Originally published Feb. 10, 2013
It was quiet the night he decided to flee.
Since moving his wife and five children to Liberty to join a fringe religious group known as the Fellowship of the Martyrs, James Todd had grown used to the late-night soundtrack that emanated from the rundown cluster of town homes the group occupied. The howls of drunks. The heavy metal music. The booze-fueled arguments that occasionally escalated into violence.
Now, in the early morning hours of Jan. 16, 2012, there was only silence.
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Inside his bedroom, James sat alone, wide awake. Downstairs by the front door, his bags were already packed.
Seven months earlier, the Todds had arrived here from Houston, believing they had found a spiritual oasis. James and his wife, Jennifer Todd, envisioned a life of service and unity, a place they could help others while spreading the word of God.
But while Jennifer seemed to find it, embracing the ministry and its teachings, James had watched his life unravel. Their savings were gone, and Jennifer wanted a divorce.
The couple had fought earlier that evening. Afterward, he had discreetly filled a couple of bags with clothes, diapers and snacks, whatever he could grab.
Now he lay in bed, focusing on the plan he’d cobbled together in the past few hours.
At 3 a.m., the time he thought offered the best chance of getting away undetected, he would sneak into the basement where Jennifer slept along with their two sons and attempt to wake the boys without waking her. If he could get them into the van without being caught, he would rouse his three daughters, who slept upstairs.
As for what would happen next, he had no real clue. He had $500 cash and an offer to stay temporarily with some friends in Minnesota.
And so, a few minutes before 3 a.m., he said a short prayer, lifted himself from the mattress and tip-toed downstairs through the darkness.
They’d met at work in Houston.
He’d seen her sitting in the boss’s office - the boss, it turned out, was her stepfather - and was immediately smitten.
Jennifer Villarreal was pretty and bold, and James liked how everything she said seemed to be underscored with a certain self-assuredness. He’d never asked anyone out before, could never quite muster the nerve, but something about her made him proceed with uncharacteristic abandon. He took her to lunch at a Chinese buffet and to a local Renaissance Festival. Six months later, they announced they were getting married.
Over the next few years, the couple had four kids (Jennifer also had a son from a previous relationship), settled into a four-bedroom suburban home and poured themselves into family and faith.
“There was never a family argument with them,” said James’ aunt, Nancy Ferro, who helped raise him from the time he was 5 years old. “They were always so damn happy.”
In November 2010, James told Jennifer that he’d stumbled across the website of a religious group based in Liberty.
The Fellowship of the Martyrs was led by Doug Perry, a charismatic former businessman who forged his own ministry in 2004. Perry posted lengthy sermons on YouTube, outlining in verbose detail what he deemed the gross shortcomings of the institutional church and describing his vision for a community ministry in which all the Christians work together to feed and clothe the needy.
James liked that the Martyrs were actively helping people instead of just gathering for the occasional Bible study. The Todds, who considered themselves non-denominational, were also in religious flux, having begun to grow unhappy with the church group they’d been with for the past two years.
Soon James arranged for a family trip to Liberty.
During a weeklong visit in January 2011, the Todds got an up-close look at the inner workings of Perry’s group. They were provided lodging in one of the town homes rented out by the ministry and spent their time working in a food pantry and driving to local grocery stores to pick up donated food to give the city’s homeless. They met kind people, broke down passages from the Bible and basked in the excitement of finally having found a place that meshed with their beliefs.
Within three months of returning to Houston, the family decided it belonged with the Martyrs.
Members of both families were less convinced. The group’s name made James’ dad uneasy, reminded him of David Koresh and the Branch Davidians. Ferro had similar reservations.
“Don’t do it,” she urged her nephew. “It don’t sound right to me.”
But James quit his job as a network manager for Hospital Corporation of America. They rented their house to Jennifer’s brother, and on a sticky morning in June, the family packed their life into a U-Haul, a pair of trailers and their van.
A couple of Martyrs came down to help with the move.
The Todds settled in quickly, immersing themselves in the ministry’s day-to-day work.
James liked handing out food at the weekly giveaways and making small talk with people they helped. He held Bible studies in his living room and found joy in the give-and-take of it all. He was ministering to others, which he loved, while also being ministered to.
The Todds held regular dinners, serving up spaghetti and testimony to a small group of Martyrs, and their kids - ages 14, 7, 6, 4 and 2 - became favorites.
For some, the Todds’ arrival represented welcome relief. Zach Mathias came to Liberty from Grand Rapids, Minn., in late 2010. Originally attracted to the idea of a group based on service and personal sacrifice, he had begun to grow disenchanted by what he said were its more radical beliefs - specifically, its views on marriage.
“I was ready to leave several times,” Mathias said. “But I stayed there because of the Todds. They brought some normalcy.”
Little about the ministry could be described as normal, which was exactly how Perry wanted it.
Perry, the son of an Excelsior Springs pastor, had grown disillusioned with the institutional church when he was a teenager. As a college student, he distanced himself after observing what he describes as seedy behind-the-scenes practices. And though he double-majored in religion and psychology at William Jewel College and earned a master’s degree in higher education administration from the University of Missouri-Kansas City, he entered the business world.
By 2004, he was running his own furniture business, Built to Last Home, in Liberty. He said he was happily married with a child, living comfortably in a typical suburban neighborhood. It was then, he said, that he experienced a religious awakening.
During a prayer session in Blue Springs, Perry said, he was granted the power for 15 minutes to see the world from Jesus’ eyes.
The experience radically altered the course of his life. Within two years, he had closed his furniture business. God, he said, told him to stop paying for advertising and use the money to help the poor. He and his wife split up in August 2006, he said, and not long after, he rented out the first town home in Liberty’s Ashley Acres neighborhood.
Perry began his ministry with the idea that if individuals struggling with addiction or attempting to work through troubled pasts lived together with strong Christian mentors, and were therefore in position to receive a constant stream of support and ministering, it would help accelerate the healing process.
Because Perry considered his group a faith-based rehabilitation facility, he opened his doors to those he believed were most in need of assistance. Perry said he has housed drug dealers and addicts, at least one sex offender and “a guy that had gotten out of a super-max prison for killing a cop.” He has permitted parolees to use the place as a residence and has long grouped members together the way he says God instructs him to, which has sometimes meant pairing a recovering drug addict with someone still using.
The Martyrs believe God speaks directly to them. Members are taught to heed God’s voice, letting it guide them in everything they do. They also believe man’s transgressions can be traced back to the temptation of demons. “When you read in the news that somebody’s raped and killed 14 girls, who’s guilty?” asked Rusty McAlister, the group’s longest-standing resident. “Not the guy. It’s the demon.”
It was into this world that the Todds arrived in the summer of 2011, and it wasn’t long, James said, before he began to have doubts about the move.
He was uneasy with the extensive talk of demons and exorcism and the potential for violence. Before the Todds’ arrival, a drunken argument led to one member stabbing another multiple times in the parking lot. Perry said the victim was hospitalized, but after he refused to cooperate with authorities, charges were never filed. The attacker, Perry said, still lives at the ministry.
Because the Todds rented their own Ashley Acres home, James said he was typically able to control who was allowed inside. But on multiple occasions, he said, he awoke to find strangers sleeping on his couch, not far from where his children slept.
He was also part of a small contingent that had grown wary of Perry’s take on marriage.
Perry said he believes that people are married or divorced when God, not a court, says they are. It’s an idea, he said, that’s “not out of the realm of what plenty of other groups around the country believe.”
Perry, whose website features a wedding ring wrapped in thorns, considers himself married to another Martyr, though they’re not legally wed.
“He was saying marriage is a covenant, but in actuality he was teaching people that marriage was kind of like being friends with somebody,” Mathias said. “That it happens, and then it falls apart. Then it happens again, and it falls apart.”
Before the Todds arrived, the marriage of another couple currently living in the ministry had ended when the wife informed her husband that God had told her to divorce him and that she was to be married instead to her husband’s best friend, a fellow ministry member.
“I remember hearing about (that) and laying in bed thinking, ‘What is going on in this place? This is messed up,’ “ James said. “But I dismissed it because they both agreed to do it, and I knew that could never happen to me because my wife and I are so close.”
But soon James began to notice issues in his own marriage.
Both James and Jennifer agree that the couple began to have problems almost immediately after arriving in Liberty. They bickered over things as minor as who cooked dinner. James bristled at the amount of time Jennifer was spending with another male ministry member. Jennifer insisted the relationship was never inappropriate and grew upset with what she called James’ “prideful and jealous” behavior.
After joining the ministry, Jennifer said, she started “growing out of my shell a little bit. And I think that’s where the divide started growing more, because instead of seeking God through (James), I started seeking God more on my own. And the answers we came up with weren’t always the same.”
The family’s financial situation had also deteriorated. Within two months of arriving in Liberty, the Todds had blown through nearly all of their roughly $7,000 savings. A year before, James said, he had been making close to $80,000 a year as a network manager. Now the family was living off food stamps, which Perry estimated a quarter of his members receive.
Then one evening in January of last year, Jennifer told James the two needed to talk privately in the bedroom.
That day, the two had traded dozens of text messages attempting to talk through things. The previous week had been especially rough.
Now, sitting on the bed together as dusk fell, Jennifer began to cry.
God, she told him, had instructed her to end the marriage.
For a while, James was hopeful that things could be worked out.
Even after taking off her wedding ring, Jennifer said, she was willing to stay in the family’s home to pray and wait to hear from God whether reconciliation was still possible. In an effort to think things through in solitude, she began to sleep on the couch, though James would sleep on the floor next to her.
A week later, James attempted to convince her to leave the ministry with him so they could deal with their marital problems somewhere separate from the Martyrs.
She told him that if she left the ministry, she would “die” - that if she followed James, she would fall from God’s grace.
That was the night James quietly woke his sons and three daughters as his wife slept downstairs. His teenage stepson wouldn’t leave, so he ushered the rest of the sleepy kids into the van, telling them they were going on a trip to visit a family friend. They drove to Minnesota, where they stayed at the home of a couple of friends.
Three days later, James contacted the Liberty Police Department to explain that he’d left with his kids because he felt they were in danger. In Minnesota, he said, he attempted to obtain a restraining order against Jennifer.
On Feb. 13, almost four weeks after James and the children left, Jennifer contacted the Liberty Police Department about filing kidnapping charges. According to court documents, she told police James refused to tell her his whereabouts or return the children to Missouri, instead continuing his attempts to convince her to leave the ministry. She said she feared for her children, that her husband believed he was working on “God’s behalf.” In taped conversations provided to police by Jennifer, James told his wife that “you can see the children when you return to your husband, in the name of Jesus.”
On March 9, working off information provided by Jennifer, police found James and the children at a home in Port O’Connor, Texas. James was arrested and charged with four counts of felony parental kidnapping, which held the potential for up to 16 years in prison. The children were returned to Jennifer and currently reside with her as members of the Martyrs.
In the months since, the case has transformed into a custody battle, a messy he-said, she-said that has raised questions about what exactly happened at Ashley Acres.
James insisted he left with the kids out of fear for their safety, calling the Martyrs a “wife-swapping cult” unfit for children.
Jennifer said that the kids have never been harmed at the ministry and that before she told James she wanted a divorce, he never broached the subject of the children’s safety. He took the kids as a power play to persuade her to do what he wanted, she said.
“Any street you live on, there could be drug addicts, there could be pedophiles,” she said. “You don’t know what your neighbors are doing.”
The question at the heart of the case is whether the environment poses a legitimate safety threat to the children living on-site, and James’ attorney, Kansas City-based Matthew O’Connor, said he is confident he can prove that it does.
O’Connor points to the hundreds of videos Perry has posted to YouTube, some of which involve Perry railing against the institutional church and urging viewers to pledge martyrdom. Perry tells his viewers that the perception of the Martyrs is that “we’re part of a group that seems to worship and be obsessed with death - and I think I might be hard-pressed to argue with that.” In another, regarding the institutional church, he says: “Something needs to be done. Something big, something dramatic, something that’s going to hurt real bad and something that’s probably going to cost a lot of people their lives.”
Perry denied that his ministry promotes violence. “The fact that I wouldn’t cry if God hit (the institutional church) with an asteroid does not mean that I’m going to take God’s job into my own hands and go blow things up.”
But in October, a former member of the Martyrs was arrested in Oklahoma and charged with plotting to bomb nearly 50 churches.
Gregory Weiler II, who lived with the Martyrs for roughly six months in the year leading up to his arrest, is accused of threatening to use an explosive or incendiary device and violating the Oklahoma Antiterrorism Act after police discovered in Weiler’s motel room bomb-making materials along with a list and maps of churches in the area.
O’Connor has used the incident as a prime example of what he describes as the mental instability within the group.
“That guy was in the same locale as your children, and you’ve got an atmosphere that’s oozing violence and begs violence and attracts violence,” O’Connor said. “It’s part of their mantra, to invite it.
“Anytime you have that, it’s just not a healthy place to raise your children.”
Liberty police spokesman Andy Hedricks told The Star that while his department is aware of the group, it is not conducting a criminal investigation.
Shortly after his arrest, however, James said he received a voicemail from a man identifying himself as a Liberty police officer that said, “It’s my personal opinion that you were disserviced by this county’s prosecutor, and in cooperation with the FBI, we’re looking into what’s going on up there.”
In another voicemail, a woman identifying herself as an FBI employee asked for James’ help in gathering information about the Martyrs. O’Connor said he and James also met recently with a detective from the Kansas City Police Department who was seeking information about the group.
The FBI and KCPDdeclined to comment.
Perry shrugs off the accusations levied by James and other former members. He acknowledges the pitfalls that come with the Martyrs’ living arrangement, such as occasional theft and violence, but said he has no plans to alter the manner in which he runs his ministry.
“You get bonus points in heaven for the drug dealers and junkies and murderers or child molesters or whatever,” Perry said. “So if we’re going to be serious about saving the lost, then I want the most lost.
“If we’re going to get the hard cases, then we’re going to have some that relapse, some that make you want to pull your hair out. ... I am mocked and reviled by bankers and pastors and lawyers that I know, and I am loved by toothless, hungry, lonely, hurting people. And I think that’s exactly the way Jesus would want it.”
Asked whether he believes the environment could pose a legitimate threat to the well-being of the children living on-site, Perry shakes his head.
God, he said, has it under control.
Two weeks ago, a Clay County Circuit Court judge dismissed the felony kidnapping charges against James, ruling that James had, at least in his own mind, just cause to remove the children from their home in Liberty.
But while the decision came as a welcome relief to James, ensuring that he would avoid prison, it was a short-lived victory.
Despite the ruling, his children remain with their mother in Liberty, and the arduous process of attempting to have them removed permanently is only now ramping up. Following the dismissal of his criminal charges, James said he intends to seek full custody of his four biological children, and his attorney said he’d be requesting temporary or emergency orders of custody, as well. Even if successful, the process could take months.
James has seen his kids six times since his arrest, four of which came during supervised gatherings in public places. Usually, they meet at a Chuck E. Cheese’s in Tiffany Springs. For a couple of hours, he feeds them pizza and tokens, laughing and posing for goofy photos until his time is up and he returns the kids to Jennifer.
On the drive to his hotel afterward, he tries not to cry.
Jennifer said she worries that the court’s failure to find James responsible for kidnapping the children might embolden him to try it again.
“I really have to pray and have faith to give him the kids (for visits),” she said. “... But I can’t cut the kids off from their father forever. I just have to trust, because I don’t know what else to do.”
Today, as he awaits a conclusion to his ongoing custody battle, James resides in Houston, trying to keep busy in the same house that once bustled with his family. He spends his days working from home, for a medical software company that recently hired him on full time. In the evenings, he cooks himself dinner and queues up movies on Netflix. And at night, when the sadness and the guilt and the loneliness get to be too much, he tries to focus on the one thought that, through all of this, has provided him some measure of comfort.
James still holds out hope that he and Jennifer can reconcile. That he can still get her and the kids out of Liberty. That the family he has watched crumble before his eyes might somehow still be salvaged.
It is a nice thought, certainly, one that has offered solace during months of legal and personal strife.
It also seems unlikely.
On March 20, Jennifer filed for divorce in Clay County to end the couple’s nine year marriage.
What’s more, she and the kids currently live with another male member of the ministry.
In two weeks, she is due to give birth to the man’s child.
On a sunny weekday morning in the living room of their new Liberty town home, the four newest members of the Fellowship of the Martyrs were still getting settled.
The Poitevints - Bennie and Angel and their two kids - are an attractive family, warm and polite. Bennie is stocky but handsome, with glasses and a well-trimmed goatee. Angel is sunny and petite. Their 12-year-old plays the saxophone. The 14-year-old likes video games.
They had just arrived from San Diego, where they lived for 13 years. But after stumbling upon one of Perry’s videos online last summer, they grew intrigued. They sought a place they could grow spiritually, where they could help those in need while simultaneously spreading the word of God. In Perry’s ministry they believed they’d found it. Not long after, Bennie quit his job making $24 an hour at a children’s hospital in San Diego, packed the family up, and the Poitevints made the cross-country drive to Liberty, eager to begin what they are convinced will be a promising new life.
They hadn’t yet finished unpacking - moving boxes sat stacked haphazardly in the den - but already something about the place felt right. God had pointed them here, to this little haven in middle America, for a reason, and the prospect of what awaited them had begun to take hold.
From her perch on the couch, Angel smiled shyly as she pondered the family’s future in Liberty.
“I know what’s coming,” she said, “and the Lord has some good things in store for us.”