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Controversy surrounded Brentwood church, founder for years; Gwen Shamblin Lara among those presumed dead

Gwen Shamblin Weigh Down Pic.jpg
Posted at 9:20 PM, May 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-30 09:11:34-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — Saturday's crash of a plane into Percy Priest Lake ended years of controversy for a former dietitian who turned weight loss into her own religious movement.

A group text sent to members of the Brentwood-based Remnant Fellowship said that those on board included founder Gwen Shamblin Lara and her husband Joe Lara, church leaders David and Jennifer Martin, Jonathan and Jessica Walters, and Gwen Shamblin Lara's son-in-law, Brandon Hannah.

Those names were confirmed by authorities late Saturday.

plane crash members
Families impacted by plane crash. Elizabeth Hannah was not on board.

Brandon's wife, Elizabeth, was not on the plane.

The Cessna C501 crashed into the lake shortly after takeoff from Smyrna-Rutherford County Airport just before 11 a.m.

Related: Plane crashes into Percy Priest Lake

The 2018 wedding of Gwen Shamblin and Joe Lara had marked as a high event for their church.

Other videos, posted online, celebrated their lives together -- and their love of planes.

"I love being at the airport, something about being around airplanes that's just so cool," Joe Lara says.

"It represents a lot of freedom, doesn't it?" Gwen Shamblin Lara responded.

"Yeah," he agreed.

Gwen Shamblin's highly-popular ministry-turned-business, what she called the Weigh Down Workshop, wasn't always so charmed.

"I got them on simple principles: don't focus on it, focus on God, focus on his will," Shamblin told NewsChannel 5 Investigates in 2001.

Previsous Remnant Fellowship NC5 Investigations

Her books brought her thousands of devoted followers but also controversy.

She claimed that she found support for her ideas -- especially her belief that genetics do not play a role in weight loss -- by looking at the starvation of Jews in Nazi concentration camps.

"How in the Holocaust did you have all these people getting down real skinny? They ate less food," she told CNN's Larry King.

During that same interview, she downplayed the for-profit nature of her enterprise.

"This money, half of it goes to the government, the other half goes to keep it going so someone else can be helped," Shamblin told King.

But she also lived a lavish lifestyle.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates quizzed Shamblin about her claims in that 2001 interview.

"Half and half leaves nothing for Gwen Shamblin. That's not completely true, is it?" we asked.

Shamblin responded, "Yes, it's completely true."

There were lawsuits over her demands that employees believe what she believed.

Inside Remnant Fellowship, former converts said Shamblin was viewed as a prophet.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked her directly in a 2003 interview, "Are you a prophet?"

"I don't believe I know what my gift name is," she answered. "So I will tell you I'm still wrestling with that. I've been told that for years."

After Shamblin started the Remnant Fellowship, she faced repeated accusations that she was leading a cult.

"I have not been put in this position because I'm going to put up with you all's disobedience," she told followers in one recording.

"If I hear of it, then I will correct it. If I have to come to you, then you're really in trouble."

Then, the 2003 child abuse death of a Remnant child led to serious questions about Shamblin's teachings.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked the founder, "Does Remnant advocate locking children up for lengthy periods of time?"

Another church leader, Ted Anger, responded, ""We don't advocate locking them up for any period of time."

"Absolutely not," Shamblin agreed.

But NewsChannel 5 had obtained a recording where Shamblin had praised the mom for doing exactly that.

"That's a miracle. You've got a child that's going from just bizarre down to in-control. So I praise God," the Remnant founder said.

The parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were ultimately convicted for their child's murder.

But Shamblin was unapologetic.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "Do you think it's possible that you have inadvertently encouraged child abuse?"

"No, no," she insisted.