WELLS, TX (KTRE) - At the end of Booker Street and Forest Road sits a long rectangular wooden church building. The building is not finished yet, but will one day be the new home of worship services for the Church of Wells. For some in Wells, the church building is a sign that the controversial church is not dead.
The church is in a town barely recognized on a map, Wells has a population of right under 800 people.
The latest controversy from the church centers around a member by the name of Catherine Grove. In 2013, Grove left the University of Arkansas to join the church. Her parents, Andy and Patty, claimed she has been brain washed by the church.
On April 2, Catherine was spotted walking south on the side of Highway 69 in northern Angelina County. A woman would stop and let Catherine borrow her phone. Catherine called 911, where she would ask for help.
According to Capt. Alton Lenderman with the Angelina County Sheriff's office, Catherine would ask to go to a woman's shelter.
"She did not meet the criteria to go to the shelter," Lenderman said. "I came in and talked to her and said, 'Number one, you called 911,'" Lenderman said. "I said I don't know much about what is going on. With me you called and said you needed somewhere to stay. I don't know you but I know you have a father, and I'm a father. I have a daughter and we do not always agree. We have bumped heads and argued. The bottom line is I love my daughter and my daughter loves me. She will always be my daughter and I will always be her father. The bottom line is every dad loves his daughter and he will do whatever he needs to, to protect her. You will always be the little girl that plays in the sandbox. The bottom line is you can do what you want to do. I will not make you go with him, but if you want to go I will let you go."
After several hours at the sheriff's office, Grove left with her father Andy and headed back to Arkansas. However, Grove would not stay in Arkansas for long. Twelve days after leaving the group, she returned and announce she was engaged to a member of the church.
After her return, Grove released a video statement claiming she did not want to go and stay, but only wanted to talk to her parents about the engagement. Grove told a story of a car ride with her parents while she was in Arkansas. Grove said she thought she was going to Little Rock to visit family but soon saw a hospital.
"On April 7, I was still in the psych ward, and the doctor came in and said after testing me all this time very carefully, I had no mental illness, so they cannot keep me in the hospital," Grove said.
The incident with Grove was just the latest in a long history of headline-making events the church and its members have been part of. In May of 2012, a baby less than a week old died. Family members who are members of the church told investigators that a group of 20 to 25 people, also church members, prayed over the baby when she showed signs of illness, instead of seeking medical attention.
They continued praying for more than 12 hours after the baby died before notifying authorities. No one has been charged in the case.
As 2012 rolled to an end, the church once again made headlines.
On Dec. 2, church elder Jacob Gardner claimed to have received a call from a fellow member and was told Israel Keyes had committed suicide. Keyes is the son of church member Heidi Keyes. Keyes was arrested in the Cotton Patch parking lot on Highway 59 in Lufkin back in March of 2012. Keyes was believed to have killed at least 11 people before committing suicide in his Anchorage, Alaska jail cell.
Gardner said he had never met Keyes personally, but he knew the Keyes family and agreed to travel to Washington state to do the funeral. Gardner titled his sermon, 'The funeral of a serial killer.'
Members of the church have also had run-ins with the law.
In January of 2014, Deacon Richard Trudeau was arrested in Franklin County, New York after making a threatening phone call to a woman. Trudeau is set for trial on June 16. The following month, Gardner was arrested in Gregg County for criminal trespassing.
The Wells community holds their annual homecoming celebration every April on the first Saturday. In 2014, resident Jeffery Brotherton became aggravated with the church after a member was allegedly yelling at children and told his daughter that she was going to hell.
"Jesus loves you," the member yelled. "He cares for you. Why else are we out here crying out?"
Brotherton said he tried to ignore the group, but after a while it was hard to handle.
"It's kind of sickening to see children go through that," Brotherton said. "I regret it turning physical, but I knew at that chance enough was enough and our children had suffered enough through these people."
After the run in with the church, Brotherton organized a protest against the group.
"There was a lot of yelling, but I think it helped us push our point out there," Brotherton said. "I hope there is a time where we could sit down and discuss our differences."
After the protest last year, customers stopped going to the R and R Mercantile, a business ran by Charity Enterprises. Charity Enterprises is a larger group connected to the church and businesses ran by members. The church also lost their building in 2014, after the school district bought the building to make room for more parking.
A year after the protest, the church appears to be re-emerging.
When The East Texas News went out to Wells to ask about the new worship center, we were met by two members; Corey McClaughlin and Mark De Rouville, but neither were willing to talk about the building. Later in the day, Gardener said he would pray with the elders about the request, but never agreed to sit down with the station on camera.
Jim Maddox is a pastor in the area and owns a mechanic shop near the church. The recent building of a new worship center and smaller activities the church has done bothers him.
"I never thought they were gone," Maddox said. "In their eyes, they may fight harder for what they believe, because it just increases what they have invested there. Lately, they have become more aggressive with me. I will drive down the street and they will not move out of the road. They also have these late night prayers where they chant loudly. Prayer does not have to be loud."
Brotherton said he has questioned why the town has not stepped up to the group.
"It bothers me," Brotheron said. "Now our community is actually allowing them to have an actual stable place to call their church and actually still practice their things in our town."
When we reached out to the City of Wells, we were told that they do not issue building permits. The Cherokee County offices told us the same thing.
When we asked the Mayor C.W. Williams to comment, we were given a letter that stated the city council and mayor would not make any official statement on any matter relating to the Church of Wells.
A further look into the activities of the church also revealed a new business. Fourteen miles away in Alto sits Custom Cut Lumber. According to an email from the State Comptroller's office, Trudeau took over the business in June of 2014.
Maddox said the business acquisition in Alto does not mean the church is moving out.
"They have too much real-estate here in town," Maddox said.
Maddox also said the treatment of Catherine Grove over the last two months has worried him.
"They essentially made her the victim, but not of the bondage of the cult but that she was victimized by her parents and made Andy and Patty Grove really the victims," Maddox said. "No one calls 911 and ask to go to a women's shelter if really all they want to do is talk to their father about getting married. Her father would have come down to her if she wanted that."
Maddox will call the church by their name, but has also been vocal in stating they are not a church.
"I think they are a cult," Maddox said. "I have no problem saying that. They're focused more so on building people into them than building people into Christ. They have twisted the scripture and are misguided."
In the past, Cherokee County Sheriff's has said they will not call the group a cult or comment on the group since nothing criminal has happened. However, in a dispatch report from the Madison County Sheriff office in Arkansas a different tone was taken. the report was made after Sean Morris traveled to Arkansas after Grove left Texas with her father. In the report, Morris claimed Catherine had reached out to a female church member and wanted to go home, but was not allowed to leave her parent's home. In the report, Madison County reached out to Cherokee County where an un-named employee told the office in Arkansas that the group was a cult and did not believe in law enforcement and were tied to the old days.
The East Texas News reached out to Cherokee County Sheriff James Campbell to be a part of the story and comment on the dispatch log. Campbell said he did not know about the log and said he would not talk about the issue.
Dr. Owen Smith, a professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, said the term cult is sometimes over used.
"A lot of us in the academic world wonder if the word cult is overused now," Smith said. "In the earlier centuries, cult was not what it is now. The term got a negative view in the last 200 years. A lot of people would rather call these groups 'New Religious Movements.'"
"One of the features of these groups that tend to arise around these religious leaders is that they have an exclusive character," Smith said. "The teaching is only shared with a small inner group. It becomes the haves and have not's. The group will also ask for members to leave their old life and move away to where they are. These groups will also sometimes focus on one small part of biblical scripture. They may ignore the Old Testament and only focus on a small part of the new Testament."
Smith said the view of cults in America may be an over reaction to some of the bigger ones like the Branch Davidian group in Waco back in the 1990s.
"Many of these groups have an apocalyptic view that the world will come to an end," Smith said. "In this view, sometimes a militant mentality comes into the group, but I would say these are the exceptions. The majority of these new groups never become harmful."
Maddox said the behavior he has seen backs up the description offered by Smith.
"The three leaders are misguided," Maddox said. "They actually determine whether or not somebody is saved. They determine who's their brother, who's their sister. That is wrong. If we are born again through Christ, then we are all brothers and sisters."
Maddox said he has recently seen what he calls misguided teachings of the group.
"We were at the homecoming parade this year working our snow cone stand," Maddox said. "Some of them came up and started talking to people there. I asked them to leave and not do this while we were operating our business. One of them cam up to me and said, 'Jim I love you so much I would die for you.' I was shocked. I told him, 'Jesus already died for me and he is all that matters. If you died for me you would just be dead.'"
We reached out to several former church members to try and get an understanding into the teaching of the church. Christine Major was a member of the church from 2010-2011. Major sent a
she made after Grove returned to the church.
"Catherine is in a bad place," Major said. "Although I agree with many of the teachings of the church, I do not believe in the leadership of the church.The surrender that I do believe is necessary for salvation on an individual basis wasn't sufficient for them. It was like interlocked with this authority that the elders took and the men took in this church."
But what about the future of the church? Brotherton said he hopes a time will come when the group can co-exist with the town.
"There could be peace as long as everyone keeps their cool," Brotherton said. "I think we can co-exist even though our religions are different."
Maddox takes a different approach to the future of the church.
"I couldn't think of a place on the map that would be safe to have their theology sewn there," Maddox said. "I think these people need to get saved. I think they need to repent. I have no will for these people to get hurt. I love everyone, but I do not think them moving on is an answer. They need to stop doing what they are doing."
Note: Through this two month process of working on the Wells Special Report, The East Texas News has reached out numerous times, including multiple times on multiple days, to the elders of the The Church Of Wells. We have never received a response back desiring to comment for the story and tell their side. If they wish to speak, we will allow them to.