SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — She looks like a successful businesswoman, with her neatly coifed blonde hair, St. John business suit, flashy diamond rings and jewelry dangling from her wrist. And she has devoted followers — an entourage — that hang on her every word and carry out her orders without question.
But Jane Whaley isn’t the chief executive officer of a large corporation. Instead, she’s the 77-year-old leader of a 750-member evangelical church called Word of Faith Fellowship — one that dozens of former members say encourages congregants to violently attack family and friends to beat out imaginary devils they believe are destroying their lives.
So who is Jane Whaley?
Her father owned a plumbing repair company, and her mother was a homemaker. She had two brothers and grew up in a rural North Carolina community in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains during the heart of the Jim Crow era.
After graduating from college, she taught math at a high school and met a deeply religious man from Florence, South Carolina, who would become her husband: Sam Whaley. They had one child and, in the mid-1970s, moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma, so her husband could attend a Bible school. They also traveled the world, preaching the “word of God,” friends said.
At the time, Sam was the leader, but that changed in the late 1970s when his wife decided to set up her own ministry.
Although she had no formal religious training, Whaley had a natural gift. She was passionate, preaching loudly that demons had to be expelled to help followers achieve a better life.
She began attracting people from all over the world who would do anything she said to obtain eternal salvation.
“She has a way of getting people to do things,” said John Huddle, who left the church in 2008 after more than a decade. “She knows the right words to say, the right buttons to push.”
Said former follower Rick Cooper, who was with the church for 21 years, “She had the uncanny ability to find out what you needed. Once she found out your needs, she said ‘Follow me and it will happen.”