Lake City, Fla. -- It had to be the shrine of shrines, the temple of all temples. It had to be majestic, inspiring, enchanting.
Most of all, it had to be colossal - a house of worship befitting a prophet who had walked with God along the Milky Way. No expense, no sacrifice, would be too great for this monument to the preacher who had proclaimed Lake City the Promised Land.
And so it was that in 1996, in a field where cows once grazed off County Road 240, the spiritual headquarters for End Time Ministry began to rise.
Once, Charles Meade had preached in garages and at campgrounds. Once, his followers had been scattered from Illinois to Texas, a penniless bunch of disillusioned college students.
Now, roughly 2,000 of them resided in Lake City, Meade's favorites clustered about him in the Southwood Acres subdivision like drones to a queen bee.
Together, they had established more than 75 new businesses. After nearly filling up Southwood Acres, they had created two new subdivisions, Southwood Meadows and Rose Creek Plantation, which quickly filled with End Timers.
The most prosperous among them strode about town in designer shoes, designer hats, designer colognes, reveling in their affluence.
The architectural plans were filed at the courthouse, and not long thereafter, the site was enclosed by a wire-mesh barrier set in the ground with reinforced concrete posts. (End Timers painted, by hand, each and every link an olive green.) At the entrance, a brick guardhouse was added, along with surveillance cameras and a steel, electronic gate.
And all the while, The Worship Center grew.
From the road, a motorist might have thought that Noah's Ark had been airlifted to Columbia County, flipped upside-down and set atop a foundation of concrete block.
Its roof was green and its walls white, a white so dazzling that the glare it threw stung the eye on a sunny day. The front entrance had two porticos, above which ran two rows of enormous transom windows, 42 in all.
The interior was cavernous, with ceilings that soared to the height of a five-story building and seating for 2,400 people. Video cameras, mounted high on the wall behind the pulpit, panned back and forth during services, recording listeners' expressions.
In every sense, the decor was heavenly.
The ribcage of arches that supported the roof was of California cedar; the chandeliers were of European crystal; the pews and doors, hand crafted, were of Honduran mahogany; the bathroom fixtures were plated in gold.
Such things cost money, and much was needed for this splendid edifice.
One source was Church Loans and Investment Trust, an Amarillo, Texas, company that loaned money for church construction. The Meades borrowed $3.75 million at 8 percent annual interest over 15 years - meaning the ministry had the burden of $29,000 in monthly payments, according to Columbia County records. Another $8 million came from the "Counting Room," a den inside the Meades' residence where stacks of notes covered a long table.
In the end, however, the bill came to about $14 million, according to a former senior member of the sect who was close to the project. And so, the faithful were asked to cover the shortfall.
End Timers had always been expected to pony up a fifth of their after-tax earnings to help Meade spread The Word. (The more fortunate were expected to give about a third, according to former members.) Contributions - cash only - were collected in a tote bag left open on a table at services.
But now, members also were expected to offer cash presents to Meade, as much as $5,000 per family - what was called quarterly "givings," say former members, including Rebekah Hoffman, 24, of Billings, Mont., who had joined the sect with her parents.
As an 18-year-old working part-time at a Wal-Mart for $3.50 an hour, she was told to give $100 a month. "I pawned all my stuff," she says. "I sold my $60 jeans for five bucks a pair just to make them happy."
Then came the bimonthly cash drives. Jim Fallucco, 57, a former member who works for the U.S. Forest Service, says the congregation gave $300,000 during one drive, only to be berated during a Sunday service because it had fallen short of the half-million-dollar goal.
Marlene and Charles Meade "went and bought a red, Cadillac convertible with some of the money we raised in that drive," he says. "And she stood up during that service and said, 'It's OUR money and we can do what we want with it. If anyone doesn't like it, there's the door.'"
Not a soul walked out, Fallucco recalls. "We gave what we could, but it was never enough. I gave them $40,000 over 13 years. That's probably nothing to Meade, but I wish I had it now."
Even among the prosperous, the demand for money was taking a toll. A number of families took out two, even three home mortgages. Some maxed out their credit cards. Others fell in arrears on their property taxes, and with the Internal Revenue Service and Florida's department of taxation, according to Columbia County records.
But they kept on giving.
Brian Johnson, a senior member who joined the ministry in 1975, said he knew of 10 families who lost their houses through foreclosures in the '90s. Finally, he decided he'd had enough; in 1998, the year the Worship Center opened, Johnson and his wife and four children quit.
"The financial demands," he says, "were pushing some families over the edge."
The AP examined the public financial records of 175 families who were in the sect at one time or another during the past 15 years. (The names were provided by former sect members and End Time relatives.) Since 2000, it was learned, foreclosure proceedings were brought against at least 26 of them. That's one family out of seven, an exceptionally high rate, although whether it would hold for the End Time community as a whole cannot be known for sure.
A few families were bailed out by relatives, records show, but most lost their homes at auction or had them confiscated by creditors. One foreclosure involved Meade's son, Robert, and his wife, Joni, who, according to court records, lost their home in the '90s.
Fallucco and his wife finally left the group, without their daughter, in 1998, after 13 years, because, he explains, "if we hadn't, we'd be in the poorhouse, too."
Still, most End Timers - even those in financial trouble - chose to stay in the church. One was Steven Bulock, 50, who operated a laundry equipment supply store, Ability Laundry Equipment, with his wife, Nancy.
It was a small business, but the Bulocks appeared to be in reasonably sound financial shape until 1995, the year the Meades began to raise money for the Worship Center.
According to IRS and state tax records, Bulock failed to pay $13,191.60 in income tax in 1995. The following year he fell short again, by $1,969.29, and then missed payments in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2001. By 2002, he was facing $65,119.47 in IRS liens, court records show.
One afternoon, a week before Christmas, Nancy Bulock went for a walk with a friend after lunch. When she returned an hour and a half later, there was a heavy stillness in the house.
As she entered the living room, she "observed the wood floor to be soaked in blood," according to the sheriff's report filed by the investigating officer, Brady Lutz. Her husband lay in a heap on the bathroom floor, his wrists, arm and carotid artery cleanly cut. The sheriff's report makes no mention of whether a weapon was found.
Steven Bulock didn't leave a note, but the case was ruled a suicide. (At least three other End Timer deaths have been ruled suicides; one victim was a woman who had been planning to leave the sect.)
One brilliant, spring Sunday, a big, burgundy sedan with gold trim eased past the front gates of the residential compound in Southwood Acres and rolled to a halt.
On both sides of the driveway, dozens of clean-cut couples and their children stood waiting. Two former End Timers recall the scene vividly. They remember how everyone held hands and beamed bright smiles.
Charles Meade stepped out of the Cadillac, bowed, and doffed his bright, white fedora.
"Say, honey," his wife, Marlene, called out, "tell them about your new hat!"
The preacher swiveled his head and seemed to ponder.
"Tell them, dear," his wife said, teasingly, "tell them what you paid for it."
Meade straightened, touched the brim and said, "Oh, all right. Folks, this thing only cost me about $3,000!"
For the Meades, life was good.
Today, according to state and county records, the preacher owns 146.62 acres in Columbia County, including 47.98 acres of timberland. He owns six houses, three tractor trailers, a trio of mobile homes, a 3,000-square-foot climatized barn and a stable for his horses.
He possesses a fleet of Cadillacs and pickup trucks, according to several former End Timers, including Tom Pearson, who frequently volunteered to polish the marble floors of Meade's house. (Florida motor vehicle records show the Meades own 11 vehicles registered in this state.)
Meade's primary residence, surrounded now by a high, brick wall, is five times larger than it was in 1984, when he bought it for $78,400. It is now assessed at $541,157. County records show that the total assessed value of Meade's real estate holdings stands at $1.759 million. (Real estate here tends to sell for two to three times the assessment.)
Which got locals to wondering.
Why would a man who had dedicated his life to teaching that the end of the world was imminent invest so much money in real estate?