That Tuesday night's "special service" was supposed to be a joyous one for televangelist Perry Stone. He circled the room singing along to the music. He cracked jokes about gaining weight over Thanksgiving.
But as Stone was describing to his followers how some people walked away from religion in recent years, the voice of a woman in the back brought the auditorium to silence.
"Probably because you keep touching them, you nasty perv," she yelled. "Why don't you tell them the real reason why they left? Because you kept touching them."
"Ma'am, I'll have you arrested, and I'll bring a lawsuit against you for making statements like that," Stone said, as his security guards rushed toward the woman.
His voice held steady for a few more words before he began yelling, "You've talked to people who told 16 lies on my wife and I! That's who you've been talking to."
Last month, the Federal Bureau of Investigation began questioning people connected to Stone and his Cleveland-based ministries, according to five people with direct knowledge of the interactions.
At least seven people connected to the ministry, including some couples, have shared information that investigators sought about sexual misconduct allegations against Stone as well as the evangelist's connections to Bradley County law enforcement, according to the five people.
In a statement to the Chattanooga Times Free Press, an FBI spokesperson said Department of Justice policy "prohibits us from confirming or denying the existence or non-existence of FBI investigations."
Meanwhile, more than a dozen people connected or formerly connected to Stone's ministry told the Times Free Press they are becoming more concerned about the perceived lack of accountability for the internationally known spiritual leader a year and a half after allegations of inappropriate conduct involving women were first made public.
Some are angry at the board of directors at Voice of Evangelism, believing the ministry did not involve law enforcement or fully investigate claims of misconduct against Stone by women in his ministry, which included groping, unwanted kissing and showing women he was aroused.
Others believe the safety measures originally discussed for Stone when allegations were made were not followed and the pastor returned to full-time public ministry too soon. Many of the people who spoke with the Times Free Press are worried a lack of accountability and awareness could put others at risk as Stone begins traveling and leading services again.
The Times Free Press gathered information about Stone and his organizations from 19 people connected to the ministry, including interviewing four women who said they were victims of Stone. Most asked their names not be made public for fear of retribution from Stone or his followers. Some individuals, including people who declined to speak with the Times Free Press, received threatening text messages or found their property vandalized in recent weeks.
How this story was reported
The Times Free Press gathered information from 19 people connected to Perry Stone’s ministry to help publish this story. That information included documents, internal communications and voice recordings, as well as interviews with 16 people connected with Perry Stone’s ministry or with direct knowledge of events relevant to the story. The reporter also attended events hosted by Stone’s ministry, such as the special service on Nov. 30.
Stone has recently posted to his hundreds of thousands of online followers about a spiritual vision in which he strikes a fish, which symbolized someone standing against his ministry, in the head and it "died instantly." Stone has said Christians should not trust negative things said about others and said people who challenge him are demonic.
In a statement to the Times Free Press, John Rodriguez, an outside spokesperson for Voice of Evangelism, defended the board's handling of the allegations and characterized the internal investigation as "appropriate and intensive."
"The conclusions reached and actions taken by the board were determined by the board to be reasonable and appropriate and in the best interests of Voices of Evangelism, its supporters and even its detractors," Rodriguez said in a statement.
According to Rodriguez, the board of directors "does not believe that it is appropriate to further characterize the nature and content of any allegations against Perry Stone."
On Nov. 30, after security removed the woman who interrupted him, Stone said the allegations against him were misinterpreted hugs and other things because he is Italian.
"I am not a perfect man," Stone said. "People have taken me hugging and kissing them on the cheek wrong. I quit that. I'm Italian. My whole family holds hands, rubs backs. I didn't know you can look at somebody and say, 'Hey, how you doing?' and they can take it wrong."
Stone then told the crowd that God has told him that the people who have accused him will have to answer for it when they die.
In April 2020, the all-male Voice of Evangelism board of directors each received copies of 11 letters, nine of which were from women either employed by or connected to the Stone's ministries, which include Voice of Evangelism, Omega Center International and the International School of the Word.
The letters - some of which were given to the Times Free Press and others described to a reporter - detailed allegations of sexual harassment and assault against Stone, including groping, showing that he was aroused while fully clothed and rubbing himself, asking women in his ministry about their breasts, kissing the women on the neck and lips, asking them to kiss him in similar ways, messaging them to send him pictures and asking them to massage him. At least one letter obtained by the Times Free Press said Stone would lock office doors to be alone with women.
Several of the women alleging misconduct told the Times Free Press that Stone told them he had a dream in which something bad was going to happen to his wife, Pam, and God told him he should be with the other woman. Several women said Stone would tell them he was lonely and his wife was not pleasing him sexually.
Pam Stone did not respond to a request for comment.
Some of the alleged victims were in their early 20s, roughly a third of the age of the pastor in his early 60s. The timeline presented in the letters, and confirmed by two former employees, suggested ministry leaders knew about some of the allegations years before any action was taken.
The letters, whose existence and content was not previously reported, included two letters from employees of the ministry with previous knowledge of the alleged misconduct, according to an individual in the room when the letters were distributed.
Several other long-time employees and volunteers, some of whom had been with Stone for nearly two decades, left the ministry or were asked to leave that spring, according to six people who shared their experiences with the Times Free Press. Around the same time, Remnant, the young adult dance team that traveled with Stone, announced it would no longer be connected with the ministry.
At least two members of the board - Frankie Powell and Wayne Penn - left after allegations were raised. The other members of Stone's board, as of December 2019, were Rick Towe, Gary Sears, Frank Booke and Grant Dunnam Sr.
Bryan Cromer, who worked in information technology for Stone for a year until May 2020, said Voice of Evangelism employees were called into a meeting in the spring of 2020, and the allegations were mentioned in vague terms.
"They had a VOE meeting and pulled all 25-ish employees, 20-ish employees, into a room and told them, some things have been accused, we think Perry's unwell, we're gonna send him off for more or less a type of rehab or recovery. And that was about it," Cromer said. "And then, you know, two weeks later Perry shows back up at VOE."
The Ramp, an Alabama-based youth ministry, took over operations at Omega Center International because, as Stone described it at the time, God told him to work with the group. The Ramp's founder, Karen Wheaton, is married to Rick Towe, who acts as CEO of The Ramp and was on the Voice of Evangelism board when the allegations were brought.
As the likelihood of the allegations becoming public increased, ministry leaders turned to Rodriguez to handle public relations. The St. Louis-based luxury clothing designer and salon owner operates the firm Castañeda Consulting and specializes in public relations for Christian organizations.
In July 2020, the Times Free Press published audio from a private gathering in which Stone told his followers multiple times his misconduct was because of the stress of ministry and ongoing health issues.
"I confess at times I've been inappropriate in all this weariness of just non-stop ministry," he said at the time. "I let my guard down and I've asked, of course, God to forgive me for that."
Stone later said he was away from the public eye to focus on his family and because he was working on a project about a "great treasure" that would soon be discovered. He told his followers he had a "physical collapse" from the stress of running a $14-to-$15-million ministry.
In July 2020, when the allegations of misconduct were first made public, the Voice of Evangelism board said in a statement it determined Stone's conduct was "civil in nature and not criminal."
This month, Rodriguez said the board was "unaware of any allegations of criminal misconduct."
"The board of directors conducted a private, appropriate and intensive investigation of the allegations," Rodriguez said in the statement. "The board consulted with legal counsel to determine appropriate response to the circumstances which the board confronted in the spring of 2020."
Bradley County Sheriff Steve Lawson said his department had not received any complaints regarding Stone and there were no reports on file. Cleveland police said any complaints would have been filed with the county.
On Nov. 30, Stone told the crowd gathered in his building there was information about the allegations that he knew but the public did not. Before publishing this investigation, the Times Free Press asked Voice of Evangelism about the nature of this information and the "16 lies" Stone claimed were told against his family.
In response, Rodriguez said the "extensive and appropriate investigation by the board contains supported and unsupported positions of individuals and allegations, some of which were completely refuted."
He said the board "will not disclose the names of or the number of people who made allegations or who gave statements contrary to the allegations."
Rodriguez said Stone's board of directors determined a restoration plan for Stone in the spring of 2020, which included professional counseling, medical care, removal from social media and absence from ministry for between six and 12 months.
The board defined absence from ministry as Stone not preaching from the pulpit between May 1, 2020 and Jan. 1, 2021, apart from two special services, Rodriguez said, and Stone did not have any conferences between May 1, 2020 and June 24, 2021.
During that time Stone still led prayer meetings and videos of him interpreting current events were posted to his hundreds of thousands of social media followers.
Cromer said many employees in Voice of Evangelism and Stone's other ministries were scared to stand up to Stone or, if they did, they would be punished. The board of directors failed, Cromer said.
"Their responsibility was to ensure Perry was, No. 1, walking the path that God would have him to walk on, more or less, and that the ministry is heading that direction. And, No. 2, to correct the ship when it's going the wrong way. That's their responsibility," he said. "What it looked like, that's not what they did, though."
Dreams, threats and Facebook
Stone has built his religious reputation through television and social media, saying he has converted tens of thousands of people to Christianity through his multimedia outreach. He regularly posts videos interpreting current events through the lens of biblical prophecies.
On Nov. 23, Stone posted a video to his more than 500,000 Facebook followers about a dream he said was a spiritual vision in which seven ugly fish with big mouths were keeping other fish, which Stone said were young people searching for Christ, from being caught by fisherman, who were pastors like himself. Stone said the ugly fish were evil and, in the dream, he killed one by beating it over the head with a pole to allow the good fish to be caught.
There would be retribution for those standing against the ministry, Stone said in the video.
"God is not pleased with it," he said. " And someone is going to suffer greatly. Somebody in that seven is going to suffer greatly. Possibly a physical death. Possibly a spiritual death. Something is going to happen negative to one of them."
Frankie Powell, an Alabama-based pastor who served on the ministry's board, commented on the video, "Knowing what I know my friend this is sad. The truth will prevail."
Powell did not respond to multiple requests for comment from the Times Free Press.
On Dec. 1, about eight hours after the woman interrupted him, Stone posted to Facebook that she represented one of the seven fish and reminded his followers that "one of the seven is already marked by God to face a significant loss."
In the video, Stone said he was sharing his dream to get ahead of whatever attacks were coming. Stone has previously claimed to have predicted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the coronavirus pandemic, but only after the events occurred.
Along with interpreting current events, Stone has regularly preached and written about sex and infidelity. In a 2016 sermon titled "When Your Honey Starts Acting Funny," Stone said he married his wife Pam because she was "hot" and said if women withhold sex from their husbands they can invite in the spirit of Jezebel, the Old Testament seductress who spread idol worship.
"I just want to tell all you women something, sitting out there and anybody watching," Stone told the crowd. "When you start manipulating with sex with your husband, and start cutting him off, look out. Jezzy will show up."
In his 2012 book "Exposing Satan's Playbook," Stone wrote that Satan uses women to seduce "unguarded" men to "stir up a passion, emotion and excitement in a man and tap into his emotional side, overpowering the rational thinking."
Pam Stone - in her 2005 memoir with Perry titled "We're Not Finished Yet!" - wrote that when she is not traveling with Perry, several male co-workers will always be with Stone so "no one can make a false claim against him." Pam wrote that while she and Perry "consider the male and female workers dear friends in whom we have confidence and trust," she has stopped two women from trying to seduce her husband.
The Times Free Press is continuing to investigate Perry Stone and his ministries. If you have any information you believe can help, please contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or call 423-757-6249.
'Who are you going to believe?'
Nine people either connected to or employed by Stone's ministry, some of whom were with the ministry for more than a decade, said he would hand out cash to those close to him. The former employees said Stone would also buy vehicles for women and pay for their housing.
Four people with connections to the ministry said Stone would threaten the employment of loved ones or remove opportunities in his ministry if women rebuffed his advances.
On Dec. 7, Stone told an audience at Omega Center International that God told him Satan was trying to hurt his reputation and stop him from delivering a revelation that would save entire nations. He told the crowd demons use slander and accusations, and people who talk to news reporters but do not want their name used should not be trusted.
It is "demonic," "perverted" and a sin to talk about sins of the past, Stone said.
"I'm going to preach come heaven, hell, highwater. I'm going to stand in OCI. God told me to build this place, and you're not going to run me off," Stone said. "I'm going to tell you or no one else is going to run the preacher that God said build and gave $22 million free to build this building for a generation. And I've got news for you, it belongs to God."
The sermon, which was live-streamed on social media, was later taken down.
Pete Singer, executive director of Virginia-based Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment or GRACE - which specializes in investigating abuse in churches- said abusers groom victims as well as their congregations.
Speaking to the Times Free Press generally about abuse in churches and not on any particular case, Singer said abusers typically target individuals who are on the margins and who can become dependent on people in power. Abusers then groom their audiences by putting on a show of being a caring person or by telling others not to trust anything negative that is said.
"Often it's a chosen victim because of vulnerability, a chosen victim because they may not be believed. And if it comes down to he said, she said, who are you going to believe? The struggling mom, who can barely make it to church and can't keep her kids under control because her husband just left her? Or the pastor who's in good standing and has led this church for 10 years? And that's a conscious choice on the part of the abuser."
In July, Tennessee criminalized sexual contact between members of clergy and people under their spiritual care. The law makes the act a Class E felony of sexual battery with penalties of one to six years in prison and fines of up to $3,000.
Non-consensual sexual advances, verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature or creating hostile work environments, among other behavior, are considered sexual harassment under state law.
Singer said ministries in which power is centralized in one individual, and if that individual hand picks other leaders or advisers, create more risk for abuse. Typically those organizations have procedures designed to protect the organization or the leader rather than caring for a potential victim. It is a red flag if people hear a ministry, and its success, is dependent on an individual, he said.
"The example that Christ set is, I'm going to care for the person more than the financial cost. Even if caring for that person means that our ministry gets a black eye, our ministry gets a black eye," Singer said. "Because the reason we're getting a black eye isn't that that person came forward about abuse. The reason we're getting a black eye is that we allowed the abuse to occur in the first place."
On Nov. 30, after the disturbance at the Tuesday night service, Bryan Cutshall, a longtime employee of the ministry who had just been promoted to lead another of Stone's organizations, compared the woman accusing Stone of sexual misconduct to the crowd heckling Jesus before he was crucified.
"What you just witnessed happened at the trial of Jesus the day before he was crucified," Cutshall said. "This is Satan and his plan against Jesus and those who support him. You've just come into the trial of Jesus."
The crowd gave Stone several standing ovations.
Perry Stone and his ministries
Perry Stone lives in Bradley County, Tennessee, where the headquarters of his ministries are located. Stone operates Voice of Evangelism, Omega Center International (which has partnered with The Ramp) and the International School of the Word. Stone has more than a half a million followers on Facebook and regularly posts videos interpreting current events through the lens of biblical prophecy.Stone has traveled nationally and internationally preaching for more than four decades. He has written dozens of books about prophecies and claims to have predicted the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the coronavirus pandemic.
Federal investigators with the Chattanooga office of the FBI have been questioning people connected to Stone's ministry for about a month, according to five people with direct knowledge of the conversations.
Those five individuals, all former employees of the ministry, said the bureau is gathering information about the misconduct allegations, as well as Stone's finances and connections to local law enforcement, like the Bradley County Sheriff's Office. Internal documents from Stone's ministry have reportedly been turned over to the investigators.
Rodriguez said the ministry was not aware of any federal investigation and no employee or board member has been contacted.
"To the knowledge of the Board of VOE, there is no such investigation," his statement said.
Sheriff Lawson, in a statement to the Times Free Press, said his department was not aware of a federal investigation but would cooperate if approached.
According to records provided by the Bradley County Sheriff's Office, Stone or his ministries regularly hire several off-duty sheriff's office employees to provide security for events. They were present on Nov. 30, the night the woman made her accusations.
The sheriff's office used property owned by Stone and his ministry to do K-9 and hostage negotiation training, as well as a SWAT training in 2017, according to a statement from Sheriff Lawson.
Department policy for "extra-duty work" allows sheriff's office employees to conduct off-duty work, including using their vehicles, if the work "does not create a conflict of interest with their responsibilities as law enforcement officers and if the work does not constitute a threat to the status or dignity of law enforcement as a professional occupation," according to records provided by the Bradley County Sheriff's Office.
Voice of Evangelism has contributed $36,560 to the Bradley County Sheriff's Office since 2018, according to donation records provided by the department. The ministry's donation makes it the second highest outside donation given to the sheriff's office in that time frame, second to LJ Consulting's $39,000 donation and ahead of the third-highest donation, $12,000 from Logan Thompson.
The sheriff's office said the donation was used to purchase in-car cameras and body cameras.
"This is for the benefit of the citizens and visitors to Bradley County," Rodriguez said in a statement.
The Times Free Press requested to speak with Stone, but Rodriguez said Stone "has no additional comments on things that happened 20-plus months ago that have already been publicly addressed. His focus is to continue to help build the kingdom, by helping people grow in their relationship with God and to spend quality time with his family during the Christmas season and New Year."
Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.