A Killing in God's Name
Scott North, Herald Writer
EVERETT, Wash., May 3 - Christopher Turgeon says that when God spoke, he listened. He listened when he was directed to go uninvited to area churches and publicly attack their teachings. He listened when he was told to prophesy a coming Apocalypse. He says he listened when he formed a small religious group called The Gatekeepers, and gathered its members around him, first in Snohomish County and later in Southern California.
Turgeon says he listened when he was commanded to kill. The 37-year-old, who claims to be a modern-day manifestation of the biblical prophet Elijah, went on trial Wednesday in Superior Court, charged with first-degree murder in the March 1998 shooting death of Dan Jess, a Mountlake Terrace man. His co-defendant in the case, fellow Gatekeeper Blaine Alan Applin, 30, also is on trial for the same charge.
During a jailhouse interview last month, Turgeon said he has no regret or remorse and truly believes what he did was right and ordered by God. "I can't question God's methods," he said. "I just obey." Turgeon's attorneys are arguing he is innocent by reason of insanity. They are relying on a seldom-used legal theory, allowed in Washington because of rulings in other cases, that will allow them to claim their client's ability to conform with the law was overpowered by belief in what he saw as a decree from God. Lawyers say the case promises to probe the limits of where faith can legally take a person, and to define when those beliefs cross over into madness or murder.
The trial is expected to last up to three weeks. Deputy prosecutor David Kurtz, in opening statements Wednesday, told jurors he expects the evidence to show Turgeon and Applin killed with premeditation, and that while they "may be fanatical, they don't have a mental disease or defect" that would make them legally insane. The defense has no intention of challenging Turgeon's faith, nor does it plan to attack his claims that God speaks directly to him, said one of Turgeon's lawyers, Royce Ferguson of Everett. "It's not what he believes, it is that he believes," said Everett attorney Guss Markwell, who is joining Ferguson as co-counsel on the case. Applin also is offering an insanity defense.
Prosecutors allege the pair traveled from the San Diego area to the Mountlake Terrace home of Jess, 40, a former member of The Gatekeepers who had left the group after a falling out with Turgeon. Early on March 29, 1998 - a Sunday - Applin allegedly showed up at Jess' home asking for help from him. When Jess opened the door, he was repeatedly shot with a 9mm handgun.
Turgeon allegedly was driving the getaway car. Applin is represented by Everett defense attorney Pete Mazzone. He said Applin also believes God speaks directly to him, and used to see Turgeon as a modern-day prophet, sharing God's message directly with his people. "Blaine now is thinking that the voices that he was hearing were actually the voices of the devil, speaking through Chris," Mazzone said.
In opening statements, Mazzone told jurors he will present evidence to show that Turgeon is a manipulator with a masterful command of the Bible and a knack for identifying and exploiting weaknesses in others. As part of his case, he plans to call a forensic psychologist who is an expert on cults to testify how Turgeon took control and led Applin into crime.
He called Turgeon a "slick-talking, charming psychopath." Applin and Turgeon were charged with the killing after they were arrested in July 1998 in California for a series of armed robberies. Forensic tests show Applin allegedly was still carrying the handgun used to kill Jess. Some of the holdups targeted adult-oriented businesses, such as a lingerie-modeling shop, where the bandits reportedly wore wigs and were described as resembling dead musicians Jim Morrison of The Doors and reggae great Bob Marley.
The pair wound up convicted of 17 felonies apiece for the California crime spree, including attempting to murder a police officer who was shot at as he tried to pull them over after a holdup. Each was sentenced to roughly 100 years in prison. Both are pursing appeals. The pair also offered insanity defenses in California, but the law in that state did not allow them to raise their religious beliefs as an essential element of their case.
In a jailhouse interview, Turgeon insisted that his California acts were not crimes because he believes he had biblical sanction to "plunder" and bring judgment upon people he considered were engaged in unrighteous behavior. "I put judgment on pornographers and others who were promoting evil," he said. "When God commands me to put judgment on someone, that's what I do. I'm a law enforcer."
Turgeon grew up in Oregon, where he was a standout clarinet player and singer. He attended the University of Oregon on a music scholarship but dropped out to pursue Bible studies. His religious beliefs attracted attention here long before his current legal troubles. When a serial arsonist was burning down churches around Puget Sound in 1993, Turgeon became the focus of law enforcement and media attention for his penchant for publicly preaching that the fires were sent as judgment from God.
In 1996, he was arrested in Everett after he refused to cooperate in an investigation about a runaway child, hanging up on a female 911 emergency operator because his religious beliefs do not allow women in positions of authority. Turgeon said his actions in California were part of his self-declared war on the government, which he maintains promotes conduct that is in violation of God's laws, including abortion, pornography, homosexuality and witchcraft (his term for belief in psychics or esoteric religious practices).
All those actions are punishable by death, Turgeon said, and he believes that it is his duty to impose that sentence if given the chance. He said Dan Jess' death was ordered by God because Jess threatened Turgeon in a phone call three days before the shooting. Turgeon said Jess called him a false prophet and recited a passage from Deuteronomy 18 about how false prophets must die.
Applin wound up shooting Jess because "God spoke to Blaine and said, 'You are to be my assassin,' " Turgeon said. Markwell told jurors that Turgeon will testify at his trial, and that much of what he has to say likely will make people uncomfortable, even angry. Ferguson said that in the months he's talked with Turgeon he's seen how the man's message could resonate with some.
God does take life, the lawyer said. Wars occur, children get cancer, and "it's not too far a jump to think that God commands cruel things," he said. Mazzone said he's more impressed by what he sees as Turgeon's ability to manipulate. His investigation has shown that Turgeon kept his group's members destitute, underfed and under constant control. Marriages were arranged. Couples were told when they could have sex.
Their children were required to hug Turgeon, and held down and beaten with a "judgment" paddle if they refused, the lawyer said. Mazzone said his client, Applin, now knows he did wrong and is repentant about the killing. The lawyer said the best he can hope for is that his client will be judged insane and sent to a mental hospital for treatment while pursuing his California appeals. Turgeon said he expects to be convicted and is looking at the trial as an opportunity to get out his message.
The world is coming to an end on March 22, 2004, he said. Between now and then, he predicts that half the world's population will die from natural disasters, disease and war. Turgeon said he doesn't care if others aren't taken in by his claims that he is a modern-day prophet. "Call me Chris. Call me Elijah. Call me whatever. Just don't call me late for dinner," he said.
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