Police Raid Southwest Philadelphia Cult
Thursday April 20, 1995
By Michael Sokolove,
and Daniel Rubin
Inquirer Staff Writers
Police yesterday raided the sprawling Southwest Philadelphia headquarters of a religious cult, looking to rescue runaways,after receiving a complaint from a 16-year old Brooklyn girl who said she had been held there against her will. They took eight girls ages 14-17 into custody and called their parents. Did the parents know where their daughters were? Living at the headquarters of the Church of Bible Understanding, the sect headed by Stewart Traill, the former vacuum-cleaner salesman and self-proclaimed prophet?
Turned out they did. And had no objections. "We don't really have anything at this point that would indicate criminal charges," said Capt. Thomas Quinn, commander of the Southwest Detectives. "There's no indication these kids were abused or anything like that. They stated they weren't abused, they felt comfortable there. And the parents, for whatever reason, are comfortable with that."
The girls were returned to the church. A woman
who answered the phone at the sect's compound declined to discuss the police
raid or provide the name of someone who could."You get your statement from
the police,"said the woman. "You talk to them. Good-bye." Philadelphia
police, working in concert with the FBI, had been watching the cult for
the better part of a month, after the Brooklyn teen left the compound and
sought help from a uniformed Philadelphia officer. "She didn't feel she
could leave readily," Quinn said. "She felt she had to wait until
somebody wasn't looking."
Detectives entered the block-long compound at 58th and Thomas Streets at 9:37 am., searching for runaways or for teens being held against their will. They were armed with a search warrant. Quinn said that because of the timing of
the raid, police may have seen no more than half of the young residents of the compound. The others were likely out
working in church-related businesses. The Church of Bible Understanding, known as COBU to those who track cults, has
been in the news periodically since the mid-1970's. It moved its world headquarters to Philadelphia from New York in 1978.
In 1982, four of its members -who are known as "lambs"
in church parlance - were convicted in Common Pleas Court of beating Stewart
Traill's then-12-year-old son with a bell and a board after he supposedly
stole fin item from a hobby shop.
"We didn't want to hit him with the board, but the belt had no effect," testified One Of the defendants, who said the beating came at the behest of Traill, who was not present at the beating or charged. "We stopped when the board broke, then he was told to read a verse in the Bible." A judge in Manhattan in 1985 ordered the cult to stop taking in homeless children and putting them to work in its carpet-cleaning business, for which the church allegedly paid the children $10 a week.
In the Mid-70's, COBU was said to have branches in 100 U.S. cities as well as a mission and orphanage in Haiti. The sect has become far smaller Since then, said Bill Alnor, president of Eastern Christian Outreach, which tracks cults. But COBU still has followers and substantial holdings. Public records show that it owns three properties in Southwest Philadelphia, including the compound on 58th and Thomas, which is fenced all around - partly with barbed wire - and includes five buildings and a swimming pool.
It also owns buildings in New York, Baltimore and Rochester, N.Y. - and four airplanes.
The organization is funded from proceeds of its business enterprises, primarily carpet-cleaning services.The employees in the carpet-cleaning business are Traill's young followers, mostly teenagers, who generally work for low wages or no wages viewing their employment as "church volunteer work."
Alnor, a critic of COBU, said the proceeds of church businesses support Traill's hobbies - flying and photography. Traill's sect appears to be trying rebuild its membership in Philadelphia. While it once attracted mainly young adults, it lately has been recruiting followers of high school age. "Traill basically teaches that he's the only one who understands the Bible,'that it can only be understood through him or his followers," Alnor said. "He has a very figurative interpretation of Scripture. Words don't mean what they appear to mean. They mean what he says. Like, stone doesn't mean stone, it means backsliding Christian."
Chris Hatcher, a professor at the University of California at San Francisco whose specialty is determining what groups are violent, as opposed to "just strange and eccentric," said COBU was known to be aggressive in its recruiting but not violent. The group has recently been recruiting on South Street, much to the displeasure of merchants, using an apparently church-owned store called Kluttrbox as a base.
Kluttrbox is on the second floor of 425 South St., above Tower Books, in a cavernous space that used to be a dance hall. There is usually someone stationed at the door from noon to midnight, chanting: "Check us out! Check us out" to those who walk down South Street, according to Robert DeForge, manager of Tower Books. A 13-year-old who lives near South Street said he was approached on a Saturday night about six weeks ago at Eighth and South by five teenagers and a man who appeared to be around 30. "They had bibles in their hand." the boy said. "They were asking people if they were being ruined. . I didn't know what they were talking about." He said they kept him on the corner for a half-hour. "They kept talking to me, and I kept asking if I could go, and they kept talking to me." Several nights later, he visited the Kluttrbox and recognized at least one
of the clerks from that encounter. A business owner on that block described seeing as many as 19 young people pile out of an old van with New York license plates one morning before the store opened about 11:30 a.m.
Yesterday, a group of South Street merchants met with police to air a variety of complaints, among them concerns about the thousands of Kluttrbox fliers that litter the street after a weekend night.In the neighborhood around the COBU compound at 58th and Thomas, some neighbors complained about the sect's tactics. A resident of a nearby group home, who would identify himself only as Michael, said he had been standing at the fence, thinking about going inside. "They came out and got me. They
were having a prayer meeting. It was all right at first." He said that he stayed from morning until late afternoon, but that he was
stopped from going when he tried to leave. "They wouldn't let me leave," he said. "A white guy with long dark hair, he wouldn't let me out. They followed me out to the yard here."
Inquirer staff writers Craig McCoy and
Martha Woodall contributed to this article