Fenner Case Update- Three Witnesses Testify for the State

At the close of Friday’s session, Judge Gary Gavenus announced with a smile that the jury was excused for the weekend recess. After two full days of witness testimony on behalf of the prosecution in the Matthew Fenner case, he ended with the often repeated precautions for the jury to not expose themselves to outside sources of information including news media, Internet or social media. He added they were not to talk to each other, family or anyone else about the case in any manner. His instructions were firm, but laced with an underlying tone of respect and consideration for the fourteen individuals who answered the call for this jury session.

This has been a full week as several Word of Faith Fellowship (WOFF) members, former church members, press correspondents and supporters endured two full days to select the needed jurors. After the last alternate juror was selected and the Judge gave the jury instructions; Matthew Fenner was the first witness called for the State on Thursday. He testified the rest of the day. As a result of each potential witness being sequestered (not present in the courtroom during any testimony of other witnesses), the gallery was less full than in the previous two days.

In an attempt to time my arrival, I missed the first part of Matthew’s testimony which included his description of the events of January 27, 2013. I was told by one who heard it; they believed it was emotional and impactful. I have not doubt. The part of Matthew’s testimony outlining the events leading up to his escape is where my notes start.

Assistant District Attorney Garland Byers questioned Matthew about the details of his movements leading up to and during his escape at 2:00AM on January 31, 2013. After packing a bag, he and Patrick Covington left in Matthew’s mom’s car and drove his grandparents. At that time, he and Patrick were close friends.

As a review, Byers reviewed the events of the evening of January 27th, reviewing the parties present, the order of when Matthew was moved from the sanctuary to the foyer and back. Byers asked for details on who touched whom and whether or not Matthew was surrounded at all times.

During one answer Matthew said, “I was strangled, slapped (and) hit in the chest.”

From my seat, I observed defense attorney Teddy as he wrote notes on a yellow pad and then switched to furiously typing on his laptop. Many times, his knees were bobbing up and down as a nervous habit. Sometimes both knees, sometimes just his right knee. I took this as a sign he was intently accessing what he was hearing and forming his next objection or strategy. He was engaged for sure.

The courtroom acoustics were poor and each chair in the gallery seemed to squeak loudly if the occupant just thought of repositioning to get more comfortable… After a while, you just had to ignore the chorus of chairs as they creaked and groaned in a non-sensible annoying chorus!

About 2:45PM, Byers finished his line of questions and the Judge allowed the defense to begin questioning Matthew. Teddy is seen scrolling back through his notes on his laptop. He begins with brief cordialities asking Matthew how old he was when he started at Word of Faith Christian School. After clarifying his answer, Teddy begins digging up Matthew’s graduation video and a transcript of a speech he gave in Brazil.

By 2:54PM, Byers asked to stop the proceeding and inquire of the Judge without the jury present. The jury was excused and Byers expressed his concern over transcripts being used instead of following a certain rule which allowed transcripts only if the original video had destroyed. Judge Gavenus overruled and allowed the transcripts to be used and the jury was allowed back in the room.

Teddy tried to use the positive statements about WOFF that Matthew uttered during his days as a WOFF member as a point to compromise his integrity in the jury’s eyes. For former members, this is no mystery. While in WOFF, you play the game or you are kicked out.

To the degree that a member is successful in keeping up the positive WOFF front by saying and doing all the right things, which may be contrary to how they may truly feel on the inside, definitely determines how long they remain a member. WOFF members have no ability to confess sincere doubt or disbelief about the greatness of WOFF-life or their leader. To do so – comes at a great price.

By 4:10PM, the questions from Teddy centered on the pictures of his injuries, who he shared them with and his efforts to get felony charges filed in Rutherford County. Fenner said the F.B.I. was made aware of the January 27th incidents as well as at a later time U.S. Attorney for the Western District of NC- Jill Rose. In outlining his struggles to have the matter addressed properly, he called out Rutherford County Sheriff Chris Francis, Detective Joey Sisk and (then) District Attorney Brad Greenway as “not doing their job.” He also testified that the Rutherfordton City Police make it a regular practice for matters involving WOFF members trying to leave- to call Ray Farmer first.

As he said this, I saw Jayne Caulder turn to Ramona Hall with a big grin and rolled her eyes as to say, ‘Oh, well…” No signal of denial, just a recognition that this really happens. Thank you, Jayne for being opaque.

It wasn’t until October 16, 2014- was Matthew able to get the proper incident report filed which would result in the indictments being prosecuted for this case.

During Teddy’s questioning about the events of January 27th, he asked, “Did you ever tell anyone to stop?” “No, it would have been worse,” said Matthew.

About 4:30Pm, Byers questions Matthew again going over the timeline of his efforts to get the right people to listen and take him seriously. As an ending, Byers asked very specific questions, (paraphrased)
– Did you take pictures of your injuries on January 27th? Yes- 3
– Are those pictures available? Yes.
– Did Brooke shake you? Yes.
– Did Brooke push you? Yes.
– Did she grab your head? Yes.
– Did Brooke hit you in the chest? Yes.
That ended Thursday’s session.

The first order of business Friday morning included resolving questions by attorney David Teddy over Sarah Anderson being called by the State to testify, pointing out she may compromise her own defense. Judge Gavenus decided to call Sarah’s attorney in her civil custody case, Jack Stewart, to the courthouse for a discussion. Recess was declared while Mr. Stewart made his way to the courtroom. Before he did arrive, Matthew was called back to the stand to finish his testimony. I am told this did not take long.

I arrived toward the end of the recess as attorney Jack Stewart made his way into the court room. After bringing the session to order, it was agreed that Mr. Stewart, Attorney Benjamin Cooper and Sarah Anderson would be given a few minutes for private counsel on the ramifications of the proposed testimony and her Fifth Amendment rights pertaining to the testimony she was about to give. After about fifteen minutes, the attorneys enter the courtroom. The Judge asked if Sarah was still willing. After confirming so, Byers officially called Sarah Anderson to the stand at 11:02AM.

Judge Gavenus begins a considerate fatherly talk with Sarah Anderson. He warns her of the charges she faces and the possible prison terms associated with each. He warns her that anything she says can and will be used against her in her civil case. The Judge tells her that at any point during the questioning, if she needs to confer with her attorneys, she may ask to do so. She politely confirms her understanding of the situation and agrees to take the stand.

11:10AM, Byers begins by asking about the events from January 27, 2013. Sarah tells about the transition from the end of the service to Matthew getting prayer. During the questioning, Sarah explained she was “in authority over Matthew.” She gave an explanation using some WOFF terms saying she was supposed to “deal with” Matthew. Byers asked for clarification and Sarah answered she was in authority over Matthew Brooke was in authority over her. Sarah was to “deal with” or sharply correct any sin she saw in Matthew. Brooke in turn dealt with Sarah’s sin. (Like a pyramid structure)

In brief, Matthew and Danielle Cordes were in a friendship relationship. The world calls it dating, but in WOFF it doesn’t resemble any such thing. Sarah said Danielle told her something was not right with Matthew. Sarah relays this to Brooke with the added statement that God had told her Matthew needed to open his heart and tell the sin he had been giving to. Byers asked for clarification at several points and it is obvious why. To explain WOFF-life, one uses WOFF-isms. This is a new language for those outside of WOFF.

The prayer in January began in the sanctuary after the Sunday night service. From Sarah’s words, after Matthew was confronted, he replied he did not know of any sin. Soon after, Sarah admitted she slapped Matthew across the face. Byers asked how hard? Sarah replied, a medium force slap. Byers asked how Matthew looked. Sarah replied at one point he looked scared and was shaking. During her recital of the events, she admits to looking over at Brooke as for approval to go further.

After a period of time, the prayer was stopped and Sarah said Matthew was taken into the foyer. While he was going in that direction, Brooke had her hand on his back pushing him. Once in the foyer with Brooke, Nick Anderson and Sarah – Mathew was told to be “gut level honest” and tell his sin. Matthew admitted to an unclean dream. Details were demanded. After a few minutes, back into the sanctuary they go for more prayer.

As Byers is asking these questions, many times Teddy would object. Most times, Judge Gavenus would overrule and allow Sarah to answer. For present or ex-members of WOFF, these events don’t seem foreign. I can only imagine what the jury was thinking to themselves.

The session was explained further with this statement by Brooke to Matthew, “You are going nowhere until the devils come out. I don’t care if it takes three days.” This sounded par for Brooke. Included was a second trip foyer and back for more prayer. By the second round, there were estimates of about 30 people involved. During the questioning, Sarah explained she had her hands on Matthew’s shoulders, but not close up to his neck, but on his clavicles. At the end of the session, Sarah and Matthew hugged as was standard for these sessions. Byers asked more about who went home with who and the activities for the next couple of days. Soon Byers finished his questioning.

Teddy asked for counsel and the jury was excused for Teddy’s complaints to be heard. One attorney began to show Sarah the affidavit. Judge Gavenus told everyone to sit down! He was not pleased with the approach to that particular affidavit. At 12:27PM, he allowed the lunch break to begin. We resumed at 2:00PM.

Upon our return, Sarah took the stand again and Byers began by asking her if anyone told her to change her testimony of the events on January 27, 2013. “Yes, Jane Whaley and Brooke Covington.” The exchange between Byers and Sarah brought to light yet another meeting held in Jane’s office filled with attorneys, witnesses and defendants. A meeting where the events were revamped to fit the new WOFF narrative that no one touched Matthew. This meeting in Jane’s office was followed by a reenactment in the sanctuary where Brooke directed people to their new positions to fit the new narrative which was designed to absolve anyone of guilt of any type. Big Fat Lying sandwiches were served and washed down with “I never did it” tea. Yes, this theme seems to reoccur whenever WOFF members face legal charges. Thank you, Associated Press and now, Sarah Anderson, for giving us the scoop.

Sarah named all the usual attorney/hoo-dooers as present when she signed one of the affidavits trying to change the truth; Josh Farmer, Mark Morris, Chris Back, Frank Webster Andrea Farmer, Caleb Farmer with Brooke.

At 2:48PM, the defense had their turn with Sarah. Teddy has Sarah read aloud one of the affidavits she signed. My guess is to confuse the jury as to why someone would sign a document which was not true. The answer- when you are at WOFF, to stay at WOFF, you do as WOFF-leader directs you to do- or face consequences.

Overall, Sarah did a wonderful job facing the defense antics and his obvious efforts to run over the unknowns and yet unexplained dynamics of WOFF-culture. Teddy seems to be counting on the common sense of the jury while in order to understand the nuances of this case it takes knowledge of closed sub-cultures, the strength they have and the damage they do to their members.

At 3:50PM, Danielle Cordes was called to the stand. Garland Byers began with the basics of where she lives, how long she was in WOFF, when she left and how old she was on January 27, 2013. She confirmed she was in a friendship with Matthew, but never knew he was gay. Since young WOFF members don’t date according to the world standards, this is entirely plausible.

Danielle had a similar recollection of the night in question except that she was called into the prayer circle after the slap and had no direct knowledge of it. She said Sarah had her hands on Matthew’s shoulders. She was not asked to go into the foyer, but could see the exchange except for times when she had to look away. She described this prayer session as “extremely physical” and Matthew looked white as a sheet. She could tell he was hurting; she took Adam Bartley’s hand off Matthew’s back as she knew he had recently had a place removed from his back.

She explained Brooke as pushing Matthew out into the isle to take him out and at some point had her finger in his chest. She confirmed Brooke’s statement, I don’t care how long it takes, (Matthew) if you have to stay here three days!

During her excitement she began to explain her own attempts to leave previous to this time and Jayne Caulder’s role in retrieving her. I did not see Jayne Caulder with a big grin during this time. Maybe because this was a true story…?

In reply to the question about asking everyone to stop praying, “I was afraid to say stop because it would have been 10 times worse.” In another similar reply, she knew if she raised too much resistance to the prayer, she would be put in the chair herself.

After Teddy took over the questioning, she again labeled the prayer for Matthew as January 27, 2013 as “extreme.” Explaining further, over time “the extreme became normal.” Teddy bought up her graduation speech and she declared, “I was told what to say!” Then she added, “…under coercion.”

Danielle had a different recollection of Sarah’s role during the second prayer session saying her hands were around his neck as she pushed him back and forth.

Later, when Brooke told Danielle that Matthew left the church because he was gay, she thought they “set me up for failure. I became upset and left…” (WOFF) March 2013 After which she explained the shunning of ex-members very well and what she did to try to gain an invitation from Jane to attend her younger brother’ graduation.

My friends, as I write these words I am revisiting the scenes from earlier today. Knowing what Sarah said on the stand and what she admitted to, I hold her in the utmost respect for her courage and determination. She took an enormous risk to tell the truth about the doings and the chicanery which goes on behind the doors at WOFF. The upside of this decision may not be easily measured-today. In the months and years to come, we could look back on this day and her testimony as a turning point.

Indeed, add to Sarah’s words the answer’s which Danielle gave and her courage to talk about her vulnerabilities and her deep concern for Matthew. Both of these women proved to have within them more strength and boldness than could been known until the test came. In my view, they passed the test with flying colors. I say, Thank you.

Monday’s session will begin at 11:00AM.

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(Copyright © 1954, 1958, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1987 by The Lockman Foundation ) This is post number 603.

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3 thoughts on “Fenner Case Update- Three Witnesses Testify for the State”

  1. Great information, John. As always…thank you for your thorough and remarkable ability to inform your readers. Though I was not there during what allegedly happened to Matthew, I personally have experienced the EXACT same description to which he testified that he experienced. As you know, after I fled WOFF with another former member…he and I…I returned at the invitation of Jane Whaley several months later to speak with her and plead with her to stop these horrible practices. In the meeting, Jane Whaley herself poked my chest with her pointing finder, while at least 30 WOFF members encircled me, assaulted me, tore my shirt, knocked off my glasses, and threw me into the grass just outside the glass connector of the the two buildings. While was being lifted off the ground and carried out…a Jane Whaley disciple and security guard whom I will not name…chocked me with the knuckle of his thumb. He was told not to press so hard by female leader of this group whom I shall also leave nameless (KR). So, hearing what witnesses described happened to Matthew…brings back that day and many other horrible memories as well as the way so many are treated at a place called a “church.”

    Thank you for your work…God bless and keep you.

    Maranatha,
    Jerry Allen Cooper

  2. John,

    Your play by play commentary has been so informative, I feel as though I am sitting in the courtroom. Thank you for that. Thank you for all you have done to help bring these people to justice. It has been a long time coming but, it IS coming.

    Lahna

  3. Thank you again for a well written account of a terrible but totally recognizeable event. Every single person in that den of iniquity knows that this is exactly the way things work and what the practices are. People suffer physical abuse regularly there. Most of us were perpetuaters! I made serious misstakes in my own congregation and ministry while “under the infuence”.

    It is beyond me the total lack of integrity within “leadership” in the area of taking responsibility for their own actions. Admit the crime and accept the consequences. Thank you Sarah and Danielle.

    Arthur

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