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Church Beset by Scandal Leaves for Promised Land : Religion: Pentecostal group from Visalia starts over in Colorado Springs. The move has torn apart some families.

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

By the time heart attack No. 4 felled the Rev. John R. Kiggins Jr. at age 58, the Pentecostal church he had built here from scratch was in a shambles.

The fund to construct a grand cathedral had been bled dry by his pleasure-seeking: the luxury condo in Marina del Rey and the twice-a-week visits to the International House of Massage in Los Angeles.

More than 200 members--half the church--bolted when his intemperance came to light. It was one thing for Brother Kiggins to treat himself to a new Mercedes-Benz and Rodeo Drive suits and quite another to drape his mistress, a 19-year-old masseuse, in chinchilla and diamonds.

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He did manage before he died to pass on what was left of the Gateway Christian Cathedral to his second son, Greg, in a kind of dynastic succession. But try as he might, the charismatic son could not quite lead the church out of its scandalous past. Then came this vision: Colorado Springs is the promised land. Let us leave together. A new exodus.

This summer, more than 160 church members--almost the entire remaining congregation--have heeded the call of the younger Kiggins. They quit good jobs and liquidated assets. Some left this quiet San Joaquin Valley town in such a hurry that their empty houses remain unsold.

The move has torn apart some families, with one parent in Visalia and another parent in Colorado Springs and the children caught in between. It has led to divorce proceedings and bitter custody battles with charges that the gun-toting, 34-year-old Brother Kiggins is a false prophet who longed to leave California but needed to haul his livelihood--the congregation--with him.

The pastor, who was 19 when news broke that the new car and boat his father bought him were part of an elaborate scheme, said he learned long ago to turn the other cheek. “I’ve been called David Koresh with this thing,” he said. “I’ve been called the Rev. Jim Jones. It’s water off a duck’s back. I know better. The congregation knows better.”

But he is cautious just the same. An interview of him would have to be recorded onto his microcassette, he said. And there would be no photographs unless he could wear his Sunday best--double-breasted suit, suspenders, cuff links, Florsheim Bostonians and two large diamond rings.

“He doesn’t want any bad pictures,” his wife, Shelly, admonished the photographer moving in for a candid shot. “Not like you see in the National Enquirer. He wants a good picture.”

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The Kigginses came back to town briefly last month to tend to their four horses and two steers, and to find a buyer for their $365,000 house on 11 acres of foothill property.

They are building a house in Divide, Colo., and converting an industrial warehouse into a church in Colorado Springs. Coffers are brimming again. In June, the church sold 13 acres of Visalia commercial land to the largest shipper of bull semen in the world.

The timing of the $1.1-million deal could not have been better. Escrow closed one month before the deadline for all church members to tie up loose ends and move to Colorado.

Kiggins says the move was prompted by the lure of a better economy and tougher attitudes about crime.

“There are plenty of examples throughout the Bible of the Lord leading people to different places,” he explained. “If I tried to pressure people and tell them they’re going to hell if they stayed in Visalia, that would be one thing. But I’ve never done that.”

“I’ve done my utmost to stay out of these legal squabbles so no one could say that I’ve brainwashed their grandkids,” Kiggins said.

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Ernie and Mavis Price, former members of the church who knew Greg Kiggins when he was a shy, curly-haired boy trying to wriggle out of his Sunday suit, have a decidedly different view.

Their oldest daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren have broken all ties with them and moved to Colorado. While their son and another daughter have chosen to stay in Visalia, the decision came at a steep price. Their marriages to church members have ended and they are fighting to keep custody of their children.

“My entire family has been split in half by this thing,” said Mavis Price, 59, a special education teacher.

The Prices and other former church members say Colorado Springs is not just another pretty place. They say Kiggins chose it because it is largely white, Christian and politically conservative, and has a reputation for being hospitable to gun lovers.

“Many of the men in the church and some of the women carry concealed weapons,” Price said. “They’ll be sitting in a restaurant and all of a sudden they’ll think someone is staring at them. They’ll flip open their jackets so you can see their shoulder holsters.”

It wasn’t always this way. People here remember the first time they set eyes on the preacher from Texas by way of the Louisiana bayou in 1963. John Kiggins, the father, was a spellbinder. He wasn’t tall or hefty and his voice certainly didn’t boom. But his words burned and he had a way of making you feel important, like he was preaching to you and only you.

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Word of his oratory spread fast in this farm belt, a stronghold of evangelical Christians who feel God’s presence by talking in tongues and who believe in miraculous healings of the kind their Dust Bowl parents witnessed in Oklahoma and Arkansas.

The congregation grew from 70 to 700 and Kiggins was soon making plans for an $8-million cathedral that he wished to be the “largest church structure on the West Coast.”

Among some Pentecostals, a certain amount of flamboyance is considered natural for the preacher. But Kiggins took it a realm beyond. He had his thinning gray hair teased daily in a ducktail style to make it appear thicker. He drove a Cadillac and a Mercedes-Benz. His suits came from Rodeo Drive. His diamond rings were two-karat and larger.

He also gave generously to his three sons--a Porsche, a Thunderbird, a $16,000 boat. For the home, he bought a $9,000 entertainment center.

That he was able to do all this on a taxable income of $7,000 a year was not a detail church members bothered with. As for the condo in Marina del Rey where he was spending half his time, that was strictly for rest and relaxation after heart attack No. 2 nearly killed him in 1979.

His recovery was apparently speedy. Over a seven-month period, he made 68 visits to the International House of Massage in Los Angeles, paying $40 an hour for Swedish rubdowns. It was his fondness for one 19-year-old masseuse that ended up bringing him down.

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He moved her into his condo, dressed her up in a chinchilla coat, diamonds and rubies that he purchased under a variety of aliases, and then showed her off in Las Vegas.

The whispers eventually got back to Visalia, where it was discovered that the Rev. Kiggins had squandered the entire church building fund--about $300,000 in donations. He pleaded guilty in 1984 to evading $79,704 in taxes and was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a term suspended at the last minute because of his ailing heart. His wife divorced him.

Many church members had troubling reconciling Kiggins’ strict words--women should refrain from wearing makeup and pants or cutting their hair--with his behavior. Half the congregation broke away and formed a new church. The Prices were among those to leave, even though their children stayed.

Kiggins died four years later. It was left to Greg, the quiet middle son who did not attend college and lacked any formal religious training, to try to put back the pieces.

He loosened up some restrictions. Whereas divorce was practically forbidden before, it now seemed as if every fourth couple was divorcing and marrying someone else inside the church.

Some longtime members were troubled by the church’s shift inward, its increasingly anti-government, pro-gun bent. More than a dozen church members were given concealed weapons permits by the Tulare County Sheriff’s Department, law enforcement records show.

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Tammi Luttman, the Prices’ middle daughter whose husband was a respected church member, had serious misgivings about the direction of the church but felt that she could not leave.

“The church teaches obedience above all else,” she explained in an interview. “ ‘Do not question Rev. Greg. Do not question the Man.’

“It’s the church against the world. They told me my parents were evil. They said they didn’t have the Holy Ghost anymore.”

One Sunday, while her husband was napping between morning and evening services, she sneaked a call to her parents and asked them to pick her up. She divorced her husband.

“I had this feeling that I would burn in hell because I had betrayed the church,” Luttman said. “It was really awful. It took me a year and a half to get over that feeling.”

Last summer, after returning from a vacation across 15 states, Greg Kiggins told the congregation that God had led him to Colorado Springs. He asked how many members would be willing to consider a move. All but a few said they would.

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“He had this idea and wanted to know what everyone else thought about it,” said Mike Costa, a longtime church member. “The question overwhelmed everybody. We didn’t really have a chance to think about it.”

A formal vote was taken two weeks later. All but a few families decided to pull up stakes. Costa, who repairs cattle-feeding equipment, chose to stay in Visalia.

“It was a tough decision for me and my wife. Personally, I didn’t feel pressured by Rev. Kiggins. I think God is everywhere. But I know that some people felt they had no choice. They had to go.”

Many left good jobs and sold their houses at fire-sale prices to meet the July 1 deadline to move. About a dozen houses are still empty and remain unsold.

“Most of the members, I’d say 80%, have found a new job in Colorado Springs with wages that match the old job,” Kiggins said. “The community is very Christian-oriented. We feel the peace there.”

For the Price family, the move has only widened their rift. Daughter Patty left Visalia in June with her two children and husband, David Dillard, one of the church’s elders. “They have completely rid themselves of us,” Price said. “We are dead in their eyes.”

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Their son is getting a divorce, in part because he refused to give up his air-conditioning business and move to Colorado. He and his wife are trying to resolve custody of their three children without the kind of bitter court fight that has consumed the Prices’ other daughter, Luttman.

Last month, a Tulare County court commissioner, citing witnesses who testified that the church was obsessed with guns and government conspiracies, ruled that Luttman’s two juvenile sons belong in Visalia with her. The boys spent part of the summer with their father in Colorado Springs.

“One of my sons told me he’d do anything Brother Greg told him to do. Anything,” Luttman said. “That’s what I am fighting.”

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