The Buffalo News
April 27, 1997
When the phone call finally came, Laurie Johnson’s heart soared. After an eight year search for her two sons, authorities had found them in a small town in Florida. But the moment she had prayed for held little joy. When she finally met them, her sons refused to look her in the eye. “I expected the worst, and they got it. By the time she brought them home to Scriba in Oswego County last month, Mrs. Johnson’s sons, 12 year old Seth and 17 year old Nathaniel had spent their childhood’s in a religious sect whose members banished their mother and branded her as wicked. Authorities say the cult, called the Community, encouraged the boy’s father, Stephen Wooten, to abduct them in 1989 on the eve of a court hearing granting their mother custody.
The community, authorities claim, helped hide the boys in “safe houses” around the country. Seth and Nathan Wooten used the aliases David and Andrew Leonard and forgot their own birthdays.
As members of the Community, they weren’t allowed to attend mainstream schools, play with toys, watch television or befriend “worldly children.” Mrs. Johnson described the group as a rigid hierarchy in which male elders make the decisions, male followers enforced them, and women and children obeyed.
Instead of living a carefree country life, Mrs. Johnson said, she worked 12 hour days teaching other member’s children, doing chores and preparing communal meals. She hardly saw Seth and Nathan, she said.
She also learned that “loving discipline” meant hitting children with wooden sticks. The community’s idea of misbehavior, she said, included slacking off on chores and indulging in make believe play. Without toys, Seth, then a toddler, made do by pushing a wooden block along the floor and saying, “Vroom, vroom.” She was ordered to discipline him, she said.
Within eight months, Mrs. Johnson was disillusioned with the Community, and her husband was a devout follower. She wanted to leave. He didn’t. Mrs. Johnson left the Community twice, and then returned. Mrs. Johnson said she went back because she missed the boys. The elders summoned her to a six hour “confession” of her sins, during which she admitted she had been unfaithful to Wooten.
They declared her an unfit mother and banished her. Months later, she reunited with David Johnson and moved to his home in Scriba, where he works as a mechanic at Nine Mile Point nuclear power plant. Today she credits him with giving her the strength to reclaim her children.
The Community elders frustrated her attempts to visit her children, she said. In September 1989 she filed for divorce from Wooten and sought custody of the children. A judge granted her visitation and set a custody hearing for Sept. 28.
Before the hearing, the couple spoke by phone for the last time before Wooten fled. “He said I was the best mother in the world,” Mrs. Johnson recalled. “The problem was, I was living in the world.” Mrs. Johnson had replayed her last visit with the boys countless times in her memory. “We picked Seth up,” she said, and went to a park. We really enjoyed each others company ….On our ride home, Seth wanted to stop at a hotel and stay with me. And I cried because I couldn’t keep him. And he fell asleep in my arms.”
The next day, they went to get Nathan. “You need to come back to the Community,” she remembers the 9 year old telling her. “If you want to be my mother, you need to come back to the Community.”
The custody hearing was 10 days later. Mrs. Johnson began calling to check on the boys. Each time she was told, “Stephen is away, and we’re not sure when he’ll be back.” When she got to Island Pond, she said, Wooten and the boys were long gone. The next day, a judge granted her sole custody of her children. For their mother, their abduction began an exhausting quest that led her and her husband across the United States and to Canada and left them $50,000 in debt. “We led a life that was just waiting for a family.”
The eight year wait ended March 11, 1997, when the FBI found Stephen Wooten’s rented house in Havana, Florida, arrested Wooten and took custody of the boys.
In the month since with help from a hired cult “deprogrammer” the boys have reclaimed Mrs. Johnson as their mother, and the word “Mom” now comes naturally from their lips. Mrs. Johnson, who declined to have her sons interviewed, said the boys look forward to living a normal life.
Wooten defended his flight with the boys. “In my heart I was resolved that whatever I went through was for the sake of the boys,” he said.
Laurie Marrano was raised in Attica by born again Christians who forced her to break up with her high school sweetheart, David Johnson, because he didn’t share their belief’s, she said. At age 18, her parents packed her off to Bible school at the Elam Bible Institute near Rochester. There in 1976, she met Stephen Wooten, an aspiring minister. They married the next year. By 1980, they had an infant son, Nathaniel, and Wooten was pastor of the local Assemblies of God church where Laurie’s parents took notice of the Community. After visiting the group, they said good bye to their children and moved to Island Pond. In fall of 1986, the Wooten’s followed.
The Community claims about 2,500 members in 25 communities throughout the world, but they are located primarily in New England.
Law enforcement authorities called the Community a non-violent strict fundamentalist religious group that runs its own businesses, such as candle and soap shops.
Jean Swantko, a lawyer and Community member, said Wooten had no choice but to run with the boys. “The courts would not treat him fairly,” she said. “He knew in his conscience that he could not turn them over to her.
So began the search that would consume the Johnson’s time, money and energy for eight years. They borrowed money from friends and family to hire private investigators and contacted missing children’s groups. A year into their ordeal, Laurie and David Johnson got married. Each time authorities had a possible sighting of the boys, the Johnson’s jumped on a plane, making futile trips to Missouri, Florida, Vermont, Nova Scotia and Winnipeg, Canada.
The leads grew colder and the children older. Wooten and the boys, meanwhile, were crisscrossing the country, moving a dozen times in eight years from Vermont to California, police said.
In 1991, at a Community House in St. Joseph, Missouri, Wooten met Julie Williams and married her in January 1993. In a telephone interview, Ms. Williams described the boys life on the run as “productive.” Wooten spent his days home schooling his boys, doing chores, and the boys prepared meals for their parents and visiting community members. The boys even helped on their father’s painting jobs. “The boys were often rebellious, you know how teenagers get,” said Ms. Williams, 40. “And we would say, listen do you want to just go live with your mother?” And they would just get fear on their faces. No. No. No, don’t send me to my mom, please.”
Wooten, Ms. Williams and the boys had moved to Havana in the Florida panhandle by last spring, according to town records. Wooten, 41, used the alias Mark Leonard and got work as a painter. Ms. Williams worked as a project coordinator for a construction company.
At 8 p.m. on March 11, 1997 police and FBI agents raided Wooten’s rented house. When the agents arrived, Wooten and Nathan were on a painting job, and Ms. Williams was at work. Seth was at home with two Community members from Vermont, Ms. Williams said. As Wooten and Nathan arrived home, they saw the police cars and kept going. They drove to a pay phone and called Ms. Williams, who joined them. Their next call was to the Community’s elders in Palenville, N.Y. Wooten faced what he called a “heart wrenching” decision: flee and divide his sons, or go to jail. He returned home and was arrested on federal charges of unlawful flight to avoid prosecution and Vermont charges of parental kidnapping.
In Scriba, Laurie Johnson was alone reading a fitness magazine, ready to go to bed, when the phone rang at 10:15 p.m. Mrs. Johnson let the answering machine pick up. Even when she heard Essex County (Vt.) prosecutor Jan Paul, she hesitated. She didn’t want to talk about the case. “David and Laurie, this is Jan Paul. I need you to pick up the phone right now,” Mrs. Johnson heard. She picked up. Ms. Johnson; repeated it back to her: “You have both Nathan and Seth in Florida together, and they are safe.” And Ms. Paul said ”Yes.” She dropped the phone and began jumping around the room, screaming and laughing and crying.
The next day, the Johnson’s landed at the Tallahassee airport. But the next day, the boys surprised the Johnson’s and greeted them warmly. It was as if they had rehearsed eight years for their first meeting with their mother, David said, “but they had no prepared speech for the next day.” They spent the day catching up, laughing over the baby pictures Mrs. Johnson brought, talking about their lives and asking about hers.
The next day, a judge gave custody to their mother. He granted Wooten a few minutes to say goodbye.
The plane trip to Syracuse was the first novelty in the boys return to mainstream life. They were glued to the windows and chewed gum so their ears wouldn’t pop. On the drive to Scriba, Seth delighted his mother by repeating every five minutes, “are we there yet?” “just like when they were really young.”
The boys were “courteous and polite,” but were hostile to any criticism of their father or the Community. The Johnson’s took them shopping for bikes and new clothes, and gave them each a television for their bedrooms.
Despite being home, Mrs. Johnson still feared the Community. After two phone calls from Community members, she said, the Johnson’s got an unlisted number and began sleeping in shifts. On the third day, the boys were outside when a van pulled up near the driveway. Mrs. Johnson looked out and saw that the driver was her father. She screamed and shooed the boys back in the house. The van drove away. Carmen Marrano, Mrs. Johnson’s father, said last week that he was there to see his grandsons. If he had wanted to kidnap the kids, he could have.
The next day, cult deprogrammer Rick Ross arrived. At first the boys challenged his assertion they had been brainwashed. But soon they were immersed in discussions about the parallels between the Community and other cults. Then came a breakthrough. Johnson was in the garage when Nathan walked in and said, “Mom’s cooking supper.” “I came in and told Laurie, “you just got called “MOM” out in the garage, he said. “Of course, she started crying.”
The boys have been busy setting goals. They started school this month. Laurie said she thinks Seth and Nathan would run to her if anyone from the Community approached them again. Still, she has grown attached to a gift Dave’s mother gave them: walkie-talkies.
So, on a recent day as the boys headed out to fish at a nearby pond, Laurie picked up her walkie-talkie and said, Seth, can you hear me? “Yeah,” he responded. “Here’s a big kiss! she said, with a loud smack. “10-4,” he replied. Then she held the walkie-talkie to her cheek. Her eyes misted. Now that she has her boys back, the hardest part for Laurie Johnson is letting them go.