December 27, 1979
Johanna Nielsen was scheduled to be married last Thursday in ceremonies which the Vine Community Christian Church sanctioned.
But, shortly before the wedding took place, their parents whisked away the twin sisters under the pretense of taking them shopping for the wedding.
Three days later, Ted Patrick had “deprogrammed” the twins who were members of the controversial church here for almost four years.
On Wednesday the 20 year old twins, their parents, Mr. and Mrs. Don Neilsen of Oakland, Calif., Patrick and Naomi Kelly, also a former member of the church, told of children who are belted in the church nursery, and of members who are denied permission to see their parents and having to “live like pigs.”
However, Gary Gilbreath, an elder of the church, categorically denied each of the charges.
Kirsten Neilsen became a member of the church, she said, because members had befriended her during a stop here en route to New York. She said she was trying to find a more meaningful life and that members of the church seemed “to accept me just as I was.” Later she called her sister and encouraged her to join her. She did.
For four year, Kirsten Nielsen said, they were devoted members of the church. And when, last Thursday, they were “rescued” they weren’t consenting partners to the mission. They were taken to a home where door knobs were removed and windows nailed shut, to prevent their escape before the “deprogramming” could be completed.
“Deprogramming,” according to Patrick, is not a form of brainwashing. He maintains that his primary role in this project is to get people’s minds open again. He said he simply asked questions which they could not answer. Examples given were: “How have you really served God? and “Are you really better off now than you were before?”
Neilsen, an Oakland businessman, said the “rescue” and “deprogramming” of his two daughters will cost him in excess of $10,000, but that he has no regrets.
“My daughters,” he said, “have been wronged for four years. There’s a real criminal at work in this community and that’s Gene Spriggs,” the leader of the church.
Johanna Nielsen told members of the media children living in the church-owned houses were taught to respond to discipline on the first command. “If they failed to respond,” she said, “baptized adults disciplined them with a rod.”
Her sister said she could remember children who were flagellated in the nursery “until they were bleeding.” She described cult-administered disciplinary action as clubbing, not spankings.” She said that on more than one occasion she had to leave the room “because I couldn’t stand it.”
At this point, Patrick a professional deprogrammer, interrupted to say: “They live like pigs. I’ve seen them with piles of food from garbage trucks, peeling the rot from it so it could be eaten.
Asked if local authorities had even been apprised of the alleged child abuse, Kirsten Neilsen said that the Human Services Department has sent representatives to the houses, “but we show them only the children who haven’t bean thumped. Those who have are taken away until they leave.”
Gilbreath said the children are not bruised; “not severely in a bad way. We discipline our children with a reed-like rod, similar to the one you put balloons on.” He said this form of discipline is written about in Proverbs 14 and 23, “where it talks about child raising.”
As for Patrick’s assertion that members aren’t being properly fed, Gilbreath said: “That’s an awful lie. We have a wonderful diet. We have lots of beans and meat and a tremendous amount of produce. We bought our produce and fruit by the case in Atlanta. We have our own bakery and we eat granola.”
Johanna Nielsen said she was not in love with her intended husband, who she named as Ira Sawyer, and that she did not want to marry him. However, she said elders in the church had convinced her that the marriage “was God’s will.”
Gilbreath said the elders play no role in match-making. “Both of those girls and the guys came to the elders and said they felt God wanted them to marry. We had nothing to do with it. That’s how it always is. We do have a three-month waiting period to make sure there are no spur of the moment marriages.”
Ms. Kelly, who left the cult earlier, said that, within the church, “God’s will is Gene Spriggs’ will.” She told of members who, when their parents asked to visit them, they always told their parents they would pray about it. Then, she said, they would go to the church elders who would deny them permission to leave. Members would then call back their parents and say such a visit “was not God’s will.”
Gilbreath insisted that “many of the members went home over the holidays.” He said only members cut off from their family are not allowed to go home.
The twins estimated that there are now 65 to 70 members of the Vine Christian Church here. An additional 250 members are active in Vermont, they said. Until recently the church’s sole business enterprise was the chain of Yellow Deli restaurants. But, the twins said, a bakery and other businesses are church operated.
Patrick, who said he became a deprogrammer several years ago after a cult “kidnapped” his son. Patrick states that religious cults represent one of the greatest dangers in the world today.
“There’s nothing religious about these cults, he said. “The leaders are con artists and must be stopped.” He went on to say that he has made numerous efforts to have the federal government investigate the cult movement but without any success. He said he warned the federal government as early as 1972 of the potential danger of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple in Guyana “and they refused to investigate.”
Patrick said such cults attract people because the first impression of the church is that it is a place of love and caring. But then, he added, the cults isolate the individuals and brainwash them and “turn them against their parents.”
“They become mindless robots,” he said, “who can do only what they’re told to do. They become slaves. The hypnosis never stops. They make the world so evil that you fear going back into the real world.”
Patrick said the members are forced to turn their belongings over to the church, mentioning that one member withdrew a sizable amount of money from her husband’s bank account and, turned it over to the church after joining the cult.
He theorized that the Iranian hostages are undergoing similar brainwashings. “They’re hearing nothing but bad things about the U.S. and the shah,” he said.
Explaining the high cost of “deprogramming,” Patrick said much of the money is used for travel expenses and attorney fees. He said he is the target of a number of lawsuits.