Deadly Cult Stories in the News

(Originally printed in the Spring 2005 Issue of the MCOI Journal)

It was one of those “What-is-this-world-coming-to?” news days. A man walked into a church with a gun and blasted away, killing seven people, including the pastor of the church and his son, while critically wounding the pastor’s wife. The shooter was identified as Terry Ratzmann, a member of the Living Church of God (LCOG) in suburban Milwaukee, WI. He was not a Satanist or a Nazi, nor was he some obviously crazed individual. According to those who knew him, he was a good neighbor and seemingly a very generous and godly man.

According to newspaper reports:

Two weeks after Terry Ratzmann shot to death seven people before killing himself during a church service, his friends struggled to connect the gentle gardener they knew with the madman who took aim at the pastor, his family and other worshippers … why he showed up at a March 12 church service at the Sheraton Milwaukee Brookfield Hotel in suburban Milwaukee with a gun instead of a Bible remains unclear.1

The use of the word “madman” to describe Ratzmann on that day is interesting, because it is very obvious that he was a very mad man, indeed.

Robert Geiger, one of the eyewitnesses to the attack, told his father that he “looked at Ratzmann and saw fury in his eyes.”2  What was Ratzmann so furious about? Why did he do what he did? As far as we know, the secular news media and members of the church, who were quoted in the papers, still do not know what to make of the killer’s cold-hearted rampage. Some church members said that Ratzmann seemed upset about a sermon given at the church a few weeks before the tragedy, where he left the church in the middle of the service; but other members claimed they couldn’t think of anything in the sermon that would’ve upset him.

When we heard the news, we immediately guessed that the “church,” which was presumed by the media to be a Christian church, was instead an autocratic non-Christian cult. The newspapers duly reported that the LCOG congregation heavily emphasized end-times speculations, but a secular person likely would not realize that, while eschatology is certainly a legitimate topic for sermons in a Christian church, pseudo “Christian” groups—such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Branch Davidians under David Koresh, doomsday killer cult Aum Shinrikyo, among many others—are far more likely to make that issue “the biggest enchilada” of their group’s teaching.

In actuality, far from being an evangelical group, LCOG is a hard-line breakaway sect from the Worldwide Church of God (WCOG, a.k.a. Armstrongism) which formed after the WCOG leadership miraculously embraced true biblical Christian teachings following the death of founder Herbert W. Armstrong. We were excited witnesses to that turbulent era when the new leaders of the WCOG courageously sought out Christian apologists and seminaries to bring that authoritarian cult in line with true Christian doctrine. The move to orthodoxy cost the sect many members who chose to stay with Armstrongism (albeit under new organizational names) and still persist in their denial of all the basic Christian teachings. These breakaway groups continue to reject, as Armstrong did, such essential Christian teachings as the Trinity, the Deity of Christ, and Hell, among others, and believe that salvation comes about by one’s own works (contrast Romans 4:4, Ephesians 2:8-9), rather than trusting in the finished work of Christ on the cross to secure their eternal destiny (1 John 5:12-13). They are law keepers who put their faith in their own strength, their own goodness, and their own righteousness, rather than in God’s Son, Jesus Christ, upon Whose substitutionary death and righteousness we can depend to bring us into God’s family (2 Corinthians 5:21). Nevertheless, rather than accept the change, many of the WCOG split off from the group and held onto their cultic teachings. LCOG is one of those offshoots.

It is a tragic story but serves to accentuate the fact that cults and the false doctrine they teach are dangerous—destroying lives in the here and now as well as for all eternity. It does matter greatly what one believes and who one listens to. Jesus Himself warned us to watch out for false prophets, who would appear to be Christians, dressed in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly would be ferocious wolves (Matthew 7:15). No one is safe, not even children, or perhaps, we should say especially children!

Andrea Yates

On June 20 of 2001:

Andrea filled the tub with water and beginning with Paul, she systematically drowned the three youngest boys, then placed them on her bed and covered them. Mary was left floating in the tub. The last child alive was the first born, seven-year-old Noah. He asked his mother what was wrong with Mary, then turned and ran away. Andrea caught up with him and as he screamed, she dragged him and forced him into the tub next to Mary’s floating body. He fought desperately—coming up for air twice, but Andrea held him down until he was dead. Leaving Noah in the tub, she brought Mary to the bed and laid her in the arms of her brothers.3

A mother methodically murders her dear children in cold blood? It is unthinkable, is it not? What in the world could have brought her to commit such a heinous act? It is a little-known fact that Andrea’s religious views led her to kill her children. It was her cultic view of God’s grace and salvation that fueled her despair and prompted her rampage. According to her written confession, she had drowned her children because “she had been a bad mother and they were clearly destined to go to hell.”4

The children were going to Hell because she had been a bad mother (contrast Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:30)? Where would she get such an idea? From the writings of the so-called “prophet” Michael Woroniecki (MW), whom she and her husband Rusty followed:

On the newly released video, Woroniecki tells followers that “multitudes are going to hell. God doesn’t give a hoot about your little selfish affluent selforiented world.” At the time Andrea Yates drowned her children, she and Rusty were still devoted followers. A former follower of Woroniecki says his heart sank when he heard the Yateses were connected to the preacher. “I dropped the receiver and my heart sank because I knew immediately what happened,” said David De La Isla, who had followed Woroniecki for 12 years. De La Isla says Woroniecki was a powerful influence on the vulnerable mind of Andrea Yates. “In her thinking she was doomed to hell, her kids were going to go to hell, and that the only way she could save them was by killing them.”5

According to Charles Montaldo, Michael Woroniecki taught, “the role of women is derived from the sin of Eve and that bad mothers who are going to hell create bad children who will go to hell.”6

Hopelessness and false guilt led Yates to kill her children. Again, false views of God and His love and forgiveness often have deadly consequences.

Mark Barton

In August of 1999, Mark Barton, who had been studying with the Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs), killed his wife and children and then went on a shooting rampage at his workplace in Atlanta, GA.

The Washington Post reported that Barton’s explanation letter:

“referred twice to ‘Jehovah,’ reflecting what acquaintances and a relative described as Barton’s recent attraction to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and decision to leave his Baptist church … the couple had fought about Mark’s recent insistence that Leigh Ann become a Jehovah’s Witness, which she refused to do.”7

Listen to the language he used to describe his inner turmoil:

I have been dying since October. I would wake up at night so afraid, so terrified, that I could not be that afraid while awake. It has taken its toll. I have come to hate this life in this system of things. I have come to have no hope. I killed the children to exchange for them five minutes of pain for a lifetime of pain. The fears of the father are transferred to the son. It was from my father to me and from me to my son. He already had it. I had to take him with me … I really wish I hadn’t killed [Leigh Ann] … She really couldn’t help it. I love her so much anyway. I know that Jehovah will take care of all them in the next life … Please know that I love Leigh Ann (Barton’s wife), Matthew, and Mychelle with all my heart. If Jehovah is willing, I’d like to see them all again in the resurrection to have a second chance.8

He bludgeoned his wife and kids to death with a hammer, and yet, he believed he had done them a favor—protecting them from a lifetime of fear and pain and offering them hope of a resurrection. He believed that his wife (by her refusal to become a JW) and children were doomed to a life of misery and headed for imminent destruction along with “this system of things.” He believed that he had failed to “make the grade” with God, and that his children would fare no better in this life. What a terrible view of God!

Are all JWs violence-prone maniacs? Should you make sure little Johnny is safely out of range the next time they visit at your door? No. Not at all. We’d have to guess that the JWs we know personally are about as bloodthirsty as Jimmy Carter and not nearly as vicious. It would be terribly unfair to fault all JWs for the actions of one, just as it would be unfair to blame all born-again Christians for the sorry antics of some supposedly born-again televangelists, as the WTBTS always does!

But, again, it is fair to note the man’s inner anguish, while he outwardly presented a “normal face” to the world around him. From what ex-JWs have told me, his inner despair and hopelessness is far from unique among JWs. Rather than being Jehovah’s “happy people” as they boast, many JWs are dragging their sagging spirits from door to door right along with their bloated book bags.

Jim, Marshall, and Shoko: Dial three for murder

Just about everyone remembers the murders and mass suicide of Jonestown, and who could forget the suicide of Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate Cult in San Diego—the largest mass suicide on American soil. They believed they were doing what God wanted them to do, but in reality, they died for their faulty belief system. The Bible teaches that death is not the end of conscious existence, but the beginning of eternity (see 2 Corinthians 5:8, Philippians 1:23). So sadly, they have to live with their decision forever. And then there was the Japanese-terrorist cult, Aum Shinrikyo led by Shoko Ashahara, who in 1995 put poison gas into the subway system in Tokyo—killing 12 innocent people and injuring hundreds of others.

Concerning Aum Shinrikyo, Kyle B. Olson reports on the Centers for Disease Control web site that Aum’s attack on the subway “would serve as a wake-up call to the world regarding the prospects of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism.”9

Far from being simply madmen, as most people might be tempted to believe, the actions of this doomsday cult flow directly from their false beliefs. As Olson notes:

Millennial visions and apocalyptic scenarios dominate the group’s doctrine, evidenced by the prominent role of Nostradamus as a prophet in Aum Shinrikyo teaching. Ashahara has, on many occasions, claimed to be the reincarnated Jesus Christ, as well as the first “enlightened one” since the Buddha. He has frequently preached about a coming Armageddon, which he describes as a global conflict that would, among other things, destroy Japan with nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. According to Ashahara, only the followers of Aum Shinrikyo will survive this conflagration.

Aum’s actions were perfectly logical within the context of their value system. They were a self-legitimized group that had rejected and, ultimately, felt obliged to confront society. Outnumbered as they were by Japanese police and military might, one can argue that developing and even using an asymmetric capability was a logical consequence of their situation. Unable to achieve their objective—political power—through legitimate means, they determined that a preemptive strike was necessary.10

Olson goes on to say that, even though Shoko Ashahara is in prison, and the Japanese government has taken steps to eradicate this deadly group, the threat posed by Aum Shinrikyo may not be over.

The cult’s legal status in Japan as a church has been revoked, but many of its assets are unaccounted for … Today, Aum Shinrikyo is once again soliciting donations, collecting tithes, selling materials to members, holding seminars, conducting training, and selling computers. Active recruiting is under way. Aum Shinrikyo is holding 50 “educational” seminars a month for current and potential members. The cult has offices throughout Japan, around Tokyo and other cities, and, according to Japanese sources, they maintain 100 hide-outs throughout that country as “safe houses.” These sources estimate that at least 700 members are live-in, fully committed devotees.11

These deadly cult stories (and there are so many others) tend to grab headlines due to the violent nature of the deaths and the ability to point to an individual who committed the heinous act(s) (Terry Ratzmann; Andrea Yates, David Koresh, Jim Jones, et. al.); but the Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the deadliest killer cults in the world today, as they champion the death of innocents—one victim at a time, week after week, and year after year—around the world through their unbiblical teaching on blood transfusions. In their case, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (WTBTS) even brags about these needless deaths in the feature article of the May 22, 1994 issue of Awake!* entitled “Youths Who Put God First.” Their proud declaration is:

In former times thousands of youths died for putting God first. They are still doing it, only today the drama is played out in hospitals and courtrooms, with blood transfusions the issue.12

The first story they tell is that of 15-year-old Adrian Yeatts who, they tell us, “… felt that his Biblical hope of eternal life would be threatened”13 if he took a blood transfusion. So rather than tick off an angry (JW) god, Adrian died without even really having lived.

Of course, today, though politically correct folks may not want to categorize it this way, the Wahabi sect of Islam has to be the most dangerous and murderous religious cult of all. They fulfill Jesus’ words in John 16:2:

a time is coming when anyone who kills you will think he is offering a service to God.

Why are Wahabi Islamists willing to kill themselves just to kill you and me? Yes, they hate us, but the explanation goes much deeper than that. They are hoping to earn their god’s favor by their supreme sacrifice—“offering a service” to him just as Jesus foretold they would. This is a far easier road to Paradise rather than earn their passage through prescribed Islamic holy living over the course of their lives. Muslims have no understanding of God’s grace and are trying to earn their salvation.

Quiet Despair

Most members of cults, while seemingly living godly lives, are actually living lives of desperation—trying very hard to be “good enough” to earn God’s favor. Are there any among humankind that can be “good enough” to merit eternal life? No!

As it is written, there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God, all have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Romans 3:10-12, NIV)

But sadly, cultists, even those who profess to follow the Bible, have somehow missed, ignored, and denied the Bible’s teaching of the universal depravity of mankind, and they think they are capable of earning God’s acceptance based on their own merit. And not only cultists, but even many Atheists—who claim belief in no God—still convince themselves that, if by chance there is a God Whom they shall stand before some day, they will be “good enough” to merit His favor as compared, of course, in their own minds, to “really bad” serial killers and genocidal maniacs like Hitler and Stalin. But Atheists and their beliefs are a topic for a different day.

Ratzmann and Yates reportedly suffered from severe, longterm depression. We believe that the cultic emphasis on works and self righteousness, and the frustration and despair many sink into when they try to be “good enough,” is the key to understanding what fueled their despair.

WORLD, a Christian news magazine, had a much better handle on why the Ratzmann situation occurred than did the secular news sources.

LCOG doctrine now mainly mirrors Armstrongism, mixing Jehovah’s Witness-style “works” theology with Old Testament legalism, onerous tithes, and sometimes complete ministerial control over member’s life decisions, particularly financial ones. “These people are subjected to incredible pressures to perform ‘works’ … [and] are always unsure of their status before God,” said Bill Hohmann, a former WCOG member for more than 25 years who now works to “deprogram” others who leave that and similar groups. “If you have to live … every day, wondering if you are good enough … [under] a ministry that constantly emphasizes you are on probation with God, then you can see how there is no surprise. There have been quite a number of suicides in these groups. The pressure is enormous.”14

WORLD also sheds some light on the “problem” Ratzmann might have had with the sermon that he walked out of.

Police are focusing on a Feb. 26 incident in which Mr. Ratzmann was scheduled to deliver the closing prayer. Instead, he walked out early after hearing a sermon on how bad circumstances befall people who make ungodly choices.15

Seems like a harmless enough belief—that people, by making ungodly choices, cause the bad circumstances that befall them. It’s even biblical! Remember Job’s friends, who believed and promulgated the same notion. Of course, Job’s friends were rebuked by none other than God, Himself, for their harsh and unfeeling judgment of Job, as he sat crushed beneath a load of grief and pain. Rather than being harmless, the effrontery to judge a person’s spirituality by his life’s circumstances is a presumption of utmost arrogance, it seems to us. And this judgmental sermon must have been extremely galling to Ratzmann, who was a depressed individual, struggling with the circumstances in which he found himself. He had lost his job and was also very unhappily single—a man in his forties who had been unable to win a wife. But instead of finding solace and understanding and support from his “church,” he finds rebuke. We have no way of knowing whether the “pastor’s” sermon was “aimed” specifically at Ratzmann, or if it just felt that way to him; but we can imagine how it must have hurt and enraged him.

Is Ratzmann to be excused for his murderous reaction? Of course not! People in cults are hurt and provoked every day by the mistreatment of their spiritual masters and the despair they foster; yet, they do not resort to bloodshed. In fact, considering all the abuse that is heaped upon cult members, it is, indeed, amazing that we do not see more violence by cult members against their leaders and against society as a whole. But unlike Ratzmann, Barton, and Yates, most cult members, instead, just turn their pain and anger inward and suffer the abuse in relative silence.

Measuring Up?

Measuring our lives or standing before God is not only unwise, it is unbiblical. Job’s plight was not brought on because he was in some disobedience or lack of measuring up. The Apostle Paul cites a number of his own difficult life circumstances which many of the aforementioned groups would point to in their followers today as punishments from God:

Are they servants of Christ?–I speak as if insane—I more so; in far more labors, in far more imprisonments, beaten times without number, often in danger of death. Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure.16

In responding to his “friends,” Job pointed out that “The tents of the destroyers prosper, and those who provoke God are secure17 External circumstances tell us little about a person’s spiritual condition but are often used by false teachers and evil shepherds to instill fear and foster strict obedience within the ranks of the browbeaten. While it is true that some of life’s trials are due to our own bad decisions and sometimes as a direct consequence of sin, it is all too easy, when one feels that one’s life is under control, to cast haughty eyes on those who are struggling—often through no fault of their own. Christians can also fall into this trap; but we should mightily fight this temptation—either to feel rejected by God because of our own difficulties or to look down on others for theirs.

If God Is For Us, Who Can Be Against Us?

Life is hard and full of sorrows and disappointments. However, our circumstances do not indicate God’s portioning out our “just desserts.” If we all got what we deserve, we all would be dead (Romans 6:23). The Bible makes it clear that God is on our side, that He loves us and will not desert us in times of trouble (Psalm 37:39). In fact, our sufferings here lead to our glory later.

For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are God’s children, then we are heirs—indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we might share in his glory. I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. (Romans 8:15-18, NIV)

In our humanity, we cannot understand the “whys” of everything that happens to us; but as believers, we can trust the all powerful God Who loves us.

For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38, NIV)

That confidence in the fact of the love of God, friends, is what separates you from the cultist at your door.Ω

*Awake! and THE WATCHTOWER magazines are the bimonthly publications of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (Jehovah’s Witnesses).

Don and Joy Signature 2

© 2017, Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc. All rights reserved. Excerpts and links may be used if full and clear credit is given with specific direction to the original content.

  1. Lisa Black, “Motives Remain a Mystery” Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2005, Metro Section p1
  2. Lisa Black, “Motives Remain a Mystery” Chicago Tribune, March 29, 2005, Metro Section, p4
  3. Charles Montaldo, “Profile of Andrea Yates”, Crime/Punishment; http://crime.about.com/od/current/p/andreayates.htm (accessed 06/08/05)
  4. Review by Carol Fitzgerald of Suzanne O’Malley’s ARE YOU THERE ALONE? The Unspeakable Crime of Andrea Yates, http://aolsvc.bookreporter.aol.com/reviews/0743244850.asp (accessed 06/08/05)
  5. http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/Ridge/8616/Yates_Spiritual_Adviser.html (accessed 06/08/05)
  6. Charles Montaldo, “Profile of Andrea Yates”, Crime/Punishment; http:// crime.about.com/od/current/p/andreayates.htm (accessed 06/08/05)
  7. Amy Goldstein, Sue Anne Pressley and Hanna Rosin, “Killer Wrote of Fear, Hopelessness” Washington Post, July 31,1999, pA01
  8. Amy Goldstein, Sue Anne Pressley and Hanna Rosin, “Killer Wrote of Fear, Hopelessness” Washington Post, July 31,1999, pA01
  9. Kyle B. Olson, “Aum Shinrikyo, Once and Future Threat?” Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no4/olson.htm (accessed 06/08/05)
  10. Kyle B. Olson, “Aum Shinrikyo, Once and Future Threat?” Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no4/olson.htm (accessed 06/08/05)
  11. Kyle B. Olson, “Aum Shinrikyo, Once and Future Threat?” Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/EID/vol5no4/olson.htm (accessed 06/08/05)
  12. “Youths Who Put God First” Awake!, May 22, 1994, Vol. 75 No. 10; (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., Brooklyn, NY), p2
  13. “He Remembered His Creator in the Days of His Youth” Awake!, May 22, 1994, Vol. 75 No. 10; (Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York Inc., Brooklyn, NY), p5
  14. Lynn Vincent, “On probation with God” WORLD, March 26, 2005, Vol. 20, No. 12, , p20
  15. Lynn Vincent, “On probation with God” WORLD, March 26, 2005, Vol. 20, No. 12, , p20
  16. 2 Corinthians 11:23-27, NASB
  17. Job 12:6, NASB

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