and was shy-a quality the pastor mistook for subjection to her man.
"My father took an instant dislike to Debbie," Mark recalls. "She had all her signals wrong: she had short hair; she was vivacious, passionate, and fiery; she was direct; and she had an open, honest laugh." That day, and forever after, the good pastor called her a 'whore' from the pulpit, in person, to Fred, and the family. "She didn't argue," says Mark. "She looked shell-shocked. She started to cry, but did it quietly. After the service, she disappeared. "After that, he preached to Freddy she was a whore from pulpit every Sunday. "Then one day," says Mark, "my father announced that the entire family was going roller skating. Even mom. He said we'd have some 'fun' together."
The voice on the phone laughs. "It was a very peculiar experience. You have to realize, in all the time we were growing up, our family never did that. We never, not once, went on an outing together. We'd go sell candy, or to run. but never to have fun. He never took us to the zoo, the movies, out to eat, to the park, on a picnic, vacation, Thanksgiving at the relatives, to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July-none of these things.
"Now you can begin to understand what a selfish man our dad was. We spent our entire childhoods and adolescence waiting on him and working for him and getting beaten up by him. The idea of parenthood or fatherhood is an alien concept to that man. "So we were suspicious when he announced he was taking us all skating. Sure enough, it turned out he'd caught wind of what was going on down at the rink." Fred and Mark had made plans to meet Debbie and Luava there that day, and now the pressure had the drop on them. Though she'd already been to services at their church, Mark only nodded to Luava as if she were a passing acquaintance. When the pastor made fun of her parents within earshot of Luava, Mark felt forced to laugh.
Fred and Debbie skated together briefly, but they didn't hold hands. Everyone was watching the good Pastor Phelps. Fred Sr. strapped on a pair of skates and storked out on the floor looking like a new-born calf on ice. "I wanted to show off for him," Mark recalls, "so I started skating backwards and doing jumps when I knew he was watching. Do you think he liked it? No way. My father went into a seething rage. He said he could see I'd been spending all my goddam time down there, trying to get my dick wet. What a guy-by the way, both Luava and I were virgins when we were married...five years after we met." Possibly due to the stress of the unexpected confrontation, Debbie had another seizure. In a gloomy portent of what was to come, none of the Phelps boys dared go to her aid. She lay unconscious and abandoned by the good Christians of Westboro Baptist before 13 year-old Luava noticed and rushed to her side. At that, the pastor glared at Mark. "Someone should tell that girl we don't associate with whores," he glowered. Then, as the steadfast teenager revived her friend, Good Samaritan Phelps wobbled past on his skates and muttered, "whore" at Debbie while she was recovering her feet.
The charitable timing of his comment caused Fred Jr.'s girl to burst into tears. Luava helped her off the floor and into the ladies' room. "I don't know why Fred's old man hates me so much," Debbie sobbed. "You're lucky that he likes you." Luava never forgot the bitterness of those sobs: SOS from the threshold of a soul's despair. Debbie went to services at the Westboro Church several times after that, and, each time, she was called a whore from the pulpit. Then why did she go? "The hope of having Fred Jr. was greater than the pain of his father's words," says Mark. "She even came over once and asked my father what it was he wanted her to be. He told her she'd have to get an education and amount to something if she wanted his son. That she'd have to go to college and law school first, and, while she was doing it, she'd have to stay away from Fred Jr. 'But right now,' he told her, 'you're just a whore'. "Debbie said she could do it-she just needed a chance to prove it. I remember my father laughed in her face and said she'd always be a whore. "Another time, Debbie had been riding along with us on the candy sales, and afterward she and Fred intended to sneak out to a movie. Fred Jr. asked her to wait in the candy room while he changed clothes. You see, my dad never went in there." The pastor chose that time to fly into one of his rages with Fred Jr.
"Of course, whenever my father started beating someone, the rest of the kids would run into the candy room. It was sort of our bomb shelter. They'd be pacing nervously, waiting for it to end, like a herd of cows from the candy boxes to the laundry dryers and back. "My father was beating on Fred and screaming things like, 'You son-of-a-bitch! You got your dick wet! And now you're sniffin' after that whore!' It made them both feel dirty for what was really the best thing that had happened to them so far in their lives-their first love. "Debbie got hysterical when she heard those things. She ran out crying." Mark pauses. "And we were very nervous because she wasn't supposed to be in there. I remember several of us followed her out to ensure she didn't make a scene. That's where we were back then: nothing mattered except keeping my dad cooled off.
"Outside in the street, Debbie was crying her heart out. She kept asking, 'why does he say those things about me?'" Mark isn't sure of the timing, but he believes shortly after is when Fred, how 18, decided to move out. The pastor vehemently opposed it, but Fred stood up for himself.
Finally they compromised: the son would go and live with one of his father's business associates. Bob Martin was a retired army officer who ran Bo-Mar Investigations, a private detective agency. After Fred, Jr. had been staying with Martin for a week in his house, Mark remembers his father got a phone call. It was Martin.
"Let's go," said the pastor to Mark, who'd become the squad leader in his father's schemes. While they drove to the detective's place, the pastor explained the plan he and Martin had for Fred Jr.: wait till he was in the shower and then confront him; a naked man feels vulnerable and powerless.
Mark's father told him Fred Jr. had just come in from work and gone into the bathroom. "When he comes out, we'll be waiting," chuckled the guardian of one of the two portals to the Kingdom of Heaven. And so they were. As Fred Jr. came out, towel around his waist, he was confronted by his father, by Mark, and a suddenly hostile Bob Martin.
"Get your clothes! You're going home!" snapped the pastor. The eldest son complied without argument. "The next part I'll never forget," says Mark. "When we got out to the car, I was in the back, my father was behind the wheel, and Fred was in the front passenger seat. Bob had followed us and he opened the door on my brother's side. "Through the space between the front seat and the door, I could see him place a revolver against my brother's knee. And he said: "If you run away again, I have orders to come after you. And when I catch you, I'm going to shoot you right here." At the time, 'knee-capping' had spread to the United States from Italy and France as the preferred punishment in underworld circles. It left its victim crippled for life. This article does not imply Fred Phelps Sr. has underworld ties. It only remarks that anyone who dresses badly, who lives handsomely off the work of urchins hustling in the streets, who disciplines subordinates by beating them senseless, who fosters filiar piety by threats of knee-capping, who knocks his wife around regularly, who surrounds himself with lawyers, and who is apparently beyond the long arm of the law could have made a very respectable gangster. Certainly not a pastor. Fred Jr. enrolled at Washburn University that fall and Debbie returned to Topeka West. Though the pastor had forbidden them to see each other outside church, they continued to do so.
"My brother was struggling with his love for Debbie and his very real fear of hell. A lot of non-Christians might find that hard to believe. But if you grew up with your imagination open to Fred Phelps, believe me, hell was a concrete reality." The battle inside Fred Jr. would last until the following spring, but the war had been lost when he turned back from Indiana.
In late September, Debbie dropped out of high school and moved in with girlfriends at a house on Central Park Avenue. It was just a few blocks from the Washburn campus. "We went there a lot when we were out selling candy," says Mark. "That lasted into December, probably, because I remember being there when it was very cold and we were wearing winter coats."
But the pastor was relentless. And not only with the mattock. "He knew Fred Jr. was still seeing Debbie, and he hit heavy, heavy on him from the Bible. From things they said, I think my brother and Debbie had probably become lovers at some time in the relationship, and I'm sure Fred Jr. felt guilty about that.
"So, he was vulnerable to my father's framing of the situation as 'Debbie the Whore...the Agent of Satan sent to lure him into temptation and directly down into the gaping jaws of hell'." Says Mark: "He'd spend time with her, then try to avoid her. In addition to the guilt he was getting some pretty bad beatings. While Fred Jr. drifted in fear, Debbie fought to hand on to the man she cherished and the only person who'd ever cherished her. Margie Phelps remembers Debbie would wait for her brother outside after his classes on the Washburn campus. She would beg him to come back to her in Play-Misty-for-Me scenarios, where a mentally ill woman stalks her former lover. "If she did do that," says Luava, "it was in hurt and frustration that he would betray the love we all knew he felt." "And, besides, it always worked," Mark adds. "He always went back to her, at least while he was at Washburn." "I don't think he ever stopped loving her," agrees Luava. "He was just more scared of hell than he was of losing her."
Sometimes in December, 1971, events turned murky, fast. and fatal. Apparently willing now to give Debbie up, but afraid he wouldn't be able to do it while they lived in the same town, and also furious at his father for forcing him to leave her, Fred Jr. ran away again, despite Bob Martin's threat to find him and kneecap him if he did so. From late December till mid-February, the following events are known:
Fred Jr. disappeared and no one in the family knew his whereabouts. One night in January, shortly after Nate and Jonathon had been shaved and beaten and the school had notified the police, Fred Jr. stopped by the house without his father knowing. Nate remembers he asked to see their heads and then commiserated with them about their embarrassment at the police station.
About the same time, Luava's father saw Fred Jr. at a Washburn basketball game. He had a K-State jacket and a rash on both arms. The other man became concerned about Fred's welfare, and, with nothing to go on but the jacket and the rash, he was able to track the troubled youth down working at a produce business in Manhattan, where the state college was situated.
Fred Jr. turned down all offers of money or help. At the time, he was living in the basement of a young married couple. Whether Debbie visited him or even joined him up there is unknown. What is known us that, on Valentine's Day, Fred Jr. showed up in Topeka with a new girl for his father to meet.
"Betty," says Mark, "was a lot closer to what my father demanded. She was another Luava-or at least who my dad originally thought Luava was- she had long hair, and she was very quiet and submissive. She had also been raised Methodist. A lot of Baptists started out as Methodists, you know. "Debbie...was a Catholic."
A few weeks after Valentine's, Debbie came to see her mom. Della A. remembers they went for a walk in the small park near where Debbie had lived with her friends. Her daughter's spirits were very low, she recalls. Debbie confessed Fred had given her an engagement ring and they had eloped, but that Fred's dad had made them come back. She admitted bitterly that his father had told her she wasn't good enough for his son, and the younger Phelps had been forced to obey him. "Now Fred's found another girl," she told her mother. As they walked, Della remembers her daughter took off the ring and threw it in the bushes. "He's never going to marry me, Mama," she said, "but I know I'll never love anyone else."
The mother says she tried to cheer her up, and later, thinking Debbie might regret it, she returned to search for the ring in the grass. She never found it, and even if she had, Debbie never would have received it. The mother and daughter's walk in the park that afternoon would be their last time together. The remainder of Debbie's hopeful life can be found, not in the memories of those who knew her, but in the dusty, impersonal files of the U.S. Army Intelligence Criminal Investigations Division. After seeing her mother that day, Debbie went up to Junction City, an army town that served nearby Ft. Riley. It was also only a 20 minute drive from Manhattan, where Fred was living. Whether they saw each other during that time is not known. From the part of her life that has been documented in the Army's investigation of her death, it seems unlikely. During her final days, Debbie Valgos touched a match to her longing soul. She flamed up in a white-hot blaze of self-directed violence, anonymous sex, amphetamines, heroin, and rock and roll. All the things Pastor Phelps said she was, she'd be.
She moved in with a soldier. She shot smack. She partied for days without sleep. The speed she was constantly on burned through her body till she'd gone from 130 to 87 pounds. In less than a month the 5'7" girl had become a walking corpse with the wide, burning eyes of the starved. Perhaps that is when her face could at last reflect her heart: faltering into despair after a lifetime without sustenance.
Because the effect was so striking, Debbie's new acquaintance nicknamed here 'Eyes'. But 'Eyes' had stared into her abyss, and she knew. At the end of all worlds. Was a single lost soul. The last days of Debbie Valgos' life, those few weeks in Junction City, were one long suicide...a death dance through the Army bars...a soul signing off. When she lost Fred Phelps, Debbie must have felt she had forever lost her way...that she was never coming back...and so she touched a match to her despair. Her new friends told CID agents she had tried to commit suicide four times in the weeks prior to her death: by jumping out a window, rolling off a roof; and twice by drug overdose.
Each time they had stopped her or brought her through it. The came the night of April 17, 1972. Debbie was in the Blue Light, a soldier's bar. Though she had a soldier waiting at home, that hardly mattered. She let two more pick her up. When they invited her back to their barracks to 'party', she said 'yes'.
As they left, a girl who lived in Debbie's house insisted that she come along. She'd been there during Debbie's earlier attempted suicides, and she worried that the frail runaway might try it again. They were spirited past the gates of the fort, hiding on the floor of the car. The soldiers parked in an alley and had the girls crawl through a window into their barracks room. Once inside, one of them offered Debbie some speed. It was a bottle of crushed mini-bennies, according to CID reports. Debbie took it, and the soldier turned to put on a record. When she gave it back, the boy was amazed. "You took way too much!" he said. "You'll be up three or four days!"
Debbie only smiled at him. What might have been a four-day problem for a 180 pound man, Debbie undoubtedly hoped would solve all her problems at 87 pounds, less than half the other's body weight. Shortly after, "Eye started to have a 'body trip'," states the girl who had accompanied her. "She shut her eyes and just started moving with the music. She did that for awhile and then she started to act dingy. She called me over and said she felt like little needles were poking her all over her whole body and she was tingling. I told her I would stay with her and not to make any noise in the barracks." When Debbie started rolling around on the floor and mumbling, her friend worried she might hurt herself, and so she sat on her.
The other girl, who apparently was quite obese, continued drinking and talking while she kept Debbie pinned beneath her. The party went on. Debbie was babbling incoherently. After almost another hour, everyone became alarmed at Eye's grotesque physical contortions. They pulled her back through the window, loaded her in the car, and smuggled her off base. Returning to her new boyfriend's house, they woke him and ran the tub full of cold water. By then, Debbie had passed into coma. She would not be taken to Irwin Army Hospital At Ft. Riley until 5 a.m., nearly five hours after she'd ingested almost half a bottle of crushed benzedrine. Debbie lasted 20 hours unconscious in ICU, just long enough for her sister, Bernadette, to find her. At 1 a.m., her heart stopped. Her spirit had flamed up and was gone. She was 17. She was sunny and loving and only wanted to be loved. After all she'd been through, Debbie Valgos thought she'd found safe haven with the family Phelps. She died for her mistake. In that spring of 1972, one of the Top 40 songs playing on the rock and roll radios Debbie no doubt listened to while riding her dark current of heroin, amphetamines, and despair was a tribute to Janis Joplin, sung by Joan Baez: "She once walked right by my side I know she walked by yours, Her striding steps could not deny Torment from a child who knew, That in the quiet morning There would be despair, And in the hours that followed No one could repair... That poor girl... Barely here to tell her tale, Rode in on a tide of misfortune Rode out on a mainline rail... But the Pastor Phelps, devotee of a hateful god, had made up a song of his own: "I remember getting home from school the day it appeared in the papers," says Mark, "and my dad came dancing down the stairs, swaying from the knees and clapping his hands, singing: 'The whore is dead! The whore is dead!' "He paraded around the house, singing and laughing with that maniacal giggle he has, 'the whore is dead!'" Mark pauses to let the horror of the scene settle in. One is reminded of the warning from the first epistle of John: "He who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen..." Margie Phelps remembers shortly after Debbie's death Fred Jr. came to visit their mom secretly. Margie says she didn't know he was in the house. She came into a room inadvertently and saw Fred Jr. and her mother sitting in chairs, facing each other. The eldest son had his head in her lap and she was stroking his hair.
"Fred was crying," says Margie. "I heard afterward it was for Debbie." "There's no question that my brother wanted to spend his life with Debbie," says Mark. "She was who he loved. And I knew her well enough to say my brother was the first light of hope she'd had in her life. When he left her, that light went out."
The phone voices, bouncing along microwave relays from California, cease. The ghostly dishes wait, sentinels in the wheat fields, the mountain passes, the desert, and the ancient western forests beyond. "We think of Debbie sometimes," says Luava softly. "We know Fred does too." "She'd had a hard life before, but all she really needed was someone who would value her," Mark observes. "If my dad had allowed that, Debbie and Fred would have really blossomed. "You know in Matthew 12:20? Where Jesus says, 'the bruised reed I will not break; the flickering candle I won't snuff out; instead I will be your hope'? With the evil and the hurt he's caused during his life, my father has no right to the name of 'pastor'-nevermind 'guardian of The Place."
Della A. is more direct. She has a message for the pastor: "You tell Fred Phelps I'll wait in hell for him." Margie remembers Debbie's sister, Bernadette, knocked on their door one day. "She went on about how we were responsible for Debbie's death." Bernadette admits doing that. "I do blame them," she says. "My sister had a tough enough time without those people. If she hadn't met them, she'd probably be alive today." "We thought she was really coming along," reflects a former staff member at Topeka West. "Of all the kids there who had difficult backgrounds to overcome, we felt sure she'd be one of those who would." No one who knew her has forgotten her. Not the sisters at St. Vincent's, not her teachers, not even her dentist when she was a child. "I was just thinking of her," admitted one. You were? Why? "Oh...your thoughts return to someone like that...so young and full of promise...a really sweet girl...and then to die before her life ever had a chance to start...yes...Debbie comes to mind from time to time." "Valgos?" Fred Jr.'s voice sounds eerie and distant over the phone. "That name isn't familiar." Silence. "But then I had lots of girlfriends. At least five or six in high school."
No one else remembers that. "Oh...oh, I remember now. The little girl at the orphanage?" Two years later, Fred Jr. married Betty, the woman he'd brought home that Valentine's Day. Betty was approved by his father.
She was the second woman he'd ever dated. For the moment, this article shall abandon cynicism and consider beginner's luck in the search for mates. After all, Mark Phelps is quite happy with his first date of 22 years ago. So is Luava. And, if Fred Jr. and Debbie were destined for each other, what happy chance they met on his first date. However, the odds that Fred would then meet Miss Right directly after he met Debbie begin to gnaw at the suspension of disbelief in this fire and brimstone fiction of predestined characters. "I think not being able to have Debbie, and her committing suicide, I think that just broke my brother," observes Mark. "After that, he submitted totally. He'd lost his thrill for life. He went to law school, like his dad wanted; he married a girl his dad approved; and he shouldered a role in The Place. "And that's where he is today. He just turned 40." Betty was a music major at K-State when she met Fred Jr. She had perfect pitch and played between eight and ten instruments. However, she transferred to Washburn for her last two years of college, and went to law school on command. Mark remembers a time in 1973, when Betty was visiting Fred Jr. in the kitchen and the pastor started beating Nate savagely with the mattock in an adjoining room. Betty had been eating a cantaloupe and she shoved her spoon all the way through it and screamed: Stop it!" Says Mark: "The old man came in from the church where he'd been beating Nate, and he said to Betty: 'You got a problem with this?' Then he turned to Fred Jr.: "If that girl has a problem with this, then I'm not going to put up with it! You better get her under subjection, or you're not gonna be marryin' her!"
In one of his fax missives, the pastor has stated: "Wives who have strayed too far traditional family values of home and children need to be whipped into godly obedience. Sparing the rod and sparing either the children or the women is a strategy that fundamentalist Christians reject. Complacency and misplaced 'equality' notions produce tormented, social misfits like (here Phelps names several female city officials) who are hormonally and intellectually incapable of rational thought. Like the termite, these so-called modern ideas promulgated by Satan's servants are destroying the studs of the family unit." Nate remembers: "Betty was put in her place, both by the old man and Freddy. And she was the butt of numerous comments from the pulpit over the following months until she finally displayed the 'proper spirit of obedience'.
Luava recalls that, some time after Debbie's death, Betty and she were talking when suddenly Fred's new girl started crying. "He still carries her picture in his wallet," she sobbed. "He's in love with a dead girl." The Phelps family forbade reporters from asking Fred Jr. about Debbie Valgos during interviews, and threatened to sue the paper if it printed the story of the couple's broken dreams.
"That child was very precious to us," says the former director of St. Vincent's, Sister Frances Russell, who refused to give an interview, "and all my instincts are to protect her-even in death." Sister Therese Bangert came to the orphanage the year after Debbie died, "so I didn't know her," she says. "But I remember her because of the impact her death had on everyone who was there. Even today, mentioned the name of Debbie Valgos around some of the sisters would be like knocking the wind out of them." Just as he threatened to shove the blind runner off the track when the old man was in his way, charitable Fred Phelps toppled Debbie Valgos into her abyss when she threatened to lure one of his Chosen from The Place. "He was scared of her He knew she'd take Fred Jr. from him," says Mark. "My father saw Debbie's weak spot-her self-esteem-and he did everything in his power to drive a sword through it...right into her heart. "Debbie didn't hate life like my father. She loved it. He knew she'd never fit in there. Eventually she'd leave and pull Freddy with her." The pastor's second son adds: "If, during the course of your investigation, you'd discovered my father had something to do with Debbie's death, I would not have been surprised. That's how far I think he was willing to go to keep us on as adult servants to his ego." This chapter focused on the torture, kidnapping, and later troubles of Kathy Phelps and the tragedy of Fred Jr. and Debbie Valgos because these facts provide a clear insight into the horror coming of age held in the house of the good pastor Phelps. It has been an inquiry into a man who gathers a following wherever souls are writhing in agony from the evil done to them. It is a look behind the veil of a false prophet who, with investigation, appears more and more as a new type of serial killer: Pastor Phelps is too clever, too cowardly, and too lawyerly to kill the bodies. His life is a trail of murdered souls. And his worst victims have been his own family.
No man or woman living on the Phelps block has been allowed to become the plant foreshadowed by the seed. This chapter has revealed the betrayal and murder of three spirits by Phelps, would-be prophet of the subdivided prairie, hopeful John Brown of religious radio.
Kathy Phelps' life remains at the level of subsistence and self- destruction. Her brother, Nate, has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is quite likely that Kathy suffers from it also. Today, but for the statute of limitations, the brutal beatings and torture this pretty teenager experienced would bring a long jail sentence to their perpetrator.
Fred Jr. never became a history teacher. Recently, he left the law profession and works for the Kansas Department of Corrections. Debbie Valgos died of a broken heart. A quick survey of the curricula vitae of the Phelps children shows his astonishing success in their conforming to his wishes. In fact, the Phelps Plan because a sausage factory for loyal and legal support of one man's ambitions: *Of the 13 children, 11 got law degrees-nine of those from Washburn University *Of the nine loyal offspring and four approved spouses, all but one took law degrees; eight have undergraduate degrees in Corrections or Criminal Justice. One can only wonder why the pandemic fascination for prison among the Phelps loyalists. For the nine kids who stayed with Fred, God provided only three spouses from within the church. Fred Jr. and brother Jonathon had to provide for themselves. They became Westboro outlaws to find mates among the damned.
When they eventually returned to the fold, these 'tainted women' were only accepted after a long probation and apprenticeship at being a wife- in-subjection. Six of the Phelps daughters remain the compound. Two of the, were betrothed to Chosen already residing in The Place. The rest grow old. Perhaps bitter. Alternately resentful and desperately dependent on the one man in their life. To chronicle the failures of others among the loyal Phelps children in their youthful attempts to escape over the wall of their father's fear and ego is to compose a litany of unhappy and sordid tales, ones that would burn the ears of the listener. "You know she's admitted she's a whore," says Phelps of Shawnee County D.A., Joan Hamilton. "She hasn't admitted she's a whore," replies ABC's John Stossell. They're taping for 20/20: "She admitted she had a one night stand." "Then, if you believe the Bible, she's a whore," insists Phelps. "Shackin' up with some guy one night or a thousand nights, she meets the Bible definition of a depraved, adulterous, whorish woman."
Pastor Phelps would be wise to take a quick poll of the home team, especially his daughters. He might find his glass house full of mischief. The misadventures of the clan Phelps can be pursued into allegations of adultery, fornication, illegitimacy, and abortion without fear of libel.
However, since it is also the thesis of this article that his children are actually the principal victims of Pastor Phelps, it is not appropriate to expose the rest of these embarrassing stories in detail. Despite their strident condemnation of others' equal and lesser sins, it will suffice to point out the foibles of his children would make as interesting reading for the pastor's fax gossip as anything he's printed. If those without sin shall toss the first stones, the grim clan at
Westboro will have to keep a tight grip on theirs. With his private genetic following, Pastor Phelps has found a world perhaps he's always sought. One where they care for him and do his bidding and never leave him. To make that happen required the promise of their youth be devoted to the unsettled scores of his past. Fred Phelps crushed the innocence and joy, the dreams of all but three of his children. His reputation as a civil rights advocate is perhaps ironic. The pastor's chains are subtle, but stronger than the iron ones worn by the ancestors of those he often brags he's helped free. The children who were raised in the nightmare of 12th Street carry their shackles in their hearts. It is their fear of their father's key to hell, and their view that the world is hateful and hates them, that, like the elephants in India, keeps them serving the will of a man who, by now they must realize, is much smaller than themselves. The vulnerable pastor hoards his hell- stunned flock close around his own flickering candle. He pulls them like a threadbare cloak about his old wounds, huddling against the cutting hawk of a cold soul wind blowing from somewhere out of his past.
Sitting in her mother's house, the sinking afternoon sun pours through the screen door, casting its soft gold across the widow's tattered carpet. Della A. offers, a little reluctantly and her eyes bright with guilt, the last moments of her daughter: a First Communion veil; a dried corsage from an Easter Sunday get-to-together, and the photo album Debbie kept at the orphanage. On its cover, printed in the awkward, block letters of a bruised but hopeful new reed, a flickering candle not yet quenched, are the words:
I LOVE FRED PHELPS
"Debbie Valgos was a whore extraordinaire," snaps Margie. But the father's words sound empty and formulaic on the daughter's tongue.
8. Over the Wall at Westboro
Listening to Fred Jr. pretend he doesn't remember a girl named Debbie Valgos is an eerie experience. It's as if one were listening to a teenager deny he borrowed the car while his parents were gone. "They're all still children," observes Mark. "Still trying to please their father because they're afraid of him." What are they afraid of?
"They've been conditioned all their lives to cringe at his anger or disapproval. Even now, with families of their own, they'll conform. In fact, a lot of what your article reveals about my siblings that my dad didn't know-my sisters taking lovers, the details of Debbie and Fred, and Jonathon stealing on candy sales-my brothers and sisters are going to panic at that. Even today, they're still frightened of his judgements."
Research indicates that three out of four children in criminally abusive families will be unable to surmount their experience. As adults, they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior as the norm in both the outside world and their personal lives. As adults, they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior as the norm in both the outside world and their personal lives.
It is instructive that nine of the 13 Phelps children, almost exactly the predicted ratio, continue to embrace the pastor's abusive world and ways. But this chapter is not about the ones who tried to climb their father's barrier and slipped back. It's about two who made it over the wall at Westboro; who went on to lives that are beacons of hope to others who have survived abusive families.
Mark Phelps might be his father's pointman today but for a pretty 13 year-old named Luava Sundgren. In May of 1971, a few months after Fred and Debbie had been dragged back from their aborted elopement, Fred and Mark met Debbie at the skating rink. His brother and Debbie paired off, and Mark remembers he was rolling along alone on his rented skates, wishing for his hundred dollar pros his brother had sold, when suddenly a petite girl, slim and shapely, with long dark hair hanging halfway down her back sailed by, fixed her beautiful blue eyes on him, and smiled. "You're a good skater," she said. And she pulled Mark's heart right off his sleeve. He was only 16, and she, 13, but for Mark the search for his life's mate was over. Only two months after rescuing his eldest for the moment from the charms of the 'whore-extraordinaire', the Pastor Phelps found another wily ally of the serpent threatening his second son. Except this girl was no fragile psyche, vulnerable and clueless, as Debbie Valgos would be. Raised Catholic, Debbie had no criteria by which to identify Protestant heresies, and, coming from a broken home, she had no expectations of esteem or consideration from the outside world. Luava Sundgren came from a conservative Lutheran family firmly grounded in unconditional love. "Even as a young teenager," says Mark, "my wife had high self-esteem and a very clear idea of right from wrong. Her parents were as firm about their god of love and their love for her as my father was about his hateful god and his hate for all." The pastor had met his match. This girl, though slight and shy, was not going to accept the pastor's interpretation of the Bible as his personal myth; nor would she take to being called a 'whore'. But, at first, things went well between the two.
A few weeks after the teenage couple had met to skate again and Mark had been calling her secretly by phone, Luava came to church. It was on that Sunday in early June that Debbie first came as well. Things went better for Luava because the pastor believed her long hair showed her subjection to God and man. And her naturally shy and quiet way belied the stout heart within her.
If his boys had to have mates, here was a good example of the kind of girl Fred Phelps wanted to see joining his church. Not the sassy, rebellious, Catholic, blonde sex-rocket with the page boy cut Fred Jr. had brought home. In high school, the disfavor of their family name, combined with the pastor's refusal to allow his children any participation in extracurricular activities, assured the Phelps kids were the pariahs of Topeka West. Across town under the gothic vaults of Topeka High, Luava was quite the opposite. She had many friends and became one of the school's cheerleaders. It was a mystery to everyone why she insisted on dating a member of the Addams family over on 12th Street. Luava remembers the curious questions and the biting comments she got.
So why did she? She laughs: "At first? Because he was a good skater, and he was cute-but remember, I was only 13. That's what 13 year-olds notice. Later, it's not so important if they skate or not-" she laughs again. "Seriously though, he had so much energy and he was very smart and he was really sweet to me. What chance did I have? Even my dad told me I wouldn't find a better one!" Because she was just 13, Luava's parents at first would only allow Mark to visit her at their home. He would sneak out whenever he could, or drop by while on candy sales. After a year and a half, her father agreed to let them date. He even offered to give Mark enough for dinner and a movie out. (Luava had been attending services every Sunday at the pastor's lonely keep, and she had invited her parents several times-enough for her dad to feel sorry for Mark.) The Pastor Phelps knew nothing about Mark's home courting advantage, nor the teenager's plans to date. Mark refused Mr. Sundgren's offer to pay for their date and instead found a weekend job as a busboy in a steakhouse. That lasted one shift. His father found out about Mark's endeavor to expand his independence and promptly beat him. After, he forced Mark to quit the job and forbade him to take another. As was shown in Chapter Five, it wasn't his son's study hours the pastor was concerned about; rather, any time spent working elsewhere was time one could be working for 'The Place'.
So, Mark had to shave a dollar here and there off his candy sales and summer yard work to court Luava. When his dad shut himself in the master bedroom for days, eating and watching television, Mark would sneak the car for a few hours and take Luava to a movie or dinner at a fast food restaurant. Once, they were in the Taco-Tico at 15th and Lane around 9 p.m. when the place was robbed. Two men ski masks came in, and the young teenagers ducked under the table. "After the hold-up," says Mark, with Luava laughing in the background, "we ran out too. We didn't want our names involved as witnesses because my dad would have heard about it and the jig would have been up-my secret life of dating."
Luava is still laughing. "Trouble was, after we hit the sidewalk running, only then did it occur to us everyone would think we were the ones who'd just robbed Taco-Tico." Despite Luava's quiet demeanor and biblical mane, Mark soon realized she was not plugged in to the world according to Fred.
For example, one day after Debbie had died, Mark, Nate, and Jonathon were out in the car selling candy. After his older brother's habit, Mark had brought Luava along with them, and they sat and smooched while the two younger boys worked in the neighborhood. When Nate came back to report scant sales for that day, Mark gave the command by reflex: "Chin- chin!" And Nate put his chin on the back of the front seat.
With Luava sitting beside him, Mark punched his little brother painfully in the face. In equal reflex, one from another moral world, Luava immediately slapped her boyfriend hard enough to bring stars. "Why did you..." he asked in stunned bewilderment.
"Why did you do that?" she demanded. Soon the esteem Mark had for this petite firecracker-five-two, eyes of blue, and with a fist like his father-caused him to begin opening his heart to her radically different view of human relationships. For several years before he met Luava, Mark had been his father's assistant master-at-arms: when there was a whipping due one of his siblings, sometimes the pastor would order Mark to do it. "At first I thought it was a great idea," says Nate, who received most of his elder brother's ministrations, "because he didn't have my father's violent spirit when he swung the mattock. However, that was short-lived. After a few less than satisfactory beatings-from my father's viewpoint-he threatened to beat Mark instead. Suffice it to say that afterwards I couldn't tell the difference between one of my dad's and one of my brother's beatings-except maybe in their angle of attack." "My dad would tell me to do it," agrees Mark, "and then he'd go upstairs and yell down to us in the church: 'If I don't hear it up here, it's you who'll get the beating!'" Now, however, confused by his new feelings for this remarkable girl, Mark began to slam the mattock onto the pew cushions instead. "It sounded exactly the same as it did when I hot Nate," he recalls, with what must be a smile at his end of the line. "And Nate would just howl in pain every time I hit the pew. It worked perfectly. "But it wasn't until Luava that it would have ever occurred to me to do that. I've been told children from abusive homes never develop empathy.
Boy, that was us. It was survival...period. Save yourself. "Remember how I said I felt when Mom used to drive off with everyone in the car, and Nate would get left behind, running alongside my window, begging not to be left alone with my dad? I literally could not feel for him. I didn't even know how to consider what he might be going through. I was just glad I was getting out, and that was all that mattered.
"But, after I'd been around Luava, what was going on inside other people suddenly started to matter. I guess you could say she kissed me and changed me from the frightened little frog my father had made me..." They laugh. "But after I fell in love with her, it made me want to care about others."
Little wonder Mark's wife is Nate's favorite sister-in-law still today. Though Luava refused to join the pastor's church, she continued to attend Sunday services there for nearly two years. "I knew if I didn't, Mark's father would make it even harder, if not impossible for me to see him," she says.
"During that time, I learned things about Fred Sr. I didn't like." Such as? "That God hates. It seemed to me he was putting his own words in God's mouth. I mean, Mark's father was a pretty disturbed guy. I could see that and I was only 15. It's just sad he didn't have the self- knowledge to leave religion out of it and get some help. "Also I didn't like his attitude toward family. His belief in beating children and that women were servants to men. As a future wife and mother, that left me little motivation to join his claustrophobic community." Toward the end of Luava's two-year ceasefire with the pale-hearted pastor, she arrived for services early one Sunday-too early. Kathy Phelps was getting beaten with a mattock upstairs. In shock, Mark's girl listened to his sister's screams of pain and sobbing pleas for the good minister to stop. He didn't. Luava turned on her heel and walked out. Shirley Phelps, who always wept hysterically whenever her father went into his whipping mode, ran after Luava. At the door she grabbed her arm.
"Please...please...," she sobbed. "He doesn't mean it...he doesn't know what he's doing..." Mark, who was there, remembers Luava "stopped and looked Shirl dead in the eye. 'No, Shirl,' she said, 'you're wrong. He does mean it.' And she left." Shortly after, the pastor decided to dish Luava some of the abuse he'd used on Debbie Valgos. Following Sunday services, while Luava waited within earshot in the church, the pastor collared Mark for a 'talk' in the law offices adjoining. "He was punching and kicking me," remembers Mark. "And yelling in crude anatomical detail everything he said he bet I was doing to her when we were alone. He knew she would hear, that's why he did it."
And that was Luava's last Sunday at the Westboro Church. She walked out and down to the shopping center on Gage Boulevard where she called her father to come pick her up. When she told Mark it was over, Luava says she never asked him to leave the church. She didn't believe he could. She knew he had been taught that, if he left, he would be taken by God during the first night while he slept and that he would wake up in hell.
Mark, for his part, was in despair. The 19 year-old flung himself face down in Luava's yard and cried. And there he remained for two hours, embarrassing her parents in front of the neighbors. Luava's dad even came to her and told her, "I didn't realize you were so hard-hearted,"
Such emotional firmness in a 16 year-old was remarkable. But Luava didn't know what else to do. She had no intention of joining the Westboro family cult and raising children in that kind of environment, she says. And she Mark wouldn't leave. Meanwhile, one can only imagine the kind of talk this generated among the deeper keels in Luava's cheerleading set. She was certainly a girl with a foot in both worlds.
After the break-up, reportedly neither Mark nor Luava slept or ate for days. "I walked around in a fog," says Mark. Then he found out he would get a 'B' instead of an 'A' in one of his courses at Washburn. "That meant I was in for more trouble," he adds. "Somehow, the idea my father might now hurt my body after making my heart so miserable...it just seemed insane and ridiculous...and if all this misery was to please God, I was beginning to think it was awfully mean and petty for a Being that had created such a majestic universe... "And that's when I began to hope Luava might be right. That God was a loving God, and not full of hate like my father...and that if He was made of love...then he wouldn't send me to hell for loving her so much, would He? "So I did it. "I just grabbed some clothes and went to a friend's house. He'd told me if I ever wanted to leave, I'd be welcome to stay with his family the first few days. I just showed up on their doorstep and they took me in."
Mark pauses. "It might seem funny now, but those were the most terrifying hours of my life. I lay awake most of the night in their guest room, in cold, absolutely cold terror. Waiting for God to take me. Afraid if I fell asleep, I'd wake up in hell. Literally. The ultimate nightmare. "But I didn't. I woke up in the same bed the next morning. It was then I realized God might be nicer and the world bigger than my father had taught." Mark landed on his feet, renting a room from a retired couple and working, first as a busboy, then as a salesman in a downtown shoestore. He and Luava were re-united, dating on weekend and talking every night on the phone.
However, Mark was in a serious car accident six weeks later and miraculously escaped injury. "That shook me up," he says. "I thought God was giving me one last chance before He did what my father said He'd do. So I high-tailed it back home." And Luava broke it off again. "This time I wasn't so strong," she recalls. "I was totally miserable. I almost went over there many times."
By this time Fred had taken to calling her 'the Philistine whore', so life with father and a broken heart soon had Mark willing to play tennis with death once more. After a few weeks, he returned to his new life. Only to have the pastor swoop in to snatch him back, as he had with Kathy.
"That time, however," says Mark, "I was lucky. Just as we pulled up to the church on 12th, some of my dad's law clients pulled up too. "It was like a Hitchcock film: my father couldn't do anything in front of them, so I just got out, walked through the front door, and out the back. Nobody stopped me."
After that, Mark held on to his independence and his dreams with an impressive tenacity. "I knew I made enough money for only two of the following," he says: "an apartment; a car; and college tuition. I needed the car; and-now that it was for me and not my father-I wanted to finish college."
For two years, Mark slept in his car or in the backroom of the print shop where he worked all day. In the evenings he took classes, and on weekends he worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant. He took his showers at the gym. Luava completed her junior year and senior years at Topeka High, dating Mark on weekends.
Despite the pastor's curiously vivid and explicit imagination, the young couple's relationship remained chaste and unconsummated. When his brother Fred asked Mark to be his best man at his wedding, Mark was thrilled and agreed. But when he showed up at the Westboro church for the ceremony, the pastor demanded Mark recant or depart before they went forward.
"It was a trap," says Mark wearily. "If he ever missed a beat at being a jerk-he did it before I was born." Mark departed. He has never been back. Nor did the pastor miss his beat damning his second son to the fires of hell. When Mark refused to die in his sleep, Phelps sent him his notice of eviction from the assembled elect of The Place: Mark was cast out and "delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh". The pastor then tore up both Mark and Kathy's pictures in front of the rest of the family. (Kathy was also gone by then: she was working as a waitress and living with a soldier on 12th and Topeka; apparently the GI took a dim view of anyone kidnapping his girlfriend, and the Phelps quick-reaction team left her unmolested.)
Mark did see his father again however. At the YMCA gym one day, the pastor took the time to stalk up to Mark, close so no one else could hear, and whisper, his glittering with hatred: "I hope God kills you." God didn't.
In May, 1976, Mark graduated from Washburn University with a business degree. In August of that year, he married his childhood sweetheart after a courtship that had lasted since 1971. He was 22. She was 19. Though the family Phelps were all invited, none of them came. Many of them might have wanted to be there, but they had been forbidden to attend. Pastor Phelps had threatened anyone who did with being "delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh".
If Fred Phelps is ever granted the preponderance of his wishes, old Satan will be burning the midnight oil, destroying all that flesh. But, devil knows, weddings are a lot work. The newlyweds cramped apartment on 15th and Lane quickly became the headquarters for Phelps exiles. At one point, both Nate and Margie were living within its tiny confines alongside Mark and Luava.
"We didn't have much time to ourselves," laughs Mark's wife. "He brought half his family out with him. Fortunately, Nate and I have always been friends. And, back then at least, Margie and I were too." Later the dissident couple would be the consolation and support for Paulette, Jonathon's mistress driven from Westboro when she became pregnant by him. Abandoned by Jonathon and rejected by his family, "she went through some pretty tough times," remembers Mark. Nate's departure was more dramatic. Inclined towards the freethinker and sceptic, and long the family's designated scapegoat, Nate was initially not so torn about leaving the assembly of the elect. "He constantly told me I was worthless," says Nate about his father. "That I was a son of Belial (Satan); I was going to end up in prison; I was evil. That message came through loud and clear. For years since, I have had to struggle to achieve any sense of worthiness in the eyes of God or man. "My father often opined I was such a loser, I'd never even make it through high school. Two weeks before the end of my senior year, when it was apparent I would, he decided my weight needed constant watching. Instead of being allowed to take my final exams. I was pulled out of school and made to ride a stationary bicycle six hours a day. Now...there's a rational act...a real daddy-non-compis-mentis. "So I didn't graduate. I had to take the GED later for my high school diploma." Nate clears his throat.: "A few weeks before my 18th birthday, I bought an old Rambler for $350. I parked it down the street and I didn't tell anyone I had it. I took my things out to the garage a little at a time, and I hid them amid the mess out there." On the night before his birthday, around 15 minutes to midnight on November 21, 1976, Nate pulled his car into the drive, opened the garage, and loaded his few personal belongings in the back. Leaving his keys in the ignition, the black sheep walked into his childhood house of fear and pain. He climbed the stairs to the room where his father slept and he...screamed. At the top of his lungs. And left. That night, Nate slept in the men's room of an APCO gas station because it was heated. He found work and eventually ended up living with Mark, Luava, and Margie (who was also experimenting with adult independence).
When the couple moved to St. Louis, Margie and Nate took an apartment and jobs in Kansas City. The Nate went to work and for Mark at a print shop in St. Louis, and Margie returned to the Westboro community. She would become one of Pastor Phelps' staunchest defenders. In 1978, Mark, Luava, and Nate returned and opened their first copy shop in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City. It was a success. In 1979, the couple opened another shop in Topeka, and Nate stayed in Kansas City to manage the first. At that point, says Nate, "it hit me." It was the first time he'd ever been totally separated from all of his family. Though he held no illusions about his father, deep down Nate had always wanted to be a part of the rest-his mother and brothers and sisters-in some other capacity than the bad seed. Now, he felt cut off and alone. It was exactly then that his sisters began calling him, pressing him to return, saying they could call be one family again, and that their father had stopped his beatings.
So, three years after his Jim-Morrison-exit, the prodigal returned. However, the pastor's idea of a welcome was to draw up, not a feast, but a document. Nate remembers they had him sit down and pen a letter to Mark-which they dictated. It was left on Nate's desk at the shop in Kansas City, and it informed Mark he had lost his manager without notice due to Mark's serving as ballast for that manager's slide into hell. In August of 1993, in a desperate attempt to discredit what she must have imagined was going to be devastating testimony from the 'bad' son (as much or more of the evidence against the pastor came from the 'good' son), Margie Phelps announced to Capital-Journal investigators she had "the smoking gun to prove Nate is lying".
It was a copy of Nate's sign-off to Mark of 14 years before. The letter, she said, proved Nate was on good terms with his family three years after he'd claimed he'd cut his ties to them. Curious as to why the copy of a letter written by Nate and delivered to Mark would find its way into Margie's possession so long after the fact, investigators then heard from Nate how Shirley and Margie had given him the paper and dictated the letter to Mark as one of the terms for Nate's return. The fact that the Westboro Church kept it on file, as a potential lever on Nate at some point in the future-even if that future came nearly in the next generation-can only finds its parallel in the handbooks of the KGB.
The Phelps family congregation may not be able to place the name or face of the girl the pastor drove to suicide, but they never misplace a letter-even if that letter was never addressed to them. For Nate, rebirth into his family came with the pastor's umbilical drawn tight around his neck. He was hazed like a plebe at Fred's West Point.
Though he got his meals now, Nate was expected to work in the law office full-time for that and a room. He was also expected to complete college and attend law school. "And, in return for my work, my father would pay my tuition," says Nate. "But I had no desire for law school, and I had debts to pay. I needed a cash income-not just room and board." Nate declined the work in the law offices and found employment outside the compound.
In the meantime, his father refused to talk to him, handling any business through intermediaries. Nate attended services, but was excluded from the adult male congregation. Instead, he worshiped with the women and children. "Every Sunday, just prior to services, all the men in the church would congregate in the old man's office to sit and chat. When they filed out and took their seats in the auditorium, it signaled services were beginning. It was a rite of passage for the older boys when they were allowed to join. You know, then or before, I was never included." During the ensuing months, his father still refused to speak to him. Instead, envoys were sent to inform Nate the pastor was displeased he was working 'outside'. Again and again, it was suggested to Nate he ought to give up the 'outside' job and work in the law office; that his father would pay him for this by sending him to law school. Nate always refused. He didn't want to go to law school. And he needed cash to pay his debts. He was 21 at the time. "If my dad had paid a wage, even a small one, it would have been OK. But money in your pocket, to him, meant less control over you. It implied mobility and independence, something he was not going to tolerate."
All of the loyal Phelps children and their approved spouses followed the pastor's formula: they worked as law clerks, legal secretaries, and gophers for Fred as he churned out lawsuits. In return, the pastor took care of what he had decided were their needs. Finally, one Sunday their father devoted his entire sermon to denouncing the reprobate in the midst: Nate was not of The Place, not one of the elect, or he would be happy to join in the toils of the family enterprise. The pastor announced there would be a meeting after the service where the family would 'decide' whether Nate should stay or go. "I started packing my bag," says Nate. "Family councils never contradicted my dad. He just called them when he wanted everyone else to feel responsible for something he had every intention of doing, regardless."
After he'd thrown his few belongings together, Nate remembers he dozed off on his bed, waiting for the verdict. He was awakened by a fist pounding on his door. It was Jonathon. The two brothers were less than a year apart. "You have to go,: Jonathon told his older brother. "You have to go tonight." The Phelps family scapegoat nodded stoically. He hoisted his bag and stepped through the door. His younger brother gave him no hand to shake, no pat on the back, no words of farewell-only silence. Nate has not seen his father since. Once, he went back to visit his mom: "It had been years since I'd talked to her," he relates bitterly. "She'd only see me for two minutes at the back door. And she kept looking over her shoulder the entire time. I felt like a hobo asking for a meal." But Nate, who, like Kathy, had taken the brunt of his father's cruelty and abuse, would find he could not leave his past behind so easily. When he drove away that night after his family council, rejected, wounded, and now self-destructive, Nate Phelps-gratis the pastor-had become dangerous to himself and his community. Like Debbie Valgos, Nate would now be all the bad things his father had said he was.
Unlike Debbie, Nate was 6'4" and 280 pounds. And, unlike her, he was just as inclined to violence against others as he was against himself. He plunged into a world of drugs, drink, violence, and hooligan friends, and very nearly accomplished his parents' self-fulfilling prophesy that he would be the convict of the family. "When I first left," says Nate, "right away I moved in with some wild boys living above the VW shop on 6th Street. They had a perpetual party going there for almost four months. A keg was permanently on tap. "When I hit that, boy, did I have an attitude. I remember I was real belligerent and anti-authority." Ten months later, addicted to speed and crystal meth, without shoes, penniless, and desperate, the prodigal giant appeared on Mark and Luava's doorstep only a few days before the couple moved to California. Haunted by ghosts of his father's hatred, enraged by the memories of his physical abuse, and emotionally disemboweled by the knowledge his mother and his siblings had offered him up, an entire childhood sacrificed, to save themselves, Nate Phelps had become a rider on the storm. Soon the pastor might have had reason for dancing and clapping his hands again. But the pastor's appointed angel and his projected devil knew instantly they were veterans from the same war. They needed each other. Each sensed he might be able to redeem his brother: the one of his guilt; the other from a coffin void of love or self-esteem. Thus, the former favorite of Fred and back-up mattock-beater was the only Phelps who could understand and forgive the rage of the family's designated criminal and black sheep. The 'good' Phelps boy forgave the 'evil' one his impulsive betrayal of the year before, and he invited his little brother to come to California with them. Today, Mark Phelps owns a successful chain of copy stores in Southern California. He and Luava have two children.
Nate manages the largest in the chain. He is happily married, drug- free, and content. He and his wife, Tammi, are raising four children. Nate still receives treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and, ironically, some of the Vietnam vets who receive the same therapy say their year in hell sounds preferable to his 18 inside the walls of Westboro. Both brothers say they cringe at the thought of anyone touching their kids. They know what darkness may yet linger in their souls from their father's nightmare, and they daily guard against it emerging in their behavior toward their own children. Mark and Nate live four blocks from each other in an upscale Orange County community surrounded by pine forest. Both couples are devout Christians-though the god the boys worship is now a loving one. And, after growing up with the Pastor Phelps, not much can rattle them"
Recently, after answering some questions concerning minor details for the story, Nate announced calmly, "Well, I should get off. I have to pack now." Were they going somewhere? "Yes. For now. The fire is coming down the mountain. It's only two miles from here,"
"Fire? That's terrible! What about Mark and Luava?" "Oh, she was packed three hours ago." The racing blaze missed their homes, (Not the kind of punishment predicted by the pastor for those he feels have 'gone against' his assembled elect at the compound in Topeka.)
While the emotional cocktail mixed at the Phelps of Westboro seems perpetually one part cruelty, one part anger, one part hysteria, and one part maudlin self-pity, the lasting impression left after hours of phone conversations with Nate and Mark is one of serenity. They have the calm wisdom of mariners who have been rescued from a wild sea. The one saved by a brother's love; the other buoyed up by a teenage girl's moral courage. Mark and Nate Phelps have found their peace and happiness. They would like to help their brothers and sisters do the same, but they have not yet discovered how to reach them. And the two brothers, survivors, themselves are not unscathed.
"I'm OK during the day," says Nate. "It's late at night when it all comes back. I sometimes just sit and there after my family is asleep. You know, and it comes back. All the feelings of pain, and violation, and outrage. And I try to deal with it. Then I'm OK again." Mark laughs. "I've had a recurring dream for years now. I'm out driving around and I turn up a street and it looks familiar. I can't place it so I keep driving. Then I see the church and realize where I am. I hot the gas to get out of there, but the car suddenly dies.
Then my father and my brothers and sisters start coming out. But I can't start the car. I'm cranking the engine for dear life and it's not catching. "As they come out in the street, I'm trying to lock all the doors and roll up the windows...but I forget the driver's door... "They pull me out.
And Daddy says: 'What the hell do you think you're doing? Were you selling on Prairie Road tonight?'"
9. The False Prophet
Sometime around 1975, Phelps began to find his option to beat his family restricted. By then, Mark and Kathy had already rebelled and left, and the other children were fast becoming adults of not inconsiderable size. About a year before Nate left, he remembers an incident which must have put the abusive pastor on notice to find new outlets for his hate. "One day he was beating mom upstairs," Nate recalls. "He'd been doing it for some time. Shirley and Margie and I were in the dining room downstairs, and Margie and I were getting madder and madder. Shirl wouldn't get mad-she'd always start crying and pacing around whenever anyone was getting beaten. "Margie finally went and got a butcher knife from the kitchen. The three of us went to the bottom of the stairs. But our voices stuck in our throats. We couldn't call out. None of us. We were so scared."
When the raging reverend chased his wife out onto the landing, he saw them. Fred stared down at them: "Get the hell outta here." Margie held the knife up where he could see it. "You've got to stop this," she told him.
The pastor slowly descended the steps. His children backed up but didn't leave. For a long moment he glared at them. Then he said quietly: "Fine, you SOBs." And he turned and went back to his bedroom. For three weeks after that, Fred Phelps had no contact with his family except at church. He stayed in his room until it was time to give his sermon. After Nate departed the fold in 1976, apparently the pastor began to worry about the success of his methods. He'd raised a congregation from his loins, and now they were bailing out at the first opportunity. Fred Jr., Mark, Nate, Kathy, Dorotha, Margie, Rebekah, and Jonathon would all leave home at some point. It was at this point that his wife and daughters apparently convinced Phelps that, if he wanted his family, he'd have to stay his hand. From then on, it was the outside community which more and more would become the outlet for the pastor's rage. Nate was coaxed back to the family compound three years later by his sisters' assurances 'the old man' had changed, that things were better now, and he wasn't beating anymore. But, as Nate quickly found out, the pastor still sought total control over his children's private and emotional lives. He left for good. Nate's younger brother, Jonathon, met Paulette when he was still in law school. She joined the Westboro church and was highly cooperative, though the pastor frowned on her for not following his path (Paulette has no law degree.). Later, when it was discovered they were fornicating, Paulette was driven from The Place. Jon was allowed to stay. Though by this time he was a practicing lawyer, all of Jon's adult privileges were taken away by his father. Members of the church were assigned to accompany him 24 hours a day to guard against his backsliding with Paulette. As a hedge against his leaving, each day he was given only enough money from the common family finances to buy his lunch. But the damage had already been done. Paulette had conceived. Living with her parents, abandoned by Jonathan, an object of contempt to his family, Paulette turned in desperation to the Phelps boys who'd moved to California. Mark and Luava say they had many a late-night counseling session over the phone with Paulette while she carried her baby to term. After their child was born, apparently Jon's girl wanted nothing more to do with him. But Jon was having second thoughts. Six months after he'd become a father, he petitioned the court for joint custody and visitation rights.
According to court records, Jon claimed Paulette would not accept payments of support, that she had refused him visitation rights, and that she would not allow him to take their child from her parents' home. When the couple actually confronted each other before a judge, however, Paulette saw only Jon, and he only had eyes for the woman he loved and their tiny daughter. And Fred Phelps with his threats of hell and hatred of Christmas must suddenly have seemed so very far from the god who had given them their little girl. Jonathon deserted the Westboro church and moved in with Paulette's family. They were married soon after. By now, it was apparent to the pastor that Mark and Nate's move to California in 1981 was going to be permanent.
"So, when Jonathon left, my father had lost three sons," says Marks. "At that point," he adds, referring to his and Luava's long conversations with Paulette at the time, "my dad decided it might be better to relax his rules and keep his family than end with an empty church." Jonathon and Paulette were allowed to return to the congregation with their illegitimate child in 1988.
Unable since then to either beat and browbeat his family, the Pastor Phelps seems to have focused instead on his therapeutically malicious law practice. This is the period, 1983-1989, when he is reprimanded for this unchecked spate of extortional demand letters, when he eventually federally disbarred for his wild and vitriolic attacks on three judges, and when he sues Ronald Reagan over appointing an ambassador to the Vatican.
Fred's swan song in the federal courts in February, 1989 left him unable to express his most persistent of urges: to hurt and humiliate other human beings. Already prevented from punching up his grandchildren, and now banned from the barrister's ring, the old pugilist took stock and realized he still had his fists and his faithful urge to abuse.
Buffalo Fred took his wild ego show out of his house, out of the courtroom, and into the streets. Within months, he was running for governor, tramping importantly about the state and churning out position papers on the general corruption of the Adamic race. The spotlight, so comforting and necessary to prankster pastor, had returned.
He only garnered six percent of the vote. No matter. Nine months after losing the election, Fred Phelps unveiled his next therapeutic crusade: his left hooks rained on same comparatively helpless and unsuspecting heads when he opened the "Great Gage Park Decency Drive"-which quickly escalated into his current death-to-fags campaign.
To hear the pastor describe his new venture, one feels in the presence of a Napoleon crossing the river Neiman to invade Russia-two great empires, the one good, the other evil, about to clash, finally, and to the death. To read his crusading literature, however, leaves a different impression: The "Great Gage Park Decency Drive" hovers between vaudeville and the bizarre. One campaign fax churned out during November of 1993 would seem to cover both choices.
For vaudeville, the pastor poses a question: can God-fearing Christian families picnic or play touch football there (Gage Park) without fear of contradicting AIDS? HELL, NO!" He then describes the enemy activity in suspicious detail: "Open fag rectal intercourse in public restrooms, in the rose garden, in the rock garden, in the theater, in the rainforest, in the swimming pool, on the softball fields, on the swing sets, or the train-it's everywhere..." And for the bizarre: In the same fact epistle, Fred to the Sodomites, the pastor reviews his son-in- law's opus of investigative endeavor, The Conspiracy within a Conspiracy. For those arriving late, Conspiracy is the privately published book by Brent Roper, who made the "it will be harder now, but I will destroy them" attribution to Judge Rogers in Chapter Six. In the fax, Fred defends Roper's thesis that Truman Capote passed AIDS simultaneously to both Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe during a touch football game in the Rose Garden "when a gang tackle went awry". According to the fax, the CIA later killed both the president and Marilyn to keep them from infecting the country-Capote's own longevity notwithstanding. In any case, touch football seems to be the one thing consistently on Fred's mind here. In the midst of his anti-gay campaign, the pastor also ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992 for Topeka mayor in 1993. He lost both races. Of the two, his Senate bid will likely be the better-remembered: Phelps, in a great plains parody of the late senator from Wisconsin, warned the voters darkly that homosexuals were taking over America, and accused Gloria O'Dell, his opponent for the Democratic, of being a lesbian. Unelected after three races, the angry pastor maneuvered to advance his hate-gays crusade from local TV spots and neighborhood pickets to the national media. The Westboro congregation traveled to Washington, D.C. to taunt the Gay Pride March in the spring of 1993. It was red meat for a sensation-hungry press. Fred and found his rhythm. Even before then, however, the nine children still loyal to him had campaigned enthusiastically alongside, picketing in rain, snow, or sun. Why?
Says Nate: "You known that Lite beer commercial where the guy goes up to the two other guys and gets them to fight over his comparison of two incomparable issues ('Tastes great!/Nope, less Filling!)? My dad does that. "Deep down, my brothers and sisters know they've been denied the right to be themselves-free adults-and that combines with all of his abuse and anger toward them until their rage is uncontrollable inside. He helps them find a focus to vent that out. And then he steps aside." Mark agrees: "Everyone is very angry there. That's why they overeat. It's a very charged atmosphere. All that frustrated energy needs to be discharged in some form of conflict." Though this latter observation is almost 13 years old, it still provides an accurate summation of one reporter's experience who spent six weeks in daily contact with the family Phelps in the fall of 1993. Fred has a captive family congregation: their fear of hell and fear of him still control them, like the elephant's rope. His loyal children have fulfilled his ambitions rather than their own. They live at his side and do his work. And since his rage has become their outrage, a wrath they dare not turn back on him, Fred's kids have eagerly joined in whenever he has sallied forth from Westboro to smite the Adamic race. Margie Phelps admits many in her family have become emotionally dependent on the death-to- gays crusade: "A lot of us have been able to work through emotional problems because of the picketing," she says. She explains the bonding and the sense of goals have brought them closer and taken each person's focus off their own personal difficulties. "It would be very hard for them to give up the picketing now," she observes, and quotes with some apparent relief the circumstances outlined by her father for an end to his grim campaign: the return of Jesus; the capitulation of all homosexuals; "or they kill us. Otherwise it will go on."
What's important here is the Phelps family has found something they can all enjoy doing together. And it's helping them to grow and realize more about themselves. All except one. Dorotha, on of the youngest Phelps children, left the compound in 1990.
She was 25 at the time and already an established attorney. "We were all supposed to get law degrees, stay home, and live happily every after," she says. "The problem was, I wasn't happy. "My father's operating mode is one of perpetual warfare. I thought once he'd been disbarred, it would die down, and he would stop-you know-being so aggressive. He wrote that book (still an unpublished manuscript) comparing the courts to the Corsican Mafia...but I guess it didn't go anywhere. "And then he started all these other things... "It's just not going to die down. It's not going to quit. He's such an egomaniac. He liked to keep things stirred up because he likes attention. He likes to be center stage. It just wore me out. The constant pressure there was just too much. "But," adds Dorotha, who goes by 'Dottie', "despite all his flaws, he's the leader of the church as well as a father. If they (her family back at the compound) believe, they also accept him." The pastor is enthusiastic about his new therapy: "The Bible approves only of sex within marriage," he insists. "But whore mongers and adulterers God will damn to hell! "No premarital sex! No extramarital sex! No divorces, no remarriages-and for God's sakes-NO ANAL COPULATING!" (In which case, come the Rapture, Westboro Baptist will still be holding services.)
Fred continues: "Anytime a famous fag dies of AIDS, we're going to picket his funeral, wherever it is." He adds he subscribes to the New York Times because it identifies gays who've died of AIDS. Phelps is literally giggling now, able to appear on shows like Jane Whitney, Ricki Lake, and 20/20 and talk dirty to gays. On top of the verbal abuse the pastor heaps from the television screen, he claims he's doing gays a favor by disrupting their funerals, outraging their mourners, and picketing the businesses that employ them. Raising this kind of ruckus is...well...a bit of necessary bad taste to get the "good word" out. Interviewed on KBRT radio in Los Angeles, Phelps was asked: "What about the Bible advice that Christians are to have the wisdom of serpents and the meekness of doves?"
To which he responded: "The next to last verse in Jude says we were to make to a sharp difference in how we are to approach people to win them. On some, have compassion, making a difference. Others you should save with fear. "That means using the authority of terrorizing people about the coming fires of God's judgement and wrath, as opposed to approaching them with compassion." Trouble is, Phelps may have yet to meet the sinner he deems worthy of the compassionate path. The pastor has generated most of his notoriety from public outrage at his desecration of funeral and burial rites. To this, he has a formulaic response, most recently offered to Chris Bull of The Advocate in defense of emotionally brutalizing the mourners for Kevin Oldham, a native of Kansas City who had found success in New York as a composer: "Compared to hell and eternal punishment, their (the mourners) suffering is trivial. If Kevin could come back, he would ask me to please preach at his funeral, and he say, 'For God's sake, listen to Fred Phelps.' Dying time is truth time. These poor homosexual creatures live lives predicated on a fundamental lie, and they die engrossed in the lie. It seems to me to be the cruelest thing of all to stand over their dead, filthy bodies keeping the lies going." Yet Phelps doesn't believe homosexuals can be redeemed, an attitude which cast his actions, not as salvation-through-fear, but as pointless and abusive. Almost any day on the picket line in Topeka, he can be heard announcing to the occasional passerby who stops to talk: "Deep-dyed fags cannot be saved. God has given them up." The pastor seems uninterested when other Christian ministers attempt to show him differently. One the same KBRT talk show, Phelps intoned: "It's my position that they (gays) fit in that category of the most depraved and degenerate of Adam's race. And probably these guys are past hope for salvation.
"And it was a long time coming to that. I've never seen one such person converted in 46 years of preaching this Bible." "I've seen a number of homosexuals come to Christ," protests the announcer, up to now quite warn to Fred's message. "I'd like to meet one," says Fred.
The announcer mentions a young man, a reformed homosexual, who, after 'coming to Christ', has established an AIDS ministry that is now nationwide. "Herb Hall," says the how's host, "is one of the most solid soul winners I've seen in decades." They reach Hall by phone at his home in Garden Grove, New Jersey. He invites Fred to come and see, that there's plenty of gays who turned to Christ and ceased their sodomy. "I think it's a put-on," says Fred. He resists the suggestion that Phelps and Hall confer on what they've learned during their separate campaigns against homosexuality. "I'd love to sit down and talk with you, and meet with you," begins Hall.
"We'll have to do that," responds Phelps, "because your story so far is not convincing, and it sounds very canned and put on to me." When the announcer again vouches for Hall, Phelps says reluctantly: "I gotta talk to him first, and I gotta know more..." Then to Hall: "Are you gonna call me?"
Announcer: "Oh! We've just hung up on him. But we have his number, and we'll give that to you, OK?" Phelps: "OK. Thank you. I'm very interested." But Preacher Phelps never called. So Hall called him. He remembers their conversation below:
"Pastor Phelps, when Jesus approached the prostitute, all the people who had surrounded her, He wrote their sins in the dirt. That's why they left her alone. Unless we show them (homosexuals), love and compassion, and really comfort them, we'll never be able to reach them." Hall says Phelps told him he'd never seen a homosexual that had ever changed, and he doubted that Hall had.
"Pastor, I am a homosexual. I've changed. And I will be in heaven someday." According to Hall, Phelps doubted that also. "So you think it (homosexuality) is the one unforgivable sin?" Yes, said Phelps.
In an interview with Jim Doblin, a television reporter for WIBW-TV, Channel 13 in Topeka, Phelps shared a bit more. If everyone was predestined from the womb, regardless of what they did in life, asked Doblin, wouldn't there be a homosexual or two among the Elect?
No, Phelps insisted. "Three times within eight verses in Romans, Chapter 1, it says God has given these people up. If the only power in the universe that can call you to Jesus Christ has given you up, how you gonna get there?" In fact, Phelps has shown little interest in getting the "good word" out at all. His record in this new campaign shows his focus is on ego dominance, insult, and therapeutic lashing out.
Offers Phelps from the same interview with Doblin: "My ol' dad used to say, 'you're gettin' people mad at you, bubba! An' if you're determined to get 'em mad at you, I recommend you just walk up and kick 'em in the shins-it won't take so long!' "I believe I finally took my ol' dad's advice: just walk up and kick 'em in the shins!" The pastor breaks into a big grin: "God hates fags!"
He's obviously enjoying himself. But why kick them in the shins if they can't be saved? Fred can't answer that. Because she knows he's not trying to save anyone. For his own secret reasons, he needs to hurt people, and he's chosen homosexuals. Reacting to a joint statement condemning his anti-gay activities that was signed by 47 Topeka area religious leaders, Phelps, in a letter to The Advocate wrote: "I love it. I'm a Baptist preacher, and that means I'm a hate preacher." When it comes to any serious attempt to explore a religious issue via considered argument and fair rebuttal, however, Pastor Phelps has proved a no-show, On August 23, 1993, Dick Snider, a columnist for the Capital- Journal, printed part of the letter from an English professor at Spoon River College in Canton, Illinois. Farrell Till was a Bible debater, and he wanted a chance to debate Fred on God's hatred of homosexuals. By midmorning, the faxes came rolling in at the newsroom and offices all over the capital: a photo of the pastor, looking pensive and studious at his desk, and the words emblazoned:
Followed by the missive: "Not since two of my heroes (Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan) slugged it out at the famous Scopes Monkey Trial at Dayton, Tennessee in July, 1925, has the issue of the inerrancy of the Bible been properly debated. If Farrell Till is for real, let's get it on. "Your newspaper can work out the details and send circulation off the charts. And your own involvement to date in this historic event will more than justify your otherwise pitiful existence on this earth as a wayward son of Adam. Kindest regards. Fred Phelps." Farrell Till was notified his challenge had been accepted. He immediately sent the pastor a courteous letter, via the Capital-Journal, outlining his qualifications to engage in a serious scholarly exchange and requesting Phelps contact him to work out a compatible date. Fred forgot. Though he was reminded several times by both the paper and Till, the impulsive pastor never remembered to set that date.
By Christmas, Till reported he had inquired by phone or letter five times and received no response. Coincidentally, during the same time period, the Capital-Journal had arranged for a round-table exchange in print: participating with Phelps would have been Tex Sample, a liberal minister from St. Paul's School of Theology in Kansas City; Rabbi Lawrence Karol, an old testament scholar in Topeka; and Scott Clark, a primitive Baptist (old Calvinist) minister from Fred's own sect, now working on his doctorate in theology at Oxford University. Fred would exchange views in print with clergymen of three differing faiths to avoid the discussion becoming mired in minor sectarian conflicts.
All four agreed to participate, and all agreed to the tennis format: Phelps would serve by responding to three questions; the others would return with comment, and Phelps would bat it back. To the three questions-Does God hate? Does God hate gays? By what authority do you judge?-Phelps submitted a brief response. His turbid theology was quickly returned to him, analyzed as unfounded and unbiblical-even by the Oxford Calvinist of his own sect. Now here was a battle of the Titans! Let's get it on! But again the would-be William Jennings Bryan fled the field, muttering he'd heard all those false arguments before and couldn't be bothered refuting them again.
Pity. All those reprobates out there who've never heard his refutations...it would be like water to parched souls... Twice turning tail at the opportunity for his truth to confront publicly the world's falsehoods...a very odd response indeed for someone who claims his only aim in his crude, cruel, and vindictive behavior is to get the "good word" out to a world of stubborn reprobates. Each time has been offered the chance to present his message in a fair and sober forum-sans shin-kicking and street theater-the earnest pastor has passed. In fairness, it would be observed that, since his tent emptied that night in Vernal, Utah, Phelps has preached almost entirely to the converted and the blood-related. He may find an opinion differing from his own to be a frightening and flight-triggering experience. Or perhaps the amateur Biblical erudition gained during that long, arduous summer Phelps spent between his baptism and ordination failed him when he entered the arena of professional scholarship. Whatever the cause, the pastor appears long on antics, insults, and threats-short on good news the reprobates can use. Of the 12 abominations listed in the Old Testament, pride in one-homosexuality is not. "His dad couldn't care less about God or the Bible," says Luava. "He just happened to embrace that structure to create a framework for himself as god. What he says, goes. In his mind, and in his life, he is god." "He's not for anything but Fred," adds Nate. "Whatever it is he has to do to get attention, he'll do it."
Mark interrupts: "...He helped himself to any behavior he ever wanted to have and then left it for others to clean up. He's operating at the level of a two year-old. My little girl just goes up and shoves someone sometimes, but she's two. He does not hesitate to do what my little Becky does, but he does it in adult ways. "He's completely out-focused and totally high right now. He's got the best fix: drugs, beatings, all the raging and abusing he's done, all the political stirring-up he's caused, nothing compares to what he's doing now." Nate adds: "And each time it seems he has to ratchet it a little higher. Eventually it could end in tragedy for a lot of people." He shakes his head. "My father likes to hurt people. And he needs to hate them. Why, I don't know. But you can be sure of one thing: he'll always do it with the Bible. "They'll give us the fags," says Margie, referring to Topeka's generally hostile response to the pastor's message, "it's the 'God hates' part they can't stand. The notion that God hates humans is rejected so deeply by most people-that's what everyone is so angry about." If the strange case of Fred Phelps were, in fact, a doctrinal and not a mental health phenomenon, it would revolve on two issues: whether God hates some souls regardless of their character or actions and whether he hates homosexuals most of all. Absolute predestination-the theory that some people are bound for heaven before they are born, while others have a one-way ticket to hell-best focuses the beliefs of Westboro Baptist and its basilisk leader.
"It goes like this," says Fred, shifting into his preacher voice, talking slowly and emphasizing every syllable, "the everlasting love of God for some men and the everlasting hatred of God for other men is the grand doctrine that razes free will to the ground. "Hate in the deity is not a passion like it is with humans, you know. It is a purpose that is part of His nature and His essential attributes."
The Bible is chock full of hate, says the pastor. "From all eternal ages past, God has loved some of Adam's race and purposed to do them good, and he's hated the rest and purposed to punish them for their sins." Attributes of God linked to hate, anger, wrath and punishment are used two-thirds more often in the Bible than attributes linked to love, mercy, pity, long-suffering, gentleness and goodness, he claims
"You can't be a Bible preacher without preaching the hatred of God, the wrath of God. It is a fabrication, this modern Christianity, that says good old God loves everybody." Implicit in all this talk of predestination is the assumption that Fred, at last, is going to heaven. Yet the Bible, as it interpreted by predestinists, says the elect will not be revealed until the Judgement Day. Tacitly, the pastor's congregation counts him early in that tiny group and looks to him for a sign they'll be a part too. Not only is Phelps without Bible authority to designate them elect, he may not be elect himself. His ministry could be that of a reprobate. A summary of some of the objections raised to the pastor's philosophy of hate by Sample, Clark, and Karol is listed below. The text of the original exchange is contained in the appendix.
1) It rejects a 3000 year-old rabbinical interpretation of the Jacob and Esau story in favor of one of his own.
2) It mistranslates and falsely equates the words for the anger and wrath of God that so often occur in the Old Testament with a divine hatred of mankind.
3) When the Bible does speak of God hating, God is described as hating the act or the sin-not the sinner.
4) The speaker in the book of Psalms does profess hatred for the sinner- but the voice is that of the psalmist, not of God.
5) Phelps pointedly ignores the emphasis in the New Testament on love and forgiveness. One may find lichen growing on the floor of a redwood forest-but that does not make it a moor, not so long as the landscape is dominated by the giant trees.
The prophet of hate grins broadly when asked how it feels being the target of so much hatred himself now:
"You guys don't seem to understand what motivates me." He chuckles. As usual, a Bible verse serves as his answer. "Blessed are ye when men shall hate you and revile you and say all manner of evil against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad: for great is your reward in heaven." Phelps seems giddy, His words roll off his tongue in a Mississippi drawl tinged with excitement. "I love them to death," he says of those who criticize him. "If they weren't doing that, how am I going to get all that 'great is your reward in heaven'? If you are preaching the truth of God, people are going to hate you. And they can't often or always articulate why, and so they fall back on specious, insincere and false reasons for why they hate you. And you swim in a sea of lies. And I love it!"
Phelps seems to lead a euphoric life, Today he is wearing his trademark running shoes, running shorts, and shirt and tie with a nylon running jacket, sleeves rolled up to his biceps. He has just returned from a noontime picket in downtown Topeka. "If the call was good, it never goes away," he chirps, referring to the 1946 revival that called him to preaching. "I have a hard time getting to sleep some nights from pure happiness." A wide smile blossoms on his windburned face. His eyes gleam and glitter. It's hard to imagine so much happiness taking root and growing out of so much hate. "If my father's going to become a spokesman for the Christian Reform Movement, it's important Christians realize who he really is," states Mark. "What worries me most is my brothers and sisters may see him as a Christ-like figure. "He has nothing to do with Christ. He is a sad, sick man who likes to hurt people. For a long as I've known him, he has been addicted to hate." Even a cursory glance at the pastor's most recent published material would seem to beat this out. The following random excerpts from his faxes can't be defended as "scaring 'em to salvation". They are mean and hateful and nothing more:
(December 2, 1993) Next to the headline, "FAGS: GOD'S HATE SPEAKS LOUDEST", is the text: "Fag Bishop Fritz Mutti...confessed his sins to ANTICHRIST CLINTON: He raised 2 fag sons for the Devil; they died of AIDS. GOOD RIDDANCE!"
(December 9, 1993) "Court Clerk JOYCE REEVES dying of cancer? Couldn't happen to a better dyke...May explain why she's super bitchy to the help. N.Y. Fag Son TODD's arrived, looking like AIDS on a stick. Patronize his Westboro Shop and go home with AIDS?"
(December 16, 1993) [When Topeka Police Sergeant, Dave Landis, only 45 years-old and with a wife and children, was suddenly paralyzed by a stroke, Phelps found time to gloat.] "You don't scare us, Officer Landis! Not even before the Lord turned you into a limp vegetable! "Westboro Baptist will picket fag cop Landis fundraiser...Fag cop John Sams and his FOP (Phaternal Order of Phags) will try to raise $12,500 to unscramble the brain of fag cop Dave Landis...Forget it, guys! When God scrambles eggs, man can't unscramble 'em. Westboro Baptist has picketed this evil Son of Belial at the VA hospital for 4 months now; Westboro Baptist will picket his funeral to give him a proper send-off to hell..."
Many of Fred Phelps' former adversaries and law school classmates have gone on to become luminaries, while he has slowly dissolved into a disbarred lawyer and failed preacher, supported by his abused children.
The more his own life slips into the periphery, the more stridently abusive he becomes. Pastor Phelps is one of many false prophets to come who will seek to exploit the loss of faith, soul, and identity in North America. As a society that has lost its path in a steaming, sensual, violent marsh of mindless, me-first, frantic consumerism, America is entering its dark middle age stupified by television and content to let its values be formed, not by saints, heroes, and visionaries, but by default, by advertising and market forces appealing to the basest urges in each of us. Our culture has grown childish and narcissistic, slothful and irrational. With the winter of our nation will soon follow the wolves-fierce white toothed beasts come to trip the flesh of our indolence.
Fred Phelps is one of them. And in our chaos and confusion, the false prophets will claim to lead us into a new day. But by this mark we shall know them: no matter how bright their vision, always it will demand someone or group be punished before a new day can come.
The dark angels will promise a bright tomorrow but ask for blood today.
Fifty years ago, looking ahead to our time, the poet, Yates, would lament:
"The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity."
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