NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — For years, Brentwood's Remnant Fellowship has faced questions about its teaching on child discipline - questions recently revived in an HBO Max docuseries about the church's controversial founder. Gwen Shamblin.
Now, NewsChannel 5 Investigates has obtained new video that shows Shamblin being questioned - two years before her death in a plane crash - about her teachings and about NewsChannel 5's own investigation into the 2003 death of a Remnant boy.
In the 2019 video deposition, Gwen Shamblin Lara continued to insist her demands for "strict obedience" had nothing to do with the murder of 8-year-old Josef Smith of Atlanta.
"There was no connection between our teachings and the death of that child, so that doesn’t get played on TV," Shamblin said, claiming that police had offered testimony in court that completely cleared Remnant Fellowship of any role.
NewsChannel 5 reached out to Remnant Fellowship looking for proof of those claims, but we never heard back.
Shamblin - whose Christian diet plan, the Weigh Down Workshop, morphed into own religion - testified as part of a child custody case involving a girl fathered by her husband, Joe Lara, before their 2018 marriage.
Questions have dogged the church ever since two Remnant parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were arrested and convicted for young Josef’s murder.
In their initial arrest reports, investigators wrote the child had "extensive bruising" over his "entire body," but the parents "showed no remorse." They felt it "just a part of discipline" and were "very defensive" about their religion.
Those convictions were upheld by a federal appeals court just last year with one opinion noting "overwhelming evidence" that the Smiths “routinely disciplined their son . . . by beating him with glue sticks, belts, and heated coat hangers; locking him in confined spaces for extended periods of time; and tying his hands with rope.”
During the video deposition, the Remnant Fellowship founder was made to watch a 2004 NewsChannel 5 investigation into Josef's death, which prominently featured recordings from Shamblin herself talking about child discipline.
"If they’re not scared of spanking, you haven’t spanked them yet," Shamblin said in one recording. "If you have really spanked them yet, you don’t love them. You love yourself."
The opposing attorney in the custody case asked, "Was that yourself that you just heard on that recording or not?"
"Those were sound bites," Shamblin answered.
"I understand that," the attorney pressed, "but was that your voice or not?"
Watch 2014 story below:
Shamblin had made weight loss a central focus of her church, along with child discipline.
"Children that were lost and out of control are now back under the authority of their loving parents," she said in one sermon touting the unique nature of the Remnant Fellowship, which she called the "one true church."
In fact, our investigation found multiple former insiders who revealed that the use of glue sticks to spank children was a recommendation that was passed around inside Remnant Fellowship. One woman said, "It really hurts, but it doesn't leave marks on your children."
Our investigation had also uncovered an audio recording from inside Remnant Fellowship in which Josef Smith’s mother bragged to Shamblin, during a conference call for women, about the harsh punishment inflicted upon their child.
"I did exactly what Tedd (Anger) told me to do, take everything out of his room," Sonya Smith said.
"We got everything out of there and locked him in there from that Friday until Monday and only left him in the room with his Bible."
Shamblin responded, "We are spoiling these kids. We are ruining their lives by even letting them think about themselves at all. So, thank you, Sonya, for sharing that.”
During the deposition, the attorney quizzed Shamblin about her own words.
"Do you think it's wrong for kids to think about themselves?"
"Of course not," she claimed, slumping back into her chair.
"Everybody loves themselves. Everybody feeds themselves. Everybody, you know, when you're sleepy, sleep. When you're thirsty, eat. Whatever you need, you need love, you need that. But the fact is, that would be the opposite of what I would teach."
Watch 2019 deposition below:
After NewsChannel 5’s report, police raided Shamblin’s Weigh Down Workshop, looking for evidence.
Shamblin, for the first time, described an exhaustive investigation.
"What they did from Phil Williams doing this, they had to go investigate it," she testified.
"DCS, CPS investigated homes. They took all my teachings, all of it, an entire server, every book, everything - and the police and the FBI and the TBI, they all kept it for over a year and went through every teaching, and they closed the case."
Investigators have said they never found evidence that Shamblin nor anyone at Remnant Fellowship ever intended for anything as horrific as what happened to Josef.
But they have never suggested publicly that the Smiths were not influenced by Remnant Fellowship's emphasis on child discipline.
The attorney in the custody case questioned Shamblin about her own practices.
"Have you ever used a belt to spank any of your kids?"
Watch 2019 deposition below:
At that point, Shamblin's own lawyer, Remnant leader Russ Morgan, interjected.
"I’m not real sure what the purpose of the question is."
And Morgan made it clear he’s fed up with such insinuations.
"I'm just getting sick of hearing people talk about spanking when I was spanked when I was a kid my whole life, like assuming that my parents were bad parents," Morgan complained.
"I was spanked by my principal in elementary school and high school."
The opposing attorney noted, "You seem like you're taking this very personally."
"I am," Morgan replied. "I am. I’m getting sick of hearing about spanking being wrong."
Eighteen years after little Josef's death, Remnant Fellowship continues to argue that he died as a result of an skin-related infection - and not child abuse.
Seven years ago, a Remnant leader testified in a divorce case that the church had spent about $100,000 on the couple's defense.
Remnant's lawyer has now been involved in multiple appeals on behalf of the couple, who've lost back at the trial court, at the Georgia Supreme Court, a federal court in Atlanta, as well as a federal appeals court.
Read all rulings in Smith case below:
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- Both engines, more human remains recovered
- Pilot breaks down tape of crew talking to air traffic control
- NTSB releases preliminary report of deadly plane crash in Percy Priest Lake
- Shamblin's will leaves nothing to her Remnant Fellowship church
- Gwen Shamblin interviews reveal late Remnant leader's thoughts on divorce, child spankings and cults