January 1, 1979
By JOAN GALLER
( Special correspondent of The News)
Second of a series
When Jim McPartlin strode into his 10th Ave. Mobil service station early last July 20, little did he suspect he would soon be helping a young woman run away from the religious cult his own daughter had quit two years after most of her bank account had been cleaned out. He had been watching the Church of Bible Understanding Inc. ever since, so it didn't really surprise him when 22-year-old Jan Smith came running into his office, pleading that he hide her from cult members who were trailing her as she made her second bid for freedom in as many days. Now he stood there, listening sympathetically, knowingly, as she described the terrifying past 24 hours.
Children reported grabbed
Jan had taken her two oldest children as far as Penn Station. She was preparing to board the train that would take her home to Scranton, Pa., when, she says, her husband and several COBU brothers rushed up, grabbed the children and her purse and took them back to the cult's headquarters at 607 W. 51st St., about three blocks from McPartlin's gas station. Jan was fed up with working long hours in the office of the church's carpet-cleaning business for no pay, while being forced to leave her children in a communal nursery. She wanted to quit. But her husband, Mark, 24, Would hear none of it. Within hours, Jan was standing before COBU's founder and leader, Stewart Traill, an ex-vacuum cleaner salesman, and the COBU council. They decreed, she recalls, that her three children should be taken from her until she came to her senses and submitted to her husband's supreme authority and to the cult's will. And Mark was ordered to leave his wife alone in their W. 51st St. apartment while she reflected on her sinful behavior. Jan bolted the next morning. And now she stood in the service station, pouring her heart out to a stranger.
McPartlin responded immediately by handing
her a $5 bill and sending her off to Family Court to press for custody
of her children. Jan's custody- battle ended up that same night in Bronx
Family Court, which had jurisdiction because the children reportedly had
been taken to a COBU apartment in that borough. But the case also died
there, two months later, when an arrest warrant was issued for Mark Smith,
who had failed to appear at four scheduled hearings and had fled to New
Jersey to escape prosecution. Ultimately, on Nov. 13, after spending four
months with her family in Pennsylvania and after numerous
telephone calls from her husband asking her to return, Jan consented to drop the charges and rejoin the cult. "What else could I do?" she asks. "Mark told me Stewart would fly him to Germany if necessary to escape prosecution and then I'd never see my children again." Jan saw the futility in resisting. For these were the same tactics Traill used to seize his own five children from his former wife, Shirley Rudy Traill, in 1975, and spirit them away to New Jersey to escape a custody battle in the Pennsylvania courts.
Resigned to "living a life of poverty," Jan
returned to COBU's Manhattan fellowship and was immediately placed in a
job as a cashier in a Fifth Avenue shop. She now works as a "gofer"
for a dress manufacturer on Broadway, earning $135 a week gross.
Like the others in the cult, she was required to turn over her entire paycheck
and live in a COBU- rented apartment, this time on W. 40th St,
It wasn't until a week ago, on Christmas Day, that Jan finally held her
baby Matthew, by then 11 months old; Rachel, 2 1/2, and David, 4, in her
arms. A condition of her return had called for total obedience and
devotion until she had redeemed herself in Mark's eyes, and the children
were her brief, one-day "Present" for meeting the stiff test he had set.
She hopes to have her children back permanently, soon. "I didn't
want to make a scene at the railroad station the day Mark and the brothers
stopped me from going home because I believe Mark's actions are not
his own," Jan explained, Mark is little more than Stewart's robot."
Jan says she tried repeatedly before her abortive flight to reason with Mark, to make him understand she was tired of working for the church's mission in Haiti, tired of making money to feed "starving Haitians" when she couldn't be the kind of mother she felt her own children deserved. "I only wanted a nice home and backyard far them to play in," she says. "I asked Stewart how he would like to raise his five children in Manhattan, and he told me, 'My children have never been happier.'
"That's easy for him to say. He lives in Teaneck and they all go to an expensive private school while my beautiful babes are left with baby-sitters at the fellowship's nursery," she says. What bothers her even more is her family's near poverty-level lifestyle and the fact that she and Mark, both high school honor students, passed up college scholarships - his for a full four years at the University of Pennsylvania - to join the cult five years ago. "My husband leaves for work in the church's rug business every morning around 7:30 a.m. and doesn't return till about 10 or 11 p.m.," Mark says. "It bothers me that we have been working so hard for so long and have nothing, while Stewart controls everything.
"Mark brags to me that he alone earns $2,000 a week for the church and that COBU is going to gross $4.68 million in 1973, yet we live in poverty," The rug-cleaning business, run by Christian Brothers Cleaning Service Inc., and the search for new converts have reportedly been going so badly in New York that COBU is considering closing its center here and moving west. More than anything, Mark wishes she could get an education and make something of her life. She talks wistfully about becoming a teacher or a nurse. It was while she was engaged in research for a high school term paper on "Jesus freaks" in 1973 back in, Bethlehem, Pa., that she crossed paths with the cult -- then known as the Forever Family - and succumbed to its doctrines. "I decided not to go on to college because Stewart teaches that too much education makes you a lukewarm Christian," Jan wryly recalls.
Both Jan's father, Andrew MacQue, and her attorney,
Pete Tudder of Manhattan, describe Traill's treatment of Jan and her children
as despicable, "Jan's mental state is deteriorating from the point
where I took the case last summer," Tudder said recently, He added that
he occasionally hears from her even though the custody case is now moot.
Tudder says he attempted to learn of the children's whereabouts through
COBU's attorney, Steven Sklar, when both lawyers met at Bronx Family Court
last September. Sklar was accompanied by a group of COBU members
apparently summoned to testify that Mark Smith was not in the Bronx, so
Sklar could ask for dismissal. "Sklar suggested they were in New
Jersey, but he never got more specific," says Tudder. "As far as
I'm concerned, from what I've seen, this guy Traill is worse than Jim Jones
(of the Peoples Temple in
Guyana) for what's going on here." Jan's father took time off from his job at Bethlehem Steel Co. in Pennsylvania to help her find Mark and serve the first court summons in July. But he met up with Traill instead.
After hours of searching with police for Smith
in the Bronx, MacQue accompanied Jan to the COBU building on W. 51st St.
They called for police escort, expecting trouble, But when no help arrived
in an hour, they went upstairs to confront Traill by
themselves. MacQue says they found the cult leader seated in a circle, talking with some brothers. MacQue and Jan asked him to step outside to speak with them for a few minutes. Their requests, repeated three times, were ignored MacQue recalls, until, Traill finally rose and in a loud voice asked: "Are we going to let these people trample us?" MacQue says "Traill stepped forward, grabbed his arm and growled: "I will speak to you when I feel like it." He says Traill then roughly escorted him outside, and stood there glowering silently until MacQue and Jan finally left.
That was MacQue's second glimpse of COBU's leader. The first had come in 1973, shortly after Jan joined and invited her parents to come to hear Traill speak in Allentown. "The first time I saw him I thought, 'What a creep!" MacQue recalls. "He had people sitting on dilapidated couches- In this dilapidated house, listening to him read the Bible. "He'd make some insignificant remark - it often sounded like gibberish - and those kids would pipe up with things like 'Wow' and 'Praise God,' as if he had just made some profound statement," MacQue said. "My wife and I sat there for about an hour listening to this before I turned to her and said, 'Let's get the hell out of here'." Five years later, last July, daughter Jan had apparently reached the same conclusion.