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Disputes, legal woes dog church

San Diego Union Tribune/November 12, 1997
By Philip J. LaVelle

Church Universal and Triumphant is lugging around some heavy baggage on its purported journey to the mainstream, including a history of controversy in southern Montana.

Here's a sampling:

1987 -- Yellowstone National Park officials express dismay over the church's development of hot-water wells at its Corwin Springs headquarters, saying it threatened the park's fragile geothermal features. Later, park officials spar with the church over its use of water from Reese Creek at the park's northern tip for irrigation. Park officials feared it might threaten the local cutthroat trout population; more environmental controversy would follow in the coming years.

1989 -- Church leader Elizabeth Clare Prophet's then-husband, Edward Francis, and another church member, Vernon Hamilton, are indicted on federal conspiracy charges for using false names to purchase $150,000 in weapons -- including heavy .50-caliber rifles designed for combat. Documents seized by federal agents reveal plans to purchase a wide array of military gear -- to protect from armed roving bands after an anticipated nuclear exchange -- including armored personnel carriers, portable radar and night-vision equipment. Francis and Hamilton plead guilty; Prophet was not charged.

1990 -- In March more than 400 Park County residents protest the church's environmental practices and express fears that church members -- streaming into Montana to enter fallout shelters -- threaten public safety. Among the protest signs: "Religion yes; environmental rape, no." In April several underground fuel tanks at the church's infamous main fallout shelter rupture, spewing 31,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel into Mol Heron Creek, one of the few remaining cutthroat trout spawning streams along the upper Yellowstone River. The state of Montana later obtains an injunction halting work at the shelter and accuses church officials of a "pattern of secrecy, deceit and intentional evasion."

1994 -- The church regains its tax-exempt status -- 19 months after it was revoked -- in a settlement with the Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. Justice Department. The tax case evolved from the earlier weapons prosecution. In the deal, the church agrees it will neither purchase nor stockpile weapons and will make some of its subsidiary operations taxable.

1997 -- Church lawyers prepare to defend a lawsuit brought by the estate of Mitchell Mandell, a church member slain by police in December 1993. Mandell was fatally shot during a standoff at a motor home after confronting a tenant over nonpayment of rent. He was shot as he chanted and wielded a ceremonial sword, and may have been armed with a pistol. The lawsuit, which also names police as defendants, seeks damages exceeding $5 million. It alleges Mandell was subjected to "psychological manipulation" when he joined the church and believed anything Prophet said. The lawsuit alleges Mandell firmly believed that as long as he held his sword he was "invincible and could overcome the evil spirits that were manipulating the aggressors." It also broadsides the church for gaining "total loyalty and control of members" through sleep deprivation, peer pressure, "psychological extortion," dietary changes, hypnotic chanting, fasting and separation from family and friends. In September, a federal judge in Montana rejected church motions to dismiss some charges; the case may go to trial next year.

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