By Jackelyn Barnard
First Coast News
LAKE CITY, FL -- Former church members say it is a lonely, isolated life.
"They are very closed to anything. It's cult like activities," says Joni Cutler
Thirty-two years ago, Cutler was seventeen and living in South Dakota when she met the man she would marry.
Little did Joni Cutler know, that man would bring her into a world of religion she had never known before and would later regret.
"Her death was never resolved in my mind." The death of a newborn by the name of Libby. It was Joni's first child.
Libby was born one month early at three pounds twelve ounces. Libby needed a doctor, but she never saw one.
"I was following along with the norm of the group which is to shun medical care. She was born at home prematurely. She lived four days and died of untreated pneumonia."
Joni says she wasn't allowed to take pictures of Libby. She wasn't allowed to have a funeral. She says a man by the name of Charles Meade ordered her to tell people she had a miscarriage.
Charles Meade is the driving force behind Meade Ministries and what is called the "endtime" religion which is now based in Lake City.
In a sermon First Coast News obtained more than ten years ago, Meade is heard preaching, "Why should we be sick now. Why would you want to be sick."
Joni first met Meade when he lived in Indiana.
Indiana, South Dakota, Montana and Illinois are the places where Meade Ministries got started in the early 1970's.
By 1984, Meade was ready to bring his followers down south to Lake City.
"He was getting older and I think he wanted a warmer place to retire basically. He sold it as this is the place God wanted them all," says Joni Cutler.
A place where they would survive Armageddon. Joni says Meade preached the endtimers would be the only ones to make it. Everyone else would be condemned to eternal damnation.
"It seems kind of silly to me now," says Cutler.
Joni never moved to Lake City but her husband, Gary Cooke, did.
At first, endtimers met in a hotel in Gainesville.
They even met around large heart shaped areas on Meade's property.
Now, there is a worship center that seats more than 2,000.
"I don't think they ever really knew why they were supposed to move down there. He just wanted them there. These groups had grown across the country and it gave him a central source of income," says Cutler.
Joni says while money is a big part of the end time ministry, it is not what draws the most attention.
"One of the most controversial aspects of it is they deny medical care."
Joni says formal education is not encouraged.
"My husband, when I was in the group, had a full scholarship to Northwestern University that he gave up."
Children, she says, are homeschooled because contact with the outside world is limited.
"They live an isolated life in many ways from family and really their history as a person."
Joni left Meade Ministries in 1986. She says she is just now finding things out about Charles Meade.
"A lot of his past is kept private from even the group members."
According to his website, Meade was born in Kentucky in 1916.
He says, the Lord appeared to his mother before he was born and told her he would be used in a great end time ministry.
What Meade doesn't say on his website is he is a convicted felon.
The First Coast News I-team uncovered this document from Delaware County, Indiana.
It shows, in 1948, Charles Meade stabbed a man with a knife. The Associated Press has also linked the document to Meade.
According to court records, Meade pleaded guilty to assault and battery with intent to murder.
His ten year sentence was suspended for good behavior.
Thirteen years as a member, Joni says she was not happy.
She had four daughters and the rules were changing.
She says girls were to marry young, some even at 15 and 16 years old.
"Having four daughters, when I was told that was the new rule in the group that these girls were going to marry young, I couldn't do that to my daughters."
So, Joni left Meade Ministries, her husband and took her children.
"It is a cult. These people are cut off and isolated. They are brainwashed," says Joni.
Today, Joni's ex, Gary Cooke, is on the church's website as one of its top leaders.
Joni is now a South Dakota state representative and still struggles with the loss of her first child.
Libby would now be 26 years old.
Friday at 11 p.m., the I-team looks into how the endtimers protect their religion, how they live their luxurious lifestyles and why one endtimer chased First Coast News crews on Lake City streets.
First Coast News