— The murmurs in rural Ashtabula County are starting to grow louder: Cult. Mind control. Something is going on in that church.
Some people raised the specter years ago, but the beating death of a longtime church member last month has dragged once-shadowy concerns into the light.
“This is a textbook cult case, and there are children who we believe are at risk in that church,” said Liz Shaw, a national cult expert who said she has tracked the church since 1999.
Shaw is a client advocate at Albany, Ohio’s Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center, which provides mental-health treatment for onetime cult members. Its clinicians have been called as expert court witnesses in past cult cases, including the Kirtland murders of 1989.
“This church believes that their bishop’ is a prophet of God, that he is the voice of God telling them what to do in every detail of their lives,” Shaw said. “The children are in fear of being hit — but also have the fear of going to hell if they don’t work hard or do exactly what they’re told to do.”
The church calls itself the Apostolic Faith Church Body of Jesus Christ of the Newborn Assembly, an independent congregation of some 250 members.
The pastor under scrutiny is Charles D. Keyes, 52, a third- generation preacher and self- appointed “bishop” over his church since breaking away from the small Apostolic Faith Church of God denomination.
Clark, who was trying to leave her estranged husband and the church, was found beaten to death early May 7 at an Ashtabula home where she had been staying.
Ralph Clark, 43, her husband of more than 22 years, was arrested within hours of her death and will be tried on a murder charge July 26 in Ashtabula County Common Pleas Court. Authorities say he beat Carolyn Clark with the butt of a gun that he couldn’t get to fire.
In the month since the slaying, former church members and a relative of Keyes have claimed that he uses fear, intimidation and beatings to manipulate and micromanage the lives – including the sexual practices – of church members.
A court document filed by attorney Jane Hawn-Jackson on Carolyn Clark’s behalf some six weeks before her death alleged that:
She and her husband had been beaten by the church members in September 2004.
The church was responsible for the physical and sexual abuse of children.
She had been forced to have sex on two occasions with Keyes.
“This is a woman who died Mother’s Day weekend while trying to save her children,” said Hawn-Jackson. “Carolyn Clark was a very deeply convicted religious woman who suffered at the hands of this church.”
Church leaders in early May denied accusations that Keyes and others were part of a religious cult. Since then, they have declined to comment, citing the advice of an unidentified attorney.
Further, the adult Clark children have consistently defended their father, saying in news reports that their mother was abusive to them and that their fa ther was more docile and loving.
But Shaw, whom a former church member contacted in the late 1990s, is convinced that the Clark children and other members are trained to defend their pastor. Shaw says the Jefferson church is a time bomb, and she is concerned that Ashtabula authorities might not act quickly enough to protect members of the congregation.
“Even though we’re experts in treating people coming out of cults, we’re not law enforcement,” Shaw said. “Authorities up there need to do something quick to protect the children.”
Ashtabula city police and county prosecutors have said that investigators are diligently pursuing leads, including some that could link the death of Carolyn Clark to her two-decades- long, but recently soured, association with the church.
Police at first thought the crime was a case of domestic violence.
Investigators said the killing took place in front of several of the couple’s small children. Carolyn Clark, who was seeking a divorce, had just gained custody of them.
“It’s an open investigation, and the murder has certainly shone a light on this church and its practices,” police spokesman Capt. Gerald Cornelius said. “But there are rumors and accusations, and then there is solid, provable fact. We have to have enough of that to go any further.”
Children Services’ Board investigator Michael Rose, a former Ashtabula County sheriff’s deputy, said he, too, has been investigating allegations of abuse at the church.
But Rose said increasing community demands for action show a fundamental misunderstanding of legal standards.
“I feel it is important to understand that even if an organization is considered to be a cult, [that] doesn’t constitute a crime under the Ohio Revised Code,” Rose said in a written statement. “It is only the actions of the organization that may violate criminal law.”
Hawn-Jackson, Shaw and some members of Carolyn Clark’s family have suggested that the investigation of the church may be too complex for the cash-strapped Ashtabula County Sheriff’s Office.
“I think this is bigger than their resources,” Hawn-Jackson said. “I’m just hoping to God that people will contact [the] victims of crime unit and there will be a break in the case.”
The Rev. Ora Tyus of Ashtabula said she prays it won’t be too late.
Tyus, pastor of an Apostolic Faith congregation in Bedford, said she told denominational leaders in Virginia in 2002 about another young woman’s allegations of sexual abuse in the Jefferson church.
“They didn’t do anything, and I don’t know why. And now something must be done for the children under the control of that church,” Tyus said. “If I don’t stand up for what’s right now, how can I stand up before God?”
Tyus has several connections to the church debate.
She is the aunt of both Charles Keyes (the son of her brother Oree) and Ralph Clark (the son of her sister Audrey Clark).
Tyus also may be the last person outside the home to speak to Carolyn Clark before she died. She said Clark called her around 11 p.m. May 6, just hours before she was killed.
Tyus said Clark planned to leave for Virginia with relatives the next morning, taking the five youngest of her 13 children, but Clark was worried what might happen to her if the church found out.
“Carolyn told me that night that her husband was not himself, but that if she could get him away from that church, that she would be able to live with him,” Tyus said. “But she was afraid.”
Shaw said Wellspring became aware of the situation at Apostolic Faith in 1999 when former church member Ruth Chestnut contacted the agency.
Chestnut left the church in 1996, complaining that Bishop Oree Keyes was forcing children as young as 5 to work at a church-owned scrap yard.
Chestnut, 59, now of Williamsburg, Va., said she tried to expose the church then and is still trying to persuade two adult daughters and their 11 children to come back to Virginia.
One of Chestnut’s granddaughters also is married to the Clarks’ oldest son, Ralph Clark Jr., and is a member of the church.
Chestnut said that she filed a report with the Ashtabula County Children’s Services in 1999. Some of her grandchildren were temporarily placed in foster care during an investigation, but it resulted in no charges against her daughter or the church, she related.
“Right now, I’m very concerned about my grandchildren,” she said. “One of my daughters is in the inner circle with the pastor, so I don’t expect her to come out, but I’m worried about her kids.”
Chestnut said both Charles Keyes and his father, Oree Keyes, 82, restricted their congregation in similar ways.
“They controlled people,” she said. “No one could go anywhere without the bishop’s permission.”
Chestnut, who said her own father was a preacher, said she never bought into the Keyes’ teachings.
“I believe the Bible and firmly believe in God,” she said. “My faith is not shaken because of them, and there ain’t no need in me going to hell along with them.”
One church member, who would give only his first name as Frank, said the congregation has been in Jefferson for at least 50 years and has always been misunderstood.
“And that’s how long those rumors about us beatin’ our kids have been going on,” Frank said. “We’re raising our kids up in the Lord, and discipline is a part of that, but people always want to bring us down.”
But Hawn-Jackson insisted that it was a clearly frightened Carolyn Clark who came to her regarding the divorce and the church situation.
“She gave me documents: ‘In case I disappear,’ she said,” Hawn-Jackson said.
Hawn-Jackson said she urged Carolyn Clark to go somewhere safe immediately.
“But she said, ‘No, God has a plan for me, and I’m at peace and no longer afraid,’ ” the attorney said. “I really want her to be remembered as the ultimate Christian – died to save others and people in that church.”