— This is Part II of a four-part series examining the dramatic impact Charles Meade and his "End Time Ministry" have had on the town of Lake City, Fla.
LAKE CITY, Fla. — Of late, Judy Ayers had been on edge. She'd noticed some peculiar things around her neighborhood: armed sentinels watching motorists through binoculars; brown-suited men fixing up homes into the wee hours.
She had tried to shrug these things off as eccentricities, coincidences. But then, while driving into town one fall afternoon in 1987, she spotted her 21-year-old son, Eric, cornered in an Amoco lot by two angry men in khaki jumpsuits.
Ayers swung her car to a stop. She yelled: "What's going on here?"
One of the men snapped back: Eric had been trespassing.
Eric, pallid as scraped bone, spoke up. All he'd done, he said, was take a picture of the house of Charles Meade, the leader of a doomsday sect whose followers had been moving into Lake City in increasing numbers.
He hadn't even gotten out of his car; but the moment he'd snapped the picture, which he wanted for his college architecture class, he had heard the squeal of tires. Two cars had chased him and forced him off the road, and now these men were demanding his camera.
Tell your boy not to trespass anymore, the men told Judy Ayers. Then they threw her an angry glare and drove off.
That evening, the family filed a complaint at the sheriff's office, but that's as far as it went. There was no evidence of wrongdoing, no injuries, no property damage, the officer told Ayers.
Word of the episode raced through Lake City, and it didn't take long for other stories to make the rounds.
A homeowner on Little Road told of looking out her window one morning to see an End Time woman with a bucket on her head. Her husband, dressed all in white, was pulling her around by the bucket handle, she told The Florida Sun-Sentinel, which published her account.
Over back fences and along telephone lines, even wilder tales spread like a cold through the nervous populace: End Timers were tapping people's phones, burning cats and dogs alive at Sunday night sing-alongs, burying crates of rifles in their backyards.
Tom Tramel, the sheriff at the time, tried to stamp out the scuttlebutt. The wild talk was stirring up nastiness.
Tire tracks and trash had been found across the lawns of End Timers, and longtime residents were complaining that Meade's followers were vandalizing their mailboxes and car windshields.
Still, the people of Charles Meade had much for which to be thankful during their first seven years in their Promised Land.
As yet, there had been no great drought, no famine. Nor had a gigantic, steaming sheet of rock spread over the fields and streets of northern Florida. The sky had released no lightning or lava, and no fountains of the great deep had burst forth.
Although, as their leader dutifully reminded them, such an apocalypse could occur at any hour.
Instead, the End Timers had acquired property, were fruitful, and had become numerous.
The most fortunate of Meade's followers lived near him, in a subdivision known as Southwood Acres. In their backyards they had ponds with gazebos, rock gardens with cascading waterfalls, pools with gurgling fountains. Their homes, large by Lake City standards, were always being expanded, beautified.
Only seven years earlier, homes in the woodsy neighborhood went for $75,000; now, a half million dollars wouldn't buy the time of day.
What was going on inside those homes, the townsfolk soon discovered, was not always so pretty.
On March 11, 1989, Michael David Boehmer was born at home. Mothers who followed Meade's teachings about faith healing did not give birth at hospitals.
A day later, David's nose began to bleed and did not stop.
His parents tried to staunch the bleeding with cotton. They tried and tried and tried until, finally, Michael's lungs filled with blood.
He had lived four days.
Word of Michael's death, announced from church pulpits and printed on the front page of the Lake City Reporter, sent a shiver through the county. The dismay, shading into horror, produced in the townspeople two questions: Why hadn't that little boy seen a doctor? Could his death have been avoided?
An opinion on the latter came from two physicians who testified at a medical examiner's inquest in Jacksonville: an injection of vitamin K, standard in hospital births, would have clotted Michael's blood and saved his life.
The case went before a judge, who was to decide whether the End Time couple should be charged with murder or criminal negligence. The doctors' testimony was damning. And yet, the judge noted, the parents had tried to resuscitate the boy. They had called 911 when they saw Michael approaching death.
In the end, the judge ruled that the Boehmers not be convicted of anything.
That didn't sit well with a lot of townies.
According to former End Timers, Meade did not explicitly order his followers to avoid medical care.
In fact, he urged them not to allow members to die at home of an untreated illness, says Joni Cutler, who was once married to one of Meade's top disciples. But this wasn't because he had doubts about faith healing, she says.
"The idea," Cutler says, "was to protect Charles Meade and the leadership from investigation or prosecution."
In one tape-recorded sermon, Meade had declared: "We're earthen vessels filled up with God. There really shouldn't be any affliction in this body at all … Truly down deep, we're not supposed to be sick."
Tom Pearson, 57, who quit the sect in 1993 after more than a decade, says End Timers "felt all this pressure to be perfect all the time. If you stubbed your toe, cut your hand, got sick, then you were, according to Meade, out of God's will."
Meade's first wife, Marie, followed the faith-healing doctrine to her grave.
For at least two years, she refused medical treatment for breast cancer, says Cutler, who left the ministry in 1986 after 12 years in the sect.
Marie Meade died on Oct. 24, 1985, at age 63. On her death certificate, the cause of death was listed as "probable carcinoma of the breast." Twenty-eight days later, Charles Meade, then 68, married Marlene Helen Malthesen, who was 20 years his junior, according to their marriage license.
Cutler says she will never forget the last time she saw Marie Meade. "She was over our house for a visit," Cutler says, "and I noticed blood from her lesions running down her arm."
Columbia County lies within the Bible Belt, as evidenced by the number of churches more than 200, by one pastor's count. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics predominate, but there are Mormons, Muslims, Hindus and Pentecostals, too.
It was uncommon in the early '90s for anyone here to cast a judgmental eye on a neighbor's religion. To do so was to invite criticism of one's own a prospect that left many in the worshipping populace profoundly uncomfortable. But when word of other episodes involving children of End Timers reached the general citizenry, an exception was made.
It was common knowledge that End Time children were forbidden to play with "normals," go to school outside their homes, or do things like entertain the notion of Santa Claus. However, when former sect members began telling how End Time youths were paired off and married by their 18th birthday, the indignation grew to a rolling boil.
County marriage records show that Meade and his second wife, Marlene, married off clusters of 17- and 18-year-old End Timers in Lake City and at Florida beach resorts throughout the '90s.
According to several former End Timers, the preacher selected the future marriage partners of children as young as age 12. On Sundays "Choosing Day" as it became known Meade would hold bonfire picnics in a meadow near Rose Creek, which he had deemed holy ground. As his people sang, he would stroll like a king among them, wave his arms over young boys and girls and declare, "These two look good together."
Things turn bad
Then, in the earliest hours of Sept. 27, 1990, something else happened inside one of the stately homes in Southwood Acres.
Sonia Hernandez, 4, was never a healthy child. A brain disorder left her nearly deaf and blind, vegetative, and prone to fevers and infection.
Shortly after midnight, wearing her pink pajama top and white socks, Sonia died of pneumonia in her mother's arms.
Five hours later at the hospital, the emergency ward physicians looked gravely on what they saw: the body of the 4-year-old weighed a mere 14 1/2 pounds about what a 4-month-old baby might weigh.
According to Sonia's medical records, as well as a deposition by her 21-year-old sister, Socorro, the child had not been to a doctor in at least two years about the length of time her parents, Guillermo and Luz Hernandez, had been members of End Time Ministry.
A jury subsequently found the Hernandezes guilty of one count of felony child abuse. The verdict, however, was overturned on appeal.
As the case snaked its way through the Florida legal system, another child abuse case involving End Timers broke into the local headlines. This one involved a 16-year-old named Will Meyers.
On Oct. 22, 1990, he was rushed to Shands Hospital in Gainesville by his parents and, upon arrival, was found to be suffering from a heart tumor, kidney failure and a swollen liver. Will's condition had gone untreated for seven months, Columbia County court records show.
The tumor had made it difficult for the boy to hold down food, and his weight had dropped from 135 pounds to 90 pounds. The swollen liver had given his skin a yellowy hue, and his feet were so infected he had been dangling them off the end of a couch to let the pus drip into buckets.
A heart operation saved the boy's life, and he eventually recovered. His parents pleaded guilty to felony child abuse in March 1991, and were placed on five years' probation.
With the eyes of the town fixed sternly on them, the End Timers kept largely silent except for the preacher's wife, Marlene Meade, who observed in her disapproving neighbors an intolerance inconsistent with the principle of religious freedom.
"If a Lutheran dies," she asked a reporter from the St. Petersburg Times, "does everyone come around asking his church about how he lived his life?"