COLUMBUS — A Polk County jury took just over an hour to return a verdict Wednesday which leaves a controversial church leader with a criminal record and gives a married couple a sense of vindication.
Whaley was sentenced to 30 days in jail, but that time was suspended as she will have a one-year probation period where any violation of the probation will activate the jail time.
She was also charged a fine and court costs, totaling just under $500.
The penalties will not be enforced at this time if a promised appeal is filed within 30 days.
The jury said they believed Whaley had assaulted Lacy Wien who was a member of the Spindale-based church at the time.
Wien left the church less than a week after the assault, escaping with her now husband Ruben Wien.
The couple plans to live in Ruben’s home country of Sweden where Lacy intends to begin schooling to become an eye doctor, something she said Whaley prevented her from doing while at WOFF.
The reality of the verdict was still setting in for Wien who still feels remnants of the fear she said she had in leaving the church.
“This is a very big deal, it is kind of mark in history for me,” she said. “On the other hand, I am still afraid. They did deny, in court, that they have a security force. I was kind of horrified if I was to run into them or if they would come after me now.”
She said she was very happy with the work of Assistant District Attorney Joe Hamrick, especially his impassioned closing argument.
“It was time for justice to come,” said Wien. “She preached that same day the incident occurred and it was on the judgment of God. I thought that was kind of interesting this is bringing back her own judgment now.”
“I am just glad about how it turned out,” said Ruben, who did not watch the trial in person. “It is amazing for them to finally get what they deserve. It has been a long two years. (Lacy) is extremely strong, I am really proud of her.”
Whaley’s attorney Robert Long of Asheville promised an appeal.
“I think there were some issues at the trial, in particular the exclusion of evidence about the mental status of (Wien),” said Long.
The formal appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals is expected with the next two weeks.
Judge Dennis Winner admitted during the latter part of the trial and during the penalty phase that he may have made an error in ruling about the admissibility of some evidence, a point Long said would be brought up on appeal.
Whaley reacted with a what appeared to be disbelief as the verdict was read.
A jury member, who declined to give his name, said that even though it was not mentioned during the trial, discussions of the WOFF as a cult took place in the jury room.
“It was something the jury came up with,” said the juror. “Pretty much everybody was thinking guilty when we started.”
The juror said one particular facet of the testimony stood out.
“It was the testimony of all the church members,” the juror said. “All of their stories were too similar, it seemed scripted.”
The juror said Whaley probably hurt herself by testifying.
None of the jurors said they had heard about the WOFF prior to the trial beginning.
Six church members testified, including Wien’s mother and sister-in-law.
Wien said while she was a member of the church they were regularly coached on what to say to visitors such as Department of Social Services investigators. Members who didn’t comply were punished, she said.
During his closing argument, Hamrick directed the jurors to what he called “canned” testimony.
He cited the testimony of Lynn Millwood in particular saying “(her testimony) is hogwash, and you know it and it makes me mad.”
Hamrick argued that no current church member could tell the truth if it meant it might hurt Whaley.
“(Wien) was afraid, she had been subjected to this for years, and I submit to you that the defense witnesses are as well,” said Hamrick.
Last summer, Wien dropped a $2.3 million civil lawsuit against the church.
She and Ruben said they can truly began their lives as a married couple.
The couple’s odyssey, according to them, included Ruben fabricating a letter to get himself kicked out of the church; Ruben camping out for three days outside of Lacy’s house waiting for her to escape; a getaway to Spartanburg with the WOFF claiming Ruben had kidnapped Lacy and then lying to the police about Lacy’s age; and Lacy working a job cleaning a new hotel to scrape together enough money to get to Sweden with Ruben who had to go back because his visa was about to expire.
The church has been in the news for the past 10 years and in court for a number issues related to the practices at the entity.