< Return to Famous Baptists
The Religious Affiliation of
Baptist Preacher and Nationally Famous Hate-Monger
[Fred Phelps is a very active and controversial Baptist preacher. He leads the "God Hates Fags" ministry and produces its web site. Rev. Phelps came to national attention in the late 1990s when his group protested at the trial of the murderers of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard. Before Phelps began his crusade against homosexuality, the main target of his hate campaign was the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article below details much of his history.]
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IMPORTANT NOTES FROM
THE ANTI-PHELPS UNDERGROUND
PLEASE MAKE 10 COPIES OF THIS FILE AND GIVE THEM TO THOSE WHO
FIND THE ACTIVITIES OF FRED PHELPS UNCONSCIONABLE.
On June 29, 1994 Jon Michael Bell, a former reporter hired to
investigate Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church by Stauffer
Communications, Inc., filed a lawsuit in Shawnee County District Court in
Topeka, Kansas against Stauffer Communications alleging the Topeka
Capital-Journal owed him compensation for overtime and to clarify
ownership of his notes and work product. The work product in question,
"Addicted to Hate" chronicling the life and times of Fred Phelps, was
attached to the lawsuit as Exhibit A making it, therefore, a public
document. Learning of the suit, members of Topeka's anti-Phelps
underground delivered a certified copy of the lawsuit to a copy shop
near the courthouse.
Within 48 hours, Stauffer Communications had written all area
media outlets and issued veiled warnings about using the information
contained in "Addicted to Hate". A rival Topeka newspaper, the Metro
News, announced it was considering publishing the lawsuit in it
entirety. The Kansas City Star abided by Stauffer Communication's
wishes, but several other media outlets aired or printed portions of the
manuscript. Within 48 hours of the filing, Stauffer Communications
persuaded a judge to seal the suit so the Clerk of the District Court
could no longer make copies for the public. No matter - no such order
was issued to the copy shop or to the hundreds of citizens that already
On July 8 the Capital-Journal, which had deep-sixed the Phelps
project and fired the publisher who authorized it when it was completed
last fall, suddenly began its watered-down, copyrighted series on Phelps
that they had earlier claimed they wouldn't print. Bell also withdrew
his suit the same day. By this time, however, TV networks, wire
services, and eastern newspapers had obtained copies of the manuscript,
and Stauffer's unprecedented attempt to suppress media discussion of the
document attracted the interest of several major East Coast newspapers
on First Amendment grounds.
Phelps, a self-proclaimed advocate of the First Amendment, whose
'free speech activities include libel, slander defamation of character,
intimidation, obscene language, battery, promptly denounced Stauffer
Communications and denied the allegations of child abuse, spouse abuse,
and other illegal activities. Anyone familiar with Phelps and his
children who remain loyal to him, however, can clearly see these adult
children and his wife suffer from the grotesque and obvious behaviors
symptomatic of severe, long-term abuse. Where and how the twisted saga
of Fred Phelps will end is anyone's guess.
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The volunteer distributors of this file wish to emphatically state
that Jon Michael Bell did not suggest, encourage, or take part in the
transfer or distribution of his typewritten manuscript (Exhibit A) to
ASCII format. Volunteer distributors make no guarantees either expressed
or implied and cannot be responsible in the use of this file.
Jon Michael Bell, one of the authors of "Addicted to Hate",
seeks no compensation for his work. If, however, after reading "Addicted
to Hate", you would like to make a contribution in his name to
organizations in Topeka assisting AIDS victims, abused children and
battered women, please send your donations to:
1. Hospice for AIDS Victims
c/o Topeka AIDS Project
1915 S. W. 6th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66606
2. Project Safe Talk
200 S.E. 7th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66603
3. Battered Women Task Force
225 S.W. 12th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66612
Let the word go forth that the overwhelmingly vast majority of
Topekans and Kansans DO NOT support Westboro Baptist Cult and Fred
Phelps' hate campaigns against all who disagree with him. The District
Attorney in Shawnee County (Topeka) has filed several criminal cases
against members of the Westboro Cult ranging from disorderly conduct and
battery to felony charges of aggravated intimidations of victims and
witnesses. Prosecution of these cases are delayed pending the outcome of
the second of the lawsuits filed in federal court by Phelps Chartered.
There will probably be more. Fred and his lawyer offspring and in-laws
continue to abuse the judicial system much as Fred did before his state
and federal disbarments. The case is expected to be heard in federal
court in early fall, but few expect that this will be the end.
Please let Topeka officials and Federal Judge Sam Crow know that
many of Fred Phelps' and WBC activities (as outlined in the above
paragraph and documented by both "Addicted to Hate" and the
Capital-Journal series) are NOT protected by the First Amendment and
encourage them to take whatever steps are necessary to prosecute Phelps
for those activities which are clearly crimes to the fullest extent of
the law. Please do it today!
The Hon. Sam A. Crow
Frank Carlson Federal Courthouse
444 S.E. Quincy
Topeka, Kansas 66603
Joan M. Hamilton
Shawnee County District Attorney
200 S.E. 7th Street Suite 214
Topeka, Kansas 66603
(913) 233-8200 Ext. 4330
Commissioner Don Cooper
Chairman, Board of Commissioners
200 S.E. 7th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66603
(913) 233-8200 Ext. 4040
The Hon. Butch Felker
Office of the Mayor
215 S.E. 7th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66603
Chief Gerald Beavers
Topeka Police Department
204 S.W. 5th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66603
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IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF SHAWNEE COUNTY, KANSAS DIVISION 7 JON BELL,
Plaintiff, vs. Case No. 94CV766 STAUFFER COMMUNICATIONS, INC.,
PETITION FOR DECLARATORY RELIEF (Pursuant to K.S.A. Chapter
60-1701 et. seq.)
COMES NOW the Plaintiff Jon Bell and states:
1.Plaintiff is a resident of Kansas.
2.Defendant Stauffer Communications, Inc. is a corporation
organized under the laws of Kansas and may be served by serving its
resident agent The Corporation Company, Inc., 515 S. Kansas Ave.,
Topeka, Kansas 66603.
3.Plaintiff was an intern and employed by Defendant to work for
its newspaper Topeka Capital Journal, in Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas.
4. As part of his work he was assigned by the managing editor to
prepare stories and/or manuscripts concerning one Fred Phelps, pastor of
Westboro Baptist Church, Inc.
5. That Plaintiff's employment was originally undertaken for
compensation of $1300 per month (37 hours per week at $8.00/hour). As
the scope of the Phelps project expanded to book length, Plaintiff
indicated his willingness to do a book for the compensation he was being
paid. It was represented to him by the managing editor, Mr. Sullivan,
that the publication of the book would have such value to Plaintiff's
reputation as an author that the publication plus the salary was just
compensation. In reliance upon the representation that the book would be
published by Defendant, he continued with the project to the point of
final manuscript and dedicated overtime hours (for which he was not
separately compensated) having a reasonable value in excess of $10,000.
6. Plaintiff has been advised by Mr. Hively, the publisher of
the Topeka Capital Journal that Defendant does not intend to publish the
book or any portion of it.
7. Plaintiff has been separately advised by the defendant's
attorney that Defendant does not grant Plaintiff permission to publish
the book (Ex. B attached).
8. Plaintiff claims that he has intellectual property rights in
the manuscript and desires to publish it and that in the absence of
compensation for his overtime or because of his reliance on Mr.
Sullivan's representation if Defendant chooses to waste the work that he
has the right to publish the book.
9. In that Defendant has asserted superior rights to the
manuscript, but, has likewise has declared an intent not to publish and
the fact that the material may become dated, or alternatively, lose its
timelessness (the subject of the manuscript is currently running for the
Democratic nomination for Governor of the State of Kansas), it is
important to resolve the rights of the parties in and to the manuscript
as it relates to the contract of employment which previously existed
between Plaintiff and Defendant, and terminate the controversy over
rights to the manuscript which gives rise to these proceedings.
10. Plaintiff feels uncertain and insecure of his legal position
in the absence of a judicial declaration of his rights, and for that
reason, brings this action.
WHEREFORE, Plaintiff prays that the Court construe the terms of
his employment and his rights to publish the manuscript marked as Ex. A
and attached hereto, and permit the Plaintiff the right without
restriction, and subject to any fair accounting to Defendant, to publish
(Signature of Jon Bell) Jon Bell, pro s 82 (Home address
intentionally omitted) Lawrence, KS 66044
(Document contains the seal of the District Court of Shawnee
County, Kansas and the signature of Leslie Miller, Deputy Clerk of the
District Court of Shawnee County, Kansas and dated 6-29-94.)
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(Letterhead of the law firm of Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds &
Palmer) 515 South Kansas Avenue Topeka, Kansas 66603-3999 913-233-0593
June 2, 1994
Mr. Jon Bell (Home Address Intentionally Omitted) Shawnee,
In re: Topeka Capital-Journal Our file: 31143
I understand that you are in some way marketing or trying to
develop an interest in the Capital-Journal's investigatory work on Fred
Be advised that you are not authorized to engage in this
activity. This work is the property of The Topeka Capital-Journal, and
does not belong to you. My client will make all decisions regarding the
piece. You are not authorized to speak on behalf of The Capital-Journal
regarding this work, or even to reveal its existence for that matter. If
you are taking any steps to develop a market or other interest in this
work, you are required to cease immediately.
Meanwhile, please advise Pete Goering at The Capital-Journal of
any steps you have taken in this regard.
Very truly yours, (Signature of Michael W. Merriam) Michael W.
MWM:ah cc: Mr. Pete Goering
(Note: This document contains the time stamp of the Clerk of
the District Court, Shawnee County, Kansas showing the document was
filed with the Clerk at 1:05 p.m. of June 29, 1994.)
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ADDICTED TO HATE
By Jon Michael Bell
with Joe Taschler
and Steve Fry
(Note: The contents of the following document shows the time stamp
of the Clerk of the District Court, Shawnee County, Kansas and shows
that the document was filed at 1:05 p.m. on June 29, 1994.)
"And be sure your sin will find you out." (Num. 32:23)
A frequent quote of Pastor Fred Phelps
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Reverend Fred Phelps: lawyer and Baptist minister; head of the
Westboro Baptist Church; 64 years old. Disbarred.
Marge Phelps: wife of Fred; mother of his 13 children; 68 years
old. WBC member.
1. Fred Phelps, Jr.: lawyer and employee at the Kansas
Department of Corrections; 40 years old. Oldest son. WBC member.
Betty Phelps (Schurle): wife of Fred, Jr.; lawyer and
owner-operator of a day-care home; 41 years old. WBC member.
2. ***Mark Phelps: businessman in Southern California; estranged
from the family cult; 39 years old. 2nd son.
Luava Phelps (Sundgren): wife of Mark; childhood sweetheart; 36
3. ***Katherine Phelps: lawyer; suspended from the bar; living
on welfare; 38 years-old; oldest daughter. Not in WBC.
4. Margie Phelps: lawyer and employee of the Kansas Department
of Corrections; 37 years old; 2nd daughter. WBC member.
5. Shirley Phelps-Roper: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; 36 years
old; 3rd daughter. WBC member.
Brent Roper: husband of Shirley; lawyer and businessman in
Topeka; 30 years old; WBC member.
6. ***Nate Phelps: businessman in Southern California; estranged
from family cult; 35 years old. 3rd son.
7. Jonathon Phelps: lawyer; 4th son; 34 years old; WBC member.
Paulette Phelps (Ossiander): wife of Jonathon; 33 years old; high school
graduate; WBC member.
8. Rebekah Phelps-Davis: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; 32 years
old; 4th daughter; WBC member.
Chris Davis: husband to Rebekah; 38 years old; raised from
childhood in the WBC.
9. Elizabeth Phelps: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; night house
manager staff at Sheltered Living, Inc. Topeka; 31 years old; 5th
daughter; WBC member. Former counsel for the Shawnee County Sheriff's
10. Timothy Phelps: lawyer and employee of the Shawnee County
Department of Corrections; 30 years old; 5th son; WBC member.
Lee Ann Phelps (Brown): wife of Timothy; lawyer and employee of
Shawnee County Sheriff's Department; 27 years old; WBC member.
11.***Dorotha Bird (Phelps): lawyer practicing independently in
Topeka; 6th daughter; not a WBC member; changed her last name to avoid
family's notoriety. 29 years old.
12. Rachel Phelps: lawyer at Phelps Chartered; YMCA fitness
instructor; 28 years old; 7th daughter; WBC member.
13. Abigail Phelps: lawyer and employee at SRS-Youth and Adult
Services, Juvenile Offender Program; 25 years old; 8th daughter; WBC
Fred Wade Phelps: the Rev. Phelps' father; he lived in Meridian,
Mississippi. He was a railroad bull.
Catherine Idalette Phelps (Johnson): the Rev. Phelps' mother;
she died when he was a small child.
Martha Jean Capron (Phelps): the Rev. Phelps' only sibling; a
former missionary to Indonesia, she now lives in Pennsylvania; the
brother and sister have not spoken for years.
***Denotes a Phelps child who has left the family cult.
(Note: The next portion of Exhibit A contains some handwritten
notes denoting ages of the Phelps' children, some names of some of the
non-Phelps WBC members (George Stutzman, Charles Hockenbarger, Jennifer
Hockenbarger, and Charles Hockenbarger), names of some of the Phelps'
grandchildren (Benjamin, Sharon, Sara, Libby, Jacob, Sam, and Josh), and
2 items pasted onto the document which are published documents showing
the Phelps family tree and a map of the area surrounding Meridian,
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He rang the doorbell. It was winter, and with his thick gloves
he could barely feel the button.
He waited. A cat, caught like him on this cold night outside,
walked along the porch rail. Toward him.
He watched it.
In the street behind them a solitary car passed. Like urban
sleigh bells, the chains on its tires chimed rhythmic into the pounded
No one was home. The cat. Was rubbing against his leg.
He set the candy down and picked it up. It purred. And purred
more when he tucked it under his warm arm. Like a football. Against his
He could see into its eyes. Up close. He liked it that way.
When he wrapped his thick fingers round its tiny neck...
Pinning its legs against his side, he slowly squeezed, watching
the eyes widen in alarm. Feeling it push against him. Desperately
struggle. For a long time struggle.
The lids droop slowly down. The light pass from the eyes.
He let go. Another car rattled metal links by in the snow.
Watching the light return. The animal terror that followed.
Flooding the look in those helpless eyes. It pierced his soul.
A shock wave of remorse flamed hot. In all his cells he could
Or was it love. Yes, warm love for this tiny being.
I want to do it. Again. Now.
Yes, I want to know what it's like once more.
He squeezed the cat's thin neck. And when it has succumbed, he
felt the same pity again warm flooding him.
And only horror at himself. As he did it once more.
And when it was over he...
But this time the cat mustered the last of its tiny animal
ferocity and writhed free.
He felt...watching it streak away...he felt jarred awake
somehow...as it ran from him...yes, he was awake now...
Had anyone seen him? Would they know?
In a panic he ran
Home to his father's house...
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"Introductions All Around"
A TIME magazine article from 1950 hangs framed on the wall.
It's about a college student's crusade against necking on a campus in
That student's office in Kansas today is aclack with fax
machines and ringing phones, but the chair behind the great mahogany
desk is empty.
When the former campus evangelist finally bursts in, he is
trailed by grandchildren-so many sixth-grade secretaries-gophering,
sending faxes, fetching papers-and a glass of water for the reporter.
Thoughtful. It's 93 outside.
"Sit down," says Fred Phelps, rumored ogre, with an effusive
Southern graciousness. "But I got to tell you, you know we're going to
preach the word, the same thing I've been preaching for 46 years, and
it's supremely, supremely irrelevant to us what anybody thinks or says.
"You get a little bit of this message I'm preaching, you can't ask for
anything more. God hates fags-that's a synopsis."
Phelps, 63, a disbarred lawyer and Baptist preacher from
Mississippi, is on a mission from God. His face lights up like a kid's
on Christmas morning when he talks about how the nation is reacting to
his anti- homosexual campaign. He contends the Bible supports the death
penalty for sodomy:
"I'm not urging anybody to kill anybody," he adds, then
matter-of-factly explains how his interpretation of the Bible calls for
"The death penalty was violently carried out by God on a massive
scale when the biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by
fire and brimstone," says Phelps. "I am inclined to the view that the
closer man's laws come to God's laws, the better off our race will be."
Phelps has found the national spotlight by disrupting the
mourners' grieving at the funerals of AIDS victims. His followers carry
picket signs outside the services with such stone-hearted messages as
GOD HATES FAGS and FAGS 3DDEATH.
Last spring, he and his tiny band traveled to Washington, D.C.,
to taunt the gay parade, creating a near-riot. Since then, Phelps has
been the subject of a 20-20 segment, appeared on the Jane Whitney Show
twice to mock homosexuals, and is now regularly interviewed on both
Christian and secular radio across America.
Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church in the Kansas
capital of Topeka, since 1990 has also been an unsuccessful candidate
for mayor, governor, and United States Senator. Currently he is
negotiating his own radio show-one that will be heard throughout the
His message is simple: God hates most everybody and He's sending
them all to hell. Makes no difference how they lived their life.
For the Pastor Phelps, except for a handful of 'elect', the
human race is composed of depraved beasts. God hates these creatures and
so do His favored few. The world is divided sharply and irreversibly
between the multitude of the already-damned (called the reprobate or the
Adamic Race) and those chosen by God to attend Him in heaven. Those
selected to be elect were tapped, not for the rectitude of their lives,
but by what could best be described as the Supreme Whim of the Deity.
While this is the theology of predestination, one that in less
vengeful minds is a mainstay of many Protestant sects, in Fred Phelps'
mind it has become a green light to hatred and cruelty.
Recently, Pastor Phelps has added a corollary to this thesis
that God hates the human race: God reserves His most pure and profound
hatred for the homosexuals among the Adamic race.
At 63, Phelps is a triathlon competitor who bikes or runs every
day. The strongest thing he drinks is what he calls his 'vitamin C
cocktail', consisting of Vitamin C, Diet Pepsi, and water.
The pastor basks in the heat of the outrage triggered by his
campaign against homosexuals.
"If you're preaching the truth of God, people are going to hate
you," he grins. "Nobody has the right to think he's preaching the truth
of God unless people hate him for it. All the prophets were treated that
Phelps delivers this with all the drama, fire, and brimstone of
a man who used to be a trial lawyer and is still a preacher. His voice
and tone are spellbinding and chilling. He doesn't stumble over his
words. Clearly, he believes he is a modern day prophet.
Phelps says he and his family have been hated and persecuted
almost from the time they arrived in Topeka in 1954. "The more
opposition we get, the more committed we get," says Liz Phelps, one of
the pastor's daughters. "Nothing, short of the elimination of
homosexuality in the world, will make us stop," announces the pastor. In
an unexpected reprieve from the anticipated 'sodomite' label pasted on
all who disagree-especially the press-the former vacuum cleaner salesman
gives his visitor a warm smile and immediately takes to calling him
warmly by his first name. He leads a brief tour through his church. It
adjoins his office: a long room, with a low ceiling and a rusty red
carpet and dark, oaken pews. It has enough seating for twice the current
congregation of 51.
The reporter asks to go to the bathroom. A stocky teenage
grandson with training in judo is sent along. He waits outside, no
dummy, for the reporter to finish. Then it's upstairs to the study, a
high, spacious room filled with books of biblical exegesis dating back
to the Reformation. Fred is eager to prove his Bible scholarship, and
perhaps frustrated, even contemptuous, when he realizes he is talking to
a Bible-ho-hum humanist. Downstairs, the pastor leads to the garage
where their wardrobe of picket signs is kept. Stacked high against the
walls are messages for every occasion-all of them gloomy. No good news
Outside, one would never guess they were at a church. Westboro
Baptist is actually a large home in a comfortable Topeka neighborhood.
In fact, Phelps and his wife have lived in the house for almost 40
years, and raised their 13 children within its walls. For many years,
his law office was also located in the residence Fred Phelps insists is
still his 'church'. The pastor's large family has always composed nearly
all of his congregation and loyal following. As his children grew up,
they bought the adjoining houses on the block, creating a tight compound
around the church. Today, one finds a citadel of modest homes joined by
fences, sharing a common backyard.
In a small revolution in urban design, the space behind their
houses has not been sub-divided, but made into a wide grass park,
complete with swimming pool, ball court, and trampoline. The
grandchildren wander from their separate houses to play together. The
effect on the nervous reprobates outside the walls is a sense of Waco in
>From his compound, like a knight sallying forth from the
Crusaders' citadel of Krak, Pastor Phelps and his child band make war on
the Adamic race. When not doing TV talk shows, radio interviews, or
appearing on the cover of the national gay magazine, The Advocate,
Phelps lays siege to his hometown, nearby Kansas City, and local
The Westboro congregation pickets public officials, private
businesses, and other churches, many of whom have had only tenuous
connection to some form of anti-Phelps criticism. Until a city ordinance
was passed against it, the Westboro warriors even picketed their
opponents' homes. For the last two years, this tiny group, by virtue of
their tactics, dedication, and discipline, have held the Kansas capital
hostage. Fred Phelps has been able to intimidate most of the residents
of Topeka into a fearful silence, though he himself is a shrill and
vigorous defender of his own First Amendment rights. Those who would
disagree with his brutal remedies to his perception of social ills face
a three-fold attack: Lawsuits: If the rest of America has justly come to
fear the anonymous lone nut with a gun, it has yet to experience a
community of eccentrics stockpiling law degrees. Picketing: One
prominent restaurant in Topeka is now failing after being picketed daily
for almost a year. "Patrons just got tired of the harassment," sighs the
owner. The cause of the pickets? One of the restaurant's employees is a
Faxes: Phelps has gone to court and won on his right to fax
daily almost 300 public officials, private offices, and the media with
damaging and embarrassing information from the private lives of his
opponents-most of it false, wild, and unsubstantiated. One city
councilwoman was called a "Jezebelian, switch-hitting whore" who had sex
with several men at once. A police officer saw his name faxed all over
town as a child molester, one who had lured young boys to a park outside
the city and had sex with them in his patrol car. Despite his daughter
Margie's assertions that Phelps has the evidence to prove such
accusations 'big time', no such proof has ever emerged. Over the weeks,
one learns about the family. Of Fred's 13 children, nine remain in the
community. Five of them are married and raising 24 grandchildren. All of
the members of Westboro Baptist-children, in-laws, and grandchildren-
participate in the pastor's anti-gay campaign. Despite their image from
the pickets, most of the adults are friendly and socially accomplished.
Each of them has a law degree, and some have additional postgraduate
degrees in business or public administration. The adults pay taxes, meet
bills, and obey the laws. The grandchildren are perhaps less
demonstrative than most children, but in an earlier day that was called
well-behaved. Many of their parents hold or have held important jobs in
local and state agencies. The pastor's first-born, Fred, Jr., and his
wife, Betty, were guests at the Clinton inauguration. The former
northeast Kansas campaign manager for Al Gore in 1988 has a stack of VIP
photos, such as the one of him, Betty, Al and Tipper, and even soon-to-
be Kansas governor Joan Finney smiling and yucking it up at the Phelps'
place just a few years ago. Clearly these are not street corner flakes
taken to carrying signs. The only discordant note here is the Pastor
Phelps, pacing about in his lycra shorts and windbreaker, looking like a
triathlon competitor who made a wrong turn, ended in a bad neighborhood,
and had his bike stolen. But he can easily be discounted while listening
to his wife reveal just exactly how she managed to raise those thirteen
kids. How? Well, for starters, the woman born Margie Simms of
Carrollton, Missouri, had nine brothers and sisters herself. Her own
tribe she raised by the same five rules she grew up under: keep their
faces clean, their hands clean, and their clothes clean; keep the house
clean and keep 'em fed. No Game Boys, college funds, and cars on
sixteenth birthdays. She did most of the cooking at first, and her
grocery bill, she estimates, would be over two thousand a month today.
Many of the 24 grandchildren still spend time at Gramp's house, she
said, and their food costs are over a thousand a month, even now.
Mrs. Phelps smiles. Before the kids got old enough to be
finicky, she could fill one tub and bathe them all, then line them up to
brush their teeth and clean their fingernails. They had six bedrooms
furnished with bunkbeds, and everyone wore hand-me-downs. Her laundry
pile was so huge, she needed two washers and two dryers: "I'm afraid
that Maytag repairman wasn't lonely with us. He was always out at our
house. We went through washers and dryers every three years. They worked
all day long. "The part I dreaded most about raising so many children?
When they were sick. Then you had to pay all your attention to that
one-and hope the others would make out all right." Later, she adds, the
older kids took over most of the chores and her job became considerably
The children used to listen to their father preach twice on
Sunday, says daughter Margie. Once at eleven and again at seven that
evening. "But there's too many conflicting schedules now. So we only
have the one sermon at eleven-thirty," Margie tells how their household
was abuzz with political bull sessions. All the candidates and wannabes
came through there: "My dad was complete activity and whirlwind. My mom
was the calm at the center of the storm. She's the one who inspired our
closeness. Getting us to look out for our brothers and sisters; bond
with each other." Mrs. Phelps describes how everyone had to take piano
lessons. They had two pianos in the garage and three in the house.
(Chopsticks in fugue-five as a backdrop to any childhood might explain
why the adults seem so tense today.) Margie tells of their family choir.
How they practiced a cappella and harmony. Even today, their
counter-protestors grudgingly admit the Phelps sound good when they
raise their collective voice in hymn from across the street. Once for
their father's birthday, says Margie, the children learned to harmonize
"One Tin Soldier", the theme song from the film, "Billy Jack". She
laughs at the memory. "He was of two minds about that: flattered that
we'd done it. And not too pleased by the lyrics. ("...go ahead and hate
your neighbor...go ahead and cheat a friend...do it in the name of
heaven...you'll be justified in the end... ") "We had good times...lots
of good times," says Mrs. Phelps. "I would not have had any other
childhood but that one," adds her daughter. If they're not holding
harassing signs saying, 'God Hates Fags', calling deaf old dowagers
'sodomite whores', or bristling at startled churchgoers, Fred's kids are
back at home being model parents and neighbors, attending PTOs and
Clinton coronations. The stark contrast of the two masks-decent and
repulsive, hateful and considerate, forthright and devious, stupid and
clever-creates a polarity that begins to weigh on the observer.
Contrasts frequently are the visible edge of contradiction. And
contradictions sometimes arise from very deep and secret undercurrents.
Currents of pain. One day in the pickup with the pastor and his wife,
driving the signs to the picket line, Fred suddenly jams on the brakes
and pulls over.
"Why'd you do that?" asks the mother of 13. "We're gonna make
sure those kids are safe," the pastor replies. The objects of his
concern are in the yard across the street. There is absolutely no chance
he could have hit them. It's odd and unnecessary and exaggerated
His wife knows it; even the children know it-they've pulled back
and are watching the truck suspiciously. Mrs. Phelps gives her husband a
strange look. As if she had some secret knowledge. It's obvious Fred
intended this as an awkward display of altruism for the press. The
message is: "The pastor loves kids". But the message one gets is a
warning from Hamlet: "The play's the thing wherein we'll catch the
conscience of the king." Because that boy, now a man, ran home to his
father's house. The house of Fred Phelps. Where all good things end.
Where any family counselor will assert that a child who
strangles pets has almost certainly been brutalized as well.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Mark Phelps feels nauseated whenever he remembers that night. He
was hit over 60 times and his brother, Nate, over 200 with a mattock
handle. Nate went into shock. Mark didn't. A boy who became a compulsive
counter to handle the stress, Mark counted every stroke. His and Nate's.
While their father screamed obscenities and his brother screamed in
pain. Every 20 strokes, their mother wiped their faces off in the tub.
Nate passed out anyway. That was Christmas Day.
Though he believes he should be the next governor of Kansas,
Pastor Phelps has never believed in Christmas. A mattock is a pick-hoe
using a wooden handle heavier than a bat. Fred swung it with both hands
like a ballplayer and with all his might. "The first blow stunned your
whole body," says Mark. "By the third blow, your backside was so tender,
even the lightest strike was agonizing, but he'd still hit you like he
wanted to put it over the fence. By 20, though, you'd have grown numb
with pain. That was when my father would quit and start on my brother.
Later, when the feeling had returned and it hurt worse than before, he'd
do it again. "After 40 strokes, I was weak and nauseous and very pale.
My body hurt terribly. Then it was Nate's turn. He got 40 each time. "I
staggered to the bathtub where my mom was wetting a towel to swab my
face. Behind me, I could hear the mattock and my brother was choking and
moaning. He was crying and he wouldn't stop." The voice in the phone
halts. After an awkward moment, clearing of throats, it continues: "Then
I heard my father shouting my name. My mom was right there, but she
wouldn't help me. It hurt so badly during the third beating that I kept
wanting to drop so he would hit me in the head. I was hoping I'd be
knocked out, or killed...anything to end the pain. "After that...it was
waiting that was terrible. You didn't know if, when he was done with
Nate, he'd hurt you again. I was shaking in a cold panic. Twenty-five
years since it happened, and the same sick feeling in my stomach comes
back now..." Did he? Come back to you?
"No. He just kept beating Nate. It went on and on and on. I
remember the sharp sound of the blows and how finally my brother stopped
screaming... "It was very quiet. All I could think of was would he do
that to me now. I could see my brother lying there in shock, and I knew
in a moment it would be my turn. "I can't describe the basic animal fear
you have in your gut at a time like that. Where someone has complete
power over you. And they're hurting you. And there is no escape. No way
out. If your mom couldn't help you...I can't explain it to anyone except
perhaps a survivor from a POW camp." Last year, Nate Phelps, sixth of
Pastor Phelps' 13 children, accused his father of child abuse in the
national media. The information was presented as a footnote to the
larger story of Fred Phelps' anti-gay campaign. But the deep currents
that lie beneath the apparent apple-cheeks of the Phelps' clan were
stirring. A series of interviews with Nate resulted in an eyewitness
account of life growing up in the Phelps camp. These reports contained
allegations of persistent and poisonous child abuse, wife-beating, drug
addiction, kidnapping, terrorism, wholesale tax fraud, and business
fraud. In addition, Nate described the cult-like disassembly of young
adult identities into shadow-souls, using physical and emotional
coercion- coercion which may have been a leading factor in the suicide
of an emotionally troubled teenage girl.
The second son, Mark Phelps, who according to his sisters was at
one time heir to the throne of Fred, had refused comment during the
earlier spate of news coverage. He and Nate have both left the Westboro
congregation and now live within four blocks of each other on the West
Coast. But, like the icy water that waits off sunny California beaches,
the deepest currents sometimes rise and now Mark has surfaced with a
"My father," says the 39 year-old, now a parent himself, "is
addicted to hate. Why? I can't say. But I know he has to let it out. As
rage. In doing so, he has violated the sacred trust of a parent and a
pastor. "I'm not trying to hurt my father. And I'm not trying to save
him. I'm going to tell what happened because I've decided it's the only
way I can overcome my past: to drag it into the light and break its
Mark believes that Fred Phelps, no longer able to hate and abuse
his adult children if he hopes to keep them near, by necessity now must
turn all his protean anger outward against his community. Mark has
decided to tell the truth about his father so that others will be
warned. He and his brother have now come forward with specific and
detailed stories, alarming tales, ones that could be checked and have
been verified. Mark's testimony supports Nate's previously, and both
men's statements have been confirmed by a third Phelps' child. In
addition, the Capital- Journal has uncovered documents which
substantiate this testimony, and interviewed dozens of relevant
witnesses who have confirmed much of this information. "One of my
earliest memories...," the voice in the phone pauses, painful to
remember: "was the big ol' German shepherd that belonged to our
neighbors. One day it was in our yard and my father went out and blew it
apart with his shotgun."
Mark says he has no memories prior to age five. "Living in that
house was like being in a war zone, where things were unpredictable and
things were very violent. And there was a person who was violent who did
what he wanted to do. And that was to hurt people, or break things, or
throw a fit, or whatever he wanted to do, that's what he did. And there
was nobody there to say different."
One day when Mark was a teenager, he came home to find his mom
sitting on the lip of the tub, blue towel on her head, her lips pursed
with anger and hurt. "Do you know what your father did today?" she
asked. To Mark, it felt surreal. His mother never spoke out nor vented
her emotions. She seemed quite different just then.
He looked at his father. Pastor Phelps was standing across the
room with his arms folded, smiling (the bathtub was in the parents'
bedroom). "No," said Mark. "I don't know." His mother stood up and
whipped the towel down her side. "He chopped my hair off," she
announced, tears coming to her eyes. The son stood aghast at the
grotesque head before him. His mother's former waist-length hair had
been shorn to two inches- and even that showed ragged gouges down to the
white of the scalp. "Why?" he asked. "Your father says I wasn't in
subjection today," she replied. According to Mark and Nate, all of the
Phelps children were terrified of their father: "Usually we had to worry
what mood we'd find him in after school. You didn't make any noise or
racket, or cut- up; you had to walk on eggshells, tiptoe around him; you
didn't fight with your siblings; you did your jobs, performed your
assigned tasks, and hoped not to draw his attention." If you did draw it
and he was in a foul mood, say the boys, summary punishment at the hands
of the dour pastor involved being beaten with fists, kicked in the
stomach, or having one's arm twisted up and behind one's back till it
Sometimes Pastor Phelps preferred to grab one child by their
little hands and haul them into the air. Then he would repeatedly smash
his knee into their groin and stomach while walking across the room and
laughing. The boys remember this happening to Nate when he was only
seven, and to Margie and Kathy even after they were sexually developed
teenagers. Nate recalls being taken into the church once where his
father, a former golden gloves boxer, bent him backwards over a pew,
body-punched him, spit in his face, and told him he hated him. Mark's
very first memory in this life is an emotional scar: their mom had gone
to the hospital to give birth to Jonathon. Mark remembers being very
upset, since now they would be alone in the house with their father, his
threatening presence left unmitigated by her maternal concern. Though
only five, already Mark could use the phone and, one day while his
father was out he dialed the number she'd left.
When he heard her voice, he told her, "Mom, I'm scared. I need
you." But before she could respond, the Pastor Phelps came on. He had
gone to visit the new mother. "What the hell are you doing calling
here?" the father shouted into the phone. "Don't you ever call here and
bother her again!" That is Mark Phelps' earliest memory. That, and the
feeling, when his father hung up, that there would be no rescue and no
escape from the fear and pain contained in the word, 'daddy'. When Fred
Phelps came home, he beat the little boy's first memory of the world in
to stay. From that moment, Mark whispers softly in the phone, "I
resolved to be a total yes-man to my father. If I couldn't escape his
violence, then I'd get so close to him he wouldn't see me. I'd survive
"We had clothes and food," adds Nate. "What we didn't have was
safety. He could throw fits and rages at any moment. When he did, the
kids would respond by turning pale and shaking, standing there shivering
and listening-Mark would pace and count the squares in the floor." "But
I learned exactly what I had to do...to stay safe around him," continues
Mark. I did a good job of it." He admits he used to beat his brothers
and sisters if his father ordered
him: "If you fell asleep in church, you got hit in the face.
Once I hit Nate so hard, it knocked over the pew and blood splurt across
the floor." After a moment, he tells us quietly: "My brothers and
sisters are entitled to hate me." Physical abuse? Nonsense, say sisters
Margie and Shirley. They laugh.
Well, maybe during their father's period of preoccupation with
health food. Every morning they were required to eat nuts and vitamins,
curds and whey. "I hate nuts," says Margie "We'd take the vitamins and
drop them in our pockets. Throw them out later." She adds: "Little Abby
was the only one who liked curds and whey. Poor kid. She'd have to eat
every bowl on the table when my dad wasn't looking."
Against this charming story is set another. For all her
reputation as a minotaur of the Kansas courtrooms, Margie Phelps was
like a second mom to the younger children. Today, she remains well-liked
by her siblings, including Mark and Nate. When her father was beating
someone and screaming at the top of his lungs, frequently Margie would
take her terrified younger brothers and sisters away for several hours.
When they thought it was over, they'd come back like cautious house
cats, sneaking in softly, Margie on point, to see if the coast was
clear. The boys tell how one day their father was in a barbershop and
noticed the leather strap used to sharpen razors. It struck his fancy as
a backup to the mattock handle, so he had one custom-made at a
leatherworker's shop near Lane and Huntoon.
"It was about two feet long and four inches wide. It left oval
circles- red, yellow, and blue," says Mark. "Usually the circles would
be where it would snap the tip-on the outside of your right leg and
hip...because he was righthanded." According to Mark and Nate, their
father wore out several of the leathermaker's straps while they were
growing up. As Mark Phelps became the angel-appointed in Fred's family
cult, Nate was assigned the role of sinner. For Mark, his brother was
the needed scapegoat. For the rest of the family, Nate was a problem
child, the delinquent of the brood. Brilliant like his dad (Nate's IQ
has been measured at 150), the middle son followed another drummer from
the time he was a toddler. When he was five, he remembers his father
telling him, 'I'm going to keep a special eye on you'. The regular
beatings started shortly thereafter.
Nate endured literally hundreds of such brutalities before
walking out at one minute after midnight on his eighteenth birthday. His
siblings both inside and outside the church agree that Nate got the
lion's share of the 'discipline'. "Nate was a very tough kid," says
Mark. "I don't know how he endured it, but he did. He'd get 40 blows at
a time from the mattock handle. He was just tougher than the rest of us
and my father adjusted for that."
Today, raising his family in California, Nate is a devout
Christian and a warm, friendly, considerate, mountain of a man. But at
6'4" and 280 pounds, it would be...instructive...to see father and son
in the same room today with one mattock stick between them. "I sensed
early on this man had no love for us," says Nate. "He was using us. I
knew it. And I always made sure he knew I did."
in fact, Mark adds, Nate's obstinate resistance so angered his
father that, by age nine, when a family outing had been planned,
frequently Nate not only missed it, but Fred would remain behind with
him. "And during the course of the day, my father would beat Nate
whenever the spirit moved him. " Mark remembers the family coming back
once to find Pastor Phelps jogging around the dining room table, beating
the sobbing boy with a broom handle; while doing so, he was alternately
spitting on the frightened child and chuckling the same sinecure laugh
so disturbing to those who've seen him on television. When he wasn't
allowed to go along, says Mark, "Nate would literally scream and chase
mom as she drove off with us kids in the car. He knew what was coming
after we left." The older brother remembers the little one racing
alongside the windows, begging for them not to leave him until, like a
dog, he could no longer keep up. Mark sorrowfully admits he felt no
empathy for him, only relief it wasn't happening to himself. "I just
stared straight ahead. I didn't know what he was yelling about. I was
just glad to get the hell out of there." But how could their mom
tolerate that? Wouldn't the maternal instinct cut in at some point?
Wouldn't the lioness turn in fury to protect her cub?
It turns out Mrs. Phelps was herself an abused child, according
to her sons. "The only thing she ever told us about her dad was that he
was a drunkard who beat them. She said she'd always run and hide in the
watermelon patch when he was raging." Though most of her nine brothers
and sisters either settled in Kansas City or remained in rural Missouri,
Mrs. Phelps has had virtually no contact with them during the last 40
years. Not since she married Fred. "My father was very effective at
jamming Bible verses down her throat about wives being in subjection to
their husbands," Nate says. "She was a small woman and very gentle. She
felt God had put her with Fred and she had to endure." "Oh, mom would
try to interfere," adds Mark. "She'd come running out, finally, into the
church auditorium as the beating would escalate, and yell wildly, 'Fred,
stop it!" You're going to kill him!' "And then my father would turn on
her. I remember him screaming, 'Oh, so you want me to just let them go,
huh? You don't believe in discipline, huh? Why don't you just shut your
goddam mouth before I slap you? Get your fat hussy ass out of here! I'm
warning you, goddamit, you either shut up or I'm going to beat you!'
"And then," Mark continues, "she'd shut up till she couldn't take it
anymore, then she'd start again. When she did, he'd start beating her
and hitting her with his fist, and sometimes she'd just come up and grab
him. Sometimes she'd run out the front door, and sometimes he'd just
slap her and beat her until she'd shut up. "I can remember times when
she'd get hit so hard, it looked like she'd be knocked out, and she'd
stagger and almost fall. She would give out this desperate scream right
at the moment when he would hit her.
"Sometimes, after he'd get done beating her, he'd have forgotten
about the kid. Sometimes he'd go back to the kids and beat even harder.
Then he'd blame the kid for what had happened." The phone line falls
silent. "Out in public," recalls Nate, "she wore sunglasses a lot." Mrs.
Phelps was beaten even when she wasn't interfering. After Nate and
Kathy, the boys figure their mom was victimized the most. They remember
their father finishing one session by throwing her down the stairs from
the second floor. "It had 16 steps," says Mark. "And no rail," continues
Nate. "Mom grabbed at the stairs going over and tore the ligaments and
cartilage in her right shoulder. The doctor said she needed surgery, but
my father refused. We had no medical insurance back then. She's had a
bad shoulder ever since. My father often chose that same shoulder to
re-injure when he was beating mom. He'd grab her right arm and jerk it.
She'd yelp." The voice in the phone sighs: "But...I guess I do still
feel that very deeply...that she betrayed a gut, primitive bond when she
drove off and left me. I do love my mom. But I wish she'd put a stop to
it. She could have and she didn't." Pastor Phelps denies beating his
children or his wife. "Hardly a word of truth to that stuff. You know,
it's amazing to me that even one of them stayed." He grins, referring to
the nine daughters and sons who remain loyal to him. Why?
"Because teachers have the kids from age five. And children are
besieged by their own lusts and foreign ideas. "Those boys (Mark and
Nate) didn't want to stay in this church. It was too hard. They took up
with girls they liked, and the last thing them girls was gonna do was
come into this church. "Those boys wanted to enjoy the pleasures of sin
for a season. I can't blame them. I just feel sorry for them that
they're not bound for the promised land." Margie is the second-oldest
daughter and the fourth Phelps child. Her mom goes by 'Marge", so she is
'Margie'. Some say Margie is the de facto head of operations for her
father's war on the community. Anticipating bad reviews from Nate, at
least, she explained: "My brother is furious with his father because he
(Nate) is married to another man's wife. My dad and our whole family do
not accept that." On the abuse issue, her denials take a softer tone:
"There were times in our childhood when each of us had bruises on our
behinds. My dad had a capacity to go too far. In what he said even more
than what he did...yet, as obnoxious as he can be one minute, he's the
most kind, caring person another minute. "I have a marvellous
relationship with my father as an adult. He respects me. He listens to
me. And he helps me. Most people, when they get older, they don't have
that kind of relationship with their parents." Margie, as a single
woman, adopted a new-born infant boy nine years ago. "Jacob doesn't have
a father," she says, "and my dad fills in there. He's one of Jacob's
best friends. He's just a wonderful grandfather to him." For his part,
Nate remembers Marge bringing home bad grades one day and going running
to avoid a beating. When she got back, she was in an exhausted state.
Fred beat her anyway. So badly, she lost consciousness and lay in a heap
on the floor. The Pastor Phelps kicked his daughter repeatedly in the
head and stomach while she out. "I saw her interviewed on television,"
adds Nate. "And she said we weren't abused, just strictly brought up."
He was concerned when he heard her say that: "If she remembers that as a
'strict upbringing', then there's no moral suasion there for her not to
'strictly bring up' her own child, the adopted Jacob. "Nate would have
ended in the penitentiary without his father's discipline," says his
mother. "I believe it's him who's the bitter one. He needed a lot of
discipline." That's fair. All large families have a black sheep. But
this one has four: Nate and Mark rebelled, accepting they'd be turned
back from the gates of heaven by their father who was acting as St.
Peter's proxy. They later received an official letter from the Westboro
Baptist Church, informing them they had been 'voted out of the church
and delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh'. Katherine and
Dottie suffered the same fate but continue to reside in Topeka. "Dottie
only cares about her career," says her mom. "Family is an
embarrassment." And Kathy? "She's been a bitch since high school," says
"Mark," reflects Mrs. Phelps, "was always well-behaved. Of the
ones who left, he was a surprise." According to Mark and Nate, fathering
to Pastor Phelps meant the rod and the pulpit. "My dad never once stood
with me, or sat with me, or worked with me to teach me anything about
the practical life of a Christian," says Mark. "It was just preach on
Sunday. There was no focus on the human heart or being a human-you know,
how we were supposed to do that."
When it came to their formal education as well, Fred's input to
the curriculum was limited to the rod and the wrath of God. "Our dad had
no use for education. He wanted us all to be lawyers, and for that we
needed good grades. But he would sneer at our subjects, never helped us
with our homework, never went to any school meetings and skipped our
graduations. All he cared about were the grades. On the day they
arrived, that was the one day he got involved in our education-usually
with the mattock." "The only time he met our teachers," adds Nate, "was
when he was suing them ." Mark remembers a day when the boys had
gathered in one room to do their homework. They'd been working quietly
for some time when the dour pastor walked in.
After staring in simmering malevolence at each of them, he
intoned: "You guys think you may be foolin' me. But on a cold snowy day,
the snow will be crunchin' under the mailman's tires, and under his
boots, when he puts that letter in our box. Your grades. And that's when
the meat's gonna get separated from the coconut..." When the report
cards arrived from Landon Middle School one day in January, 1972, it
wasn't snowing. But Jonathon and Nate's grades were poor and the meat
got separated from the coconut. The beatings were so severe, the boys
were covered with massive, broken, purple bruising extending from their
buttocks to below their knees. Neither Jonathon or Nate were able to sit
down, and the blows to the backs of their legs had caused so much
swelling they were unable to bend them. Today, Nate has chronic knee
complaints whose origin may lie in early trauma to the cartilage. And
after the beatings came the shaming. It was 1972-the age of shoulder
locks. Both boys had begged their father not to have crewcuts. They
already felt exposed to enough ridicule as the odd ducks whose father
didn't believe in Christmas, whose home no one was allowed to visit, and
who were forbidden to visit others' homes. Jonathon and Nate had a
teenage dread of braving the corridors with flesh-heads in an era of
long manes, and their father had relented. Their hair had been allowed
to touch their collars. But when the grades turned bad, out came the
clippers. No attachments. Brutally short. Shaved bald. "It was not a
haircut," says Nate. "It was a penalty. And a further way of cutting us
off from the outside world."
On the following day-a Thursday-the boys came to school wearing
red stocking caps. When asked to remove them in class, they declined.
This upset their teachers almost as much as their refusal to take their
seats. One instructor demanded Nate remove his headgear. Finally, Nate
did. The teacher stared at his bald head. So did his classmates. "On
second thought," said the charitable man, "put it back on."
For gym class that Friday, the boys had a note from their mom
excusing them all week. By now, the faculty had a pretty good idea what
the clothes, notes, and funny hats were covering, and Principal
Dittemore asked Jonathon to come into his office. Waiting for him were
the school nurse and a doctor from the community.
They asked the 13 year-old to show them his bruises. He refused.
Feeling their hands were tied, the staff released Jonathon, only to have
the pastor himself show up a few hours later. During a stormy second
meeting, Phelps accused the school, first of slackness and poor
discipline, then, paradoxically, of beating his sons and causing the
bruising themselves. He threatened to slap a lawsuit on anyone who
pursued the matter.
Not a man to be intimidated, Dittemore reported the suspected
child abuse to an officer of the Juvenile Court. On Monday, the same
routine occurred-unable to sit down and insisting on the stocking caps.
Until it came time for gym once more. The note had excused them for a
week, but now the coach demanded they show it again, saying he'd thought
it was only for a day. The boys had left their note at home.
The coach took Nate into the locker room and stood there,
waiting for him to get undressed. Nate refused. At that point, the
faculty relented, and Jonathon and Nate thought they were off the hook.
But, as they walked out of Landon to their mom's station wagon after
school, they saw two police cars waiting. One of the teachers pointed
the boys out to the officers. Before he knew it, Nate was in a squad car
on his way downtown. "I was terrified. Not because I was afraid of the
police. I was afraid of my dad. I kept thinking it was all over but the
funeral. What would my old man do? This was my fault and he was going to
beat the daylight out of me and I could still barely walk from the last
one." At the station, Nate remembers everyone was very kind to him. They
spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to allay his fears
and coax him to allow them to photograph his naked backside. Finally he
did. When the police allowed Mrs. Phelps to take her boys home, Nate's
worst nightmare came true. After nearly getting arrested for delivering
a tirade of obscenities and threats to the juvenile detectives, the dour
pastor rushed back to the house and delivered a fresh beating to his
For the moment, however, it had gone beyond the pastor's
control. Police detectives investigated the matter, and it was filed as
juvenile abuse cases #13119 and #13120. Jonathon and Nate were assigned
a court- appointed lawyer, as a guardian-ad-litem, to protect their
interests. The assistant county attorney took charge of the cases, and
juvenile officers were assigned to the boys.
In his motion to dismiss, the ever-resourceful Phelps filed a
pontifically sobering sermon on the value of strict discipline and
corporal punishment in a good Christian upbringing. "When he beat us, he
told us if it became a legal case, we'd pay hell," says Nate. "And we
believed him. At that time, there was nothing we wanted to see more than
those charges dropped. When the guardian ad litem came to interview us,
we lied through our teeth."
Principals involved in the case speculate the boys' statements,
along with superiors' reluctance to tangle with the litigious pastor,
caused the charges to be dropped. The last reason is not academic
speculation. The Capital-Journal has learned through several sources
that the Topeka Police Department's attitude toward the Phelps' family
in the '70s and '80s was hands off-this guy's more trouble than it's
Three months later, the case was dismissed upon the motion of
the state. The reason given by the prosecutor was "no case sufficient to
go to trial in opinion of state". The boys were selling candy in
Highland Park when they learned from their mom during a rest break the
Pastor Phelps would not go on trial for beating his children. "I felt
elated," remembers Nate. "It meant at least I wouldn't get beaten for
But if Nate's life was so full of pain and fear, why didn't he
speak up when he was at the police station and everyone was being so
nice to him? Nate laughs. It's the veteran's tolerant amusement at the
novice's question. "We'll do anything not to have to give up our
parents," he answers. "That's just the way kids are. That's the way we
were." "Besides, when it (abuse) occurs since birth, it never even
crosses your mind to fight back," interrupts Mark. "You know how they
They raise them tied to a chain in the ground. Later, it's
replaced by a rope and a stick. But the elephant never stops thinking
it's a chain." The loyal Phelps family are of two minds on the case.
Margie admitted it had occurred. Jonathon denied it. The pastor never
decided. Instead, he launched into a lecture on the value of tough love
in raising good Christians.
Since their juvenile files were destroyed when the boys reached
eighteen, but for their father's vindictiveness, there might have been
no record of this case. As it was, he sued the school. This caused the
school's insurance company to request a statement from Principal
Dittemore, who complied, describing the events which led to the
faculty's concern the boys were being abused. The suit was dropped.
When contacted in retirement, Dittemore confirmed he'd written
the letter and acknowledged its contents. The family now accuses Nate of
fabricating his stories of child abuse. They claim he is spinning these
lies out of the malice he has over their opposition to his marriage
(Nate's wife is divorced). But Nate was married in 1986. The described
case of abuse was a matter of record 14 years earlier-and 21 years prior
to Pastor Phelps' controversial debut on national television. The Phelps
family has since maintained that, while the case did exist, the charges
were invented by the school to harass their family. They say they were
raised under loving but strict discipline, and that is how they're
raising their children. Jonathon Phelps, who admits he beats his wife
and four children, for emphasis reads from Proverbs, 13:24: "He that
spareth his rod, hateth his son. But he that loveth him, chasteneth him
betimes." Yes...but...where does it say the purple child is a child
much-loved? Betty Phelps, wife of Fred, Jr., glowers at the questions.
Anytime you spank a child, you're going to cause bruising, she explains.
And sneers: "I'll bet your parents put a pillow in your pants."
Jonathon, staring straight ahead and not looking at the reporter, states
in a barely controlled voice of malevolent threat that, should the
reporter tell it differently than just heard, said scribbler is evil and
going to hell. Assuming there'll be space, the doomed dromedary of
capital muckraking must tell it differently.
To begin with, the reporters on this story were raised in the
same era and locale as the Phelps boys. They also grew up under strict
discipline, and one of their fathers was, at one time, a professional
boxer. Daddy's hands sometimes swung a mean leather belt, but only a few
strokes, and it left no bruises. After a few minutes, one could sit down
again. The moving force behind the pastor's hands was not 'tough love',
as he so often claims, but malice aforethought. The Capital- Journal has
established from numerous sources conversant with the case that the
injuries to Nate and Jonathon Phelps in January of 1972 went far beyond
the bounds of a 'strict upbringing'-even by the standards of the
strictest disciplinarian. Those injuries would have been seen as torture
and abuse in any era, at any age, in any culture.
Mark's front porch tale is instructive. Any psychologist hearing
the story about choking that cat today would know immediately to
investigate the child's home life for abuse. Back then it was not the
case. That child would have been left to find his own way out of the
terrible subterranean world another had made for him. Most don't.
Research shows nine out of twelve die down there.
In their heart. When the light in their soul goes out. If their
bodies live on, they grow up mangled and mangle those closest to them.
And it all takes shape down there. In the dark new universe of a young
child's mind. Mark Phelps escaped.
His father did not. That man came to the Kansas capital instead.
And, after 40 years, he still haunts its porches, tormenting its
innocents. The Capital-Journal went south...Mississippi...to see if it
could learn where and when...perhaps how...the light went out for Fred
It followed him to Colorado and California, Canada and New
Mexico. For three months, it turned every stone in Topeka, seeking the
truth about this man. What follows is the monster behind the clown, the
street corner malevolence mocking the cameras.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"God's Left Hook"
The air hangs heavy, torpid, and hot. Pulling the warm steam
into one's lungs leaves only a disturbing sense of slow suffocation.
Under the harsh subtropic sun, the magnolia blossoms slip from the
black-green leaves, falling like wet snow-petals to perfume the red-clay
earth. In the heat, it leaves a heavy, hanging smell...the wealth of
Dixie. Fred Phelps spent his first years here.
Outside the courthouse, flags sag limp and breezeless. Above the
doors are cut the words: Thou Shalt Not Bear False Witness Against Thy
Neighbor It's Meridian, Mississippi, town of old store fronts,
mouthwatering cornbread, and 40,000 people. Surrounded by 100-foot pine
forests, its business is lumber. Trucks and flatbed railcars loaded with
freshly cut logs rolls slowly by. To the sensual fragrance of the
magnolias is added the sweet aroma of pine. While great pyramids of logs
await processing into lumber at the plant on the west side, Navy jets
roar overhead...the other source of revenue. The federal government
threatens to close the base down; the locals fight to keep it. Meridian
was sacked by General Sheridan during the Civil War. The implacable
bluecoat burned the town and tore up what, till then, had been a rail
hub of the South. The town has since recovered. The railroad did not. In
the cemeteries can be found gravestones of the Confederate dead. Among
them, a more recent marker reads: Catherine Idalette Phelps, Age 28
Fred's mother used to open all the windows in the house and play the
piano, according to Thetis Grace Hudson, former librarian in Meridian
and a neighbor of the Phelps family during the Depression. The other
households on her street were too poor to afford any entertainment, she
says, so everyone remembered Catherine Phelps for her kindness.
Apparently she played well. Whenever she was at their house,
Hudson remembers she used to ask Mrs. Phelps to play the hymn "Love
Lifted Me" on the piano. Fred's mother always obliged, even if she was
busy. But, after an illness of several months-those who still remember
the family say it was throat cancer-Catherine Phelps died on September
3, 1935. Fred was only five years old. Since the little boy's uncle was
the mayor of nearby Pascagoula, and his father was prominent in
Meridian, the honorary pallbearers at her funeral included the local
mayor, a city councilman, two judges, and every member of the police
department. Ms. Hudson says young Fred was bewildered at the loss. After
his mother's death, a maternal great aunt, Irene Jordan, helped care for
Fred and his younger sister, Martha Jean. "She kept house for the
daddy," adds a distant relative who declined to be identified. At times,
work caused the boy's father to be away from home and Jordan raised the
children. The woman Fred Phelps has referred to as 'his dear old aunt'
died in a head-on collision in 1951 as she was driving back to Meridian
from a nearby town. The boy had lost two mothers before he'd turned 21.
Family friends remember Fred's father was a tall, stately man. A
true Southern gentlemen, they say. And a fine Christian. But the elder
Phelps also had a hot temper, according to Jack Webb, 81, of
Porterville, Miss. Webb owns a general store, the only business in
Porterville, a town of about 45 elderly people. "If he got mad, he was
mad all over," said Webb. He was ready to fight right quick. He was mad,
mad, mad." Webb is a frail man, slightly hard of hearing. Walking into
his general store is like stepping back into the 19th century. The
shelves, all located behind a 100-foot wooden counter, are stocked with
weary tins of Vienna sausage and dusty bottles of aspirin. Coke goes for
30 cents. Glass. No twist-off.
Despite the temper, Webb adds, the elder Phelps was an honorable
man. In Meridian, he had been an object of great respect. Fred's father
was a veteran of World War One, and throughout his life suffered from
the effects of a mustard gassing he'd taken in France. He found work as
a detective for the Southern Railroad to support his family. The
railroad security force or "bulls", as they were called, had a
reputation for brutality when they patrolled the yards to prevent the
itinerant laborers, washed out of their hometowns by the Depression,
from riding the freights. "My father," says Pastor Phelps, "oft-times
came home with blood all over him." Suddenly he stands up, turning his
face away, and exits. Several minutes later he returns, smiling,
apologizing: "You got me thinking about those days," he offers, then
bravely charges into a round of the town's official song: "Meridian,
Meridian... a city set upon a hill; Meridian, Meridian... that radiates
the South's good will."
The elder Phelps was a "bull" throughout the Depression, says
Thetis Hudson, and the pay was good. The family lived comfortably at a
time when the other families in town were being ravaged by hardship.
What was the son like? "Fred Phelps had as normal and beautiful a home
life as anyone ever wanted," commented a relative who didn't want their
name used. "His childhood was very good," says Hudson. "There was
nothing in his family out of the ordinary." "All I know is it's a
tragedy, and it stems from within Fred Phelps," adds the anonymous
relative, referring to the homosexual picketing. "It has nothing to do
with his upbringing."
As a teenager. Fred was tall and thin and sported a crewcut. He
was extraordinarily smart, but thought to be a bit overbearing about it
at times. A reserved and serious high school student, he never dated
anyone while there. "He was not a real socializer, but he knew a lot of
people. Everyone had the greatest respect for him," says Joe Clay
Hamilton, former high-school classmate, now a Meridian lawyer. The
future Pastor Phelps earned the rank of Eagle Scout with Palms, played
coronet and base horn in the high school band, was a high hurdler on the
track team, and worked as a reporter on the school's newspaper. In a
class of 213 graduates, he ranked sixth. When he was voted class orator
for commencement of May, 1946, received the American Legion Award for
courage, leadership, scholarship, and service, then honored as his
congressman's choice for West Point, Fred Phelps was only 16 years old.
A year later this young man, touted as the quiet achiever, had turned
his back on West Point, his former life, and his future promise. The
summer of '47 would find him a belligerent and eccentric zealot,
antagonizing the Mormons in the mountains of Utah. Because of his age,
Phelps had to wait one fateful year before entering the military
academy. During that time he attended the local junior college. While
waiting for his life to start, Fred, along with his best friend, John
Capron, went to a revival meeting at the local Methodist church. It was
there the budding pastor felt the 'call', and the dreams of going north
to West Point melted like the river ice washed down and marooned on the
hot mud of the Mississippi banks.
Fred Phelps, by his own description, "went to a little Methodist
revival meeting and had what I think was an experience of grace, they
call it down there. I felt the call, as they say, and it was powerful.
The God of glory appeared. It doesn't mean a vision or anything, but it
means an impulse on the heart, as the old preachers say." The revival
had a profound effect on both Phelps and Capron. "The two of them 'got
religion'," said Joe Hamilton. Friends and relatives claim the two boys
became so excited, they were unable to distinguish reality from
idealism-they were going off to conquer the world. One relative still in
Meridian described it this way: "Fred, bless his heart, just went
overboard. If you didn't accept it, he was going to cram it down your
Was this radical change in behavior a characteristic of the
conversion experience? Or was there something hidden in the young man's
character that drew him to the experience and its consequent license for
loud and abusive behavior? If the latter, then some heart should be
heard pounding beneath the floorboards in the old Phelps' house. Yet,
there is little to be heard.
Fletcher Rosenbaum, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air
Force who lives in Meridian, went to high school with Phelps. "He was
good at whatever he tried," Rosenbaum says. "He was a first-class
individual. I would be surprised if he wasn't a top-notch citizen in
Topeka." Picketing AIDS funerals and the fax attacks on members of his
community by Phelps surprised Rosenbaum: "He was very reserved in high
school. Very quiet. I'm surprised he would be involved in aggressive
activities. To me, it would be out of character for him." This
observation may not be entirely accurate. One woman, a librarian at the
Meridian Public Library, said she remembers Phelps and went to school
and church with him. "He doesn't bend," she observed. "He never did."
She also described him as "spooky", "different", and "a preacher
prodigy." "You tell him not to do it, and he'll do it," said another
Meridian woman. "He was a very determined person. That's to be admired,
but it can be taken too far." Even Fred himself remembers differently.
He was a boxer throughout high school and, reminiscing briefly about his
days in Meridian, he chuckles to himself. If any of the other boys came
to class with a puffy face or shiner, their friends would ask if they'd
been sparring with Phelps. He always left his mark on them, he tells me
Sid Curtis, a grade-school classmate of Fred's, remembers the
future pastor drew well, even then. What did he draw? Boxers.
A golden glove contender in high school, Fred fought twice in
state meets, winning matches which, according to him, were head-on
slugfests. Not aggressive? Not the Bull of Topeka yet, but clearly it
was in his character. A story in the high-school paper, predicting the
futures of Phelps and his classmates, reads: "Fred Phelps will box in
Madison Square Garden next June, 1954. Young Phelps will fight for the
world championship." One can only wonder what deep currents rose in the
teenager whenever he climbed into the ring. Recalling the earlier
testimony of his sons, Nate and Mark, and remembering that research has
proven abusive behavior is passed with high probability from one
generation to the next, the question must be raised: Was the Pastor
Phelps equally abused as a child? In the South, there is an unwritten
code you don't bad-mouth one of your own. Strangers are welcome unless
they ask too many questions, or speak ill of Southern folks and ways. In
fact, if ET had come down in Meridian instead of Southern California,
and a yankee inquired about that today, folks would probably scratch
their chins, figure the carpet-baggers with a knowing eye, and say he
was a quiet boy, little short for his age...but had good hands for the
piano... If the stories his sons have told are true, the outside
observer has two choices in understanding Fred Phelps: either there's a
pounding heart under the floor in that old house or the teenager's Saul-
into-Paul experience produced the character change. However, many
Christians might find it difficult to believe that discovering Jesus
would render a good-natured, quiet lad into the bullying hostile whose
trail we will shortly follow from Vernal, Utah to Topeka, Kansas. If
something did happen to throw Fred Waldron Phelps off track, something
that mangled him for life, no one in Meridian wanted to say. Doing that
no doubt would be to speak ill of the dead-something Pastor Phelps also
was taught to avoid.
Yet, suddenly at 16, the child has become the man: fanatic,
unempathic, combative, and vindictive. If there is an answer to the
question, 'why does Fred hate us all so much?', perhaps it lies in those
years, age five to 15, when his father was largely absent and Fred and
his sister were cared for by Irene Jordan.
"If he were dead, I'd talk," says Fred's sister, Martha Jean
Capron, now residing in Pennsylvania. "But as long as he's
alive...that's up to him..." Following the revival experience, Phelps
abandoned plans for West Point. He moved to Cleveland, Tennessee, where
he attended Bob Jones College, a non-denominational Christian academy.
John Capron went with him. While Fred and his boyhood chum would
eventually separate over religion, Martha Jean and Capron never would:
they were married and moved to Indonesia as missionaries. John was a
minister there for ten years. Later he would smuggle Bibles into
Communist China. Pastor Phelps' brother-in-law died of a heart attack in
Perhaps it's a shame Phelps didn't go to West Point. An army
career could have provided a healthy outlet for his aggression, been
more compatible with his demanding and commanding nature, while his
strong body, mind, and will would have been an asset to the service and
his country. If he'd survived Korea as a 2nd lieutenant, probably he'd
have been a lieutenant colonel by Vietnam. There he'd almost certainly
have chipped his Manichaean mandibles of dualism on that war's hard bone
of moral ambiguity. Either he'd have ended on a river somewhere,
whispering "the horror...the horror..." to bewildered junior officers,
or gained a wider horizon and returned home to retire an urbane cynic
and Southern gentleman. But in 1946, Fred Phelps had a year to kill
instead of Nazis or North Koreans. The revival took him from Meridian to
Bob Jones; from there the future pastor found another outlet for his
anger. This one gave instant gratification and conferred adult license
to abuse almost overnight: lip-shooting preacher; revivalist minister.
And, unlike Vietnam, here God was unequivocally on his side...
As part of a Rocky Mountain mission assignment in summer, 1947,
Phelps and two other students from Bob Jones were to seek out a
fundamentalist church, convert non-believers to Christianity and steer
the converts to that church. The three men chose Vernal, a town in
northeast Utah. They would be working to convert, not secular hedonists,
but a population that was predominantly and staunchly Mormon. When Fred
and his friends got there, they set up a meeting tent brought from Bob
Jones in the city park. A local Baptist minister provided them food and
lodging (B.H. McAlister, who would later ordain Phelps). During the day
the do-it- yourself apostles went door-to-door, seeking converts to the
good news. At night, they conducted revival meetings in the tent. Only
no one came.
So Ed Nelson, one of the trio, had an idea. He went to a local
radio station and asked if he might buy a block of time. Nope, was the
reply. Not if you're going to attack the Mormon church. Ok, said Ed, can
I announce I'll be giving an address tonight at the tent?
Sure. So Ed Nelson announced on the radio he'd be doing just
that. And the title of the speech? 'What's Wrong with the Mormon
Church?' says Ed, over the air. That night, continues Nelson, now 69 and
a traveling Baptist evangelist based in Denver, a huge crowd arrived. It
was so large, the trip had to roll up the sides of the tent. Ed was
nervous, but he gave his speech. The crowd listened politely. When the
young evangelist was finished, a man in the crowd asked would there be
questions. Sure, said Ed.
But the very first one stumped him, Nelson confesses
disarmingly, and he panicked. Flustered, he announced there would be no
more questions. Several in the throng protested, saying that, after
sitting in courtesy, listening to their religion attacked, they weren't
going to let the young men off so easily-that they should be willing to
answer the crowd's questions.
At that, Fred rushed one of the men speaking and started to
throw a punch, but Ed grabbed his arm and shouted: "Fred! Fred! No!
Don't you do it!" "And," Nelson recounts, "Fred looked at that guy and
he said, 'you shut your mouth, you dirty...' something or other."
Which, to Ed, only compounded their troubles. Fred's companion
then raised his arms and shouted, "Folks, the meeting's over! It's
over!" And he rushed out and killed the lights inside the tent. This
discouraged any further theological discussion.
It would seem this format-speak one's mind, then take violent
offense at anything less than complete agreement, and suppress all
opposing views by any means handy-was the major life lesson learned by
Fred Phelps during his sojourn among the Vernal heathen. "He was
hot-headed and peculiar," remembers Nelson about Fred then. Eventually
the minister decided to cease his association with Phelps because of his
hostility and aggressiveness. "The last time I saw him, he was traveling
through (on the road preaching). My wife and I gave them a hundred
dollars and a bunch of handkerchiefs." When told of what Phelps was
doing today, Ed said: "I'm not surprised. He was heading that way. He
was so brilliant, he was dangerous. He was getting involved in the idea
that only he was saved...going into heresy..." Though vandals damaged
the tent, the boys from Bob Jones continued to hold nightly meetings
there during the rest of their vacation. No one came, but Nelson reports
they did manage to convert two teenage girls-at least for the summer.
At the end of their stay, Fred got ordained. Ordained? At 17?
Isn't that too young? "No, it isn't," replies B.H. McAlister, who did
the ordaining. "If he can pass the test, he is eligible. I don't think
the word of God is bound by age."
Phelps was at least three years younger than most when they
become ministers. Southern Baptists do not require a candidate for the
ministry be a graduate of seminary. McAlister, who has helped ordain
hundreds of ministers, said an examination board of 10 to 20 ministers
would ask a candidate questions about doctrines and scriptures. Not
everyone passed. Fred Phelps did-but only after McAlister and a
missionary convinced the teenager he was wrong on a scriptural fine
point. Which point was that? According to McAlister, Phelps considered
the local church to be more than a place of fellowship-for him,
membership in the local congregation directly corresponded to membership
in the Body of Christ. Phelps may have conceded the point to be
ordained, but, for 40 years, his family and church members in Topeka
have been controlled by his threat that, if they depart his
congregation, they must carry a letter of permission from him. In
addition, they must join a congregation that he approves. Otherwise, as
with Mark and Nate, the pastor Phelps draws up the dreaded missive
ordering the straying sheep to be 'delivered to Satan for the
destruction of the flesh.' "We barely knew him," admits McAlister, who
settled upon Fred the distinction of having been both baptized and
ordained in a single eventful summer.
Phelps returned that autumn to Bob Jones, but left after a year
without graduating. Later he would say he did so because the school was
racist. In 1983, the IRS revoked the tax exemption of Bob Jones,
accusing it of practicing racial discrimination. From there, Fred went
north to the Prairie Bible Institute near Calgary, Alberta. But after
two semesters he moved on.
Sources have disclosed the head of the college felt pastor
Phelps might be clinically disturbed. Compatible with that diagnosis,
Fred's next stop was Southern California. There he enrolled at John Muir
College in Pasadena.
Campaigning to change community sexual mores with a sign and a
sidewalk harangue has been a four-decade effort for Fred. His implacable
efforts at John Muir to root out necking and petting on campus and dirty
jokes in the classroom reached the pages of TIME magazine (11 June
1951). After being forbidden to preach on campus and getting removed at
least once by police from college property, Fred finally found a
following that cheered his defiance of authority when he returned to
harangue from a sympathizer's lawn across the street. TIME speculated it
might presage a movement back to more solid values by the younger
generation. Phelps cashed in on the notoriety of the TIME article to
become a traveling evangelist again-this time with more success than in
In return for spending a week or two preaching at an established
church or giving a revival, he would receive a bed, his meals, and a
small stipend for gas to the next assignment. It was during one such
ministry in Phoenix that he met his wife, Marge. She was a student at
Arizona Bible School and an au-pair with the family that took in the
itinerant evangelist. Today's Mrs. Phelps remembers being curious about
the minister who'd been in TIME magazine. Laura Woods, the mistress of
the house who gave voice lessons during the day, remembers Fred was the
perfect guest. He helped build a room, mowed the lawn, made the beds,
and washed the dishes, she said. When the couple decided to get married,
Mrs. Woods made Marge Simms two dresses-a wedding gown and an outfit to
travel in. They were married May 15, 1952. Laura and her husband,
Arthur, remain friends today with Fred and Marge Phelps. The couple
moved to Albuquerque for a year, where Marge kept house while Fred
traveled a circuit around the Southwest-one that took him from Durango,
Colorado to Tucson, Arizona. Fred Jr., the first of their thirteen
children, was born May 4, 1953.
The family then lived in Sunnyslope, Arizona for a year while
pastor Phelps continued his itinerant ministry. Mrs. Phelps was eight
months pregnant with Mark when Pastor Leaford Cavin at the Eastside
Baptist Church in Topeka invited Fred to come and preach.
On Fred Jr.'s first birthday, the family arrived in the Kansas
capital to find it an auspicious day indeed: May 4, 1954 was the day the
U.S. Supreme Court handed down its historic decision, Brown vs. Board of
Education of Topeka, the landfall desegregation case which ruled
separate but equal schools for blacks and whites were unconstitutional.
The Pastor Phelps saw the coincidence of the Brown decision -just as he
was deciding where to settle-as a sign telling him that Topeka was The
Place. On that watershed day for America, if the new arrivals visited
the state capitol building, perhaps Phelps was struck by the dramatic
mural of the raging giant on the burning prairie, rifle in one hand,
Bible (law book) in the other. Perhaps, as he has hinted, Pastor Phelps
came to Topeka, saw it had become a national forum on black civil
rights, saw the power of the legal profession, and decided it had fallen
to him: Kansas would have a new John Brown.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Dog Days for the Pastor"
Before greatness could be thrust upon him, however, this new
John Brown would suffer his dog days. At first, the new arrivals sailed
smoothly into the Eastside Baptist community. Fred was roundly admired
for his thunderous preaching, and was quickly hired an associate pastor.
The ladies at Eastside all liked Marge and made the young mother welcome
in their circles.
Things went swimmingly. The Eastside congregation was planning
to open a new church across town, and it seemed natural when their
pastor, Leaford Cavin, asked Fred to fill the job. The Eastside church
issued bonds to purchase the property at 3701 12th Street. To help
Brother Phelps get underway, the congregation re-roofed the building,
painted it, and bought the songbooks necessary. A start-up group of
about 50 former members of Eastside volunteered to attend services at
Westboro. The church formally opened on May 20, 1956. Fred had it all. A
fine church and a congregation of his own. What went wrong?
What did provides an insight into the man who craves a greater
and greater role as a moral arbiter of our times. "We gave him his
church; painted; roofed it; even bought his songbooks; and after only a
few weeks, he turned on us," says a long-time member of Eastside.
Apparently not everyone in Leaford Cavin's church was enthusiastic about
Phelps. One from that time recalls Fred, Marge, 2 year-old Fred, Jr.,
and 10 month-old Mark were in the pews one Sunday with the rest of the
congregation, listening to Cavin preach. Mark began squirming suddenly.
To the appalled amazement of his fellow worshipers nearby, the junior
pastor repeatedly slapped the infant across the face with an open palm
and backhand, snapping Mark's tiny head to and fro. Afterwards, several
of the men in the congregation confronted Fred and told him never to do
that again. Mark Phelps laughs to hear that story relayed: "My mom once
told me-proudly, as if she'd effected a big change in his behavior-that
my father had beaten my older brother when he was only five months old.
She said she'd argued with him about it and he'd agreed to hold off
beating the kids till they were a year old." "Phelps was wrapped pretty
tight, even back then," recalls an old member of Eastside. "He was very
severe with his children and a lot of people didn't care for him. But we
all thought he was a man of God."
Within weeks after receiving his new status, building, and
congregation, Fred Phelps warmed on the hearth of Eastside's hospitality
and but the hands that had helped him. He and Leaford Cavin had an
almost immediate falling-out over whether God hated the sinner as well
as the sin. "Today, Fred will tell you it was theological differences,"
says an acquaintance of Cavin, "but those differences didn't seem to
bother him when he needed out help." Adds another: "Theological
differences? Brother Cavin was a very staunch Baptist." But not staunch
enough for Fred?
"I don't know if there ever was a man more strict than Leaford
Cavin. Really, it was the anger in Fred, not doctrine, that caused him
to act the way he did." When a man in Fred's new congregation came to
him for marital counseling, the pastor recommended a good beating for
the wife. The man followed his spiritual guide's advice.
Later, he called the pastor to ask for bail: apparently
separation of church and state didn't apply to assault and battery.
Phelps paid the confused Christian's bail, but stuck to his guns: a
former members of the early Westboro community remembers the following
Sunday Pastor Fred was fiery in his message that a good left hook makes
for a right fine wife: "Brethren," preached Phelps, "they can lock us
up, but we'll still do what the Bible tells us to do. Either our wives
are going to obey, or we're going to beat them!" "Leaders," observes
B.H. McAlister, the minister who ordained Fred, "break down into
shepherd and sheep-herders. The first lead, the second drive the sheep.
If love is absent, the pastor is one who drives the flock; with love, he
Mark remembers his father used to frequently tell of the time he
purified the flock and paid the price for his courage. Apparently a
female member of that early Westboro congregation was discovered having
an affair with a soldier from Ft. Riley. Only the males in the
congregation were allowed to vote, and the pastor prevailed upon them to
cast the Madeleine from the midst. Away from the effects of his heated
rhetoric, however, many of those swayed felt first remorse, then disgust
at their part in the moral lynching. Mark remembers his father always
referred to this incident to explain why his congregation had deserted
In later years, Phelps was convinced he was alone in his church
with only his children to listen because those who'd opened Westboro
were too weak for the harsh truth of God: that He hated sinners as well
as the sin; and therefore His elect must also hate the sinners-even
those who might be assembled with them. If the local Baptist churches
were still unsure about the new fire and brimstone brother from Arizona,
shooting his neighbor's dog didn't help. Aside from etching one of his
children's earliest memories, shotgun-blasting the large German shepherd
that had wandered into his unfenced yard quickly got the novice pastor
notice in his community. The incident was discussed in the papers, and
the dog's owner sued the arrogant minister. Fred defended himself and
won, an action his son Mark believes may have encouraged his father's
turn to the law.
But the irrationality and violence of the act sent the last of
his congregation scurrying back to Eastside. For weeks after the
shooting, one church member recalls, someone placed signs on the lawn in
front of Westboro at night that declared prophetically: "Anyone who'd
stoop to killing a dog someday will mistake a child for a dog." Soon it
was clear no one wanted any part of Fred's god not if he hated like
Fred. And that posed a problem for the Pastor Phelps: he still owed 32
dollars a week on the bonds for the church, and no one was paying for
his hate show on Sundays.
To cover his mortgage and support his family, the failed pastor
turned his pitch from God to vacuum cleaners. During the following five
years, he went door-to-door in Topeka, selling those and baby carriages
and, finally, insurance. In a pattern that held ominous overtones for
the future, Phelps at some point sued almost everyone who employed him
during that period.
He also carried on a running feud with Leaford Cavin at
Eastside Baptist. Cavin spent several years trying to discover how to
repair his mistake and stop the nightmare unfolding at the Westboro
church. "Eastside held the mortgage on Westboro," remembers one
churchgoer who was involved in the finances there, "and we always hoped
Fred would miss a payment so we could foreclose. But he never did."
To save money, the pastor moved his wife and children into the
church. Since the congregation at Westboro was essentially the Phelps
family, Cavin convinced John Towle, county assessor, that Westboro
should be taxed as private residence. The controversy was covered in the
media, and the exemption for 3701 West 12th was lifted. But again the
fighting Pastor Phelps taught himself enough about the law to
successfully contest the decision before the Board of Tax Appeals. For
good measure, he sued Cavin and Stauffer Communications for libel. He
lost the suit, but the lines of his future had now been drawn: Fred
Phelps had his castle and his church and he'd learned how to defend
His chosen community detested him, but that was to be expected
when one was elect and immersed in a world of damned souls. Fred was
content that his god hated those who questioned him. And he was content
to remain in his private La Rochelle and sally forth occasionally to
smite the reprobate. One old member of Eastside is philosophical about
the feud with Pastor
Fred: "I'll tell you one thing, we can feel awfully lucky he
turned down that slot at West Point. Right now, he'd probably be a
general-with his finger on the button." It was during this period that
the Pastor Phelps cut the final ties with his original family.
When talking with friends, Fred's father never discussed the son
he had in Topeka, says Fred Stokes, a retired army officer who lives
outside Meridian. Stokes was a close friend of the elder Phelps and a
pallbearer at his funeral in 1977: "He had some fundamental beliefs that
were unshakeable, but he didn't force them on anyone." In his later
years, Stokes says, Fred's father was active in the Methodist Church.
"He was a very kind, grand fatherly person. He was at peace with himself
and didn't have any rancor toward anybody at the time of his death."
Marks tells how his grandfather, Fred, (whose name he learned only
recently from Capital-Journal reporters) once came to visit them in
Topeka when Mark was a child. What he recalls most vividly is standing
on the platform at the railroad station with his father and grandfather.
As they waited to put him on the train back to Meridian, the preacher
told the weeping old man never to come back, not to call, nor to write.
"I remember my grandfather was crying. He told my father to get back in
the Methodist Church and stop all this nonsense."
Pastor Phelps admits there was a rift between him and his
father. "He was disappointed when I didn't go to West Point, which is
understandable. He worked hard to get that appointment for me, and he
was a very active Methodist, so he was disappointed in that. But my dad
was a super guy that I loved deeply and I miss him." Relatives in
Mississippi said the elder Phelps never really got over his abandonment
by his son. "It grieved him a lot," remembers one.
When Pastor Phelps was 15 and in his last year of high school
his father, 51, married a 39 year-old divorcee named Olive Briggs. The
son would leave home soon after and grow up to be a fierce critic of
divorce. Olive's sister, who didn't want her name used, said Olive was a
kind Southern lady who never had children and treated Fred and his
sister, Martha Jean, as if they were her own. The new Mrs. Phelps often
talked to her sister about the trouble between the former railroad
detective and his son, the Baptist preacher. "Olive would say he grieved
over that every day of his life. That he never would have parted ways.
It was his son who parted ways."
Other relatives recalled that, each year, the grandparents sent
birthday and Christmas presents to their grandchildren in Topeka. Each
year they were returned unopened. Photos of grandpa and grandma the
pastor gave his extra touch: "When they once sent him pictures of
themselves for us kids to have, I remember watching my dad cutting them
meticulously into little pieces with a pair of scissors. Then he placed
them in an envelope and mailed them back."
When the elder Phelps died in 1977, and Olive Briggs in 1985,
of the two not inconsiderable wills, Fred's father left him one-eighth
and his sister, seven-eighths. Fred's stepmother left her entire estate
to Martha Jean. There would be no relatives dropping by from mother's
side either. Though Marge Phelps had nine brothers and sisters still
living in rural Missouri or nearby Kansas City, with one notable
exception, her own children never met them or so much as knew their
names. And the firm pastor forbade his children to play or talk with the
rest of the youngsters in the neighborhood. Says Mark: "I wanted friends
to share with and talk to, but felt it was the wrong thing and felt
guilty. They would initiate conversation or want to play, and I would
feel real scared and not know what to do or say. Sometimes I couldn't
avoid talking, and it made me feel real uneasy and scared that I would
get caught. "My dad used to make me go and tell the neighbor kids they
couldn't play by the fence, or talk to us, or come in the yard. He'd
say, "I'm tellin' you, if those f---ing kids are in this yard again and
I catch them, it's you I'm going to beat!"
"I used to have to fight the kids sometimes, or yell at them,
or push them out of the yard; or I'd turn my back and ignore them so
they wouldn't want to talk or be friendly and get me in trouble." While
this is in keeping with the 'fortress Phelps' mentality the pastor
embarked on shortly after opening Westboro, it is interesting to
speculate how much of the strange goings-on within the fortress the
pastor feared his children might reveal had they been allowed outside
confidants. When Fred's sister, Martha Jean, and her husband, Fred's
teenage best-buddy, John Capron, returned to the U.S. on a year
sabbatical from their Indonesian mission, they came to see Fred. In
part, they'd come to arrange a reconciliation between the brittle pastor
and his devastated father.
They never got started. "He wouldn't even talk to me," Fred's
sister told her nephew, Mark. The good pastor bid her also leave and
never return. Mark remembers riding his bike along in the street, both
curious and embarrassed, watching his aunt go weeping down the sidewalk
for three blocks from their house.
With that, the vengeful minister had succeeded in cutting all
lines leading to his captive congregation. Anyone in the outside world
who might know of their existence or be concerned for their welfare had
been driven off. After he had sold insurance for several years, Phelps
had amassed enough commissions off the yearly premiums to allow him to
stop working and go to law school. He had already transferred credits
from Bob Jones and John Muir to Washburn, then taken course work there
to receive his degree. Fred Phelps had guts. When he entered Washburn
Law School, he had a wife and seven children. When he graduated, his
family had grown by three.
Phelps was editor of the Law Review and star of the school's
moot court. He is remembered by some of the faculty as perhaps the most
brilliant student ever to pass through Washburn Law. If the public
performance was impressive, however, the private life grew even more
"It was a very rare occasion," says Mark, "when he would come
anywhere in the house that the kids were. While he was studying the law,
he'd fly into rages because we were making noise. Mom would hide us-for
the good of all." In fact, Phelps began to spend more and more time in
his bedroom, cut off from his family except when they were needed to run
errands for him; cut off except for his wife, whom he forced to remain
with him in his bedroom for days at a time. Apparently the pastor's
sexual appetites were voracious, and his emotional dependency even
greater: Says Mark, "Mom had to spend the major portion of her day
sitting next to him in bed, trying to say the right things to keep him
calm, while he bitched and moaned and complained and railed and carried
on. "He left the older children to take care of the younger ones while
he monopolized our mother's time and attention. We were literally left
on our own for the major portion of our childhoods." While the pastor
lolled now grossly overweight in his bed like some Ottoman pasha,
rolling in his law books and 100 pounds of excess blubber, lecturing the
wife and walls on the evils of the reprobate, wallowing in gluttony and
goat-like sexual appetites, he resembled, not so much the John Brown of
his earlier ambitions, as he did an esquired Jabba the Hut.
"The kids would sit in grime and scum and filth for hours at a
time," says Mark, "tied into their high chairs or strollers by mom, for
their safety, until she could sneak away from him to give them a diaper
change, redo their ties, and set it up for the older kids to feed them,
so she could get back to him.
"I remember when she'd come downstairs, all the kids would
cluster around her like a swarm of bees, just to touch her and talk to
her." Mark goes on: "I started doing most of the grocery shopping, by
bike, with my brother Fred when I was only seven or eight, because our
mom had such a hard time getting away. We had baskets on our bikes. We
were given money but it was never enough. It was humiliating because we
would hold up the line at the checkout while the cashiers would ask us
what we wanted to keep or take back, and then they'd do the figuring for
us," Mark sighs in the phone: "When he wanted a chicken dinner, he'd
stay in bed and have me ride my bike two miles each way to get him one.
He never thanked me. "We'd run errands for that, or he'd send us out for
a piece of apple pie with cheese on it. And we had to get back fast.
Damn fast, or he'd complain his apple pie wasn't hot enough. "It was a
mile or two back, the pie riding in a mesh basket, and we had to get it
to him hot." Mark pauses. "It's pretty unbelievable when I think about
it. At breakfast, my father got bacon and eggs; the kids got oatmeal and
grits. At dinner we'd have beans and rice while he ate chicken or
hamburger. Now that I'm a father myself, that just seems
incomprehensible to me. "My father had to take care of us each year when
my mom went into the hospital to give birth. Whatever he had to do, he'd
always lose his temper and start screaming.
"We'd be too scared of him to eat-and then he'd beat us for not
eating. My saliva would not work when he was in the room and mom was
gone, so, to clean our plates, we'd throw our food under the table or
into our laps and flush it down the toilet later. "When he took care of
us, I tried to stay out of the same room with him at all times. He would
be real hard on the little ones when he dressed them. He'd push and jerk
and tug real hard. My father was so impatient and unpredictable. You
never knew what to expect or how to act." When the children did run into
Jabba-the-Dad out of his bed, it was usually unpleasant. Mark tells of
one such time: "The day my brother, Tim, was born, Fred, Jr., and I were
in the dining room fooling around and Fred started to chase me out the
back door. I ran right into my dad."
According to Mark, the pastor started screaming at them not to
horse around. He punched both boys several times and ordered them
outside to work in the yard. On his way out, Mark rounded a corner and
inadvertently stumbled into his father a second time. Enraged, the
pastor connected with a hook to the side of his son's head. Mark fell
down dazed and stunned. The pastor began to kick him, and kept kicking
him, but Mark couldn't get up. His father screamed at him to go out in
the yard, but the boy's legs felt like jello and "the room was rolling
in vertigo". Finally, his father left him there, sprawled and dazed like
a defeated boxer. When Mark could stand up, he joined his older brother
already at work.
Three hours later, their dad called them in. "He told us to get
into bed and not to move. He told me to turn my face to the wall. For
hours I lay like that, too scared to roll over because I thought he
might still be standing there, watching me. Finally, I fell asleep.
"When we woke up the next day, we found he'd been at the
hospital with mom the night before. And we had a new baby brother."
Their father often slept all day and got up in the afternoon, remembers
another Phelps child. "And then everyone would hide because 'daddy was
up'. "He habitually had violent rages that included profane cursing,
beyond any sailor's ability to curse, where he threw and broke anything
he could get his hands on," states Mark. "My father routinely demolished
the kitchen and dining room areas, as well as his bedroom. He would not
only beat mom and the kids, he would smash dishes, glasses, anything
breakable in sight; he'd even throw everything out of the refrigerator.
"He'd literally cover the floor with debris. I remember seeing
so much broken crockery once it looked like an archeologists's dig.
There was ketchup and mustard and mayonnaise splashed across the walls,
cupboards, and floor like a paint bomb had gone off in there.
"Afterwards he'd go upstairs to the bedroom-and force mom to go with
him. It would take hours for us kids to clean up after his rages. He
never helped-he'd just dump on us and leave.
"But he wouldn't stop raging. While we were cleaning the mess
downstairs, he'd force mom to sit at his bedside upstairs while he
continued to curse and complain to her about whatever had gotten his
goat." Nate and Mark confirm the pastor's dish tantrums occurred
regularly, usually once or twice a month. Sometimes there'd be several
in one week.
"It established a life habit for me," says Mark. "Even today,
the moment I get home, I'm thinking 'Is Daddy mad?' "Our walls were
stained with food," he continues. "And my mom used to cry because she
couldn't keep good dishes. My father would also bust holes in the walls
and doors. If they were on the outside, he'd fix them quickly. On the
inside, he'd leave them unrepaired for months...
The voice pauses. "Still, he'd wake us up at night with mom
screaming from fear as he threw his fits. I'd come awake and lie there
feeling afraid and upset. "I wasn't worried about being woken up, that
he was upset, or even that he was hurting mom. I was worried about
survival. About what could happen if it got worse. I was thinking about
lying still in case he came in, so he wouldn't know I was awake.
"Because, he was so crazy, we didn't know that someday he wouldn't kill
us all." Back in those days, during the '60s, when Fred was in law
school and then a young lawyer, the neighbors would often see Marge on
"She'd just be sitting out there, crying her heart out,"
remembers one former neighbor. "We all felt so sorry for her. But none
of us ever went over there to comfort her. Her husband had us all
intimidated." But if life with father was bad already-it was about to
get worse. According to Mark, who was 10 when his father graduated, Fred
Phelps became heavily dependent on amphetamines and barbituates while in
law school. Every week for 6 years, from 1962-1967, their mother would
give Mark a 20 dollar bill and ask him to go down and pick up his
father's 'allergy medicine'. Mark always got the bottle of little red
pills from 'the tall blond man' at the nearby pharmacy. He was told they
were to 'help daddy wake up'.
He also picked up bottles of little yellow pills that were to
'help daddy get to sleep'. But the beast already so poorly penned within
Fred now came out. Under the conflicting tug of speed that wouldn't wear
off and the Darvon he'd taken to sleep, the Pastor Phelps would often
wake his family in the middle of the night while doing his imitation of
a whirling dervish whose shoes were tied together: "With all the drugs,
he had very little body control," remembers Mark, "so we weren't really
scared of him then. But he would fall and break the bed apart; get up
and knock over all the bedroom furniture. "Mom would start screaming and
call Freddy and me to help her get him under control and put the bed
"My dad's face would look totally stoned, and he couldn't focus
his eyes. He couldn't walk in a straight line, and sometimes he couldn't
even get up off the floor." Adds Nate: "Another time when he was stoned
on drugs, my dad started going after my mom. She was yelling for help.
My two older brothers, probably 12 and 13 at the time, went running
upstairs and tried to force my dad back into his bedroom. He was ranting
and raving like a lunatic. "They managed to get him inside his room and
slammed the door shut and locked it from the outside. He started
pounding on the door and screaming incoherently. "Finally, he actually
broke the door down. That seemed to calm him a bit, and he fell back on
the bed and passed out."
Without referring to his records, the pharmacist named by Mark
immediately denied he had ever filled any kind of prescription for the
Pastor Phelps-except once. Blessed with preternaturally accurate recall,
the pharmacist claimed that, since 1962, he'd only filled one order for
the pastor-a skin cream several years ago.
Questioned again later, the pharmacist admitted he'd been
filling prescriptions written to Mrs. Phelps for decades. But he denied
ever selling her amphetamines. According to Mark, the physician who
wrote those prescriptions delivered all or most of the Phelps children,
and was their family doctor when they were growing up. During the period
in question, he at least twice reported his doctor bag stolen and its
narcotics missing. The thieves were never caught. When this physician
shot himself in a Topeka parking lot in 1979, he was under investigation
for providing drugs illegally to his female patients in exchange for
sexual favors. What kind of drugs?
Amphetamines. "There was fighting one night," Mark recalls. "In
the middle of the night. Dad was stoned on drugs again. He shot the
12-gauge into a roll of insulation.
"It was probably a suicide attempt. Only my mom and he were in
the bedroom, and it was during the middle of the night. "What I think
happened was, he was so under the influence, he was so screwed up, and
he was so mad that he was doing one of those things...you know...I'll
show all of you...I'll just get rid of this whole problem by killing
"And I think he just did it. I think he did it for the dramatics
of it- of course, he missed. "After the incident, that roll of
insulation sat in their bedroom for almost a year. "Our mom tried to
keep things quiet and keep things contained," says Mark. "She acted as a
mother to him as well as us. Having him in our family was like having a
little 2 year-old in an adult's body-with an adult intellect. But it's a
2 year- old that can do whatever it wants, because there's no adult
discipline, instruction, or correction involved. My father does not
subject himself to accountability of any kind. "He didn't care about our
mom, except for how she could meet his needs. He treated her like an
"We had two dogs-Ahab and Jezebel. I used to throw rocks on top
of their dog house and Ahab would viciously attack Jezebel. I thought it
was funny. "That was the way my dad treated my mom. If anything would
happen that my dad didn't like, he would beat on her, blame her, make
her life miserable, and take it out on her-even if it was out of her
Mark remembers one morning when he was downstairs and heard a
tremendous racket coming from their bedroom above. Furniture crashing.
Fred screaming. Their mother begging him to stop. Then her screaming
too. This went on for 20 minutes until finally his father stormed out.
Mark stole up the stairs, afraid his father would come back. He
peeked in. (At this point, Mark's voice breaks. It takes him a long time
to describe this, speaking in short phrases, interrupted by long pauses
to control his emotions.) The mattress was thrown from the bed. Sheets
were ripped away. Drawers were flung out of the dresser, and the dresser
kicked over. Lamps and tables, everything was smashed and strewn about
"Mom?" he called. He couldn't see her. "Mom?" Mark heard a sob.
Then a long, low agony moan. He walked stiffly into the mess. Picked his
way across the floor. In the corner, behind an open closet door, he
found his mother cowering. Her face in her hands as the sobs wracked her
body, she told her frightened child over and over: "I can't take this
anymore...I can't take this anymore...I can't take it...I don't know
what I'm going to do..." For awhile she did nothing.
Mark remembers there were times when his mother would get out
and go to the store, especially when his father was asleep: "She'd go to
Butler's IGA. And after she'd go to the bowling alley and the little
coffee shop there. Four or five times I saw her in there when she didn't
know I did. It made me feel sad, because it was such a lonely thing to
see her, sitting with that coffee and donut, and know it was her safe
harbor, the only time she had alone. She looked so unhappy and
despairing, sitting there staring at nothing, the coffee getting cold
and the donut untouched." Then one winter Saturday afternoon when Mark
was 9 years old, his mother called him over to her. She whispered: "I've
had it. I can't take it. Would you get the children's clothes and load
as much as you can in the trunk and the back seat?"
Mark packed the clothes in the old white Fairlane 4-door. When
the pastor, luxuriating in his bed upstairs, fell asleep around 4 p.m.,
their mother came down softly. She had Mark gather the rest of the kids.
"We're leaving," she told them. Somehow they all fit inside the car, the
mother behind the wheel, and the 9 kids wherever they could find space.
"We looked ridiculous," admits Mark. "And I remember the
toll-takers at the turnpike laughed at us. But I'll never forget that
day...the feeling I got as we drove away from that house. "It was a
cloudy day, and cold, but I remember feeling hopeful. Thinking we were
headed to a new life. And it was going to be better than the one behind
Marge fled the good Pastor Phelps with her flock to Kansas
City. She went to her sister Dorotha's apartment. Most of her original
family hadn't seen Marge in 15 years, not since she'd left for school in
Arizona. Dorotha's Profitt's husband drove a truck for a renderer, a
business that collected dead animals for glue. Marge Phelps' sister no
doubt gave her the bad news: driving for a rendering company didn't
bring in enough to feed 10 extra mouths; and the apartment couldn't
possibly hold them all; she couldn't stay there... In fact, there was no
place for a pregnant woman with 9 children to run except back to the man
who beat her, but paid the bills. Mark remembers his mother stoically
dialing the number for the Westboro church. Silently, the children
crawled back into their niches among the clothes-filled car. When they
arrived home that night, the pastor was waiting for them. His son
recalls he had arms folded and he was smiling. It was a cold leer that
Mark will never forget: "It was smug, it was cruel; and it said, 'there
is no escape'."
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"The Children's Crusade"
The pastor's heavy drug use continued from 1962 until late 1967
or early 1968, according to Mark Phelps. Confined to itself and
tormented by an increasingly explosive, abusive, and erratic father, the
family hung on day-to-day. Finally, Fred's system could no longer
withstand being wrenched up by reds in the morning and jerked down by
barbituates at night. One day, he didn't wake up. Mark remembers seeing
the long, gray ambulance in the driveway. His father had slipped into a
coma from toxic drug abuse. Fred Phelps remained in the hospital for a
week, while Mrs. Phelps told the children he had suffered an adverse
reaction to an 'allergy medicine'.
When he emerged, Phelps was drug-free and powerfully resolved
to regain control of his body. If it was the temple to his soul, he had
neglected it. With an astounding strength of will, he immediately
plunged into a water-only fast, dropping from 265 to 135 in 47 days.
During the fast, "he looked like a scarecrow," says Mark. "He stalked
about the house with a scarf around his head, clutching a bible to his
chest." But the Pastor Phelps broke his addiction and never relapsed. To
keep his weight down, he turned first to health foods and then to
running. Emaciated at 135, Phelps today is a trim 185 on a 6'3" frame.
One day, after he had been running for some time, the pastor read about
the new science of aerobics on the back of a Wheaties box and decided
the entire family should join him. Fred loaded the ten oldest children
in the station wagon, drove them to the Topeka High track, and, not
unlike Fred's Foreign Legion, ordered them to march or die. Actually,
they were told to run or get beaten. Their ages when this concurred were
5, 6, 7, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, and 16. Of the three youngest, two were
little girls. They were forced to run five miles a day-sun, rain, or
snow-and then the pastor upped it to ten. By the summer of 1970 a year
later, Phelps decided they were ready for the marathon. Every weeknight
the 10 children, now aged 6 through 17, ran 10 miles around the track.
On Saturdays they ran a marathon. Only on Sundays were they allowed to
rest. "We'd run from the courthouse in Topeka, down Highway 40 to the
courthouse in Lawrence," says Mark. "Or from Topeka to Valley Falls or
St. Mary's. My mom would follow with the three toddlers in the station
wagon, going up to the lead, and coming back to the stragglers."
According to Mark, that lead runner was usually him, with the pastor a
distant second. "I was the ultimate yes-man all the time I was growing
up," he confides, "but not that. I decided every time we ran I was going
to beat him-do it bad." And run he did. Mark reports that, by the time
the family entered the Heart of America marathon in Columbia, Missouri,
he was climbing off his daily 10-mile training runs in 60 minutes. He
placed 17th overall in the Columbia race. He was only 16 years old. Tim,
the six year-old who'd turned seven a few weeks before the race,
finished last behind his father and nine siblings. It took him seven
hours to complete the course. "It's one of the more difficult runs in
the U.S.," observes Mark Thomas, owner of Tri-Tech Sports in Lenexa,
Kansas. He has spent over 20 years as an athlete and sports consultant.
On his staff are current and former members of the U.S. National
Biathlon and Triathlon Teams.
He remembers the 1970 Heart of America race. A runner's club he
had organized in Sedalia, Missouri competed there. "I remember several
in our group came back disgusted as what they had seen. Apparently some
of the smaller Phelps children had told them they weren't running
voluntarily." In general, says Mark Thomas, experts don't recommend
running marathons under age 16. (Prominent sports physicians contacted
by the Capital-Journal concur, but they declined to be named in an
article on Fred Phelps.) "It's just not a wise idea, especially for a
six year-old," continues Thomas. "Even without medical advice, common
sense and a minimum of parental concern is all you need to see the
stupidity of that,"
Among the potential negatives reviewed were soft tissue damage;
developmental problems in the knee joints; high vulnerability to fatal
heat stroke; and hitting the 'wall' (running out of glycogen) long
before the adult limit at 20 miles. The last is important, advise sports
doctors. A small child forced to run through the physical agony of their
'wall' can be emotionally damaged by the experience. To put it simply,
forcing six, seven, and eight year-old children to run 26 miles is
nothing short of brutally abusive. However, Runner's World found the
running Phelps newsworthy, not once-but twice. They were featured in an
article about the Columbia marathon in the November, 1970 issue, and
again in November, 1988. Though Pastor Phelps had given up speed and
downers, ate healthy, and ran daily, the radical mood swings, rages, and
aggression remained "One day my father and I were running down at the
track inside the YMCA. There was an old blind man who always jogged on
the inside lane because he could feel the edge of the track with his
cane. "My father was in a sour mood that day, and the old man was
weaving a bit as he worked his way around the track with his stick to
guide him. My father began to threaten him each time he lapped him,
telling the blind jogger if he didn't stay out of my father's way, my
father would knock him out of the way. "Finally, the old man started
crying. He left the track and stood there crying-I guess what were tears
of frustration-and then he left. "I never saw him back there again."
Phelps was also a poor loser, according to his sons. Sometimes
Mark and the pastor would go on long runs around the town. They started
to race on the home-stretch once, and Mark beat him back by several
blocks. At first his father took it with grace, says Mark, observing his
son 'has really shifted gears and left him behind'. Minutes later
however, when were standing in the kitchen, each with a large glass of
icewater, suddenly the elder Phelps flung his hard fist into his son's
face. And stalked out.
If his body was healthy, Pastor Phelps had yet to achieve
wealthy and wise. More trouble was ahead for him-money trouble.
According to Mark, in 1968 their finances were still very tight, even
though Fred had passed the bar. The son remembers his mother opening the
mail one day and showing him a $100 check. "It's all we have for a
month," she told him, and she started crying.
Later, the pastor was melting some World's Finest Chocolate to
make chocolate milk. In the midst of stirring it, he suggested someone
should take the rest of the candy and see if they couldn't sell it
around the neighborhood. Mark jumped at the chance "I watched my mom cry
and cry when the checking and savings accounts were empty. I watched her
cry when the mail box didn't have a check in it because dad hadn't
worked in so long. "So I worked. I worked so my dad would like me. I
worked so mom would love me. I worked so dad wouldn't beat me. I worked
so I would feel like I was on the team. I worked when dad was throwing
his rages. I worked when I saw mom crying. I worked because mom said,
'you're my good little helper, and I need you to do this because I have
to be with him'. I worked because mom would cozy up to me and ask me to
work, like a confidant and partner would ask another close partner to
stand with them to get through a tough circumstance. But it was never
enough." Not long after, Fred Phelps was suspended from the bar two
years for cheating and exploiting his clients. During that period, the
candy sales would be the family's only source of income.
The Phelps children were up to the challenge "Basically, we had
to raise ourselves," says Mark. "It would have been a lot easier if we'd
just been left alone to do our own parenting, but we also had to look
out for a crazy father. I mentioned Fred Jr. and I began doing all the
grocery shopping when we were only six and seven years-old? And the kids
did all the household chores? So, working for a living we just took in
stride with the rest of our adult responsibilities."
During the school year, Mrs. Phelps would pick the children up
after class and take them directly to that day's targeted area. The
vertically challenged sales staff would then divide into teams of two or
three for safety, canvassing neighborhood homes and businesses. Every
hour, they would rendezvous back at the LZ for resupply from mom at the
station wagon. Workshifts on weeknights went from 3 30 to 8 p.m. On
weekends and during the summer, the candykrieg blitzed major metropoles
within a 4-hour drive of Topeka Kansas City, Lawrence, Wichita, Omaha,
and St. Joseph. Hours, including wake-up, preparations, and transport,
stretched from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. "There were a lot of times when we
would be out there well after dark, and snow was on the ground," says
Nate. The Phelps family selling candy door-to-door at night and in the
snow attracted the attention of Topeka police, who received occasional
queries about the welfare of the children, a law enforcement source
recalls. But detectives found no violation of the law, and no charges
were ever filed. "We sold candy, and we sold candy," observes Mark.
"It was an art," agrees Nate. Family loyalists Margie, Jonathon,
and Shirley are quick to defend their memories. Public sales taught them
a lot about the world outside their church, they insist. And they
learned a good deal about human nature, adds Margie. Today, the Phelps
children are full of stories about their adventures on candy crusade.
Jonathon and Rachel tell of selling in a bad part of Kansas City
one night and realizing the women on the sidewalks around them were
actually men. The boy is father to the man, and Jonathon immediately
held forth with the latest 'fag' joke making the rounds at his junior
high. One transvestite pulled a switchblade and gave chase. Jonathon
grabbed little Rachel (age 8) and, clutching their boxes under their
arms, they fled down an alley pursued by the man in high heels.
Jonathon, say Shirley and Margie, laughing till tears come to
their eyes, can still remember the sound of the candy rattling inside
his boxes and the click of high heels on pavement behind him. The end of
the tale? It was a blind alley. Jonathon Phelps got 'bitch-slapped' by a
guy in a dress to teach him a lesson, chokes Margie. Many of the stories
center around Tim, the youngest Phelps son-the tough little kid who
spent his sixth year training for the marathon. According to the Phelps
sisters, 9 year-old Tim was slightly built, with red hair, a freckled
face, and big blue eyes. But he had a booming voice that belied his
frail size and innocent appearance. "He sold the most candy, by far,"
says Margie. "He did it on cute." Once, giving his carnival pitch in his
King Kong voice on a crowded elevator at the Merchants' Bank in Topeka,
Tim overwhelmed a modeling scout who happened to be riding down with
him. The scout got him a job in a television ad for Payless Shoes. On
another occasion, the host of a radio show in Wichita heard Tim hawking
his Coco Clusters one night, and invited the lad to open the show. So
Tim did, bellowing out "It's Diiiiiiick Riiiiiiipy!" The owner of a
restaurant in North Topeka felt sorry for Tim, his sisters report.
Whenever Tim went there, the man always bought all of his candy, then
gave him a coke and let him sit at a table to rest his feet and
daydream. One night when he was doing just that, Tim overhead a diner
speaking ill of his father. Up popped the little boy, gripping his
ice-cold glass. Determinedly, he marched over the offending table and
flung the Coke in the surprised man's face. If the diner was outraged,
he was in for another surprise the restaurant's owner kicked him out and
let Tim stay.
"During those years," Margie observes, "we learned more about
dealing with people than most learn during their entire lifetime." While
Mark and Nate also have funny stories to tell from their time on the
candyblitz, according to them, the Phelps' sisters are selective in
At first, say the brothers outcast, their father asked them to
sell on commission. "That didn't last very long," adds Mark. "One night
we came home and he said he'd changed his mind-he wanted us to hand over
our share. We kids were reluctant at first. We'd worked hard for it and
now he was going back on his word. Then he went into a rage and-believe
me-we turned it over real quick." From there, things went from bad to
worse. The former door-to-door vendor of baby carriages and vacuum
cleaners knew about sales quotas and target volumes. "If we sold enough
candy that day, my fatherwould be in a good mood that evening and
everyone could relax. But if we came back not having generated the
amount expected, my father would take it and then get real moody. Sooner
or later, he'd find something to get mad about and one of us would get a
beating that night." Mark goes on to explain how he became the 'bull' in
charge of motivation in the field. If one of his siblings hadn't sold
their share of the candy, in the car on the way home suffered the 'chin-
chin'. The offender, sitting in back, had to lean forward and rest their
chin on the front seat. Mark, sitting in front, would then slug them in
the face. The laggard peddler was called to justice by the harsh command
(So-and-so) Chin-chin! "We never celebrated the holidays." Mark's voice
is sad with memory. "We sold candy instead. You know the only Christmas
cheer I ever saw as a kid? Sometimes I'd ring the bell and there'd be a
big gathering inside for Christmas dinner and they'd invite me in and
give me pie or a plate of food. I'd sit there and eat and watch everyone
and wish it were my family and that I never had to leave." Sources
connected to law enforcement assure the Capital- Journal that Margie's
glowing memories of the candy campaign are indeed selective. Because of
the mounting pressure from their father to return with larger cash sums,
the children allegedly began to steal from purses and unwatched
registers in the offices and businesses they frequented to sell their
sweets. In many of the cases, complaints were filed with statements from
eyewitnesses. Nate Phelps admits he was one of the thieves. He seems
ashamed, though he never spent the money on himself-although in a way he
did When the day's take was disappointing, it was often Nate who drew
the black ball in the pastor's secret lottery for violent retribution.
Among police sources, another Phelps child is remembered as having the
hottest hands. That child was allegedly connected to purse pilfering in
a legion of stores. On one occasion, the culprit was questioned by
juvenile officers concerning cash theft from the old historical museum
on 10th and Jackson in Topeka. Allegedly the child then confessed to a
string of similar crimes. Charges were never filed, say law enforcement
sources, not even in the museum case. Apparently no one in the D.A.'s
office wanted to tangle with Fred Phelps or his children unless the
crime was serious and the evidence airtight.
But if the Westboro Baptist Church's gang of urchin vendors is
remembered for anything by law enforcement officials, it is their
alleged raid on the general offices of the Santa Fe Railroad. There, on
three separate floors, witnesses observed one child allegedly
distracting employees while other Phelps children allegedly rifled those
employees' purses. Nate Phelps states he knew nothing about that caper.
According to sources, the reports of theft grew so numerous that
Topeka police suspected the Pastor Phelps of running a 'Fagin operation'
(from the character of that name in the film "Oliver" an older man
provides food and shelter to a horde of orphans and street urchins in
return for their working as pickpockets).
Both Nate and Mark Phelps insist this was not the case. The
stealing was strictly the kids' idea, they say. But it was usually done
to top off the kitty so they wouldn't get beaten. "My family sold candy
from 1968 until 1975," says Nate, "and some of those places we'd gone
into a hundred times. By then, everyone knew the candy sale was a scam.
But, even if I'd been told 'no' a hundred times, I still had to go back
eventually for the 101st. And, if they said 'no', I still had to bring
home cash to show my dad. So..." In the evenings, reports the boys, if
their father didn't fall into a rage and select one of his children out
for a beating, then he usually remained upstairs in bed-and demanded his
wife stay with him. Whether it was to listen to his tirades or 'comfort'
him (Fred's biblical euphemism for, one trusts, the missionary position
exclusively), the result was the children were left nightly to their own
Since most of them were unable to care for themselves, and Mrs.
Phelps no longer tied the younger ones in their high chairs while she
was gone, the older kids had their hands full downstairs. "Just trying
to control the younger ones, and get them down for the night without any
noise to piss the old man off was task," says Nate.
As a consequence, the house was frequently left uncleaned. Then,
in the middle of the night, the Pastor Phelps would "wake us screaming
and cursing and raging," says Mark, "hollering we had all gone to bed
without properly cleaning everything. He would have us do a thorough
cleaning of the house then, between 2 30 and 4 00 a.m. While that was
going on, he would come up behind and kick us, push us into walls, hit
us with hand and fist on the head, beat us.
"He would make us vacuum around the edges and cracks, wash
dishes, etc. I would get up shaking physically from the sudden
awakening, and from getting out of bed so quickly in such a frightening
situation. "I would be real scared and try to work hard and fast, so he
wouldn't do any more than he'd already done. I'd try to appease him
quickly so he'd calm down and stop his violence.
"It's weird how you can feel secure in a situation like that.
I'd work hard to get warm, and the concentration and physical work would
help me get through the fear and back to a point where I felt relief
from the intense anxiety and shaking." Mark continues "My father would
usually quiet down before the cleaning was done. He'd go back to doing
what he wanted watching television and eating in bed. It was such a
relief when he'd gone back upstairs, that a lot of my siblings would
knock off and stop working. "I was too mad and upset to do that. I would
keep working a lot longer. I was real mad, and I was going to work and
work and work until he apologized, or at least until I showed him that I
could take whatever he did to me."
Even after a night like that, reveille was always at 5 a.m. in
the Phelps household, adds Mark. "He'd take his big brass bell and go
through the house ringing it with a great big grin on his face." Five
a.m. brought more chores and errands before going off to school, say the
boys. After class their mom would pick them up for candy sales until 8
p.m. As soon as they got home, they'd have to change into their running
clothes, drive to the Topeka High track, and stride out 10 miles.
The runner would not return home and clean up before 10 or 10
30. After that came dinner. "Our family never ate together," says Nate.
"Mom or one of our sisters usually made something and left it on the
stove for people to eat when they got the chance."
Sometime after dinner and before they fell asleep, the children
were expected to cover their homework. Trying to stay awake for that,
after having run 10 miles, humped over suburban hill and dale selling
peanut brittle, and spent a day at school, was frequently physically
impossible. Yet, if they brought home bad grades, they were beaten and
In addition, it was usually during the homework period from 10
30 to 1 a.m. that their father would go on a rampage, or their mom would
be called up to him and leave the babies with the older kids. With this
as their daily schedule, Fred Phelps allowed his young family an average
of only four to six hours of sleep each night. "In general, he was happy
to keep us busy or gone," observes Nate.
Mark agrees "My father could tolerate no human needs outside
his own. If you had a problem, it was not appropriate to turn to a
parent for comfort, advice, or a solution. He would get outraged
whenever one of us had some difficulty that focused attention off
himself. To have a problem was to get a beating, regardless of what kind
of a problem it was, or even if it wasn't your fault.
And if it was? Mark takes a deep breath. He recalls one time
very clearly when he drew attention to himself. "One night, Nate and I
were out selling candy together. We were in a residential area, and
while we were selling, we'd unscrew a tiny Christmas light from the
evergreens outside people's houses. One of those tiny bulbs on a string?
"We were only doing it occasionally for kicks. We'd 'launch' them over
the street and listen to them pop on the pavement. We didn't think
anything about it. Nate was 10 and I was 14. "Well, I remember very
clearly when we got home. I walked into the dining room where the bottom
of the stairs were, going up to his bedroom. He was coming down those
stairs just as I came in. "Mainly I remember the look on his face. He
said, 'Who was selling on Prairie Road tonight?' "It took me a few
seconds to register that, first of all, he was really angry, and
secondly, it was Nate and me who had been selling on Prairie Road that
night. I got sick to my stomach immediately. I remember the intense fear
that came over me. I didn't know much yet, but between the look on his
face and the questions, I knew something was wrong." Nate Phelps "Nobody
answered. He asked again. By that time, Mom had come in. Her face was
white. She said, 'Why?'" Mark Phelps "He said, 'I got a call from some
guy who told me that there were two boys that had come by his house
tonight, and that he was a retired police detective. Was this the church
that the boys were selling candy for. I told them it was, and asked why.
He told me that, he was sorry to have to report it, but that I should
know the boys were stealing light bulbs from Christmas trees and then
trying to sell them door-to-door. Who was it?' (The truth was, we were
at the time also selling 'Paul Revere' light bulbs that had a lifetime
guarantee). Before I could say a word, someone told him that it was Nate
and I. He said, 'Let's go.'"
Mark Phelps "We went upstairs. He never asked me or Nate one
word about whether it was true. He never asked us for our side of the
story. All he said, after we got upstairs was, 'How could you endanger
the church like that, after all the problems we have? How could you do
it, bring reproach on the church like that?'" Nate Phelps "By that time,
I was so scared, all I can remember saying was, 'I'm sorry, Daddy. We
didn't mean it. We're so sorry'." What followed was the brutal, 200-
stroke beating with the mattock handle described at the beginning of
Chapter Two. Nate proceeds to describe more of life in the house of
Fagin. His father would pass through periods of manic, frenetic activity
and bombast, then spend days in bed, watching television and eating as
he had in his days of obesity. Despite their full schedules of school,
running, and child labor, the pastor had yet one more task for his
offspring during his days abed he kept a bell on his headboard to ring
for service. "For food, or drink, or Mom, or even the tiniest thing,"
"He just wouldn't get out of bed. And we'd all try to avoid
going up there. Eventually, he'd get really mad and ring and ring and
one of us would have to go. It would usually turn out he wanted a glass
of water or something like that-only a few steps away." It would seem to
be reminiscent of their father's Jabba-the-Hut days, when the fat pastor
sent his eight and nine year-old sons out, four miles round-trip on
their bicycles, to fetch him a chicken dinner or a piece of hot apple
pie while he wallowed in bed-except Fred Phelps no longer ate those kind
of things with a newly experimental palate, he was in hot pursuit of his
fading youth. His eye on Methuselah, he was searching out new foods
that, paradoxically, might postpone his assured arrival among the elect
in the heaven of his hating god. If the children living in the house of
Fagin already performed the functions of domestic servants, financial
underwriters, and kickbags, now they also had to endure the role of lab
rats for Fred's eccentric diets a-la-Ponce-de-Leon. Returning from their
10-mile runs after 10 p.m. each night, not having eaten since noon lunch
at school and having paced the pavements for five hours selling candy,
the starving children of the earnest Pastor Phelps frequently faced such
enticing entrees and one-half head of steamed cabbage and a handful of
brewer's yeast tablets. Nate remembers
"He'd read a book and one month we'd get nothing but raw eggs
in a glass twice a day. Then he'd read another book and we weren't to
eat eggs, period." Nate has a different perspective on Margie's charming
tale about the curds and whey
"My father would buy a sack of powered milk and mix it with
water in a five gallon stainless steel pot. Then he'd leave it uncovered
for a week beneath the stairs. After it smelled enough to make you throw
up, he'd skim the curds off the top and make us eat it in bowls. It
smelled so horrible, some of the kids would have to go in the bathroom
and vomit." Given the massive caloric cost of being teenagers, walking a
sales route, and running 10 miles each day, it's no surprise the Phelps
children turned to the nearest, richest source of calories to satisfy
their needs the candy they carried at work and which was stored in their
very bedrooms. For a period of about six years, the brothers report, the
sweets they sold were also the principal element in their diet. So
principal, that some of the children began to gain weight. This visible
development, particularly in Nate and his sister, Katherine, caused the
pastor great upset, says Nate. First, after his own successful battle
against obesity, Fred Phelps had little patience for it elsewhere in the
family; second, the Captain suspected some of the crew might be eating
the strawberries. Jonathon Phelps admits he was of them "You don't
muzzle the oxen when you want them to tread the grain," he remembers
with a laugh. It is difficult to imagine anyone who runs 10 miles a day
becoming obese. In fact, Nate reports that, at the time his father
imposed his Nazi Weight Loss program, the teenager was 5'10" and 185.
Not leathery and lean, but not worthy of comment on a large-boned male.
But to the pastor Phelps, that extra thickness on his son meant thinner
profits from the children's crusade. So, in what, for those who didn't
have to endure it, may begin to read like a Marx Brothers script, Fred
Phelps took steps. He designed a weight-loss regimen for Nate and Kathy.
"We were required to weigh ourselves in front of him each night," says
Nate. "On his doctor's scales sitting outside his bedroom. If we didn't
weigh less than we had the day before, we got beat." Sometimes the two
were beaten every night of the week with the mattock.
"I'd eat lunch," Nate says, "but I'd throw up before going
home. Or take Ex-Lax. So would Kathy. His expectations were impossible,
so we learned to manipulate the scales. "We'd place a small piece of
tape with several metal nuts attached in the palm of our hand. As we
stepped onto the scales, we'd stick the tape to the backside of the
balance beam. This would show our weight to be lower than it actually
was. "Unfortunately, one day the tape wouldn't stick properly and fell
down. The old man didn't see it fall, but he did see that my weight was
eight pounds higher than expected. "'You've been eatin' my goddamed
candy again!' he yelled.
"This led to an 10 hour ordeal of beatings, followed by marathon
running sessions, followed by more beatings, followed by running. "The
net result was that, at the end of the day, I'd lost 14 pounds and
seriously injured my hip. The irony is that, since that weight loss was
all fluid dehydration, when I replaced the fluids, I regained the
weight. But I didn't know that, and neither did my father."
The next day, when Nate had mysteriously shot up 14 pounds, the
vexed pastor fell into the frustrated fury reserved for benighted
reformers, and son Nate got beaten once more. The incident manifests
Pastor Phelps' trademark career combination of ignorance and violence.
Afterwards, the teenager was literally forbidden to eat until he lost
those extra pounds. Breakfast, Nate never got after that. And when the
family lined up for the food cooked in the great pots, Nate wasn't
allowed to eat with them. If the menu called for cabbage, curds, or
liver pills, his siblings would envy him. But if Fred relented, and
something tasty awaited the hungry children-chicken spaghetti, or stew-
Nate was never given any.
Today, the man is philosophical about the trials of the boy "I'd
just sneak food from the fridge later, or eat candy from the boxes," he
observes. Incredibly, this father-enforced fast went on for five years.
All the while, Nate's weight continued the same, and the pastor
continued to accuse him of eating candy.
"Well...duh!" laughs Nate today. "If, after five years, I was
still alive, I must have been eating something, right?" On his daughter,
Kathy, the good pastor imposed an even harsher solution she was locked
in her room for the biblical 40 days, given only water to drink, and
allowed exit only to the bathroom.
Kathy is the oldest daughter and the third-oldest child. She
shared a bedroom with Shirley and Margie, the fourth and fifth of the
Phelps kids. All three were close at the time. Both Nate and Mark
remember that either Margie or Shirley once smuggled Kathy a glass of
tomato juice. Fred caught his eldest daughter with it after she'd taken
it to her room.
When Kathy refused to tell who'd given her the tomato juice, the
boys report their father yelled and swore and beat her for nearly two
hours. They remark it was one of the worst beatings she ever received.
It was delivered by both fist and mattock handle to what was, literally,
a starving teenage girl. Even Mrs. Phelps was not immune to the weight-
watcher from hell.
"He got mad at her once. Said she was getting too fat,"
remembers Mark. "Right in front of me, he beat her with the mattock. I
mean...it was a real...real degrading, humiliating kind of experience to
watch your mother treated like that." Fred Phelps wears a bullet-proof
vest to all his pickets yet his new-found notoriety may not hit him in
the chest, as he fears.
No, if fame hath its costs, the pastor may need a padlock for
his checkbook, for ancient creditors do stir. The man who stands so
self- righteously on streetcorners daily, denouncing the sins of others,
it seems forgot to pay for a lot of candy. When sued for payment by his
suppliers, the spiritual leader of the Westboro Baptist Church claimed
under oath that the candy received was broken, stale, and melted;
consequently, it was unsuitable for sale. The fact that his children had
already sold it was considered a testimony to their upbringing. However,
since it had been sold and there was none to return, the court decided
the pastor should pay for the 'melted' candy, irrespective of whether
Topekans in the gallery were eating peanut brittle or peanut puddles.
Joe Sanders, of the Money Tree Candy Co., in Minneapolis, Minnesota, to
whom alone Fred still owes $20,000, including simple interest, has
retained a lawyer to resuscitate the debt. "Back in '72, we got a court
lien, but we could never find his account," Sanders explains.
Mr. Sanders may find Mark and Nate Phelps willing to testify how
their father coached them perjury, suggesting the impressionable
teenagers state under oath that the candy, which was fresh and good, was
in fact stale and melted. This litany of greed is not yet done.
After two years of the candy sales, the house of Fagin
diversified. A notice was placed in the paper asking for pianos to be
donated to an unspecified church. Another notice was placed in the
sales' column, advertising pianos. According to Mark and Nate, this
arrangement flourished from 1971 through 1972, until someone in the
Attorney General's office connected the two ads. Fred was ordered to
stop. And did.
"But we moved a lot of pianos before then. And we made 150 to
200 bucks each from them," says Mark. Also, starting in 1970, for three
summers, Mark and his older brother, Fred, Jr., were cut loose from the
candy sales to run a new Phelps enterprise, a lawn care/trash hauling
general clean-up business. Mark describes it
"At age 16, I had a pick-up and my brother had a pick-up, and
we had three lawn mowers. My dad paid for these items from our work
selling candy. "He was dispatcher and the scheduler. We were the ones
that did the work. He arranged things so tightly, we just plain worked
our butts off from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m.
"He'd rush us out before dawn, no showers, no breakfast, and
we'd be out to the dump to empty our trucks and begin our first job. "He
wouldn't budget us money, nor schedule us time for lunch. My dad had me
so intimidated, I would have gone along with it, but Fred Jr. usually
said otherwise. He'd insist we take time and dollars to go to
McDonald's. Then I'd have to overbid the next job, and we'd have to
finish early so our dad wouldn't catch us."
The children's candy crusade at Westboro Baptist carried on for
seven years, from 1968 to 1975. Its stated purpose was to raise money
for a new organ in the church. The one finally purchased had two
keyboards and nine to twelve foot pedals, say Mark, who, along with
Fred, Jr., played it at church services. "It was a Baldwin."
The equivalent organ today sells for around $4,000, far more
than it did 20 years ago. During the later years of the fundraising
campaign, Pastor Phelps claimed the church needed the money for a new
carpet. At, say, 100 square yards, it would cost $3,000 to lay a
moderately priced carpet in the present church, far more again than in
The target goal of the fundraising could then be safely placed
at $7,000. Mark and Nate Phelps have submitted their estimates of the
daily cash flow volumes during the candy sales from 1968-1975. These are
not wild guesses, as Mark was the accountant for the operation he
collected the money and counted it at the end of each day.
Candy that was sold to our best recollections estimated dollars
half the year, 1968 $22,710
The entire year, 1969$45,420
Half the year, 1975$22,710
Estimated total dollars from candy sales:$317,940.
We estimate the average dollar amount sold for the specified
Weeknights during the school year$75/night
Saturdays during school year$300/Saturday
Six days a week during the summer$220/day
Based on this, you can follow the figuring below:
Nine months of the school year, approximately would be:
Five week night x $75/night = $375
Total per week$675$
675 x 36 weeks, approximately $24,300
Three months of summer months, approximately would be:
$220 x six days = $1,320 per week
$1320 x 16 weeks = $21,120
$24,300+$21,120 = $45,420/year
As one can see, $318,000 does significantly overshoot the stated
goal's estimated cost of $7,000. Which leaves $311,000 unaccounted for,
plus the income from the piano sales.
The candy was marked up 100 to 200 percent from the suppliers'
price. Assuming an average 150 percent markup, $191,000 went to the
Phelpses and $127,000 to their suppliers. But a cursory search of local
court records for the years 1971 to 1974 alone turned up almost $11,000
in unpaid debt to three separate candy companies.
According to Joe Sanders at the Money Tree Candy Co., the Pastor
Phelps placed an order with them in 1971. The company first sent him
only a small order to determine if he was trustworthy. When they
received payment, they were happy to fill a much larger order, one
amounting to thousands of dollars. They never got their money.
Sanders believes the Pastor Phelps may have been running a scam
where he paid for the first order and stiffed the suppliers on a much
larger second one. "There were so many candy distributors back then, it
would have taken him years to work through the list," observes Sanders.
Most of those suppliers have long since gone out of business. Their
records disappeared with them. But, if a cursory local spot check can
show that almost 10 percent of Fred Phelps' debt to his suppliers went
unpaid, the inquiring mind might ask how many other companies never went
to court, but accepted partial payment or wrote it off as a bad debt.
Assuming the boys' estimates upon which these figures are based are
correct-and that as equal a portion of unpaid debts were written off as
went to court-a very rough guess of the income off candy sales for the
seven years, 1968-1975, would be $210,000-or $30,000 a year. Twenty-five
years ago, that was nearly three times the annual salary of the average
Topekan. Some organ. Some rug.
What happened to the rest? "It's obvious isn't it? says Nate.
"We used it to live on." In fact, Pastor Phelps defrauded his community
of over $200,000 earmarked for a non-profit religious enterprise. It was
instead consumed as personal income without paying a single rusty penny
While a church must originally file an exemption from income tax
as a non-profit organization, separation of church and state mean that,
unlike other non-profit groups, a church is not required to file the
annual form 990-a yearly accounting of its cash income and outlay.
Nevertheless, a church is required to keep books and records and be able
to demonstrate to IRS auditors that all income has been properly
The burden of proof lies on the church audited. When Westboro
Baptist was incorporated in May of 1967, ominously close to the start of
the candy crusade, the church was to be used for religious purposes
only- including weekly public services, public prayers, singing of
gospel songs and hymns, receiving of tithes and offerings, and
observance of baptism and communion. 'Receiving of tithes and offerings'
might well have meant legal fees in the pastor's mind. For 11 years, his
law offices were located in the building on which he paid no taxes
because it was a church. So, too, was his domicile: In 1960, the
Eastside Baptist Church, holder of the original lien on the property at
Westboro, attempted to foreclose and evict Phelps. The cause, as
discussed in Chapter Four, was his altering the function of the property
from a public congregation to a private residence. Indeed, with only a
few exceptions, since 1958, the 'congregation' at Westboro has been just
the Phelps family. The benefits of calling one's own family a church?
First, one can go into fundraising for oneself instead of
gainful employment. Each of us can at last be our own favorite charity.
Second, banco to those pasty property taxes. Third, if one owns a
business, they can operate it from within their church at a fraction of
the honest overhead.
To an observer, it seems remarkable that someone who has paid
no personal, property, or corporate taxes for a profitable
operation-a.k.a. "religion"-would have the inaccuracy to lecture his
community ad nauseam about its misuse of taxes. Mark Phelps estimates
the summer lawn and hauling enterprise of 1970, 1971, and 1972 netted
between eight to ten thousand a season. Since it was turned over to
their father, no doubt it was declared by him as taxable personal income
for those years. After the pastor was reinstated to the bar in 1971, the
older children were required to put in long hours assisting at the law
office. By 1975 and the end of the candy sales, they were coming out of
law school, ready to take their place in the trenches against the Adamic
race, and willing to underwrite their dad's fantasies with an estimated
10 to 25 percent tithe on their personal incomes. The final irony of all
this? In the actual Children's Crusade of 1212, fervent Christian
children from all over France were inspired to free Jerusalem from the
Moslems. Over 20,000 youths, most of them between the ages of seven and
twelve, marched across France to the port of Marseille, where they hoped
the pope would provide them ships to the Holy Land. Unfortunately, the
ship captains were mostly pirates. When the fleet sailed, it wasn't to
Jerusalem, but to the slave ports of North Africa. A generation of child
idealists were sold into chains and never heard from again. Of course,
the pirates probably weren't ever heard from either. Certainly they
never became moral commentators or social reformers. But, back then,
pirates had more grace and self-knowledge. That is, if Gilbert and
Sullivan can be trusted.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"The Law of Wrath"
Nowhere was the volatile and abusive nature of Fred Phelps more
visible than in the law courts. Six years before the bar, the
ill-tempered reverend had already discovered the law was a perfect
mattock-handle to punish the world outside his walls. Between 1958 and
1964, Phelps filed 14 lawsuits against his employers, his customers,
Leaford Cavin (the Baptist minister who'd given him his new church), the
radio station TOP (Phelps had paid to broadcast for 15 minutes each
Sunday morning, but then had his show terminated as too inflammatory),
Stauffer Communications, former friends, and public officials. In
addition, according to a local attorney who recalls those early days
when Fred sold baby carriages and cribs door-to-door, Phelps flooded the
equivalent of the small claims courts with requests to garnish the wages
of young couples who'd missed their payments-however briefly.
In one case, Fred Phelps vs. Rattus Lewis, which reached the
District Court in 1961, Phelps was accused by Lewis and his wife of
tricking them with lies: when they thought they were signing a note
vouching for the good credit of another couple, they were actually
buying a baby-stroller for a baby they didn't have. The Laces were an
uneducated black couple.
Phelps was just entering law school seeking, in his words, "to
relieve the oppressed" and to achieve social justice via the
courtroom-or what he called "the judicial remedy". There seemed, even
then, no limit to the pastor's greed and no grasp of decency in his
actions: "I remember we were amazed," one member of the court recalls,
"that anyone who hadn't been to law school could be so robustly
treacherous." One of those must have been Judge Beryl Johnson, who threw
more than one of Fred's cases out of court. And, apparently, the judge
would remember the pastor's avarice and utter lack of ethics. To be
admitted to the bar, Phelps needed a judge to swear to his good
character. The process is usually routine. Not for Fred. No judge was
willing to do that. Phelps claims it was the same Beryl Johnson, now
deceased, who lobbied the other judges not to sign the young graduate
off. Eventually, the pastor was able to gain entry after providing
numerous affidavits from other character witnesses.
Phelps is still bitter about that today. He claims 'they' were
closing ranks against his Bible message and against his stated intent to
use the courtroom to attack social injustice. In a 1983 interview with
the Wichita Eagle- Beacon, Fred defined the 'they' who tried to keep him
from the bar as "the leading lights of the Jim Crow Topeka
community...the presidents of the First National Bank, Merchants
National Bank, Capitol Federal Savings and Loan, and the Kansas Power
and Light Company..."
The pastor states that, though 'they' tried to stop him, he knew
what he had to do: "I was raised in Mississippi. I knew it was wrong the
way those black people were treated," he says. He also accuses Lou
Eisenbarth, a Topeka lawyer, of having led a delegation of attorneys who
tried to block Phelps' admission to Washburn Law School.
Eisenbarth just shakes his head in quiet surprise. "Not me." He
remembers beating Phelps in one of the pastor's law school civil rights
suits, but says there was no delegation to block Phelps going to
Washburn. And the judges unanimously refusing to sign off? "If that did
happen, it was Phelps' bad temperament and poor judgement that had
alarmed community members enough to strenuously object to him practicing
the law. It was his litigious and malicious behavior-not fear of any
future civil rights work." A few months after Phelps told Capital-
Journal reporters, 'I was raised in Mississippi; I knew it was wrong the
way those black people were treated', the following incident occurred: A
black woman, having to walk through the anti-gay pickets outside the
courthouse and minding her own business utterly, politely asked Jonathon
not to thrust the camera in her face. Pastor Phelps, unaware a member of
the press had come up behind him, screamed at the black woman so loud
the pavement should have cracked: "YOU FILTHY NIGGER BITCH!" Once inside
the bar, within two years, the young esquire provided his elders' fears
were not unfounded. As the court-appointed attorney from October to
December, 1966, for a man arrested in a forgery case, Phelps received
$200 from the defendant's ex-wife to bond the man from jail. Several
days later, the ex-wife hired Phelps to handle a divorce she now sought
from her current husband. She paid the pastor $50 to do the legal work.
The divorce was granted. Phelps kept the $200 for himself, preparing
court records to show he had been paid $250 for the divorce. Meanwhile,
the lady's ex-husband remained in jail. In the year prior, there had
been more unethical conduct. Phelps had been hired to represent another
woman seeking a divorce in March, 1965.
Before firing him as her attorney a month later, the woman had
paid the pastor $1,000 of the $2,500 fee he was charging her. Phelps had
filed an attorney's lien for the balance of the unpaid bill. But a
Shawnee County District Court judge had ruled Phelps' services weren't
worth more than the $1,000 already paid by the woman, and disallowed the
$1,500 lien. So Phelps had filed a lawsuit against the woman in the same
court, seeking the $1,500.
The Kansas Supreme Court said that amounted to harassment of
his client. It stated Phelps' conduct in the case "demonstrates a lack
of professional self-restraint in matters of compensation." Assistant
Attorney General Richard Seaton would later observe that Phelps had
shown a pattern of conduct illustrating "an uncontrollable appetite for
money-especially the money of his client."
The pastor didn't agree. In May, 1966, he filed for the
Democratic nomination to the Kansas House, 45th District. "As a
Democrat, I am liberal in my thinking," he announced, "but conservative
in spending the people's money." Meanwhile, behind the walls of
Westboro, the pastor lay up for days in bed, addicted to drugs, beating
his wife and helpless toddlers, and sending seven year-olds to fetch his
hot apple pie. A potential public servant perhaps-but one straight out
of ancient Rome. In l969, Phelps was brought before the State Board of
Law Examiners on seven counts of professional misconduct.
Seaton and then Attorney General Kent Frizzell argued that the
Westboro minister's conduct as an attorney "is one of total disregard
for the duties and the respect and consideration owed by an attorney to
his clients. Where money is concerned, the accused simply lacks any
sense of balance and proportion. Whatever the reason for this, it
appears to me a permanent condition."
Frizzell and Seaton wanted Phelps disbarred. Instead, State
Supreme Court Justices chose in 1969 to suspend the pastor for two
years. Phelps landed on his feet however: the children's candy sales
took up the slack in family income-and then some. But the court's
sanction did trouble him. It was on the first anniversary of his
suspension that Phelps decided his wife wasn't in proper subjection to
him and shaved her long hair down to a bad crewcut. Mrs. Phelps later
told the children: "He's just upset; it's been one year today since he
was suspended." Nine months after he was released from the penalty box
for cheating and exploiting his clients, Phelps had the temerity to
place his name on the ballot for District Attorney of Shawnee County.
At the same time, not only had he just been disciplined for his
lack of professional ethics, but he was also being sued by three
different candy companies, having stiffed them for almost $11,000. To
make matters worse, he had also just eluded criminal charges for beating
Nate and Jonathon, and danced in front of his children at the news his
oldest son's fiancee had committed suicide.
One can only imagine what new turns the pastor's hate would
have taken, invested with the power of the D.A.'s office. Because no one
else had filed in a race against a popular Republican D.A., Phelps ran
unopposed in the August Democratic primary. However, the D.A. was
required to have practiced law in the county for five years prior to
holding office. As a result of his suspension, Phelps had those years
cumulatively but not consecutively. He held he qualified. The State
Contest Board held he did not. Phelps appealed first to the District
Court, then to the Kansas Supreme Court. He lost. He was disqualified
September 28, 1972, leaving the Democrats only five weeks to find
another candidate. They lost.
Since then, the pastor has maintained bitter relations with a
succession of D.A.s-none of them Fred Phelps. Having stumbled at the
start of his public career, Phelps returned to private practice and
quickly confirmed his colleagues' fears: the angry reverend's working
preference was for largely unfounded lawsuits which the defendants would
settle out of court to avoid the nuisance of litigation.
"I was waiting in the Denver airport with him. We were working a
civil rights case," remembers Bob Tilton, a former Democratic state
chairman and an acquaintance of Phelps. "He told me had to file 20
lawsuits to get one judgement. I said to him, "But what about the other
19 people you sue? It costs them a lot of money and heartache to defend
themselves.' He just laughed at me." Phelps sued Kentucky Fried Chicken
for $60,000 when a female client claimed she'd discovered a 'bug' in her
breadroll; at the same time, he sued a restaurant owned by Harkies Inc.
for $30,000 because the same woman claimed to have dined there and found
abone in her barbecue. The client admitted she hadn't eaten either the
bug or the bone, and that she'd sought no medical treatment, yet she
claimed personal damages totaling $10,000 and punitive damages of
KFC settled out of court for $600. Harkies likewise for $1,000.
In a third case (all three of which were first described in the 1983
expose of Phelps by Steve Tompkins of the Wichita- Eagle Beacon), Fred
sued a Denny's restaurant for $110,000. He claimed slander against his
client when the man was accused of palming a dollar bill lying beside a
The restaurant settled out of court for $750. For the most
authentic taste of the law according to Pastor Fred, however, one must
turn to Sylvester Smith, Jr. versus Kevin P. Marshall. Excerpts from the
opinion of the court, delivered by Judge J. McFarland, tell all: "On May
30, 1975, the plaintiff was a passenger in a car driven by the
defendant. The defendant drove his vehicle to the left curb of a one-way
street in Topeka, Kansas. Plaintiff exited the vehicle from the
passenger side and walked in front of the vehicle. Defendant attempted
to put the vehicle in reverse, but instead put it in neutral or drive.
The defendant's vehicle moved forward. The plaintiff's lower right leg
was caught between defendant's vehicle and a parked automobile. These
facts are not in dispute. The residual effect of plaintiff's injury was
a discoloration of a small area of skin on his leg."
The discoloration was the size of a quarter, and the
plaintiff's skin was black. A chiropractor, called by the plaintiff to
testify, made a gallant attempt: "That is a scar right here. If you hold
it just right, you can pull it and see a scar."
In effect, Phelps had tied up first the District Court, then the
Court of Appeals, and here, the Supreme Court of Kansas over a bruised
shin-a quarter-sized scar the pastor insisted constituted a $100,000
disfigurement. To garner the real flavor of civil litigation behind the
looking-glass, the lay reader is invited to listen in on the court's
discussion of the point at issue: "The record should show that the Court
did observe the right leg of Mr. Smith. The parties should also note the
Court's observations, the Court did run his finger on the leg in the
area that Dr. Counselman described. And the Court's observation, from
just a visual and from a touch indication, was that there was no
scarring as we understand broken skin with a lesion over the scarring.
In other words, it was a smooth feeling.
"That area that the Court did observe was ascertainable,
discernible, it being more of a, at least to the visual view of the
Court, it was more of a discoloration of Mr. Smith's leg. "The record
should show Mr. Smith is black. The area in question was darker. It was
more of a dark brown area. It was about an inch and a quarter in length
and in the middle point running North and South on the leg toward the
center, as Dr. Counselman indicated, and toward the center of the area.
It extended to, perhaps, about a half an inch. But I would say it would
be East and West across the leg and about an inch and a quarter long.
Now that is what the visual observation indicates..." That Phelps could
get a bruised shin all the way to the Supreme Court certainly testifies
to his persistence. It also reveals the predatory, surreal and parasitic
nature of civil litigation in our society.
However, before the reader loses all faith in a fast-fading
institution, we hasten to point out that reason did prevail. The Supreme
Court reversed the Court of Appeals and affirmed the decision of the
trial court which had found in favor of the defendant: "Assuming it to
be permanent, I cannot believe it is the type of 'disfigurement'
intended by the Legislature to support this plaintiff's claim for
$100,000 in damages. It seems to me this is a prime example of those
'exaggerated claims for pain and suffering in instances of relatively
minor injury' the Court recognized in Manzanares, and just the type of
'minor nuisance' claim the Legislature intended to eliminate." The
appellation of 'minor nuisance' may, in the end, sum up the life, law,
and ministry of Fred Waldron Phelps.
Perhaps the most ridiculous example of the pastor's apparent
obsessive need to chisel for chump-change is the $50,000,000 lawsuit
filed against Sears and Co. When Mark and Fred, Jr. placed a color
television on Christmas layaway in September of 1973, they didn't
realize it had been set aside on paper, not actually taken off the shelf
and held in the stockroom. When they paid the balance in November, they
were told their TV would be ready at Christmas-as they had originally
contracted. Three days later, the pastor filed suit in his sons' names
and those of 1,000,000 other Sears' layaway customers. "We didn't have
anything to do with it," says Mark. It was strictly his idea. In fact,
when I left home that year right after Christmas, it put him in a bind.
He had a case that was missing a plaintiff."
Court documents show Sears called the Phelpses and told them the
television would be available later in November. The two Freds chose not
to accept it. Instead, they pressed their suit. Nearly six years of
litigation followed. Motions and counter motions were filed. Lawyers
argued aspects of the case in front of judges. A judge threw out the
class action section of the suit.
Finally, after countless hours of legal work and an original
request for $50,000,000, the case was settled in favor of the Phelpses
for $126.34. The boys had originally paid $184.59 for the set, but they
never received it. These are not the files that will one day inspire a
new Earl Stanley Gardner. By 1983, according to the Wichita Eagle-
Beacon, there had been "more complaints filed against Phelps, and more
formal hearings into his conduct, than any other Kansas attorney since
records have been kept." If in fact he did lead the judges' conspiracy
to block Fred Phelps from the bar, few would fault old Beryl Johnson
In 1976, the reverend-esquired was investigated by the Kansas
Attorney General's office. In 73 percent of the pastor's lawsuits, the
inquiry discovered the defendants had settled or agreed to settle out of
court. In the 57 cases already settled, Phelps had demanded a total of
$75,200.00-but then taken an average of only $1,500 per case to walk
away. Litigation would have cost his adversaries far more. It was naked
extortion, nothing more. Phil Harley, the Assistant Attorney General who
led the investigation, now an attorney in San Francisco, confirmed to
the Capital-Journal a statement he made to the press 10 years ago:
"Based on my experience with him, I reached the personal conclusion that
Mr. Phelps used the legal system to coerce settlements and abuse other
people." In an opinion filed in a 1979 civil rights case, Federal Judge
Richard Rogers-no stranger to the pastor's ways, a significant portion
of his docket was taken up by Fred's lawsuits- supported Harley's
conclusions: "I feel Mr. Phelps files 'strike suits' of little merit in
the expectation of securing settlements by defendants anxious to avoid
the inconvenience and expense of litigation." In fact, when those sued
by Phelps did not blink, but forced him into court, the angry pastor
lost 75 percent of the time-an astonishing record that explodes the myth
of the invincible Fred Phelps, a myth which intimidates his community
On November 8, 1977, the state filed a complaint seeking to have
Phelps disbarred in its courts. The complaint centered on the pastor's
behavior in a lawsuit filed against Carolene Brady, a court reporter in
Shawnee County District Court. Phelps sought $2,000 in actual damages
and $20,000 punitive damages, alleging Brady had failed to have a court
transcript ready when he'd asked for it.
According to court documents, prior to filing the lawsuit,
Phelps allegedly told Brady "he had wanted to sue her for a long time".
During the trial, the pastor called Brady to the stand, had her declared
a hostile witness, and cross-examined her for several days. Phelps not
only attacked Brady's competence and honesty, he also attempted to
introduce testimony about her sex life.
The Kansas Supreme Court would later observe: "The trial became
an exhibition of a personal vendetta by Phelps against Carolene Brady.
His examination was replete with repetition, badgering, innuendo,
belligerence, irrelevant and immaterial matter, evidencing only a desire
to hurt and destroy the defendant." The Supreme Court went on to
comment, after the jury had found for Brady and Phelps sought a new
trial: "The jury verdict didn't stop the onslaught of Phelps. He was not
satisfied with the hurt, pain, and damage he had visited on Carolene
Brady." In asking for a new trial, Phelps prepared affidavits swearing
to the court he had new witnesses whose testimony would weigh in
dramatically on his side. Brady obtained affidavits from eight of those
witnesses, showing they would not testify as the pastor had claimed,
that, in fact, Phelps had lied to the court.
The formal complaint against Phelps would not be for harassing
Brady, but that he had "clearly misrepresented the truth to the court".
Phil Harley, the same Assistant Attorney General who had investigated
Phelps in 1976, represented the state in the 1979 disbarment
proceedings. Harley wrote:
"When the attorneys engage in conduct such as Phelps has done,
they do serious injury to the workings of our judicial system. Even the
lay person could see how serious Phelps' infractions are. To allow this
type of conduct to go essentially unpunished is being disrespectful to
our entire judicial system. It confirms the layman's suspicion that
attorneys are 'above the law' and can do anything they please with
impunity." Harley continued: "Phelps has now been given two chances to
show that he is capable of conducting himself in a manner that is
expected of an attorney. On both occasions, he has flagrantly violated
the oath he swore to uphold. He should not be given a third opportunity
to harm the public or the judicial system. Fred W. Phelps should be
disbarred." The Kansas Supreme Court agreed, adding: "The seriousness of
the present case, coupled with his previous record, leads this court to
the conclusion that respondent has little regard for the ethics of his
The date was July 20, 1979. Even so, the vindictive pastor
would have his revenge cold, however small the portion: When Mark
Bennett, the attorney chairing the state grievance committee originally
recommending Phelps be disbarred died, the aggrieved Fred came to the
wake and signed the guestbook. Beside his name, Phelps wrote the numbers
of a chapter and verse from the Bible.
When the shattered widow looked it up, it said 'vengeance is
mine'. Based on his state court disbarment, Phelps was banned from
practicing law in federal courts from October, 1980 until October, 1982.
Amazingly, the pastor was back in trouble almost immediately following
his return. Demand letters sent in 1983 to people Phelps planned to sue
brought him right back up for disciplinary charges in federal court.
Initiated by Wichita lawyer Robert Howard, the complaint charged that
Phelps sent letters to businesses and individuals he intended to sue,
informing them of litigation unless they paid money to the pastor's
Called before a panel of three federal judges barely two years
after he had returned to the law, nonetheless Fred and his family of
flyspeckers had been busy: Phelps Chartered had almost 200 lawsuits
pending in the U.S. courts. In one, the pastor was suing Ronald Reagan
for appointing an ambassador to the Vatican. In others, he was demanding
an injunction against moments of silence in schools; suing a local
teacher who had criticized the doctrine of predestination' and asking
$5,000,000 in damages for libel from the Wichita Eagle-Beacon for the
story it ran in 1983. All of these suits would come to nothing. The
sheer number of cases generated out of Phelps Chartered, and the
family's genius for antagonization set the stage for the next conflict:
Fred on the deserted platform, waiting to stare down the federal
judges arriving on the noon train. Too late, Phelps would learn that, in
a staring contest with a federal judge, one should be a fish if they
expect him to blink first. The hard lesson would soon take the 'esquire'
out of the irascible pastor. Of the five active federal judges in
Kansas, two of them, Earl O'Connor of Kansas City and Patrick Kelly of
Wichita, had already voluntarily removed themselves from hearing any
cases involving Phelps Chartered. Lawyers from the family had filed
motions accusing them of racial prejudice, religious prejudice, and
conspiring to violate the civil rights of the seven Phelps attorneys. At
first, the judges were only too happy to comply: they were as eager to
be rid of the Phelps brand of tawdry courtroom hysteria as the pastor
and company wanted to be done with them. Kelly, in fact, even told the
pastor "good riddance" to his face during a special hearing the judge
had called to upbraid Phelps-a hearing for which Kelly would later be
reprimanded. Believing he had intimidated them, Fred made his fatal,
final mistake as the bad boy of the Kansas courts: he went for a third
judge. The pastor publicly accused Richard Rogers of the U.S. District
Court in Topeka of racial prejudice, dislike of civil rights cases,
engaging in a racially motivated vendetta against the seven Phelpses,
and conspiring against them with Judge O'Connor. Rogers counter- charged
the Phelpses had launched a campaign to disqualify him from hearing
Phelps litigation in an attempt to go 'judge shopping'. Even if Rogers
had wanted to remove himself, his hands were tied. Almost 90 of those
200 lawsuits generated by Phelps Chartered had been assigned to Rogers;
court-approximately one-fifth of his entire caseload. If Rogers bowed
out, it would leave only two federal judges, Dale Saffels of Kansas City
and Sam Crow of Wichita, to handle the swarm of 200 Phelps suits, as
well as their dockets from the rest of the state. "I'll grant you it
creates a logistics problem," admitted Margie Phelps at the time, "but I
didn't create the problem. If it takes going to the other end of the
United States...to get another judge and bring him in to hear our cases,
that's what the law requires." When Rogers refused to acquiesce to the
pastor's demands, Phelps began a campaign of innuendo and wild
accusations that Topekans today will recognize as pure Fred. An article
in the Capital-Journal, January 16 of 1986, describes this early
forerunner of the Phelps' fax campaign:
"The judge has disputed affidavits filed by Phelps clients who
say he has made derogatory comments about the Phelpses at the Topeka
County Club, the YMCA, in an elevator at the First National Bank, and at
a judicial conference last September in Tulsa. "For example, the
Phelpses accuse Rogers of telling Chris Davis, a Topeka man who attended
the Tulsa conference, "You had better not plan on practicing law with
the Phelps firm in my court, because I intend putting them out of
business before much longer'. "They also quote an affidavit given by
Brent Roper, a Topeka man who said Rogers became angry at the conference
banquet when a band leader drew attention to the Phelps attorneys.
Rogers is said to 'stalked from the ballroom', saying, 'Those - -
Phelpses, they're everywhere showing off,' and 'It will be harder now,
but I will destroy them.'" The irony here is that both 'Topeka' men
quoted as apparent uninvolved bystanders were, in fact, Fred Phelps'
sons-in-laws, or soon to be. Chris Davis was one of two families, the
Hockenbargers and the Davises, that remained in the Westboro Church. He
married the seventh Phelps child, Rebekah, in 1991. The other "Topeka
man", Brent Roper, joined the Westboro community as a homeless teenager,
was put through law school by the pastor, and married Shirley Phelps.
The image of a federal judge stalking from a ballroom uttering darkly,
"it will be harder now, but I will destroy them," it seems, on its face,
a rather amateurish dip in slander. These are lines from the movies,
from a Lex Luthor, and not a Richard Rogers.
It is noteworthy here to mention that Roper is also the author
of a privately published book that argues AIDS was first introduced to
the United States by Truman Capote, following a book promotion in South
Africa. According to Roper, both JFK and Marilyn Monroe contracted the
disease simultaneously from Capote during a touch football game in the
White House Rose Garden. The CIA was forced to kill the fab couple, he
says, to keep them from spreading the deadly virus to the rest of the
Copies may be difficult to find. After Rogers remained stubborn
despite the slanderous attacks, he claimed the Phelpses threatened to
sue him on behalf of a client Rogers didn't know. It was not an empty
threat. In August, 1985, the pastor Phelps and his daughter, Margie, had
brought a suit against Judge O'Connor on behalf of a former federal
probation officer. Though the man had been removed from his position by
a vote of the full court of federal judges, the suit named O'Connor. At
the time, O'Connor was under pressure from the Phelpses to disqualify
himself (and did) from a 30-judge panel that would rule on the pastor's
1983 demand letters. The family Phelps had started a shooting war in the
On December 16, 1985, a complaint signed by every federal judge
in Kansas was lodged against the Phelps lawyers. It called for the
disbarment of the seven family attorneys-Fred, Fred, Jr., Jonathon,
Margie, Shirley, Elizabeth, and Fred's daughter-in-law, Betty, and the
revocation of their corporate charter. The 9 angry judges accused the
Phelpses of asserting "claims and positions lacking any grounding in
fact", making "false and intemperate accusations" against the judges,
and undertaking a "vicious pattern of intimidation" against the court.
"Time and time again," says Mark Phelps, "I can remember something would
happen in the way of actions or lawsuits being filed against him or one
of his clients. He would fume and cuss and strain and spew and carry on.
Then, he would come up with his plan of attack.
"He'd get real excited after his deep depression, and he'd carry
on around the law office crowing about the cunning, brilliant strategy
he had come up with. He'd put it into action, and he'd just thrill over
it. "He'd say: 'Do we know how to deal with these types? You bet we do.
We goin' to sue the pants off of them. We goin' to slap them with the
fattest lawsuit they ever did see. We goin' to frizzle they fricuss and
burn all the lent right out of they navel. When they get this, they
goin' think twice about messin' with ol' Fred Phelps.' "He'd have a ball
thinking about how he was going to get even-and even better than
even-and then he'd go into action. "Next thing you knew, they'd respond
with some action. And I guess he always thought they'd be like his won
family-willing to take anything he dished out. I guess he just naturally
expects people to roll over and play dead. So, when they'd come back
with a logical, predictable response to his behavior, he'd go crazy:
"'These heathen! These Sons of Belial! These enemies of God and His
Church! God's gonna get them! He won't let them (get) by with this!' "My
father would complain and yell at God, and throw a fit at Mom, and carry
on at the kids."
In September of 1987, the federal judicial panel investigating
the demand letters sent by Phelps found evidence to sustain two of the
four charges against him. The pastor had been accused of demanding money
and other relief for claims he knew to be false. The panel of judges
issued a public censure of him.
In layman's terms, Pastor Phelps had attempted to strong-arm
money from the innocent and been caught. And, come high noon, there
would be one less Phelps at the bar. When the nine judges first entered
their complaint in 1985, Margie, the spokeswoman and courtroom
representative for the family in the matter, said: "The bottom line is
we will fight every charge, every way."
But, upon hearing the extent of the evidence collected against
them, the Phelpses asked the judges and investigator to find a way to
end the case without resorting to litigation. They agreed to the
punishment specified in the consent order. Margie signed the order,
acknowledging her family accepted it voluntarily and waived any right to
The resulting compromise singled out those who, according to the
investigator, were the three worst offenders: Fred, Jr. was suspended
six months from practicing in federal courts. Margie received a one-year
suspension, in part because she had maliciously misrepresented a
conversation she'd had with Judge O'Connor. Having been suspended from
the state courts for cheating his clients, and then barred from them for
lying to a trial judge, having been censured in federal courts for
pursuing claims he knew to be false, the angry pastor was now barred
from them forever because he had lied about the judges in an attempt to
impugn the integrity of the court. The leopard may be older, but it
still has its spots.
The federal disbarment deprived Fred Phelps of his last arena of
legal abuse. Unless he could find a new outlet for his hate, the
defrocked esquire from Mississippi was now just an angry eccentric, no
lawyer, not even a pastor-except in the fear-conditioned eyes of his
family. Nonetheless, Fred Phelps has always held that all the bad things
happened in his law career because he was a tireless Christian soldier,
battling for black civil rights. A careful examination of his more
salient cases, however, reveals once again how, with such odd
regularity, some men of the cloth seem to confuse community service with
lip and self-service. The hallmark of a devoted civil rights reformer
who is also a lawyer ought to be a record of court decisions that, taken
together, create legal precedents influencing future cases and,
therefore, future society. Sadly, close inspection of Phelps' civil
rights record shows he followed the same greedy star he did in the rest
of his cases. Lawsuits were filed, but rarely went to trial-and even
more rarely reached a decision. Instead, Phelps practiced what he always
had: 'take-the-money-and run'. A settlement out-of-court has zero impact
on legal precedent. Both sides continue to maintain they were right,
only one party pays the other a little money to shut up and go away. In
what are probably Fred Phelps' three most famous civil rights cases, he
did exactly that each time. In the multi-million dollar Kansas Power and
Light case, Phelps filed a class-action on behalf of 2,000 blacks who
had accused the utility of discrimination in their hiring and promotion
Fred settled out of court for the following: *Two black
employees received $12,000 each. *$100,000 was paid out to the other
plaintiffs. If one counts the original 2,000, that made for 50 bucks
*Phelps scooped $85,000 in attorney's fees and expenses. *KP&L
admitted no wrongdoing and suffered no coercion to alter its allegedly
racist policies. KP&L officials claimed they'd settled to avoid an
expensive legal battle. "It's unprecedented what we just did," the
Certainly it left no precedent. In the American Legion suit,
which stemmed from a police raid on a Topeka post with a largely black
membership, again Phelps settled for small cash outside of court.
Perhaps his most publicized case was the Evelyn Johnson suit,
touted as son of Brown vs. Board of Education, the landmark school
desegregation case filed against another Topeka USD 501 school in 1955.
Brown vs. Board of Education, along with the Selma bus case, became the
basis for the civil rights movement in the sixties. In 1973, Evelyn
Johnson's aunt and legal guardian, Marlene Miller, sue the Unified
School District, number 501, a state entity which contained the Topeka
area public schools. Miller, represented by Fred Phelps, claimed the
district had failed to comply with the ruling in Brown vs. Board of
Education. It had not provided the same educational opportunities and
environments to the black neighborhoods as it had to the white areas of
the city. Phelps boosted Miller's complaint into a 200 million dollar
class action suit. When that was tossed out, he pressed on with the
individual action on behalf of Mrs. Johnson. In 1979, the pastor agreed
to settle out of court with the district's insurance company. Phelps
accepted the company's condition the settlement be sealed from public
scrutiny to discourage others who might have been inclined to sue for
the same reasons. Hardly the act of a hard-knuckled civil rights
reformer. When the contents of the settlement were revealed later, it
turned out the pastor had collected $19,500 from the insurance company-
$10,600 himself, and $8,900 in a trust for Johnson. If the attorneys for
Brown had settled for cash outside the courtroom instead of a decision,
there would have been no legal grounds for the federal government to
pressure a segregated America to conform to the new social standards,
and quite possibly no civil rights movement. In light of that, it is
difficult to understand how $8,900 in trust to a 15 year- old,
uneducated girl was going to remedy either her or her school-mates'
problem. After the settlement, Evelyn Johnson attended Topeka High
School, rated one of the best in the nation. She performed poorly and
dropped out without graduating. Certainly her life and prospects, and
those of her peers, remained generally unchanged by the out of court
pay-off. Since no ruling was made and no precedent established to
reinforce Brown vs. Board of Education, nothing came from six years of
Phelps' litigation except $10,600 for himself and a reputation, however
undeserved, as a civil rights hero.
In other instances, the issue of civil rights was so flimsily
connected, and the case so absurd, that any serious interest in social
change on Phelps' part has to be questioned: In 1979, the pastor sued
Stauffer Communications, owner of WIBW-TV, for over $1,000,000 on behalf
of a 23 year-old black man, Jetson Booth, who had appeared in footage
aired by the station. Booth was shown surrounded by police during camera
coverage of a shoot-out involving the officers and two unidentified men.
"If plaintiff had been a white man, defendants (WIBW-TV) would not have
treated him in this fashion," Phelps asserted in the suit. The case was
dismissed for lack of cause shown. In 1985, Phelps Chartered was order
to pay attorney's fees amounting to $7,800 for police officer Dean
Forster after the firm had sued him for civil rights violations of a
client. It turned out Forster had no connection to the incident in
question, and, furthermore, the Phelps lawyers had known that from the
beginning of their litigation. In an astonishing number of his cases, it
would seem the pastor thought 'civil rights' was an open sesame to the
good life-for himself. In 1979, Phelps was sued by a Wichita law firm
that claimed he had "tortuously interfered in the lawyer-client
relationship". Three black women and two of their children had been
grievously injured in an auto accident. One of the women was in a coma
for years. Allegedly, Pastor Phelps learned about the case through local
black ministers. He also somehow discovered that the liable insurance
company's coverage was not the $100,000 they were claiming-but 1.1
million, of which the lucky attorney representing the victims would
scoop up 35 percent . The aggrieved law firm protested Phelps had wooed
the clients with his erstwhile reputation as a civil rights advocate.
Because of his interference, they asserted, the goose of the golden eggs
had fired its midwife attorneys and taken their 35 percent to Phelps
Chartered. Phelps responded the other law firm was "all white", and
that, in part, they'd lost their clients because of their "racially
biased and overbearing treatment of said black people." In the final
settlement, however, the judge awarded $644,000 to the victim and
$366,000 to the lawyers-of which only $122,000 went to Fred.
Disappointing work for one who'd chased his ambulance with such
laudable ethnic sensitivity. Probably the most bizarre and ludicrous
example of Fred Phelps exploiting the title of 'civil rights crusader'
was in 1983, when three of his children failed to make the cut for
Washburn School of Law.
The pastor filed suit in federal court on behalf of Tim, Kathy,
and Rebekah, claiming his children should be granted minority status
because of his civil rights work. Furthermore, Phelps argued, Washburn
Law's record on affirmative action was inadequate. They needed to accept
more blacks into their freshman class each year.
"It is important to note this case is brought by white
applicants who are asking to be treated as blacks," observed Carl Monk,
dean of the law school. "They would not be asking to be treated as
blacks unless they felt such treatment would help them." That case was
still in court the following year when Washburn allowed Timothy in but
again denied admission to Kathy and Rebekah.
The reverend filed suit once more, but this time with a twist.
In the second suit, he offered his children were the victims of reverse
discrimination because they were white. He complained the law school had
admitted blacks in 1984 who were far less qualified than his own
offspring. So much for the family commitment to affirmative action. U.S.
District Judge, Frank Theis, was not amused. Ruling on the 1983 case, he
stated first that, "the plaintiffs simply were not qualified for
admission to law school," and second, that the new 1984 case weakened
the case before him from 1983. The judge told Phelps he could not argue
the school discriminated against blacks, and then sue again, saying it
preferred blacks over whites, and be taken seriously. Katherine and
Rebekah eventually got their law degrees down at Oklahoma City
University. Phelps Chartered got spanked with a $55,000 assessment by
the court to pay Washburn's attorneys' fees. It was negotiated down, and
Pastor Fred signed the check over at $12,000 in restitution for bringing
a 'frivolous suit of no merit' against the college. In Phelps' eyes, it
had been another blow against empire for the bold pastor. There is an
interesting sidebar to this story. When the Phelps children were first
turned down by Washburn in 1983, they appealed to the law school's
internal grievance committee. It found no race-based discrimination in
the rejection of the three Phelps. However, one of the panel members,
Karl Hockenbarger, a Washburn University employee, filed a dissent,
stating it was clear to him the three had been "denied admission to the
law school because of their identification with Fred Phelps Sr., and the
cause of civil rights for blacks." Hockenbarger went on to add: "Blacks
in Kansas generally depend on the Phelps family and firm as their last
and best hope for attaining equal justice." He is, of course, the same
Karl Hockenbarger who daily pickets with the Phelpses, and one of the
few non-family members who still attends the pastor's church at
Mr. Hockenbarger's shared concern with his pastor for the
plight of Kansas blacks may not be as deep as it appears: Police
surveillance of the Westboro community has allegedly tied Hockenbarger
to white supremacist groups like the Posse Comitatus and the Ku Klux
Klan. "Civil rights lawsuits presented a vast opportunity to make money
back then," says Nate Phelps. "My father used to say he had a huge
target and all he had to do was shoot. I don't blame him for choosing a
lucrative area of the law, it's just that he was not motivated by some
noble, altruistic desire "to champion the case of the downtrodden."
Asked if he filed "nuisance lawsuits" once, Pastor Phelps replied: "They
think it's a nuisance if you call a black man a nigger. That's just
trivial to them, bit it's not trivial to him, and it's not trivial to
During their teenage years, both Mark and Nate worked as law
clerks in their father's office. "When a black client was in there,"
recalls Nate, "my father would play the 'DN' game with us. It stands for
'dumb nigger'. We would all try to use the acronym as often as possible
in the presence of the person involved." In the 1983 interview with the
Wichita Eagle-Beacon, Phelps intoned, echoing Abraham Lincoln: "The air
of the United States is too pure for racial prejudice to keep going, and
the nation can't long endure half-slave and half-free. There is not any
doubt that the problems of this country derive, in my humble opinion,
from the way this country continues to treat black people." But
according to his sons in California, part of the theology of the Old
Calvinism Fred taught held that blacks were a subservient race because
they were the sons of Ham, the son of Noah. Cursed for ridiculing Noah's
nakedness, Ham's children were born black, according to the Bible. Some
scholars attribute apartheid in South Africa to the fact that the white
minority is predominantly Calvinist and takes the Ham story to heart.
Mark definitely recalls that his father taught the Ham story and
took it to its Calvinist conclusions: the black race was cursed and
meant to be the "servants of servants" - i.e., subservient to whites.
Nate agrees. "He taught that in Sunday sermon many times while we were
growing up." Both boys recall their father used to tell black jokes.
"And he'd imitate them after they'd left our office," remembers
Mark. However, the piece-de-resistance in the ongoing saga of Phelps
hypocrisy is the pastor's relationship with the Reverend Pete Peters of
La Porte, Colorado.
Peters is the guru-philosopher of the Christian Identity
Movement. Known simply as "Identity", the movement believes the white
race is God's true Chosen People. They assert the Jews are animal souls
that rewrote the Old Testament to give themselves the Chosen's
birthright. Blacks are "mud people" who also possess animal
souls-meaning they are not immortal and cannot go to heaven. According
to Identity, blacks and Jews want to eliminate the white race and rule
Randy Weaver, the man arrested in the Idaho mountaintop
shout-out with F.B.I., was a member of the Posse Comitatus and a
follower of Identity. Peters broadcasts his shortwave radio program,
"Scriptures for America", around the world, calling for death to
homosexuals and warning against the international Jewish conspiracy.
Fred Phelps has done broadcasts on "Scriptures for America", and tapes
of his anti-gay message and offered for sale in Peters' mail order
catalogues. When asked about it, Pastor Phelps only smiles enigmatically
and offers that Pete Peters owns the rights to those broadcasts and can
sell them if he wants. But Peters, reached by phone at his church in La
Porte, says: "If he (Fred Phelps) didn't want them out, even if I had a
right, I wouldn't put them out. I have the greatest respect for him."
The militant white supremacist then adds ominously, "He's got the
support of god-fearing people across this country that are not afraid to
back a man who tells it like it is. "And he's got my support if he needs
help-whenever he needs help." Not empty words.
Though Peters himself was cleared, it is still widely believed
by Klanwatch and other groups monitoring extremist activity that the
right- wing hit team that killed Alan Berg, the Denver talk radio host,
came from or were associated with Peters' congregation. Reverend Fred
Phelps, friend of the struggling black?
Listed next to one of Fred's tapes in Pete Peters' catalogue is
one by Jack Mohr, a man who describes himself as the "Brigadier General
of the Christian Patriot Defense League", but whom the F.B.I. has
identified as a weapons instructor for the Ku Klux Klan. Why in the
world would a person with these associations proclaim himself a civil
In the words of 'Deep Throat', "follow the money." And in those
of Richard Seaton, the Assistant Attorney General who led the first
attempt to disbar Phelps back in 1969, the pastor had "an uncontrollable
appetite for money-especially the money of his clients."
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Nightmare of Twelfth Street"
"Since no one else would join, my father sired us for
congregations," observes Mark. "We were the only members because we had
no choice. When we got old enough to make our own decisions, choose our
life's work, and our life's mates, did you think he'd permit that?
"Without his children, my father had no church and he has no
Fred Phelps' bizarre behavior toward his children as struggled
to become adults is as disturbing as it is revealing.
Growing up in the pastor's family meant going from door-to-door
sales, domestics, and wage earners to lawyers and tithe payers. To
Phelps, adulthood for his children meant soldiers for his wars. To
accomplish this, he would attempt to arrest and redirect each child's
path to fulfillment. They were not to leave his nest, nor learn to fly:
"The Bible may say you're gonna be the head of your house. But I'm
tellin' you right now, goddammit, that ain't gonna happen! I'm gonna be
the head of your house! And you better start gettin' that through your
head right now!" Mark pauses at the memory. "You know, he couldn't say,
I desperately need you; please don't leave me." His heart was too closed
off by some devastating unknown injury, and his mind was so
sophisticated, so intelligent, he could weave a steel cape around us we
couldn't get out of.
It was emotional. And it was the use of religion." But how could
Fred Phelps maintain control of the lives and dreams of his children?
Against his desire for a family that would be an extension of himself
were arrayed some formidable forces: the adolescent's yearning for
independence was one; the pull of hormones and the heart of another. In
addition, the harshness of the children's upbringing left them with
little genuine respect or love for their father. Then what wrought such
conformity? Two obstacles, both too high for 9 of the 13 to surmount.
They are the twin secrets of Pastor Phelps' sway over his troubled
flock. First, and most important, while they may not be overly
enthusiastic about his job as a father, the Phelps' children still
accept, respect, and obey him as the head of their church. Since, in
their belief, the Elect may reach heaven only through the portal of The
Place, he who runs The Place holds the keys to the gates of Paradise.
The children weren't afraid to disobey or argue with their father when,
in later adolescence, they didn't seize the hand beating them or leave
the place holding them. Rather, they were terrified to oppose the will
of heaven's gatekeeper and imperil their souls. Literally, to was the
fires of hell and not the mattock whose heat they felt in all their
choices. "My father established early on the expectations of each child
in the family for their entire life," says Nate, "and the consequences
if those expectations weren't met. According to him, each of us would
finish college, get your law degree, work for him, and marry whom he
chose, when he chose. By no means were we allowed to leave that
situation, or it would be seen as 'abandoning the church'. If we did
that, we'd be excommunicated." Besides being groomed as lawyers, Mark
says he and his siblings were constantly told they were different. "We
were taught we were abnormal from the time we were able to learn," he
says. "That the rest of the world out there was evil. That we The Place.
And inside The Place, people were good and going to heaven. "Outside The
Place they were all damned and going to hell. And, if that other world
ever got us down, we were taught to find strength by imagining the
terrible horrors that would happen soon to everyone outside The Place."
'The Place' was how his father referred to the church, add Nate.
"If you left, you were forsaking the assembly and you were delivered to
Satan for the destruction of the flesh. He had his repertoire down. "Of
course, he justified it by manipulating various passages in the Bible.
"One passage refers to a child 'leaving his father and mother and
cleaving to his wife'. He interpreted this to mean a child was not to
leave his parents until he was married. But, since he decided who and
when we were to marry, he controlled this. "Another passage mentions
'not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together'. Since he had long
ago established in our minds that his church was where the Elect came to
assemble, that it was 'The Place', he could lead us easily to the belief
that to leave home was to 'leave' the company of the Elect, to join the
innumerable multitude of the damned." And the second of the twin
secrets? "To cast the world beyond The Place as evil and fatal to the
soul. Then manipulate the local community so they would react with
hostility and aggression whenever a kid would venture out. It's why my
father insisted we go to public school, you know. Thanks to him, we were
hated before we even got there on Day One. And people were so mean to
us, that, when we came home, Fred could say, 'See, I told you so.
They're evil and reprobate. They're not like us.'" The family does not
believe in Christmas, states the Pastor Phelps, because there is no
mention of it in the Bible; nowhere does it say Jesus Christ was born on
December 25. (The date for many Christian holidays, in fact, derive from
pre-Christian Europe: Christmas from the winter solstice on December 21;
Easter from the vernal equinox on March 21; All Souls for Halloween from
the Feast of the Samhain or the Day of the Dead, on October 31.) While
accurate, if somewhat unnecessary theology (since Christmas in America
is really a shopping, not a religious, holiday), as sociology, Fred's
'bah-humbug' to the season of comfort and joy did significantly add to
the burden of 'otherness' that caused the world outside to repel his
children and grandchildren back to The Place.
"From kindergarten, we were not allowed to stay in the
classroom if there were Christmas activities going on,: says Nate. "We
always had to go to another room, usually the library. My father
threatened to sue the schools if they did not remove us during those
times." The man pauses, remembering the sorrows of the boy: "Our
humiliation was constant."
Even so, from suing the schools to shooting his neighbor's dog,
Fred Phelps' personal and litigious behavior would have ensured his
children a cool reception in their community-without an encore as the
pastor who stole Christmas. "We weren't allowed to participate in any
activities at school," adds Nate. "Not through most of our childhoods."
"No sports, not even track," says Mark. "Until my senior year.
"And no outside friends. No one was allowed to visit, and we weren't
allowed to go anywhere. To birthday parties or anything. Then, shave our
heads. My father wanted the world to reject us. It would drive us right
back to him. To the Place. The world-within-a-world. The one that was
Fredcentric." Spouses were not welcome in such a world-except as a last
resort to hold the child. There were to be no girls for the boys. And no
boys for the girls. "If my dad had his way," confesses Shirley, "none of
us would have gotten married. He'd just as soon keep everyone away,
"Kathy's was my father's favorite," remembers Margie. "She had
blue eyes and dark hair. She was very pretty and he would spoil her. He
used to bounce her on his knee and sing 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' to
her. But after she was about 15 or 16, they had nothing to say to each
other. She'd be home, but she kept her distance from him. "And she was a
bitch throughout her teen years. She was very mean to the rest of the
kids. Kathy became very self-destructive back then, and she's stayed
that way since." Concludes Margie: "I never understood why." Perhaps her
brothers on the West Coast have a clue: "Then came a time when suddenly
Kathy got in my dad's doghouse," relates Mark. "A boy had called once or
something. From that time on, he commenced to beating her, and he stayed
on her and stayed on her rear end that wouldn't l; because of how often
and how severely she got beat. "He'd beat her routinely in the church,
against the foundation pole. He'd beat her with mattock and then twist
her arm behind her back. She'd be screaming- bloodcurdling screams-and
all because someone had called her up on the telephone.
"Later, it got so if the phone rang and they hung up, he'd
assume it was a boy looking for Kathy, and that she was 'doing' him, and
then she'd get beaten for that. "And, on top of that, she and Nate were
getting beaten several times a week for their weight. "Later, when Mark
and Fred were in college," says Nate, "Mom would take everyone out to
sell candy, but she'd leave Kathy home alone with Fred. She'd get beaten
during those times, just like I had." Kathy tried to escape the
nightmare called 'home' at the Westboro Baptist Church at least three
times between the age of 17 and 18. Each time, the pastor found out
where she was living and led a Phelps' quick-reaction team to literally
snatch her away from her life and bring her back. In one incident, Kathy
was living in a quiet Topeka neighborhood and dating a boy Mark knew
from high school. "It was the summertime, about 6:30 in the evening,"
Nate recalls. "Her boyfriend pulled in to pick her up on a date. We'd
been waiting for her to come out of the house, and when she did, we just
swooped in. We had two cars. Mark was driving one and my dad the other.
It was real 'Starsky and Hutch'. We blocked off the departing vehicle,
and pulled her out of the car while her date just sat there stunned."
"At home my father beat her terribly," says Mark. "It was then she was
locked in her room for 40 days on nothing but water." Mark remembers one
of the 'parental intercessions' was actually a kidnapping: Kathy was 18
when it occurred. Though she eventually finished college and graduated
law school, according to some of her siblings, Kathy has yet to find
resolution to her anger and self- destruction. In recent years, she has
allowed her active status at the bar to lapse, waitressed at Topeka's
Ramada Inn, been laid off, gone of public assistance, and been convicted
on passing bad checks.
"My sister, Kathy...," reflects Mark, "...everything my father's
done to her...she's just been so deeply hurt as a human being, I don't
think she can cope out there..." Nate has one memory that sticks in his
mind. Once, while she was going to college and living in the compound,
Kathy went jogging late one night, as was her habit. But, this time, the
sight of a woman running through a darkened residential neighborhood
after 1 a.m. caught the attention of a patrol car. When the officer
tried to question her from the rolling vehicle, Kathy turned and ran the
other way. When he overtook her on foot, humped ahead of her and tried
to block her passage, she kept on him like a wild animal. Other officers
were called and Kathy fought them with the same grim ferocity. She was
finally subdued and arrested. When the case went to court, Nate was
there: "The judge asked why she fought when the officer tried to stop
her. She turned to him-and I was shocked by how hate was in her face-and
she almost spit out the words: 'I can't stand for a man to touch me!'"
Continues Nate: "That face full of hate I'll never forget. My sister was
very, very angry about something."
In high school, says Mark, "I couldn't grasp the concept of
career day." The only one he and his brothers and sisters were told they
could consider was the law. Says the pastor with a groan: "Hell, I think
everybody today should have a law degree. You need one to defend
yourself. Yeh, got to have one now or you can't take care of yourself or
Adds Mark: "His attitude was always that school was bullsh--,
but you had to get As and get out so you could have the law degree. With
that you could support and defend the church. "To say 'no' would have
been the same as drafting-dodging during WWII: it was every kid's duty
to enlist in the bar and protect our homeland against the evil that
threatened from without."
But Fred Jr. wanted to be a history teacher. "Ever since he'd
been a kid, he wanted to do that," Mark says. "At Washburn he was a
masterful history student. He wanted to teach it, and he held on to
that. He'd say: 'I have that right', and my dad would try to beat it out
of him. My father would make it clear to Fred Jr. that he wasn't going
to teach history. He'd yell: 'You guys are mine and you're never gonna
leave me!'" "Then always follow with: 'And you better start gettin' it
through your head right now!' "I can remember my father beating Fred
when he was 19 or 20 about that. I couldn't believe my brother would
even try to argue with him! My father wouldn't hear of it. Fred Jr. was
going to be a lawyer. "Eventually, I think, my brother's spirit was
broken and he became one. But it wasn't the beatings that caused him to
lose heart-it was Debbie Valgos." What follows may be the saddest tale
found during this investigation. It is a profound and tragic example of
the fruits of hatred when it is directed by the angry against the
innocent. Says Mark: "He was deeply in love with her, a girl from St.
Vincent's Orphanage several blocks from our house. They were just crazy
in love... "She was a free spirit. And a great looker. Noisy. Loud,
hearty laugh. She was very warm, and friendly, and loving."
"She was cute, thin, blonde, and sexy," laughs Nate. "That
name...," sighs one of the nuns from the orphanage, "is like a punch in
the stomach..." Debbie was not an orphan. She lived with her mother,
Della A., and her stepfather, Paul A., on Lincoln Street in Topeka.
When she was 11 years old, for reasons undisclosed, Debbie was
placed in St. Vincent's. She went to Capper Junior High and later
attended Topeka West High School. When she was 14, Debbie sent this poem
to her mom: I settled down west from town, though no one knew I was a
clown, My face was clean, and all around were children, though I heard
no sound. She signed it, 'Mom, I love you very much!' with seven
asterisks for emphasis. Bernadette, an older sister who still lives in
town recalls: "She sang. She had a beautiful voice. And she played the
guitar. She was a pretty little thing." Debbie's mom has an album of
photos taken by the nuns of her daughter while she lived at the
orphanage. Pictures of her as a cheerleader at Capper; smiling on a dock
at the Lake of the Ozarks with some other girls from St. Vincent's;
clutching her pom-poms, watching the players; pictures of her 15th
birthday party at the orphanage.
They met at the skating rink. Sometimes Fred and Mark would
trick their father. When he thought they'd gone out on their obligatory
10 mile run, instead they'd go skating. Or if they'd had a good night on
candy sales, Jonathon, Nate, Mark, and Fred would knock off early and
hit the rink before going home. "Debbie was a good skater," remembers
Mark. "She came to the rink with other kids from the orphanage. She
skated fast and reckless." The voice over the phone sounds as if it's
smiling at the memory. "At first my brother saw her secretly, during
stolen moments. Then he'd go by the orphanage when the four of us boys
were out selling candy."
Mark stops. "You should know, when I was 9 and Fred 10, we began
to hear degrading, insulting sermons from my father about how no good it
is for boys to have girl friends: "You'll meet a girl someday and she'll
start saying things like, "Aren't you cute; aren't you handsome;
ooooooh, you're really something", and like some kind of ignorant,
stupid lamb being led to slaughter, you'll fall for it, and the next
thing you know, she'll want to kiss you or some bullsh-- like that. I'm
telling you now, I'm not going to put up with it. If you think you're
going to have some whore coming around sniffing after you, you better
know right now that I'm not going to put up with it. You better start
gettin' it through your head right now. You just have to trust the Lord
to provide you a good woman who will subject herself to the authority of
the church...'" Mark clears his throat. "They met, I think, in the fall
of 1970. On the candy sales, Fred would drive and I'd ride shotgun, with
Jon and Nate in back. We'd pick Debbie up on the way out and she'd sit
between us. "When we got there, the rest of us would sell candy, and
Fred and Debbie would stay behind in the car. "Boy, did they kiss. Every
time was for the last time. Like Bogart and Bergman at the Paris train
"She was cute, but it wasn't only sexual. Those two were very,
very much in love. I was there. I saw it. I watched them
together-kissing, walking, being together. Fred and I shared the same
bedroom and I knew my brother. "It was obvious they were meant for each
other. That romance had so much voltage, it could have lit the city."
Fred and Debbie's special song was "Close to You", by the
Carpenters, but that didn't keep them from fighting. Says Mark: "Debbie
had a hot temper. She was very intense and dramatic. So they kissed and
fought, kissed and fought. But they loved each other terribly hard-none
of us doubted that." Debbie also got a kick out of hanging around with
all of Fred's brothers, remembers Mark. "She used to say it was her
instant family." Many of Debbie's teachers still remember her vividly.
And they remember her long-lasting romance with Fred Phelps. "She was
craving a family environment, with all the emotional outlet and loving
she imagined went with it," recalls one. "When she was dating Fred, she
thought she'd become an adjunct member of his family and she wanted to
be a part. When she thought she was, she was very happy."
"She was such a warm, sweet girl," remembers another, "it's
just a shame what happened to her." "In the car on candy sales and at
the skating rink was the only time they could see each other," says
Mark. Apparently Debbie was either narcoleptic or suffered from
"Periodically she'd pass out. I saw it happen 10 to 12 times.
Suddenly she'd stop talking and when you looked, she'd be limp, her head
back and eyes closed, though still breathing." Debbie told Fred what it
was, but Mark's brother never revealed it. After they'd been stealing
time together for several months, Fred Jr. somehow found the resources
to buy Debbie a gold band with a tiny diamond.
Mark remembers her showing it off proudly in the car that day.
Fred was 17, she was still 16. They began to talk of getting married.
"Before you jump to conclusions about another teenage marriage," Mark
observes, "remember my family didn't believe in dating around. We
believed God would send us our mates. That it would just happen one day,
and we would know it in our hearts. When it happened, that was
it-whether you were 16 or 66. "Of course, my dad thought he was the god
in charge of that. But I wouldn't assume Fred and Debbie's union would
have been another miscast teenage marriage-and therefore my dad was
right to do what he did." Why not?
"Because my wife of 17 years, and my best friend for 22, is the
same Luava Sundgren I met at the rink that May of '71. We've been
together since I was 16 and she, 13, and we're still totally nuts about
each other. "You see, I think God has a hand in these things. And maybe
it's naive of me, but I think all that we went through as kids made us a
lot wiser about people than most grownups."
Mark estimates the passionate romance was kept from their father
through the New Year of 1971. Sometime shortly after, however, the
Pastor Phelps caught wind of his son's happiness. "After that, my father
forbade Fred to see her. He tried everything to get Fred to stop."
Though Mark's brother was only a few months shy of 18, the
pastor regularly took the mattock to him to stop his 'slinkin' with that
whore'. In February of that year, Debbie left the orphanage and moved
back in with her mother and stepfather in the house on Lincoln Street.
The boys would swing by and pick her up there. Shortly after she
moved, Fred and Debbie moved again: they made their bid for a life
together free of their burdened pasts. They eloped. Mark remembers they
took one of the family cars, a '66 Impala wagon. "And I had a pair of
top-notch skates. They cost me a hundred bucks. I was a serious skater
back then, and I carried them around in a slick black case and felt very
professional. But my brother Fred took them along for gas money. He sold
them at a rink in Kansas City for ten bucks. Fred's next younger sibling
sighs. "I missed my skates, but I wasn't mad at him. Back then, we had
no sense of personal boundaries. If you needed something, you just took
it. Besides, I wanted them to get away." He laughs: "Just wish he'd
gotten more for those skates. Ten bucks was insulting." With a borrowed
car and a tank full of gas, the intrepid couple hit the great American
highways-though not with that era's open agenda of 'wherever you
go-there you are!' To Fred Jr., the available universe consisted of two
addresses and the highway that connected them. One was on 12th Street in
Topeka, the other was the home and church of Forrest Judd in
Indianapolis. "My dad and Judd met at a Bible conference. Forrest was a
Baptist preacher and they hit it off. They used to come to Topeka and
visit a lot. He and my dad were doctrinally alike, but Forrest was a
very different personality. He was a jolly fat Santa type of guy-a
factory worker and a really neat fella. He had three sons of his own,
but he'd become sort of a 'good' father figure to a lot of us kids.
"His church was the only one my dad approved of-and the reason
that was important to Fred Jr. is the same reason he's-they all-have
been unable to escape. "You see, no matter what differences we had with
him as the head of our house, none of us questioned his authority as
head of our church. It was a certified gathering of the elect, remember.
And the only way to get to heaven was to do that, to assemble with the
elect. "My dad interpreted that, and we accepted it, as membership in a
physical congregation certified by him as elect...The Place... "And
there was only one Place besides his-Forrest Judd's. "So my brother had
nowhere to run, you see. Not if he wanted to get to heaven. To a
believer, even the most wonderful love in this world isn't worth an
eternity in the fires of hell. "As long as we accepted my father had the
power to so that-send us all to hell-he had the trump card in any
showdown over our choices." After Judd and the Pastor Phelps conferred
by phone, the father figure convinced Fred Jr. there'd be no room on the
Indy bus to heaven. If he wanted to get there, he'd have to go back to
Kansas. A member of the staff at Topeka West remembers the pastor called
the school to rage at them, holding them responsible and threatening to
sue: "As I recall, the father stopped the marriage; and he was demanding
the school go and get them. He wanted returned separately so they
wouldn't 'fornicate' on the way home.
"School officials tried to point out to him that Fred and
Debbie were teenagers, and they'd been alone together for over a
week-the damage was done." From the moment the disappointed lovers
started down the road they had came, the clock began to tick toward
Back in Topeka, Debbie moved in with her mom again, and Fred
counted the weeks till his 18th birthday. Though his father did
everything in his power to separate them, "those afternoon candy
sessions went on just as they had before," says Mark. In May of 1971,
the pastor changed his strategy. It would be OK for Fred Jr. to see
Debbie, but only when she came to services on Sunday.
By this time, Mark had met his future spouse, also at the
skating rink, and Luava was convinced to come to church as well. "The
only way we could see his sons officially," says Luava, "was if we came
to his church for Sunday service. They had no social life; they weren't
allowed to date." So they came to service. Luava remembers that first
Sunday: "When I arrived, Debbie was already there, sitting in one of the
pews, waiting for it to begin. She looked back at me and smiled. I was
nervous and her warmth touched me. She was quite radiant and seemed very
happy that day." Luava fared better than Debbie under the pale-hearted
pastor's basilisk eye. She had long hair and was shy-a quality the
pastor mistook for subjection to her man.
"My father took an instant dislike to Debbie," Mark recalls.
"She had all her signals wrong: she had short hair; she was vivacious,
passionate, and fiery; she was direct; and she had an open, honest
laugh." That day, and forever after, the good pastor called her a
'whore' from the pulpit, in person, to Fred, and the family. "She didn't
argue," says Mark. "She looked shell-shocked. She started to cry, but
did it quietly. After the service, she disappeared. "After that, he
preached to Freddy she was a whore from pulpit every Sunday. "Then one
day," says Mark, "my father announced that the entire family was going
roller skating. Even mom. He said we'd have some 'fun' together."
The voice on the phone laughs. "It was a very peculiar
experience. You have to realize, in all the time we were growing up, our
family never did that. We never, not once, went on an outing together.
We'd go sell candy, or to run. but never to have fun. He never took us
to the zoo, the movies, out to eat, to the park, on a picnic, vacation,
Thanksgiving at the relatives, to see the fireworks on the Fourth of
July-none of these things.
"Now you can begin to understand what a selfish man our dad
was. We spent our entire childhoods and adolescence waiting on him and
working for him and getting beaten up by him. The idea of parenthood or
fatherhood is an alien concept to that man. "So we were suspicious when
he announced he was taking us all skating. Sure enough, it turned out
he'd caught wind of what was going on down at the rink." Fred and Mark
had made plans to meet Debbie and Luava there that day, and now the
pressure had the drop on them. Though she'd already been to services at
their church, Mark only nodded to Luava as if she were a passing
acquaintance. When the pastor made fun of her parents within earshot of
Luava, Mark felt forced to laugh.
Fred and Debbie skated together briefly, but they didn't hold
hands. Everyone was watching the good Pastor Phelps. Fred Sr. strapped
on a pair of skates and storked out on the floor looking like a new-born
calf on ice. "I wanted to show off for him," Mark recalls, "so I started
skating backwards and doing jumps when I knew he was watching. Do you
think he liked it? No way. My father went into a seething rage. He said
he could see I'd been spending all my goddam time down there, trying to
get my... wet. What a guy-by the way, both Luava and I were virgins
when we were married...five years after we met." Possibly due to the
stress of the unexpected confrontation, Debbie had another seizure. In a
gloomy portent of what was to come, none of the Phelps boys dared go to
her aid. She lay unconscious and abandoned by the good Christians of
Westboro Baptist before 13 year-old Luava noticed and rushed to her
side. At that, the pastor glared at Mark. "Someone should tell that girl
we don't associate with whores," he glowered. Then, as the steadfast
teenager revived her friend, Good Samaritan Phelps wobbled past on his
skates and muttered, "whore" at Debbie while she was recovering her
The charitable timing of his comment caused Fred Jr.'s girl to
burst into tears. Luava helped her off the floor and into the ladies'
room. "I don't know why Fred's old man hates me so much," Debbie sobbed.
"You're lucky that he likes you." Luava never forgot the bitterness of
those sobs: SOS from the threshold of a soul's despair. Debbie went to
services at the Westboro Church several times after that, and, each
time, she was called a whore from the pulpit. Then why did she go? "The
hope of having Fred Jr. was greater than the pain of his father's
words," says Mark. "She even came over once and asked my father what it
was he wanted her to be. He told her she'd have to get an education and
amount to something if she wanted his son. That she'd have to go to
college and law school first, and, while she was doing it, she'd have to
stay away from Fred Jr. 'But right now,' he told her, 'you're just a
whore'. "Debbie said she could do it-she just needed a chance to prove
it. I remember my father laughed in her face and said she'd always be a
whore. "Another time, Debbie had been riding along with us on the candy
sales, and afterward she and Fred intended to sneak out to a movie. Fred
Jr. asked her to wait in the candy room while he changed clothes. You
see, my dad never went in there." The pastor chose that time to fly into
one of his rages with Fred Jr.
"Of course, whenever my father started beating someone, the
rest of the kids would run into the candy room. It was sort of our bomb
shelter. They'd be pacing nervously, waiting for it to end, like a herd
of cows from the candy boxes to the laundry dryers and back. "My father
was beating on Fred and screaming things like, 'You son-of-a-bitch! You
got your... wet! And now you're sniffin' after that whore!' It made
them both feel dirty for what was really the best thing that had
happened to them so far in their lives-their first love. "Debbie got
hysterical when she heard those things. She ran out crying." Mark
pauses. "And we were very nervous because she wasn't supposed to be in
there. I remember several of us followed her out to ensure she didn't
make a scene. That's where we were back then: nothing mattered except
keeping my dad cooled off.
"Outside in the street, Debbie was crying her heart out. She
kept asking, 'why does he say those things about me?'" Mark isn't sure
of the timing, but he believes shortly after is when Fred, how 18,
decided to move out. The pastor vehemently opposed it, but Fred stood up
Finally they compromised: the son would go and live with one of
his father's business associates. Bob Martin was a retired army officer
who ran Bo-Mar Investigations, a private detective agency. After Fred,
Jr. had been staying with Martin for a week in his house, Mark remembers
his father got a phone call. It was Martin.
"Let's go," said the pastor to Mark, who'd become the squad
leader in his father's schemes. While they drove to the detective's
place, the pastor explained the plan he and Martin had for Fred Jr.:
wait till he was in the shower and then confront him; a naked man feels
vulnerable and powerless.
Mark's father told him Fred Jr. had just come in from work and
gone into the bathroom. "When he comes out, we'll be waiting," chuckled
the guardian of one of the two portals to the Kingdom of Heaven. And so
they were. As Fred Jr. came out, towel around his waist, he was
confronted by his father, by Mark, and a suddenly hostile Bob Martin.
"Get your clothes! You're going home!" snapped the pastor. The
eldest son complied without argument. "The next part I'll never forget,"
says Mark. "When we got out to the car, I was in the back, my father was
behind the wheel, and Fred was in the front passenger seat. Bob had
followed us and he opened the door on my brother's side. "Through the
space between the front seat and the door, I could see him place a
revolver against my brother's knee. And he said: "If you run away again,
I have orders to come after you. And when I catch you, I'm going to
shoot you right here." At the time, 'knee-capping' had spread to the
United States from Italy and France as the preferred punishment in
underworld circles. It left its victim crippled for life. This article
does not imply Fred Phelps Sr. has underworld ties. It only remarks that
anyone who dresses badly, who lives handsomely off the work of urchins
hustling in the streets, who disciplines subordinates by beating them
senseless, who fosters filiar piety by threats of knee-capping, who
knocks his wife around regularly, who surrounds himself with lawyers,
and who is apparently beyond the long arm of the law could have made a
very respectable gangster. Certainly not a pastor. Fred Jr. enrolled at
Washburn University that fall and Debbie returned to Topeka West. Though
the pastor had forbidden them to see each other outside church, they
continued to do so.
"My brother was struggling with his love for Debbie and his
very real fear of hell. A lot of non-Christians might find that hard to
believe. But if you grew up with your imagination open to Fred Phelps,
believe me, hell was a concrete reality." The battle inside Fred Jr.
would last until the following spring, but the war had been lost when he
turned back from Indiana.
In late September, Debbie dropped out of high school and moved
in with girlfriends at a house on Central Park Avenue. It was just a few
blocks from the Washburn campus. "We went there a lot when we were out
selling candy," says Mark. "That lasted into December, probably, because
I remember being there when it was very cold and we were wearing winter
But the pastor was relentless. And not only with the mattock.
"He knew Fred Jr. was still seeing Debbie, and he hit heavy, heavy on
him from the Bible. From things they said, I think my brother and Debbie
had probably become lovers at some time in the relationship, and I'm
sure Fred Jr. felt guilty about that.
"So, he was vulnerable to my father's framing of the situation
as 'Debbie the Whore...the Agent of Satan sent to lure him into
temptation and directly down into the gaping jaws of hell'." Says Mark:
"He'd spend time with her, then try to avoid her. In addition to the
guilt he was getting some pretty bad beatings. While Fred Jr. drifted in
fear, Debbie fought to hand on to the man she cherished and the only
person who'd ever cherished her. Margie Phelps remembers Debbie would
wait for her brother outside after his classes on the Washburn campus.
She would beg him to come back to her in Play-Misty-for-Me scenarios,
where a mentally ill woman stalks her former lover. "If she did do
that," says Luava, "it was in hurt and frustration that he would betray
the love we all knew he felt." "And, besides, it always worked," Mark
adds. "He always went back to her, at least while he was at Washburn."
"I don't think he ever stopped loving her," agrees Luava. "He was just
more scared of hell than he was of losing her."
Sometimes in December, 1971, events turned murky, fast. and
fatal. Apparently willing now to give Debbie up, but afraid he wouldn't
be able to do it while they lived in the same town, and also furious at
his father for forcing him to leave her, Fred Jr. ran away again,
despite Bob Martin's threat to find him and kneecap him if he did so.
From late December till mid-February, the following events are known:
Fred Jr. disappeared and no one in the family knew his
whereabouts. One night in January, shortly after Nate and Jonathon had
been shaved and beaten and the school had notified the police, Fred Jr.
stopped by the house without his father knowing. Nate remembers he asked
to see their heads and then commiserated with them about their
embarrassment at the police station.
About the same time, Luava's father saw Fred Jr. at a Washburn
basketball game. He had a K-State jacket and a rash on both arms. The
other man became concerned about Fred's welfare, and, with nothing to go
on but the jacket and the rash, he was able to track the troubled youth
down working at a produce business in Manhattan, where the state college
Fred Jr. turned down all offers of money or help. At the time,
he was living in the basement of a young married couple. Whether Debbie
visited him or even joined him up there is unknown. What is known us
that, on Valentine's Day, Fred Jr. showed up in Topeka with a new girl
for his father to meet.
"Betty," says Mark, "was a lot closer to what my father
demanded. She was another Luava-or at least who my dad originally
thought Luava was- she had long hair, and she was very quiet and
submissive. She had also been raised Methodist. A lot of Baptists
started out as Methodists, you know. "Debbie...was a Catholic."
A few weeks after Valentine's, Debbie came to see her mom. Della
A. remembers they went for a walk in the small park near where Debbie
had lived with her friends. Her daughter's spirits were very low, she
recalls. Debbie confessed Fred had given her an engagement ring and they
had eloped, but that Fred's dad had made them come back. She admitted
bitterly that his father had told her she wasn't good enough for his
son, and the younger Phelps had been forced to obey him. "Now Fred's
found another girl," she told her mother. As they walked, Della
remembers her daughter took off the ring and threw it in the bushes.
"He's never going to marry me, Mama," she said, "but I know I'll never
love anyone else."
The mother says she tried to cheer her up, and later, thinking
Debbie might regret it, she returned to search for the ring in the
grass. She never found it, and even if she had, Debbie never would have
received it. The mother and daughter's walk in the park that afternoon
would be their last time together. The remainder of Debbie's hopeful
life can be found, not in the memories of those who knew her, but in the
dusty, impersonal files of the U.S. Army Intelligence Criminal
Investigations Division. After seeing her mother that day, Debbie went
up to Junction City, an army town that served nearby Ft. Riley. It was
also only a 20 minute drive from Manhattan, where Fred was living.
Whether they saw each other during that time is not known. From the part
of her life that has been documented in the Army's investigation of her
death, it seems unlikely. During her final days, Debbie Valgos touched a
match to her longing soul. She flamed up in a white-hot blaze of
self-directed violence, anonymous sex, amphetamines, heroin, and rock
and roll. All the things Pastor Phelps said she was, she'd be.
She moved in with a soldier. She shot smack. She partied for
days without sleep. The speed she was constantly on burned through her
body till she'd gone from 130 to 87 pounds. In less than a month the
5'7" girl had become a walking corpse with the wide, burning eyes of the
starved. Perhaps that is when her face could at last reflect her heart:
faltering into despair after a lifetime without sustenance.
Because the effect was so striking, Debbie's new acquaintance
nicknamed here 'Eyes'. But 'Eyes' had stared into her abyss, and she
knew. At the end of all worlds. Was a single lost soul. The last days of
Debbie Valgos' life, those few weeks in Junction City, were one long
suicide...a death dance through the Army bars...a soul signing off. When
she lost Fred Phelps, Debbie must have felt she had forever lost her
way...that she was never coming back...and so she touched a match to her
despair. Her new friends told CID agents she had tried to commit suicide
four times in the weeks prior to her death: by jumping out a window,
rolling off a roof; and twice by drug overdose.
Each time they had stopped her or brought her through it. The
came the night of April 17, 1972. Debbie was in the Blue Light, a
soldier's bar. Though she had a soldier waiting at home, that hardly
mattered. She let two more pick her up. When they invited her back to
their barracks to 'party', she said 'yes'.
As they left, a girl who lived in Debbie's house insisted that
she come along. She'd been there during Debbie's earlier attempted
suicides, and she worried that the frail runaway might try it again.
They were spirited past the gates of the fort, hiding on the floor of
the car. The soldiers parked in an alley and had the girls crawl through
a window into their barracks room. Once inside, one of them offered
Debbie some speed. It was a bottle of crushed mini-bennies, according to
CID reports. Debbie took it, and the soldier turned to put on a record.
When she gave it back, the boy was amazed. "You took way too much!" he
said. "You'll be up three or four days!"
Debbie only smiled at him. What might have been a four-day
problem for a 180 pound man, Debbie undoubtedly hoped would solve all
her problems at 87 pounds, less than half the other's body weight.
Shortly after, "Eye started to have a 'body trip'," states the girl who
had accompanied her. "She shut her eyes and just started moving with the
music. She did that for awhile and then she started to act dingy. She
called me over and said she felt like little needles were poking her all
over her whole body and she was tingling. I told her I would stay with
her and not to make any noise in the barracks." When Debbie started
rolling around on the floor and mumbling, her friend worried she might
hurt herself, and so she sat on her.
The other girl, who apparently was quite obese, continued
drinking and talking while she kept Debbie pinned beneath her. The party
went on. Debbie was babbling incoherently. After almost another hour,
everyone became alarmed at Eye's grotesque physical contortions. They
pulled her back through the window, loaded her in the car, and smuggled
her off base. Returning to her new boyfriend's house, they woke him and
ran the tub full of cold water. By then, Debbie had passed into coma.
She would not be taken to Irwin Army Hospital At Ft. Riley until 5 a.m.,
nearly five hours after she'd ingested almost half a bottle of crushed
benzedrine. Debbie lasted 20 hours unconscious in ICU, just long enough
for her sister, Bernadette, to find her. At 1 a.m., her heart stopped.
Her spirit had flamed up and was gone. She was 17. She was sunny and
loving and only wanted to be loved. After all she'd been through, Debbie
Valgos thought she'd found safe haven with the family Phelps. She died
for her mistake. In that spring of 1972, one of the Top 40 songs playing
on the rock and roll radios Debbie no doubt listened to while riding her
dark current of heroin, amphetamines, and despair was a tribute to Janis
Joplin, sung by Joan Baez: "She once walked right by my side I know she
walked by yours, Her striding steps could not deny Torment from a child
who knew, That in the quiet morning There would be despair, And in the
hours that followed No one could repair... That poor girl... Barely here
to tell her tale, Rode in on a tide of misfortune Rode out on a mainline
rail... But the Pastor Phelps, devotee of a hateful god, had made up a
song of his own: "I remember getting home from school the day it
appeared in the papers," says Mark, "and my dad came dancing down the
stairs, swaying from the knees and clapping his hands, singing: 'The
whore is dead! The whore is dead!' "He paraded around the house, singing
and laughing with that maniacal giggle he has, 'the whore is dead!'"
Mark pauses to let the horror of the scene settle in. One is reminded of
the warning from the first epistle of John: "He who has no love for the
brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen..." Margie
Phelps remembers shortly after Debbie's death Fred Jr. came to visit
their mom secretly. Margie says she didn't know he was in the house. She
came into a room inadvertently and saw Fred Jr. and her mother sitting
in chairs, facing each other. The eldest son had his head in her lap and
she was stroking his hair.
"Fred was crying," says Margie. "I heard afterward it was for
Debbie." "There's no question that my brother wanted to spend his life
with Debbie," says Mark. "She was who he loved. And I knew her well
enough to say my brother was the first light of hope she'd had in her
life. When he left her, that light went out."
The phone voices, bouncing along microwave relays from
California, cease. The ghostly dishes wait, sentinels in the wheat
fields, the mountain passes, the desert, and the ancient western forests
beyond. "We think of Debbie sometimes," says Luava softly. "We know Fred
does too." "She'd had a hard life before, but all she really needed was
someone who would value her," Mark observes. "If my dad had allowed
that, Debbie and Fred would have really blossomed. "You know in Matthew
12:20? Where Jesus says, 'the bruised reed I will not break; the
flickering candle I won't snuff out; instead I will be your hope'? With
the evil and the hurt he's caused during his life, my father has no
right to the name of 'pastor'-nevermind 'guardian of The Place."
Della A. is more direct. She has a message for the pastor: "You
tell Fred Phelps I'll wait in hell for him." Margie remembers Debbie's
sister, Bernadette, knocked on their door one day. "She went on about
how we were responsible for Debbie's death." Bernadette admits doing
that. "I do blame them," she says. "My sister had a tough enough time
without those people. If she hadn't met them, she'd probably be alive
today." "We thought she was really coming along," reflects a former
staff member at Topeka West. "Of all the kids there who had difficult
backgrounds to overcome, we felt sure she'd be one of those who would."
No one who knew her has forgotten her. Not the sisters at St. Vincent's,
not her teachers, not even her dentist when she was a child. "I was just
thinking of her," admitted one. You were? Why? "Oh...your thoughts
return to someone like that...so young and full of promise...a really
sweet girl...and then to die before her life ever had a chance to
start...yes...Debbie comes to mind from time to time." "Valgos?" Fred
Jr.'s voice sounds eerie and distant over the phone. "That name isn't
familiar." Silence. "But then I had lots of girlfriends. At least five
or six in high school."
No one else remembers that. "Oh...oh, I remember now. The little
girl at the orphanage?" Two years later, Fred Jr. married Betty, the
woman he'd brought home that Valentine's Day. Betty was approved by his
She was the second woman he'd ever dated. For the moment, this
article shall abandon cynicism and consider beginner's luck in the
search for mates. After all, Mark Phelps is quite happy with his first
date of 22 years ago. So is Luava. And, if Fred Jr. and Debbie were
destined for each other, what happy chance they met on his first date.
However, the odds that Fred would then meet Miss Right directly after he
met Debbie begin to gnaw at the suspension of disbelief in this fire and
brimstone fiction of predestined characters. "I think not being able to
have Debbie, and her committing suicide, I think that just broke my
brother," observes Mark. "After that, he submitted totally. He'd lost
his thrill for life. He went to law school, like his dad wanted; he
married a girl his dad approved; and he shouldered a role in The Place.
"And that's where he is today. He just turned 40." Betty was a music
major at K-State when she met Fred Jr. She had perfect pitch and played
between eight and ten instruments. However, she transferred to Washburn
for her last two years of college, and went to law school on command.
Mark remembers a time in 1973, when Betty was visiting Fred Jr. in the
kitchen and the pastor started beating Nate savagely with the mattock in
an adjoining room. Betty had been eating a cantaloupe and she shoved her
spoon all the way through it and screamed: Stop it!" Says Mark: "The old
man came in from the church where he'd been beating Nate, and he said to
Betty: 'You got a problem with this?' Then he turned to Fred Jr.: "If
that girl has a problem with this, then I'm not going to put up with it!
You better get her under subjection, or you're not gonna be marryin'
In one of his fax missives, the pastor has stated: "Wives who
have strayed too far traditional family values of home and children need
to be whipped into godly obedience. Sparing the rod and sparing either
the children or the women is a strategy that fundamentalist Christians
reject. Complacency and misplaced 'equality' notions produce tormented,
social misfits like (here Phelps names several female city officials)
who are hormonally and intellectually incapable of rational thought.
Like the termite, these so-called modern ideas promulgated by Satan's
servants are destroying the studs of the family unit." Nate remembers:
"Betty was put in her place, both by the old man and Freddy. And she was
the butt of numerous comments from the pulpit over the following months
until she finally displayed the 'proper spirit of obedience'.
Luava recalls that, some time after Debbie's death, Betty and
she were talking when suddenly Fred's new girl started crying. "He still
carries her picture in his wallet," she sobbed. "He's in love with a
dead girl." The Phelps family forbade reporters from asking Fred Jr.
about Debbie Valgos during interviews, and threatened to sue the paper
if it printed the story of the couple's broken dreams.
"That child was very precious to us," says the former director
of St. Vincent's, Sister Frances Russell, who refused to give an
interview, "and all my instincts are to protect her-even in death."
Sister Therese Bangert came to the orphanage the year after Debbie died,
"so I didn't know her," she says. "But I remember her because of the
impact her death had on everyone who was there. Even today, mentioned
the name of Debbie Valgos around some of the sisters would be like
knocking the wind out of them." Just as he threatened to shove the blind
runner off the track when the old man was in his way, charitable Fred
Phelps toppled Debbie Valgos into her abyss when she threatened to lure
one of his Chosen from The Place. "He was scared of her He knew she'd
take Fred Jr. from him," says Mark. "My father saw Debbie's weak
spot-her self-esteem-and he did everything in his power to drive a sword
through it...right into her heart. "Debbie didn't hate life like my
father. She loved it. He knew she'd never fit in there. Eventually she'd
leave and pull Freddy with her." The pastor's second son adds: "If,
during the course of your investigation, you'd discovered my father had
something to do with Debbie's death, I would not have been surprised.
That's how far I think he was willing to go to keep us on as adult
servants to his ego." This chapter focused on the torture, kidnapping,
and later troubles of Kathy Phelps and the tragedy of Fred Jr. and
Debbie Valgos because these facts provide a clear insight into the
horror coming of age held in the house of the good pastor Phelps. It has
been an inquiry into a man who gathers a following wherever souls are
writhing in agony from the evil done to them. It is a look behind the
veil of a false prophet who, with investigation, appears more and more
as a new type of serial killer: Pastor Phelps is too clever, too
cowardly, and too lawyerly to kill the bodies. His life is a trail of
murdered souls. And his worst victims have been his own family.
No man or woman living on the Phelps block has been allowed to
become the plant foreshadowed by the seed. This chapter has revealed the
betrayal and murder of three spirits by Phelps, would-be prophet of the
subdivided prairie, hopeful John Brown of religious radio.
Kathy Phelps' life remains at the level of subsistence and self-
destruction. Her brother, Nate, has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic
Stress Disorder. It is quite likely that Kathy suffers from it also.
Today, but for the statute of limitations, the brutal beatings and
torture this pretty teenager experienced would bring a long jail
sentence to their perpetrator.
Fred Jr. never became a history teacher. Recently, he left the
law profession and works for the Kansas Department of Corrections.
Debbie Valgos died of a broken heart. A quick survey of the curricula
vitae of the Phelps children shows his astonishing success in their
conforming to his wishes. In fact, the Phelps Plan because a sausage
factory for loyal and legal support of one man's ambitions: *Of the 13
children, 11 got law degrees-nine of those from Washburn University *Of
the nine loyal offspring and four approved spouses, all but one took law
degrees; eight have undergraduate degrees in Corrections or Criminal
Justice. One can only wonder why the pandemic fascination for prison
among the Phelps loyalists. For the nine kids who stayed with Fred, God
provided only three spouses from within the church. Fred Jr. and brother
Jonathon had to provide for themselves. They became Westboro outlaws to
find mates among the damned.
When they eventually returned to the fold, these 'tainted women'
were only accepted after a long probation and apprenticeship at being a
wife- in-subjection. Six of the Phelps daughters remain the compound.
Two of the, were betrothed to Chosen already residing in The Place. The
rest grow old. Perhaps bitter. Alternately resentful and desperately
dependent on the one man in their life. To chronicle the failures of
others among the loyal Phelps children in their youthful attempts to
escape over the wall of their father's fear and ego is to compose a
litany of unhappy and sordid tales, ones that would burn the ears of the
listener. "You know she's admitted she's a whore," says Phelps of
Shawnee County D.A., Joan Hamilton. "She hasn't admitted she's a whore,"
replies ABC's John Stossell. They're taping for 20/20: "She admitted she
had a one night stand." "Then, if you believe the Bible, she's a whore,"
insists Phelps. "Shackin' up with some guy one night or a thousand
nights, she meets the Bible definition of a depraved, adulterous,
Pastor Phelps would be wise to take a quick poll of the home
team, especially his daughters. He might find his glass house full of
mischief. The misadventures of the clan Phelps can be pursued into
allegations of adultery, fornication, illegitimacy, and abortion without
fear of libel.
However, since it is also the thesis of this article that his
children are actually the principal victims of Pastor Phelps, it is not
appropriate to expose the rest of these embarrassing stories in detail.
Despite their strident condemnation of others' equal and lesser sins, it
will suffice to point out the foibles of his children would make as
interesting reading for the pastor's fax gossip as anything he's
printed. If those without sin shall toss the first stones, the grim clan
Westboro will have to keep a tight grip on theirs. With his
private genetic following, Pastor Phelps has found a world perhaps he's
always sought. One where they care for him and do his bidding and never
leave him. To make that happen required the promise of their youth be
devoted to the unsettled scores of his past. Fred Phelps crushed the
innocence and joy, the dreams of all but three of his children. His
reputation as a civil rights advocate is perhaps ironic. The pastor's
chains are subtle, but stronger than the iron ones worn by the ancestors
of those he often brags he's helped free. The children who were raised
in the nightmare of 12th Street carry their shackles in their hearts. It
is their fear of their father's key to hell, and their view that the
world is hateful and hates them, that, like the elephants in India,
keeps them serving the will of a man who, by now they must realize, is
much smaller than themselves. The vulnerable pastor hoards his hell-
stunned flock close around his own flickering candle. He pulls them like
a threadbare cloak about his old wounds, huddling against the cutting
hawk of a cold soul wind blowing from somewhere out of his past.
Sitting in her mother's house, the sinking afternoon sun pours
through the screen door, casting its soft gold across the widow's
tattered carpet. Della A. offers, a little reluctantly and her eyes
bright with guilt, the last moments of her daughter: a First Communion
veil; a dried corsage from an Easter Sunday get-to-together, and the
photo album Debbie kept at the orphanage. On its cover, printed in the
awkward, block letters of a bruised but hopeful new reed, a flickering
candle not yet quenched, are the words:
I LOVE FRED PHELPS
"Debbie Valgos was a whore extraordinaire," snaps Margie. But
the father's words sound empty and formulaic on the daughter's tongue.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"Over the Wall at Westboro"
Listening to Fred Jr. pretend he doesn't remember a girl named
Debbie Valgos is an eerie experience. It's as if one were listening to a
teenager deny he borrowed the car while his parents were gone. "They're
all still children," observes Mark. "Still trying to please their father
because they're afraid of him." What are they afraid of?
"They've been conditioned all their lives to cringe at his
anger or disapproval. Even now, with families of their own, they'll
conform. In fact, a lot of what your article reveals about my siblings
that my dad didn't know-my sisters taking lovers, the details of Debbie
and Fred, and Jonathon stealing on candy sales-my brothers and sisters
are going to panic at that. Even today, they're still frightened of his
Research indicates that three out of four children in criminally
abusive families will be unable to surmount their experience. As adults,
they will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior as the
norm in both the outside world and their personal lives. As adults, they
will rationalize their past and will accept abusive behavior as the norm
in both the outside world and their personal lives.
It is instructive that nine of the 13 Phelps children, almost
exactly the predicted ratio, continue to embrace the pastor's abusive
world and ways. But this chapter is not about the ones who tried to
climb their father's barrier and slipped back. It's about two who made
it over the wall at Westboro; who went on to lives that are beacons of
hope to others who have survived abusive families.
Mark Phelps might be his father's pointman today but for a
pretty 13 year-old named Luava Sundgren. In May of 1971, a few months
after Fred and Debbie had been dragged back from their aborted
elopement, Fred and Mark met Debbie at the skating rink. His brother and
Debbie paired off, and Mark remembers he was rolling along alone on his
rented skates, wishing for his hundred dollar pros his brother had sold,
when suddenly a petite girl, slim and shapely, with long dark hair
hanging halfway down her back sailed by, fixed her beautiful blue eyes
on him, and smiled. "You're a good skater," she said. And she pulled
Mark's heart right off his sleeve. He was only 16, and she, 13, but for
Mark the search for his life's mate was over. Only two months after
rescuing his eldest for the moment from the charms of the
'whore-extraordinaire', the Pastor Phelps found another wily ally of the
serpent threatening his second son. Except this girl was no fragile
psyche, vulnerable and clueless, as Debbie Valgos would be. Raised
Catholic, Debbie had no criteria by which to identify Protestant
heresies, and, coming from a broken home, she had no expectations of
esteem or consideration from the outside world. Luava Sundgren came from
a conservative Lutheran family firmly grounded in unconditional love.
"Even as a young teenager," says Mark, "my wife had high self-esteem and
a very clear idea of right from wrong. Her parents were as firm about
their god of love and their love for her as my father was about his
hateful god and his hate for all." The pastor had met his match. This
girl, though slight and shy, was not going to accept the pastor's
interpretation of the Bible as his personal myth; nor would she take to
being called a 'whore'. But, at first, things went well between the two.
A few weeks after the teenage couple had met to skate again and
Mark had been calling her secretly by phone, Luava came to church. It
was on that Sunday in early June that Debbie first came as well. Things
went better for Luava because the pastor believed her long hair showed
her subjection to God and man. And her naturally shy and quiet way
belied the stout heart within her.
If his boys had to have mates, here was a good example of the
kind of girl Fred Phelps wanted to see joining his church. Not the
sassy, rebellious, Catholic, blonde sex-rocket with the page boy cut
Fred Jr. had brought home. In high school, the disfavor of their family
name, combined with the pastor's refusal to allow his children any
participation in extracurricular activities, assured the Phelps kids
were the pariahs of Topeka West. Across town under the gothic vaults of
Topeka High, Luava was quite the opposite. She had many friends and
became one of the school's cheerleaders. It was a mystery to everyone
why she insisted on dating a member of the Addams family over on 12th
Street. Luava remembers the curious questions and the biting comments
So why did she? She laughs: "At first? Because he was a good
skater, and he was cute-but remember, I was only 13. That's what 13
year-olds notice. Later, it's not so important if they skate or not-"
she laughs again. "Seriously though, he had so much energy and he was
very smart and he was really sweet to me. What chance did I have? Even
my dad told me I wouldn't find a better one!" Because she was just 13,
Luava's parents at first would only allow Mark to visit her at their
home. He would sneak out whenever he could, or drop by while on candy
sales. After a year and a half, her father agreed to let them date. He
even offered to give Mark enough for dinner and a movie out. (Luava had
been attending services every Sunday at the pastor's lonely keep, and
she had invited her parents several times-enough for her dad to feel
sorry for Mark.) The Pastor Phelps knew nothing about Mark's home
courting advantage, nor the teenager's plans to date. Mark refused Mr.
Sundgren's offer to pay for their date and instead found a weekend job
as a busboy in a steakhouse. That lasted one shift. His father found out
about Mark's endeavor to expand his independence and promptly beat him.
After, he forced Mark to quit the job and forbade him to take another.
As was shown in Chapter Five, it wasn't his son's study hours the pastor
was concerned about; rather, any time spent working elsewhere was time
one could be working for 'The Place'.
So, Mark had to shave a dollar here and there off his candy
sales and summer yard work to court Luava. When his dad shut himself in
the master bedroom for days, eating and watching television, Mark would
sneak the car for a few hours and take Luava to a movie or dinner at a
fast food restaurant. Once, they were in the Taco-Tico at 15th and Lane
around 9 p.m. when the place was robbed. Two men ski masks came in, and
the young teenagers ducked under the table. "After the hold-up," says
Mark, with Luava laughing in the background, "we ran out too. We didn't
want our names involved as witnesses because my dad would have heard
about it and the jig would have been up-my secret life of dating."
Luava is still laughing. "Trouble was, after we hit the sidewalk
running, only then did it occur to us everyone would think we were the
ones who'd just robbed Taco-Tico." Despite Luava's quiet demeanor and
biblical mane, Mark soon realized she was not plugged in to the world
according to Fred.
For example, one day after Debbie had died, Mark, Nate, and
Jonathon were out in the car selling candy. After his older brother's
habit, Mark had brought Luava along with them, and they sat and smooched
while the two younger boys worked in the neighborhood. When Nate came
back to report scant sales for that day, Mark gave the command by
reflex: "Chin- chin!" And Nate put his chin on the back of the front
With Luava sitting beside him, Mark punched his little brother
painfully in the face. In equal reflex, one from another moral world,
Luava immediately slapped her boyfriend hard enough to bring stars. "Why
did you..." he asked in stunned bewilderment.
"Why did you do that?" she demanded. Soon the esteem Mark had
for this petite firecracker-five-two, eyes of blue, and with a fist like
his father-caused him to begin opening his heart to her radically
different view of human relationships. For several years before he met
Luava, Mark had been his father's assistant master-at-arms: when there
was a whipping due one of his siblings, sometimes the pastor would order
Mark to do it. "At first I thought it was a great idea," says Nate, who
received most of his elder brother's ministrations, "because he didn't
have my father's violent spirit when he swung the mattock. However, that
was short-lived. After a few less than satisfactory beatings-from my
father's viewpoint-he threatened to beat Mark instead. Suffice it to say
that afterwards I couldn't tell the difference between one of my dad's
and one of my brother's beatings-except maybe in their angle of attack."
"My dad would tell me to do it," agrees Mark, "and then he'd go upstairs
and yell down to us in the church: 'If I don't hear it up here, it's you
who'll get the beating!'" Now, however, confused by his new feelings for
this remarkable girl, Mark began to slam the mattock onto the pew
cushions instead. "It sounded exactly the same as it did when I hot
Nate," he recalls, with what must be a smile at his end of the line.
"And Nate would just howl in pain every time I hit the pew. It worked
perfectly. "But it wasn't until Luava that it would have ever occurred
to me to do that. I've been told children from abusive homes never
Boy, that was us. It was survival...period. Save yourself.
"Remember how I said I felt when Mom used to drive off with everyone in
the car, and Nate would get left behind, running alongside my window,
begging not to be left alone with my dad? I literally could not feel for
him. I didn't even know how to consider what he might be going through.
I was just glad I was getting out, and that was all that mattered.
"But, after I'd been around Luava, what was going on inside
other people suddenly started to matter. I guess you could say she
kissed me and changed me from the frightened little frog my father had
made me..." They laugh. "But after I fell in love with her, it made me
want to care about others."
Little wonder Mark's wife is Nate's favorite sister-in-law
still today. Though Luava refused to join the pastor's church, she
continued to attend Sunday services there for nearly two years. "I knew
if I didn't, Mark's father would make it even harder, if not impossible
for me to see him," she says.
"During that time, I learned things about Fred Sr. I didn't
like." Such as? "That God hates. It seemed to me he was putting his own
words in God's mouth. I mean, Mark's father was a pretty disturbed guy.
I could see that and I was only 15. It's just sad he didn't have the
self- knowledge to leave religion out of it and get some help. "Also I
didn't like his attitude toward family. His belief in beating children
and that women were servants to men. As a future wife and mother, that
left me little motivation to join his claustrophobic community." Toward
the end of Luava's two-year ceasefire with the pale-hearted pastor, she
arrived for services early one Sunday-too early. Kathy Phelps was
getting beaten with a mattock upstairs. In shock, Mark's girl listened
to his sister's screams of pain and sobbing pleas for the good minister
to stop. He didn't. Luava turned on her heel and walked out. Shirley
Phelps, who always wept hysterically whenever her father went into his
whipping mode, ran after Luava. At the door she grabbed her arm.
"Please...please...," she sobbed. "He doesn't mean it...he
doesn't know what he's doing..." Mark, who was there, remembers Luava
"stopped and looked Shirl dead in the eye. 'No, Shirl,' she said,
'you're wrong. He does mean it.' And she left." Shortly after, the
pastor decided to dish Luava some of the abuse he'd used on Debbie
Valgos. Following Sunday services, while Luava waited within earshot in
the church, the pastor collared Mark for a 'talk' in the law offices
adjoining. "He was punching and kicking me," remembers Mark. "And
yelling in crude anatomical detail everything he said he bet I was doing
to her when we were alone. He knew she would hear, that's why he did
And that was Luava's last Sunday at the Westboro Church. She
walked out and down to the shopping center on Gage Boulevard where she
called her father to come pick her up. When she told Mark it was over,
Luava says she never asked him to leave the church. She didn't believe
he could. She knew he had been taught that, if he left, he would be
taken by God during the first night while he slept and that he would
wake up in hell.
Mark, for his part, was in despair. The 19 year-old flung
himself face down in Luava's yard and cried. And there he remained for
two hours, embarrassing her parents in front of the neighbors. Luava's
dad even came to her and told her, "I didn't realize you were so
Such emotional firmness in a 16 year-old was remarkable. But
Luava didn't know what else to do. She had no intention of joining the
Westboro family cult and raising children in that kind of environment,
she says. And she Mark wouldn't leave. Meanwhile, one can only imagine
the kind of talk this generated among the deeper keels in Luava's
cheerleading set. She was certainly a girl with a foot in both worlds.
After the break-up, reportedly neither Mark nor Luava slept or
ate for days. "I walked around in a fog," says Mark. Then he found out
he would get a 'B' instead of an 'A' in one of his courses at Washburn.
"That meant I was in for more trouble," he adds. "Somehow, the idea my
father might now hurt my body after making my heart so miserable...it
just seemed insane and ridiculous...and if all this misery was to please
God, I was beginning to think it was awfully mean and petty for a Being
that had created such a majestic universe... "And that's when I began to
hope Luava might be right. That God was a loving God, and not full of
hate like my father...and that if He was made of love...then he wouldn't
send me to hell for loving her so much, would He? "So I did it. "I just
grabbed some clothes and went to a friend's house. He'd told me if I
ever wanted to leave, I'd be welcome to stay with his family the first
few days. I just showed up on their doorstep and they took me in."
Mark pauses. "It might seem funny now, but those were the most
terrifying hours of my life. I lay awake most of the night in their
guest room, in cold, absolutely cold terror. Waiting for God to take me.
Afraid if I fell asleep, I'd wake up in hell. Literally. The ultimate
nightmare. "But I didn't. I woke up in the same bed the next morning. It
was then I realized God might be nicer and the world bigger than my
father had taught." Mark landed on his feet, renting a room from a
retired couple and working, first as a busboy, then as a salesman in a
downtown shoestore. He and Luava were re-united, dating on weekend and
talking every night on the phone.
However, Mark was in a serious car accident six weeks later and
miraculously escaped injury. "That shook me up," he says. "I thought God
was giving me one last chance before He did what my father said He'd do.
So I high-tailed it back home." And Luava broke it off again. "This time
I wasn't so strong," she recalls. "I was totally miserable. I almost
went over there many times."
By this time Fred had taken to calling her 'the Philistine
whore', so life with father and a broken heart soon had Mark willing to
play tennis with death once more. After a few weeks, he returned to his
new life. Only to have the pastor swoop in to snatch him back, as he had
"That time, however," says Mark, "I was lucky. Just as we
pulled up to the church on 12th, some of my dad's law clients pulled up
too. "It was like a Hitchcock film: my father couldn't do anything in
front of them, so I just got out, walked through the front door, and out
the back. Nobody stopped me."
After that, Mark held on to his independence and his dreams
with an impressive tenacity. "I knew I made enough money for only two of
the following," he says: "an apartment; a car; and college tuition. I
needed the car; and-now that it was for me and not my father-I wanted to
For two years, Mark slept in his car or in the backroom of the
print shop where he worked all day. In the evenings he took classes, and
on weekends he worked as a dishwasher in a restaurant. He took his
showers at the gym. Luava completed her junior year and senior years at
Topeka High, dating Mark on weekends.
Despite the pastor's curiously vivid and explicit imagination,
the young couple's relationship remained chaste and unconsummated. When
his brother Fred asked Mark to be his best man at his wedding, Mark was
thrilled and agreed. But when he showed up at the Westboro church for
the ceremony, the pastor demanded Mark recant or depart before they went
"It was a trap," says Mark wearily. "If he ever missed a beat at
being a jerk-he did it before I was born." Mark departed. He has never
been back. Nor did the pastor miss his beat damning his second son to
the fires of hell. When Mark refused to die in his sleep, Phelps sent
him his notice of eviction from the assembled elect of The Place: Mark
was cast out and "delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the
flesh". The pastor then tore up both Mark and Kathy's pictures in front
of the rest of the family. (Kathy was also gone by then: she was working
as a waitress and living with a soldier on 12th and Topeka; apparently
the GI took a dim view of anyone kidnapping his girlfriend, and the
Phelps quick-reaction team left her unmolested.)
Mark did see his father again however. At the YMCA gym one day,
the pastor took the time to stalk up to Mark, close so no one else could
hear, and whisper, his glittering with hatred: "I hope God kills you."
In May, 1976, Mark graduated from Washburn University with a
business degree. In August of that year, he married his childhood
sweetheart after a courtship that had lasted since 1971. He was 22. She
was 19. Though the family Phelps were all invited, none of them came.
Many of them might have wanted to be there, but they had been forbidden
to attend. Pastor Phelps had threatened anyone who did with being
"delivered unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh".
If Fred Phelps is ever granted the preponderance of his wishes,
old Satan will be burning the midnight oil, destroying all that flesh.
But, devil knows, weddings are a lot work. The newlyweds cramped
apartment on 15th and Lane quickly became the headquarters for Phelps
exiles. At one point, both Nate and Margie were living within its tiny
confines alongside Mark and Luava.
"We didn't have much time to ourselves," laughs Mark's wife.
"He brought half his family out with him. Fortunately, Nate and I have
always been friends. And, back then at least, Margie and I were too."
Later the dissident couple would be the consolation and support for
Paulette, Jonathon's mistress driven from Westboro when she became
pregnant by him. Abandoned by Jonathon and rejected by his family, "she
went through some pretty tough times," remembers Mark. Nate's departure
was more dramatic. Inclined towards the freethinker and sceptic, and
long the family's designated scapegoat, Nate was initially not so torn
about leaving the assembly of the elect. "He constantly told me I was
worthless," says Nate about his father. "That I was a son of Belial
(Satan); I was going to end up in prison; I was evil. That message came
through loud and clear. For years since, I have had to struggle to
achieve any sense of worthiness in the eyes of God or man. "My father
often opined I was such a loser, I'd never even make it through high
school. Two weeks before the end of my senior year, when it was apparent
I would, he decided my weight needed constant watching. Instead of being
allowed to take my final exams. I was pulled out of school and made to
ride a stationary bicycle six hours a day. Now...there's a rational
act...a real daddy-non-compis-mentis. "So I didn't graduate. I had to
take the GED later for my high school diploma." Nate clears his throat.:
"A few weeks before my 18th birthday, I bought an old Rambler for $350.
I parked it down the street and I didn't tell anyone I had it. I took my
things out to the garage a little at a time, and I hid them amid the
mess out there." On the night before his birthday, around 15 minutes to
midnight on November 21, 1976, Nate pulled his car into the drive,
opened the garage, and loaded his few personal belongings in the back.
Leaving his keys in the ignition, the black sheep walked into his
childhood house of fear and pain. He climbed the stairs to the room
where his father slept and he...screamed. At the top of his lungs. And
left. That night, Nate slept in the men's room of an APCO gas station
because it was heated. He found work and eventually ended up living with
Mark, Luava, and Margie (who was also experimenting with adult
When the couple moved to St. Louis, Margie and Nate took an
apartment and jobs in Kansas City. The Nate went to work and for Mark at
a print shop in St. Louis, and Margie returned to the Westboro
community. She would become one of Pastor Phelps' staunchest defenders.
In 1978, Mark, Luava, and Nate returned and opened their first copy shop
in Prairie Village, a suburb of Kansas City. It was a success. In 1979,
the couple opened another shop in Topeka, and Nate stayed in Kansas City
to manage the first. At that point, says Nate, "it hit me." It was the
first time he'd ever been totally separated from all of his family.
Though he held no illusions about his father, deep down Nate had always
wanted to be a part of the rest-his mother and brothers and sisters-in
some other capacity than the bad seed. Now, he felt cut off and alone.
It was exactly then that his sisters began calling him, pressing him to
return, saying they could call be one family again, and that their
father had stopped his beatings.
So, three years after his Jim-Morrison-exit, the prodigal
returned. However, the pastor's idea of a welcome was to draw up, not a
feast, but a document. Nate remembers they had him sit down and pen a
letter to Mark-which they dictated. It was left on Nate's desk at the
shop in Kansas City, and it informed Mark he had lost his manager
without notice due to Mark's serving as ballast for that manager's slide
into hell. In August of 1993, in a desperate attempt to discredit what
she must have imagined was going to be devastating testimony from the
'bad' son (as much or more of the evidence against the pastor came from
the 'good' son), Margie Phelps announced to Capital-Journal
investigators she had "the smoking gun to prove Nate is lying".
It was a copy of Nate's sign-off to Mark of 14 years before.
The letter, she said, proved Nate was on good terms with his family
three years after he'd claimed he'd cut his ties to them. Curious as to
why the copy of a letter written by Nate and delivered to Mark would
find its way into Margie's possession so long after the fact,
investigators then heard from Nate how Shirley and Margie had given him
the paper and dictated the letter to Mark as one of the terms for Nate's
return. The fact that the Westboro Church kept it on file, as a
potential lever on Nate at some point in the future-even if that future
came nearly in the next generation-can only finds its parallel in the
handbooks of the KGB.
The Phelps family congregation may not be able to place the
name or face of the girl the pastor drove to suicide, but they never
misplace a letter-even if that letter was never addressed to them. For
Nate, rebirth into his family came with the pastor's umbilical drawn
tight around his neck. He was hazed like a plebe at Fred's West Point.
Though he got his meals now, Nate was expected to work in the
law office full-time for that and a room. He was also expected to
complete college and attend law school. "And, in return for my work, my
father would pay my tuition," says Nate. "But I had no desire for law
school, and I had debts to pay. I needed a cash income-not just room and
board." Nate declined the work in the law offices and found employment
outside the compound.
In the meantime, his father refused to talk to him, handling
any business through intermediaries. Nate attended services, but was
excluded from the adult male congregation. Instead, he worshiped with
the women and children. "Every Sunday, just prior to services, all the
men in the church would congregate in the old man's office to sit and
chat. When they filed out and took their seats in the auditorium, it
signaled services were beginning. It was a rite of passage for the older
boys when they were allowed to join. You know, then or before, I was
never included." During the ensuing months, his father still refused to
speak to him. Instead, envoys were sent to inform Nate the pastor was
displeased he was working 'outside'. Again and again, it was suggested
to Nate he ought to give up the 'outside' job and work in the law
office; that his father would pay him for this by sending him to law
school. Nate always refused. He didn't want to go to law school. And he
needed cash to pay his debts. He was 21 at the time. "If my dad had paid
a wage, even a small one, it would have been OK. But money in your
pocket, to him, meant less control over you. It implied mobility and
independence, something he was not going to tolerate."
All of the loyal Phelps children and their approved spouses
followed the pastor's formula: they worked as law clerks, legal
secretaries, and gophers for Fred as he churned out lawsuits. In return,
the pastor took care of what he had decided were their needs. Finally,
one Sunday their father devoted his entire sermon to denouncing the
reprobate in the midst: Nate was not of The Place, not one of the elect,
or he would be happy to join in the toils of the family enterprise. The
pastor announced there would be a meeting after the service where the
family would 'decide' whether Nate should stay or go. "I started packing
my bag," says Nate. "Family councils never contradicted my dad. He just
called them when he wanted everyone else to feel responsible for
something he had every intention of doing, regardless."
After he'd thrown his few belongings together, Nate remembers he
dozed off on his bed, waiting for the verdict. He was awakened by a fist
pounding on his door. It was Jonathon. The two brothers were less than a
year apart. "You have to go,: Jonathon told his older brother. "You have
to go tonight." The Phelps family scapegoat nodded stoically. He hoisted
his bag and stepped through the door. His younger brother gave him no
hand to shake, no pat on the back, no words of farewell-only silence.
Nate has not seen his father since. Once, he went back to visit his mom:
"It had been years since I'd talked to her," he relates bitterly. "She'd
only see me for two minutes at the back door. And she kept looking over
her shoulder the entire time. I felt like a hobo asking for a meal." But
Nate, who, like Kathy, had taken the brunt of his father's cruelty and
abuse, would find he could not leave his past behind so easily. When he
drove away that night after his family council, rejected, wounded, and
now self-destructive, Nate Phelps-gratis the pastor-had become dangerous
to himself and his community. Like Debbie Valgos, Nate would now be all
the bad things his father had said he was.
Unlike Debbie, Nate was 6'4" and 280 pounds. And, unlike her,
he was just as inclined to violence against others as he was against
himself. He plunged into a world of drugs, drink, violence, and hooligan
friends, and very nearly accomplished his parents' self-fulfilling
prophesy that he would be the convict of the family. "When I first
left," says Nate, "right away I moved in with some wild boys living
above the VW shop on 6th Street. They had a perpetual party going there
for almost four months. A keg was permanently on tap. "When I hit that,
boy, did I have an attitude. I remember I was real belligerent and
anti-authority." Ten months later, addicted to speed and crystal meth,
without shoes, penniless, and desperate, the prodigal giant appeared on
Mark and Luava's doorstep only a few days before the couple moved to
California. Haunted by ghosts of his father's hatred, enraged by the
memories of his physical abuse, and emotionally disemboweled by the
knowledge his mother and his siblings had offered him up, an entire
childhood sacrificed, to save themselves, Nate Phelps had become a rider
on the storm. Soon the pastor might have had reason for dancing and
clapping his hands again. But the pastor's appointed angel and his
projected devil knew instantly they were veterans from the same war.
They needed each other. Each sensed he might be able to redeem his
brother: the one of his guilt; the other from a coffin void of love or
self-esteem. Thus, the former favorite of Fred and back-up
mattock-beater was the only Phelps who could understand and forgive the
rage of the family's designated criminal and black sheep. The 'good'
Phelps boy forgave the 'evil' one his impulsive betrayal of the year
before, and he invited his little brother to come to California with
them. Today, Mark Phelps owns a successful chain of copy stores in
Southern California. He and Luava have two children.
Nate manages the largest in the chain. He is happily married,
drug- free, and content. He and his wife, Tammi, are raising four
children. Nate still receives treatment for Post Traumatic Stress
Disorder, and, ironically, some of the Vietnam vets who receive the same
therapy say their year in hell sounds preferable to his 18 inside the
walls of Westboro. Both brothers say they cringe at the thought of
anyone touching their kids. They know what darkness may yet linger in
their souls from their father's nightmare, and they daily guard against
it emerging in their behavior toward their own children. Mark and Nate
live four blocks from each other in an upscale Orange County community
surrounded by pine forest. Both couples are devout Christians-though the
god the boys worship is now a loving one. And, after growing up with the
Pastor Phelps, not much can rattle them"
Recently, after answering some questions concerning minor
details for the story, Nate announced calmly, "Well, I should get off. I
have to pack now." Were they going somewhere? "Yes. For now. The fire is
coming down the mountain. It's only two miles from here,"
"Fire? That's terrible! What about Mark and Luava?" "Oh, she
was packed three hours ago." The racing blaze missed their homes, (Not
the kind of punishment predicted by the pastor for those he feels have
'gone against' his assembled elect at the compound in Topeka.)
While the emotional cocktail mixed at the Phelps of Westboro
seems perpetually one part cruelty, one part anger, one part hysteria,
and one part maudlin self-pity, the lasting impression left after hours
of phone conversations with Nate and Mark is one of serenity. They have
the calm wisdom of mariners who have been rescued from a wild sea. The
one saved by a brother's love; the other buoyed up by a teenage girl's
moral courage. Mark and Nate Phelps have found their peace and
happiness. They would like to help their brothers and sisters do the
same, but they have not yet discovered how to reach them. And the two
brothers, survivors, themselves are not unscathed.
"I'm OK during the day," says Nate. "It's late at night when it
all comes back. I sometimes just sit and there after my family is
asleep. You know, and it comes back. All the feelings of pain, and
violation, and outrage. And I try to deal with it. Then I'm OK again."
Mark laughs. "I've had a recurring dream for years now. I'm out driving
around and I turn up a street and it looks familiar. I can't place it so
I keep driving. Then I see the church and realize where I am. I hot the
gas to get out of there, but the car suddenly dies.
Then my father and my brothers and sisters start coming out. But
I can't start the car. I'm cranking the engine for dear life and it's
not catching. "As they come out in the street, I'm trying to lock all
the doors and roll up the windows...but I forget the driver's door...
"They pull me out.
And Daddy says: 'What the hell do you think you're doing? Were
you selling on Prairie Road tonight?'"
TABLE OF CONTENTS
"The False Prophet"
Sometime around 1975, Phelps began to find his option to beat
his family restricted. By then, Mark and Kathy had already rebelled and
left, and the other children were fast becoming adults of not
inconsiderable size. About a year before Nate left, he remembers an
incident which must have put the abusive pastor on notice to find new
outlets for his hate. "One day he was beating mom upstairs," Nate
recalls. "He'd been doing it for some time. Shirley and Margie and I
were in the dining room downstairs, and Margie and I were getting madder
and madder. Shirl wouldn't get mad-she'd always start crying and pacing
around whenever anyone was getting beaten. "Margie finally went and got
a butcher knife from the kitchen. The three of us went to the bottom of
the stairs. But our voices stuck in our throats. We couldn't call out.
None of us. We were so scared."
When the raging reverend chased his wife out onto the landing,
he saw them. Fred stared down at them: "Get the hell outta here." Margie
held the knife up where he could see it. "You've got to stop this," she
The pastor slowly descended the steps. His children backed up
but didn't leave. For a long moment he glared at them. Then he said
quietly: "Fine, you SOBs." And he turned and went back to his bedroom.
For three weeks after that, Fred Phelps had no contact with his family
except at church. He stayed in his room until it was time to give his
sermon. After Nate departed the fold in 1976, apparently the pastor
began to worry about the success of his methods. He'd raised a
congregation from his loins, and now they were bailing out at the first
opportunity. Fred Jr., Mark, Nate, Kathy, Dorotha, Margie, Rebekah, and
Jonathon would all leave home at some point. It was at this point that
his wife and daughters apparently convinced Phelps that, if he wanted
his family, he'd have to stay his hand. From then on, it was the outside
community which more and more would become the outlet for the pastor's
rage. Nate was coaxed back to the family compound three years later by
his sisters' assurances 'the old man' had changed, that things were
better now, and he wasn't beating anymore. But, as Nate quickly found
out, the pastor still sought total control over his children's private
and emotional lives. He left for good. Nate's younger brother, Jonathon,
met Paulette when he was still in law school. She joined the Westboro
church and was highly cooperative, though the pastor frowned on her for
not following his path (Paulette has no law degree.). Later, when it was
discovered they were fornicating, Paulette was driven from The Place.
Jon was allowed to stay. Though by this time he was a practicing lawyer,
all of Jon's adult privileges were taken away by his father. Members of
the church were assigned to accompany him 24 hours a day to guard
against his backsliding with Paulette. As a hedge against his leaving,
each day he was given only enough money from the common family finances
to buy his lunch. But the damage had already been done. Paulette had
conceived. Living with her parents, abandoned by Jonathan, an object of
contempt to his family, Paulette turned in desperation to the Phelps
boys who'd moved to California. Mark and Luava say they had many a
late-night counseling session over the phone with Paulette while she
carried her baby to term. After their child was born, apparently Jon's
girl wanted nothing more to do with him. But Jon was having second
thoughts. Six months after he'd become a father, he petitioned the court
for joint custody and visitation rights.
According to court records, Jon claimed Paulette would not
accept payments of support, that she had refused him visitation rights,
and that she would not allow him to take their child from her parents'
home. When the couple actually confronted each other before a judge,
however, Paulette saw only Jon, and he only had eyes for the woman he
loved and their tiny daughter. And Fred Phelps with his threats of hell
and hatred of Christmas must suddenly have seemed so very far from the
god who had given them their little girl. Jonathon deserted the Westboro
church and moved in with Paulette's family. They were married soon
after. By now, it was apparent to the pastor that Mark and Nate's move
to California in 1981 was going to be permanent.
"So, when Jonathon left, my father had lost three sons," says
Marks. "At that point," he adds, referring to his and Luava's long
conversations with Paulette at the time, "my dad decided it might be
better to relax his rules and keep his family than end with an empty
church." Jonathon and Paulette were allowed to return to the
congregation with their illegitimate child in 1988.
Unable since then to either beat and browbeat his family, the
Pastor Phelps seems to have focused instead on his therapeutically
malicious law practice. This is the period, 1983-1989, when he is
reprimanded for this unchecked spate of extortional demand letters, when
he eventually federally disbarred for his wild and vitriolic attacks on
three judges, and when he sues Ronald Reagan over appointing an
ambassador to the Vatican.
Fred's swan song in the federal courts in February, 1989 left
him unable to express his most persistent of urges: to hurt and
humiliate other human beings. Already prevented from punching up his
grandchildren, and now banned from the barrister's ring, the old
pugilist took stock and realized he still had his fists and his faithful
urge to abuse.
Buffalo Fred took his wild ego show out of his house, out of the
courtroom, and into the streets. Within months, he was running for
governor, tramping importantly about the state and churning out position
papers on the general corruption of the Adamic race. The spotlight, so
comforting and necessary to prankster pastor, had returned.
He only garnered six percent of the vote. No matter. Nine months
after losing the election, Fred Phelps unveiled his next therapeutic
crusade: his left hooks rained on same comparatively helpless and
unsuspecting heads when he opened the "Great Gage Park Decency
Drive"-which quickly escalated into his current death-to-fags campaign.
To hear the pastor describe his new venture, one feels in the
presence of a Napoleon crossing the river Neiman to invade Russia-two
great empires, the one good, the other evil, about to clash, finally,
and to the death. To read his crusading literature, however, leaves a
different impression: The "Great Gage Park Decency Drive" hovers between
vaudeville and the bizarre. One campaign fax churned out during November
of 1993 would seem to cover both choices.
For vaudeville, the pastor poses a question: can God-fearing
Christian families picnic or play touch football there (Gage Park)
without fear of contradicting AIDS? HELL, NO!" He then describes the
enemy activity in suspicious detail: "Open fag rectal intercourse in
public restrooms, in the rose garden, in the rock garden, in the
theater, in the rainforest, in the swimming pool, on the softball
fields, on the swing sets, or the train-it's everywhere..." And for the
bizarre: In the same fact epistle, Fred to the Sodomites, the pastor
reviews his son-in- law's opus of investigative endeavor, The Conspiracy
within a Conspiracy. For those arriving late, Conspiracy is the
privately published book by Brent Roper, who made the "it will be harder
now, but I will destroy them" attribution to Judge Rogers in Chapter
Six. In the fax, Fred defends Roper's thesis that Truman Capote passed
AIDS simultaneously to both Jack Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe during a
touch football game in the Rose Garden "when a gang tackle went awry".
According to the fax, the CIA later killed both the president and
Marilyn to keep them from infecting the country-Capote's own longevity
notwithstanding. In any case, touch football seems to be the one thing
consistently on Fred's mind here. In the midst of his anti-gay campaign,
the pastor also ran for the U.S. Senate in 1992 for Topeka mayor in
1993. He lost both races. Of the two, his Senate bid will likely be the
better-remembered: Phelps, in a great plains parody of the late senator
from Wisconsin, warned the voters darkly that homosexuals were taking
over America, and accused Gloria O'Dell, his opponent for the
Democratic, of being a lesbian. Unelected after three races, the angry
pastor maneuvered to advance his hate-gays crusade from local TV spots
and neighborhood pickets to the national media. The Westboro
congregation traveled to Washington, D.C. to taunt the Gay Pride March
in the spring of 1993. It was red meat for a sensation-hungry press.
Fred and found his rhythm. Even before then, however, the nine children
still loyal to him had campaigned enthusiastically alongside, picketing
in rain, snow, or sun. Why?
Says Nate: "You known that Lite beer commercial where the guy
goes up to the two other guys and gets them to fight over his comparison
of two incomparable issues ('Tastes great!/Nope, less Filling!)? My dad
does that. "Deep down, my brothers and sisters know they've been denied
the right to be themselves-free adults-and that combines with all of his
abuse and anger toward them until their rage is uncontrollable inside.
He helps them find a focus to vent that out. And then he steps aside."
Mark agrees: "Everyone is very angry there. That's why they overeat.
It's a very charged atmosphere. All that frustrated energy needs to be
discharged in some form of conflict." Though this latter observation is
almost 13 years old, it still provides an accurate summation of one
reporter's experience who spent six weeks in daily contact with the
family Phelps in the fall of 1993. Fred has a captive family
congregation: their fear of hell and fear of him still control them,
like the elephant's rope. His loyal children have fulfilled his
ambitions rather than their own. They live at his side and do his work.
And since his rage has become their outrage, a wrath they dare not turn
back on him, Fred's kids have eagerly joined in whenever he has sallied
forth from Westboro to smite the Adamic race. Margie Phelps admits many
in her family have become emotionally dependent on the death-to- gays
crusade: "A lot of us have been able to work through emotional problems
because of the picketing," she says. She explains the bonding and the
sense of goals have brought them closer and taken each person's focus
off their own personal difficulties. "It would be very hard for them to
give up the picketing now," she observes, and quotes with some apparent
relief the circumstances outlined by her father for an end to his grim
campaign: the return of Jesus; the capitulation of all homosexuals; "or
they kill us. Otherwise it will go on."
What's important here is the Phelps family has found something
they can all enjoy doing together. And it's helping them to grow and
realize more about themselves. All except one. Dorotha, on of the
youngest Phelps children, left the compound in 1990.
She was 25 at the time and already an established attorney. "We
were all supposed to get law degrees, stay home, and live happily every
after," she says. "The problem was, I wasn't happy. "My father's
operating mode is one of perpetual warfare. I thought once he'd been
disbarred, it would die down, and he would stop-you know-being so
aggressive. He wrote that book (still an unpublished manuscript)
comparing the courts to the Corsican Mafia...but I guess it didn't go
anywhere. "And then he started all these other things... "It's just not
going to die down. It's not going to quit. He's such an egomaniac. He
liked to keep things stirred up because he likes attention. He likes to
be center stage. It just wore me out. The constant pressure there was
just too much. "But," adds Dorotha, who goes by 'Dottie', "despite all
his flaws, he's the leader of the church as well as a father. If they
(her family back at the compound) believe, they also accept him." The
pastor is enthusiastic about his new therapy: "The Bible approves only
of sex within marriage," he insists. "But whore mongers and adulterers
God will damn to hell! "No premarital sex! No extramarital sex! No
divorces, no remarriages-and for God's sakes-NO ANAL COPULATING!" (In
which case, come the Rapture, Westboro Baptist will still be holding
Fred continues: "Anytime a famous fag dies of AIDS, we're going
to picket his funeral, wherever it is." He adds he subscribes to the New
York Times because it identifies gays who've died of AIDS. Phelps is
literally giggling now, able to appear on shows like Jane Whitney, Ricki
Lake, and 20/20 and talk dirty to gays. On top of the verbal abuse the
pastor heaps from the television screen, he claims he's doing gays a
favor by disrupting their funerals, outraging their mourners, and
picketing the businesses that employ them. Raising this kind of ruckus
is...well...a bit of necessary bad taste to get the "good word" out.
Interviewed on KBRT radio in Los Angeles, Phelps was asked: "What about
the Bible advice that Christians are to have the wisdom of serpents and
the meekness of doves?"
To which he responded: "The next to last verse in Jude says we
were to make to a sharp difference in how we are to approach people to
win them. On some, have compassion, making a difference. Others you
should save with fear. "That means using the authority of terrorizing
people about the coming fires of God's judgement and wrath, as opposed
to approaching them with compassion." Trouble is, Phelps may have yet to
meet the sinner he deems worthy of the compassionate path. The pastor
has generated most of his notoriety from public outrage at his
desecration of funeral and burial rites. To this, he has a formulaic
response, most recently offered to Chris Bull of The Advocate in defense
of emotionally brutalizing the mourners for Kevin Oldham, a native of
Kansas City who had found success in New York as a composer: "Compared
to hell and eternal punishment, their (the mourners) suffering is
trivial. If Kevin could come back, he would ask me to please preach at
his funeral, and he say, 'For God's sake, listen to Fred Phelps.' Dying
time is truth time. These poor homosexual creatures live lives
predicated on a fundamental lie, and they die engrossed in the lie. It
seems to me to be the cruelest thing of all to stand over their dead,
filthy bodies keeping the lies going." Yet Phelps doesn't believe
homosexuals can be redeemed, an attitude which cast his actions, not as
salvation-through-fear, but as pointless and abusive. Almost any day on
the picket line in Topeka, he can be heard announcing to the occasional
passerby who stops to talk: "Deep-dyed fags cannot be saved. God has
given them up." The pastor seems uninterested when other Christian
ministers attempt to show him differently. One the same KBRT talk show,
Phelps intoned: "It's my position that they (gays) fit in that category
of the most depraved and degenerate of Adam's race. And probably these
guys are past hope for salvation.
"And it was a long time coming to that. I've never seen one
such person converted in 46 years of preaching this Bible." "I've seen a
number of homosexuals come to Christ," protests the announcer, up to now
quite warn to Fred's message. "I'd like to meet one," says Fred.
The announcer mentions a young man, a reformed homosexual, who,
after 'coming to Christ', has established an AIDS ministry that is now
nationwide. "Herb Hall," says the how's host, "is one of the most solid
soul winners I've seen in decades." They reach Hall by phone at his home
in Garden Grove, New Jersey. He invites Fred to come and see, that
there's plenty of gays who turned to Christ and ceased their sodomy. "I
think it's a put-on," says Fred. He resists the suggestion that Phelps
and Hall confer on what they've learned during their separate campaigns
against homosexuality. "I'd love to sit down and talk with you, and meet
with you," begins Hall.
"We'll have to do that," responds Phelps, "because your story
so far is not convincing, and it sounds very canned and put on to me."
When the announcer again vouches for Hall, Phelps says reluctantly: "I
gotta talk to him first, and I gotta know more..." Then to Hall: "Are
you gonna call me?"
Announcer: "Oh! We've just hung up on him. But we have his
number, and we'll give that to you, OK?" Phelps: "OK. Thank you. I'm
very interested." But Preacher Phelps never called. So Hall called him.
He remembers their conversation below:
"Pastor Phelps, when Jesus approached the prostitute, all the
people who had surrounded her, He wrote their sins in the dirt. That's
why they left her alone. Unless we show them (homosexuals), love and
compassion, and really comfort them, we'll never be able to reach them."
Hall says Phelps told him he'd never seen a homosexual that had ever
changed, and he doubted that Hall had.
"Pastor, I am a homosexual. I've changed. And I will be in
heaven someday." According to Hall, Phelps doubted that also. "So you
think it (homosexuality) is the one unforgivable sin?" Yes, said Phelps.
In an interview with Jim Doblin, a television reporter for
WIBW-TV, Channel 13 in Topeka, Phelps shared a bit more. If everyone was
predestined from the womb, regardless of what they did in life, asked
Doblin, wouldn't there be a homosexual or two among the Elect?
No, Phelps insisted. "Three times within eight verses in Romans,
Chapter 1, it says God has given these people up. If the only power in
the universe that can call you to Jesus Christ has given you up, how you
gonna get there?" In fact, Phelps has shown little interest in getting
the "good word" out at all. His record in this new campaign shows his
focus is on ego dominance, insult, and therapeutic lashing out.
Offers Phelps from the same interview with Doblin: "My ol' dad
used to say, 'you're gettin' people mad at you, bubba! An' if you're
determined to get 'em mad at you, I recommend you just walk up and kick
'em in the shins-it won't take so long!' "I believe I finally took my
ol' dad's advice: just walk up and kick 'em in the shins!" The pastor
breaks into a big grin: "God hates fags!"
He's obviously enjoying himself. But why kick them in the shins
if they can't be saved? Fred can't answer that. Because she knows he's
not trying to save anyone. For his own secret reasons, he needs to hurt
people, and he's chosen homosexuals. Reacting to a joint statement
condemning his anti-gay activities that was signed by 47 Topeka area
religious leaders, Phelps, in a letter to The Advocate wrote: "I love
it. I'm a Baptist preacher, and that means I'm a hate preacher." When it
comes to any serious attempt to explore a religious issue via considered
argument and fair rebuttal, however, Pastor Phelps has proved a no-show,
On August 23, 1993, Dick Snider, a columnist for the Capital-Journal,
printed part of the letter from an English professor at Spoon River
College in Canton, Illinois. Farrell Till was a Bible debater, and he
wanted a chance to debate Fred on God's hatred of homosexuals. By
midmorning, the faxes came rolling in at the newsroom and offices all
over the capital: a photo of the pastor, looking pensive and studious at
his desk, and the words emblazoned:
Followed by the missive: "Not since two of my heroes (Clarence
Darrow and William Jennings Bryan) slugged it out at the famous Scopes
Monkey Trial at Dayton, Tennessee in July, 1925, has the issue of the
inerrancy of the Bible been properly debated. If Farrell Till is for
real, let's get it on. "Your newspaper can work out the details and send
circulation off the charts. And your own involvement to date in this
historic event will more than justify your otherwise pitiful existence
on this earth as a wayward son of Adam. Kindest regards. Fred Phelps."
Farrell Till was notified his challenge had been accepted. He
immediately sent the pastor a courteous letter, via the Capital-Journal,
outlining his qualifications to engage in a serious scholarly exchange
and requesting Phelps contact him to work out a compatible date. Fred
forgot. Though he was reminded several times by both the paper and Till,
the impulsive pastor never remembered to set that date.
By Christmas, Till reported he had inquired by phone or letter
five times and received no response. Coincidentally, during the same
time period, the Capital-Journal had arranged for a round-table exchange
in print: participating with Phelps would have been Tex Sample, a
liberal minister from St. Paul's School of Theology in Kansas City;
Rabbi Lawrence Karol, an old testament scholar in Topeka; and Scott
Clark, a primitive Baptist (old Calvinist) minister from Fred's own
sect, now working on his doctorate in theology at Oxford University.
Fred would exchange views in print with clergymen of three differing
faiths to avoid the discussion becoming mired in minor sectarian
All four agreed to participate, and all agreed to the tennis
format: Phelps would serve by responding to three questions; the others
would return with comment, and Phelps would bat it back. To the three
questions-Does God hate? Does God hate gays? By what authority do you
judge?-Phelps submitted a brief response. His turbid theology was
quickly returned to him, analyzed as unfounded and unbiblical-even by
the Oxford Calvinist of his own sect. Now here was a battle of the
Titans! Let's get it on! But again the would-be William Jennings Bryan
fled the field, muttering he'd heard all those false arguments before
and couldn't be bothered refuting them again.
Pity. All those reprobates out there who've never heard his
refutations...it would be like water to parched souls... Twice turning
tail at the opportunity for his truth to confront publicly the world's
falsehoods...a very odd response indeed for someone who claims his only
aim in his crude, cruel, and vindictive behavior is to get the "good
word" out to a world of stubborn reprobates. Each time has been offered
the chance to present his message in a fair and sober forum-sans
shin-kicking and street theater-the earnest pastor has passed. In
fairness, it would be observed that, since his tent emptied that night
in Vernal, Utah, Phelps has preached almost entirely to the converted
and the blood-related. He may find an opinion differing from his own to
be a frightening and flight-triggering experience. Or perhaps the
amateur Biblical erudition gained during that long, arduous summer
Phelps spent between his baptism and ordination failed him when he
entered the arena of professional scholarship. Whatever the cause, the
pastor appears long on antics, insults, and threats-short on good news
the reprobates can use. Of the 12 abominations listed in the Old
Testament, pride in one-homosexuality is not. "His dad couldn't care
less about God or the Bible," says Luava. "He just happened to embrace
that structure to create a framework for himself as god. What he says,
goes. In his mind, and in his life, he is god." "He's not for anything
but Fred," adds Nate. "Whatever it is he has to do to get attention,
he'll do it."
Mark interrupts: "...He helped himself to any behavior he ever
wanted to have and then left it for others to clean up. He's operating
at the level of a two year-old. My little girl just goes up and shoves
someone sometimes, but she's two. He does not hesitate to do what my
little Becky does, but he does it in adult ways. "He's completely
out-focused and totally high right now. He's got the best fix: drugs,
beatings, all the raging and abusing he's done, all the political
stirring-up he's caused, nothing compares to what he's doing now." Nate
adds: "And each time it seems he has to ratchet it a little higher.
Eventually it could end in tragedy for a lot of people." He shakes his
head. "My father likes to hurt people. And he needs to hate them. Why, I
don't know. But you can be sure of one thing: he'll always do it with
the Bible. "They'll give us the fags," says Margie, referring to
Topeka's generally hostile response to the pastor's message, "it's the
'God hates' part they can't stand. The notion that God hates humans is
rejected so deeply by most people-that's what everyone is so angry
about." If the strange case of Fred Phelps were, in fact, a doctrinal
and not a mental health phenomenon, it would revolve on two issues:
whether God hates some souls regardless of their character or actions
and whether he hates homosexuals most of all. Absolute
predestination-the theory that some people are bound for heaven before
they are born, while others have a one-way ticket to hell-best focuses
the beliefs of Westboro Baptist and its basilisk leader.
"It goes like this," says Fred, shifting into his preacher
voice, talking slowly and emphasizing every syllable, "the everlasting
love of God for some men and the everlasting hatred of God for other men
is the grand doctrine that razes free will to the ground. "Hate in the
deity is not a passion like it is with humans, you know. It is a purpose
that is part of His nature and His essential attributes."
The Bible is chock full of hate, says the pastor. "From all
eternal ages past, God has loved some of Adam's race and purposed to do
them good, and he's hated the rest and purposed to punish them for their
sins." Attributes of God linked to hate, anger, wrath and punishment are
used two-thirds more often in the Bible than attributes linked to love,
mercy, pity, long-suffering, gentleness and goodness, he claims
"You can't be a Bible preacher without preaching the hatred of
God, the wrath of God. It is a fabrication, this modern Christianity,
that says good old God loves everybody." Implicit in all this talk of
predestination is the assumption that Fred, at last, is going to heaven.
Yet the Bible, as it interpreted by predestinists, says the elect will
not be revealed until the Judgement Day. Tacitly, the pastor's
congregation counts him early in that tiny group and looks to him for a
sign they'll be a part too. Not only is Phelps without Bible authority
to designate them elect, he may not be elect himself. His ministry could
be that of a reprobate. A summary of some of the objections raised to
the pastor's philosophy of hate by Sample, Clark, and Karol is listed
below. The text of the original exchange is contained in the appendix.
1) It rejects a 3000 year-old rabbinical interpretation of the
Jacob and Esau story in favor of one of his own.
2) It mistranslates and falsely equates the words for the anger
and wrath of God that so often occur in the Old Testament with a divine
hatred of mankind.
3) When the Bible does speak of God hating, God is described as
hating the act or the sin-not the sinner.
4) The speaker in the book of Psalms does profess hatred for the
sinner- but the voice is that of the psalmist, not of God.
5) Phelps pointedly ignores the emphasis in the New Testament on
love and forgiveness. One may find lichen growing on the floor of a
redwood forest-but that does not make it a moor, not so long as the
landscape is dominated by the giant trees.
The prophet of hate grins broadly when asked how it feels being
the target of so much hatred himself now:
"You guys don't seem to understand what motivates me." He
chuckles. As usual, a Bible verse serves as his answer. "Blessed are ye
when men shall hate you and revile you and say all manner of evil
against you falsely for my sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad: for
great is your reward in heaven." Phelps seems giddy, His words roll off
his tongue in a Mississippi drawl tinged with excitement. "I love them
to death," he says of those who criticize him. "If they weren't doing
that, how am I going to get all that 'great is your reward in heaven'?
If you are preaching the truth of God, people are going to hate you. And
they can't often or always articulate why, and so they fall back on
specious, insincere and false reasons for why they hate you. And you
swim in a sea of lies. And I love it!"
Phelps seems to lead a euphoric life, Today he is wearing his
trademark running shoes, running shorts, and shirt and tie with a nylon
running jacket, sleeves rolled up to his biceps. He has just returned
from a noontime picket in downtown Topeka. "If the call was good, it
never goes away," he chirps, referring to the 1946 revival that called
him to preaching. "I have a hard time getting to sleep some nights from
pure happiness." A wide smile blossoms on his windburned face. His eyes
gleam and glitter. It's hard to imagine so much happiness taking root
and growing out of so much hate. "If my father's going to become a
spokesman for the Christian Reform Movement, it's important Christians
realize who he really is," states Mark. "What worries me most is my
brothers and sisters may see him as a Christ-like figure. "He has
nothing to do with Christ. He is a sad, sick man who likes to hurt
people. For a long as I've known him, he has been addicted to hate."
Even a cursory glance at the pastor's most recent published material
would seem to beat this out. The following random excerpts from his
faxes can't be defended as "scaring 'em to salvation". They are mean and
hateful and nothing more:
(December 2, 1993) Next to the headline, "FAGS: GOD'S HATE
SPEAKS LOUDEST", is the text: "Fag Bishop Fritz Mutti...confessed his
sins to ANTICHRIST CLINTON: He raised 2 fag sons for the Devil; they
died of AIDS. GOOD RIDDANCE!"
(December 9, 1993) "Court Clerk JOYCE REEVES dying of cancer?
Couldn't happen to a better dyke...May explain why she's super bitchy to
the help. N.Y. Fag Son TODD's arrived, looking like AIDS on a stick.
Patronize his Westboro Shop and go home with AIDS?"
(December 16, 1993) [When Topeka Police Sergeant, Dave Landis,
only 45 years-old and with a wife and children, was suddenly paralyzed
by a stroke, Phelps found time to gloat.] "You don't scare us, Officer
Landis! Not even before the Lord turned you into a limp vegetable!
"Westboro Baptist will picket fag cop Landis fundraiser...Fag cop John
Sams and his FOP (Phaternal Order of Phags) will try to raise $12,500 to
unscramble the brain of fag cop Dave Landis...Forget it, guys! When God
scrambles eggs, man can't unscramble 'em. Westboro Baptist has picketed
this evil Son of Belial at the VA hospital for 4 months now; Westboro
Baptist will picket his funeral to give him a proper send-off to hell..."
Many of Fred Phelps' former adversaries and law school classmates have gone on to become luminaries, while he has slowly dissolved into a disbarred lawyer and failed preacher, supported by his abused children.
The more his own life slips into the periphery, the more stridently abusive he becomes. Pastor Phelps is one of many false prophets to come who will seek to exploit the loss of faith, soul, and identity in North America. As a society that has lost its path in a steaming, sensual, violent marsh of mindless, me-first, frantic consumerism, America is entering its dark middle age stupified by television and content to let its values be formed, not by saints, heroes, and visionaries, but by default, by advertising and market forces appealing to the basest urges in each of us. Our culture has grown childish and narcissistic, slothful and irrational. With the winter of our nation will soon follow the wolves-fierce white toothed beasts come to trip the flesh of our indolence.
Fred Phelps is one of them. And in our chaos and confusion, the false prophets will claim to lead us into a new day. But by this mark we shall know them: no matter how bright their vision, always it will demand someone or group be punished before a new day can come.
The dark angels will promise a bright tomorrow but ask for blood today.
Fifty years ago, looking ahead to our time, the poet, Yates, would lament:
"The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate intensity."
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