Rutherfordton -- After morning testimony from two former Word of Faith Fellowship members, the Rutherford County Department of Social Services rested its case on the fourth day of the custody battle involving Shana Muse and the controversial Spindale church.
Holly Hamrick, who left the church in 2002, and 16-year-old John Blanton, who left this July, took the witness stand Tuesday morning, called by DSS attorney Brad Greenway and Muse's attorney Ed Hensley.
The afternoon testimony featured two WOFF members -- Chase Middle School Assistant Principal Larry King and Muse's sister, Cindy Cordes. Both were called to the stand by Tom Hix.
Attorney Hix represents Kent Covington, a minister in the church, and his wife, Brooke, who have cared for the Muse's four children since last September when Muse left the children with the couple as she attempted to get her life in order after leaving the church.
Muse testified for about one and a half days to start the case, which is in the disposition phase after judge Randy Pool declared, without a trial, that there was sufficient evidence that Muse's children had been abused.
DSS is contending that because Muse left the children with a family inside the WOFF, which DSS says is an abusive environment, the children should be turned over to DSS.
Muse supports the DSS action because she wants her children removed from the church as soon as possible. If that happens, she will then formally petition DSS for custody of her children.
The Covingtons hope to retain custody of the children and legally adopt them.
Hamrick answered questions from Greenway to open the day. Hix followed with cross examination and Hensley and Rob Martelle, court-appointed guardian ad litem for the children, joined in with during redirect questions.
During Greenway's questioning, Hamrick said she joined WOFF in April 2001 after meeting several members who were patients at the chiropractic office where she worked. Several weeks after expressing interest in the church's Bible school to Ann McDonald, Hamrick said she was allowed to attend church services.
In July 2001, she moved into a church house with Kim Waites. The next month, Hamrick left her job at the chiropractic office. For about four weeks, she spent her time at the church watching videos of sermons by WOFF pastor Jane Whaley, "usually her teachings on things like rebellion, past sermons."
Then Hamrick went to work at Belk's in Tri-City Mall with Waites.
"She was the one I answered to, not the manager of the store," Hamrick testified.
Greenway asked if Hamrick was allowed to continue seeing her family and friends after joining the church.
"Only my mother -- alone at first, but that changed," said Hamrick. "Jane wanted to meet her, but my mother wouldn't. So then someone from the church had to go with us when I'd meet her."
Greenway asked about the church practice of blasting or strong prayer which has been described as a form of prayer where the subject is screamed at with loud groans to drive away demons. The WOFF calls this practice a Deliverance Circle.
"Jane showed me in the Scriptures where it was used to cast out demons," said Hamrick.
Greenway asked Hamrick who got blasted while she was there.
"Everyone besides (church) leadership," she replied.
Hamrick also described several other forms of discipline used at the church -- spanking and church discipline or isolation.
She said her time in isolation was spent watching more videos and being "given much more prayer."
Greenway asked if Brooke Covington who supervised a high school and college age group with her husband which Hamrick was in with the oldest Muse child, ever threatened Hamrick.
"Yes," said Hamrick, "to spank me. She said if I didn't 'take hold,' she'd spank me."
When Greenway asked what "taking hold" means, Hamrick replied it meant "to submit."
After Hamrick testified that the Covingtons were "very high in church leadership, Greenway asked if she had ever seen them blast the oldest child. Hamrick said, "Yes."
Hamrick also said she has seen one of the Muse children placed on church discipline and all of them blasted.
Hamrick said other children were blasted as well. The youngest child she remembered was "about 6 months old from Georgia. She was blasted for crying."
"What's the purpose of that," asked Greenway, "to get the crying demons out?"
"Yes," replied Hamrick.
After leaving the church, Hamrick received counseling at the Wellspring Center in Ohio, a counseling center for ex-cult members.
Hix started his questioning by asking Hamrick what led to her living with Waites. Hamrick admitted to having a argument with her mother who kicked her out of the house.
"Did you have no other place to go," asked Hix.
"I could have gone to my Dad's," replied Hamrick.
When Hix asked her if she had made statements that her father had sexually abused her, she said, "Yes."
Hix pursued a long line of questioning regarding the dates and incidents leading to Hamrick leaving the church.
Hamrick revealed, that in November 2001, she left her job at Belk's and took almost an entire box of over-the-counter medication she got at Rose's, also in the Tri-City Mall. Hamrick said she was taken to the church by Waites, rather than the hospital, where she was blasted.
Hix also asked Hamrick about several suicide attempts; her treatment at various facilities for psychiatric care and her medication; and her association with other ex-WOFF members.
After the mid-morning break, Hix tried to enter two letters Hamrick had written into evidence, but only succeeded with one written to Waites.
Hix read from the letter, saying "Kim, you have been like a mother to me and I know what it's like to have a true godly parent in my life."
"I wrote that, but that's how I felt at the time," said Hamrick.
On the redirect, Hix asked Hamrick if she believed she would die and go to hell when she left the church.
"Every time," said Hamrick.
"But you didn't die," asked Hix.
"I think you can take judicial notice that she's not dead, your honor," Greenway objected.
When Greenway called Blanton, Pool cautioned against building up cumulative evidence.
"There's no need for us to hear the same thing over and over," said Pool.
Blanton said he came to WOFF in March 2000 and left this July. He has been living with his mother since in Greenville, S.C. Before he came to the church, he lived with his grandparents in Leland in the eastern part of the state where he attended a church called New Jerusalem where he met Whaley. His grandparents and sister moved to Spindale and into the church with him.
He said he came to the WOFF church and school "in order to be reformed." He attended the school in the seventh, eighth and ninth grades, but in the ninth grade was moved back to eighth grade.
Blanton testified that he ultimately left the church by secretly calling his mother on his grandmother's cell phone. She picked him up at 2 a.m. on a Wednesday.
"I went out the window with my clothes in two pillowcases and walked up the street to meet her," said Blanton who said his sister was taken from another WOFF house later by law enforcement.
He is now in 10th grade, but will have to double up on math and English classes next summer, he said.
While Blanton admitted to Hix he had been in trouble in Leland and at WOFF, he also said he was blasted, isolated and spanked for things like smiling and making faces in class. He also testified that he had seen all of the Muse children blasted, and that he knew the boys had been isolated and "heard them going to a (spanking) session."
Blanton said he was spanked at least 50 times while he was at WOFF with some spankings having as many as 10 licks. He also said he was placed in isolation for 11 months.
Martelle asked Blanton to describe a spanking session.
"They have you cry out while they're spanking and blasting you," said Blanton. "You're supposed to cry out to Jesus."
"You're 16, how did they get you to submit," asked Martelle.
"You're under obligation," said Blanton. "I don't know how to describe it, but they force you."
After Blanton's testimony, Greenway rested DSS's case.
Hix opened the Covington's response by renewing his motions to dismiss presented on the first day of the hearing.
After Pool denied the motions, Hix called Larry King to the stand.
King said he is a member of the WOFF and is employed as assistant principal at Chase Middle School. He has been an educator for 34 years.
King said he came to Rutherford County a little more than a year ago, but has been a member of the church since 1995 and on its school advisory board since 1999.
Hix asked King if corporal punishment was administered in Rutherford County Schools.
"Yes, K-12," testified King.
Later on Tuesday, a county school official said that the Discipline Policy allowed for corporal punishment in elementary and middle schools, but not high schools.
King said the policy required parental notification and administration by the head principal. Although he did say that some parents are not notified.
"Some parents say that if he acts up again go ahead and spank him," said King.
State law requires a school official to "provide the child's parent or guardian with notification of the punishment, and upon request, the official administering punishment must provide a written explanation of the reasons with the name of the second school official present."
Hix questioned King on other forms of county school punishment including in-school suspension.
"That's separating the child from peers, so they can't be disruptive," said King.
Although ISS typically lasts for one to 10 days, King said it could be imposed for up to a month. King also spoke about out-of-school suspension and the Rutherford Opportunity Center.
Hix asked King what the term "church discipline" meant to him.
"To me, it means a person is encouraged to inquire about what's going on in their hearts," said King. "As they come before God, the troubles will be revealed and you will be restored to fellowship."
Unlike Blanton who said he did not do school work during church discipline, King said that instruction continues at the church school for students in isolation.
"What does corporal punishment consist of in the church school," asked Hix.
"Basically, the same as public schools," replied King.
King said he and his wife have two children and four grandchildren. All are members of the church and his 12-year-old grandson attends school there.
Hix asked King to describe strong prayer or blasting.
"I believe that people -- knowing it or not -- that people are being harassed by wicked unknown spirits," said King. "Deliverance is the power of strong prayer to relieve them and allow the Holy Spirit to heal them. It's worked on me. I have peace every day."
King said he was not aware of the Muse children receiving strong prayer.
On the cross examination, Greenway established that King had come to Spindale from an affiliated church in Greenville.
"Would you punish a child for smiling," asked Greenway.
"Yes, sir, if it was an inappropriate expression or behavior," said King.
Greenway asked King who owned his house, to which he replied that the church did. King said he lived there with his wife, son-in-law, daughter, grandchild and four other church members.
After a long series of questions about punishment in both public schools and the WOFF school, Hensley asked King if he was familiar about the Bible story about the prostitute who hid the spies in a wall, telling a white lie and saving them from capture.
"I'm familiar with it," said King.
"You wouldn't come in here and stretch the truth," asked Hensley.
"No, sir," said King.
"Not for your church," asked Hensley.
"No, sir," said King.
"Not because you believe God is in this," asked Hensley.
"No, sir," said King.
For the final testimony of the day, Hix called Cindy Cordes, Muse's sister to the stand.
For about an hour, Cordes testified to Muse's history of drug use and the chronology of how the family came to the church from Florida.
The questioning was peppered with objections from Hensley and Martelle who said that Muse had already admitted the drug use in earlier testimony and questioned the relevance of the new testimony.
Cordes is expected to retake the witness stand on Wednesday.