Wells, Texas, is a city of fewer than 800 people in Cherokee County. But in the last year, they've had two stories that would each send shockwaves through cities many times larger. And both of those stories center around a group that calls itself The Church of Wells.
In May of 2012, a baby, less than a week old, died. Family members who are members of the church told investigators that a group of 20 to 25 people, also church members, prayed over the baby when she showed signs of illness, instead of seeking medical attention.
They continued praying for more than 12 hours after the baby died before notifying authorities. No one has been charged, and the case is still open.
Then, earlier this year, a family from Arkansas claimed that their daughter, 26-year-old Catherine Grove, was being held against her will by members of the church. The Cherokee County Sheriff's Office investigated, and Catherine told them that she was not there against her will, and that she didn't want her family to know where she was.
Her parents have not had contact with her since then.
Since the controversy surrounding Catherine Grove, the church has stopped speaking to the media, saying that they just want to "seek the Lord." So we began an investigation to see if there's any effort by the Church of Wells and its leadership to "become" the City of Wells. We heard from people in and around wells who believe the church really does have that purpose in mind.
It takes two or three minutes to drive from one end of Wells to the other. And if you do that, staying on Highway 69, you'd never see a two-story building, one block off of Highway 69, right next to the school.
Another building, R&R Mercantile, right on Highway 69 as you drive into town, is much more visible. Both are used by the members of The Church of Wells.
One structure is where they worship. The other, according to documents from the Texas Secretary of State's Office, is a business operated exclusively by elders and members of the church.
On the website for the store, several other businesses are listed with pictures and contact information. All of them are under the umbrella of Charity Enterprises Incorporated. And all of them are being boycotted by hundreds of people.
"I think a lot of people don't know what to do. They want to help, but other than boycotting businesses, and try to hurt these "elders" financially, there aren't really a lot of options to provide help."
That statement comes from a woman we're identifying as "Sam." She and another East Texas woman, "Chris," operate a Facebook page called "Boycott Charity Enterprises, Inc." The page has more than 500 likes.
"Sam" and "Chris" met with us in secret. Neither of them live in Wells, but they believe church members know about the page. "Sam" told us it was all she could think of after hearing the story of Catherine Grove.
"I felt the need to help," Sam said. "Social media is the thing right now, so it's an effort to raise awareness, and not just locally. I want people that pass through there to say, 'Oh, I saw that on Facebook, don't stop there.'"
Charity Enterprises Incorporated is listed by the Texas Secretary of State's Office as a for-profit corporation based in Wells that started in June of 2012.
All nine of its directors have addresses in Wells. Four of them, Sean Morris, Richard Trudeau, Ryan Ringnald, and Jake Gardner, are listed as the churches elders and deacon on its website.
The other five directors have names that match those listed as members on the same website.
We spoke to Richard Trudeau outside of R & R Mercantile, and asked him if he wanted to comment on the growth of the Church of Wells, specifically as it relates to property. He had no response.
The amount of residential property owned or occupied by church members is not so easy to determine.
We spoke to a local pastor, who believes he sold church members their first home in the city of Wells almost two years ago. He told us they're still in that home.
"I think I probably regret selling it to them," he told us. "I don't try to dictate who lives here and who don't, but I don't encourage trouble either."
That home is on Booker Street in Wells. It's one of at least two homes on that street we found where church members are living.
"Chris" and "Sam" told us that they believe the church is trying to buy up as much property as they can.
"I think they're trying to take over the whole town," Chris said. "I believe Wells is just an easy town, because there's no law enforcement. And they're just big bullies."
Jake Gardner, one of the elders of the Church of Wells, lives in one of the homes on Booker Street. He rents it from Royce Williams, who owns businesses in Lufkin and Tyler.
Williams told us that Gardner has been there for close to a year, and he's never heard of any trouble at that home.
We spoke to Gardner outside his home and told him about Chris's belief that the church is trying to take over Wells.
"I wouldn't say it's unfair myself, but I would say it's untrue...just not true," Gardner said.
"I can't say at the moment we're actually out looking at properties; we've got growing families, we've got many members, and we've all come from Arlington, Texas, so we need places to live, naturally."
During the conversation, Gardner told us that there are roughly 90 members of the church now, including children.
Another Wells resident told us that those church members were very overt in their search for places to live from the moment they arrived in town.
"They were going around town to any empty house, and knocking on doors, and asking neighbors, and saying, 'Is this house for sale? Is this property for sale?'" said Tommy Durham. "They did it all over town.'"
So, how conceivable is it that church members could "take over the town," as Chris told us, from a voting standpoint?
The most recent City of Wells election that Cherokee County had record of was in 2008. In that election, only 106 people voted.
The picture on the church's website shows roughly 45 people who would be old enough to vote. So, at a minimum, if church members decided to take part in city elections, they would represent a major voting bloc.
Wells Mayor C.W. Williams told us that he and the rest of the city council have decided to remain neutral until an actual issue involving the church comes before them.
But he did say he doesn't like the name "Church of Wells." He said it should just be a church in Wells, and he said the entire town feels the same way.
David Goodwin agrees.
"When you hear "The Church of Wells," you think, 'Well, everybody in Wells must go there,'" Goodwin said. "I've had people call me from other towns, and say, 'Are you keeping somebody without their permission? Are you holding somebody hostage?' and I say, 'No, it's not me!'"
Goodwin is the pastor at Falvey United Methodist Church in Wells. He first met some of the church of Wells members in January, and he spent a lot of time with them that day.
"I met with three of them here at the church," Goodwin said. "They were playing basketball with our youth group. We were concerned about what they were saying to our youth. We invited them in for pizza, and I spent five and half hours with the three guys.
Goodwin told us that he came away from that long meeting believing that the members of The Church of Wells believe in a God of wrath, not a God of love.
That's why he doesn't shop at the R&R mercantile, and why he's asked members of the church to stay off his church's property. He doesn't want their teachings to clash with his church's beliefs.
Still, after being around them for nearly a year, he doesn't think they're trying to take over.
"I've heard people say that this group is going to take over the town," Goodwin said. "I don't believe that they have the adequate voting members to do that. Most of the folks here don't have Texas drivers licenses. I doubt very seriously they have voter cards. I don't think their goal is to take over a town."
"In the time that I've been here, other than the Groves, I haven't seen any impact one way or another."
But there is some impact. Goodwin told us about a time that he called the Cherokee County Sheriff's Office because he was concerned there might be a disturbance with Church of Wells members during a town meeting at his church.
That's confirmed in documents obtained from Cherokee county, but there's no record of a disturbance happening that night.
In those same reports, we found two other instances of church members being given formal criminal trespass warnings by the sheriff's office, just in the last two months.
But the sheriff's office says that none of the church members have been arrested, or charged with any crime.
KLTV 7 made repeated attempts to speak to the other two elders listed on the church's website, Sean Morris and Ryan Ringnald. Neither have responded to our phone calls or e-mails. We've also left messages with "Charity Enterprises Incorporated," but those messages have not been returned.
We also spoke to Dr. Cynthia Williams of Houston, who owns the two-story house church members use for worship. She told us that she originally purchased that building earlier this year for her daughter and son-in-law, who are listed on the Church of Wells website. They were paying a mortgage, so that they would eventually own the home. Dr. Williams says that her daughter has since left the church, but her son-in-law is still living in that home.
Dr. Williams says she has no affiliation with the church. Not only that, she tells me that the current plan is to put the house up for sale after the first of the year.
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