Amber Sawyer was just 8 years old when it happened.
She was watching cartoons on the living room floor of her Mississippi home when she heard the bang.
She went to investigate and found her 21-year-old sister, Donna, dead in her bed. She had shot herself in the heart with their father’s hunting rifle weeks after their church excommunicated her for getting engaged to a man who was not a Jehovah’s Witness.
For Sawyer — who sat on the bedroom floor near her sister's body for hours that day, waiting for her mother to come home from her door-to-door missionary work — it was the beginning of a long, painful journey that would one day tear her family apart.
Years later, Sawyer got excommunicated, too, after seeking a divorce from an abusive husband. She ended up leaving the husband — and the faith.
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Her family cut all ties.
“Jehovah’s Witness kids grow up knowing that if they ever mess up, their parents will leave them — and that’s scary,” Sawyer, now 38, said in a recent interview from her home in Pascagoula, Miss. “The shunning is supposed to make us miss them so much that we’ll come back. … It didn’t work.”
Sawyer and many others like her now are denouncing the church's shunning practices in wake of a recent murder-suicide in Keego Harbor, Mich., that killed a family of four former Jehovah’s Witnesses who were ostracized after leaving the faith.
The deaths sparked outrage among scores of ex-practitioners of the faith nationwide who took to Facebook, online forums, blogs and YouTube, arguing that the tragedy highlights a pervasive yet rarely publicized problem within the church: Shunning is pushing the most vulnerable people over the edge and tearing families apart, they say.
In the Michigan case, a distraught mother shot and killed her husband, her two grown children and herself in their home about 25 miles northwest of Detroit, shocking the small and quiet community.
They chose to leave
The shooter was Lauren Stuart, a part-time model and personal trainer who struggled with depression and spent much of her time working on her house, her friends said. She and her husband, Daniel Stuart, 47, left the Jehovah's Witnesses faith more than a decade ago over doctrinal and social issues.
Among them was their desire to send their kids to college, which many former Jehovah's Witnesses say the church frowns and views as spiritually dangerous.
“University and college campuses are notorious for bad behavior — drug and alcohol abuse, immorality, cheating, hazing, and the list goes on,” read an Oct. 1, 2005, article in Watchtower, the church's official publication that is not available online until 2008 editions.
The Stuarts sent both their kids to college: Steven Stuart, 27, excelled in computers, just like his father, who was a data solutions architect for the University of Michigan Medical School. Bethany Stuart, 24, thrived in art and graphic design.
After the parents left the faith, the Stuarts were ostracized by the members of the Kingdom Hall — the churches where Jehovah's Witnesses worship — in nearby Union Lake, Mich., and their families, friends said.
Lauren Stuart, whose mother died of cancer when she was 12, struggled with mental illness that went untreated, isolation and fears that the end was near, friends and officials familiar with the case said. One friend who requested anonymity said she believes the killing was the result of depression, not religion.
Longtime family friend Joyce Taylor, 58, of White Lake, Mich., believes depression, shunning and religion-based doomsday fears all played a role. She said that about six weeks before the killings, Lauren Stuart started getting religiously preoccupied and telling her, "It's the end times. I know it is."
Weeks later, Taylor saw her friend again. Lauren Stuart had a vacant look in her eyes.
She was emotionally distressed.
A week later, with her home decorated for Valentine's Day, Lauren Stuart killed her family. She left behind a suicide note.
"She said in the suicide note that she felt that by killing them it was the only way to save them," recalled Taylor, who said police let her read the letter. "She said she's sorry that she has to do this, but it was the only way to save them all."
Taylor, a former Jehovah's Witness herself who left the faith in 1986, explained: "Jehovah's Witnesses believe that if you die on this side of Armageddon, you'll be resurrected in paradise."
In Lauren Stuart's case, Taylor believes her friend never deprogrammed after leaving the church — a state she describes as "physically out, but mentally in." She believes that Lauren Stuart's indoctrinated doomsday fears never left her and that the shunning helped push her over the edge.
If her tight-knit community that once was her entire support system had not excommunicated her — and left her with no one to share her fears with — Lauren Stuart may not have done what she did, Taylor believes.
"People do things when they are desperate," Taylor said. "And that was an extreme, desperate act."
Shunning "can lead to great trauma among people because the Jehovah's Witnesses are a very tight-knit community," said Mathew Schmalz, a religious studies associate professor at the College of Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.
"If you're separated out, you're really left to your own devices in ways that are very challenging and very painful," Schmalz said. "Once you leave a group that's been your whole life, letting that go is a kind of death."
Police have not yet disclosed details about the death of the Stuart family except for calling it a murder-suicide.
The tragedy has emboldened many once-quiet ex-Jehovah's Witnesses to speak up. Many say they suffered quietly on their own for years until they discovered an online community full of isolated, ostracized people like themselves — people who had lost someone to suicide or attempted suicide themselves because their families, friends and church community had written them off for making mistakes, for being human.
The church calls it being "disfellowshipped." Members can return if they repent, change the behavior and prove themselves worthy of being reinstated. But unless or until that happens, members are encouraged to avoid the sinners, especially those who leave the faith.
Mothers go years, even decades, without talking to their children.
Siblings write off siblings.
Friends shun friends.
An estimated 70,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are disfellowshipped every year — roughly 1% of the church’s total population, according to data published by the Watchtower.
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Their names are published at local Kingdom Halls. Of those, two-thirds never return.
However, within a faith representing 8.4 million people worldwide, many members believe the religion is pure, good and loving. Those who are speaking against it are disgruntled and angry people who have an ax to grind because they were disfellowshipped, current members argue.
Or, they are lost souls who have misinterpreted the meaning and love behind the faith. Members say they believe that the shunning accusations are exaggerated and the suicides are often more about mental illness than ostracism.
Many of those who have left the religion disagree.
In the world of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses, they maintain that the shunned are considered dead to their families, just like the suicide victims.
These are their stories.
‘A dangerous cult’
The conversation was difficult to wrap her 8-year-old brain around.
“You know your sister was being bad, right?“ Sawyer recalled her mother telling her after her sister's suicide.
“And what she did was stupid, right?’ … To take your own life is very wrong," her mother continued.
“I didn’t understand what was going on … and I said, ‘Oh. OK,’ “ Sawyer recalled. “In my 8-year-old brain, I was thinking, ‘When I mess up, my mom’s going to hate me.’ "
And so began her painful journey with the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith, the religion she was born into and grew up in in Pascagoula, Miss., where her fears of abandonment took hold at age 8.
Sawyer believes that the shunning drove her sister to suicide. After the church disfellowshipped her for getting engaged to a non-Jehovah's Witness, the fiancé left, and her sister was thrown into depression.
Her sister tried turning to her mother for consolation. But her mom would read scripture and tell her, "Until you start acting right, you’re going to have these bad things happen to you.“
Bad things happened to Sawyer, too.
At 30, she sought a divorce from her husband because he was abusive and cheating on her, she said. But church elders and family pressured her to save her marriage.
“I showed them the holes in my walls,” Sawyer said, referring to the damage her ex-husband did to the home during fights. “They told me to pray more … and sent me back home to him.”
Sawyer took up smoking to handle the stress, which got her disfellowshipped because smoking is not allowed.
She also went through with the divorce. She ended up losing her home to foreclosure and turned to her mother for help because she had two children to raise.
Her mother took her in temporarily, but when church elders found out, they threatened to shun Sawyer’s mother. Her mother let the grandkids stay but not her daughter.
Sawyer ended up homeless for six months, living out of her car in a community college parking lot.
She landed on her feet with the help of a student loan. She got an apartment, a job as a hospice nurse and her children — now 10 and 18 — back.
She found herself but lost her family along the way.
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Her mother doesn’t speak to her. Sawyer said she can’t recall the last time they spoke.
Her sister in Alabama hasn’t spoken to her since Sawyer got divorced in 2010.
“She was on my porch with my parents," Sawyer said. "My sister looked at me and said, ‘You’re abandoning me just like Donna did’ and left. And that's the last thing she ever said to me."
Sawyer has kept silent about her pain for decades.
“This is a dangerous cult,” she said of her former religion. “It’s important for people to realize. This is serious.”
He lost his daughter
On Feb. 3, 2011, the Utah church of Dave Gracey disfellowshipped him at age 61.
By then, he had been an elder three times — a job that troubled him as he often found himself judging and sanctioning people who had sinned in the eyes of the church: Smokers. Drug users. Adulterers. Homosexuals.
“I had a terrible time with that,” Gracey said. “All we were doing was chasing people around and catching them in their sins and kicking them out.”
But then came the day the church judged his own children. That's when Gracey said he started rebelling.
In 2010, Gracey’s 38-year-old daughter, Laura, committed suicide after a fallout with church elders.
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“It put me in an absolute rage,” he recalled.
Gracey's daughter was rebellious growing up and suffered from mental illness, he said. She got into drugs and became homeless at one point but tried to get her life in order.
At 33, she was baptized as a Jehovah's Witness and over the next four years she was disfellowshipped twice and reinstated twice.
But in January 2010, following a meeting with church elders, Gracey's daughter fatally overdosed on prescription medication. She had been living in an apartment complex with other Jehovah's Witnesses in California and had a medical marijuana card for anxiety and stress.
Gracey suspects his daughter told the elders about the card.
“The elders won’t tell me why they met with her,” Gracey said. “Obviously, she was distressed that night, and they left her alone. They knew how fragile my daughter was. … It’s my guess that they excommunicated her that night, but they won’t tell me. They failed to protect her in her most vulnerable state.”
That same year, Gracey would suffer more heartache at the hands of his church. His 14-year-old stepdaughter had been raped, but the elders didn’t believe her, he said.
An investigation followed and an administrative judge and child protective services made a finding that the Jehovah's Witnesses were guilty of child maltreatment.
The church mounted a campaign to oust the Graceys of Layton, Utah, who appealed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses' headquarters in Warwick, N.Y., in the New York City metro area, claiming the church had harmed their daughter.
On Feb. 3, 2011, the Graceys were excommunicated.
“We were so indoctrinated. We had difficulty with it,” Gracey said, noting he and his wife officially left the faith in March 2013 after getting shunned repeatedly.
“I walked out and never came back,” Gracey said. “I started kind of waking up.”
Gracey, who considers himself agnostic now, is focused on helping all of his family escape the Jehovah's Witnesses organization.
“I want to expose this religion for what they really are. It is a cult that splits up families and separates people from life. … They seem nice on Saturday morning when they are peddling their Watchtower, but they are insidious.”
‘I’ve been sick over this'
For Californian Kerry Kaye, the Keego Harbor killings triggered a host of emotions: anger, pain, frustration.
She, too, is a former member of the Jehovah's Witnesses community and lost a very good friend to suicide more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve just been sick over this. It brings back a lot of memories,” Kaye said of the Michigan killings in a recent telephone interview.
Kaye was in her early 20s when her friend committed suicide after being disfellowshipped for getting pregnant out of wedlock. The woman was 20 years old and seven months pregnant at the time.
Kaye said her friend tried to get back into the church, but the elders told her, “No, you need more time. You’re not qualified to come back.“
That day, the friend went home and shot herself in the heart, Kaye said.
“If you’re in the organization, you understand the depression and despair,” said Kaye, who explained that when someone gets disfellowshipped, word spreads fast in the church. She admits that she once shunned her own father at the direction of the church.
“The moment they make an announcement, you’re not allowed to have contact with them whatsoever. You have to pretend they’re dead,” Kaye said. “That’s how they control the people. It’s a fear tactic. It’s to keep them in the cult, under their control.”
Kaye was 24 when she left the church. Her father had left the faith a few years earlier after the church pressured him to leave his government job, telling him he had to choose the faith or his work.
He picked the job and disassociated himself.
Kaye was forced to shun her father or face consequences, she said.
“I didn’t talk to my father for almost two years, and then I finally had enough,” Kaye said. “I started to try to make an escape.”
It wasn’t easy. After she left, she said she became suicidal.
Doctors intervened and saved her life, she said. Eventually, she moved away from her hometown to the Los Angeles area to raise her three children on her own, outside the organization.
They are all college educated now and thriving, she said. And she has found peace as she has dedicated herself to helping others who feel trapped in the denomination.
“I’m wonderful since I left,” Kaye said. “My mission is to help other people. When entire families are destroyed, it makes all of us who have been involved in this cult very angry. We want people to know what is really going on.”
‘We love everyone’
Almost 8.5 million people are Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, including 1.2 million in the United States, according to the JW.org website.
We come from hundreds of ethnic and language backgrounds, yet we are united by common goals. Above all, we want to honor Jehovah, the God of the Bible and the Creator of all things. We do our best to imitate Jesus Christ and are proud to be called Christians. Each of us regularly spends time helping people learn about the Bible and God’s Kingdom. Because we witness, or talk, about Jehovah God and his Kingdom, we are known as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses national organization did not return calls and e-mails from the Free Press for comment on the subject of disfellowshipping. Multiple members and elders were contacted, but all declined to speak on the record, many saying they were not authorized to publicly comment on scripture and church teachings.
However, following the Keego Harbor killings, numerous current Jehovah’s Witnesses contacted the Free Press to defend their religion, stressing it is about unconditional love, peace, helping people and having an unwavering commitment to God and Jesus Christ.
But like many religions, Jehovah's Witnesses have rules to follow — such as no stealing, killing, committing adultery, smoking or getting intoxicated on alcohol or drugs. If one commits any of these acts, they can be disfellowshipped, but they can get back in if they truly repent and change their behavior.
They, too, did not want to have their names published.
Schmalz, the religious studies professor, said mainstream Christians often misunderstand the Jehovah's Witnesses' faith. Their beliefs may seem "unorthodox" to other religious groups and their rules too strict or extreme.
But Jehovah's Witnesses, a Protestant denomination that began in the 1870s as a Bible study group in Pittsburgh, have rational reasons for much of what they believe and do, he said.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe in a "great cataclysm," that " 'the end is near' is continually imminent," he said. When you are brought up with that belief within a strong and tightly knit religious setting, it is hard to shake.
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"This belief in Armageddon, which is central to the Jehovah's Witness worldview, is something that still retains its power — even for people who have left," said Schmalz, who teaches a course in modern religious movements with discussions about Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientology. Author L. Ron Hubbard founded Scientology in the early 1950s in Los Angeles.
Jehovah's Witnesses aren't alone in the practice of shunning, Schmalz said. The Amish and other Mennonite groups ostracize those who leave the faith, too.
He said Jehovah's Witnesses have two goals in mind when they disfellowship someone:
1. They need a mechanism to discipline people who don't abide by their tenets.
2. They are trying to create a pure community whose members adhere to the group's beliefs and tenets.
This practice can be harmful, he said. But members have a rationale for the behavior.
"How is disfellowshipping really that different from tough love, where you hold people accountable for their actions? It's a complicated question," said Schmalz, who is opposed to using the word "cult" to describe the Jehovah's Witness church.
"We should look at the Jehovah's Witnesses not as a bizarre religious group but as a religion that has its own internal means of discipline," he said. "They can be very harsh and have very unintended and tragic consequences."
Follow Tresa Baldas on Twitter: @Tbaldas