After an exhaustive federal investigation, the leader of a fringe Christian commune in South Carolina has been arrested on charges of sexual assault and abuse, the Post and Courier reports.
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On December 18, 2017, officers from the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office took Ralph Gordon Stair into custody, charging the 84-year-old preacher with three counts of criminal sexual conduct in the first degree, one count of assault with intent to commit criminal sexual conduct in the first degree, one count of kidnapping, one count of burglary in the first degree, one count of second-degree assault and one count of third-degree criminal sexual conduct with a minor.
Stair had been under federal and state investigation since October, reporter say. The man’s arrest was attended by officials from the US Department of Homeland Security and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, an investigative branch of the State’s government.
For over forty years, Brother Ralph Gordon Stair has been telling the world that Christ’s second coming is near. Born into a Methodist family, the self-proclaimed prophet ultimately abandoned organized religion to craft his own idiosyncratic theology in the 1950s, drifting through the American South which, according to a 1988 report from the Rock Hill Herald, he said would be “the safest place for Christians in the end time.”
In 1978, Stair settled in Walterboro, South Carolina, a small town about an hour west of Charleston. He bought a motel and began broadcasting his ministry across the globe using a solar-powered radio station, leasing airtime through an international network of satellites and shortwave radio stations.
Proclaiming the imminent return of Christ, Stair’s Overcomer Ministry urged followers to leave their homes, journey to South Carolina and live in the Word. Around 70 people from across the country heeded Stair’s call, moving to his compound, forsaking their material possessions and taking a vow of poverty.
What happened inside Stair’s compound was a mystery to the residents of Walterboro until 2002, when the fiery preacher was arrested on two counts of criminal sexual conduct and two counts of breach of trust, the Cult Education Institute reports. As prosecutors recounted in their arrest warrant, former Ministry members had come forward to accuse Stair of repeated sexual abuses.
Two young girls told law enforcement officials that the “prophet” had raped them over 70 times. And beyond outright sexual assault, several former acolytes said the man had made emotional abuse a way of life within his small religious community. Stair would harangue and harass his way through the compound, accusers say, belittling his disciples for infractions as minor as overly-seasoned potatoes.
As in so many similar cases, it seems that Stair prescribed one sexual standard for his followers, while holding himself to a very different code of conduct. In a testimonial written in 2000, former Overcomer Ministry member Josh Bennett wrote, “fraternization is strictly forbidden between opposite sexes […] sex between married couples is discouraged, unless approved by prophet. [Sex acts are] discussed in open forum with the rest of the community, as well as the children, concerning the couple, which is to engage in the act.”
Apparently, the repressive air of sexual suspicion evaporated inside the prophet’s residence. In 2002, two young women explained how Stair’s penchant for hugging young women escalated to rape on numerous occasions. He was arrested, pleading guilty to two misdemeanor counts of assault and battery and was sentenced to time served. Stair went back to lead his ministry and, as new victims now allege, continued his abuse.
Overcomer Ministry came to brief prominence in 2012 when Craig Mack, a rapper who’d worked with such hip hop luminaries as the Notorious B.I.G. and Busta Rhymes, announced in a Youtube video that he had moved to South Carolina and joined Stair’s cult. Other Youtube videos published by the Ministry, many of which have now been taken down, detailed the darker side of Stair’s tabernacle.
In multiple videos recorded during the preacher’s sermons, Stair would call young women down from the pews and then proceed to grope their breasts and coax them into “rub-downs.” It was these videos that led law enforcement officials to step up their investigation of the Overcomer Ministry, eventually leading to Stair’s second arrest on sexual misconduct charges.
“Everybody’s happy now,” says Natosha Lehr, a 16-year-old who used to visit the compound for worship services with her parents. Lehr came forward earlier in 2017, posting a video to Youtube in which she described the multiple occasions on which Brother Stair had allegedly groped and molested her. “I hope the whole compound actually shuts down,” she told reporters at the Post and Courier. At the time of this writing, Stair had waived his right for a bond hearing.
Secluded religious communities often serve to shelter the heinous actions of violent criminal offenders.