Sleepy village shaken up

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The Repository, Mar. 7, 2003
By LORI MONSEWICZ, Repository staff writer

KILGORE —— This sleepy little village in rural southeastern Carroll County was abuzz this week with FBI agents seeking snacks and residents wondering what Anthony Fernwalt is wanted for this time.

The man who drew national attention when he discovered a weeping portrait of the Virgin Mary and claimed to have conversed with Christ was arrested Tuesday after authorities swept in on his wooded hillside home and defunct Christ in the Hills shrine, which was a mecca three years ago for those who thought the world would end with the century. Fernwalt had claimed he was using birth certificates of dead Canadians to bring Pakistani and Indian nationals into the country for a terrorist attack using sarin gas.

He has been arrested before — on charges of felony theft, possession of marijuana, abduction, bad checks, carrying concealed weapons, probation violations and unlawful possession of explosive materials. And he has been in prison.

Some think that this time, he may have instigated his own arrest.

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“Is it a terrorist act? I can’t say that,” said Jefferson County Sheriff Fred Abdalla. Fernwalt showed up at Abdalla’s office to confess, and Abdalla still doesn’t know why.

“I think Tony is an attention-getter,” the sheriff said. “He saw all these people coming to see him (for his apparitions). Is this the case now? It could be.”

Some Kilgore residents agree, and plenty of rumors are floating around.

Brian Will said he’s heard “the same thing as everyone else, I guess — about the Holy Water and his women.”

Fernwalt’s wife, Patty, lives in the same house as his ex-wife, Theresa. Other family members said he also was married twice before. But some townspeople believe he’s still married to all of them.

Junior Bright said Fernwalt has “just a regular old cult” on the hill.

Bright noticed the television stations setting up their remote broadcasting trucks by the school Thursday.

“What we need to do is drive around and get us a couple of Arabian masks or something. How long do you think it’d take them to stop me?” he said, jokingly.

The men were among the many locals stopping in at the Kilgore General Store, the biggest — and seemingly, the only — business in town. Nearly everyone wanted to know what was going on at the Fernwalt place out on Branch Road.

Outside the former gas station that is now a store, the sign advertised Marlboro cigarettes at $3.19 a pack — Fernwalt’s brand, said Iverna Simmons, manager. “Unless he was ‘quitting,’ ” she said.

Inside, newspapers sold out early on Thursday.

Television news crews and newspaper reporters stopped in throughout the day.

It had been a different stream of customers on Tuesday. Those customers had carried guns.

FBI agents from Cleveland, Canton and Quantico, Va., Carroll County sheriff’s deputies and Stark County Fugitive Task Force officers stopped in for snacks after the initial search of Fernwalt’s property and later in the day.

“Did you ever make a sandwich for the FBI? That just doesn’t happen in Kilgore,” said clerk Beverly Wood. “They got turkey and American.”

Wood said the visit by federal agents was a surprise.

“Everything was so quiet and nobody knew anything was going on until we saw all the FBI people go by,” she said.

Curious, she followed them.

When they stopped at Branch and Post roads, “they were putting on their gas masks and bulletproof vests,” she said. “I never heard of Christ in the Hills (church) until a big tour bus came to our house trying to find it.”

Simmons said Fernwalt was selling water from his spring as Holy Water at the church, and that people came from all over the country to buy it. But, she said, the well must have run dry because he bought cases of Deer Park water from the store.

Patty Fernwalt on Wednesday said people have accused her husband of selling the water from the spring. But, she said, it has always been free and people still draw from it.

Trina Howe, an Akron area woman who said she is one of Fernwalt’s seven children — he has five grandchildren — said the store-bought water was used solely by Fernwalt at his home last summer after discovering a water bug in the spring water. Howe said he didn’t want his children drinking water with bugs and declared a switch to bottled water.

Howe said her father is a good-hearted man who was concerned after Sept. 11 about growing extra food in the garden for anyone who shows up hungry.

When she was growing up, she said, “Dad would go fishing and bring people home with him because they didn’t have a home. I told him to quit doing that, because I’d wake up and there’d be these strange people picking up trash in my driveway.”

Howe said she didn’t know whether Fernwalt was capable of doing what he claimed to police.

“Why he would say it, I don’t know. Why he would do it, I don’t know,” she said.

When told that a magistrate judge at the U.S. District Court in Akron on Wednesday ordered Fernwalt to undergo a psychiatric evaluation to determine whether he is competent to stand trial, Howe said, “He needs it.”

Staff Writer Tim Botos contributed to this report.

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)