By Jon Michael Bell
Mark Phelps feels nauseated whenever he remembers that night. He was hit over 60 times and his brother, Nate, over 200 with a mattock handle. Nate went into shock. Mark didn't. A boy who became a compulsive counter to handle the stress, Mark counted every stroke. His and Nate's. While their father screamed obscenities and his brother screamed in pain. Every 20 strokes, their mother wiped their faces off in the tub. Nate passed out anyway. That was Christmas Day.
Though he believes he should be the next governor of Kansas, Pastor Phelps has never believed in Christmas. A mattock is a pick-hoe using a wooden handle heavier than a bat. Fred swung it with both hands like a ballplayer and with all his might. "The first blow stunned your whole body," says Mark. "By the third blow, your backside was so tender, even the lightest strike was agonizing, but he'd still hit you like he wanted to put it over the fence. By 20, though, you'd have grown numb with pain. That was when my father would quit and start on my brother. Later, when the feeling had returned and it hurt worse than before, he'd do it again. "After 40 strokes, I was weak and nauseous and very pale. My body hurt terribly. Then it was Nate's turn. He got 40 each time. "I staggered to the bathtub where my mom was wetting a towel to swab my face. Behind me, I could hear the mattock and my brother was choking and moaning. He was crying and he wouldn't stop." The voice in the phone halts. After an awkward moment, clearing of throats, it continues: "Then I heard my father shouting my name. My mom was right there, but she wouldn't help me. It hurt so badly during the third beating that I kept wanting to drop so he would hit me in the head. I was hoping I'd be knocked out, or killed...anything to end the pain. "After that...it was waiting that was terrible. You didn't know if, when he was done with Nate, he'd hurt you again. I was shaking in a cold panic. Twenty-five years since it happened, and the same sick feeling in my stomach comes back now..." Did he? Come back to you?
"No. He just kept beating Nate. It went on and on and on. I remember the sharp sound of the blows and how finally my brother stopped screaming... "It was very quiet. All I could think of was would he do that to me now. I could see my brother lying there in shock, and I knew in a moment it would be my turn. "I can't describe the basic animal fear you have in your gut at a time like that. Where someone has complete power over you. And they're hurting you. And there is no escape. No way out. If your mom couldn't help you...I can't explain it to anyone except perhaps a survivor from a POW camp." Last year, Nate Phelps, sixth of Pastor Phelps' 13 children, accused his father of child abuse in the national media. The information was presented as a footnote to the larger story of Fred Phelps' anti-gay campaign. But the deep currents that lie beneath the apparent apple-cheeks of the Phelps' clan were stirring. A series of interviews with Nate resulted in an eyewitness account of life growing up in the Phelps camp. These reports contained allegations of persistent and poisonous child abuse, wife-beating, drug addiction, kidnapping, terrorism, wholesale tax fraud, and business fraud. In addition, Nate described the cult-like disassembly of young adult identities into shadow-souls, using physical and emotional coercion- coercion which may have been a leading factor in the suicide of an emotionally troubled teenage girl.
The second son, Mark Phelps, who according to his sisters was at one time heir to the throne of Fred, had refused comment during the earlier spate of news coverage. He and Nate have both left the Westboro congregation and now live within four blocks of each other on the West Coast. But, like the icy water that waits off sunny California beaches, the deepest currents sometimes rise and now Mark has surfaced with a decision.
"My father," says the 39 year-old, now a parent himself, "is addicted to hate. Why? I can't say. But I know he has to let it out. As rage. In doing so, he has violated the sacred trust of a parent and a pastor. "I'm not trying to hurt my father. And I'm not trying to save him. I'm going to tell what happened because I've decided it's the only way I can overcome my past: to drag it into the light and break its chains."
Mark believes that Fred Phelps, no longer able to hate and abuse his adult children if he hopes to keep them near, by necessity now must turn all his protean anger outward against his community. Mark has decided to tell the truth about his father so that others will be warned. He and his brother have now come forward with specific and detailed stories, alarming tales, ones that could be checked and have been verified. Mark's testimony supports Nate's previously, and both men's statements have been confirmed by a third Phelps' child. In addition, the Capital- Journal has uncovered documents which substantiate this testimony, and interviewed dozens of relevant witnesses who have confirmed much of this information. "One of my earliest memories...," the voice in the phone pauses, painful to remember: "was the big ol' German shepherd that belonged to our neighbors. One day it was in our yard and my father went out and blew it apart with his shotgun."
Mark says he has no memories prior to age five. "Living in that house was like being in a war zone, where things were unpredictable and things were very violent. And there was a person who was violent who did what he wanted to do. And that was to hurt people, or break things, or throw a fit, or whatever he wanted to do, that's what he did. And there was nobody there to say different."
One day when Mark was a teenager, he came home to find his mom sitting on the lip of the tub, blue towel on her head, her lips pursed with anger and hurt. "Do you know what your father did today?" she asked. To Mark, it felt surreal. His mother never spoke out nor vented her emotions. She seemed quite different just then.
He looked at his father. Pastor Phelps was standing across the room with his arms folded, smiling (the bathtub was in the parents' bedroom). "No," said Mark. "I don't know." His mother stood up and whipped the towel down her side. "He chopped my hair off," she announced, tears coming to her eyes. The son stood aghast at the grotesque head before him. His mother's former waist-length hair had been shorn to two inches- and even that showed ragged gouges down to the white of the scalp. "Why?" he asked. "Your father says I wasn't in subjection today," she replied. According to Mark and Nate, all of the Phelps children were terrified of their father: "Usually we had to worry what mood we'd find him in after school. You didn't make any noise or racket, or cut- up; you had to walk on eggshells, tiptoe around him; you didn't fight with your siblings; you did your jobs, performed your assigned tasks, and hoped not to draw his attention." If you did draw it and he was in a foul mood, say the boys, summary punishment at the hands of the dour pastor involved being beaten with fists, kicked in the stomach, or having one's arm twisted up and behind one's back till it nearly dislocated.
Sometimes Pastor Phelps preferred to grab one child by their little hands and haul them into the air. Then he would repeatedly smash his knee into their groin and stomach while walking across the room and laughing. The boys remember this happening to Nate when he was only seven, and to Margie and Kathy even after they were sexually developed teenagers. Nate recalls being taken into the church once where his father, a former golden gloves boxer, bent him backwards over a pew, body-punched him, spit in his face, and told him he hated him. Mark's very first memory in this life is an emotional scar: their mom had gone to the hospital to give birth to Jonathon. Mark remembers being very upset, since now they would be alone in the house with their father, his threatening presence left unmitigated by her maternal concern. Though only five, already Mark could use the phone and, one day while his father was out he dialed the number she'd left.
When he heard her voice, he told her, "Mom, I'm scared. I need you." But before she could respond, the Pastor Phelps came on. He had gone to visit the new mother. "What the hell are you doing calling here?" the father shouted into the phone. "Don't you ever call here and bother her again!" That is Mark Phelps' earliest memory. That, and the feeling, when his father hung up, that there would be no rescue and no escape from the fear and pain contained in the word, 'daddy'. When Fred Phelps came home, he beat the little boy's first memory of the world in to stay. From that moment, Mark whispers softly in the phone, "I resolved to be a total yes-man to my father. If I couldn't escape his violence, then I'd get so close to him he wouldn't see me. I'd survive that way."
"We had clothes and food," adds Nate. "What we didn't have was safety. He could throw fits and rages at any moment. When he did, the kids would respond by turning pale and shaking, standing there shivering and listening-Mark would pace and count the squares in the floor." "But I learned exactly what I had to do...to stay safe around him," continues Mark. I did a good job of it." He admits he used to beat his brothers and sisters if his father ordered him: "If you fell asleep in church, you got hit in the face. Once I hit Nate so hard, it knocked over the pew and blood splurt across the floor." After a moment, he tells us quietly: "My brothers and sisters are entitled to hate me."
Physical abuse? Nonsense, say sisters Margie and Shirley. They laugh.
Well, maybe during their father's period of preoccupation with health food. Every morning they were required to eat nuts and vitamins, curds and whey. "I hate nuts," says Margie "We'd take the vitamins and drop them in our pockets. Throw them out later." She adds: "Little Abby was the only one who liked curds and whey. Poor kid. She'd have to eat every bowl on the table when my dad wasn't looking."
Against this charming story is set another. For all her reputation as a minotaur of the Kansas courtrooms, Margie Phelps was like a second mom to the younger children. Today, she remains well-liked by her siblings, including Mark and Nate. When her father was beating someone and screaming at the top of his lungs, frequently Margie would take her terrified younger brothers and sisters away for several hours. When they thought it was over, they'd come back like cautious house cats, sneaking in softly, Margie on point, to see if the coast was clear. The boys tell how one day their father was in a barbershop and noticed the leather strap used to sharpen razors. It struck his fancy as a backup to the mattock handle, so he had one custom-made at a leatherworker's shop near Lane and Huntoon.
"It was about two feet long and four inches wide. It left oval circles- red, yellow, and blue," says Mark. "Usually the circles would be where it would snap the tip-on the outside of your right leg and hip...because he was righthanded." According to Mark and Nate, their father wore out several of the leathermaker's straps while they were growing up. As Mark Phelps became the angel-appointed in Fred's family cult, Nate was assigned the role of sinner. For Mark, his brother was the needed scapegoat. For the rest of the family, Nate was a problem child, the delinquent of the brood. Brilliant like his dad (Nate's IQ has been measured at 150), the middle son followed another drummer from the time he was a toddler. When he was five, he remembers his father telling him, 'I'm going to keep a special eye on you'. The regular beatings started shortly thereafter.
Nate endured literally hundreds of such brutalities before walking out at one minute after midnight on his eighteenth birthday. His siblings both inside and outside the church agree that Nate got the lion's share of the 'discipline'. "Nate was a very tough kid," says Mark. "I don't know how he endured it, but he did. He'd get 40 blows at a time from the mattock handle. He was just tougher than the rest of us and my father adjusted for that."
Today, raising his family in California, Nate is a devout Christian and a warm, friendly, considerate, mountain of a man. But at 6'4" and 280 pounds, it would be...instructive...to see father and son in the same room today with one mattock stick between them. "I sensed early on this man had no love for us," says Nate. "He was using us. I knew it. And I always made sure he knew I did."
In fact, Mark adds, Nate's obstinate resistance so angered his father that, by age nine, when a family outing had been planned, frequently Nate not only missed it, but Fred would remain behind with him. "And during the course of the day, my father would beat Nate whenever the spirit moved him." Mark remembers the family coming back once to find Pastor Phelps jogging around the dining room table, beating the sobbing boy with a broom handle; while doing so, he was alternately spitting on the frightened child and chuckling the same sinecure laugh so disturbing to those who've seen him on television. When he wasn't allowed to go along, says Mark, "Nate would literally scream and chase mom as she drove off with us kids in the car. He knew what was coming after we left." The older brother remembers the little one racing alongside the windows, begging for them not to leave him until, like a dog, he could no longer keep up. Mark sorrowfully admits he felt no empathy for him, only relief it wasn't happening to himself. "I just stared straight ahead. I didn't know what he was yelling about. I was just glad to get the hell out of there." But how could their mom tolerate that? Wouldn't the maternal instinct cut in at some point? Wouldn't the lioness turn in fury to protect her cub?
It turns out Mrs. Phelps was herself an abused child, according to her sons. "The only thing she ever told us about her dad was that he was a drunkard who beat them. She said she'd always run and hide in the watermelon patch when he was raging." Though most of her nine brothers and sisters either settled in Kansas City or remained in rural Missouri, Mrs. Phelps has had virtually no contact with them during the last 40 years. Not since she married Fred. "My father was very effective at jamming Bible verses down her throat about wives being in subjection to their husbands," Nate says. "She was a small woman and very gentle. She felt God had put her with Fred and she had to endure." "Oh, mom would try to interfere," adds Mark. "She'd come running out, finally, into the church auditorium as the beating would escalate, and yell wildly, 'Fred, stop it!" You're going to kill him!' "And then my father would turn on her. I remember him screaming, 'Oh, so you want me to just let them go, huh? You don't believe in discipline, huh? Why don't you just shut your goddam mouth before I slap you? Get your fat hussy ass out of here! I'm warning you, goddamit, you either shut up or I'm going to beat you!' "And then," Mark continues, "she'd shut up till she couldn't take it anymore, then she'd start again. When she did, he'd start beating her and hitting her with his fist, and sometimes she'd just come up and grab him. Sometimes she'd run out the front door, and sometimes he'd just slap her and beat her until she'd shut up. "I can remember times when she'd get hit so hard, it looked like she'd be knocked out, and she'd stagger and almost fall. She would give out this desperate scream right at the moment when he would hit her.
"Sometimes, after he'd get done beating her, he'd have forgotten about the kid. Sometimes he'd go back to the kids and beat even harder. Then he'd blame the kid for what had happened." The phone line falls silent. "Out in public," recalls Nate, "she wore sunglasses a lot." Mrs. Phelps was beaten even when she wasn't interfering. After Nate and Kathy, the boys figure their mom was victimized the most. They remember their father finishing one session by throwing her down the stairs from the second floor. "It had 16 steps," says Mark. "And no rail," continues Nate. "Mom grabbed at the stairs going over and tore the ligaments and cartilage in her right shoulder. The doctor said she needed surgery, but my father refused. We had no medical insurance back then. She's had a bad shoulder ever since. My father often chose that same shoulder to re-injure when he was beating mom. He'd grab her right arm and jerk it. She'd yelp." The voice in the phone sighs: "But...I guess I do still feel that very deeply...that she betrayed a gut, primitive bond when she drove off and left me. I do love my mom. But I wish she'd put a stop to it. She could have and she didn't." Pastor Phelps denies beating his children or his wife. "Hardly a word of truth to that stuff. You know, it's amazing to me that even one of them stayed." He grins, referring to the nine daughters and sons who remain loyal to him. Why?
"Because teachers have the kids from age five. And children are besieged by their own lusts and foreign ideas. "Those boys (Mark and Nate) didn't want to stay in this church. It was too hard. They took up with girls they liked, and the last thing them girls was gonna do was come into this church. "Those boys wanted to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. I can't blame them. I just feel sorry for them that they're not bound for the promised land." Margie is the second-oldest daughter and the fourth Phelps child. Her mom goes by 'Marge", so she is 'Margie'. Some say Margie is the de facto head of operations for her father's war on the community. Anticipating bad reviews from Nate, at least, she explained: "My brother is furious with his father because he (Nate) is married to another man's wife. My dad and our whole family do not accept that."
On the abuse issue, her denials take a softer tone: "There were times in our childhood when each of us had bruises on our behinds. My dad had a capacity to go too far. In what he said even more than what he did...yet, as obnoxious as he can be one minute, he's the most kind, caring person another minute. "I have a marvellous relationship with my father as an adult. He respects me. He listens to me. And he helps me. Most people, when they get older, they don't have that kind of relationship with their parents." Margie, as a single woman, adopted a new-born infant boy nine years ago. "Jacob doesn't have a father," she says, "and my dad fills in there. He's one of Jacob's best friends. He's just a wonderful grandfather to him." For his part, Nate remembers Marge bringing home bad grades one day and going running to avoid a beating. When she got back, she was in an exhausted state. Fred beat her anyway. So badly, she lost consciousness and lay in a heap on the floor. The Pastor Phelps kicked his daughter repeatedly in the head and stomach while she out. "I saw her interviewed on television," adds Nate. "And she said we weren't abused, just strictly brought up." He was concerned when he heard her say that: "If she remembers that as a 'strict upbringing', then there's no moral suasion there for her not to 'strictly bring up' her own child, the adopted Jacob. "Nate would have ended in the penitentiary without his father's discipline," says his mother. "I believe it's him who's the bitter one. He needed a lot of discipline." That's fair. All large families have a black sheep. But this one has four: Nate and Mark rebelled, accepting they'd be turned back from the gates of heaven by their father who was acting as St. Peter's proxy. They later received an official letter from the Westboro Baptist Church, informing them they had been 'voted out of the church and delivered to Satan for the destruction of the flesh'. Katherine and Dottie suffered the same fate but continue to reside in Topeka. "Dottie only cares about her career," says her mom. "Family is an embarrassment." And Kathy? "She's been a bitch since high school," says Margie.
"Mark," reflects Mrs. Phelps, "was always well-behaved. Of the ones who left, he was a surprise." According to Mark and Nate, fathering to Pastor Phelps meant the rod and the pulpit. "My dad never once stood with me, or sat with me, or worked with me to teach me anything about the practical life of a Christian," says Mark. "It was just preach on Sunday. There was no focus on the human heart or being a human-you know, how we were supposed to do that."
When it came to their formal education as well, Fred's input to the curriculum was limited to the rod and the wrath of God. "Our dad had no use for education. He wanted us all to be lawyers, and for that we needed good grades. But he would sneer at our subjects, never helped us with our homework, never went to any school meetings and skipped our graduations. All he cared about were the grades. On the day they arrived, that was the one day he got involved in our education-usually with the mattock." "The only time he met our teachers," adds Nate, "was when he was suing them ." Mark remembers a day when the boys had gathered in one room to do their homework. They'd been working quietly for some time when the dour pastor walked in.
After staring in simmering malevolence at each of them, he intoned: "You guys think you may be foolin' me. But on a cold snowy day, the snow will be crunchin' under the mailman's tires, and under his boots, when he puts that letter in our box. Your grades. And that's when the meat's gonna get separated from the coconut..." When the report cards arrived from Landon Middle School one day in January, 1972, it wasn't snowing. But Jonathon and Nate's grades were poor and the meat got separated from the coconut. The beatings were so severe, the boys were covered with massive, broken, purple bruising extending from their buttocks to below their knees. Neither Jonathon or Nate were able to sit down, and the blows to the backs of their legs had caused so much swelling they were unable to bend them. Today, Nate has chronic knee complaints whose origin may lie in early trauma to the cartilage. And after the beatings came the shaming. It was 1972-the age of shoulder locks. Both boys had begged their father not to have crewcuts. They already felt exposed to enough ridicule as the odd ducks whose father didn't believe in Christmas, whose home no one was allowed to visit, and who were forbidden to visit others' homes. Jonathon and Nate had a teenage dread of braving the corridors with flesh-heads in an era of long manes, and their father had relented. Their hair had been allowed to touch their collars. But when the grades turned bad, out came the clippers. No attachments. Brutally short. Shaved bald. "It was not a haircut," says Nate. "It was a penalty. And a further way of cutting us off from the outside world."
On the following day-a Thursday-the boys came to school wearing red stocking caps. When asked to remove them in class, they declined. This upset their teachers almost as much as their refusal to take their seats. One instructor demanded Nate remove his headgear. Finally, Nate did. The teacher stared at his bald head. So did his classmates. "On second thought," said the charitable man, "put it back on."
For gym class that Friday, the boys had a note from their mom excusing them all week. By now, the faculty had a pretty good idea what the clothes, notes, and funny hats were covering, and Principal Dittemore asked Jonathon to come into his office. Waiting for him were the school nurse and a doctor from the community.
They asked the 13 year-old to show them his bruises. He refused. Feeling their hands were tied, the staff released Jonathon, only to have the pastor himself show up a few hours later. During a stormy second meeting, Phelps accused the school, first of slackness and poor discipline, then, paradoxically, of beating his sons and causing the bruising themselves. He threatened to slap a lawsuit on anyone who pursued the matter.
Not a man to be intimidated, Dittemore reported the suspected child abuse to an officer of the Juvenile Court. On Monday, the same routine occurred-unable to sit down and insisting on the stocking caps. Until it came time for gym once more. The note had excused them for a week, but now the coach demanded they show it again, saying he'd thought it was only for a day. The boys had left their note at home.
The coach took Nate into the locker room and stood there, waiting for him to get undressed. Nate refused. At that point, the faculty relented, and Jonathon and Nate thought they were off the hook. But, as they walked out of Landon to their mom's station wagon after school, they saw two police cars waiting. One of the teachers pointed the boys out to the officers. Before he knew it, Nate was in a squad car on his way downtown. "I was terrified. Not because I was afraid of the police. I was afraid of my dad. I kept thinking it was all over but the funeral. What would my old man do? This was my fault and he was going to beat the daylight out of me and I could still barely walk from the last one." At the station, Nate remembers everyone was very kind to him. They spent an enormous amount of time and energy trying to allay his fears and coax him to allow them to photograph his naked backside. Finally he did. When the police allowed Mrs. Phelps to take her boys home, Nate's worst nightmare came true. After nearly getting arrested for delivering a tirade of obscenities and threats to the juvenile detectives, the dour pastor rushed back to the house and delivered a fresh beating to his exhausted sons.
For the moment, however, it had gone beyond the pastor's control. Police detectives investigated the matter, and it was filed as juvenile abuse cases #13119 and #13120. Jonathon and Nate were assigned a court- appointed lawyer, as a guardian-ad-litem, to protect their interests. The assistant county attorney took charge of the cases, and juvenile officers were assigned to the boys.
In his motion to dismiss, the ever-resourceful Phelps filed a pontifically sobering sermon on the value of strict discipline and corporal punishment in a good Christian upbringing. "When he beat us, he told us if it became a legal case, we'd pay hell," says Nate. "And we believed him. At that time, there was nothing we wanted to see more than those charges dropped. When the guardian ad litem came to interview us, we lied through our teeth."
Principals involved in the case speculate the boys' statements, along with superiors' reluctance to tangle with the litigious pastor, caused the charges to be dropped. The last reason is not academic speculation. The Capital-Journal has learned through several sources that the Topeka Police Department's attitude toward the Phelps' family in the '70s and '80s was hands off-this guy's more trouble than it's worth'.
Three months later, the case was dismissed upon the motion of the state. The reason given by the prosecutor was "no case sufficient to go to trial in opinion of state". The boys were selling candy in Highland Park when they learned from their mom during a rest break the Pastor Phelps would not go on trial for beating his children. "I felt elated," remembers Nate. "It meant at least I wouldn't get beaten for that."
But if Nate's life was so full of pain and fear, why didn't he speak up when he was at the police station and everyone was being so nice to him? Nate laughs. It's the veteran's tolerant amusement at the novice's question. "We'll do anything not to have to give up our parents," he answers. "That's just the way kids are. That's the way we were." "Besides, when it (abuse) occurs since birth, it never even crosses your mind to fight back," interrupts Mark. "You know how they train elephants?
They raise them tied to a chain in the ground. Later, it's replaced by a rope and a stick. But the elephant never stops thinking it's a chain." The loyal Phelps family are of two minds on the case. Margie admitted it had occurred. Jonathon denied it. The pastor never decided. Instead, he launched into a lecture on the value of tough love in raising good Christians.
Since their juvenile files were destroyed when the boys reached eighteen, but for their father's vindictiveness, there might have been no record of this case. As it was, he sued the school. This caused the school's insurance company to request a statement from Principal Dittemore, who complied, describing the events which led to the faculty's concern the boys were being abused. The suit was dropped.
When contacted in retirement, Dittemore confirmed he'd written the letter and acknowledged its contents. The family now accuses Nate of fabricating his stories of child abuse. They claim he is spinning these lies out of the malice he has over their opposition to his marriage (Nate's wife is divorced). But Nate was married in 1986. The described case of abuse was a matter of record 14 years earlier-and 21 years prior to Pastor Phelps' controversial debut on national television. The Phelps family has since maintained that, while the case did exist, the charges were invented by the school to harass their family. They say they were raised under loving but strict discipline, and that is how they're raising their children. Jonathon Phelps, who admits he beats his wife and four children, for emphasis reads from Proverbs, 13:24: "He that spareth his rod, hateth his son. But he that loveth him, chasteneth him betimes." Yes...but...where does it say the purple child is a child much-loved? Betty Phelps, wife of Fred, Jr., glowers at the questions. Anytime you spank a child, you're going to cause bruising, she explains. And sneers: "I'll bet your parents put a pillow in your pants." Jonathon, staring straight ahead and not looking at the reporter, states in a barely controlled voice of malevolent threat that, should the reporter tell it differently than just heard, said scribbler is evil and going to hell. Assuming there'll be space, the doomed dromedary of capital muckraking must tell it differently.
To begin with, the reporters on this story were raised in the same era and locale as the Phelps boys. They also grew up under strict discipline, and one of their fathers was, at one time, a professional boxer. Daddy's hands sometimes swung a mean leather belt, but only a few strokes, and it left no bruises. After a few minutes, one could sit down again. The moving force behind the pastor's hands was not 'tough love', as he so often claims, but malice aforethought. The Capital- Journal has established from numerous sources conversant with the case that the injuries to Nate and Jonathon Phelps in January of 1972 went far beyond the bounds of a 'strict upbringing'-even by the standards of the strictest disciplinarian. Those injuries would have been seen as torture and abuse in any era, at any age, in any culture.
Mark's front porch tale is instructive. Any psychologist hearing the story about choking that cat today would know immediately to investigate the child's home life for abuse. Back then it was not the case. That child would have been left to find his own way out of the terrible subterranean world another had made for him. Most don't. Research shows nine out of twelve die down there.
In their heart. When the light in their soul goes out. If their bodies live on, they grow up mangled and mangle those closest to them. And it all takes shape down there. In the dark new universe of a young child's mind. Mark Phelps escaped.
His father did not. That man came to the Kansas capital instead. And, after 40 years, he still haunts its porches, tormenting its innocents. The Capital-Journal went south...Mississippi...to see if it could learn where and when...perhaps how...the light went out for Fred Phelps.
It followed him to Colorado and California, Canada and New Mexico. For three months, it turned every stone in Topeka, seeking the truth about this man. What follows is the monster behind the clown, the streetcorner malevolence mocking the cameras.