IMPORTANT NOTES FROM THE ANTI-PHELPS UNDERGROUND
PLEASE MAKE 10 COPIES OF THIS 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 had copies.
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
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.
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.
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
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 Deaprtment
204 S.W. 5th Street
Topeka, Kansas 66603
...............COURT DOCUMENT FOLLOWS................
IN THE DISTRICT COURT OF SHAWNEE COUNTY, KANSAS
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 1/2 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
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 the
(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.)
(Letterhead of the law firm of Goodell, Stratton, Edmonds & Palmer)
515 South Kansas Avenue
Topeka, Kansas 66603-3999
June 2, 1994
Mr. Jon Bell
(Home Address Intentionally Omitted)
Shawnee, Kansas 66216
In re:Topeka Capital-Journal
I understand that you are in some way marketing or trying to develop an
interest in the Capital-Journal's investigatory work on Fred Phelps.
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. Merriam
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.)
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."
A frequent quote of Pastor Fred Phelps
CAST OF CHARACTERS AND PHELPS FAMILY TREE
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.
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 years
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
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 Department.
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,
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 street
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 thick
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 feel it.
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
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...
"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 Southern
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
"I'm not urging anybody to kill anybody," he adds, then matter-of-factly
explains how his interpretation of the Bible calls for precisely that:
"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 Midwest.
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
"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 way."
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 the air.
>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 universities.
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 atta
ck: 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 streetcorner 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 easier.
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 behavior.
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.
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 chains."
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 nearly
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
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,"
"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 exhausted sons.
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 that."
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 train
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
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 Phelps.
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
streetcorner malevolence mocking the cameras.
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Vernal.
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.
"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
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 worshippers 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
"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 leads it."
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 magdelene 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
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 them.
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, grandfatherly 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 fucking 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 coursework 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.
"And, remember, whenever my father was beating us, or if he was tearing
up a room, the violence might only last a few minutes, but he would keep
up his tirade for hours on end. "I'm not exaggerating. My father would
literally scream-not talk-scream-of-consciousness non-stop insults at us
for hours. "His mouth was, for all the years I knew him, the most
foul, vulgar, cursing mouth you've ever heard. There's nothing he
wouldn't say, including cursing God openly. I watched him, one day,
stand at the back of the church auditorium just outside the kitchen
door, and literally jump up and down and scream curses at the top of his
lungs, like a grown-up two year-old man." The content or nature of
those tirades is instructive. If, in fact, Phelps did maintain this kind
of vitriol for hours one end, it indicates an individual who is
seriously clinically disturbed. Since one man's scandal might be
another's vernacular, the Capital-Journal asked Mark and Nate for a
sample of one of their father's marathon four-hour tirades. The
following, if read in a loud and angry voice (not everyone can scream),
will have a very different effect on one than if it is only scanned. It
offers a sudden and shocking subjective experience of what it must be
like inside the pastor's head-of the twisted rage and volcanic hate that
must seethe in there-assuming the sample is accurate. Most functioning
individuals are able to carry on the following Fauve impressionist
vitriol for only a minute or so...Phelps reportedly maintained it for
Shitass, Goddam, tit-ass, piss-ass Goddam, ass-hole bastard, piece of
shit, dick, son-of-a-bitch God forsaken filthy measly-assed piece of
fucking shit Goddam horses ass. You're not worth shit. You're a no good,
no account, God forsaken piss-assed little bastard. Get your ass in
there and lean over that Goddam bed, you're going to get a licken.
Bitch. Fucker. Prick, Fucker, Prick, Goddam fucker, Goddam prick,
asshole, prick, prick, fucker, fucker, fucker, fucker, fuck you, you
Goddam fucking piece of garbage. Go to hell. Fuck you. Go to hell.
Prick. Fucker. GODDAMN YOU, you fucker. You worthless piece of shit.
Goddam you, you worthless piece of shit of Goddam fucking shit. Fuck
you. Go straight fucking to hell you Goddam fucking son-of-a-bitch. God
Damn You! God Damn You!!! God Damn You!!! You Goddam asshole son-of-a-
bitch. God Damn You! How dare you, you asshole bastard prick turd. You
turd. You lying, mother fucking stinking piece of fucking shit. Fuck
you, you lying sack of shit, you. Get the fuck out of my face. Go to
hell. I hate you, you bastard. I hate you, you asshole. You Goddam prick
asshole bastard, dick, piece of fucking rank stinking fucking garbage
that's as full of shit as anyone could ever be. Get the hell out of
here, you fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Go to fucking hell you bastard. Piss-
ass. Horses ass. Goddam fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker. Fucker.
FUCKER! FUCKER! FUCKER! Asshole. You bastard. You sick Goddam son-of-a-
bitch. You worthless little bastard. You Goddam asshole prick bastard.
God Damn It!! God Damn YOU!!! GOD DAMN YOU!!! Fuck you, you bastard.
You're going to hell. You little Tit-ass. Shit-ass. Fucker Tit-ass. You
little Shitass. Piss-ass little bastard. You Goddam little bastard, I'm
going to teach you. Get the hell up there. Why did you do this to me?
Say!! What's the big idea? What the hell do you think you're doing,
bringing reproach on the church of the Lord Jesus Christ? I'm not going
to put up with your sissified wimpy asshole ways. Shut up. God damn it.
God damn it. God damn it. Keep those Goddam kids quiet. I'm not going to
tell you again. What's the big idea making all of that Goddam racket?
Say! Didn't I tell you to not make a fucking sound? You think you're so
Goddam smart thinking for yourself, when I told you what the fuck I
wanted. Keep those Goddam kids quiet or I'm going to beat the hell out
of all of you, you bitch. You bastard. You bitch. Fuck you. Fuck you,
God damn it. I'm going to beat the hell out of you; I warned you and now
you're going to catch it. Where do you think you're going. Get the fuck
back over here you son-of-a-bitch and take your beating like a man.
Fucking asshole bastard son-of-a-bitch chicken shit piece of crap, no
good little bastard. What the hell do you think you're doing, for
Christ's sake? I'm not going to put up with you, do you understand me?
Do you? I won't tolerate this bullshit. God Damn you!! I'll beat the
living shit out of you. Watch it. I'm warning you. I warned you what I'd
do. It's your own God Damn fault. I warned you, for Christ's sake.
What's the big idea getting this family in trouble like this? I'll beat
you until you can't stand up or sit down. God damn son-of-a-bitch,
asshole. I told you what I'd do if you didn't get them Goddam grades up.
You little prick. How do you like that? Does that hurt, does it? Goddam
it, does it hurt? It better hurt. If it doesn't I'll make sure it hurts.
Are you fucking crazy? Are you crazy? You must be insane. Jesus Christ,
how many Goddam times am I going to have to beat you? When are you going
to learn? Say! Say! Is that right? Is that right? When you are going to
learn? You no account little bastard. In the old testament they used to
take kids like you out and stone them to death. That's what you deserve.
You ought to be taken out and stoned. At least parents in that time had
some Goddam solution to a problem like you. That's what would cure you.
You've been nothing but Goddam grief to your mother and I since the
fucking day you were born. I wish you were dead. I hate you. Jesus
Christ, I hate you. I can't stand you. I can't stand the sight of you.
You're sniffing after some whore, for Christ's sake. You got your dick
wet and now you've just gone crazy sniffing after that fucking whore.
You hot blooded little bastard. Keep your Goddam pants on and keep your
fucking dick inside. Horse piss, bullshit, balderdash, crap, lying
bastard, son of belial, reprobate. ballamite, Goddam Horses Ass! God
damn you God, you lying asshole letting them do this to me. God damn You
God, how could you let them do this to me! What the hell do you think
you're doing? God damn you God. You son-of-a-bitch. Hey you bitch, got
any good words for me? You better say something or I'm going to kick the
living shit out of you. Speak up. Say!!! What the hell good are you?
Say, what the hell good are you? What the hell is on your Goddam mind?
Speak the hell up. I'll slap the living shit out of you until you
fucking can't see straight. You pussy whipped little bastard. You horse
manure. Fuck you. Go to hell. You're going to hell. Go to hell. Shitass.
Bastard. Bitch. Horses ass. God damn chicken shit bastard son-of-a-bitch
little fucker, get the fuck out of my sight. You little chicken shit.
You piece of garbage. You're God damn worthless. You'll never amount to
a God damn thing. You're a loser and always will be. You go along fine
for a while and then you do something like this to fuck it all up. You
little asshole. You'll never amount to anything. You're a God damn
loser. You'll end up in jail you God damn deadbeat. Shut your big dumb
ape mouth, you look like some kind of fucking idiot with your big Goddam
dumb mouth hanging open. I'll beat that foolishness out of you. Look at
that foolishness leaving him, I can see it with every hit of this Goddam
mattock. It does my heart good to hear those screams and see that
foolishness leaving. What's the big idea doing that to me? Say! Why did
you do this to me Say! Say! How could you treat me this way? How could
you treat me this way you little bastard? What's the big idea? Say! I'm
not going to put up with this kind of bullshit. You're going to get a
beating. Lean over there Goddam it. You think I'm going to put up with
you? You think I don't know how to deal with the likes of you, you God
forsaken little bastard? We know how to deal with asshole kids like you.
I'll beat you. I'll beat you like the Bible says to beat you and you
won't die. Dammit woman, you know the Bible says that if you beat your
child they won't die, so shut your Goddam mouth or I'll slap you. Do you
want me to beat you fat ass? You Goddam hussy. You fat Goddam hussy.
You'd think you could give me some Goddam fucking support instead of
always fighting me and causing me all of this Goddam fucking grief. I'm
not going to put up with your Goddam sassy mouth talking back to me or
telling me what to do, you fucking bitch. I'm telling you; Goddam it;
I'm warning you, I'm going to slap the hell of out of you; you're going
to catch it if you don't shut your Goddam God forsaken mouth and back
off. I'm not going to tell you again. The next time I'm going to turn my
Goddam attention to you and you're going to be sorry. I'll cuff you
around and give you a Goddam beating. Don't interfere with my beating of
this Goddam bastard one more time. I want this fat off of that ass. I'm
not going to put up with that fat ass. If you don't lose by tomorrow,
you'll get another beating. I want that fat ass off of you, you fat
bitch, you Goddam fat slut, do you get it, you think headed bitch?
"My sisters and brothers just stood around and shaked and farted and
looked scared when dad was throwing a fit," brags Mark
uncharacteristically. "but I learned how to control my fear by working
with my hands and getting things done. "I used to stand in the back
room of the house, which was called the dryer room, and fold clothes for
hours upon hours. I learned to feel secure if I was getting something
done that was bottom line."
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 the porch.
"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
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 together.
"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 animal.
"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. All
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
"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 us."
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'."
"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
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
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," remembers Nate.
"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 roundtrip 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
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
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
"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 1973.
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 recollectionsEstimated dollarsHalf the
year, 1968$22,710The entire year,
the year, 1975$22,710Estimated total dollars from candy sales:$317,940We
estimate the average dollar amount sold for the specified
days:Weeknights during the school year$75/nightSaturdays during school
year$300/SaturdaySix days a week during the summer$220/dayBased on this,
you can follow the figuring below:Nine months of the school year,
approximately would be:Five week night x $75/night$375Saturdays$300Total
per week$675$675 x 36 weeks, approximately $24,300Three 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/yearAs 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 in
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, bango to those pesty 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.
"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 KTOP
(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. Rastus 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 Lewises were an uneducated black
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
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
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
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 $80,000.
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 even today.
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.
"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
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 wrong
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 appeal.
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 practices.
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 each.
*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 pastor
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 "tortiously 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 Westboro.
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 his
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,
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 the earth.
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 rights'
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."
"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 income."
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 lour 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
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, thanks."
"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
"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 bullshit, 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
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," rememberJs 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
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 bullshit 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
"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 epilepsy.
"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 tragedy.
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
"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 dick 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 feet.
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 dick 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
"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 for
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
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
"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
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, whorish woman."
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
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.
"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 seat.
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
"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 it."
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 hard-hearted,"
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 with
"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 finish
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 independence).
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 nodesire 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
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 worshipped 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 nd 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 ould 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
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.
Nates 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?'"
"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
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 theatre, 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 whoremongers 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 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
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 conflicts.
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 theatre-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
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
"The best lack all conviction and the worst are filled with a passionate
Ray Russ , ,
Queer radical actively promoting the "Gay Agenda" (ie, basic and fundamental
human rights and equality) as defined by such dangerous and subversive
documents as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the United Nations
Declaration on the Rights of Man-to mention a few. Pretty scary eh?