LAUDERHILL, Fla. — The father accused of slashing his 10-year-old daughter and 17-year-old stepdaughter with a machete will remain in the Broward County Jail without bond on charges that include attempted murder.At his first court appearance Saturday, Dennis Anthony Reid stood stoic and stared blankly to his left as Broward Judge Bernard Bober set bonds of $50,000 on each of the other two counts of aggravated child abuse.Reid was also ordered not to contact the girls, who remain in Broward Health Medical Center in serious condition.While Reid was learning his fate, their mother had visited the...
Stories Chosen For You
Makayla Cox, a high school student in the US state of Virginia, thought she was taking medication that her friend had procured to treat pain and anxiety.
Instead, the pill she took two weeks after her sixteenth birthday was fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more potent than heroin. It killed her almost instantly.
After watching a movie -- a prequel to "Harry Potter" -- with her mother Shannon one evening in January, Makayla appeared fine as she headed to her bedroom with her husky dog that often slept on her bed.
But when Shannon entered Makayla's room the next morning, she found her partially sitting up, perched against the headboard, orange fluid coming out of her nose and mouth.
"She was stiff. I shook her, I screamed her name, I called 911," Shannon told AFP. "My neighbors came over and did CPR, but it was too late. After that, I just don’t remember much."
America's opioid crisis has reached catastrophic proportions, with over 80,000 people dying of opioid overdoses last year, most of them due to illicit synthetics such as fentanyl -- more than seven times the number a decade ago.
"This is the most dangerous epidemic that we’ve seen," said Ray Donovan, chief of operations at the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). "Fentanyl is not like any other illicit narcotic, it’s that deadly instantaneously."
And deaths are rising especially quickly among young people, who obtain counterfeit prescription drugs through social media. Unknown to them, the pills come either laced with or made of fentanyl.
In 2019, 493 American adolescents died of drug overdose, in 2021 that figure was 1,146.
Dealers seek teens via apps
Drug dealers reach adolescents on apps such as Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram and others, often using emojis as code.
Oxycodone, an opioid, may be advertised as a half-peeled banana, Xanax, a benzodiazepine used to treat anxiety, as a chocolate bar, and Adderall, an amphetamine that acts as a stimulant, as a train.
Wilson Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the number of Americans doing drugs has largely stayed the same in recent years, but what changed is how deadly they've become.
One cup of heroin is equivalent to one teaspoon of fentanyl, and less than one gram can mean the difference between life and death.
"It takes very small quantities to be a poison that can stop somebody breathing," Compton told AFP in an interview.
Most of the illicit fentanyl in the United States is manufactured by Mexican drug cartels in clandestine labs from chemicals shipped over from China.
Because fentanyl is much more potent, it takes much less of it to fill a pill, resulting in more supply and more profit to the cartels.
One kilogram of pure fentanyl can be purchased for up to $12,000, pressed into half a million of pills that will sell for up to $30 each, raking in millions of dollars, Donovan said. And it’s also much easier to smuggle in pill form.
Last year, the DEA seized 15,000 pounds (nearly seven tons) of fentanyl -- enough to kill every American. Four out of 10 seized pills contain lethal quantities of fentanyl.
'One pill can kill'
At the agency’s headquarters, a collection of photographs titled "Faces of Fentanyl" hangs in the hallway. It features dozens of portraits of people who recently lost their lives to fentanyl. One of them reads "Makayla. Forever 16."
An honor-roll student and a cheerleader, Makayla liked to paint, cuddle with her two huskies, Maize and Malenkai, and planned to go to university to study law, said her mother Shannon Doyle, 41, who works as a paralegal in a loan service firm.
Makayla had battled anxiety after her parents’ divorce, but things got worse during the pandemic.
Last summer she started a job at a water park, where she met a friend who introduced her to counterfeit prescription drugs.
The blue pills found in Makayla’s bed turned out to be 100 percent fentanyl. Police are investigating, but so far no arrests have been made.
"It used to be that when you were addicted to drugs you had five, 10, 15 years to try and get over your addiction and get the help and change your life," Shannon said at her house in Virginia Beach, a town on the Atlantic coast some 240 miles (400 kilometers) south of the US capital.
"You don't have that chance anymore."
Last year the DEA launched a campaign called "One pill can kill" to raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl, and there are efforts across America to make naloxone, a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose, more easily available, including in schools.
Makayla’s ashes are in her bedroom and Shannon still peeks into the room every morning and evening, like she did when her daughter was alive.
She started a foundation in Makayla's name to help prevent similar tragedies -- a way, she says, helps her cope with her grief.
Makayla's best friend Kaydence Blanchard, 16, is spending the summer without her, trying to make good on the dreams the girls had: to get a driver's license and drive to the beach.
But for Makayla "the future will never happen," Blanchard said. "She will never complete any of the plans that we had together."
This 2003 Texas law could shield Alex Jones from paying the vast majority of the $50 million owed victims
The question is, will Texas law spare the Infowars host and his company Free Speech Systems tens of millions under a 19-year-old statute limiting the amount that a jury can make a plaintiff pay?
The answer is likely to be decided during the appeals process, but if the statutory limit is applied by the courts to Jones’ case, he could be forced to pay less than $5 million in total damages, legal experts say.
What was the Jones judgment?
On Aug. 4, a Texas jury in Austin awarded Neil Heslin and Scarlett Lewis $4.1 million in compensatory damages for the mental anguish and reputation damage inflicted on them by Jones’ crusade to prove the massacre a hoax. Their son, Jesse Lewis, was fatally shot during the Sandy Hook massacre. The jury did not award any money to compensate for financial losses the couple may have suffered as a result of Jones’ statements.
A day later, the same jury hit Jones with another $45.2 million in punitive damages — which exist for the purposes of punishing the defendant, rather than compensating the victims.
The parents’ lawsuit had asked for $150 million in compensatory damages and additional punitive damages.
Jones’ attorneys have said they plan to appeal both damage awards.
What does the law say about punitive damages?
In a civil lawsuit, there are two types of damages: compensatory and punitive.
Compensatory damages are a combination of awards for economic losses as well as noneconomic losses, which include the impacts on the plaintiff’s reputation and their emotional, physical or mental health.
Punitive damages, though also paid to the plaintiff, are there to punish and deter the defendant.
A Texas jury can choose any dollar amount to award when it comes to punitive damages, but the civil statute does limit the amount in punitive damages the defendant may ultimately be forced to pay.
The law guiding punitive damages allows plaintiffs to collect up to twice what was awarded in economic compensatory damages — plus the same amount as was awarded in noneconomic compensatory damages, with the latter limited to $750,000.
In Jones’ case, Jesse Lewis’ parents were awarded $4.1 million in compensatory damages, but none of that has been specified as economic damages.
That means Jones’ punitive damages, which amounted to $45.2 million, could be limited to $750,000 if courts decide that the cap does apply. Add that to the $4.1 million, and the parents could wind up collecting just $4.85 million in total — less than 10% of what the jury awarded them last week.
Texas juries are not allowed to be told about the cap on punitive damages, so jurors may hand down a verdict much higher than the cap, not knowing the plaintiff may never see that total amount.
Exactly how much in punitive damages a defendant ends up paying — including whether the cap applies at all — is something typically decided by judges in the appeals process.
Are there exceptions?
The law allows for an exception to the cap if the actions that triggered the lawsuit are one of a list of felonies, known as “cap busters,” that include murder, kidnapping, forgery, some types of fraud and other — mostly violent — crimes.
The attorney representing Jesse Lewis’ parents, Mark Bankston, told reporters before the $45.2 million in punitive damages was awarded that the Texas Supreme Court could remove the cap “on a case-by-case basis” but declined to say how that might happen in this case.
There is no lifetime limit on the amount of punitive damages a defendant can be forced to pay if they are sued several times. Jones faces more lawsuits by parents of Sandy Hook victims, and each of them will have their own judgments that may or may not be subject to the limits.
Why were the limits created?
The cap on punitive damage awards traces back to a 2003 measure, House Bill 4, a massive overhaul of the state’s civil litigation laws that the bill’s author said was intended to fight frivolous or abusive lawsuits.
“The problem that existed at the time was that there were a lot of lawsuits of questionable merit being brought where huge punitive damages were being threatened,” said former state Rep. Joe Nixon, a Houston lawyer who authored the sweeping changes to Texas lawsuits in 2003.
Without limits on punitive damages, Nixon said, defendants in lawsuits were exposed to potentially unfair judgments — the threat of which would often push defendants into high-dollar settlements in order to avoid the potential for financial ruin.
Opponents argued that Nixon’s measure gave a pass to extremely wealthy companies that were bad actors.
The bill was one of the biggest pieces of legislation to be passed by the new GOP majority in the Texas House that year, the first time Republicans had controlled the Texas Legislature in 130 years.
Lawsuit limitations, known by supporters as tort reform, had been blocked for years by the previous Democratic majority, so the passage of HB 4 was considered an enormous victory for conservatives. It was also a major part of the agenda of then-House Speaker Tom Craddick, who was in his first term in that role at the time and who laid intense pressure on his leadership team to make it law.
It passed largely along partisan lines.
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This article originally appeared in The Texas Tribune at https://www.texastribune.org/2022/08/08/alex-jones-verdict-damages/.
The Texas Tribune is a member-supported, nonpartisan newsroom informing and engaging Texans on state politics and policy. Learn more at texastribune.org.
Former members of Christian 'cult' that preys on military begged FBI to investigate for more than 2 years
His persona could ricochet from sweetly paternal to icy menace whenever Rev. Rony Denis suspected disloyalty. Former followers said Denis reminded the disenchanted that his father was once a leader of Haiti’s vicious Tonton Macoutes — the legendary death squad named for a Haitian fairytale boogeyman who kidnaps and devours rebellious children. Denis warned malcontents that he learned from his dad how to destroy traitors, even those trained by the U.S. military.
Denis is the leader of the House of Prayer Christian Church, a nationwide network of 12 congregations, 11 of which are located near military bases where HOPCC recruited members. Founded in 2003, former members are now accusing HOPCC of being a cult. In June, the FBI raided at least four HOPCC churches in Texas, Georgia and Washington—all near military bases---seizing computers, files and records.
Although Denis forbade HOPCC members to use the Internet, former members now have a massive online site filled with complaints from former members. Some talked to Raw Story.
Former members accuse the church of targeting and defrauding soldiers out of their disability checks and housing allowances via rent-to-own scams with HOPCC-owned homes, pressuring vets to donate paychecks and deplete GI Bill funds by enrolling them in a bogus seminary.
They also claim the church used members’ social security numbers and birthdates to buy property that built itself a real estate empire while ruining their credit.
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Several former members told Raw Story they had phoned the FBI and IRS years ago to offer evidence of wrongdoing.
The respected watchdog nonprofit, Veterans for Education Success, investigated HOPCC two years ago. VES estimates that HOPCC has gobbled up more than $7 million of taxpayers’ money. VES sent an 11-page report to the FBI and Veterans Administration documenting alleged illegal HOPCC activities in August 2020.
So, why did two years pass before the FBI acted?
“That’s a good question…I don’t know the answer,” VES vice president Will Hubbard replied.
The FBI did not respond to Raw Story interview requests. IRS spokesperson Anthony Burke sent Raw Story a link to IRS regs rather than grant an interview. Pastor Rony Denis and finance officer Anthony Oloans declined our requests for interviews.
But former HOPCC members shared their stories, despite what they describe as considerable risks.
“HOPCC men have run me off the roads near Hinesville, Ga. in their SUVs,” former member Gladys Jordan told Raw Story.
She says church members humiliate and defame rebels by plastering their neighborhoods with handmade posters featuring photos of former members captioned, “PEDOPHILE” and ”SEX OFFENDER.” Other former members said HOPCC had set up fake Facebook pages for former members then plastered them with porn.
All church exes interviewed by Raw Story said HOPCC forbids members to use the internet, watch TV, read newspapers, listen to radio or podcasts, read magazines or play video games. They were told not to socialize with non-HOPCC coworkers.
Outsiders may be baffled by why men and women brave and tough enough to survive Iraq and Afghanistan tolerated the restrictions.
The answer is, HOPCC chose targets carefully focusing on young men and women from low income, splintered, distant or dysfunctional families who never had college as an option. For them, the military was their sole path to the middle class and a chance to bond with a community.
Another common thread becomes clear during interviews: They were idealists, naïve romantics yearning to be part of a higher purpose.
“Right before I joined the military and met (HOPCC), my life was a mess—I was drinking too much, smoking too much and had way too many tattoos all over my arms,” Jesse Preston told Raw Story. “My marriage broke up. We married way too young and both of us came from crazy families. Neither of us had functional families for role models. I was barely able to graduate high school…I was ready to do anything to change my life.”
Preston joined the Army hoping to find a community of friends with sound moral compasses. When he arrived at Fort Stewart, Georgia, HOPCC recruiters were in the reception area greeting newly minted soldiers. They offered to drive soldiers to their Hinesville church eight miles away for home-cooked supper served by pretty girls.
TOUGH VETERANS AS CULT’S SOFT TARGETS
Preston said HOPCC recruiters roamed Fort Stewart’s PX (on base big box store) and barracks. A Fort Hood, Texas female soldier told Raw Story that Killeen, Texas HOPCC recruiters were keenly aware that sexual assault was a problem on the base before it hit national headlines. So, HOPCC urged female soldiers to rent a room in the church’s women-only housing where they’d be safer at night than they would be sleeping in the barracks.
Painfully shy, Preston was delighted by HOPCC’s diverse congregation where all races and ethnicities mingled as friends. He thought it was a bit odd that female HOPCC members all wore pastel ankle-length skirts and baggy blouses and their chats with men were monitored by elders. HOPCC insisted on handpicking wives and arranging marriages for young men seemed saner than trusting Tinder or Bumble to find his true love for strangers. Preston believed adhering to stringent rules helped him stop drinking and smoking and survive war zones.
Veteran Tomas Moreno joined HOPCC at age 15 when his sister, also an HOPCC member, brought him to the congregation near the Fayetteville, North Carolina military base in 2008. She and her husband took Moreno in after troubles with his parents and school. He saw Denis as the fatherly role model Moreno felt he desperately needed.
“Denis was a father figure for me; if your dad is loving but a little weird, you go along with him even if his ideas seem strange or old-fashioned,” Moreno told Raw Story. Moreno fondly remembers Denis giving him $10 occasionally for new shoes or clothes. He was glad Denis wanted him home schooled instead of attending public school. To avoid the internet, Moreno enrolled in distance learning so his textbooks and tests were shipped to him and he snail-mailed them back for grading.
Moreno donated a chunk of his paychecks to HOPCC. His marriage to an HOPCC-approved woman proved happy. When he took her on vacation to pretty Gatlinburg, the Tennessee Smoky Mountains resort town, HOPCC objected about them being far from the church’s eyesight. But Moreno swears the couple stayed true to HOPCC rules and never once turned on the hotel TV and never cruised the internet on the lobby computer.
Denis never Zoomed or used the internet for national meetings. Gladys Jordan remembers Denis bragging that his nationwide intercom system was like that of cult leader Jim Jones. She was alarmed, she claims, when Denis called Jones a “brilliant communicator.” (In 1978, more than 900 of Jones’ followers died when he ordered them to drink poisoned Kool-Aid after he had a U.S. Congressman murdered.)
From VES research, Hubbard concludes Denis was obsessed with money, not politics or launching Armageddon.
It may seem odd that veterans would turn to VES rather than the VA to complain about being defrauded of their GI Bill funds. But Hubbard thinks the way state departments of education and the VA monitor higher education may be confusing for a lot of Americans. And realistically, fighting a school for doing a lousy job can involve years of litigation and staggering legal fees.
For the state government and the VA, “it’s an unfair fight,” Hubbard said.
Initially, Moreno said his only problem with HOPCC was its demand that followers rent “raggedy, broken down apartments the church owned.”
HOPCC’s monthly rent was $800 and higher. Some apartments had broken plumbing, leaking roofs, holes in the floor and temperamental furnaces. When veterans complained, HOPCC told them to do repairs themselves. Moreno lost count of how many unpaid hours he spent fixing church apartments.
Moreno says he spent hundreds of dollars on the unaccredited HOPCC seminary. But he shrewdly earned a degree in a local college to be an electrician. With three kids to support, he wanted a skill set that would land him a job in the real world, not a gig as a minimally paid HOPCC pastor.
VES heard from veterans who spent years, up to a decade, in the HOPCC seminary. They said classes consisted of repairing and cleaning church properties and washing HOPCC leaders’ cars — with a bit of Bible study.
The veterans who contacted VES were usually the first in their working-class or working poor families to try and earn a college degree.
“They didn’t have the experience of visiting campuses with their parents to ask questions… they didn’t have guidance counselors explaining what the college classes were like,” VES vice president Will Hubbard said.
HOPCC kept members too busy to ponder over how it did business. “Soul winning” was the church’s term for walking streets, military bases or shopping malls to invite strangers to HOPCC suppers. And HOPCC required members to ‘soul win’ for several hours each day.
“We attended a mandatory 5:30 pm dinner at church, then some hours of soul winning, then back to the church for Bible study, then home,” said Moreno, whose wife is pregnant with their fourth child. “By that time, you’re really ready for bed and sleep.”
LOTS OF STICK, LITTLE CARROT
VES reports that Denis bought himself Florida mansions and luxury vacations. It doesn’t look as if he bribed ordinary members with sumptuous swag. His approach seemed “mostly stick, not much carrot,” Hubbard remarked. It’s difficult for an outsider to discern any rewards in HOPCC membership, since it sounds like zero fun.
But Denis, a U.S. military veteran, understood the battlefield camaraderie soldiers earn in war doesn’t evaporate when they leave the military. That intense sense of brotherhood is hard to duplicate in civilian life. When HOPCC’s demands and rules seemed dreary, a congregation composed of veterans boosted a soldier’s spirits.
“We’re brothers…guardians together of (our country) together…that bond doesn’t end when we leave a war’s frontlines,” said Darnell Emanuel.
Emanuel and his HOPCC-approved wife were a happy match. But they left the church last year after Emanuel became concerned about HOPCC business irregularities — and their daughter confided that she was beaten while attending an HOPCC day school.
Like Moreno, Emanuel studied to earn an electrician’s certificate. It got him a good job with Amazon. But he was wary of HOPCC retaliation. When he detailed how he planned his flight from HOPCC, it sounds like the way wives plan escapes from abusive husbands. He and his wife set up personal checking and savings accounts that HOPCC didn’t know about and chose a safe place to go to then fled by night.
Emanuel claims he recently caught an HOPCC member trying to break into his new home late one night.
Emanuel was luckier than Preston, who returned from Iraq with PTSD and a genuine desire to be a pastor. Preston loved listening to Denis discuss his dream of building “the greatest homeless housing ever with marble floors and counselors for everyone who was addicted.” So, Preston enrolled in the church’s seminary but worried about the lack of study. He also wondered why HOPCC’s only community service seemed to be biannual trips to bigger cities — usually Washington, D.C. or Chicago — to sing on sidewalks and give hotdogs to the homeless.
On the home front, HOPCC’s matchmaking was a disaster for Preston. His first arranged marriage was to a woman “who really didn’t like me. We had nothing in common except our daughter.”
Preston enjoyed being a father. But he says his ex took the girl with her when she left him. He got a pro bono lawyer to negotiate visitation but HOPCC leaders told him a custody battle might hurt the church. So, he gave up.
His second wife left him last month because Preston said she couldn’t accept his break with the church.
“It scares me. Denis always said divorce was a terrible sin, divorce would send you to eternal hell,” Preston said. “I can imagine hell real clearly…It’s real. I don’t want to go to hell!”
He still can’t afford a laptop or computer at home. But his awakening occurred when he bought an iPhone and finally visited the internet.
“I found out there’s such a thing as podcasts and I listened to one on religions and cults,” Preston mused. “When the podcast was over, I thought I was in a cult.”
He’s taking some big steps to rebuild his life. He went to the VA where a counselor made an appointment for him to get therapy for PTSD and help in building healthy relationships. He found a new, non-HOPCC church. And he’s trying to find a pro bono lawyer to help arrange visitation with his daughter.
Preston was smart enough to be promoted to staff sergeant in Iraq. But he says he spent 13 years and thousands of dollars on the HOPCC seminary and never got a degree. He now has a steady job as a Tacoma school bus driver.
CAN A CULT GET THE IRS TO DEEM IT A CHURCH? YES INDEED!
The After School Satan Club asked the IRS for tax-exempt church status in December 2016. The cult explained in its application that it wanted to teach children about critical thinking, logic and Lucifer. The IRS granted tax-exempt status ten days later. At that time, the right-wing Judicial Watch raged against the Obama Administration for encouraging leftist Satanism. But, the ease with which a “church” can win tax-exempt status should unite conservatives and liberals in outrage.
Last month, a new controversy erupted over the IRS granting tax-exempt status to the conservative Family Research Council — whose PrayVoteStand summit featured GOP presidential hopeful Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, Sen. Mitch McConnell, Congressman Kevin McCarthy and Sen. Josh Hawley.
ProPublica helpfully posted the Council’s application to show just how simple it was to fill out.
Bottom line: It’s relatively easy to get IRS tax-exempt status as a church and no agency in the federal government embraces the mission of busting bogus churches.
MinistryWatch president Warren Smith makes that clear. “We can’t rely on federal or state government for oversight; government has proven itself inadequate to police or investigate nonprofits,” Smith told Raw Story.
MinistryWatch is an investigative journalism organization and watchdog focused on churches and religious nonprofits. MinistryWatch’s work has prompted some Senators and Congressmen to launch investigations.
Smith estimates there are one million religious nonprofits in America and “less than half of one percent would ever get an IRS audit in any given year. And that would be a quick, cursory audit, not an investigation.”
In November 2007, U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) announced a major investigation into the tax-exempt status of six televangelists — including Paula White. About a decade later, White would become chair of Trump’s evangelical advisory board.
MinistryWatch published a deep dive investigation of the six ministries. Smith says his staff worked closely with Grassley’s staff and the Senate Committee on Finance. Smith was hopeful that the investigation might prompt a move to create stricter oversight of corrupt charities and churches that abuse tax-exempt status.
But then the global economy collapsed in 2008.
“That pretty much sucked the oxygen out of the investigation; the Senate had bigger worries,” Smith said.
Some of the televangelists flatly refused to cooperate with the investigation, yet received no penalties. Grassley issued a final report in 2011 that questioned the televangelists’ personal use of church-owned airplanes, mansions and church credit cards and the hefty salaries pastors’ family members got for jobs with the media ministries. But as CBS reported, Grassley drew “no specific conclusions about whether the ministries violated IRS rules that bar excessive compensation for leaders of religious nonprofits.”
Democrats and Republicans should unite in exasperation over who gets tax-exempt status from the IRS. One big perk that comes with tax-exempt status is faith-based organizations aren’t required to file financial statements showing staff and leaders’ salaries and how donors’ money is spent. While some faith-based charities file statements with the IRS in an admirable effort at transparency, HOPCC does not. That perk comes at a hefty financial cost for taxpayers.
It may cost even more for Americans like Gladys Jordan, who worshiped at a church they assumed was legit.
She gets calls and texts from HOPCC members asking for her help in leaving the church. But she says her heart is broken over her son, who is still employed as an HOPCC pastor, the only job she says he’s ever had. He refuses to communicate with her in any way since she left HOPCC. She drives to the church almost every day hoping to glimpse him.
“When I see him, I call out, I love you. I will always love you,” her calm voice finally breaks into tears. “He never looks my way.”