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Love and Death In the House of Prayer

Tyler Deaton, a self-appointed apostle in one of the fastest-growing evangelical movements, loved Jesus, Harry Potter and, much to his dismay, other men. When his wife turned up dead, the secrets began to spill out

January 21, 2014 9:00 AM ET
Love and Death In the House of Prayer
Illustration by Sean McCabe

On October 30th, 2012, at 9:40 p.m., sheriff's deputies responded to a report of a dead body at Longview Lake Picnic Shelter No. 12, in Kansas City, Missouri. A tan Ford Windstar van occupied the far-northwest space of the parking lot. In the van's back seat, deputies found the body of a young woman. A white plastic trash bag had been pulled over her head and tied under her chin. She wore running shoes, black sweatpants, a light-blue fleece and a diamond wedding ring. A pair of eyeglasses had been folded and placed in a cup holder.

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A handwritten note on the center console acknowledged the evil of suicide and alluded to a terrible choice made long before. Also on the console were two hundred-count bottles of acetaminophen PM, one unopened, the other empty. A photo ID for "Bethany (RN, Menorah Medical Center)" lay on the floorboard. Bethany Deaton was 27 and had recently completed her nursing degree. Her supervisor would later describe her as an excellent, empathetic nurse. On the front seat were several CDs produced by the International House of Prayer, a charismatic Christian movement based in Kansas City and the nearby suburb of Grandview. The adherents of IHOP, as it is generally known, believe that the Second Coming will soon occur and that God needs their help to return Christ to Earth.

Bethany had moved to Grandview nearly four years earlier, after graduating from Southwestern University, a small liberal-arts school in Georgetown, Texas. She had belonged to an IHOP worship group there, and most of the prayer circle's 20 or so members had relocated to Grandview, where they lived in two gender-segregated houses about four miles apart. In August, Bethany had married the worship group's leader, Tyler Deaton. It wasn't clear to people outside the group what would have motivated Bethany to take her own life. For years, she had longed to marry Tyler, and they had envisioned themselves enduring the Tribulation together. But the Jackson County Medical Examiner's Office ruled Bethany's death a suicide, and her body was released to her family for burial in her hometown of Arlington, Texas.

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Then, on November 9th, a friend of Bethany's named Micah Moore walked into the Grandview Police Department. "I killed her," he said. He had done so, he claimed, on Tyler's orders. Over the past few months, Moore told a detective, Bethany had been dosed with the anti-psychotic Seroquel, and he and several men in the house had been sexually assaulting her. They had begun to worry that she might tell someone about it. Under questioning by detectives, two of the men in the house, and one who had recently moved out, revealed that they were in ongoing "sexual relationship[s]" with Tyler. At least one of these relationships was "long-term." A fourth said that Tyler had "groomed" him to be part of their sexual group. The men said that Tyler was their "spiritual leader." He was "manipulative" and exercised "control over the members of the household." He characterized the sexual activity as a "religious experience."

Two weeks later, Moore's lawyer recanted on his behalf. Outside the Jackson County Courthouse, she declared his confession "bizarre," "fictional," made by "a distraught and confused young man."

The Jackson County Prosecutor's Office dismissed the recantation and charged Moore with first-degree murder. The judge granted him bail. He will be tried this fall. Tyler cooperated with investigators and has not been charged with a crime. He declined to comment for this story.

In the days following Moore's confession, a parent of one of the worship-group members told a reporter that it was impossible to imagine the events leading to Bethany's death. "How did they fall down that slippery slope?" the parent asked. "How, in just a few years, does all this come to pass?"

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God commanded Tyler Deaton to form a worship group on July 20th, 2007, while he was standing outside a Barnes & Noble, waiting for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Tall, handsome, haughty and effeminate, he was about to begin his junior year at Southwestern University. Deaton was taken with fantasy sagas that counterpoised the demonic and angelic – The Chronicles of Narnia, The Lord of the Rings – but he particularly revered the Harry Potter series, which he called "the greatest story ever written." Although he had been raised in a devout Presbyterian family and remained strongly committed to Christ, he had "willfully practiced magic in junior high," according to a college friend named Boze Herrington, and he occasionally found himself using a "mysterious power to control others in ways that were unexplainable." (The names of all group members other than those already mentioned have been omitted or changed to preserve anonymity.) Seemingly intractable homosexual impulses also vexed his faith. He often felt a sense, he later told a friend, of worthlessness. "I just know that, sociologically, there's a connection between this power-obsessed, dark-magician, evil-dictator thing, and altered sexuality," Deaton told friends.

Deaton was determined to overcome those forces, though. His confidence, monolithic and exclusionary, tended to divide the world into allies and adversaries. He had been a champion debater in high school, and he brought a tirelessness to religious debate at Southwestern. He considered his positions plainly factual and listeners who rejected them ignorant. The caption accompanying his senior portrait from Calallen High School in Corpus Christi, Texas, read, "Be intolerant, because some things are just stupid."

During the summer of 2007, Deaton had traveled to Pakistan as a missionary, where he had a number of "supernatural" experiences. A boy with one leg, he told friends, had miraculously acquired another. During a visit to a children's home, he had heard the words "The leader of this place is committing sexual sin with young boys." Deaton informed the trip's leaders, and learned that two boys had been caught performing sexual acts with each other. They and the home's leader were removed.

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Since his return, Deaton had been wondering how to access the supernatural in America. The answer came outside the Barnes & Noble. "What you just did in Pakistan," God told him, "you are going to do at Southwestern." The names of three friends "erupted" from Deaton's mouth: "June," "Justin" and "Bethany Leidlein." In Deaton's vision, their collective worship would "shift the spiritual atmosphere" on campus and catalyze a revival. Angels would descend and demons would flee, and Christians across the university would rush to join the group. Even non­believers would succumb. The "spirit of intellectualism" that held so many in bondage would be dispelled for good.

Like Deaton, June, Justin and Bethany were observant Christians, enthralled by fantasy fiction and devoted to Harry Potter. The group members began comparing themselves to the four Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia, who enter a universe mastered by evil, win renown as soldiers in the army of a resurrected Messiah and finally assume their places as kings and queens of a renewed world. They spent many hours discussing the Harry Potter books and films, which they approached with "a religious devotion," according to Herrington, whom they briefly resisted admitting to the group, because it would have broken the symmetry. The works "fueled our sense of being on a divine mission," says Herrington. "One of their chief attractions was a sense of belonging to a secret club with exclusive access to knowledge and power. That was the root of our whole ideology."

The magic at the heart of the books would always inform his understanding of his own divine power. "In the years I was with him, things were constantly happening that I had to shrug away as being 'the work of the Holy Spirit,'" says Herrington. "Tyler would raise his voice and say, 'Jesus!' and the neighbor's music would immediately stop. He would tell the birds to fly away and they would fly away. He would place curses on my appliances so they wouldn't work."

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