By Jon Michael Bell
Nightmare of Twelfth Street
"Since no one else would join, my father sired us for congregations," observes Mark. "We were the only members because we had no choice. When we got old enough to make our own decisions, choose our life's work, and our life's mates, did you think he'd permit that?
"Without his children, my father had no church and he has no income."
Fred Phelps' bizarre behavior toward his children as struggled to become adults is as disturbing as it is revealing.
Growing up in the pastor's family meant going from door-to-door sales, domestics, and wage earners to lawyers and tithe payers. To Phelps, adulthood for his children meant soldiers for his wars. To accomplish this, he would attempt to arrest and redirect each child's path to fulfillment. They were not to leave his nest, nor learn to fly: "The Bible may say you're gonna be the head of your house. But I'm tellin' you right now, goddammit, that ain't gonna happen! I'm gonna be the head of your house! And you better start gettin' that through your head right now!" Mark pauses at the memory. "You know, he couldn't say, I desperately need you; please don't leave me." His heart was too closed off by some devastating unknown injury, and his mind was so sophisticated, so intelligent, he could weave a steel cape around us we couldn't get out of.
It was emotional. And it was the use of religion." But how could Fred Phelps maintain control of the lives and dreams of his children? Against his desire for a family that would be an extension of himself were arrayed some formidable forces: the adolescent's yearning for independence was one; the pull of hormones and the heart of another. In addition, the harshness of the children's upbringing left them with little genuine respect or love for their father. Then what wrought such conformity? Two obstacles, both too high for 9 of the 13 to surmount. They are the twin secrets of Pastor Phelps' sway over his troubled flock. First, and most important, while they may not be overly enthusiastic about his job as a father, the Phelps' children still accept, respect, and obey him as the head of their church. Since, in their belief, the Elect may reach heaven only through the portal of The Place, he who runs The Place holds the keys to the gates of Paradise. The children weren't afraid to disobey or argue with their father when, in later adolescence, they didn't seize the hand beating them or leave the place holding them. Rather, they were terrified to oppose the will of heaven's gatekeeper and imperil their souls. Literally, to was the fires of hell and not the mattock whose heat they felt in all their choices. "My father established early on the expectations of each child in the family for their entire life," says Nate, "and the consequences if those expectations weren't met. According to him, each of us would finish college, get lour law degree, work for him, and marry whom he chose, when he chose. By no means were we allowed to leave that situation, or it would be seen as 'abandoning the church'. If we did that, we'd be excommunicated." Besides being groomed as lawyers, Mark says he and his siblings were constantly told they were different. "We were taught we were abnormal from the time we were able to learn," he says. "That the rest of the world out there was evil. That we The Place. And inside The Place, people were good and going to heaven. "Outside The Place they were all damned and going to hell. And, if that other world ever got us down, we were taught to find strength by imagining the terrible horrors that would happen soon to everyone outside The Place."
'The Place' was how his father referred to the church, add Nate. "If you left, you were forsaking the assembly and you were delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. He had his repertoire down. "Of course, he justified it by manipulating various passages in the Bible. "One passage refers to a child 'leaving his father and mother and cleaving to his wife'. He interpreted this to mean a child was not to leave his parents until he was married. But, since he decided who and when we were to marry, he controlled this. "Another passage mentions 'not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together'. Since he had long ago established in our minds that his church was where the Elect came to assemble, that it was 'The Place', he could lead us easily to the belief that to leave home was to 'leave' the company of the Elect, to join the innumerable multitude of the damned." And the second of the twin secrets? "To cast the world beyond The Place as evil and fatal to the soul. Then manipulate the local community so they would react with hostility and aggression whenever a kid would venture out. It's why my father insisted we go to public school, you know. Thanks to him, we were hated before we even got there on Day One. And people were so mean to us, that, when we came home, Fred could say, 'See, I told you so. They're evil and reprobate. They're not like us.'" The family does not believe in Christmas, states the Pastor Phelps, because there is no mention of it in the Bible; nowhere does it say Jesus Christ was born on December 25. (The date for many Christian holidays, in fact, derive from pre-Christian Europe: Christmas from the winter solstice on December 21; Easter from the vernal equinox on March 21; All Souls for Halloween from the Feast of the Samhain or the Day of the Dead, on October 31.) While accurate, if somewhat unnecessary theology (since Christmas in America is really a shopping, not a religious, holiday), as sociology, Fred's 'bah-humbug' to the season of comfort and joy did significantly add to the burden of 'otherness' that caused the world outside to repel his children and grandchildren back to The Place.
"From kindergarten, we were not allowed to stay in the classroom if there were Christmas activities going on,: says Nate. "We always had to go to another room, usually the library. My father threatened to sue the schools if they did not remove us during those times." The man pauses, remembering the sorrows of the boy: "Our humiliation was constant."
Even so, from suing the schools to shooting his neighbor's dog, Fred Phelps' personal and litigious behavior would have ensured his children a cool reception in their community-without an encore as the pastor who stole Christmas. "We weren't allowed to participate in any activities at school," adds Nate. "Not through most of our childhoods."
"No sports, not even track," says Mark. "Until my senior year. "And no outside friends. No one was allowed to visit, and we weren't allowed to go anywhere. To birthday parties or anything. Then, shave our heads. My father wanted the world to reject us. It would drive us right back to him. To the Place. The world-within-a-world. The one that was Fredcentric." Spouses were not welcome in such a world-except as a last resort to hold the child. There were to be no girls for the boys. And no boys for the girls. "If my dad had his way," confesses Shirley, "none of us would have gotten married. He'd just as soon keep everyone away, thanks."
"Kathy's was my father's favorite," remembers Margie. "She had blue eyes and dark hair. She was very pretty and he would spoil her. He used to bounce her on his knee and sing 'The Yellow Rose of Texas' to her. But after she was about 15 or 16, they had nothing to say to each other. She'd be home, but she kept her distance from him. "And she was a bitch throughout her teen years. She was very mean to the rest of the kids. Kathy became very self-destructive back then, and she's stayed that way since." Concludes Margie: "I never understood why." Perhaps her brothers on the West Coast have a clue: "Then came a time when suddenly Kathy got in my dad's doghouse," relates Mark. "A boy had called once or something. From that time on, he commenced to beating her, and he stayed on her and stayed on her rear end that wouldn't l; because of how often and how severely she got beat. "He'd beat her routinely in the church, against the foundation pole. He'd beat her with mattock and then twist her arm behind her back. She'd be screaming- bloodcurdling screams-and all because someone had called her up on the telephone.
"Later, it got so if the phone rang and they hung up, he'd assume it was a boy looking for Kathy, and that she was 'doing' him, and then she'd get beaten for that. "And, on top of that, she and Nate were getting beaten several times a week for their weight. "Later, when Mark and Fred were in college," says Nate, "Mom would take everyone out to sell candy, but she'd leave Kathy home alone with Fred. She'd get beaten during those times, just like I had." Kathy tried to escape the nightmare called 'home' at the Westboro Baptist Church at least three times between the age of 17 and 18. Each time, the pastor found out where she was living and led a Phelps' quick-reaction team to literally snatch her away from her life and bring her back. In one incident, Kathy was living in a quiet Topeka neighborhood and dating a boy Mark knew from high school. "It was the summertime, about 6:30 in the evening," Nate recalls. "Her boyfriend pulled in to pick her up on a date. We'd been waiting for her to come out of the house, and when she did, we just swooped in. We had two cars. Mark was driving one and my dad the other. It was real 'Starsky and Hutch'. We blocked off the departing vehicle, and pulled her out of the car while her date just sat there stunned." "At home my father beat her terribly," says Mark. "It was then she was locked in her room for 40 days on nothing but water." Mark remembers one of the 'parental intercessions' was actually a kidnapping: Kathy was 18 when it occurred. Though she eventually finished college and graduated law school, according to some of her siblings, Kathy has yet to find resolution to her anger and self- destruction. In recent years, she has allowed her active status at the bar to lapse, waitressed at Topeka's Ramada Inn, been laid off, gone of public assistance, and been convicted on passing bad checks.
"My sister, Kathy...," reflects Mark, "...everything my father's done to her...she's just been so deeply hurt as a human being, I don't think she can cope out there..." Nate has one memory that sticks in his mind. Once, while she was going to college and living in the compound, Kathy went jogging late one night, as was her habit. But, this time, the sight of a woman running through a darkened residential neighborhood after 1 a.m. caught the attention of a patrol car. When the officer tried to question her from the rolling vehicle, Kathy turned and ran the other way. When he overtook her on foot, humped ahead of her and tried to block her passage, she kept on him like a wild animal. Other officers were called and Kathy fought them with the same grim ferocity. She was finally subdued and arrested. When the case went to court, Nate was there: "The judge asked why she fought when the officer tried to stop her. She turned to him-and I was shocked by how hate was in her face-and she almost spit out the words: 'I can't stand for a man to touch me!'" Continues Nate: "That face full of hate I'll never forget. My sister was very, very angry about something."
In high school, says Mark, "I couldn't grasp the concept of career day." The only one he and his brothers and sisters were told they could consider was the law. Says the pastor with a groan: "Hell, I think everybody today should have a law degree. You need one to defend yourself. Yeh, got to have one now or you can't take care of yourself or family."
Adds Mark: "His attitude was always that school was bullshit, but you had to get As and get out so you could have the law degree. With that you could support and defend the church. "To say 'no' would have been the same as drafting-dodging during WWII: it was every kid's duty to enlist in the bar and protect our homeland against the evil that threatened from without."
But Fred Jr. wanted to be a history teacher. "Ever since he'd been a kid, he wanted to do that," Mark says. "At Washburn he was a masterful history student. He wanted to teach it, and he held on to that. He'd say: 'I have that right', and my dad would try to beat it out of him. My father would make it clear to Fred Jr. that he wasn't going to teach history. He'd yell: 'You guys are mine and you're never gonna leave me!'" "Then always follow with: 'And you better start gettin' it through your head right now!' "I can remember my father beating Fred when he was 19 or 20 about that. I couldn't believe my brother would even try to argue with him! My father wouldn't hear of it. Fred Jr. was going to be a lawyer. "Eventually, I think, my brother's spirit was broken and he became one. But it wasn't the beatings that caused him to lose heart-it was Debbie Valgos." What follows may be the saddest tale found during this investigation. It is a profound and tragic example of the fruits of hatred when it is directed by the angry against the innocent. Says Mark: "He was deeply in love with her, a girl from St. Vincent's Orphanage several blocks from our house. They were just crazy in love... "She was a free spirit. And a great looker. Noisy. Loud, hearty laugh. She was very warm, and friendly, and loving."
"She was cute, thin, blonde, and sexy," laughs Nate. "That name...," sighs one of the nuns from the orphanage, "is like a punch in the stomach..." Debbie was not an orphan. She lived with her mother, Della A., and her stepfather, Paul A., on Lincoln Street in Topeka.
When she was 11 years old, for reasons undisclosed, Debbie was placed in St. Vincent's. She went to Capper Junior High and later attended Topeka West High School. When she was 14, Debbie sent this poem to her mom: I settled down west from town, though no one knew I was a clown, My face was clean, and all around were children, though I heard no sound. She signed it, 'Mom, I love you very much!' with seven asterisks for emphasis. Bernadette, an older sister who still lives in town recalls: "She sang. She had a beautiful voice. And she played the guitar. She was a pretty little thing." Debbie's mom has an album of photos taken by the nuns of her daughter while she lived at the orphanage. Pictures of her as a cheerleader at Capper; smiling on a dock at the Lake of the Ozarks with some other girls from St. Vincent's; clutching her pom-poms, watching the players; pictures of her 15th birthday party at the orphanage.
They met at the skating rink. Sometimes Fred and Mark would trick their father. When he thought they'd gone out on their obligatory 10 mile run, instead they'd go skating. Or if they'd had a good night on candy sales, Jonathon, Nate, Mark, and Fred would knock off early and hit the rink before going home. "Debbie was a good skater," rememberJs Mark. "She came to the rink with other kids from the orphanage. She skated fast and reckless." The voice over the phone sounds as if it's smiling at the memory. "At first my brother saw her secretly, during stolen moments. Then he'd go by the orphanage when the four of us boys were out selling candy."
Mark stops. "You should know, when I was 9 and Fred 10, we began to hear degrading, insulting sermons from my father about how no good it is for boys to have girl friends: "You'll meet a girl someday and she'll start saying things like, "Aren't you cute; aren't you handsome; ooooooh, you're really something", and like some kind of ignorant, stupid lamb being led to slaughter, you'll fall for it, and the next thing you know, she'll want to kiss you or some bullshit like that. I'm telling you now, I'm not going to put up with it. If you think you're going to have some whore coming around sniffing after you, you better know right now that I'm not going to put up with it. You better start gettin' it through your head right now. You just have to trust the Lord to provide you a good woman who will subject herself to the authority of the church...'" Mark clears his throat. "They met, I think, in the fall of 1970. On the candy sales, Fred would drive and I'd ride shotgun, with Jon and Nate in back. We'd pick Debbie up on the way out and she'd sit between us. "When we got there, the rest of us would sell candy, and Fred and Debbie would stay behind in the car. "Boy, did they kiss. Every time was for the last time. Like Bogart and Bergman at the Paris train station.
"She was cute, but it wasn't only sexual. Those two were very, very much in love. I was there. I saw it. I watched them together-kissing, walking, being together. Fred and I shared the same bedroom and I knew my brother. "It was obvious they were meant for each other. That romance had so much voltage, it could have lit the city."
Fred and Debbie's special song was "Close to You", by the Carpenters, but that didn't keep them from fighting. Says Mark: "Debbie had a hot temper. She was very intense and dramatic. So they kissed and fought, kissed and fought. But they loved each other terribly hard-none of us doubted that." Debbie also got a kick out of hanging around with all of Fred's brothers, remembers Mark. "She used to say it was her instant family." Many of Debbie's teachers still remember her vividly. And they remember her long-lasting romance with Fred Phelps. "She was craving a family environment, with all the emotional outlet and loving she imagined went with it," recalls one. "When she was dating Fred, she thought she'd become an adjunct member of his family and she wanted to be a part. When she thought she was, she was very happy."
"She was such a warm, sweet girl," remembers another, "it's just a shame what happened to her." "In the car on candy sales and at the skating rink was the only time they could see each other," says Mark. Apparently Debbie was either narcoleptic or suffered from epilepsy.
"Periodically she'd pass out. I saw it happen 10 to 12 times. Suddenly she'd stop talking and when you looked, she'd be limp, her head back and eyes closed, though still breathing." Debbie told Fred what it was, but Mark's brother never revealed it. After they'd been stealing time together for several months, Fred Jr. somehow found the resources to buy Debbie a gold band with a tiny diamond.
Mark remembers her showing it off proudly in the car that day. Fred was 17, she was still 16. They began to talk of getting married. "Before you jump to conclusions about another teenage marriage," Mark observes, "remember my family didn't believe in dating around. We believed God would send us our mates. That it would just happen one day, and we would know it in our hearts. When it happened, that was it-whether you were 16 or 66. "Of course, my dad thought he was the god in charge of that. But I wouldn't assume Fred and Debbie's union would have been another miscast teenage marriage-and therefore my dad was right to do what he did." Why not?
"Because my wife of 17 years, and my best friend for 22, is the same Luava Sundgren I met at the rink that May of '71. We've been together since I was 16 and she, 13, and we're still totally nuts about each other. "You see, I think God has a hand in these things. And maybe it's naive of me, but I think all that we went through as kids made us a lot wiser about people than most grownups."
Mark estimates the passionate romance was kept from their father through the New Year of 1971. Sometime shortly after, however, the Pastor Phelps caught wind of his son's happiness. "After that, my father forbade Fred to see her. He tried everything to get Fred to stop."
Though Mark's brother was only a few months shy of 18, the pastor regularly took the mattock to him to stop his 'slinkin' with that whore'. In February of that year, Debbie left the orphanage and moved back in with her mother and stepfather in the house on Lincoln Street.
The boys would swing by and pick her up there. Shortly after she moved, Fred and Debbie moved again: they made their bid for a life together free of their burdened pasts. They eloped. Mark remembers they took one of the family cars, a '66 Impala wagon. "And I had a pair of top-notch skates. They cost me a hundred bucks. I was a serious skater back then, and I carried them around in a slick black case and felt very professional. But my brother Fred took them along for gas money. He sold them at a rink in Kansas City for ten bucks. Fred's next younger sibling sighs. "I missed my skates, but I wasn't mad at him. Back then, we had no sense of personal boundaries. If you needed something, you just took it. Besides, I wanted them to get away." He laughs: "Just wish he'd gotten more for those skates. Ten bucks was insulting." With a borrowed car and a tank full of gas, the intrepid couple hit the great American highways-though not with that era's open agenda of 'wherever you go-there you are!' To Fred Jr., the available universe consisted of two addresses and the highway that connected them. One was on 12th Street in Topeka, the other was the home and church of Forrest Judd in Indianapolis. "My dad and Judd met at a Bible conference. Forrest was a Baptist preacher and they hit it off. They used to come to Topeka and visit a lot. He and my dad were doctrinally alike, but Forrest was a very different personality. He was a jolly fat Santa type of guy-a factory worker and a really neat fella. He had three sons of his own, but he'd become sort of a 'good' father figure to a lot of us kids.
"His church was the only one my dad approved of-and the reason that was important to Fred Jr. is the same reason he's-they all-have been unable to escape. "You see, no matter what differences we had with him as the head of our house, none of us questioned his authority as head of our church. It was a certified gathering of the elect, remember. And the only way to get to heaven was to do that, to assemble with the elect. "My dad interpreted that, and we accepted it, as membership in a physical congregation certified by him as elect...The Place... "And there was only one Place besides his-Forrest Judd's. "So my brother had nowhere to run, you see. Not if he wanted to get to heaven. To a believer, even the most wonderful love in this world isn't worth an eternity in the fires of hell. "As long as we accepted my father had the power to so that-send us all to hell-he had the trump card in any showdown over our choices." After Judd and the Pastor Phelps conferred by phone, the father figure convinced Fred Jr. there'd be no room on the Indy bus to heaven. If he wanted to get there, he'd have to go back to Kansas. A member of the staff at Topeka West remembers the pastor called the school to rage at them, holding them responsible and threatening to sue: "As I recall, the father stopped the marriage; and he was demanding the school go and get them. He wanted returned separately so they wouldn't 'fornicate' on the way home.
"School officials tried to point out to him that Fred and Debbie were teenagers, and they'd been alone together for over a week-the damage was done." From the moment the disappointed lovers started down the road they had came, the clock began to tick toward tragedy.
Back in Topeka, Debbie moved in with her mom again, and Fred counted the weeks till his 18th birthday. Though his father did everything in his power to separate them, "those afternoon candy sessions went on just as they had before," says Mark. In May of 1971, the pastor changed his strategy. It would be OK for Fred Jr. to see Debbie, but only when she came to services on Sunday.
By this time, Mark had met his future spouse, also at the skating rink, and Luava was convinced to come to church as well. "The only way we could see his sons officially," says Luava, "was if we came to his church for Sunday service. They had no social life; they weren't allowed to date." So they came to service. Luava remembers that first Sunday: "When I arrived, Debbie was already there, sitting in one of the pews, waiting for it to begin. She looked back at me and smiled. I was nervous and her warmth touched me. She was quite radiant and seemed very happy that day." Luava fared better than Debbie under the pale-hearted pastor's basilisk eye. She had long hair and was shy-a quality the pastor mistook for subjection to her man.
"My father took an instant dislike to Debbie," Mark recalls. "She had all her signals wrong: she had short hair; she was vivacious, passionate, and fiery; she was direct; and she had an open, honest laugh." That day, and forever after, the good pastor called her a 'whore' from the pulpit, in person, to Fred, and the family. "She didn't argue," says Mark. "She looked shell-shocked. She started to cry, but did it quietly. After the service, she disappeared. "After that, he preached to Freddy she was a whore from pulpit every Sunday. "Then one day," says Mark, "my father announced that the entire family was going roller skating. Even mom. He said we'd have some 'fun' together."
The voice on the phone laughs. "It was a very peculiar experience. You have to realize, in all the time we were growing up, our family never did that. We never, not once, went on an outing together. We'd go sell candy, or to run. but never to have fun. He never took us to the zoo, the movies, out to eat, to the park, on a picnic, vacation, Thanksgiving at the relatives, to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July-none of these things.
"Now you can begin to understand what a selfish man our dad was. We spent our entire childhoods and adolescence waiting on him and working for him and getting beaten up by him. The idea of parenthood or fatherhood is an alien concept to that man. "So we were suspicious when he announced he was taking us all skating. Sure enough, it turned out he'd caught wind of what was going on down at the rink." Fred and Mark had made plans to meet Debbie and Luava there that day, and now the pressure had the drop on them. Though she'd already been to services at their church, Mark only nodded to Luava as if she were a passing acquaintance. When the pastor made fun of her parents within earshot of Luava, Mark felt forced to laugh.
Fred and Debbie skated together briefly, but they didn't hold hands. Everyone was watching the good Pastor Phelps. Fred Sr. strapped on a pair of skates and storked out on the floor looking like a new-born calf on ice. "I wanted to show off for him," Mark recalls, "so I started skating backwards and doing jumps when I knew he was watching. Do you think he liked it? No way. My father went into a seething rage. He said he could see I'd been spending all my goddam time down there, trying to get my dick wet. What a guy-by the way, both Luava and I were virgins when we were married...five years after we met." Possibly due to the stress of the unexpected confrontation, Debbie had another seizure. In a gloomy portent of what was to come, none of the Phelps boys dared go to her aid. She lay unconscious and abandoned by the good Christians of Westboro Baptist before 13 year-old Luava noticed and rushed to her side. At that, the pastor glared at Mark. "Someone should tell that girl we don't associate with whores," he glowered. Then, as the steadfast teenager revived her friend, Good Samaritan Phelps wobbled past on his skates and muttered, "whore" at Debbie while she was recovering her feet.
The charitable timing of his comment caused Fred Jr.'s girl to burst into tears. Luava helped her off the floor and into the ladies' room. "I don't know why Fred's old man hates me so much," Debbie sobbed. "You're lucky that he likes you." Luava never forgot the bitterness of those sobs: SOS from the threshold of a soul's despair. Debbie went to services at the Westboro Church several times after that, and, each time, she was called a whore from the pulpit. Then why did she go? "The hope of having Fred Jr. was greater than the pain of his father's words," says Mark. "She even came over once and asked my father what it was he wanted her to be. He told her she'd have to get an education and amount to something if she wanted his son. That she'd have to go to college and law school first, and, while she was doing it, she'd have to stay away from Fred Jr. 'But right now,' he told her, 'you're just a whore'. "Debbie said she could do it-she just needed a chance to prove it. I remember my father laughed in her face and said she'd always be a whore. "Another time, Debbie had been riding along with us on the candy sales, and afterward she and Fred intended to sneak out to a movie. Fred Jr. asked her to wait in the candy room while he changed clothes. You see, my dad never went in there." The pastor chose that time to fly into one of his rages with Fred Jr.
"Of course, whenever my father started beating someone, the rest of the kids would run into the candy room. It was sort of our bomb shelter. They'd be pacing nervously, waiting for it to end, like a herd of cows from the candy boxes to the laundry dryers and back. "My father was beating on Fred and screaming things like, 'You son-of-a-bitch! You got your dick wet! And now you're sniffin' after that whore!' It made them both feel dirty for what was really the best thing that had happened to them so far in their lives-their first love. "Debbie got hysterical when she heard those things. She ran out crying." Mark pauses. "And we were very nervous because she wasn't supposed to be in there. I remember several of us followed her out to ensure she didn't make a scene. That's where we were back then: nothing mattered except keeping my dad cooled off.
"Outside in the street, Debbie was crying her heart out. She kept asking, 'why does he say those things about me?'" Mark isn't sure of the timing, but he believes shortly after is when Fred, how 18, decided to move out. The pastor vehemently opposed it, but Fred stood up for himself.
Finally they compromised: the son would go and live with one of his father's business associates. Bob Martin was a retired army officer who ran Bo-Mar Investigations, a private detective agency. After Fred, Jr. had been staying with Martin for a week in his house, Mark remembers his father got a phone call. It was Martin.
"Let's go," said the pastor to Mark, who'd become the squad leader in his father's schemes. While they drove to the detective's place, the pastor explained the plan he and Martin had for Fred Jr.: wait till he was in the shower and then confront him; a naked man feels vulnerable and powerless.
Mark's father told him Fred Jr. had just come in from work and gone into the bathroom. "When he comes out, we'll be waiting," chuckled the guardian of one of the two portals to the Kingdom of Heaven. And so they were. As Fred Jr. came out, towel around his waist, he was confronted by his father, by Mark, and a suddenly hostile Bob Martin.
"Get your clothes! You're going home!" snapped the pastor. The eldest son complied without argument. "The next part I'll never forget," says Mark. "When we got out to the car, I was in the back, my father was behind the wheel, and Fred was in the front passenger seat. Bob had followed us and he opened the door on my brother's side. "Through the space between the front seat and the door, I could see him place a revolver against my brother's knee. And he said: "If you run away again, I have orders to come after you. And when I catch you, I'm going to shoot you right here." At the time, 'knee-capping' had spread to the United States from Italy and France as the preferred punishment in underworld circles. It left its victim crippled for life. This article does not imply Fred Phelps Sr. has underworld ties. It only remarks that anyone who dresses badly, who lives handsomely off the work of urchins hustling in the streets, who disciplines subordinates by beating them senseless, who fosters filiar piety by threats of knee-capping, who knocks his wife around regularly, who surrounds himself with lawyers, and who is apparently beyond the long arm of the law could have made a very respectable gangster. Certainly not a pastor. Fred Jr. enrolled at Washburn University that fall and Debbie returned to Topeka West. Though the pastor had forbidden them to see each other outside church, they continued to do so.
"My brother was struggling with his love for Debbie and his very real fear of hell. A lot of non-Christians might find that hard to believe. But if you grew up with your imagination open to Fred Phelps, believe me, hell was a concrete reality." The battle inside Fred Jr. would last until the following spring, but the war had been lost when he turned back from Indiana.
In late September, Debbie dropped out of high school and moved in with girlfriends at a house on Central Park Avenue. It was just a few blocks from the Washburn campus. "We went there a lot when we were out selling candy," says Mark. "That lasted into December, probably, because I remember being there when it was very cold and we were wearing winter coats."
But the pastor was relentless. And not only with the mattock. "He knew Fred Jr. was still seeing Debbie, and he hit heavy, heavy on him from the Bible. From things they said, I think my brother and Debbie had probably become lovers at some time in the relationship, and I'm sure Fred Jr. felt guilty about that.
"So, he was vulnerable to my father's framing of the situation as 'Debbie the Whore...the Agent of Satan sent to lure him into temptation and directly down into the gaping jaws of hell'." Says Mark: "He'd spend time with her, then try to avoid her. In addition to the guilt he was getting some pretty bad beatings. While Fred Jr. drifted in fear, Debbie fought to hand on to the man she cherished and the only person who'd ever cherished her. Margie Phelps remembers Debbie would wait for her brother outside after his classes on the Washburn campus. She would beg him to come back to her in Play-Misty-for-Me scenarios, where a mentally ill woman stalks her former lover. "If she did do that," says Luava, "it was in hurt and frustration that he would betray the love we all knew he felt." "And, besides, it always worked," Mark adds. "He always went back to her, at least while he was at Washburn." "I don't think he ever stopped loving her," agrees Luava. "He was just more scared of hell than he was of losing her."
Sometimes in December, 1971, events turned murky, fast. and fatal. Apparently willing now to give Debbie up, but afraid he wouldn't be able to do it while they lived in the same town, and also furious at his father for forcing him to leave her, Fred Jr. ran away again, despite Bob Martin's threat to find him and kneecap him if he did so. From late December till mid-February, the following events are known:
Fred Jr. disappeared and no one in the family knew his whereabouts. One night in January, shortly after Nate and Jonathon had been shaved and beaten and the school had notified the police, Fred Jr. stopped by the house without his father knowing. Nate remembers he asked to see their heads and then commiserated with them about their embarrassment at the police station.
About the same time, Luava's father saw Fred Jr. at a Washburn basketball game. He had a K-State jacket and a rash on both arms. The other man became concerned about Fred's welfare, and, with nothing to go on but the jacket and the rash, he was able to track the troubled youth down working at a produce business in Manhattan, where the state college was situated.
Fred Jr. turned down all offers of money or help. At the time, he was living in the basement of a young married couple. Whether Debbie visited him or even joined him up there is unknown. What is known us that, on Valentine's Day, Fred Jr. showed up in Topeka with a new girl for his father to meet.
"Betty," says Mark, "was a lot closer to what my father demanded. She was another Luava-or at least who my dad originally thought Luava was- she had long hair, and she was very quiet and submissive. She had also been raised Methodist. A lot of Baptists started out as Methodists, you know. "Debbie...was a Catholic."
A few weeks after Valentine's, Debbie came to see her mom. Della A. remembers they went for a walk in the small park near where Debbie had lived with her friends. Her daughter's spirits were very low, she recalls. Debbie confessed Fred had given her an engagement ring and they had eloped, but that Fred's dad had made them come back. She admitted bitterly that his father had told her she wasn't good enough for his son, and the younger Phelps had been forced to obey him. "Now Fred's found another girl," she told her mother. As they walked, Della remembers her daughter took off the ring and threw it in the bushes. "He's never going to marry me, Mama," she said, "but I know I'll never love anyone else."
The mother says she tried to cheer her up, and later, thinking Debbie might regret it, she returned to search for the ring in the grass. She never found it, and even if she had, Debbie never would have received it. The mother and daughter's walk in the park that afternoon would be their last time together. The remainder of Debbie's hopeful life can be found, not in the memories of those who knew her, but in the dusty, impersonal files of the U.S. Army Intelligence Criminal Investigations Division. After seeing her mother that day, Debbie went up to Junction City, an army town that served nearby Ft. Riley. It was also only a 20 minute drive from Manhattan, where Fred was living. Whether they saw each other during that time is not known. From the part of her life that has been documented in the Army's investigation of her death, it seems unlikely. During her final days, Debbie Valgos touched a match to her longing soul. She flamed up in a white-hot blaze of self-directed violence, anonymous sex, amphetamines, heroin, and rock and roll. All the things Pastor Phelps said she was, she'd be.
She moved in with a soldier. She shot smack. She partied for days without sleep. The speed she was constantly on burned through her body till she'd gone from 130 to 87 pounds. In less than a month the 5'7" girl had become a walking corpse with the wide, burning eyes of the starved. Perhaps that is when her face could at last reflect her heart: faltering into despair after a lifetime without sustenance.
Because the effect was so striking, Debbie's new acquaintance nicknamed here 'Eyes'. But 'Eyes' had stared into her abyss, and she knew. At the end of all worlds. Was a single lost soul. The last days of Debbie Valgos' life, those few weeks in Junction City, were one long suicide...a death dance through the Army bars...a soul signing off. When she lost Fred Phelps, Debbie must have felt she had forever lost her way...that she was never coming back...and so she touched a match to her despair. Her new friends told CID agents she had tried to commit suicide four times in the weeks prior to her death: by jumping out a window, rolling off a roof; and twice by drug overdose.
Each time they had stopped her or brought her through it. The came the night of April 17, 1972. Debbie was in the Blue Light, a soldier's bar. Though she had a soldier waiting at home, that hardly mattered. She let two more pick her up. When they invited her back to their barracks to 'party', she said 'yes'.
As they left, a girl who lived in Debbie's house insisted that she come along. She'd been there during Debbie's earlier attempted suicides, and she worried that the frail runaway might try it again. They were spirited past the gates of the fort, hiding on the floor of the car. The soldiers parked in an alley and had the girls crawl through a window into their barracks room. Once inside, one of them offered Debbie some speed. It was a bottle of crushed mini-bennies, according to CID reports. Debbie took it, and the soldier turned to put on a record. When she gave it back, the boy was amazed. "You took way too much!" he said. "You'll be up three or four days!"
Debbie only smiled at him. What might have been a four-day problem for a 180 pound man, Debbie undoubtedly hoped would solve all her problems at 87 pounds, less than half the other's body weight. Shortly after, "Eye started to have a 'body trip'," states the girl who had accompanied her. "She shut her eyes and just started moving with the music. She did that for awhile and then she started to act dingy. She called me over and said she felt like little needles were poking her all over her whole body and she was tingling. I told her I would stay with her and not to make any noise in the barracks." When Debbie started rolling around on the floor and mumbling, her friend worried she might hurt herself, and so she sat on her.
The other girl, who apparently was quite obese, continued drinking and talking while she kept Debbie pinned beneath her. The party went on. Debbie was babbling incoherently. After almost another hour, everyone became alarmed at Eye's grotesque physical contortions. They pulled her back through the window, loaded her in the car, and smuggled her off base. Returning to her new boyfriend's house, they woke him and ran the tub full of cold water. By then, Debbie had passed into coma. She would not be taken to Irwin Army Hospital At Ft. Riley until 5 a.m., nearly five hours after she'd ingested almost half a bottle of crushed benzedrine. Debbie lasted 20 hours unconscious in ICU, just long enough for her sister, Bernadette, to find her. At 1 a.m., her heart stopped. Her spirit had flamed up and was gone. She was 17. She was sunny and loving and only wanted to be loved. After all she'd been through, Debbie Valgos thought she'd found safe haven with the family Phelps. She died for her mistake. In that spring of 1972, one of the Top 40 songs playing on the rock and roll radios Debbie no doubt listened to while riding her dark current of heroin, amphetamines, and despair was a tribute to Janis Joplin, sung by Joan Baez: "She once walked right by my side I know she walked by yours, Her striding steps could not deny Torment from a child who knew, That in the quiet morning There would be despair, And in the hours that followed No one could repair... That poor girl... Barely here to tell her tale, Rode in on a tide of misfortune Rode out on a mainline rail... But the Pastor Phelps, devotee of a hateful god, had made up a song of his own: "I remember getting home from school the day it appeared in the papers," says Mark, "and my dad came dancing down the stairs, swaying from the knees and clapping his hands, singing: 'The whore is dead! The whore is dead!' "He paraded around the house, singing and laughing with that maniacal giggle he has, 'the whore is dead!'" Mark pauses to let the horror of the scene settle in. One is reminded of the warning from the first epistle of John: "He who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen..." Margie Phelps remembers shortly after Debbie's death Fred Jr. came to visit their mom secretly. Margie says she didn't know he was in the house. She came into a room inadvertently and saw Fred Jr. and her mother sitting in chairs, facing each other. The eldest son had his head in her lap and she was stroking his hair.
"Fred was crying," says Margie. "I heard afterward it was for Debbie." "There's no question that my brother wanted to spend his life with Debbie," says Mark. "She was who he loved. And I knew her well enough to say my brother was the first light of hope she'd had in her life. When he left her, that light went out."
The phone voices, bouncing along microwave relays from California, cease. The ghostly dishes wait, sentinels in the wheat fields, the mountain passes, the desert, and the ancient western forests beyond. "We think of Debbie sometimes," says Luava softly. "We know Fred does too." "She'd had a hard life before, but all she really needed was someone who would value her," Mark observes. "If my dad had allowed that, Debbie and Fred would have really blossomed. "You know in Matthew 12:20? Where Jesus says, 'the bruised reed I will not break; the flickering candle I won't snuff out; instead I will be your hope'? With the evil and the hurt he's caused during his life, my father has no right to the name of 'pastor'-nevermind 'guardian of The Place."
Della A. is more direct. She has a message for the pastor: "You tell Fred Phelps I'll wait in hell for him." Margie remembers Debbie's sister, Bernadette, knocked on their door one day. "She went on about how we were responsible for Debbie's death." Bernadette admits doing that. "I do blame them," she says. "My sister had a tough enough time without those people. If she hadn't met them, she'd probably be alive today." "We thought she was really coming along," reflects a former staff member at Topeka West. "Of all the kids there who had difficult backgrounds to overcome, we felt sure she'd be one of those who would." No one who knew her has forgotten her. Not the sisters at St. Vincent's, not her teachers, not even her dentist when she was a child. "I was just thinking of her," admitted one. You were? Why? "Oh...your thoughts return to someone like that...so young and full of promise...a really sweet girl...and then to die before her life ever had a chance to start...yes...Debbie comes to mind from time to time." "Valgos?" Fred Jr.'s voice sounds eerie and distant over the phone. "That name isn't familiar." Silence. "But then I had lots of girlfriends. At least five or six in high school."
No one else remembers that. "Oh...oh, I remember now. The little girl at the orphanage?" Two years later, Fred Jr. married Betty, the woman he'd brought home that Valentine's Day. Betty was approved by his father.
She was the second woman he'd ever dated. For the moment, this article shall abandon cynicism and consider beginner's luck in the search for mates. After all, Mark Phelps is quite happy with his first date of 22 years ago. So is Luava. And, if Fred Jr. and Debbie were destined for each other, what happy chance they met on his first date. However, the odds that Fred would then meet Miss Right directly after he met Debbie begin to gnaw at the suspension of disbelief in this fire and brimstone fiction of predestined characters. "I think not being able to have Debbie, and her committing suicide, I think that just broke my brother," observes Mark. "After that, he submitted totally. He'd lost his thrill for life. He went to law school, like his dad wanted; he married a girl his dad approved; and he shouldered a role in The Place. "And that's where he is today. He just turned 40." Betty was a music major at K-State when she met Fred Jr. She had perfect pitch and played between eight and ten instruments. However, she transferred to Washburn for her last two years of college, and went to law school on command. Mark remembers a time in 1973, when Betty was visiting Fred Jr. in the kitchen and the pastor started beating Nate savagely with the mattock in an adjoining room. Betty had been eating a cantaloupe and she shoved her spoon all the way through it and screamed: Stop it!" Says Mark: "The old man came in from the church where he'd been beating Nate, and he said to Betty: 'You got a problem with this?' Then he turned to Fred Jr.: "If that girl has a problem with this, then I'm not going to put up with it! You better get her under subjection, or you're not gonna be marryin' her!"
In one of his fax missives, the pastor has stated: "Wives who have strayed too far traditional family values of home and children need to be whipped into godly obedience. Sparing the rod and sparing either the children or the women is a strategy that fundamentalist Christians reject. Complacency and misplaced 'equality' notions produce tormented, social misfits like (here Phelps names several female city officials) who are hormonally and intellectually incapable of rational thought. Like the termite, these so-called modern ideas promulgated by Satan's servants are destroying the studs of the family unit." Nate remembers: "Betty was put in her place, both by the old man and Freddy. And she was the butt of numerous comments from the pulpit over the following months until she finally displayed the 'proper spirit of obedience'.
Luava recalls that, some time after Debbie's death, Betty and she were talking when suddenly Fred's new girl started crying. "He still carries her picture in his wallet," she sobbed. "He's in love with a dead girl." The Phelps family forbade reporters from asking Fred Jr. about Debbie Valgos during interviews, and threatened to sue the paper if it printed the story of the couple's broken dreams.
"That child was very precious to us," says the former director of St. Vincent's, Sister Frances Russell, who refused to give an interview, "and all my instincts are to protect her-even in death." Sister Therese Bangert came to the orphanage the year after Debbie died, "so I didn't know her," she says. "But I remember her because of the impact her death had on everyone who was there. Even today, mentioned the name of Debbie Valgos around some of the sisters would be like knocking the wind out of them." Just as he threatened to shove the blind runner off the track when the old man was in his way, charitable Fred Phelps toppled Debbie Valgos into her abyss when she threatened to lure one of his Chosen from The Place. "He was scared of her He knew she'd take Fred Jr. from him," says Mark. "My father saw Debbie's weak spot-her self-esteem-and he did everything in his power to drive a sword through it...right into her heart. "Debbie didn't hate life like my father. She loved it. He knew she'd never fit in there. Eventually she'd leave and pull Freddy with her." The pastor's second son adds: "If, during the course of your investigation, you'd discovered my father had something to do with Debbie's death, I would not have been surprised. That's how far I think he was willing to go to keep us on as adult servants to his ego." This chapter focused on the torture, kidnapping, and later troubles of Kathy Phelps and the tragedy of Fred Jr. and Debbie Valgos because these facts provide a clear insight into the horror coming of age held in the house of the good pastor Phelps. It has been an inquiry into a man who gathers a following wherever souls are writhing in agony from the evil done to them. It is a look behind the veil of a false prophet who, with investigation, appears more and more as a new type of serial killer: Pastor Phelps is too clever, too cowardly, and too lawyerly to kill the bodies. His life is a trail of murdered souls. And his worst victims have been his own family.
No man or woman living on the Phelps block has been allowed to become the plant foreshadowed by the seed. This chapter has revealed the betrayal and murder of three spirits by Phelps, would-be prophet of the subdivided prairie, hopeful John Brown of religious radio.
Kathy Phelps' life remains at the level of subsistence and self- destruction. Her brother, Nate, has been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is quite likely that Kathy suffers from it also. Today, but for the statute of limitations, the brutal beatings and torture this pretty teenager experienced would bring a long jail sentence to their perpetrator.
Fred Jr. never became a history teacher. Recently, he left the law profession and works for the Kansas Department of Corrections. Debbie Valgos died of a broken heart. A quick survey of the curricula vitae of the Phelps children shows his astonishing success in their conforming to his wishes. In fact, the Phelps Plan because a sausage factory for loyal and legal support of one man's ambitions: *Of the 13 children, 11 got law degrees-nine of those from Washburn University *Of the nine loyal offspring and four approved spouses, all but one took law degrees; eight have undergraduate degrees in Corrections or Criminal Justice. One can only wonder why the pandemic fascination for prison among the Phelps loyalists. For the nine kids who stayed with Fred, God provided only three spouses from within the church. Fred Jr. and brother Jonathon had to provide for themselves. They became Westboro outlaws to find mates among the damned.
When they eventually returned to the fold, these 'tainted women' were only accepted after a long probation and apprenticeship at being a wife- in-subjection. Six of the Phelps daughters remain the compound. Two of the, were betrothed to Chosen already residing in The Place. The rest grow old. Perhaps bitter. Alternately resentful and desperately dependent on the one man in their life. To chronicle the failures of others among the loyal Phelps children in their youthful attempts to escape over the wall of their father's fear and ego is to compose a litany of unhappy and sordid tales, ones that would burn the ears of the listener. "You know she's admitted she's a whore," says Phelps of Shawnee County D.A., Joan Hamilton. "She hasn't admitted she's a whore," replies ABC's John Stossell. They're taping for 20/20: "She admitted she had a one night stand." "Then, if you believe the Bible, she's a whore," insists Phelps. "Shackin' up with some guy one night or a thousand nights, she meets the Bible definition of a depraved, adulterous, whorish woman."
Pastor Phelps would be wise to take a quick poll of the home team, especially his daughters. He might find his glass house full of mischief. The misadventures of the clan Phelps can be pursued into allegations of adultery, fornication, illegitimacy, and abortion without fear of libel.
However, since it is also the thesis of this article that his children are actually the principal victims of Pastor Phelps, it is not appropriate to expose the rest of these embarrassing stories in detail. Despite their strident condemnation of others' equal and lesser sins, it will suffice to point out the foibles of his children would make as interesting reading for the pastor's fax gossip as anything he's printed. If those without sin shall toss the first stones, the grim clan at
Westboro will have to keep a tight grip on theirs. With his private genetic following, Pastor Phelps has found a world perhaps he's always sought. One where they care for him and do his bidding and never leave him. To make that happen required the promise of their youth be devoted to the unsettled scores of his past. Fred Phelps crushed the innocence and joy, the dreams of all but three of his children. His reputation as a civil rights advocate is perhaps ironic. The pastor's chains are subtle, but stronger than the iron ones worn by the ancestors of those he often brags he's helped free. The children who were raised in the nightmare of 12th Street carry their shackles in their hearts. It is their fear of their father's key to hell, and their view that the world is hateful and hates them, that, like the elephants in India, keeps them serving the will of a man who, by now they must realize, is much smaller than themselves. The vulnerable pastor hoards his hell- stunned flock close around his own flickering candle. He pulls them like a threadbare cloak about his old wounds, huddling against the cutting hawk of a cold soul wind blowing from somewhere out of his past.
Sitting in her mother's house, the sinking afternoon sun pours through the screen door, casting its soft gold across the widow's tattered carpet. Della A. offers, a little reluctantly and her eyes bright with guilt, the last moments of her daughter: a First Communion veil; a dried corsage from an Easter Sunday get-to-together, and the photo album Debbie kept at the orphanage. On its cover, printed in the awkward, block letters of a bruised but hopeful new reed, a flickering candle not yet quenched, are the words:
I LOVE FRED PHELPS
"Debbie Valgos was a whore extraordinaire," snaps Margie. But the father's words sound empty and formulaic on the daughter's tongue.