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​Ex-sect members tell AP that prosecutors obstructed abuse cases

In this photo provided by a former member of the church, Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley, center left, holds Jeffrey Cooper's infant daughter, accompanied by her husband Sam, right, and others during a 2012 ceremony in the church's compound in Spindale, N.C. At least a half-dozen times over two decades, authorities investigated reports that members of a secretive evangelical church were being beaten. And every time, according to former congregants, the orders came down from church leaders: They must lie to protect the sect. (AP Photo)

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It’s one of the most important lessons of investigative journalism: One good story can lead to another. Don’t give up after the first round. Keep digging.

That’s what Mitch Weiss of the national investigative team did after his explosive first story on the Word of Faith Fellowship. His follow-up story earns the Beat of the Week.

It took Weiss many months to persuade 43 former members of the Fellowship to open up – on the record and identified – with stories of adults and children being slapped,punched, choked and slammed to the floor in the name of the Lord. But getting so many of the reluctant ex-congregants to talk was only the start of his journalistic journey.

The big break came when ex-member Jeffrey Cooper,an attorney,confided that two prosecutors,both church members, had coached congregants to lie to investigators.

Time after time,Weiss would travel from his post in Charlotte to Spindale,North Carolina,in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains,to cajole his named sources for more details. During one such follow-up interview,about halfway through his 18-month reporting project,one of his interviewees mentioned that a local assistant prosecutor was a member of the church and was married to the only daughter of Word of Faith Fellowship leader Jane Whaley. “I thought that was odd,” Weiss recalled. “And I wondered if he had ever seen some of the terrible things going on.”

As Weiss dug deeper,ex-followers told him that the assistant district attorney was quite active in the church and its unusual forms of discipline. One of those interviewed told Weiss that when he was about 14,Whaley had decided he needed to be severely spanked,presumably to chase away the devil. Whaley had assigned her daughter and the prosecutor the task. Around that time,Weiss also heard that another assistant district attorney belonged to the church, along with a veteran social services worker. Weiss had more questions to ask.

The big break came when former member Jeffrey Cooper,an attorney,confided that prosecutors Frank Webster and Chris Back,both Word of Faith Fellowship ministers,and social worker Lori Cornelius,had coached congregants and their children to lie to investigators to protect the sect and its leaders. When asked,others being interviewed gave the same story. Pushing for more details,Weiss learned that the prosecutors had provided legal advice to help church leaders avoid prosecution,helped at strategy sessions and even participated in a mock trial for four congregants charged with harassing a former member.

Weiss knew his investigative project had taken a much stronger turn: Under North Carolina law,prosecutors cannot provide legal advice or be involved in outside cases in any manner,especially ongoing criminal investigations. Depending on circumstances,violators could face ethics charges,dismissal,disbarments or obstruction of justice charges. At first,the district attorney who employs Back and Webster said only that the issues outlined in the AP stories were a personnel matter. Two days later,he announced that he was asking the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation,the state police,to investigate. Weiss’ reporting continues.

For many of the interviews,Weiss worked alongside Atlanta-based video journalist Alex Sanz. On the production end,Trenton Daniel of the Interactive Department created a multi-format presentation that includes the text story,video snippets and chunks of secretly made audio that ex-members had recorded of conversations with Whaley and others. On apnews.com,the latest story and a second Sanz AP Video were added to the first week’s main story, three sidebars and the original AP Video. (The first week’s story won the Best of the States award.)

Weiss trusted his instincts and discovered that some of the ex-members had more to share. In several important instances, ex-congregants gained more courage interview by interview.

There are two good lessons that emerged here: First,one good story can feed another; second,even when your reporting has produced an important,wide-ranging exclusive,if you think there could be even more to the story,trust your instincts. If extraordinary effort was required to get an interview subject to talk,perhaps that person has not told you the whole story.

In this case,Weiss trusted his instincts and discovered that some of the ex-members had plenty more to share. One by one,the former congregants gained courage from the fact they were not the only ones talking. And in several important instances,ex-congregants gained more individual courage interview by interview.

For his unwavering focus,digging and source development, Weiss wins this week’s $500 prize.

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