Polk County jury upholds assault conviction for religious leader

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Jane Whaley, founder and leader of the controversial Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF), was found guilty Wednesday in Polk County Superior Court of assault.

The jurys decision upholds a lower court conviction of the same charge in March of 2004, which Whaley appealed.

Whaley was given a 30-day jail sentence, suspended with one year unsupervised probation, and ordered to pay a fine and court costs.

A juror, who did not wish to be identified, said after the trial that members of the jury felt the Spindale-based WOFF appears to be a cult based on the testimony. The juror said the testimony of defense witnesses seemed scripted.

The jurys verdict was a victory for Lacy Wien, the victim in the case and a former WOFF member. Wien issued the criminal complaint against Whaley for assaulting her in an encounter on Feb. 24, 2002, at the WOFF church.

Wien, who was 18 at the time, said she was in a holding room of the church on that Sunday when Whaley was called in to confront her. She says Whaley came straight toward her with her hands, grabbed her neck, pulled her out of a chair and began beating her head against the wall. She says Whaley yelled at her, calling her horrible names such as fornicator.

Wien said one of the church members in the room, who she described as a guard assigned by the church to stay with her, blocked the door during the assault. Wien secretly left WOFF six days later.

Word of Faith Fellowship
The Word of Faith Fellowship is an abusive church. Its teachings and practices fall so far outside those of normal, Biblical Christianity, that this church should be considered to be, theologically, a cult of Christianity. Sociologically, the WOFF has many cultic characteristics as well.

The defense gave a vastly different account of the encounter, claiming that Wien had been despondent and Whaley came into the room to ask what was wrong with her. The defense said Whaley had a discussion with Wien about certain problems, prayed for her and laid hands on Wiens shoulder.

The church, which former members say has business ties in Polk County and members who work here, has acknowledged that its members pray loudly. Former WOFF members, who escaped from the church, say its members have practiced blasting or shouting at a person to remove demons.

Whaleys attorney, Robert Long of Asheville, said praying loudly and laying hands is part of the church members faith, which they have a right to practice.

The 12-person Polk jury needed only about an hour of deliberation to decide that the encounter between Whaley and Wien in 2002 was more than laying on hands or praying loudly.

Whaley appeared to have a look of disbelief when the verdict was read. Long says Judge Dennis Winner should have admitted more evidence, particularly regarding the mental status of Wien. He has said another appeal is likely, which would send the case to the N.C. Court of Appeals in Raleigh.

Wien, who lived at WOFF from the age of 3 to 18, said she was very pleased and relieved to hear the Polk jurys decision. She said it meant a lot to her to know that 12 people listened to and believed her account of what happened.

After being in there (WOFF) for so long and it being so closed, I was living as such a recluse and keeping everything to myself, said Wien, who adds that she dreamed of escaping from WOFF since she was 5. I cant describe what it means that for once someone finally listened to me and somebody believed me.

She says its interesting that Whaley was preaching about the judgment of God in her sermons on Feb. 24, 2002. I thought that was kind of interesting (the trial) is bringing back her own judgment, said Lacy.

Important case

The trial, which began in Polk County on Monday, was initially scheduled to be heard in Rutherford County. But Whaleys attorneys asked for a change of venue.

WOFF, the subject of previous lawsuits, is well known by many Rutherford County residents. None of the members of the Polk jury said they had heard of WOFF before the trial began.

In their closing arguments on Wednesday, attorneys on both sides described the case as important.

Long said the case was a matter of credibility in the community (Whaley) lives in. Whaleys defense team also included Tom Hix, who serves as Polk County attorney and has represented WOFF in previous cases.

Assistant district attorney Joe Hamrick, who presented the states case against Whaley, called the jurys responsibility huge. He urged the jurors to produce a guilty verdict.

In the name of the state, do not let her go, Hamrick told the jury. Dont you listen to that hogwash defense testimony.

One witness against nine

Hamrick had just one witness, Wien, to support the states case, while the defense brought forward nine witnesses.

Hamrick said the jury should believe his lone witness because Wiens testimony was consistent throughout the case. He said it was consistent because it was true.

The assistant defense attorney said it was evident that the defense witnesses testimony was not true because it was inconsistent and seemed rehearsed.

He said one of the witnesses, Lynn Millwood, who was present in the holding room where the assault took place, gave an identical answer each time she was asked how she knew the defendant. He said the answer always included the same words, some of which were unrelated and aimed more at vouching for Whaleys character than explaining how she knew her.

Its an identical, canned answer. Its hogwash and you know it and it makes me mad, said Hamrick to the jury. I know you see through it. Its silly. Its insulting.

Hamrick said the six defense witnesses who are WOFF members were unable to go against Whaley and speak the truth. Wien says church members have been ordered not to say anything that could hurt Whaley.

In my opinion at times (Whaley) has spoken the truth, said Wien. But other times she said you need to fear God more than the law of the land. She has not always been truthful.

One of the defense witnesses was Dr. A.T. Pagter of Tryon. Hamrick said that Pagter, like the five other defense witnesses who are WOFF members, was unable to speak against Whaley. Hamrick said Pagter has even been disciplined by the defendant.

Hamrick said other character witnesses brought forth by the defense are not church members and were not around her enough to know what Whaley does or says on a regular basis. One of the character witnesses was a neighbor; another one was a woman who knew Whaley when they both attended Appalachian State University. The woman said she occasionally runs into Whaley now in Rutherford County.

Witnesses support Whaley

Defense attorney Long said the defense tried to present witnesses who reflect a broad spectrum of the community, not just WOFF members. He also urged the jury to believe the witnesses who are WOFF members. He noted that many of them have jobs of responsibility in the community, which reflects that they are trusted people.

He added that Lisa Brown, Wiens mother, was one of the defense witnesses who was in the church room at the time of the encounter between Wien and Whaley.

He said it didnt make sense that Wiens mother would support Whaley if Whaleys story wasnt true. Is it reasonable that someones mother sat in the room and saw what occurred and did or said nothing? Long asked the jury.

The defense claimed that Whaley was concerned about Wien and wanted to talk with her on Feb. 24, 2002, because of Wiens relationship at the time to Ruben Wien. Ruben, a former WOFF member, is now Lacy Wiens husband.

Whaley had recently read a letter from Ruben, which had her very concerned. She says she did not touch Lacy in an improper way or call her names and Lacy was free to leave the room. But she says she did ask Lacy if she had fornicated with Ruben. She says she suspected that was the cause of Lacys despondency.

The only thing that came to me was, and I have counseled a lot of young people, especially Christian young people, if they have ever fornicated with somebody it torments them, said Whaley during the trial.

Whaley said she told Lacy that Ruben did not love her and was only using her. She said they then prayed and Lacy appeared happy.

The final straw

Lacy says she was happy only because Whaleys assault against her provided a moment of clarity.

She says she knew then that moment was not of God, and she had the excuse she had been looking for to finally leave WOFF. She says she had attempted unsuccessfully a few times when she was younger to escape, and did not try later because she was afraid.

The church has said its members are not restricted from leaving the church as Wien and others have described. Members say WOFF provides a supportive community for people who share the same faith.

Fleeing the church

Ruben, a former WOFF member, says people at the church were very kind to him for a while, but then it changed and became overly harsh and restrictive.

He says he had fabricated the stories in the letter that Whaley read in an attempt to get both him and Lacy thrown out of the church. It worked for him, but not for Lacy. He says he was thrown out on the Saturday before Lacys encounter with Wien. Lacy says she was despondent going into that encounter because she didnt know if she would see Ruben again.

Ruben got a ticket back to his home country of Sweden, he says, but stopped in New York so he could go back for Lacy. He says he always told her he would come back for her if something happened.

She says she held on to that thought and kept looking for him. Early in the morning on the following Saturday she spotted him in a vehicle across the street. He had been waiting there since Thursday. She says she signaled for him to wait one minute and then came out and they left.

Ruben later had to return to Sweden because his visa was about to expire, and Lacy stayed with an aunt and uncle in Pennsylvania. She worked cleaning up a construction site for a month to save up enough money for a ticket to Sweden. The two were married five months later and have been living together there since then.

A new beginning

Lacy says shes very happy being with Ruben, the man she had told Whaley she wanted to be with, but was denied.

Ruben said he is very proud of Lacy for going through with the trial against WOFF. He says shes strong and courageous, and WOFF deserved the outcome.

Ruben says the two of them can finally beginning living their life together.

After the trial was over on Wednesday, Lacy said her heart was still pumping fast. She says it was difficult to be around Whaley and the other WOFF members during the trial.

Im glad theyre not around me now, Lacy said to Ruben, putting her head against his shoulder. Ruben hugged her and said, They wont be anymore.

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This post was last updated: Dec. 12, 2014