By Jon Michael Bell
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 stalked out.
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 their recollections.
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 caper.
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 resources.
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 savage abandon.
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 her room.
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 explains.
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 did.
"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 recollections: Estimated dollars. Half the year, 1968 $22,710 The entire year, 1969 $45,420 1970 $45,420 1971 $45,420 1972 $45,420 1973 $45,420 1974 $45,420 Half the year, 1975 $22,710 Estimated total dollars from candy sales: $317,940 We estimate the average dollar amount sold for the specified days: Weeknights during the school year $75/night Saturdays during school year $300/Saturday Six days a week during the summer $220/day Based on this, you can follow the figuring below: Nine months of the school year, approximately would be: Five week night x $75/night $375 Saturdays $300 Total per week $675 $675 x 36 weeks, approximately $24,300 Three 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/year
As 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 taxes.
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 outlayed.
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.