Extremism, Tactics Set Followers of Rev. Owens Apart

Times Staff Writers

The church is one of a thousand such strongholds across the country--a plain one-story building hugged by a school, surrounded by large trees and a chain-link fence--where the politics of the John Birch Society and the National Rifle Assn. flourish among the literal interpretation of Scripture.

The members carry their well-worn and marked-up Bibles to Sunday worship service. Many of them tithe. The men have short hair and wear jeans. The women wear dresses that fall well below the knee. The children sit obediently in the wooden pews.

All eyes look to the pulpit, all voices raised in song as the preacher vigorously waves his arm in time with the piano player, who keeps missing the same note in the chorus of the old-time hymn, "Blessed Assurance."

The Bible Missionary Fellowship--based in the countrified city of Santee by a West Texan named Dorman Owens--is a home for true believers. When they describe their view of the world, they use labels: anti-Catholic, anti-Communist, anti-evolution, anti-homosexual, anti-womens' lib, anti-public schools and anti-abortion.

Confrontational Tactics

Yet it is not the nature of these beliefs that sets the church apart from other Baptist churches. It is the tactics.

Since 1983, members of the Bible Missionary Fellowship have been marching out of their ordered world to confront homosexuals and abortion providers with the threat of eternal damnation. Steadily, their methods have become more extreme.

They have stood on street corners and yelled and screamed and preached through bullhorns. They have carried picket signs depicting dismembered fetuses, telling all within earshot that God will not suffer the sinner. The Rev. Dorman Owens once donned the uniform of a Mexican federal officer to threaten Hispanic women who sought abortions. In 1986, a church member used an electric dart gun on a man escorting his girlfriend into an abortion clinic.

"A nation cannot go on killing its posterity," said the preacher's son, Paul Owens. "Who knows who we've killed up to this point? Seventeen, 18 million people?

"We're trying to save America."

But America, in the form of the federal government, is now saying the pastor and a handful of his followers are the ones endangering the safety of society.

Eric Everette Svelmoe, a church member, was arrested in July after planting a bomb--which never went off--at a San Diego abortion clinic. Svelmoe has since pleaded guilty to the crime. In a series of criminal charges filed in November against Dorman Owens and seven others, the government contends that the group conspired to bomb the clinic as part of a well-coordinated plan. The informant whose statements triggered the investigation says the scheme initially targeted three abortion clinics and included moonlight surveillance.

According to the informant, who spoke with The Times on the condition of anonymity, the bombing conspiracy grew out of a determination by some church members to do more than just pray for an end to sin.

'Soldiers of God'

"They kind of thought of themselves as soldiers for God and they had been specially commissioned to do this for God," the informant said. "It would bring glory to God. People would see that some of (them) were committed enough to go to jail."

The seven church members have been released on bond. All but Svelmoe have pleaded innocent to the charges. Only Dorman Owens remains in jail, denied release by two judges who listened to tape-recordings secretly made of a jailhouse visit between Owens and Svelmoe. Based on that visit, the preacher has been charged with witness tampering for allegedly urging Svelmoe not to testify against him and other church members.

Neither Owens nor any of the others charged in the case would discuss the indictments.

To the incredulous members of the Santee congregation, the imprisonment justifies a sense of persecution.

Bill Meyers, a Navy veteran who teaches math and science at the BMF Christian school, finds comfort in the avenging promise of Psalm 37: "The wicked plotteth against the just, and gnasheth upon him with his teeth. The Lord shall laugh at him: for he seeth that his day is coming."

On a recent morning, when headlines about Owens were splashed across newspapers, Meyers had his students read and discuss that passage during their morning devotional.

"The people who are laughing at our church are the abortionist and the atheist," Meyers told his class. "They are laughing at our calamity now. But the Scripture says that when the Judgment Day comes, the Lord will be laughing at their calamity."

Yet those that have been Owens' targets say the church instills an uncommon religious zeal that borders on the fanatical.

"I'm sorry for the guy. I'm sorry for him and I'm sorry for his family, I'm sorry for his church," said the Rev. David Farrell, pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church, a gay congregation that was frequently picketed by the Bible Missionary Fellowship.

"But you reap what you sow," he said. "When you attempt to express your beliefs in terms of anger, hatred, malice and violence, it always winds up badly. That has been the history of the church--the Crusades, Inquisitions and witch hunts."

Even as a young man, Dorman Duane Owens was very serious about doing what he believed was right. As it pertained to God, he took no chances, friends and family members say.

Born Jan. 2, 1933, in the small West Texas town of Munday, Owens was a middle child in a large family. Both of his parents had been divorced and brought older children into their second marriage.

Yet Owens was raised in strict Southern Baptist tradition, which is Bible-centered and requires abstinence from worldly pleasures like dancing and drinking.

When it came time to respond to the preacher's call to come down to the altar and be saved, Owens walked up to the front of the church not once, but twice.

"When he went forward the first time it was when he was 10 or 12," said Robbie Groves of Lakeside, one of Owens' sisters.

"Then he went again later," she said. "He was rebaptized because he felt a much stronger pull that he wanted to do things the way they are supposed to be done. He wanted to be sure of it to comply with what the Bible says we're supposed to do."

Joined Military

Owens was 19 the second time he was saved, and by then he had completed Joshua High School in Joshua, Tex., with average grades and joined the Armed Forces.

While in the service, Owens married his high school sweetheart, Wanda Jean, in a September, 1953, ceremony attended by four or five people at a minister's home in Fort Worth, said Owens' sister, Cleta Walker, who still lives in Texas.

After leaving the service, Owens settled down to raise a family and went to work driving trucks. But by the time he left for San Diego in 1958--driven from Texas by recession and health problems resulting from asthma--Owens felt an unmistakable calling toward the pulpit.

"I don't know if the Lord just didn't give him peace in what he was doing or what, but he felt like he had to get into the ministry," said Paul Owens, also a Bible Missionary Fellowship minister.

Dorman Owens worked in construction, drove meat trucks and dug ditches to support his family while finishing his studies at the San Diego Bible College, a small school he and two others founded in the South Bay. The college has become a correspondence school run out of the basement of a house in East San Diego.

Outspoken and certain, Owens was zealous to do the work of the Lord even before he was graduated in 1972. He became a champion "soul winner" on frequent door-to-door outings to canvass for converts.

"It seemed like he would make it so simple and yet he was forceful and persistent enough that people would sit and listen to him," said Beverly Thompson, a former member of Owens' church. "He would stress his point so strongly and would put it so succinctly that they would see their needs and they would accept the Lord."

Paul Owens said working with alcoholics became a consuming ministry for his father. "At one time, we had as many as three or four alcoholics living in our home with us," he said. "We'd detox them right in the living room."

The small circle of saved alcoholics and their families provided Owens with a nucleus for a church. When the new minister began holding meetings in rented quarters in Lakeside, he patterned the services after Alcoholics Anonymous--heavy on the testimonials and a modified version of AA's 12-step plan to recovery, Paul Owens said. The church was fundamentalist, but non-charismatic--that is, its members did not speak in tongues.

The flock prospered in the rural environment of East County and by 1980, the Fellowship had two congregations, one in Santee and the other in Ramona. Today there is a third church in Poway and the Fellowship has a combined membership in San Diego County of about 400 members.

Paul Owens said the Santee congregation pays his father $22,000 a year. He said the $8,000 to $9,000 raised monthly from Santee members is used primarily to run the private school.

Those inside the church say their pastor can be strict.

"He has some extreme viewpoints on raising children," said a former member. "He said he always used a spark(plug) wire, he used that for laying it on his children . . . and he proposed that from the pulpit several times."

Paul Owens confirmed that his father "would do that rather than wearing out a lot of switches . . . but he never abused any of us."

Church members say Dorman Owens can also be tenderhearted and nurturing.

Vicki Bagley, a 31-year-old Ramona housewife, said that since being saved, she has wept with her pastor over the heartache of caring for two children with cystic fibrosis.

'Cried a Lot of Tears'

"He's cried a lot of tears with us over our kids, hurt for us as far as our kids go," she said.

Those who find themselves at odds with Owens say he is a harsh disciplinarian given to strong language aimed at those who disagree with his view of the world.

"The New Age teachings will destroy patriotism for our country," Owens wrote in a 1983 letter. "It will neutralize our moral fiber until you will one day see open sex on the streets with roaming bands of militant homosexuals spreading death and disease."

Uncompromising adherence to the pastor's views have always been the rule in Owens' church, say former members and Owens' son, Paul. They say the idea is based on Hebrews 13:17, which reads, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves."

In the mid-1970s, Owens demanded that his fledgling congregation sign a special written "covenant" forbidding any member from seeing movies, dancing, smoking and going to nightclubs, said Frank Thompson, director of San Diego Bible College. Thompson said he and his wife quit the church over that requirement.

Since then Owens has instructed his followers with a myriad of rules, including the length of the women's dresses, the evils of women wearing shorts at church picnics, and why swimming shouldn't be allowed at church functions, former members say. He has banished members for "gossiping" and has been known to make the wayward stand in front of the congregation while their sins are recited.

One of Owens' favorite topics was the proper role for women in the home and society, said Jim Long, a San Diego policeman and another former member.

Long, still a committed Christian, said, "You would start to think that, 'I guess my wife's a slave and she should do everything I tell her without questioning, regardless.' "

Owens trained his ministerial displeasure on a bevy of sins outside the church as well.

"I try to do right, even if I lose friends," Owens wrote in another letter in 1983. "I could compromise and have a lot more friends. I could belong to the SEA (San Diego Evangelical Assn.) and the Ministerial Fellowship and cooperate with Billy Graham and not be so controversial and quit speaking out on issues. But I never will! (By God's Grace)."

In Owens' world, everything that strays from the exact wording of the Bible is suspect. Evolution is wrong and natural wonders such as the Grand Canyon and dinosaur bones that demonstrate the passage of time are tricks of the Devil. The righteous must obey Heaven's law, not man's, Owens has preached.

John Birch Society

Under his father's leadership, Paul Owens said, the church has attracted believers in Americanism and conservatism. By the mid-1980s, there were several members of the John Birch Society in the congregation, and Dorman Owens himself joined the right-wing group. Paul Owens said church members believe strongly in the right to keep guns for protection and often trade guns among themselves.

In the early 1980s, there was a stirring of aggressiveness in the group, Long said.

Several members of the church wanted to take to the streets with picket signs and tracts. They persuaded Owens to mobilize the church to demonstrate during late 1983 and 1984 against homosexuals, pornographic books stores and proponents of new-age philosophy.

In March, 1985, Owens and his followers picketed a newsstand run by a blind woman because the stand sold Playboy in the downtown County Courthouse.

But the main targets of the Santee fundamentalists became abortion providers and the gay community. Venom has flowed both ways.

Said Paul Owens: "Abortion has jumped out at us. You know, a million and a half babies a year. It just does something to me to think about that. Four thousand a day die at the hands of abortionists . . . . Homosexuality--look at what it is doing to this country. Homosexuality will break this country."

Mary Lou SanBlise, a gay community activist who has been on the opposite end of the Bible Missionary Fellowship picket lines, said:

"They are so bizarre and absurd that they make a bunch of fags in drag walking backward look normal. These 'Fundies' actually foam at the mouth. They scream so loud and so long that literally their mouths have spittle hanging from their lips.

"These guys look about as God-like as a cockroach."

In 1984 the gay community formed a human buffer called the "Fundie Zone" to keep the fundamentalists from disrupting the Gay Pride Parade.

At the next year's Gay Pride Parade, Svelmoe buzzed the festivities in a small plane towing a banner that proclaimed, "FAGS REPENT." Svelmoe was cited by the FAA for not obtaining a certificate for the banner, and his pilot's license was pulled for 60 days, federal records show.

The church's forays into the gay community in Hillcrest included demonstrations outside religious services at the Metropolitan Community Church.

Prayer Vigil Taunts

During a 50-hour AIDS prayer vigil at the church in January, 1986, homosexuals and their families attempting to enter the church were yelled at, and Farrell alerted police that violence could erupt.

Farrell said his brother and sister-in-law brought their baby to the prayer service and that Owens' group shouted at them: "Don't you know that baby's going to get AIDS?" He said another young mother who had just lost an 11-year-old daughter to AIDS broke down in tears when she was confronted by screaming members of the Bible Missionary Fellowship.

The heat of the battle was most intense when the Owens crusade marched on abortion clinics.

In 1984, Bible Missionary Fellowship members first showed up to picket the Birth Control Institute on El Cajon Boulevard; they also held demonstrations at the Womancare Clinic in Hillcrest and the Family Planning Associates Medical Group on Alvarado Road.

The pickets assembled on days abortions were performed and they emphasized "sidewalk counseling," which included reading from the Bible and pleading with women entering the clinics to think about the "murder" they were about to commit.

On one occasion, Owens and his associate pastor, Kenneth Felder, dressed up as Mexican federales and warned Mexican women approaching the clinic that they would be arrested and deported if they went inside, according to court records.

The abortion clinics faced many problems discouraging their operations, said Patricia O'Neil, associate director of Womancare. Her clinic has not been able to link these problems to the Owens church:

An erroneous classified ad was placed in a local newspaper shopper that said the clinic was selling a Lincoln Continental. Phone lines were tied up for two days with hundreds of calls.

Their phone line went dead for six hours after someone called the phone company, identified himself as a clinic official and asked that the line be disconnected. Forty appointments were lost and the clinic lost about $5,000 in business.

Pizza vendors, electricians and plumbers came by to answer calls for service that were never placed by Womancare employees.

The stairs and sidewalk were plastered with red paint. The elevator was vandalized when someone wrote in lipstick: "God Is Flesh Too."

Last May, a letter was sent to the Chicano Community Health Center in National City on Womancare stationery, urging more abortions for Latinos because they are "the county's most prolific breeders" and are endangering the quality of life.

Paul Owens said the war was equally offensive for the Bible Missionary Fellowship. He said cars parked at his father's home in El Cajon were spray-painted and someone once shot out a window in his home with a pellet gun.

"You don't know what has happened to this church at the hands of homosexuals and abortionists," he said. "My dad's gotten untold numbers of phone calls all hours of the night."

Womancare and other abortion clinics turned to the courts. They obtained several court injunctions restricting Dorman Owens and his followers on how they conducted their pickets. Owens was arrested twice for violating the court order and was fined.

But in one instance, the court rulings won by Womancare backfired.

In October, 1986, five demonstrators were placed under citizen's arrest by Womancare employees for violation of the 1984 court order, but they were found not guilty because there was no proof they were directly affiliated with Owens.

The demonstrators sued the clinic for false arrest and were awarded $60,000 in damages in September. The court battle continues, as Womancare has asked for a new trial, noting that one of the demonstrators--Cheryl Sullenger--has been indicted in the bombing conspiracy and is now a church member.

There was also constant picketing in front of the Family Planning Associates Medical Group, where church member Christopher Eugene Harmon was arrested in 1986 after he put one arm around the man's neck and zapped him twice with an electric dart gun, according to a police report. Harmon was convicted of a misdemeanor, sentenced to 27 days in jail and put on three years' probation, during which he was instructed to keep at least 200 feet from any abortion clinic.

Harmon was among the seven charged in the conspiracy to bomb the same clinic.

Like Womancare and the Family Planning clinics, Birth Control Institute was also under attack from the Bible Missionary Fellowship.

Warren Roberts, director of the institute, said the pickets, led by Owens, yelled both at women arriving for abortion examinations and at women seeking cancer treatments.

"He'd read the Bible," Roberts said, "look up to the heavens and yell, 'How long? O God, how long?' "

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