Before I told this story, I wanted enough time to pass to de-escalate a highly volatile situation. But, it’s a story that needs to be told.
A little more than a year ago, I made contact with a family who attended a satellite Bible study in a town an hour away from our church facility, which is one Bible study of several I do in communities away from home. This is my way of helping to connect families that travel a good distance to church and may not be able to attend a mid-week study and it helps to build a teaching presence away from home, being faithful to the Great Commission.
The family seemed fine enough, sincere in their beliefs, solid in their convictions, and devout. Within a short time, they decided to move closer to us to partake in our weekly Lord’s Day gatherings, and we added them to the Body of the Church by a vote of the congregation. As a matter of due diligence, I spoke to one of their former pastors and asked for a recommendation. The pastor told me that the gentleman, who I will call Kepha – his cult name – would be commended for membership but that he once had a troubling episode and shared with me various ‘signs’ to be on the lookout for in regards to his mental health. Because of clergy-penitent privilege, he did not tell me more.
I should have asked for more specifics.
For several months, the family integrated themselves into the church and I gave him various service responsibilities, like turning on the lights and making the coffee on Sunday morning (we want all of our members to serve in some capacity). It seemed well enough.
However, mid-summer, Kepha began to show signs that something wasn’t right mentally, and certain of the indicators mentioned to me by his former pastor had manifested themselves.
While on summer vacation with my family, Kepha told me of a conspiracy involving a long-standing member of our church (he had been at my church longer than me), which sounded fanciful and not true to the man’s character or the nature of reality. It seemed to me he was spiraling into a world of fantasy.
It was during this time that Kepha became intensely interested in the ‘ministry’ work of Servus Christi, a pseudonymous online YouTube host (whose real identity I still don’t know, but I know it’s questioned by many) who I previously had encountered in my polemics work. Servus Christi is a Sectarian Minimalist and seems to hate the ‘organized church.’ He also did videos attacking me, Dr. John MacArthur, Paul Washer, and others. Kepha would call me frantically and ask, “Have you seen Servus Christi’s new video? Paul Washer is a Jesuit!”
I would settle his fears by calling HeartCry, getting the facts that Servus Christi had twisted, and reaffirm to Kepha the truths that had been perverted by the YouTube personality. Ultimately, Kepha became convinced that of all those criticized by Servus Christi, only Paul Washer seemed legitimately Christian. I, of course, vehemently and diligently deposed those fears as irrational.
However, upon the fanciful accusation regarding this mutual church member, I called and asked his former pastor for more information.
I was shocked to discover the extent of his (what I viewed to be) psychosis and its previous outbursts that led to fear of the pastor – at one point – for his life. I then relayed to Kepha that I was concerned for his mental health.
Then, I asked our church’s security team leader to communicate directly with his previous church’s security team leader for the details, wanting to avoid gossip or tattling and letting those who make security judgement calls make them. After they spoke, it was determined that he was a potential physical risk to the Body and we issued a security memo that he would not be allowed into the facility without first getting a mental health evaluation that the church would pay for.
As he was spiraling, I asked a ‘famous’ friend of mine – who Kepha still claimed to admire – to speak with him. I thought he might be able to get through. My friend agreed to speak with him, but Kepha would not speak to him.
I approached the local police department and asked if they had someone in the public area where two members of our security team and a fellow elder (and myself) would meet with Kepha to explain the security memo. We explained to Kepha that evening that this was not a matter of church discipline, that he was not removed from the Church Body (because this would violate our principles of Matthew 18 and due process) but was a temporary security measure independent of ecclesiastical discipline. I never saw the police that night in the area.
Kepha then made various accusations about me (including that I was a Jesuit and some other weird things), at which point we asked him to pick two witnesses and take them his concerns (in accordance to Matthew 18), while yet insisting that he also receive a mental health evaluation. His witnesses, by the way, investigated his accusations in spite of their seemingly fanatical nature, as a part of due diligence, and determined them invalid. These were witnesses, by the way, that he chose to determine his case.
Shortly after this meeting, he grew apparently worse. I again spoke to the police and explained how I believed him to be a threat to himself and others.
We explained to the church that Sunday in a special business meeting our security memo, and that it was not a matter of church discipline, but of mental health.
A few days after, I drove to Grand Forks for the Pirate Christian Radio Conference, where my acquaintances, Chris Rosebrough and Phil Johnson were speaking. While there, it became quite apparent that Kepha had ‘gone off the rails’ via text.
I was sitting at a table with the aforementioned speakers when I got a text from him introducing himself as “Kepha,” which is a transliteration of Cepha, or Peter, and a last name that in the original tongue means, “the glorious one.”
I looked at Phil, showed him the text messages, and said, “I’ve got to get home.” I thought I was speaking to a demon, which even as a Cessationist, I believe in.
Kepha then began to reference Eugene Spriggs, who at the time I did not know. It became apparent that Spriggs had some kind of religious affiliation with Kepha, and that Kepha was also texting members of another, unknown congregation of people, along with me and a few other members of the security team.
I then became a quick expert on the 12 Tribes, or the Cult of the Yellow Deli, as I drove home the six-plus hours from Rosebrough’s church. I wrote a synopsis about this cult on August 13, which you can find here.
Essentially, the 12 Tribes is a Judaizing cult that began to attract young hippies and those of the “Jesus People” movement in 1972. Spriggs, its founder, claimed to be the reincarnated prophet, Elijah, in 1982. Founded in Chattanooga, the cult spread from state to state, centering each location around a cafe called ‘The Yellow Deli.” The diner would attract patrons, who would then be inundated with cult propaganda and eventually join the Yellow Deli as a free laborer, money-maker, and follower of Spriggs.
Suddenly, things began to come together. The ultra-controling and hovering over children was present in their parenting (the 12 Tribes doesn’t allow children play with other children). They forbade themselves from eating pork. When I asked them about this, worried about possible Judaizing, Kepha claimed it was health-related and not religious-oriented. I rolled my eyes (because bacon is awesome), but considered it a matter of liberty. It should have been a red flag.
Driving home was the longest six hours of my life. Kepha began to send video after video from “Christian rappers” with violent lyrics. He made implicit threats. He was near the home of at least one security team member, who immediately left work to guard and be near his family. Kepha then began to refer to his wife by her cult name and seemed to indicate that he was operating some kind of nebulous plan orchestrated by the other people in this text conversation (who I did not at the time know). I called the police again to apprise them of this potential threat to our community.
I told my wife to leave the home and go to the country at a church member’s house. However, as we realized he was an hour away in a different town, my wife came back, feeling as things were fine. We thought, perhaps, we had overreacted to the threat. My wife and family went back home and I stopped in a community an hour away for Bible study. It was there that I got a text that he was heading to my home and was back in my town.
I immediately told my wife to flee and left back again for home, as quickly as I could go.
Then, I got a text from Kepha that my “son had a message for [me].” Seconds later my wife called to say that as she was preparing the vehicle to leave and gathering up belongings, Kepha drove by my house, made a threatening gesture to my son, and said what we – and ultimately, the police, a prosecutor, and a judge – considered to be a threat.
My wife had panicked, believing that she had left her keys in the house and with the house locked, had the children in the vehicle but no way to leave or go back in the house. I instructed her to go to a nearby location that had been pre-staged for emergencies, and to lock herself and the children inside and shoot whoever came to kick down the door. She was terrified.
I first called my neighbor, because I knew he would get to my home faster than law enforcement, who immediately went to do the job of a good neighbor and patrol the area as a Citizen. I then called 911 and asked them to dispatch officers to my home. Then, I called our security team leader.
My wife realized she did, in fact, have her keys after-all (her adrenaline was sky-rocketing), and was able to rendezvous with the security team who took her to one of several undisclosed locations where it would be hard for them to be found. The police arrived at roughly the same time as church security, two of whom waited at my home until I arrived in the event Kepha returned. The police instructed my wife to come into the station, but I believed my family was safer with the security team for the moment and explained I would come into town first and personally retrieve them.
When I went to the station upon arrival, I explained the concern. The police were polite but reluctant to arrest the suspect based only upon my testimony. Ultimately, they looked at the text messages I had received and ascertained the specific legal infractions he had committed.
When police arrived, they found him belligerent and, indeed, troubled. I’ve seen the footage from the police car in which he threatened both me and the police officer. After arriving at the jail, he vandalized his cell, a charge for which he later pled guilty. He eventually wound up medicated and taken to the hospital. Reports from jailers indicate he considered himself and was calling himself Yahweh, or a variant thereof.
We again notified the church body, and held a vote to remove the man under discipline per Titus 3:10. The church voted unanimously. We also notified his wife through another church that we would – through them – extend any type of financial help, food assistance, or the like to help them while he was in custody.
Upon his release from jail after several days, he was given the condition of GPS monitoring, I was assigned a victim’s advocate (who was fantastic at her job, by the way), and I filed a restraining order while a temporary order of protection was put immediately into service.
Twenty or so days later, we held the trial for the permanent restraining order while criminal charges were still pending. It was an incredibly long ordeal, while Kepha and his wife appeared to try to filibuster the proceedings (that’s my subjective take) and were rebuked on numerous occasions by the judge for acting out of order.
When asked how long a restraining order I wanted, I said that I wanted as long as I could get. The judge stated that “the Hall children” shouldn’t have to live in fear and gave me – what I’ve since been told – is the longest restraining order in Montana history…20 years so that all of my children will reach adulthood before it’s up. My wife and I, and also our oldest children, carry an official state-issued Order of Protection card with his name and face on it.
One of Kepha’s last questions to the judge is if he could, in spite of the restraining order, work with someone on YouTube (I presume Servus Christi) to “expose me.” Ultimately, the judge ordered that he not ever do anything that might harass or distress me and went so far as to take away Kepha’s rights to own a firearm (which is not uncommon in such cases with restraining orders).
In working with the prosecution and speaking to parole and my victims’ advocate, they seem to have a consensus that his involvement in the 12 Tribes played an important role in his behavior and outbursts.
My sincere belief is that the 12 Tribes sent Kepha to my church, and before that another one very similar to mine, to disrupt it. Eventually, Kepha was charged with Privacy in Communications, which is harassment via electronic communications, for which he received a pre-trial diversion after going through two court-appointed attorneys. Kepha was intent on having a trial (even though he pled guilty to other charges relating to the incident), but I was content with the convictions already obtained by the prosecution so that he would have something on his criminal record that might inform others of his potential threat.
Before they left town and moved away, they changed the wife’s name to her singular (first name only) cult name.
To this day, Kepha is still being monitored by GPS as a condition of his pre-trial diversion and is heavily watched by the monitoring serving. I’ve been told by his attorney that he might also hold the record for the amount of time (at least in his experience) that someone has spent on GPS monitoring.
WHAT SHOULD WE LEARN?
First, since this incident, we have changed our church’s by-laws to require a criminal background check of all new members (not just children’s workers). A criminal background does not preclude or prevent membership but serves the purpose of informing the security team.
Second, I have also committed to being much more in depth when speaking to the former pastors of potential members. It is necessary. And frankly, I should have caught it sooner.
Third, a criminal background check is not enough. There should be a religious background check to make sure you’re not accidentally admitting a dangerous cult member into your church. I and P&P are capable of this, but most people are not, and service should be provided to churches to look at social media or provide a questionnaire of some kind to rule out the possibility that someone has been or still is a part of a dangerous cult.
Fourth, our church and my family has only strengthened (and continue to strengthen) our personal security measures. I have also previously contacted the local FBI field office after receiving threats and I have since then had to contact the FBI in relation to other threats. Needless to say, we have done as much as we can to assure our facilities are as safe as possible and well-monitored through every possible avenue and resource.
Fifth, this has only strengthened my presupposition that I – and not law enforcement – am the first line of defense. I notified the police numerous times. I appreciate – and love – my local law enforcement, but had I relied on them for protection and not my church security (and my home security) it could have gone very badly.
The most terrifying aspect of all of this is that Kepha warned me he was coming to my home after sending me threats all day long, and he did so ominously. He did not know that I was away from home, but believed I was there. We believed he intended us physical harm. He knew that armed self-defense is way of life for me and he knew (from our personal relationship) that had I been home, this very likely would have ended very violently and very badly. I believe in my heart that’s what he wanted.
I timed this article both to provide distance from the original incident to allow Kepha time to seek help and calm down, and also so that it would be published before his time on GPS monitoring was up.
It is a very, very dangerous world out there. Pastors, watch yourselves and your flock closely.
In the meantime, the 12 Tribes and Cult of the Yellow Deli is still a thing, and they’re still dangerous.
If you have Hulu – the video streaming service available online and Roku – you can watch episode 6 of “Cults and Extreme Belief,” which deals exclusively with the 12 Tribes cult. It’s fascinating. Or, the episode should be available anywhere you can stream original programming from A&E.
Another video on the cult is provided below.
[Editor’s Note: Contributed by JD Hall]