Sandra Smith is driving along Highway 47, a few miles south of Lake City, a North Florida town infused with strangers waiting for Jesus.
She is pointing to homes and businesses owned by members of End Time Ministries --"ET's" she calls them. Others she calls "normals." Smith and a growing number of citizens believe there is nothing normal about what's going on in their community.
"That one's an ET. These are normals," Smith says. "Those are ETs. That one, we believe to be a safe house, where they put new members, or women who are about to have babies."
As she begins her drive, Smith places a pouch on the console of her van. The pouch holds a pistol. She got the gun several months ago, shortly after she found her five kittens beaten and beheaded on her walkway, after her business had been egged twice, after she and a TV reporter were harassed by 12 men in khaki uniformsETs, she saysand after becoming convinced that her phone was bugged.
Those events took place after Smith found a group of End Timers praying on her business property, "claiming it" in the name of Jesus. And after finding a real estate agent inspecting her property, uninvited and unannounced.
The gun is not a threat, but a precaution, she says. It is protection against the unknown.
"Law enforcement no longer considers me a hysteric," Smith says. "I'm getting a lot of backup that some of the others don't because they live ire the heart of ET country and the only law out there is ET."
Smith has little hard evidence that would link her unsettling incidents with End Time Ministries. And not everyone shares her level of concern. Most in Lake City would say that the End Timers are quiet, law-abiding Christians with peculiar, but generally harmless beliefs.
"There's a lot of suspicion by some, but there's no evidence that links them to criminality," says Columbia County Sheriff Tom Tramel. "There's nothing that we can actually sink our teeth into as it relates to criminal activity. We know relatively little about them."
What is known, and what is not known, has some residents concerned.
Smith, who has learned much about the group, suspects she doesn't know all. It is the suspicion that makes her afraid.The van reaches the outer edge of town.
"This is where I usually pick up a tail," Smith says. "This is 47. This is now their road from here on out."
About three miles later, Smith drives into Southwood Acres, a subdivision with spacious lots holding 58 homes in the $100,000 range. This is where End Time members in recent years offered as much as $60,000 in cash as down payment on homes that weren't even on the market. Half of the Southwood Acres homes now belong to End Timers.
An adjoining development, Southwood Meadow has 12 homes; 11 belong to End Timers.
One home captures the attention of the neighborhood. It is the one with a privacy fence topped by three strands of barbed wire, an elaborate brick entryway framing its driveway, "no trespassing" signs and three rows of trees between whichsay "normal' who monitored the landscaping sharp sticks protrude from the ground. Across the street, the ground is bare in two spots where trucks park each night to watch the home, which has an appraised value of $104,864.
Some citizens of Lake City have come to call it "God's house." It is the home of Charles Meade, the 74-year-old founder of End Time Ministries, who says he has visited the evening star, walked with God along the Milky Way, healed the sick, revived the dead and "in the name of Jesus" commanded would-be robbers to drop their weapons.
Meade moved to Lake City in 1984 from Indiana, where he began his ministry in the early '70s after spending most of his life as an employee of the Ball Manufacturing Co. According to the Cult Awareness Network, an advocacy group that monitors non-traditional religious organizations, Meade now has about 1,000 followers in Lake City and surrounding North Florida counties. Most have joined him from their homes in several states.
Judy Safransky, a Tampa volunteer for the Cult Awareness Network, says that number includes some that moved to Lake City from similar groups that exist in South Florida.
End Time's purpose, as Meade told his followers in one of more than 60 tape-recorded sermons, is this:
"God's going to have a mighty army in this end time. The army that he spoke about in Joel. And you're some of the people. This generation here is the one that's going to bring Jesus back."
He talks about establishing a Society of "the greatest people that ever walked the face of the Earth." And he talks of himself, as someone doing something that has never been done.
He once told his followers that Jesus could "wash your clothes right on your own body, you don't even have to take them off. All you've got to do is believe God's word. "
Meade says he has seen evil spirits sitting on people's shoulders, whispering in their ears. One of Meade's preachers told of a person who became overweight after being operated on by an overweight doctor. The "fat spirit" left the doctor and entered the patient through the operation, said the End Time preacher.
Meade has preached about the folly of formal education. His own grammar is poor. He calls children "childern" and apostles "apos-tels."
Yet, the core of his followers are well-educated, having been recruited in the mid-'70s from a Bible study group at Northwestern University in Chicago. Among them are geologists, high-tech electronics technicians and heads of companies, including one top leader who has master's degrees from Northwestern and Indiana University. Another is a graduate of the Air Force Academy.
They are easily noticed on the highways and streets of Lake City. End Time men wear their hair short and unstyled. No beards or moustaches are allowed, as Meade has preached that moustaches are signs of "the homosexual spirit."
Women and girls wear calf-length skirts and shoulder-length hair. They don't wear makeup, for to do so would invite demons, particularly one once referred to by Meade as "the lipstick spirit."
In addition to believing that Charles Meade has been called to establish God's Perfect community on Earth, they believe:
Since joining End Time Ministries, those same people who met in universities teach their children at home through Florida's Home Study program. (In 1986 Columbia County had 11 students enrolled in home study. In 1991, there are 320, an increase that school board officials attribute to the presence of End Timers.)
Nor do End Timers believe in doctors. Members are encouraged to throw away their eyeglasses and false teeth and are told that sickness is the result of sin and "unbelief."
Since 1978, at least 12 babies belonging to End Time families have died from causes that medical officials say could have been prevented. The victims include 4 -day-old Michael Boehmer, who died in 1989 of internal bleeding, which doctors say could have been prevented with a vitamin K injection. It is the only infant death recorded among the group since the move to Lake City.
In March, End Time members Charles and Marilee Myers pleaded guilty to abuse by negligence after their 16-year-old son almost died of a heart condition from being denied medical attention. (The Myers are also the grandparents of Michael Boehmer.)
Another concerned citizen, Anne Conner, a Lake City optician, worries for those she doesn't even know. Conner, who has four adopted children, is among those who are concerned that babies may have died and gone unaccounted for behind the group's inscrutable shield of privacy and behind laws that protect religious beliefs.
End Timers are known for having large families. And for home births without a doctor's care. Conner says that so many births in the absence of medical assistance defy the odds.
"I am not going to buy it that there have been no other deaths than Michael Boehmer," Conner says. "I'm convinced there are babies being buried someplace. There cannot be this many babies being born with no pre-natal care and not have deaths."
Conner's concern is not shared by the Mayor of Lake City. Gerald Witt recently advised the Gainesville Sun: "You and I nor any government has the authority to proscribe at what point one must stop praying and seek medical attention. More babies die under a doctor's care than die being prayed for."
As disturbing as their beliefs about medical treatment are to some, the "normals" of Lake City say that the "ETs" are doing things for which religious conviction is not a satisfactory apology.
That is why a small group of Lake City citizens have begun monitoring activity. Some say they've seen actions that frighten them. Some say what they have observed is abnormal. Most say End Time behavior is simply odd.
These, they say, are some of their observations.
Those citizens who say they've observed such behavior -- some of who are afraid to speak on their private phones for fear of surveillance -- want to know what it means. Others who have only heard things--want facts separated from rumors.
The answers are not forthcoming. Meade, who has an unlisted phone number, will not speak to media, though he once said to a Lake City: reporter, "All this [attention] is foolishness. I don't fool with foolishness."
One of Meade's most ardent followers was asked to explain some of the End Time peculiarities. He would not comment for the record, and after saying that a reporter was being used by the devil, said this: "Anybody who is not saved, who is not filled with God's spirit, cannot possibly comprehend what we are about."
Nor can the "normals" of Southwood Acres comprehend where some of the "ETs" get their money.
Tim Smith (no relation to Sandra Smith) lives at the end of a road that winds through End Time country. His neighbor is an End Timer who sells high-school graduation supplies and whose wife sells candy.
Smith is left with this question: "How can you spend $90,000 on a home, buy four vans and raise five children, selling graduation supplies and candy?"
Former End Timer Joni Cooke Eddy, who lives in South Dakota, may have Smith's answer. Smith's neighbor, Mike Cady, is one of a few End Time preachers each appointed by Meadewho lead services, Eddy says.
Eddy says that Gary Cooke, her former husband, often made more money as an End Time preacher than from his roofing business.
End Timers are taught that a minimum of 10 percent of their income must be paid to their preachers and they are encouraged to give much more. Eddy says that some members work more than one job so that they- can show their faithfulness by giving a larger amount.
Before following Meade to Florida in 1988, Cooke preached regularly to about 125 End Timers in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Eddy says that contributions from that group averaged $1,000 per week. She says that the money, always cash, was collected in a suitcase at the end of each service. In addition to the money they gave their local preachers, many followers sent money directly to Meade.
Meade's appointed ministers in turn were expected to send at least 10 percent most sent moreof what they collected to him.
"There were huge amounts of cash being sent through the mail," Eddy says. "To be in solid [with Meade], you had to have that part down really well. You spend a lot of your energy just trying to find favor in this group."
Defectors say Meade controls the money the way he controls his followers' lives.
Including his home, Meade owns five properties in and around Southwood Acresa total of 59½ acres, appraised at $200,610. Most of that property is a 41acre park south of Lake City where End Time services are held. (Some services are held at homes and at a Gainesville Holiday Inn.)
Old former member says the bathroom of Meade's home has gold fixtures. Another talks of his fondness for expensive suits and Cadillacs. Part of the Meade lore is that he has a $20-per-hour maid, who once told a neighbor of a "money room" with stacks of cash on a table.
Meade's message that his followers are to deny worldly pleasures does not include refusing the world's money. In fact, he preaches that the End Time army, like the God-led Israelites leaving Egypt, should take "the enemy's" riches.
"When God sets you free," Meade preached on one tape, "you see what he did to them. He give them silver and gold and give them plenty, taken it right away from the enemy and give it to his people. I'm telling you the same thing can happen right now. Why should the enemy out here, the ungodly, the unbeliever be handling all the gold?"
Much of Lake City's "gold" is being handled by End Timers. Although they exclude themselves from virtually every other facet of community living, End Time Ministries is well represented in the business community.
As of last year, 39 businesses in Lake City and the surrounding area were owned by End Timers, including a roofing business, landscaping firm, air-conditioning repair shop, a cellular telephone company, a deli and pizza parlors.
Charles Sparks, an End Time member, is the town's leading real estate agent. He is also a member of the Lake City Chamber of Commerce.
And Michael Carrender, an End Timer who first heard Meade's tapes as a student at Northwestern University, is the president of Consolidated Packaging Corp. of Jacksonville. In March, Harris Trust and Savings Bank of Chicago filed suit against Carrender's company, saying that $460,000 of employee contributions and $281,000 in matching company contributions had not been deposited as required under the terms of the company's employee savings plan.
Being a member of End Time Ministries, Joni Cooke Eddy says, is to relinquish self-guardianship and self-esteem for robotic obedience to the authority of Charles Meade and his teachings.
When Meade once visited Eddy and her former husband, he told them to get rid of the wallpaper they had and get a plain color with no patterns. He also told them they should get rid of their standing clock because the pendulum was an instrument of Satan.
End Time parents are instructed to play tapes of sermons to their children and are told to let the tapes play even after the children have gone to sleep.
"It's all about control," Eddy says. "Power and control."
From a Meade sermon: "Satan is still getting through and touching God's people and it has to be stopped in some way and you have to start training your mind and your thoughts. The spirit of your mind, this is where things are getting through now.... There's an opening he has found in many and it's through the mind. This is where you've got to stop him.... God revealed it to me that Satan was getting through the mind to his people.... Many are deceived through the mind. Tell your mind even what to think."
Eddy says that new members soon become incapable of making decisions.
"I had women calling me, asking if it was OK for them to wear bobby pins," she says.
Shortly before leaving the group, Eddy argued with Meade and his wife, Marlene, about the strict and demeaning manner in which End Timers were to conduct themselves. (Meade's first wife, Marie, died of cancer in 1986, and three weeks later he remarried.)
Eddy told Meade: "I don't think it's any minister's responsibility to monitor my behavior and tell me every little thing I'm supposed to do."
Charles Meade said to Eddy: "That's exactly what God sent me here to do."
Part of their argument was over whether women should be allowed to wear earrings. Meade told Eddy that earrings were "an adornment" and therefore sinful.
Eddy countered that earrings were no more an adornment than neckties, which she says are one of Meade's favorite things.
"God never spoke to me about neckties," Meade said to Eddy, "but he has spoken to me about earrings."
Marlene and Don Papka quit End Time after learning of the death of the Boehmer baby. The Papkas were about to follow others from Billings, Mont., to Florida when they read an account of the death in a newspaper.
The boy's grandmother, Marilee Myers, had been Marlene Papka's best friend in Billings, and although the two had spoken several times by telephone, Myers never mentioned that her grandson had died.
She talked only, Papka says, of how beautiful things were in their new home with all their friends.
The Papkas have a daughter in Lake City who belongs to End Time. Marlene Papka last saw her granddaughter, Jennifer, in 1989. Before the family moved to Florida, Papka had always kept chewing gum as a treat for her granddaughter.
But the last time she offered Jennifer a piece of gum, the 9-year-old said to her,"I can't have this gum, Grandma."
"Why not?" she asked the child.
"Grandma, there's evil spirits in it," the child said.
In February, Papkas drove from Billings to Lake City to check on their daughter and grandchildren.
When the daughter saw them coming, she locked the door of the house and closed the blinds. Then she called the Lake City police and had her parents removed from her property.
"Since when is it against the law to visit your grandchildren?" Marlene Papka sobbed as she was ordered to leave.
"It's a heartbreaking story that one man has alienated all those people from their families," says Anne Conner. "And for what purpose?"
Some Lake City residents worry that End Time's purpose may lie behind the religious rhetoric that also is its shield from scrutiny.
"We're beginning to be alarmed as a community," says Douglas W. Hendon, pastor of the First Church of the Nazarene. "It really disturbs me that they're so withdrawn, with the exception of them tapping into the financial aspects of the community."
Hendon says that Meade has been invited to attend meetings of the Columbia County Ministerial Alliance but has refused.
"All churches, in his opinion, are of 'whoredom,' as he puts it," Hendon says.
To others, Meade's obsession with calling his followers the "End Time army'' has a disturbing ring that is somehow different from traditional religions singing Onward Christian Soldiers.
"I would guarantee you that he is not speaking only metaphorically when he uses that phrase," Eddy says.
And, of course, observers refer to Jim Jones and the mass suicide at the People's Temple in Guyana when discussing fears about End Time Ministries.
"A lot of the community doesn't see what we see in these people," Tim Smith says. "They aren't what they're supposed to be.
"It's something that you've got to be careful what you say and how you salt, but there's a threat there. I see the reverse of Jonestown. I see them turning on us."
Only this seems certain: End Time Ministries will turn however Charles Meade turns it.
From a Meade sermon: "Maybe some of you don't understand it, but we're doing greater works right now than even Jesus did when he was upon this Earth. I'm telling you, we're getting a people together in a time of trouble and darkness upon this Earth here like man has never assembled before together. And it's one of the hardest tasks a man has ever faced upon this Earth, is to bring a true people together in God, walking in the spirit, believing God's word, getting all healed up and set free and building up an army in this end time for the return of Jesus Christ. There's never been a man who had that task before upon this Earth. And I'm telling you; we're on our way now. We're on our way. We're on our way. He's on our side! He's on our side; I said He's on our side!"