Dave Leonardi was born in Ogden, Utah, a region he calls "Mormon-dominated country." Dave grew up Catholic, graduated from high school, and went on to business college. He graduated with an associate's degree in marketing and business management, a degree required for his onetime career as a mortician. Dave then obtained another associate's degree from the San Francisco College of Mortuary Science. In the end, however, he decided that being a mortician wasn't what he wanted to do in life. Instead, he started a successful landscaping business, which eventually generated a quarter-of-a million dollars a year and employed about thirty people.
During our interview, Dave reflected back on his childhood, which was spent growing up under the thumb of dominating parents who constantly made him go to Catholic church. "Even when I was married, my parents would ask, 'Did you go to church today?' If I said, 'Yeah,' it's a good boy, pat on the back syndrome. If I said, 'No,' then it's lecture time. You know, they love you if you go to church. They hate you if you don't. And so I hated going to Catholic church. I just could not stand it."
He developed a liking for a Baptist church, but when his son was born, Dave had him baptized as a Catholic and sent him to a Catholic school. Dave didn't attend Catholic services, but he did believe in the Lord. He attended the Baptist church for quite a while. He also tried out other churches at various times in his life.
Although he was married, his wife, Theresa, didn't attend those Baptist services with him. After having some marital problems, Dave and Theresa separated and Theresa moved back home to North Dakota where she started attending Victory Church.
While in North Dakota, Theresa called Dave, who was still back in Washington State, and told him about a "prophet" coming to visit her church. Dave remembers that she was very enthusiastic, wanting him to fly out to see the church and hear the prophet. Because Theresa asked him to, Dave flew out to North Dakota. He still loved her and thought they just needed to work out some problems. However, Dave got more than he expected at Victory Church.
The prophet singled me out in the service. [He] called me up front, said that I was stubborn, that I needed to turn my life over to the Lord, and I needed to get back with my wife. And I, for some reason, believed that there was a slaying in the Spirit. You know how they slay you and you go out. He pushed on my forehead, so it was like he was pushing me back.
In retrospect, Dave thinks that peer pressure played a part in the so-called slaying in the Spirit. He compared it to being with a group of people playing a Ouija board.
All of a sudden they say they saw the thing moving, [and] you're going to say you saw it moving. You're going to play along with what happened. I think that comes subconsciously, so when you see everybody falling down, you don't know what it is. You don't know what tongues are. You don't know what all this stuff is, and they come up and start praying with you.
Dave leveled a more serious charge, one that's come up before concerning ministers who are supposedly being used in a supernatural manner. He said there was an easy explanation for the pastor knowing things about his life without having a supernatural anointing of the Holy Spirit. His wife had confided in the pastors. Intentionally or not, the pastors might have relayed this information to the so-called prophet, giving him what appeared to be unexplained knowledge about Dave Leonardi's life.
Following the service, the prophet told Dave that he and his wife needed to be back together. It didn't matter where, the prophet said. It could be in Washington State or North Dakota. Dave soon found out, however, that unlike God, self-appointed prophets are liable to change their minds.
The next night I went back to the service. He [the prophet] came up and says, "God told me you can't be in Washington. You need to be here underneath these pastors." So it was like everything was switched around so I had to be in North Dakota.
Dave was then subjected to an intense three-day "deliverance" session, in which he was "counseled" for many long hours. I asked him to give me an idea of his schedule. What he described is typical of a cult.
You were at this meeting until midnight, got up at eight o'clock to go to classes, then they would counsel me for two or three hours and drive devils out of me and pray for me. I was literally exhausted.
Dave believes church authorities wanted to take the credit for restoring his and Theresa's marriage. The prevailing attitude was "Look what the church has done," he recalls, instead of "Look what God's done."
The church seemed interested in more than spiritual deliverance for the Leonardi family. Dave's wife had mentioned that he was earning a quarter-of-a million dollars a year. Soon afterward, Dave was ordered by Victory Church leaders to sell his business and move to North Dakota. He was told that if he didn't he would die. Needless to say, he complied and sold his business, even though God hadn't spoken to him personally to do that.
Victory Church exerted constant pressure on him to give. After his father passed away, he received a ten-thousand-dollar inheritance. When church officials found out about the money, they started harassing him, pushing him to tithe more than ten percent on his inheritance. When the daughter of one church official needed ten thousand dollars to make a tape, officials went to Dave and said, "You know you need to give some money."
Dave's offer of a ten-thousand-dollar loan wasn't enough. "The next Sunday he [the pastor] went into the service, and made a big sermon about someone wanting to loan him money instead of giving him money. It's like a subtle pressure."
The pressure continued through Dave Leonardi's wife, Theresa. Dave felt uncomfortable about giving his inheritance to the church, so he had family members hold the money in their names until he could figure out a solution to the problem. He ended up hiding the money in a separate account, telling people he didn't have it. He ultimately gave 15 percent, or about fifteen hundred dollars, to the church. He described how it was received. "My wife and I went into counseling with her [Pastor Renee], and I handed it to her and said, 'Here's part of the inheritance.' She looked at it and said, 'Hm, there should have been more than that.' And she threw the check down on the table."
Dave felt humiliated. He said it was a typical church ploy to make you feel at fault even if you weren't. Church members often were made to feel that whatever they did wasn't good enough.
Dave found the church counseling sessions unorthodox as well. The church didn't use any standard marriage counseling material, and on occasion they used information learned in counseling sessions against members later. Dave discovered this after he was hurt in an accident at his landscaping business.
I was on a job [and] the snow blower got caught. I reached in to clean it out and I cut my fingers off-the tips of them. When I was in the hospital, just ready to go into surgery, they came in and said, "You know why this happened? It's because you're not loving your wife and you're not giving her the things you need. This is what's going on. This is why you need to start listening to us.
Admittedly, the church did attempt to minister to Dave after his surgery. Unfortunately, in addition to prayer, this "ministry" consisted of healing tapes for Dave to play. Although Victory Church might not be a typical Word of Faith congregation, the use of "healing tapes" is common in the Word of Faith movement. In a sense, using healing tapes shifts the responsibility for healing back onto the shoulders of the believer. The implication is that the more "Word" you get in you, the better your chances are of getting healed.
Dave's surgery was a success. The surgeons sewed his fingertips back on, allowing him to regain complete use of all his fingers. While he was recovering, Pastor Renee Julison called Theresa two or three times a day to talk. The pastor urged Theresa to keep their conversations confidential and to do what the pastor told her to do. According to Dave, it was not unusual for church officials to try to exercise control over the lives of church members.
There was one particularly disturbing conversation Renee Julison had with Theresa Leonardi. She told Theresa to withhold physical affection from Dave if she thought he was being mean or exhibiting any other behavior that displeased her. Dave remembers, "They controlled every part of your life, down to your raising your children."
Church officials even went through Dave's house, telling his family which things had evil spirits in them. The Leonardis were ordered to get rid of certain objects and to donate the money received from them to the church.
At the time, Dave didn't feel able to tell his wife how distressed he really was. He ultimately reached the point, however, when he just couldn't do what the church told him to do anymore. Up to that point, his whole life had revolved around Victory Church. There were services or activities on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday. Saturdays were spent cleaning the church. Understandably, Dave began to believe that he didn't have a life of his own. The situation reached an all-time low when he began to think his wife loved Pastor Renee Julison more than she loved him. What led to such bizarre thinking? Dave recognized the divide and conquer tactics routinely used by the church. "You get the wife submitted. If the husband doesn't submit, get rid of him. I was in it about two years, and toward the end, I just refused to do the things they wanted me to do. I wouldn't listen to them."
When Dave began refusing to obey church rule, church authorities began planting seeds of doubt about him in Theresa Leonardi's mind. They told Theresa things like "Boy, he must be really abusive at home. I bet he hits you. I bet he yells."
The tactics started working. Theresa began to think Dave really was a mean, abusive monster. Finally, she filed for divorce. She even obtained a court order giving her custody of Dave's son from a previous marriage. She accomplished that, according to Dave, by claiming that his son was her natural-born son. Dave believes his wife's actions were the direct result of the inordinate amount of control Victory Church was exercising over her and other church members.
A month or so after Dave left the church, he decided to stop by one evening to see if his wife was there. When he tried to enter the church, he was physically removed by church officials. "[They] picked me up and kind of kicked me out the door [and said, 'You're not welcome here.' I said, 'Fine,' and I left."
Dave eventually just left his wife alone. She wouldn't even talk to him. The relationship degenerated to the point where Theresa Leonardi even screamed-literally-when she saw Dave.
She was told to treat me like cancer, and to run every time she saw me. This is the type of brainwashing they would do. So I just went about my life, and I was very happy to be out. Once you're out and you aren't under that control, it's like getting out of prison. You're free. You can do what you want. I mean I was doing things. I was going to the lake. I was doing things I never did before.
And, having the freedom to be a normal guy started to heal the breach between Dave and his wife. Theresa began to see that Dave wasn't as bad as she had been led to believe. Real light broke through about a week before their planned divorce. Theresa had finally had enough of Victory Church's demands. The couple started attending another church.
Their nightmare wasn't over, however. Theresa Leonardi was through with Victory Church, but they weren't through with her. Dave explained what happened next.
She was harassed. People would sit in our driveway. They would call us up [at] eleven or twelve at night, asking, "Why are you leaving the church? You're doing this wrong. You're doing that wrong." Constant stuff. I mean constant.
Dave's business was also affected. When he left the church, he was working as an insurance agent, doing most of his business with Victory Church members. Within a month after he left, all the church members quit doing business with him. Some even called Dave's district manager, claiming Dave was dishonest. Dave is convinced that this was an all-out attempt to destroy him. Fortunately, his manager was aware of the situation and didn't take the allegations seriously.
The Leonardis were also subjected to a subtle form of intimidation. People wouldn't wave or talk to them and would turn away when they saw them. Their home was even vandalized on more than one occasion. "I can't prove who did the egging or the knife slashing or that kind of stuff, but we [had] never had any problems up to that point," Leonardi remembers.
What initially prompted Theresa Leonardi to end her relationship with the church? For one thing, she saw Dave was happy and not miserable as she had been led to believe. She also had been told that if she even talked to her husband she would be thrown out of church and her children expelled from the church-run school. Once her children were drawn into the fray, Theresa decided things had gone too far.
The whole family suffered terrible after-effects from their experience with Victory Church, and it took time for them to regain what they had lost spiritually. Dave explained, "It is very hard to trust again. Very hard to trust pastors or churches; hard to sit down and want to read the Bible. They [Victory Church] would read Scriptures, but they would twist them to where they would benefit [from] them."
Dave emphasized how hard Bible reading has become for him.
I believe in the Lord. I love the Lord with all my heart, and I try to do everything good. I can read. a Scripture book [that] talks about the Scriptures and defines them. That's no problem.
But when it actually gets into reading the Bible and going over the Scriptures that were drilled into you the wrong way, it's hard to believe. It does put questions in your mind, like how would the Lord let this type of stuff happen?"-where it isn't the Lord. My wife won't even pick up a Bible. Neither one of us likes going to church because of that control. We do it for our children. We keep praying that eventually we'll enjoy it more.
For those who have had similar experiences, Dave had encouraging words. "I would never give up on God. I don't think the Bible is going to steer you wrong." He advises people looking for a church home to take their time before making any commitment.
Check the pastors out. Ask questions. If there aren't any checks and balances, don't get involved with it. If a church doesn't work with other churches in the community, it's not going to be a church you want to belong to.
Widespread Charges of Impropriety
Unfortunately, Dave and Theresa's experience was not unusual. Victory Church has achieved notoriety in Grand Forks, North Dakota, where it was started in the early 1980s. One of the many stories appearing in the local media was front-page news in the March 31, 1994 edition of the Grand Forks Herald. The article was headlined "Victory Church under Fire," with the subheading "Former members say it's a cult; pastors leave town." The piece was written by Grand Forks Herald Staff Writer Stephen J. Lee and is reprinted here in its entirety. As you will see, Lee's investigation uncovered the same abuses as mine did. His report confirms just how destructive a maverick church can become.
A three bean hot-dish finally did it for Karlene Croy.
It was the Fourth of July, 1993. She had worked late the night before and all morning to prepare food for a church dinner at the home of Renee and Ed Julison, pastors of Victory Church.
Her husband, Brad Croy, wanted the two of them to picnic at the lake.
But 12 years working for the Julisons had trained her to do what Renee said.
"I have to do what I have to do," she told Brad, and left.
Forty-five minutes later she was back, sobbing so hard she could hardly talk.
Pastor Renee had yelled at her, said the hot dish was too runny and she had to go home and cook it longer.
"She had been so verbally beat up, she had lost her sense of control," Brad said. I said, Marlene, can't you see this is abuse?"
Brad had been trying for years to get her away from the church he saw as ruining their life together. Finally she was ready to hear that.
"This was the first time I heard the word 'abuse,' end made a connection," Karlene said.
The Croys are at the center now of a dispute shaking the Victory Church, a congregation of more than 200 people housed on N.D. Highway 81 just north of the Grand Forks city limits.
The Croys and others who have broken away tell stories of opulence on the part of the Julisons, fed by the largely cash donations of the members.
They tell of a church controlled solely by the Julisons with no board of directors and no accountability.
And they tell of a church they believe is destructive and a cult, at least cult-like.
Over the weekend, a dozen former members sponsored a two-day seminar led by Rick Ross of Phoenix, who "deprogrammed" Karlene last October. 60 to 70 people attended each day.
Meanwhile, the Julisons have been in Daytona Beach, Fla. since last January, and won't say whether they plan to live in Grand Forks again.
Ed Julison said in telephone interviews that they are beginning new ministries, including going to Cuba and Mexico. Their Grand Forks home on Olson Drive will be sold, but they will remain pastors of Victory Church and return on occasion, he said.
The problems with former members have occurred largely because too many people are not willing to accept "uncompromising" teaching from the Bible, Julison said.
Other members agree.
Linda Van Dellen has been involved at Victory Church for eight years."
I like the church because I believe the pastors teach the truth from the Word of God without watering it down, without compromising it and without saying what they think people want to hear," she said.
Karlene Croy was closer than perhaps anyone else over the past 12 years to Renee Julison, who many say runs the church.
Ed Julison said Karlene Croy "was like a member of our personal family," and he can't understand why she has "turned" on them.
Renee Julison, who many former members say is the one in charge, could not be reached for comment.
With its emphasis on such ideas as "Name it, claim it," shepherding and "prosperity theology," the church has been controversial since it began, and many pastors express misgivings about it.
The Rev. Phyl Putz, pastor of Grace Baptist Church, for example, has his differences with Victory Church, but says he doesn't think they are doctrinally aberrant enough to be labeled a cult.
Rather, Putz said he has seen "some secondary [cult] qualities that have to do with control of members, which tend to be outgrowths of cult systems but can exist in any kind of family or group relationship that is not godly or healthy."
Although he has counseled former members of Victory Church, he has also seen people's lives become more stable and productive through involvement in the group. Putz said, "But they don't do church like I do."
Several former members say the Julisons warned members of becoming involved or even attending any other church, reading widely outside church-approved materials or mixing with outsiders, even those within their family. Several former members say the church broke up their family.
Julison denies this for the most part, but says at some point believers must separate from unbelievers according to the Scriptures.
He characterized the criticism of the Croys and others as "slander and gossip" that has been typical of some who quit Victory Church.
"We're a good church," he said. 'We've had so many people saved. I preach the Word of God, and many people don't always agree with that."
The church has attracted little official attention.
In 1992, a social services investigation of the church's Victory Academy, a K-12 school, found probable cause that abuse was being committed against students.
A policy of regular spanking with a wooden paddle for a variety of offenses, done by Principal Karen McIntyre, was abusive, said investigator Randy Slavens in his report. Because of the investigation, McIntyre says, the school quit using corporal punishment.
Karlene said it's difficult to explain how she got to the point where she needed to be "deprogrammed."
"Renee is very controlling and convincing," Karlene said. "Anything in my life, everyday decisions, where I live, where I work, things between my husband and I, had to be checked out with her."
Karlene struggles now to explain how she allowed herself to be controlled. She thought that any church teaching "born-again Christianity" and the Bible was a good one, so her defenses were down, she said. "I'm a pleaser-type personality. I wanted to please God. It was my desire to know God and to know the Word of God, and she appeared to know it. They placed themselves in a position of authority."
Although she worked as a hairstylist, she spent most of her time working for Ed and Renee, she says. She worked until late at night, cleaning their home and offices. UI scrubbed their white deck every week and took care of all their flowers, vacuumed their house. I did their hair, washed their cars."
"It was all money and power," Karlene says. "Usually no one but Renee and Ed handled the money collected every Sunday during 30minute sessions during which two or three offerings might be taken."
Karlene said she was in charge of following Renee's orders and soliciting donations from members for personal gifts for the Julison family. One time it was a $7,000 baby grand piano. Other times it was a black lacquer dining room set, a refrigerator, a microwave, a Jacuzzi.
"Sometimes we would just collect cash and give them the cash." Renee often would tell Karlene to have checks made out to herself, cash them, and give the Julisons the money.
Karlene and other former members say neither Renee or Ed would ever ask questions about where money was going or how much there was. "They never talked figures," Karlene said. "Nobody sees anything financial." Renee, a former hairdresser, does the books.
Current members say the Julisons are trustworthy. Terry Duncan, who has attended for several years, said that he trusts the Julisons and doesn't feel he needs to know details of how the money is spent. "I'm not the pastor," he said.
Some members feel differently.
Anne Mostoway, 79, of Grand Forks, said Julison eagerly sought her donations three years ago to help get a television ministry going. She gave $3,500 but later decided he had misrepresented what the television ministry would be.
When she repeatedly tried to contact him to ask for the money back, she was told by church staff that "he was busy," Mostoway said.
Another man, who asked not to be identified, told of giving thousands of dollars for a building program. When the money was used to buy drums, he asked Julison for the money back, but Julison refused.
Julison denies such charges and said in one case he did return money when asked, although he did not provide the name of the person.
The emphasis on giving is spiritually healthy, said Van Dellen. "I think it is a principle that has helped me in my life. God loves a cheerful giver: he who sows sparingly will reap sparingly. We give out of the goodness of our hearts. That doesn't bother me at all.
Members did give personal gifts to the Julison family, Van Dellen said. "We have a freewill offering for people, whoever wants to give. I think that's quite common in churches, to get the pastor something for their birthday or Christmas," Van Dellen said.
According to several former members, the wedding last fall for the Julisons' daughter, Danielle, was a last straw of sorts.
Karlene Croy said she planned six showers on Renee's orders, and solicited expensive gifts from members for Danielle. Others on a radio call-in show said there were nine showers.
"There weren't nine showers, there weren't 15 showers, there were four stinking showers," Ed Julison said in a telephone interview. "If they didn't want to give, they didn't give."
Last fall, Danielle stood in front of the church and told members tearfully that if they begrudged her the gifts, they could come to the house and take them back.
This week, a moving van was filled with Danielle's things, which were taken to where she is living in California, Julison said.
The church's finances are sound and honest, Julison said.
"We belong to the International Convention of Faith Ministries," he said. "The accountability is there. All of our finances are handled by a CPA who handles them throughout the U.S. So it doesn't get out of whack. All of our bills are paid. We have excellent credit. It's a nice church; comfortable, but not elaborate, but people are proud to come to church here."
The certified public accountant, David Epstein of Carmel, Ind., did not return telephone calls to the Herald. He advertises his business as certifying churches' books and helping organizations in trouble with the IRS. The Central Indiana Better Business Bureau says it has twice requested information from Epstein and gotten no response.
More than money.
Former members say control extends beyond money.
Karlene says Ed and Renee advised her not to have children, on the grounds that the children would be rebels due to her husband's ungodliness.
Other former members and some pastors say there appeared to be a pattern of the Julisons' encouraging some couples to divorce over loyalty to them.
Ed Julison and current members deny this, saying the pattern is one of reconciling couples.
Brad Croy said the church came between him and Karlene. "Seeing my wife drifting further and further away," Brad said. "That heartache of not being able to communicate with her, and she was not allowed to listen."
Last October, Brad persuaded Karlene to go on vacation to Indiana to visit his mother. She didn't know that he had hired Ross, a well-known cult expert and "deprogrammer."
Initially angry at being tricked, Karlene said she soon listened and slowly began to rethink her experiences. She went off by herself into a room to cry and pray.
Changing her mind took four days.
"You have to remember, I had been in denial for twelve years," she said.
Ross said he has been working for eight years as a private consultant on such groups. He has deprogrammed several people from the Branch Davidian group of Waco, Texas.
He has testified as an expert in court cases and been involved in about 300 cases of deprogramming. In 1991, he deprogrammed a person in Fargo from a group called The Master Path. He is active in two national committees of the Reform Movement of Judaism.
Ed Julison and church members criticize Ross as having no credentials, not being a Christian and being anti-Church.
Ross said Karlene fit the profile of the victim of a destructive, Bible-based group when he met her.
"It was impossible for Karlene to differentiate between God and the pastors," Ross said. "As far as she could see, God was speaking through their mouths."
"With Karlene, it was just to be able to separate Ed and Renee from God," Ross said. "That she could have faith in God and faith in Christ, but to be able to look at Ed and Renee's leadership objectively."
Karlene said her Christian faith is stronger than ever, and the Croys are looking for a new church.
One with a board of directors, and checks and balances.
They now want to help others.
"It's not to bash Ed and Renee. It's to make the community aware of cults and how destructive they are," Karlene said. "That when they see family members withdraw, or always busy with the church, when they appear tired all the time, and depressed and they can't leave. Then begin to ask questions." (Used by permission)
Grand Forks Herald reporter Stephen J. Lee compiled a history of Victory Church.
Lee's research indicated that after the Julisons became born-again Christians in the late 1970s, they attended Rhema Bible Training Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Kenneth Hagin, Jr., confirmed this.
We researched our records and discovered that although Ed Julison did attend Rhema in the early 1980's, he did not complete the required courses for graduation. Our records indicate that he has never been associated with or been a part of or held ministerial credentials with the RHEMA Ministerial Association International (RMAI), which is the licensing and ordaining branch of our ministry.
We cannot comment on his church or ministry as we have no knowledge of it and had heard nothing from him or about him since he left here until a few weeks ago when we began receiving questions about him and his church.
Although the Julisons do not appear to have made a lasting impression while Ed Julison was at Rhema, they will never be forgotten by many of those whose lives were disrupted by their "ministry." The Leonardis were able to recover their spiritual balance and restore their marriage. But, as we will see in the following chapter, not all Victory Church members were so fortunate.
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