Early this morning, Debbie McDaniel stepped out into her backyard to find her patio, windows, doors and furniture tagged with ominous warnings written in black marker.
McDaniel was just hours away from being the face of a Reveal investigation showing how Jehovah’s Witnesses hide sexual abuse from law enforcement agencies and banish those who speak up about it.
On one stretch of concrete, a vandal wrote, “Watchtower Knows All,” a possible reference to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, the parent corporation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, McDaniel said. Two of the messages included the initials JW’s, which she suspects were meant to stand for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Also written on the patio: “We’ll be watching you in Mexico too.” McDaniel had planned a trip to Mexico this weekend but is now thinking of canceling it.
“They wrote on my bedroom door window, 6 feet from where I was sleeping, ‘JW’s for the final win,’ ” said McDaniel, who grew up in McAlester, Oklahoma, and says she was abused as a child by an elder in her congregation. Since she was expelled three years ago, she said, she has been shunned by her family and harassed by the Witnesses in the form of anonymous threats and hate letters.
Reveal has visited McAlester twice over the last year, and it has been well known to the Witnesses, police and others there that the Reveal story would publish today.
The local police are treating the vandalism as a hate crime. Officer Ken Bethune, who responded to the call today, said his department was familiar with McDaniel’s history with the Witnesses.
“She believes that this is just more backlash going back years, when she brought to light some molestation,” he said. “I labeled it as a hate crime because she said someone supports the view, in that particular congregation, against homosexuality.”
McAlester is a small town of 18,000 people, and McDaniel said she runs into Witnesses who shun her every week. In June, Bethune was called to McDaniel’s house – which she and her wife, Crystal McDaniel, finished building this month – to settle a confrontation with a Witness.
“We had another situation with a building inspector who was a member of that church,” he said. “Crystal told me he was told twice not to be on the property. As I understand it, Crystal and Debbie pulled up and saw him coming out of the house. We banned him from the property and told him that even if he was in the course of his duties, he would be arrested because he wasn’t welcome there.”
Bethune said he spoke with McDaniel’s neighbors today but had found no witnesses to the vandalism.
According to interviews, court records and internal Watchtower documents, McDaniel was sexually abused from age 8 to 13 by the McAlester congregation’s then top elder, Ronald Lawrence.
Lawrence has denied allegations that he sexually abused McDaniel and other Jehovah’s Witness children. The congregation expelled him twice for abusing kids, but elders reinstated him both times, according to documents, interviews and news reports.
Documents show that several elders in the congregation, including McDaniel’s father, Wendell Marley, never reported Lawrence to police. Lawrence eventually was arrested on 19 counts of child sexual abuse but the charges were dismissed because the statute of limitations had expired.
Reveal launched its investigation into the Jehovah’s Witnesses child abuse policies in February. That story found that the Watchtower for 25 years had ordered elders in its 14,000 U.S. congregations to keep cases of abuse secret from law enforcement agencies. The Watchtower collected the names of known abusers but refused to comply with court orders to hand them over. In court, Jehovah’s Witnesses attorneys argued that their policies were protected by the First Amendment.
This story was edited by Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Sheela Kamath.