The Leona McNair Affair

The relationship was now a traumatic one, but Leona still had no intention of deserting her family. Nor was she lingering on for (what Allan Browne would later claim in court) a “free ride.” She started attending college again in 1974 to reestablish her nursing credentials. And when those were obtained in 1975 she found work at a local hospital. But then, a few weeks later in June, Raymond McNair did something no WCG evangelist had ever done. He filed for divorce.

AR29 October 1984

Leona McNair Awarded $1.26 Million

It took five years of exhausting pre-trial discovery, mountainous paperwork and endless legal maneuvering followed by a grueling seven-week trial. But in the end, it was all worth it for Leona McNair. On August 23, a Pasadena, California, jury awarded her $1,260,000 in her libel and slander suit against the Worldwide Church of God.

The trial was a complicated one with testimony that was often contradictory. Yet the jury was intensely attentive throughout, and in the end, the truth became evident to all.

Leona McNair joined the Worldwide (then Radio) Church of God in 1954. A year later she married the man who had baptized her – evangelist Raymond McNair. Court testimony (including Raymond McNair’s) revealed that she had been a faithful, obedient wife and devoted mother. While the marriage was not without stresses, Leona attempted to stifle all critical thoughts until 1973. That year Raymond, who had been in charge of the church’s operations in Britain, was transferred back to the United States to assume a position at the church’s Ambassador College headquarters in Pasadena. What the McNairs discovered when they arrived was a church headquarters fraught with doctrinal divisions, political infighting, and sex scandals.

To all of this, Raymond turned a blind eye, remaining faithful to his mentor, church founder Herbert W. Armstrong (HWA). Leona’s patience with the church’s leadership, however, rapidly waned. Her high intelligence (Dr. McKelligott would later testify that her 143 IQ is equaled by only three in a thousand) and strong religious values conflicted with the role she was expected to play. She told Raymond she could no longer continue to support him in what she viewed as the perpetration of a giant fraud. She stopped attending Worldwide Church of God (WCG) services in 1974 and occasionally attended lectures given by such ex-WCG ministers as Dr. Ernest L. Martin.

When the trial ended, Judge Olson told the jury they had renewed his faith in the jury system.

Leona’s disillusionment with Herbert Armstrong and her desire for religious freedom were intolerable to Raymond, and he made his feelings known. According to testimony by Leona, in 1975 her husband told her, “I am going to crush you until you are totally dependent on me!” (In court Raymond denied ever making this threat. However, third parties have confirmed hearing Raymond say the equivalent.) Raymond cut Leona off from access to their joint bank accounts, badgered her into giving back jewelry he had given her and then sold them, refused to give her adequate money for groceries, and moved into separate sleeping quarters. Leona also soon began to notice that many WCG friends would no longer have anything to do with her.

Communication between Leona and Raymond became increasingly strained. But in spite of this, Leona – concerned for the welfare of her children – put aside all thought of divorce or separation. Raymond, on the other hand, had different ideas. According to Leona’s court testimony, and corroborated by her daughter, on a number of occasions Raymond took her to the door, opened it and yelled, “You’re not paying the bills here. Get out!” The reason for this behavior was inexplicable to Leona until later when she realized that, although the WCG had for four decades prohibited all divorce, around 1974 church leaders began to discuss the possibility of allowing divorce for members deserted by nonmembers. Leona’s suspicions were confirmed when Mrs. Nancy Tate, one of her close friends, told her how the wife of one WCG evangelist had confided, “If we could just get Leona to leave the house, we could get her on desertion.” Before long, Raymond made his intentions perfectly clear. He flat out told her he would divorce her when the time was right.

The relationship was now a traumatic one, but Leona still had no intention of deserting her family. Nor was she lingering on for (what Allan Browne would later claim in court) a “free ride.” She started attending college again in 1974 to reestablish her nursing credentials. And when those were obtained in 1975 she found work at a local hospital. But then, a few weeks later in June, Raymond McNair did something no WCG evangelist had ever done. He filed for divorce.

With the exception of a handful of top leaders of the church, almost the entire WCG ministry was absolutely shocked. For decades, the church had taught that divorce was a great evil. The church’s official marriage ceremony even stated explicitly that any divorce granted by the governments of man is “null and void” before God. Yet here was a prominent, high-ranking minister – known to have required dozens of divorced and remarried individuals to separate and live celibate or face excommunication – who was divorcing his wife of 21 years. Even more shocking to many was the fact that it was being done with the approval (and many felt, encouragement) of Pastor General Herbert Armstrong!


©1984 Ambassador Report. Published quarterly, as finances allow, as a Christian service.
John Trechak, Editor & Publisher Mary E. Jones, Associate Editor
Founding Publishers: Robert Gerringer, Bill Hughes, Mary E. Jones, John Trechak, Len Zola, and Margaret Zola.


The divorce became final by September 1976. Not long afterward, Raymond remarried; other Worldwide ministers, too, got divorces and remarried; and Herbert Armstrong, himself, married a divorcee. Within a few years, divorce became an accepted practice in the Armstrong church.

In the meantime, Leona remained unmarried and pursued her nursing career. Her daughter Ruth drifted away from Worldwide soon after Leona did. But her son Bruce remained in Worldwide. And her son Joe – after living with his mother for two years after the divorce – went to Ambassador College in 1979 and is now a church member and employee.

After her divorce Leona led a quiet life in Pasadena. But underneath the reserved exterior was a woman deeply hurt by the “Ambassador experience.” Perhaps for that reason – and because she still had friends and relatives in the WCG – she continued to follow the antics of the Armstrong church, especially through the pages of Ambassador Report. The years of subservience to the Armstrong patriarchy and later the shunning by many friends and relatives in the WCG had taken their toll. But at least she was free of the Armstrong organization’s oppressions. Or so she thought, until one day in June 1979 when someone showed her the June 25,1979 issue of the Pastor’s Report, an official WCG publication. It contained an article by Roderick C. Meredith, then the director of the WCG ministry. In it, he castigated Leona as having been the cause of the McNair marriage breakup three years earlier. In an attempt at justifying Raymond McNair’s 1976 divorce and subsequent remarriage, Meredith described Leona as being a family deserter:

“A classic example of this [marital desertion] would be Mr. Raymond McNair’s situation. His wife refused to be a wife to him for over two years – to sleep with him, cook for him, or even civilly communicate with him in a decent manner. Rather, she had left God’s Church and was actually FIGHTING God’s Church and Mr. McNair, turning his children against him and literally cursing him to his face. Finally, upon advice of Mr. Armstrong and Ted Armstrong, he was finally forced to make legal the already existing FACT that she had deserted him and was no longer his wife in any way whatsoever.”

Unknown to Leona then, but later discovered, was the fact that six months earlier Meredith had also made similar statements in public. In early January of 1979 the state of California had brought a civil suit against the leaders of the WCG. HWA, distrusting the “liberal” wing of the church, put right-winger Meredith in charge of the WCG’s entire ministry. At an emergency ministerial conference held in Tucson, Arizona, it was announced that such “liberal” practices as voting in elections and keeping birthdays would again be taboo in the church. Then, on the last day of the conference, Meredith, for some reason, felt it necessary to spend five minutes attacking Leona before 1,000 WCG ministers and wives. In court, a tape recording would reveal how Meredith, in strident tones had exclaimed:

Jury foreman Ignacio Gracia: “Here we won’t condone these things…. They were driving a knife in her heart.”

“…his [Raymond’s] first wife [Leona] had left the Church and was virtually cursing him, cursing Mr. Armstrong, with curse words, spitting literally in people’s faces and as hateful as a human being could be. And God does tell us and the whole Church of God decided long before this ever came up with Mr. McNair back in I Corinthians 7:15, ‘But if the unbelieving depart’ – and I tell you before God and Christ, she sure departed. I mean she departed so far that she is one of the major enemies of God’s Church in Southern California and remains so to this day and has been working actively and ferociously with the Ambassador Review. [She] tried to call me personally and get me to give them an interview here a year or so ago which I would not do. And everyone else that attends their meetings, attended Dr. Martin’s meetings, fighting us, and fighting us actively. And ‘if the unbelieving depart, let him depart. A brother or a sister is not under bondage’ …and we’ve come to realize that what God has bound he can unbind. That’s part of our understanding on divorce and remarriage which the whole Church came to back in 1974. And so after about two solid years of living without a wife and a virtual hell on earth Mr. McNair was encouraged by Mr. Armstrong and by Garner Ted Armstrong, and this is not a matter of a secret because he told me that he’d done that with Raymond and he told others – Ted Armstrong, that is, and Mr. Armstrong. Both encouraged Raymond to put her away and divorce her since she was just simply wanting to keep him on the string and get a free ride while she cursed him and would not have anything to do with him. There was not even a way of saying hello in a friendly way, living in opposite ends of the house and an armed truce or an armed hell, and the way to do [it] was to put her away and do what I Corinthians 7:15 said on the advice of the two top men in God’s work. And so he had done that after about a year and a half, or whatever, and finally, also, several months later, married his present wife. And he is not married to anyone else but his present wife according to the understanding God’s Church came to back in 1974. Thank you very much.”

Former WCG minister Richard Gipe confirmed in court that some of these comments were interpreted by ministers to mean that Leona was “demon possessed.” Seeing the Meredith comments about her in the Pastor’s Report proved to be a crushing experience to Leona. Realizing that Meredith’s poisonous untruths would be read by many hundreds of her long-time friends, and possibly her sons, she felt devastated.

Known to very few was the fact that her many years of Armstrong-church oppression had, in the past, resulted in numerous psychological problems – fear of heights, traffic, and closed spaces – as well as physical ailments. After her divorce from Raymond and separation from the WCG, her mental and physical condition improved greatly. But after reading the Meredith attack on her in June of 1979, the old phobias and ailments quickly reappeared – and with much greater severity. She sought medical treatment.

Wisely, she also sought legal advice. (Dr. Gottlieb would later testify in court how, from the standpoint of psychological therapy, this was one of the best things she could have done.) Within days, Pasadena lawyer Judith Taylor filed a multi-million dollar defamation suit on her behalf. Later, Pasadena attorney John T. Tate Jr. took over the case. But by 1981, Tate, who was bombarded with expenses and legal paper from Armstrong’s lawyers, logically decided to obtain help from a law firm with greater financial resources. The Los Angeles law firm of Greene, O’Reilly, Broillet, Paul, Simon, McMillan, Wheeler, & Rosenberg – a successful partnership with an established record, especially in the area of product liability – was “associated in” on the case. The firm, which has a reputation for aggressively representing the “little guy” against big corporations, assigned the brunt of the workload to one of their newer associates, Antony Stuart, a 30-year-old graduate of Loyola Law School.

Allan Browne listens to Ralph Helge (left) and Roderick Meredith (pointing).

Stuart’s task was formidable. Worldwide, as usual, spared no expense in fighting the opposition. Named as defendants in the suit were evangelist Roderick C. Meredith, his brother-in-law evangelist Raymond McNair, and the Worldwide Church of God. Lawyers representing the church were WCG attorney Ralph Helge and Los Angeles attorney Bruce Armstrong (no relation to the WCG Armstrongs). Representing Meredith and McNair was Beverly Hills lawyer Allan Browne, who turned out to be the chief spokesman for the defense.

The Trial Begins
 

After more than two weeks selecting the seven man, five woman jury, opening statements began on July 18. Stuart carefully outlined his position, telling the jury that in 1979 the Worldwide Church was in a crisis and that his client was victimized as an “example to the rest of the church that dissidents were not going to be tolerated.” Six months later, Stuart said, Meredith again attacked her, this time in print in the church’s Pastor’s Report.

Allan Browne, in his opening statement, defended the Meredith diatribes claiming they had been necessary to instruct the WCG’s ministry on the changes in the WCG’s divorce policies and that Meredith’s statements could not possibly have caused the plaintiff any problems. Browne characterized Leona as a woman who “could not accept the step down from the position of first lady of Europe.” (Long-time WCG members should, of course, know what nonsense this is, as the “first lady” title was never applied to any woman in the church with the exception of HWA’s ex-wife Ramona, whom HWA used to call the “first lady of the church.”) Of the McNair marriage, Browne said, “She berated [Raymond] and called him spineless.” According to Browne, the Meredith statements about Leona were insulting, but not slanderous – the self-contradiction of which was evident to all, including the Pasadena Star-News, whose article on the trial the next day (July 20) was headlined “Not Slanderous?”

The WCG could not claim the defamatory statements had not been made. Leona had a copy of the Pastor’s Report and a tape recording of Meredith’s January 1979 speech. Instead, the defense took the position that the statements were true, privileged, and made without malice or reckless disregard of the truth. In attempting to buttress their claims, the WCG lawyers called the following witnesses: WCG ministers Rod Meredith, Raymond McNair, Dennis Luker, Ron Kelly, Ron Laughland, Vernon Hargrove, and Les McColm; Meredith’s sons, Jim and Mike; church employees Joe McNair, Lee Pettijohn, Ron Nelson and Charles Buschmann; church members Anne Elliott, Joyce Howe, Marie Docken and Alan Maggio; and physician Creigton Horton. (With the exception of Dr. Horton, all were either on the church’s payroll or had some close association with the WCG.)

Besides Leona McNair, witnesses called by the plaintiff’s side were: psychiatrist Dr. David Gottlieb; psychologist Dr. J. W. McKelligott; Leona’s daughter Ruth McNair-Knasin; former Ambassador College instructor William Damm; former WCG ministers Robert Hoops, Richard Gipe and David Robinson; Leona’s son Bruce McNair; former WCG member Robert Bosch; and Ambassador Report editor John Trechak.

 

Contradictions
 

The over four weeks of testimony produced an astonishing number of contradictions. For instance, Robert Bosch testified how WCG minister Les McColm had once told him Dr. Ernest Martin was put out of the WCG for being “caught in bed” with Leona McNair. (Both Leona McNair and Ernest Martin flatly deny this.) But on the witness stand, McColm claimed he never made this statement.

Leona’s daughter, Ruth McNair-Knasin, saddened to have to appear as a witness in the battle between her parents, told the court that, while she loved her father, it was simply not true that her mother cursed or spat or behaved in a non-Christian manner. She said Leona had been a very loving and devoted mother. Yet, when Leona’s son Joe McNair – now a WCG employee – took the stand, the jury heard a totally different story. Joe not only painted Leona as having been a negligent parent and family deserter, he fully supported the statements made by Meredith.

To hear her son Joe attack her so vehemently in court – and ironically, on what was her birthday – was heartbreaking for Leona. Back on the stand, however, she lamented his new state of mind, saying Joe had never spoken to her in that manner before. She was very concerned for him and was aware of the high incidence of mental illness in the Worldwide Church. What the jury saw and heard was just “not the real Joe.” She was concerned that he had “snapped.” Then, over objections by lawyer Browne, she produced letters written by both her sons, thanking her for the love and concern she had always shown and for providing so well for them over the years.

One of the hopes of the defense seemed to be to show that the Pastor’s Report was sent exclusively to ministers in the church. But former Ambassador College physical education instructor Bill Damm testified how, along with other AC instructors, he too had received the Pastor’s Report. During a deposition Damm was asked by church lawyers if the title Pastor’s Report didn’t imply that that publication was intended only for pastors. But Damm pointed out how by that reasoning the Pastor General’s Report (the current title of the Pastor’s Report) would logically be intended only for the Pastor General. He was also asked if it wasn’t true that during the course of his employment at Ambassador College he may have taught church doctrines. No, he told them, it never came up in his swimming classes. Damm told us he thought the attempt to turn his swimming instructor position into that of minister was a little silly. If he had been a minister, he told us, he should have been receiving more pay, second-title assistance, a leased car, and a housing allowance. “But who knows,” he told us kiddingly, “maybe they owe me some money.”

One of the contentions of the defendants was that Meredith’s 1979 conference comments on Leona had been made only to the ministers and wives in Tucson and that the conference that day had not been “piped” in to Pasadena as had the Tucson proceedings earlier in the week. Leona was convinced, however, that the entire conference – including the attack on her – had been broadcast to the church members assembled in Pasadena for the so-called “sit ins” of January 1979. To prove his contention, Browne called to the stand Alan Maggio, a WCG member who had been present for all the “piped-in” messages heard during the “sit in” period (see our March, 1979 issue).

Maggio testified he had not heard anything at that time about the McNair divorce, and if he had he would have noted it in his notebook. When Stuart, on cross examination, discovered that Maggio just happened to bring his church notebook with him to court, Stuart asked if he could look through it. Maggio agreed to the request saying, “I have nothing to hide.” Then Browne chimed in, “We have nothing to hide.” The massive notebook was brought forward and with Browne and Maggio looking over his shoulder, Stuart turned to the pages on the conference. There in front of Stuart were Maggio’s handwritten notes on the subject of divorce and remarriage. When Stuart started to read the notes aloud, Browne objected and Stuart replied, “Mr. Browne, I thought you had nothing to hide!” With the entire courtroom alive with giggles, Browne, as usual, asked for a side-bar (out of ear-shot of the jury) conference with the judge.

Ambassador Report editor John Trechak testified how Leona had been a friend for many years and how she had, on occasion, financially assisted the publication. However, contrary to what the WCG was claiming, she was never one of its publishers, editors or writers. Earlier during Trechak’s two depositions, church lawyers attempted to delve into such unrelated matters as who Ambassador Report’s sources were. But Trechak, quoting sections of the Constitution of the state of California, declined to provide that information.

During the trial, Browne produced photographs of what he claimed was a 1979 anti-WCG “demonstration” at headquarters in Pasadena. Leona was in the photographs. However, jurors would later notice that she was not carrying a sign or even saying anything. She was simply standing on the sidewalk listening to what was actually a news conference given by certain WCG members sympathetic to the state of California’s 1979 lawsuit against the church’s top leaders.

Another contradiction during the trial concerned the WCG practices of disfellowshipping and marking. Raymond McNair claimed that “marking” simply meant “notification” that a member had been disfellowshipped. Former WCG minister David Robinson, however, characterized “marking” as being analogous to “branding” – an accurate description of the WCG teaching some would now apparently prefer to forget. In fact, there was much that Raymond McNair could not remember. Said one observer, “I’ve never heard anyone with a more selective menory.”

 

Meredith’s Counseling
 

Meredith’s testimony, less rambling than Raymond McNair’s – but equally self-justifying – was particularly remarkable in its portrayal of the WCG as one big happy family. Meredith went to some length in describing the close friendship that had supposedly once existed between the McNairs and himself. But Ruth McNair-Knasin, when asked about the matter, said she didn’t believe true friendship ever really existed between Meredith and her father. She described their relationship as one that would quickly evaporate were it perceived as getting in the way of “the Work.” (In case some WCG member doubts the accuracy of her assessment, just ask yourself: When was the last time Raymond or Rod said a kind word to, or a kind word about, their old “friends” Raymond Cole, Charles Hunting, C. Wayne Cole, Ernest Martin, Al Portune, Ron Dart, Garner Ted Armstrong, or the other 200-plus ministers who’ve left Worldwide since 1974?)

The WCG may be one big happy family to Meredith, but Leona on the stand recalled how one evening in 1960 Raymond let Meredith into their home and announced, to her astonishment, that he had been invited in to “counsel” her. What followed, according to Leona, was four-and-one-half hours of railing accusation, authoritative preaching, sex-life interrogation, and high-decibel, humiliating verbal abuse from Meredith. Her problem? She was not a submissive enough wife and two ministers (unnamed) had found fault with her. She needed to obey his dictates because he (Meredith) was “God’s number three man on earth” and would very likely remain in authority over her for all eternity! She needed to learn true submission! (Those who have seen Bryon Forbes’ movie “The Stepford Wives” – referred to by Ruth McNair-Knasin in her testimony – will understand what Meredith was apparently aiming at.)

The 4= hours of harangue left Leona – then 2= months pregnant – in utter shock. She began shaking and hyperventilating. While Raymond slept well that night, she sobbed all night. The next morning found her still trembling. According to her court testimony, it was then that her nervous disorders began. In court Raymond claimed that Leona never had any emotional problems during their years in England. But a letter he wrote to her in 1975 specifically referred to her “emotional hangups.” And Ruth testified how around 1970 her father had asked for her support in the event that he would find it necessary to have her mother committed.

On the stand, Meredith gave a very different picture of what happened. He described the 4=-hour session as nothing more than a friendly discussion lasting about an hour or so. Meredith’s benevolent persona, however, stands in stark contrast to his reputation as a psychologically intimidating and harsh authoritarian in the performance of ministerial duties.

On the witness stand, former WCG minister Robert Hoops (now a minister with the Church of God, International) described Meredith’s past directorship of the WCG as extremely oppressive. Even sabbaticals, on which WCG ministers were brought to Pasadena for a period of refresher training, were harrowing due to the interrogations ministers were subjected to by headquarters superiors.

During a deposition and later with us privately, Hoops described how, when Meredith once counseled his wife, Meredith made such insensitive and unwarranted accusations against him that his wife cried for a week. When he found out later what had been said about him, he became so depressed he was almost suicidal. Said Hoops, “When you have really committed your life to the church and believe the ministry represents God, a harsh assessment of you by a superior can literally create severe emotional trauma.” On the stand, Hoops was asked by Stuart for his opinion of Meredith. But Judge Olson disallowed the question. Later, however, Hoops was quite candid with us about his assessment of Meredith’s character.

“Meredith is a liar,” said Hoops. “But that isn’t surprising when you consider how big a liar he works for.” Sadly, Hoops’ opinion of Meredith is shared by many ministers who served under him in years past.

Another former WCG minister told us that after a Meredith “counseling” session with his wife, she became so totally depressed he emphatically ordered her never to discuss anything privately with Meredith again. He explained, “Rod has the ability to somehow dig into a person’s mind in such a way as to make them feel utterly guilt ridden and despondent. He seems to revel in this strange power to bring someone down psychologically.” The same man also told us how once on a walk with Meredith, Roderick turned to him and said, “You may not realize it, but in all the universe, I’m number five, and you’re number such and such.” To us, at least, Leona’s testimony was quite credible.

On August 20 and 21, the lawyers for both sides presented their closing arguments. As Browne would later point out, “You will never find a case where there are such opposite points of view.” (It was one of the few Browne assertions with which we totally agree.) The conflict in the testimony of the two sides was truly remarkable.

 

Closing Arguments
 

Stuart’s closing argument to the jury was quiet, controlled, well-reasoned, and effective. Point by point he clarified his case and dissected his opponents’ contentions. The church, he said, was not justified in publicly attacking Leona. She was no longer a member, and even if their allegations were true, there was no reason for the WCG ministers to have the information Meredith disseminated. But what Meredith had spread about Leona was not true. If it had been, why would she bring a lawsuit and risk certain exposure?

Stuart admonished the jury to recall carefully what they had seen. He reminded them of how the WCG witnesses all seemed to parrot the same story and even seemed to look the same. He reminded them how Raymond’s answers were so long and evasive that the path he beat around the bush had become a trench. He recalled how Meredith’s sons seemed to know more about the McNair marriage than Raymond did, how the McNair sons did not seem able to look at their mother in court, but how Ruth had looked Raymond right in the eye when she testified.

Stuart wasn’t afraid to use theological sources to clarify his position. He quoted Thomas Aquinas on the law of man and the law of God, and James 3:1, which in the New American Bible translation reads: “Not many of you should become teachers my brothers; you should realize that those of us who do so will be called to the stricter account.” He suggested to the jury that a fair award might be $10.5 million. He told them, “The Worldwide Church of God is finally being brought to justice for conduct it feels it can do with impunity. Let religions – whether small cults or large denominations – know that that kind of conduct will not be tolerated!”

Browne then had the opportunity to present his closing argument. After a sanctimonious anecdote about a piece of wisdom he had once gained from an elder lawyer, Browne departed down a path of reasoning some lawyers might have cleverly used on behalf of the plaintiff. Having earlier adopted the defense of privilege, Browne went on to point out that the WCG’s divorce laws had been “liberalized,” and Raymond had remarried in 1977. He readily admitted Raymond’s WCG colleagues had wondered: How can someone who is questionable in his practice [lifestyle] come back into such a high position? And how could Raymond still have been living in the house [with Leona] after suing for divorce on grounds of desertion? Good questions, those. But while they must have been intended to show why it was therefore justifiable to attack Leona in public, the rhetorical questions were not flattering to Raymond. In fact, the whole line of argument seemed only to provide listeners with a possible motive behind the Meredith defamation of Leona.

Throughout the trial Browne had attempted to portray Leona as a despicable woman. Now he developed that theme with almost total abandon. With Leona sitting quietly nearby, Browne exaggerated, distorted, contorted, and otherwise mutilated fact after testified fact. With poorly feigned indignation, he sarcastically claimed Leona was not the reserved lady they had seen before them for seven weeks, but was, in fact, the leader of a “band of vigilantes” hell-bent on destroying an innocent church. “Money,” accused Browne, “is more important to her than human relationships. She fights at the drop of a hat!”

But Browne’s combative performance was strained – he even dropped his large tripod chart once and his pointing stick twice – and his histrionics proved counterproductive. Not only did two jurors openly chuckle at his chutzpah, fellow attorney Bruce Armstrong sounded genuinely embarrassed when he began his closing arguments after Browne finished. Armstrong told the jury that lawyers in closing statements sometimes get carried away. He reminded the jury that they should base their verdict on the testimony, not the emotional rhetoric of any of the lawyers. Then, perhaps sensing the inevitability of their decision, he went on to ask the jury to ponder just how much money the plaintiff was really asking. He made a few technical observations and concluded with an obfuscating Ben Franklin quote.

In his final rebuttal comments to the jury, Stuart likened the WCG to a giant octopus – when it is threatened it puts up a giant cloud to conceal the truth. In fact, the WCG lawyers had done exactly what he had earlier predicted they would do. They continued to attack and defame Leona just as Meredith had done in 1979. The jury had heard over four weeks of testimony and two days of closing arguments. It was now up to them to decide who was telling the truth.

 

The Verdict
 

On the morning of August 22 Judge Robert Olson gave the jury their final instructions and they went into deliberation. On the afternoon of August 23 they reached a verdict. The jury had been asked to answer 13 questions. They handed their answers to Judge Olson, who read them to himself before the hushed courtroom. After what seemed an eternity to some, he asked the court clerk to read aloud the 13-point verdict.

Were the Roderick Meredith statements about Leona McNair made at the 1979 minister’s conference privileged? No. Were they true? No. Were the Pastor’s Report statements about Leona McNair privileged? No. Were they true? No. In making the statements in the Pastor’s Report, did any defendant intentionally cause, by extreme and outrageous conduct, severe emotional distress to the plaintiff, or act with reckless disregard of the probability of causing emotional distress to the plaintiff?. Yes. Did the plaintiff suffer severe emotional distress as a proximate result of the conduct of the defendants? Yes. Were any of the defendants’ wrongful acts done pursuant to a conspiracy to either libel, slander, or intentionally cause, by extreme and outrageous conduct, severe emotional distress to the plaintiff? Yes. Was the plaintiff damaged as a result of the wrongful act or acts? Yes. Do you find in favor of the plaintiff and against Raymond McNair and the Worldwide Church of God? Yes. Do you find in favor of the plaintiff and against the defendants Roderick C. Meredith and the Worldwide Church of God? Yes. Do you find in favor of the plaintiff and against the Worldwide Church of God? Yes. What do you find to be the total amount of compensatory damages? $260,000. If you find that the defendants acted with actual malice and if you find that punitive damages are justified, what do you find to be the total amount of punitive or exemplary damages? $1,000,000.

As that amount was read, Leona McNair and Antony Stuart became all smiles. In the audience, John T. Tate Jr., who had done so much of the early work on the case, was jubilant, as was Bruce Broillet, one of the partners in the winning law firm (and who, incidentally, was recently voted Trial Lawyer of the Year by the Los Angeles Trial Lawyers Association). At the announcement of the award, Broillet sprung from his chair, gave a passing bear hug to AR editor Trechak, and flew out the courtroom door to call his downtown Los Angeles office. There would be a victory party there that night.

The defendants were not so enthusiastic. Raymond looked dazed; Rod glowered at the jurors. And Browne, to the guffaws of the entire jury, did what he had done dozens and dozens of times during the trial. He asked the judge for a conference at the side bar. In California, civil cases require only a majority of nine jurors for a verdict. Browne wanted each of the jurors polled individually on each of the 13 points to see how each had voted. His request was granted, but the polling didn’t give him much to cheer about. The jury had voted unanimously on all points with only two exceptions. One juror did not feel Leona’s distress was “severe” within the definition provided by the court’s instructions to the jury. And one juror refused to go along with the $1 million punitive award. He insisted it should have been $15 million.

After the trial, Browne asked the jurors for the reasoning behind their verdict

The trial ended with the jury expressing praise to the judge for the way he had conducted the trial, and the judge, obviously pleased with the way the trial had gone, expressed his thanks to the jury. They had truly done an outstanding job.

 

The Jurors Explain
 

As soon as the proceedings were closed, the press and lawyers rushed to the jury for their comments on the trial. (For some reason, Raymond and Roderick did not wish to talk to any of the jurors, and Meredith told the news photographers, “No photos!” – a command they promptly disobeyed.) What were the key reasons for the jury’s decision? Surprisingly, it was evidence and testimony presented by the defense. One juror mentioned an article written by HWA on the subject of the divorce and remarriage doctrine changes. It had been introduced by Browne and company to show how there was great interest in the church on that subject. But when the jurors perused the article, they noticed that HWA had nowhere mentioned individual divorce cases by name. Why then, they reasoned, if the church’s leader could explain the divorce doctrine change without getting into specific cases, did Meredith have to go into the McNair case in detail? And why did he not bring up other cases by name?

What led the jury to believe there was a conspiracy? The jurors seemed to have little difficulty coming to a conclusion on this point. One pointed out how Raymond himself had admitted being in the audience when Meredith verbally attacked Leona in January 1979. He was in a position to know that Meredith’s statements were untrue, yet he did nothing to correct the false impressions created. In spite of the fact that he had almost six months until Meredith again went after Leona in the Pastor’s Report, he did nothing to set the record straight about his former wife.

Another factor in the jury’s unanimous decision appears to have been Browne himself. More than one juror admitted to being totally turned off by his over-reaching and harsh treatment of Leona and other witnesses who, for the most part, were completely candid and cooperative.

But the biggest factor in the jury’s verdict proved to be the testimony of Leona’s sons, and particularly Joe McNair, who had been called by Browne. Juror after juror admitted that witnessing the young man mercilessly berate his own mother was proof-positive that Worldwide had caused Leona the greatest sadness a mother could know. Jury foreman Ignacio Gracia, a city councilman and former vice-mayor of South El Monte, California, said listening to Joe’s testimony was very sad. He explained, “This has to be the greatest emotional distress any parent can feel. She lost her family.”

Mr. Gracia went on to make a revealing summary of how the jury felt:

“We wanted to send a message to other churches that you can’t do this to people – ruin their lives just because you are a church or big organization. Here we won’t condone these goings on. The award was not the issue. We wanted to vindicate Mrs. McNair. They were driving a knife in her heart.”

Listening to the jury’s comments, one got the impression that the award could easily have gone much higher. For instance, the jury never got to hear Herbert Armstrong testify because Judge Olson excluded him as a defendant – a decision Stuart is appealing. Nor did the jury get to hear from three key witnesses Stuart had planned to call, but who, under suspicious circumstances, at the last moment declined to appear. Nor was Stuart allowed to enter into evidence a 1969 letter by Meredith to the WCG ministry. In it, Meredith, in graphic detail, delved into the emotional and sexual relationship of two of his employees – identified by name – who had become romantically involved, contrary to the dictates of the church. The letter, which Stuart felt showed a parallel to Meredith’s later attack on Leona, was denied as evidence by Judge Olson, because he felt it was so inflammatory as to be offensive.

After the trial, the church’s lawyers said little to the press except that they planned to appeal. So far, however, that threat has seemed a bit limp. In mid-October Judge Olson turned down their request for a new trial. A request that Leona’s award be cut back – because, according to Browne, paying the $1.26 million would bankrupt his clients – was also denied. Not only that, Olson granted Stuart his request that the church be required to pay Leona an additional $20,000 to cover the court costs and other related expenses she incurred during the past five years. But lest any WCG tithe payer think Leona McNair is greedily out to devour the tithes and offerings of “the faithful,” keep in mind that just weeks before in a pre-trial hearing Leona had offered to settle out of court for less than one-fourth of the jury’s award (an amount that surely would have been far less than the total bill for the church’s lawyers). Of course, money is never a real concern to Herbert Armstrong or his lawyers. We understand HWA has even said recently he will give Browne a $2 million bonus if he can just find a way to beat Leona through an appeal.

One of the jurors gives “a piece of her mind” to lawyers Browne, Helge, and Bruce Armstrong.
By the trial’s end, Stuart (center, gesturing) had earned the respect of all. Here he discusses a legal point with members of the jury. Directly behind him are some of Helge’s legal team. Listening in (upper right) is AR editor John Trechak.

In the meantime, Meredith is apparently blaming his problems on some kind of Ambassador Report “conspiracy” (Los Angeles Times, San Gabriel Valley section, Aug. 30). He just cannot seem to admit that he did something wrong. Yet, Stan Rader, the church’s attorney at the time, knew full well in 1979 just how serious Meredith’s mistake was. Shortly after the June 25, 1979 Pastor’s Report was mailed out, Rader’s secretary, Virginia Kineston, showed him the Meredith comments on Leona. Rader was stunned. From then on Rader insisted Ms. Kineston check all Meredith writings for legal problems before they went to press. Meredith was stuck with a reputation for executive recklessness, and it was only a few weeks later that he was removed as director of the WCG’s ministry. Yet five years later, he apparently still doesn’t think he did anything wrong.

The trial overall had been a tense and often bitter one, but it was not without its humorous side. There was Stuart, before the final arrival of the jury, holding up a stethoscope from Leona’s satchel and telling friends in the audience, “Just in case it’s heart attack time!” There was the rumor that Browne, in closed chambers, had seriously protested the “endless stream” of homemade cookies Leona allegedly provided court personnel for their coffee breaks. And then there was the day when the entire jury showed up wearing matching blue T-shirts that read: “I love being on Judge Olson’s case.”

But the most hilarious aspect of the trial was the distinct ambience of the match-up itself. At the plaintiff’s table was Leona with one attorney. Opposite them, at the defendants’ table, was super weasel Allan Browne. To Browne’s right was the pugnacious Bruce Armstrong. To Browne’s left, and always facing the jury was Ralph Helge, virtually mute for the entire trial, but always looking like some grand inquisitor sucking on sour grapes. Behind the three defense lawyers sat Raymond McNair and Roderick Meredith, feverishly taking notes on yellow pads like a couple of newly baptized church members at a WCG sabbath service. Behind the two dark-suited evangelists was an assortment of lawyers and pseudo-lawyers from Helge’s office, there to lend research assistance, moral support, and, it seems, to discourage interested WCG members from attending.

In the end, however, all that heavy WCG artillery proved useless. Dick Lloyd, writing in The Weekly (of Pasadena, Aug. 30) observed:

“But it was a particularly sweet victory for Stuart who took on the giants, and alone in the courtroom filled with church attorneys, beat the best, like a David against Goliath.”

A careful look at the defense strategy chosen by the church’s lawyers might suggest Lloyd was a bit generous to “the giants.” Nevertheless, Antony Stuart – who, in a few days, would be married and leave on a honeymoon – deserved every accolade he received. So did John Tate. And so did Leona McNair, who, no matter how difficult the circumstance or vindictive the opposition, persevered on to finally get her day in court. As she told news reporters afterward, “Justice had to be served.”


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