Dave in the Doghouse

Milwaukee Magazine/March 1990
By Dave Schlabowske

Larry Yarber, self-proclaimed "prophet of God," has convinced members of his Racine County group that following his teachings is the only way to find the good life through Jesus. But former members call Yarber's group a cult and tell a different story - of manipulation, child abuse and sexual exploitation. Yarber, they say, must be stopped.

The False Prophet:

The church service last summer was no different from any of the countless others that have been held in the Caledonia apartment building over the past decade. Some 30 men and women were on chairs or seated on the floor listening with rapt attention to a middle-aged black man give the sermon.

"God has told me to tell you this," Larry Yarber informed his disciples, then passed along the Word. The disciples, nearly all of them white, listened intently. They truly believed that the word of God was being spoken because this man undoubtedly was a prophet of God.

When he finished, Yarber walked to a corner of the room and picked something up. His action was mime-like; the object was invisible. But even without seeing it, Yarber's followers knew what was in his hand: the invisible staff that had been given to him by God.

Such was their faith that they could even feel the staff. Richard Dubuque, a U.S. Postal carrier who has been a Yarber disciple for several years, insists he feels it.

"It was frightening," Dubuque says, "My spirit was disturbed by God."

On that Saturday, Yarber handed the staff to his brother Stanley, a new recruit who, unknown to the so-called prophet, was a skeptic.

Recalls Stanley: "He gave me the staff, so I put my hand out…He kept on asking me, 'Do you feel the weight of the staff?' I didn't really feel it, but I said, 'Yeah, I feel it.' He said, 'Give it back to me,' so I gave it back to him.

"He took this staff and handed it to another person," Stanley says. "They would reach out and grab it. They would take it and poke it at people and they would actually fall backwards from being hit with it."

Stanley Yarber remained unconvinced and, after helping another member leave the group, has left himself.

Since the mid-70s, Larry Yarber has convinced about 75 southeastern Wisconsin residents, according to a count by ex-members, that he is a prophet and that they should join his "family," as he calls his unnamed group. Most of his followers now live in an eight-unit apartment building at 3313 Packard Dr. in the small township of Caledonia, which borders Oak Creek. There, at the group residence followers call the Big House, their doors are left unlocked and their keys stay in their vehicles. Their faith in God is so strong that they don't need to protect themselves from theft or intruders. Insurance is unheard of in the group.

"Their trust and faith is put in God and they believe they'll be taken care of and never need it," says ex-member Wayne Pierce, a diesel mechanic who left the group in 1986 after 13 years as a Yarber disciple. "That's why they don't wear motorcycle helmets either."

In the nearly 15 years that Larry Yarber has led this group, it has attracted little attention. Few town residents know of its existence. The disciples don't sell flowers or make a show of their religion and they recruit only family and friends. Even their landlord, who is aware that her tenants are under the sway of Yarber, says she has no problem with the followers. They make good tenants, she says, and always pay their $340-per-unit rent on time.

In recent years, the group has dwindled to about 31 adults and 17 children, estimate ex-members. Until recently, those who became disenchanted and left the group stayed silent - usually out of embarrassment. "This isn't a group of weak-kneed, stupid people," former disciple Joe Haas says of people who broke their ties with Yarber. (Haas, a carpenter, spent five years in the "family.") "I still don't understand the phenomenon myself and I've been and gone."

But former members have begun to speak out and the stories they tell of life within the group are startling. Those ex-followers, who have organized a support group to deal with the after-effects of membership in the group, accuse Yarber of everything from sexual impropriety to encouraging the beating of children in the group. There's a laundry list of other accusations, including the regular appropriation of group members' income and the theft of $16,000 from a woman who was convinced to sell her home and give the sale proceeds to the group.

Yarber's followers tithe at least 10 percent of their gross pay and turn their tax refunds and any profit-sharing checks over to the group. They say the money goes to Jesus Christ; ex-members says it goes to Yarber. By week's end, former members say, the disciples are expected to have put their tithe in a wicker basket that sits atop a microwave in the apartment he uses at the Big House.

The leader himself does not contribute, say ex-members. While his followers hold respectable jobs, the 42-year-old Yarber doesn't work - and hasn't worked in at least 10 years. "Nobody would ever think that he should work," says ex-member Sue Wente.

Despite this, former members also say yarber has used the money to purchase an impressive collection of adult toys, including a $30,000 Cobra kit car (with the license plate IFULL, as in "eyefull") for his exclusive use; six jeeps; a $35,000, six passenger, single-engine plane (Yarber has a pilot's license) that recently was sold; two Lincoln Continentals; and about 15 motorcycles or dirt bikes, used both by Yarber and the group.

The full extent of Yarber's personal wealth isn't known. According to his ex-followers and his statements to the press, he has never filed a tax return (and the state Department of Revenue has no records of tax payments on file), but one former disciple estimates that he collects about $40,000 annually from his followers.

Ex-members who formed Parents and Friends Against the Cult, as the support group is called, have complained to local authorities and the Internal Revenue Service about Yarber, but official response has been limited.

Freedom to worship as one chooses, of course, is one of the nation's most highly prized rights; an unusual set of religious beliefs, even belonging to what some consider a cult, is no crime.

The Racine County Human Services Department has files of allegations of child abuse at the Big House, as does the Caldonia Police Department. But none of their investigations over the past few years has resulted in any arrests or evidence of wrongdoing. Says former town Police Chief Phil Stanton: "There wasn't anything we could prove."

As a matter of policy, an IRS spokesperson refused to comment on whether Yarber is under investigation.

"He's just a heartless, ruthless man," says Racine minister Bill Tompkins. "He at one time had good intentions but the power's gone to his head."

Rick Ross, an Arizona-based "deprogrammer" who was hired by one family to help extract their son from the group, says that in his opinion, the Caledonia organization should be investigated further. Says Ross: "This is a group that is totally focused on the leader. In a sense, it's a parallel to the Jim Jones group…When you have a group of people that's dependent on one person you have a formula for disaster, particularly when that person is sociopathic, disturbed and basically sick…I've been to the Big House and I have seen the members and somebody's got to do something."

Through it all, Larry Yarber has chosen to remain silent. He initially agreed in a phone conversation with this reporter to meet for an interview. But when told that the questions would deal with his income and the IRS, allegations of sexual misconduct in the group and his use of mind control, Yarber quickly changed his mind.

"I don't want to get into stuff like that - I really don't," he said. He asked the reporter to hang up the phone, but when the reporter stayed on the line, Yarber eventually hung up, an action that surprises his ex-followers. "We were told that a loving person doesn't hang the phone up on someone else," says one.

His 20-year-old son, Larry Jr., also declined to be specific about his father. Speaking from Denton, Texas, where some Yarber followers reside, the younger Yarber denied that his father was his leader. "He doesn't lead me; Christ leads me," he said. When pressed, though, he conceded that he believed his father was a prophet. "I believe he is," said the son. "He got called by God to do something."

The younger Yarber also asked the reporter to hang up the phone. When the reporter stayed on the line, Larry Yarber Jr., paused momentarily, then announced "God has said you're a troublemaker." Yarber then hung up.

The elder Yarber did talk about himself three years ago for a United Press International story about his group. He tried to explain why he hadn't filed for tax-exempt status as a church and why he hadn't filed tax returns with the IRS.

"I believe in Jesus Christ as my savior," he was quoted as saying. "the Bible tells you to beat your child. And anyone who doesn't do what the Bible says doesn't believe in Jesus Christ. If you believe in Jesus Christ and don't beat your child, you are a liar."

"Have you ever filed taxes?" The UPI reporter asked. "Look to Jesus Christ for the answers," Yarber answered. "I have talked to these people [IRS agents] before and have told them to look to Jesus Christ for their answers. I don't make no income because I perform no service. If people want to give me money, I take it."

Larry Eugene Yarber was the eighth of Ruby and George Yarber's 12 children. Although they had one of the largest families on their block in Racine (the family lived at 3405 LaSalle St.) the Yarbers weren't poor. In the mid-1960s, George Yarber worked at a local factory pouring steel and, according to divorce records, made a then respectable $375 a month.

Young Larry was proud enough of his home to use it as headquarters for his popular gang of school friends. He was their undisputed leader, recall both Mrs. Yarber and Rick Lee, a Racine County deputy sheriff who was Yarber's closest childhood friend. Even then he had a magnetic personality.

"He was always in control of his friends," says Larry's 75-year-old mother. "They all did what Larry said. If Larry felt like swimming, they went swimming. If he didn't go, they didn't go."

At Horlick High School, Larry was an average student, but excelled in athletics. He was popular with girls, too, but he never had a steady girlfriend, says his older brother Stan. He preferred to play the field - something he would do well into middle age, according to his one-time followers.

When Larry was 16, his father stunned the family by running away with a white woman. According to relatives, Larry was home when George Yarber and his girlfriend packed their bags and tried to get him to leave with them. Larry, who was especially close to his father, refused. Instead, he sat with tears in his eyes as his father drove away, leaving Ruby and her dozen children to fend for themselves.

"He cracked up," Ruby says of her son's reaction to his father's departure. "When I came home, Larry was on the back stairs of my house and he was crying. He was saying, 'Why did that woman have to take my dad away from me?'"

Says Stanley: "[Larry] really looked up to him at the time, so that's why it really messed him up. I believe something flipped in his brain."

Lee says he saw a change in his best friend about that time. "he had a lot of anger," Lee remembers. "He'd get into fights. Larry wasn't afraid to fight anybody."

The angry young man dropped out of school a short time later, in 1966, according to school records, and went to work at a JI Case Company foundry to help keep the family afloat. (He eventually received his diploma from Kenosha's Gateway technical College in 1970, say Horlick officials.) But as he moved into his late teens, Larry began to tire of Racine and trekked to California to stay with a sister. While there, he satisfied a youthful desire to learn karate, hooking up with one of the state's best Senseis, Young Ik Suh. "He was [Larry's] father figure," Lee says of the Korean instructor.

The teacher's influence on Yarber was so strong that he returned to Racine in 1969 to open his own karate and tae kwon do school. The school, which later would be called the Racine Karate Club, began in the Yarbers' LaSalle Street basement. Word spread among Larry's friends about what a great teacher he was and new students happily paid the $20 fee for lessons. Once their friend, Yarber was now their Sensei and he was held in even greater esteem.

Occasionally Yarber would return to California to continue training with his Korean Sensei. On one of those trips he underwent a startling change: While growing up, relatives say, Yarber was "respectful" of the church but not fanatical. Suddenly, however, he was obsessed with religion.

Oliver Yarber, who accompanied his brother on the California trip, was stunned by his brother's bizarre behavior. "He was reading the Bible every day when he was out there. One day he came to me and said the words [in the Bible] had changed. I told him the words didn't change. But I think it was him being fatigued, staying up so late at night.

"He said that he had the gift of healing and that he was a prophet of God. He said that he had to pass a prophet test, but he never told me how he did it. I thought he was nuts."

Yarber returned to Racine sometime in 1974 after several months in California, says Lee, and confided in him. Lee says of Yarber: "He said he had a very religious experience and he wasn't exactly sure where his life was going to be headed at the time. [He said] the Lord showed him some star in the sky and this was the morning star and it would guide him."

Suddenly Yarber was telling people in wheelchairs that they could walk if they only had faith. "It even reached a point," says Lee, "where he said 'You don't have to read the Bible because I have the answer.'"

Yarber began preaching to his karate students at day's end. Most of them were attentive and believing. "Larry believed in training in karate mentally, spiritually and physically and as long as you believed that that's what you had to do to be the best you can, you would listen," says Wayne Pierce, who joined Yarber's "church" while taking lessons. "So you're already open."

He adds: "I know when I got into it, I was looking for answers to God. So when I was looking and I found someone that gave me every answer I had a question to, I was sucked up. I was looking to be taken."

Those who weren't as easily swayed eventually left the school. "They were forced out," says Pierce. "It became a peer pressure thing."

Rick Lee was one who didn't believe Yarber was a prophet and saw great hypocrisy in his preaching. Lee says Yarber would rail against sinning at 5:30 p.m. and be on the town with him by 8:30, chasing after women. Lee suspected a true prophet of God wouldn't behave as such.

Ruby Yarber was noticing changes in her son, too. One day - she recalls it being in the mid-1970s -- she stumbled on a book in his bedroom. She glanced at its title and was puzzled; why would Larry read that? "It was All about cults," Mrs. Yarber remembers.

Not long afterward, Larry told his mother he'd take over the payments on their home. She recalls: "Larry said, 'Mom, why don't you just turn it over to me and I'll pay for your house and you'll always have a place to stay?'

"So he took me to Milwaukee and I signed that house over to him. That was the fatal mistake because when I signed it over to him, he sold the house. I was sitting there and didn't know where I was going. All of my children was born right there in that house." Records in the Racine County Register of Deeds Office show that Yarber sold the home for $27,500 in January 1978.

Recalls Stan: "It hit mom so hard that she actually just sat in the middle of the floor and began to cry. She kept saying, 'Where am I going to go?' Where am I going to go?' It shocked all of us."

Ruby Yarber, who moved in with a son in Kenosha after her home was sold, says she never received a penny from the sale.

By the early 1980s, Yarber's disciples - most of them karate students and their friends - numbered close to 50 by some estimates. Renting apartments as they became available, they slowly filled up the eight-unit apartment building in a cul-de-sac on Packard Avenue

until only members of "the family" occupied it.

Over the years, these "family" members have included both white and blue collar employees, many of them with college degrees. Although they come from different cultures, his followers have one thing in common: They latched onto Yarber during a transitional period in their lives - coming off a divorce, a shaky relationship or other personal crises. Yarber's strong personality proved a powerful attraction during those times and ex-members, whose recollections span a period of nearly 16 years, paint a picture of incredible devotion to and control by him.

Although Yarber spent most of his time in Kenosha (he currently lives there with his new wife and her children), he visited with his disciples daily. His entrance to the Caledonia apartment building was always a grand one. "Some people could be out in the yard, some people could be in their bedrooms or some people downstairs but as soon as Larry walks in, everybody's drawn to him," says Stanley Yarber, who resided at the house briefly last summer. "If you could picture Jesus standing in a place and everybody sitting around him, facing him, that's what they do with Larry."

Ex-members say Yarber warned them that they would be accused of being in a cult and assured them that that wasn't the case. Says Wayne Pierce: "We were taught…that it was a fundamentalist-type group and it was going to seem real fanatical to everybody else because, of course, when Jesus walked this Earth, everybody thought that of him and they persecuted him and that's what you were prepared to accept."

Yarber used his Saturday services to maintain the upper hand. Members were convinced that the invisible staff he wielded during the meetings was not only a real object, but a potentially harmful one.

During one service, according to ex-members, two women thought the staff was crushing them and they screamed for their prophet's help. "Shirley and June were writhing on the floor, crying because they believed the staff was on top of them and they couldn't remove it without Larry's help," according to an account of group activities written by ex-members.

Also during the services, says ex-members, Yarber required followers to confess their sins and weaknesses before everyone in the group. There were no secrets among the brothers and sisters in some sessions, women would reveal they weren't sexually satisfied, an admission former members say would result in Yarber or one of his male followers knocking on the woman's door later.

"They were strange, they were weird," ex-member Laurel Swifka, a 38-year-old homemaker, says of the confessions. According to the ex-members' written accounts. "Not only did this sometimes result in the emotional collapse of the confessor, but it enable Larry to 'get the goods' on that person. He would not hesitate to use that information against them in the future."

As for Larry, he never gave specifics of his sins; that, of course, would make him vulnerable. "Larry's form of confessing his sins was to say, 'I confess my sins. I've sinned, all men sin.' But we'd have to be specific," says Pierce.

On a daily basis, Yarber would tell his disciples what God had instructed him to say. "Larry said that every morning he would get up and pray and say, 'Lord, just use me however you can today. I just want to be your servant,'" Says Wente.

At the Big House, the brothers and sisters ate together (two families generally were given cooking duties) and showed their faith in God. That faith extended beyond just leaving doors unlocked and keys in cars. They trusted as well that the Lord would watch over their children while they were away; no former members can remember the group ever employing babysitters.

"He [Yarber] had this idea that you could just go out and leave your children and Jesus would take care of them," says Wente. "Why get a baysitter? They would just go and leave their kids." (Several ex-members confirm this.)

Yarber, who had three children with a group member, told his disciples he considered children a burden and encouraged both men and women to get sterilized; many of them did, say ex-followers. They say those children who stayed at the Big House often were beaten with boards - with Yarber's consent.

"[The belief is] you're wrong to use your hands [for spankings]; hands are for loving and sticks are for beating. Spare the rod and spoil the child was the overwhelming message with kids," says ex-member Joe Haas.

Adds a former group member, a woman who was in the group for about four years and left in 1984: "I saw the after-effects [of beatings] - the bruises. I heard the screaming when I was downstairs [at the Big House]. [One man still in the group] hated children and he would beat the hell out of the kids. One boy was so scared to go to school because the teacher [would see bruises and] would ask him what was the problem."

David Krueger, a social worker in the Racine County Human Services Department, says 12 complaints of child abuse at the Big House have been filed regarding ex-members in the past four years. But he says he was unable to act on the complaints. "The reports would come in long after the fact," says Krueger. "Reports are one thing, physical evidence is another -it's being able to prove abuse by having injuries documented and having the victims or witnesses talking to us."

Krueger says one complaint describes one current Yarber disciple as a man "who really got off on beating kids." The statement alleged that he beat children with a board and struck the children so hard "it would make an adult pass out." Children "would quiver and their knees would buckle" as they stood in line to await their beatings according to eyewitnesses' statements dated January 20, 1986.

Ex-members also contend that children were sometimes deprived of medical treatment because Yarber told parents that God not doctors, should take care of their ills. One teenager who has left the group has damaged tooth enamel due to a high fever that wasn't treated, days deprogrammer Ross.

Says Wente: "I always felt very sorry for the children. It was a very brutal philosophy they had about raising children and the only attention they gave them was negative. All of the [group member's] energy was focused on their peers and Larry was very jealous of any energy that would have been more normally directed. He wanted them just to love him."

Sue Wente, a teacher at a Racine Catholic elementary school, joined the group in 1983 after breaking up with the father of her child and undergoing a religious rebirth. She thought the Yarber group consisted of born-again Christians like herself, but it didn't take her long to discover vast differences in their beliefs.

Group members had a habit of prophesying, she says, and making constant threats about what would happen to anyone who left the group. "It was all stuff like bad things will come to you if you don't believe what we believe," she says. "You'll lose your car, you'll lose your house, you'll lose everything. Sickness will come upon you.

"…There are parts in the Bible that say women shouldn't prophesy without their heads being covered. So they'd put a scarf on their heads and say all of these terrible things about what would happen to you [if you left]."

But despite being warned by Yarber and his disciples that calamity would strike if they left, Wente and a friend left the group after just eight weeks. The friend, a teacher in the Racine school system, was warned a second time that she would pay a price for leaving the group; to her surprise, it was issued a few years ago in a Racine school hallway by a Yarber disciple who was also a teacher. "[Wente's friend] saw him and he started prophesying against her and saying awful things about her," says Wente. "He was saying, I hear that you've had trouble with this or that and it's going to get worse. Stuff like that. It really shook her up because it was unexpected and in a professional situation like that, it comes as a double shock."

Darryl Christianson, a Milwaukee psychotherapist who specializes in cult behavior, says cult members are able to function in the workplace because they have two personalities - the "cult personality" and the "world personality." The world personality allows cultists to fit in with the rest of society. However, it's the cult personality that's dominant, he says, and ex-cult members he's treated tell them that switching to this personality prompts a literal clicking in the head. "They have a very profound 'ah-ha!' experience," he says. "It's very sudden."

Wente says she left the group after making the appalling discovery that Yarber was using Bible passages to justify all his actions, including having sex with his followers. "It became clear from talking to some of the women in the cult that they had all slept with Larry or they all had some kind of relationship with him, So when that became obvious, then it was like, forget it - this is obviously strange."

Sylvia Bowman (not her real name) came to that conclusion much too late. She confesses she was in love with Yarber and says she had a sexual relationship with him in the early 80s when she was in her early 20s and coming off a short-lived marriage. Yarber's come-on to Bowman was a line other former members also say they heard from him: "He'd tell me: 'Unzip your pants. You shouldn't be inhibited. God wants you needs to be fulfilled. You don't have a husband right now; you'll have one someday.'"

Yarber and Bowman were having sex three times daily, the woman says, and she became pregnant with Yarber's child. In 1984, she says, shortly before leaving the group, she had an abortion. "I thought, 'I can't do this. That would make Larry go away from me even more. God said he wouldn't have any more children.'" (His two sons are 20 and 13 years old; his daughter was killed in a car accident.)

After the abortion, Sylvia told Yarber he had to start using condoms. "That's when he didn't want to have sex with me anymore and I got my tubes tied to be able to continue," she says. "I'm very sorry I did that."

Bowman, who is now engaged, left the group after seeing she'd been duped by Yarber. "When I finally realized he had gone to bed with all these women, I saw I had been a fool," she says. "You don't expect somebody who [made love] three times a day to have time or energy left for anybody else. You really don't."

But according to ex-followers, Yarber did. Though he managed to convince many of the women he was having sexual relations with that their relationships with him was an exclusive one, many members of the group way they knew otherwise. Says Ex-member Wayne Pierce: "Larry was always having his little affairs with at least several women all the time."

Often, say former members, Yarber's assignations came under the pretext of helping women with their spiritual problems. Pierce says his wife went to Yarber for advice, but ended up in a sexual relationship with him. The odd dynamics of the group persuaded Wayne to accept the affair. "They [other "family" members] kept saying we weren't put together by God to start with," says Pierce. The couple eventually were divorced in 1984 and Yarber married the woman in 1987.

Now in a legal battle with Yarber and his ex-wife for custody of the Pierces' three children, Pierce regrets allowing the affair to happen. "I let it happen because I wanted to be walking with God," he says. "Looking back, the reason it happened was because somewhere along the line, I didn't put my foot down as to what was going on."

Even after their marriages were destroyed, however, Pierce and another man stayed with the group. Yarber, though, realized he had to bend his rules a bit to appease them. "He gave us what I call a payoff to make us happy," says Pierce. "He allowed us to go and do things we were taught were bad to do and that's like going to bars, mingling with natural people, dancing with strange women and maybe even sleeping with them.

"He'd let you do that for a while because, well, you've got to cover your pain somehow."

Ex-members also say that Yarber encouraged the wife-swapping that went on in the group. While they weren't publicly discussed among "the brothers and sisters" the extramarital affairs were disclosed to one another by the way of discreet confessions.

"Whenever you would hear somebody say, 'Forgive me for what I did to you the other night,' you knew what they were talking about," says Pierce. "I got involved with a few people in there myself so I know how it went. Larry used to say, 'Just ask for forgiveness and when you give somebody forgiveness, God forgets.'"

Darleen Woiteshek, however, had neither forgiven nor forgotten her experiences in the group. A Racine elementary school teacher, she joined at the encouragement of her best friend, a Yarber disciple, in 1981. Woiteshek had just separated from an alcoholic husband and needed a change; she found it in the Yarber group.

But the school teacher was never fully accepted by the prophet and his disciples because she refused to move in with her three children to the Big House. She was accused of being selfish. "They said I didn't love enough, I wasn't obedient to God," she recalls.

Living at her home didn't isolate her from Yarber's influence, however. He made late-night and early-morning visits to her home, able to walk right into the house because Woiteshek, like other Yarber disciples, had such strong faith in God that she didn't nee dto lock her doors.

"he kept after me [for sex]," says Woiteshek. Finally, tired of fighting him, she consented.

Yarber also continued to pressure Woiteshel to sell her house and move to the Caledonia headquarters. But it was not until he threatened her in 1988 that she put in on the market. "He told me the spirit would be less and less in that house the longer I kept it," she says. "Being in the cult-minded state like I was, I really believed it. I was anxious to sell the house after that."

Last March, she sold the home and was told by Yarber to give the $16,000 sale proceeds to the men in the group. She was assured by Yarber that her money would be safe. "He said, 'Don't worry, I'm not going to hurt your money.' Whenever I would want to bring it up [as to what happened to it] I thought, I'd better not bring this up because I want to be spiritual."

Last summer, after hearing allegations about the group, Stanley Yarber joined to investigate. In August, after seeing how Woiteshek was being abused in the group, Stan took her aside. She recalls: "He sat me down and told me I was being abused, physically and mentally. I looked at him and it was like I woke up out of a trance. I kind of was in a daze." (Psychtherapist Darryl Christianson says she probably permanently clicked out of her cult personality after her discussion with Stan.)

Even then, she says, "I didn't realize I was in a cult. I thought it was a bad place."

Woiteshek began plotting her move out of the Big House. She discussed it with her teenage daughters, who didn't resist the move. Her 15-year-old son Kevin, though, was a problem. "He fought me. He yelled at me. He said, 'You're wrong with God.' I knew I had a losing battle," she says. Woiteshek was forced to leave Kevin behind when she and Stan packed her belongings and moved out last September 11.

Once settled into her mother's home, the school teacher called the Caledonia Police Department to report Yarber and his group. "Oh, you mean the cult?" the officer responded.

Cult? It was the first time she recognized that she may have been involved in one. Woiteshek then began researching cult behavior and learned about the Cult Awareness Network in Chicago. She called the organization and was given the names of Christianson and deprogrammer Rick Ross.

    [Note: WARNING! The Cult Awareness Network (CAN) was recently bankrupted and bought up by Scientology. We strongly recommend you do not contact them for assistance.]

By the time she got in touch with Christianson she had been out of the Big House - and away from her son - for five weeks. But she called Kevin daily. "He would ask: Have you changed your mind yet?'" she says. Later she would learn that Yarber and his followers were telling Kevin that his mother would fail in the outside world and have to return to the group.

On October 26, Woiteshek called her son and suggested they go shopping the next day. He consented. Rather than driving to a mall, though, she returned to her mother's house where Ross was awaiting Kevin's arrival.

Deprogrammers work to break down their subjects' resistance through a variety of psychological methods. Ross began an intense four-day deprogramming session with Kevin, realizing from the start that Kevin would be a tough case. "He was hostile," says Ross. "I saw what Larry Yarber did to that young man. He stripped him Psychologically and emotionally. It was one of the toughest cases I confronted in 1989," says the Arizona-based deprogrammer, who had about 30 cases last year.

Ross tried to discredit Yarber, showing Kevin that Yarber's prophecies were false. "Repeatedly, Kevin had to confront reality," says Ross, who was featured in a deprogramming segment on the television show "48 Hours" last year. "He had to deal with the extreme discrepancy between [Yarber's] image in the group and the reality of Larry."

During the deprogramming, former group members talked to the youth and Ross took him to Ruby Yarber's apartment. The mother told Kevin how she had been thrown out on the street when Larry sold her house.

Though progress in the case was slow, Ross says he finally saw progress when William Tompkins, minister of Fellowship of Christian Believers, a non-denominational Racine church, talked to Kevin. He had been the boy's soccer coach and Kevin respected him. Ross needed to show Kevin that a person could be "right with God" and outside of Yarber's group.

After the minister talked about Yarber's false prophesies and his abusive treatment of women in the group, Ross asked Tompkins: "Bill, do you believe in Jesus Christ?"

"Of course I do," the pastor answered.

"Do you believe in the Bible?"

Yes again, Tompkins said.

"But Larry - is he a prophet?"

"No, not by common sense or by the Bible," he answered.

Ross turned to the teenager and asked: "Kevin, is Bill right with God or is he wrong?"

Says Ross: "Kevin said he was right with God. That's when I began to see that Kevin was thinking critically and seeing through all the programming that Yarber and his group instilled in him."

During his Racine stay, Ross says, he visited the Bug House and observed Yarber's disciples. They weren't happy to see the deprogrammer. Says Ross: "One group member said to me, 'If it wasn't for Larry Yarber and what he's done for me, I would kill you right now, I'd murder you.' And those were his words verbatim."

After a second deprogramming session in January, Kevin is a "new person," says his mother. "He wants to fight Larry, He says, 'You've got to get in there, mom, and you've got to be organized.'" (In addition to leading Parents and Friends Against the Cult, Woiteshek is looking for a lawyer to help her get her money back from her house sale.)

Other relatives of Yarber disciples simply have given up. Jill Boyd, whose brother joined the group in 1980, is one. She's chosen not to join the support group.

"I find it [the group] to be of no help to me," she wrote in a letter to Milwaukee Magazine. "I suppose you might call me a skeptic. I probably am. I do not believe that the cult will end. I've basically lost any hope or belief that my brother will return alive."

With her letter, Jill enclosed two essays she wrote in college about her brother.

"When I wrote the papers," she explains. "I was being eaten up inside by the anger and frustration and the craziness of the entire issue, as well as its effects on the entire family," she said in the letter. "I would hope that your article will reflect what other articles haven't: the absolute turmoil and destruction to the families left behind. I liken it to families waiting for word regarding the hostages in Iran."

Even those who have escaped Yarber's group have been left emotionally bruised by the cult experience. Says Joe Haas: "You were beat down and built up, built up and built up. Some days you'd feel like you could do no wrong. Larry could make a person feel like they were wonderful or he could make you feel like shit. It was a series of highs and lows, which makes you totally dependent on him and your peers for your self-worth."

Upon leaving the group, Haas says: "I felt great joy initially. Then I had the after effects. According to what I've read and what I've lived, it's like coming off of cocaine or something. It's like an addiction. After a day or two, a great deal of indecision came over me. I got up in the morning and I didn't know whether to put my pants on or walk backwards. I just felt really lost."

Sylvia Bowman says she still has nightmares about the group five years after leaving it. "I have nightmares that they're trying to get me in there. Last night it was they knocked down some walls in my house because I have a seven-bedroom house and I'm worried [in the dream] about them taking it over."

Ex-members say the post-cult trauma is harder for men who followed Yarber. Often they're embarrassed to have been held under Yarber's control. Typically, they "run and hide" one out of the group.

Women, however, want retribution. "They're victimized more and they come out with more of a fighting attitude," says Wayne Pierce. "When they get out they want to strike back. It's just like a rape victim; they'd like to see the guy dead. I think women are victimized more because he not only mentally abuses them, but he physically abuses them."

At press time, Pierce was readying for a custody battle over his three children, ages 9, 10, and 12, who still live with Yarber in the Kenosha home Pierce once owned. He says there's more at stake in the court battle than getting his children back.

"She's [his ex-wife] claims she'll leave Larry and the group if I end up winning the case," says Pierce. "She says that's going to show her she's not thinking right." A trial has been scheduled for this month.

As for Ruby Yarber, she has no hope for her son and believes he's fallen into the hands of the devil. She says she last saw Larry six years ago, when the two had a harsh exchange.

She recalls, her voice rising with each sentence: "There were the last words I ever spoke to Larry Yarber: I said, 'Larry Yarber, you go straight to hell! You go straight to hell because that's where you're going to end up anyhow!' I said, 'You go straight to hell!'"

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