Accused murderer Christopher Turgeon was able to lead members of his small religious group into a bizarre lifestyle that mixed faith in God with violent crime because he is a "charming and sophisticated psychopath" adept at using religion to manipulate others, an expert testified Wednesday.
Abraham Nievod, a forensic psychologist from California, spent hours interviewing and studying Turgeon and other members of the man's now defunct religious band, known as The Gatekeepers.
Nievod, who specializes in trying to understand the dynamics of religious and political groups on the fringe, said he considers Turgeon, 37, a "highly intelligent and very manipulative" con man with a "tremendously inflated sense of his own importance and ego."
The testimony came as trial continued for Turgeon and another former member of his group, Blaine Alan Applin, 30. The pair are charged with first-degree murder in the March 1998 shooting death of Dan Jess in Mountlake Terrace. Turgeon, who claims to be a modern manifestation of the Biblical prophet Elijah, is actually amoral, self-centered and intent on gathering others around him so he can enjoy a "parasitic lifestyle" where others toil to meet his needs, Nievod said.
The man used "religion and the Bible as intellectual weapons" to slowly take control of people around him, the psychologist testified. Turgeon insists the killing was justified and ordered by God.
Prosecutors counter it was cold-blooded murder, and that Turgeon and Applin drove from the Gatekeepers' former home in Southern California and ambushed Jess in his home because he could expose the group's financial frauds. Lawyers for both defendants are trying to convince jurors that the pair are innocent by reason of insanity, a defense that is taking advantage of an aspect of Washington law that will allow lawyers to argue the alleged killers acted because their free will was overcome by what they saw as a holy decree.
Nievod was called as a witness by Applin's attorney, Pete Mazzone of Everett. The psychologist testified that he expects to be paid about $9,000 for his work on the case. Applin shot Jess while Turgeon drove the getaway car, jurors have been told. The killing was just one of a series of crimes across two states, which culminated in July 1998 with the pair being arrested after a robbery led to a police chase that involved gunfire.
Nievod said that Applin was manipulated by Turgeon into killing Jess and committing the other crimes. He described how Applin and other members of the group were lured into Turgeon's influence because he recognized in them a certain vulnerability, naivete and need for answers in their life that made them malleable.
Over a period of years, Turgeon isolated Applin and the others from their family and friends and nurtured in them a dependence on him for everything from basic needs such as food and finances to religious direction.
He took control of members' daily lives, including setting rules on when and how they could have sex or what they could eat. He also preached that the group was at risk from outsiders, a message that took a dangerous turn in 1996, when Turgeon began buying up firearms and became enamored of "survivalist, militia, right-wing" Apocalyptic beliefs, Nievod said.
Turgeon benefited from the relationship because he didn't have to raise money by going to work, and he was able to satisfy his need to control others. Tests show that Applin has a low-average intelligence, but that wasn't true of all the other members, nor many other people he's interviewed over the years who have been sucked into similar groups, Nievod testified.
He said anybody can be manipulated into unusual behavior. All it takes is a period of vulnerability and somebody waiting to capitalize on the opportunity. "It's done step-by-step, day-by-day," Nievod testified. "You get moved along the path by someone who is a good con artist."