Religious group at issue in custody case

The Milwaukee Journal/April 4, 1990

By David Cole

Kenosha, Wisconsin -- A self-proclaimed prophet of God has defended his religious beliefs and practices and those of his followers at a stormy child custody hearing.

"Jesus Christ told me that before I was born he ordained me to be a prophet in the world," Larry Yarber, 43, told Kenosha County Circuit Judge Robert Baker on Monday.

Yarber has been identified as the head of a "family" of followers some of whom live in a community style apartment building in the Town of Caledonia in Racine County. Members call it the "Big House."

Yarber, his wife and her three children live n a north side Kenosha home.

Baker is to decide whether Yarber and his wife, Shirley, should retain custody of her three children from her previous marriage to Wayne Pierce.

Pierce, 37, is an unemployed diesel mechanic who lives in lake Geneva, is seeking custody of the children ages 9, 10, and 12.

Shirley Yarber's sister Susan Borger contended in court Monday that Larry Yarber was a bad influence on her sister.

"My opinion is that Larry Yarber...has alienated Shirley from our family," Borger testified.

Over the past 10 years, Yarber has gained trust and respect as a true prophet from dozens of area residents former members of his group say. Yarber has been accused by these former members of condoning the disciplinary beating of children, encouraging wife-swapping and using member's money to avoid work and to finance vacation trips and buy a sports car.

Yarber, a karate expert, denied some of the charges in court Monday.

He said members had agreed to let him keep the leftovers of tithes that were used to finance his ministry. In addition, one member has provided unlimited access to a credit card, he said.

"These people wanted to give money to me," he said.

Yarber admitted that he had not filed an income-tax return for nearly 10 years.

He continually wove religious talk into his testimony, frustrating Pierce's attorney, Thomas Anderson.

When asked who kept track of money collected in a basket each at the Big House Yarber said, "God does." Anderson then sarcastically asked, "How many times a week does God come out to the Big House and check the basket?"

Borger, Shirley Yarber's sister, recommended that custody of the children be transferred to Pierce.

"The kids should not grow up in a house where Larry Yarber lives and runs everything...She [Shirley] thinks he's talking with God's voice," Borger said.

Pierce who broke from the group in 1986 said Monday  that his children might be absorbing unrealistic and harmful values by living with Yarber.

Pierce contended that the groundwork for the failure of his marriage to Shirley was laid by Larry Yarber, who encouraged his followers to spend time with each other's spouses.

"He does not want a family unit to get too close or too strong so he puts other people together with one another, to keep them devided," he said.

Pierce said that he had developed a stronger relationship with his children in recent months and that they  needed to be removed from Larry Yarber's influence and receive professional counseling.

Shirley Yarber's attorney, Katherine Lingle, portrayed Larry Yarber's group as something akin to a harmless social club that organized recreational activities and religious discussions.

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