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From 1976: A Minister Is Missing

Donald LaRose: Victim or victimizer? Plus: The Finding of a Minister.

This article was originally published in the February 13, 1976, edition of Christianity Today. It is followed below with "The Finding of a Minister" from the March 12 issue.

For ten weeks bands of parishioners gathered nightly at First Baptist Church of Maine, New York, to pray for the safe return of their pastor, Donald LaRose. The 34-year-old minister disappeared on Tuesday, November 4, under mysterious circumstances involving suggestions of foul play by Satan worshipers. As of late last month he was still missing. The prayer meetings, however, ended abruptly at mid-month when the official board of the 150-member church announced it had terminated the pastoral relationship.

Head deacon William Brigham, a printer, said an extensive investigation indicated that LaRose had planned his own disappearance. Yet authorities and private investigators were unable to establish any motive. LaRose was in good health, family members and close friends told Christianity Today that they had noted no changes in his personality, there were no major hassles at church, and his wife Eunice said there were no family tensions (the couple have two daughters, ages 10 and 13). He had little life insurance, he was abreast of debts and taxes, he had told his family and friends he was happy in the ministry, and no amorous connections were uncovered. Neighbors described him as "the happiest man on the street"

"We're at our wit's end," said Adam LaRose, the minister's father, a business executive in Reading, Pennsylvania.

In a statement issued to the news media, Eunice LaRose appealed for her husband to return home. Despite the problems caused by his sudden disappearance, she said, "we can work things out."

LaRose grew up in the Lancaster, Pennsylvania, area, where he attended the large Calvary Independent Church with his parents and sister. After graduating from Moody Bible Institute, where he met Eunice, he returned to Lancaster to work with the Youth for Christ organization. Next he entered the Christian radio field and worked at stations in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Maryland. He then moved to Syracuse, New York, where he became an executive with

WMHR-FM, a station he helped to organize. After nearly five years, he left as a result of a dispute over business strategy. In October, 1973, he accepted a call to First Baptist in Maine, a village northwest of Binghamton, The church is loosely affiliated with the General Association of Regular Baptists.

Last October LaRose's name appeared in local news stories in connection with a series of messages on the person and work of Satan. The talks were given at the mid-week services on Wednesday nights, and they were advertised in a widely distributed newsletter that the church publishes.

As the series progressed, LaRose reported to state police that he had received threatening letters and telephone calls. The letters, postmarked from Maine, were pasteups of words cut from printed sources. Investigators later determined that the cutouts came mainly from issues of Broadcasting, a secular trade magazine published in Washington, D. C., and the church's newsletter. (LaRose was one of Broadcasting's few subscribers in the Binghamton area.)

Said one letter: "Rev. LaRose: For blasphemy against Satan I condemn you to the wrath of Lucifer, son of the morning, ruler of this world, and victor over all opposing forces."

Another announced that "for continual public blasphemy against Satan, the most high Lucifer requires your blood as a sacrifice so your rip-off can be stopped."

At least one of the threatening telephone calls was answered by ten-year-old Joyce LaRose.

Pastors of two neighboring Baptist churches reported they too were getting similar notes and telephone calls. The calls, said Pastor Harvey Sumner of First Baptist Church in Vestal, sounded like tape recordings played into the telephone. In all, there were ten calls, most of them taken by his wife. The voice came through in low, gutteral tones, saying that Satan was upset by Sumner's preaching. During an interview, Sumner, 37, was asked if the voice tones resembled what happens when a tape recorder is played on weak batteries or deliberately slowed down. "Exactly," he replied.

After LaRose disappeared the letters stopped coming to the other two ministers. The last letter received by Pastor Derwin G. Hauser of Bethel Baptist Church in Vestal arrived the day after LaRose disappeared. It had been postmarked at 10:30 a.m. on November 4.

November 4 was election day. LaRose accompanied his wife that morning to a polling place. Something odd was happening, he commented td her. He said he had received a phone call informing him that one of his church members would be operated upon in an Endicott hospital. When he went to the hospital earlier that morning, he said, he found that no operation was scheduled for the parishioner.

After voting, Mrs. LaRose proceeded to her part-time job at a school cafeteria, and the minister said he was going to get a haircut.

At 12:20 PM. church secretary Beida Lawton looked out the office window and saw LaRose on the church parking lot. It was the last time anyone remembered seeing him that day.

When he had not returned home by 7:00 p.m., Mrs. LaRose and church members began checking area hospitals and country roads. The next day police found his 1970 station wagon abandoned in an urban renewal area of Binghamton, near the bus station. Because of the sensational Satanism angle, the story of LaRose's disappearance got national news coverage.

Hauser told reporters that there were indeed Satanist activities in the Binghamton area and that he knew of a witches' coven there. He declined to specify where "because of the risk." (Police said they knew of no such group.) Sumner meanwhile purchased a revolver.

State police officials early in the case cautioned the public against jumping to conclusions. They said there was no solid proof that the minister had been abducted. Some press stories left the door open to the possibility of a hoax.

The church posted a $10,000 reward for information leading to the pastor's safe return or $5,000 for the whereabouts of his body. It also spent thousands of dollars on private detectives. Private investigator Charles Reagan of the Michigan-based Finkler Detective Agency turned up some of the key evidence that led to the church's decision to fire LaRose (and to withdraw the reward offers).

It was discovered that LaRose had purchased carry-on flight luggage at a Sears store last July. In September he got $675 in cash advances from a bank through the use of credit cards. He also cashed in $3,500 worth of stock in the Syracuse radio station. Mrs. LaRose knew nothing of these transactions. The day before he disappeared he gave her $60 of his $235 weekly paycheck, as was his custom. It was also his custom to deposit the remainder in the bank, but the deposit was not made. Thus at the time he disappeared he could have been carrying at least $4,350, all legally his.

In an interview, Reagan said there were other "minor" shreds of evidence suggesting that LaRose had arranged his own disappearance, but both he and Deacon Brigham declined to divulge them

At month's end the authorities (including Federal Bureau of Investigation agents working quietly in the background), LaRose's family, and his friends were still pondering the two main questions: Where is Pastor Don LaRose and why is he missing?

LaRose is nearly six feet tall, weighs 190 pounds, is a bit paunchy, may wear glasses, and he has blue-gray eyes and light brown hair, a prominent dimple on his chin, and a freckle or mole near his left eye.

A tragic sidelight in the case involved fundamentalist leader Carl McIntire and an anti-Satan rally he and his followers held in front of the Maine church on January 3. Mrs. LaRose and First Baptist's leaders tried to discourage McIntire from coming, and they said they would not participate if he came. But McIntire said the rally was a demonstration against Satan on behalf of all Christians, and that it would kick off his group's Revival '76 program.

En route to the rally, one of McIntire's five buses overturned near Binghamton, injuring twenty persons. Ten were hospitalized with fractures and cuts; three suffered spinal fractures. Among the latter: Franklin Faucette, 75, dean of McIntire's Faith Seminary in Philadelphia.

The article above was originally published in the February 13, 1976, edition of Christianity Today.

The Finding of a Minister
Donald LaRose resurfaces in Minneapolis with contradictory stories.
By Edward E. Plowman

The article below appeared in the March 12, 1976, issue of Christianity Today.

Donald LaRose, the Baptist minister who disappeared under mysterious circumstances from his Maine, New York, church in November (see February 13 issue, page 53), was found last month in Minneapolis. He was living under an assumed name and did not appear to remember his past or his family. He is now under psychiatric care in Pennsylvania.

Shortly before his disappearance on November 4 LaRose had been preaching on Satan and had received threatening calls and letters. Investigators and church officials later established that the 34-year-old clergyman had arranged his own disappearance, and the church dismissed him in absentia.

Last month several families who attend a Plymouth Brethren chapel in Minneapolis recognized LaRose from an article and photo in Christianity Today. They knew him as Bruce Williams. He had shown up unshaven and unkempt at a Minneapolis rescue mission on November 12. When the invitation to receive Christ was given, he responded.

Honeywell engineer Fred Phillips and his family, members at the chapel, took Williams (LaRose) under wing. They helped him to obtain a job as a dishwasher in a cafeteria. Within weeks his supervisors tapped him for a management training program. Meanwhile, observed Phillips, Williams was growing rapidly in the Christian faith (at the outset, said Mrs. Phillips, Williams didn't seem to know anything about the Bible).

Williams told his new friends at the chapel that his mother and father had been killed in an auto accident, and that his wife and children had left him because he was an alcoholic. He no longer knew where they were. Now that he was a Christian, he said one day, he would like to be reconciled to his family. His friends assisted him in tracking down seeming leads, but they led nowhere.

Williams's landlady, however, informed a Minneapolis reporter that he had told her a somewhat different story. She said that he identified himself as a salesman in business with his father, and that he told her he was spending Christmas with his parents (he actually spent it with friends from the chapel).

Phillips, upon learning Williams's true identity, telephoned the LaRose family. A reunion took place on February 12 at the Phillips home. But, said Mrs. Phillips, the minister showed no sign of recognition of his parents or his wife.

LaRose possessed a birth certificate identifying him as Bruce Williams. With this he had been able to obtain a duplicate social security card. He explained that one day he found an application for a copy of the birth certificate in his wallet and mailed it.

Bewildered, some church people suggest he may have been drugged or hypnotized or possessed by a demon, others mention mental disorders.

New York police disclosed that Bruce Williams was a New York resident who was killed in an accident in 1958. Since no "police problems" are involved in the LaRose matter, they stated, the case is closed.

This article appeared in the March 12, 1976, issue of Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

See today's update, "Missing Pastor Resurfaces 27 Years Later as Arkansas Mayor."

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