Member of controversial church sues online critics who claimed he helped spread COVID-19

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Word of Faith Fellowship in Rutherford County, N.C., has become a target of violent social media threats as the community blames the controversial religious organization for spreading coronavirus. - Dreamstime/The Charlotte Observer/TNS

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — A Shelby businessman has been defamed by false online allegations that he helped spread COVID-19 across the North Carolina foothills by working sickened employees, a new federal lawsuit claims.

Samuel Pires says he has been singled out for repeated social media attacks for one reason: He’s a member of Word of Faith Fellowship, arguably the state’s most controversial church.

According to the complaint, Pires blames a group of Facebook users for damaging his reputation and his businesses by alleging that the companies are a threat to public health and that Pires is funneling money to a brutal cult.

Pires is part-owner of Lotz International LLC, a Dallas-based corporation that operates two Shelby businesses: Everything Must Go, a discount store, and Quicklotz Liquidations. Lotz also filed the lawsuit.

“If you go there,” defendant Shana Muse wrote in a May 7 post about Everything Must Go that is included in the complaint, “you’re supporting a cult that abuses its members.”

In an April 8 online comment also cited in the lawsuit, defendant Melissa McCleave wrote, “Everything must go in Shelby is owned by Word of Faith members, the cult in Rutherford County, if you didn’t know. The cult where they’re STILL having congregation even though one of their members just died from COVID-19.”

For decades, Word of Faith and its leaders have been dogged by allegations that they dominate the lives of their 700-plus members while unduly influencing the politics and economies of Rutherford and adjoining counties. Church leaders and members have been criminally accused of assault, tax fraud and other crimes.

A 2017 federal investigation into claims that the Word of Faith practiced human trafficking with members of its mission churches abroad ended without charges.

Word of Faith describes itself as a welcoming spiritual community that has been the target of false accusations.

The diverse congregation, which gathers in Spindale, about 70 miles west of Charlotte, practices what it describes as “strong prayer,” known as “blasting,” to expel demons that cause sin. Former members say they were beaten, shunned, held against their will and screamed at for hours for such perceived spiritual transgressions ranging from being gay to daydreaming.

More recently, critics have matriculated to a Word of Faith-inspired Facebook page, “Citizens Against Corruption and Abuse,” to accuse the church of fueling an outbreak of COVID-19 by continuing to hold services and congregate despite known cases of the disease among its members.

As of Tuesday, the rural county of 70,000 residents has had 679 cases and 13 deaths. The county’s 8% rate of positive tests is slightly below the state average. At least three of the county’s fatalities have occurred within Word of Faith.

In late April, when rural Rutherford had North Carolina’s ninth highest rate of COVID cases, church attorney and leader Josh Farmer confirmed to The Charlotte Observer that three Word of Faith members had died from the disease.

He also said the church had followed all state and county health directives aimed at controlling the disease, including the suspension of in-person church services in late March.

Those services have since resumed on the church compound. Farmer says Word of Faith continues to follow social distancing and other safety protocols.

In recent email exchanges and phone calls, he has declined to say if any other congregants have died from COVID-19. As a church, Word of Faith is not required to file information about COVID deaths or infections with the state.

Online critics accused the church throughout the spring of hiding the true size of its viral outbreak. Some posters threatened violence against their neighbors.

“Could we just lock up the woff compound and burn it to the ground with them inside? That way, we can open up the rest of the county,” one person wrote.

In April, the Rutherford County Sheriff’s Office confirmed that it had opened an investigation into the threatening online comments against the church.

This week, sheriff’s Capt. Jamie Keever said he had presented the comments to District Attorney Ted Bell, and that Bell had “declined prosecution.”

Bell did not respond to an Observer email last week seeking information about the case.

While the online comments directed at Word of Faith and its members did not lead to criminal charges, a series of similar posts are at the center of the civil allegations in the Lotz International federal lawsuit filed late Friday afternoon in the Western District of North Carolina.

The complaint is being handled by two Cleveland-area attorneys who specialize in online defamation cases. It accuses Muse, McCleave, Kari Braswell, prominent Word of Faith critic Nancy Burnette and other unnamed individuals of defamation, economic damages and violations of the state’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

Two of the defendants have long histories opposing the church. Muse is a former Word of Faith member who battled the church for custody of her children when she broke ranks with the congregation almost 20 years ago.

Burnette, a former Cleveland County guardian ad litem, encountered the church for the first time in 2012 as part of another child-custody fight.

During a Sunday service in 2012 that Burnette attended, she said she was called out by name by church pastor Jane Whaley as being “wicked” and intending “to cause strife” within the church, the Observer has reported.

Burnette is identified in the complaint as the “creator, administrator and owner” of the Citizens Against Corruption and Abuse web page. She did not respond to an Observer email Monday seeking comment. In the past, she has denied any connection to the page.

According to the lawsuit, as the pandemic reached North Carolina, Burnette “began attacking (Lotz International and Pires) for the sole reason that Mr. Pires is a member of WOFF.”

In one post about Everything Must Go, which is cited by the lawsuit, Burnette said she was “bringing light to a business that feeds the pockets of WOFF.”

In later posts, according to the complaint, Burnette accused Pires and his companies of “working sick church members” for months.

“It should be criminal,” Burnette wrote. “They should be shut down.”

McCleave, in her April post, advised her neighbors to stay away. “It being owned by them should be reason enough to stay away, but COVID-19 being amongst them should 100% keep you from going. Idc (I don’t care) how good their deals are.”

In the lawsuit, Pires argues that Word of Faith “does not have any control over how (Lotz International) conducts its business and does not receive any financial support or contributions (from them).”

The defendants’ statements about the pandemic, according to the complaint, “attempt to feed upon the public’s fear of COVID-19 and tying plaintiff to spread of COVID-19 with no supporting evidence or proof.”

The complaint also claims that Pires and his companies have followed government mandates to limit the virus.

“Plaintiff does not force sick employees to come to work. To date, plaintiff is unaware of any employees diagnosed with COVID-19.”

Since its emergence 30 years ago, online commentary has transformed libel and slander cases, says Chris Meazell, a media law specialist at the Wake Forest law school.

“Everybody recognizes, and the courts do, too, that people online play fast and loose with the facts,” Meazell said. “But it’s not a license to defame people. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean you can make statements of fact that are indeed false, which cause damage to people’s lives and businesses.”

That said, Meazell said Pires’ defamation case will be hard to prove, given the years of public allegations against the church that precede it. Meazell said the plaintiff also must prove damages directly attributable to the comments, which is difficult at best.

Given the complaint was brought against individuals instead of, say, a media company, the plaintiff may be seeking an end to the social media allegations instead of a big cash award, Meazell said.

“Looking at the defendants, on the surface none of them appears to be sitting on a bag of money.”

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©2020 The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, N.C.)