Interview With Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff
News Watch Special Report
by Linda Dobson
With great sadness I devote the entirety of this News Watch to a special report. As I reviewed the other news received during this time period, examining its importance and relevance, nothing else revealed itself as impacting your family's homeschooling in such a dramatic way.
The report involves a trial - and the elements present in a typical John Grisham novel; large sums of money, conspiracy, and yes, even sex. But this real life drama's cast of characters includes as conspirators business owners who homeschool and target the conservative Christian homeschooling market.
You will read about a trial held in the US District Court, Western District of Washington at Tacoma. This trial was held to determine if the Sherman Antitrust Act had been violated, an Act whose purpose, according to the words of presiding United States District Judge Franklin D. Burgess, "is to preserve and advance our system of free, competitive enterprise; to encourage, to the fullest extent practicable, free and open competition in the markeplace; and to prevent the accomplishment of a monopoly in any business or industry." A monopoly within the diverse homeschooling community? Surely there must be some mistake.
To win a Sherman Antitrust case, a plaintiff has the burden of proving, among other propositions, that there existed an agreement, a conspiracy, among two or more persons. In his instructions to the jury, Judge Burgess defined conspiracy as "a combination of two or more persons by concerted action to accomplish some unlawful purpose, or to accomplish some lawful purpose by unlawful means. So a conspiracy is a kind of partnership, in which each member becomes the agent of every other member..." (1258-1259) And a jury, in unanimous voice, decided a conspiracy existed.
On September 9, 1998, this unanimous jury found that Sue Welch, publisher of The Teaching Home magazine along with her husband, Pat, the only players in this conspiracy who didn't settle out of court, and Joe Williams, pastor of the Calvary Chapel of Tacoma and his wife, Irene, had entered into an illegal conspiracy to restrain trade and committed illegal acts against Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff, publisher of Gentle Spirit magazine.
Sue Welch and the Williamses were not the only defendants, however. Also named in the lawsuit were Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Michael Boutot, Executive Director of the Christian Home Educators of Ohio (CHEO), CHEO, Gregg Harris, formerly of Christian Life Workshops and now with Noble Institute, and Mary Pride, author of the Big Book of Home Learning series and publisher of several magazines including Practical Homeschooling, along with husband, William.
Violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act was not the only claim brought against the above-mentioned defendants. Claims of outrage, defamation, privacy torts, violations of the Consumer Protection Act, negligence and violations of the Lanham Act were originally filed in the Federal Court action but were refiled by the Plaintiff in Pierce County Superior Court when the Federal claims were dismissed by the judge without prejudice with the following language : "The dismissal of the federal claims against these Defendants requires dismissal of all state claims against them. Based upon review of the issues above, this Court is also not inclined to exercise jurisdiction over most of the state claims pertaining to the remaining Defendants...If the state law claims asserted by the Plaintiff substantially predominate, these claims may be dismissed without prejudice, and left for resolution to state tribunals..." (Order Granting Defendants Calvary Chapel of Tacoma, Joe Williams and Irene Williams Motion For Partial Summary Judgment Re Federal Claims, July 10, 1998, p. 10).
Between the time of the judge's ruling dismissing some of the plaintiff’s claims and the plaintiff's refiling of the claims and the impending state trial, CHEO and Michael Boutot, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Gregg Harris and Mary and Bill Pride all chose not to go to trial but instead settled with Seelhoff for undisclosed amounts of money and in exchange for dismissal of the claims against them.
This report was created using trial transcripts which are a matter of public record in Pierce County Supreme Court at Tacoma and in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wahington at Tacoma. Numbers in parentheses indicate the transcript pages on which the information that preceeds it may be found. In two instances, the source of the material is noted where the material is used.
Let He Who Has Not Sinned
Cast The First Stone
Gentle Spirit, a small magazine for (mostly) Christian women living the simple life at home and the brainchild of Cheryl Lindsey, was born in 1989, originally finding its way into 23 homes. Cheryl was not, however, "of the classic conservative Christian mold," according to her attorney, Barbara J. Duffy. Cheryl protested the Vietnam War and, in college, was a hippie and a social activist who also worked in the slums of Cincinnati after race riots in the late '60's and '70's. (71)
Still, Cheryl's energy and simple living information, coupled with an appearance on a Focus on the Family radio program in 1990, brought mounting attention to Gentle Spirit.
Cheryl's writing caught Sue Welch's eye, so she asked for permission to reprint one of Cheryl's articles in The Teaching Home in 1991, the same year Cheryl and her family rejoined the Calvary Chapel of Tacoma after a six year absence. In 1993, as Gentle Spirit's popularity increased, Sue Welch asked Cheryl if she could list her growing number of workshop appearances, as well. Cheryl granted permission.
This may have been, as the proverbial saying goes, the beginning of the end. Judge Burgess noted during pretrial conference proceedings that "the question seems to be that [Welch] has a habit - and it sounds like in more than one occasion - to interfere with folks as they do their business." (35)
Furthermore, Judge Burgess' Order allowing the case to proceed to trial clearly links Welch's actions to similar actions of Mary Pride when he wrote: "Through their contact with the Pride Defendants and the Pride Defendants' simultaneous 'investigation' of Plaintiff, the Plaintiff has adequately demonstrated that the Welch defendants may have engaged in conduct and a course of dealing which involved concerted action as part of a general scheme to undermine Plaintiff and Plaintiff's Gentle Spirit magazine for their own economic interests. Both Defendants Sue Welch and Mary Pride...appeared to have conducted simultaneous and similar campaigns against the Plaintiff...Plaintiff has adequately demonstrated that these Defendants may have organized or been engaged in a concerted campaign in restraint of trade." (From Judge Burgess' Order Denying in Part and Granting in Part the Motion for Partial Summary Judgment of Defendants Robert and Sue Welch; August 5, 1998, p. 10)
Indeed. Shortly after Welch requested Cheryl's speaking schedule, the women met in Portland, Oregon, Cheryl accompanied by then husband, Claude Lindsey, an African-American. It took only about a week for Welch to call Cheryl claiming "some people had called her and expressed concern that [Cheryl] was being deceptive by not disclosing the fact that...[her] family was biracial." (145-146) In fact, Welch declared she wouldn't list Cheryl's workshops if she didn't begin disclosing this fact.
Upon consultation with her attorney among others, Cheryl wrote to Sue Welch saying she wouldn't agree, in part because she didn't "believe it is appropriate to concern oneself with the color of skin with the people you are doing business with." (148) Welch backed down and continued listing the workshops.
In 1994, Cheryl Lindsey's world changes. Gentle Spirit subscribers now number about 15,000 and generate an approximate gross income of $300,000. Mary Pride, publisher of Practical Homeschooling among other publications, asks Cheryl to buy her failing magazine, Help for Growing Families. (715-716)) Sue Welch discourages Cheryl from buying.
Cheryl's husband, Claude, admitting anger problems, leaves for New Orleans, ostensibly for help. (165) After having found a meeting of the minds - and possibly of the hearts - on the Internet, Cheryl meets Rick Seelhoff in Texas, and the couple realizes their feelings for each other have stood the test of a face-to-face meeting. (165)
With her husband gone for several months and still involved in a bumpy 19-year marriage with nine children, confused and struggling, one spring day Cheryl turns to her pastor, Joe Williams, and his wife, Irene, for counseling. "...I needed it to be kept completely quiet, and they agreed to that," explains Cheryl. (168)
With assurances that they will keep confidence, Cheryl "confessed to them my romantic involvement with my now husband. I confessed the difficulties in my marriage and my confusion at the time." Cheryl also informs the Williamses that she is leaving the church so as not to cause them or herself any more problems because of the confession. (168-169)
Cheryl's oldest sons, Roland and John, quit working for Gentle Spirit when they discover their mother's relationship with Rick. Rick, a computer programmer, leaves his home in Minnesota and arrives in Washington to help fill the gap. They manage to publish a small May, 1994 edition of Gentle Spirit. Before the month of May is over, Claude returns to Washington. He moves in with the Williamses, accosts Rick, and empties all the family's bank accounts before an abrupt return to New Orleans a month later.
Cheryl's decision is made. She files for divorce the week before she presents a grinding schedule of addresses and workshops at the Christian Home Education Organization (CHEO) conference during Michael Boutot's stint as Chairman. What Cheryl doesn't know at the time is that Claude telephoned Gregg Harris, another conference speaker, telling him to keep an eye on Cheryl because Rick may have accompanied her.
"I told him I couldn't just go on this without any verification," states Harris. "So I asked for the name and phone number of his pastor in Washington so that I could call and get some kind of reality check on all this." (1147-1148)
Harris calls Irene Williams who testifies at trial that at this time Sue Welch also called her "out of the blue." (327)
Q: In that first conversation you had with Sue Welch, she informed you she had talked to Gregg Harris; is that right?
A: Yes, I think so...
Q: And she called to confirm that Cheryl Lindsey was having an affair with Rick Seelhoff; is that right?
A: Yes, I think so.
Q: And she told you she needed to confirm this information with you because she had to inform Michael Boutot; right?
A: Yes. (328)
Q: Now, in that first conversation...Sue Welch asked you if you and your husband were going to exercise church discipline against Cheryl Lindsey; isn't that right?
A: She did ask me that. I am not sure if it was in the first conversation.
Q: Okay. And that was a topic that Sue Welch had brought up; is that right?
A: Yes, I believe so.
Q: You didn't raise that topic with her?
Q: ...And Gregg Harris also asked you if you were going to exercise church discipline; correct?
A: Yes, I am sure at some point he did.
Q: And he's the one that brought that topic up; is that right?
A: Yes, I believe so... (330)
Q: ...Mrs. Williams...were you ever involved in a situation where you exposed the extramarital relationship of a member of your church, other than this situation with Cheryl Lindsey?
A: No. (361)
Cheryl is presented a list of "fruits of repentance," prepared by the Williamses with the help of at least Michael Boutot who starts his own file on Cheryl Lindsey and collects information. The list demands that Cheryl sever her relationship with Rick, go nowhere alone, maintain no pager, no private phone, no private post office box, no online service, and that she stop answering the phone, stop publishing Gentle Spirit, and stop accepting speaking engagements.
By the time Pastor Williams and his wife finally "decide" to write and read a letter of discipline to their congregation, the letter originally intended for reading at Calvary Chapel of Tacoma, with a congregation of 40-50 adult members, is now addressed broadly to "Brothers and Sisters in Christ." At some point Sue Welch audiotapes the letter of discipline as Irene Williams reads it over the phone. In addition, Welch requests what turns into trial Exhibit No. 26, dated July 7, 1994:
Q: ...[Welch] wanted a letter essentially asking you to assist her in facilitating the notification of the Christian homeschool organization leaders of the information referred to in an enclosure...to this letter; is that right?
A: Yes... (350)
Q: ...Now, Sue Welch actually suggested some of the language that was in that letter in Exhibit 26; isn't that right?
A: Yes. (355)
Q: And you had the sense, when you were talking to Sue Welch, that the reason she wanted this letter from you, Cheryl's pastor, was because of her legal concerns; is that right?
A: Yes, I think so...
Q: In fact, notifying those homeschooling organizations, that was Sue Welch's idea, that wasn't your idea; right?
A: That's correct...(356)
Q: ...Sue Welch asked you at one point if she could provide you mailing labels for this letter, the July 7th letter with the enclosures, so she could send it out to the homeschooling organizations; correct?
A. There was some discussion.
Q: But that was an issue you discussed, rather than Sue sending the letters out, that you and your husband send them out and she would print the labels for you and you would just take care of it from there?
A: She had made a suggestion similar to that. (357-358)
(If you want something done right, do it yourself. Welch winds up mailing the letters, and eventually gives a love gift to the Williamses toward telephone expenses they incur as they field responses to the letters of discipline which are circulated by Welch.)
Enter Michael Farris of the Home School Legal Defense Association at the point in Irene Williams' examination where she appears to lose touch with truth. When questioned about why Sue Welch would "put you in touch with her lawyer, Michael Farris," (352), as in the majority of instances involving defense witness testimony in this case, plaintiff's attorney Duffy notes there is a difference between the witness' sworn testimony given in pretrial deposition and the sworn testimony which is now emerging from the stand. Under these circumstances, the attorney who is asking the questions can move to publish the deposition to keep the witness from changing testimony, a process known as "impeachment."
Q: ...I asked you: "Did you have any concerns about the legality of your actions with respect to Cheryl Lindsey?" Can you read for me your answer, please.
A: "Well, as far as advertise - contacting advertisers and columnists, yes, I sure did."
Q: "Is that why" - and then I asked you - "Is that why you contacted a lawyer, to ask him about those concerns?" What was your answer?
A: "Yes..." (353)
Q: ...I asked you: "Question: So Sue Welch told you that she had some concerns about the interference of commerce and she addressed those concerns with Michael Farris?" What was your answer?
A: "Yes, I think so." (354)
Duffy has to blow the dust off Sue Welch's deposition during her testimony regarding Farris' involvement in creating Exhibit No. 26, as well.
Q: But you passed on some suggestions [to the Williamses] from Michael Farris; is that right?
A: I don't remember. They talked to him directly.
[Duffy moves to publish Volume 1 of Mrs. Welch's deposition and have it admitted into evidence.]
Q: Take a look at line 16 [page 225]. I asked you..."Were you suggesting language that the Williamses might use in the letter that they were going to read to the congregation?" Are you read[ing] your answer?
A: "I don't remember suggesting anything. I might have passed on something from Michael Farris..." (567)
Q: And Michael Farris suggested that you should notify people in a letter that came from Cheryl's pastor; isn't that right?
A: Yes. (570)
Before the trial is over, four defendants with varying degrees of memory lapses will testify to Michael Farris' involvement and/or reveal telephone notes indicating involvement in the preparation of the letter of discipline. Yet on July 1, 1994, Cheryl receives a letter from The Teaching Home saying "Sue did not request that your pastor write a letter..." (187)
On July 3, 1994, the letter is read to the congregation of Calvary Chapel (193), then widely distributed among the conservative Christian homeschooling community by Welch. Admitting that Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff "never asked [her] to interject [her]self into [Cheryl's] relationship" (573) and with incredible hedging, Welch concedes she took it upon herself to contact with this sensitive information the following: Claude Lindsey, Michael Farris, Michael Boutot, Sharon Grimes (Teaching Home employee), Jonathan Lindvall (Gentle Spirit advertiser), Mary Pride, over forty Christian homeschool organizations, Fran Hornbrook (in November), Maryann Natan (in December; a Gentle Spirit advertiser), Jim Davis (whom she didn't know), Georgene Girourard of Christian Curriculum Cellar (a mutual advertiser), Mrs. Congdon (her own pastor's wife), Michael and Susan Bradrick (a mutual advertiser), Richard Fugate (Alpha Omega Publications and deposition needed to refresh memory), and Robert Forder (though she couldn't remember who he was). (574-579)
Additionally, Welch wasn't sure until shown the actual memo that she in fact circulated an "update" on Cheryl to all the homeschool organizations with which The Teaching Home was associated in early 1995.
Move back to the plot which is thickening. Gregg Harris intercedes and calls Pastor Williams to relay the fruits of his own investigation work, the "credit card story."
After tracking down Rick Seelhoff's phone number, Harris testifies, "I called him and said, 'Is this Rick Seelhoff?' and he said 'Yes.' And I said, 'Is it possible, Mr. Seelhoff, that you might have lost your credit card at this hotel in Columbus, Ohio, this weekend?' And he says 'Yes.' I said, 'Well, don't worry about it, we will take care of it.' And then I hung up." (1152)
Now included on the ever-widening list of private-information-about-Cheryl recipients, Sue Welch provides Michael Boutot with Pastor Williams' phone number because he wanted "to obtain factual information as opposed to hearsay information." (476)
Notes from a phone conversation between Boutot and Irene Williams reveal, "Michael Farris is agreeing with direction. Would rather letter publicizing be letter from Cheryl versus others...Feels I need to call Dr. Dobson, Focus on the Family, as they have been promoting and endorsing..." (529)
Boutot begins to arrange free marriage counseling for Cheryl and Claude (492), and CHEO agrees to pay for airfare for both parties to participate. (495) Although Cheryl initially agrees to the counseling, one among many "marching orders" given her by Boutot, she quickly changes her mind, tells her son, Roland, she is "being coerced" by Boutot (536), and she doesn't follow through on reporting back to him.
After receiving an irate phone call from Cheryl's mother, Boutot takes 25 minutes to advise "Roland, Jonathan, Claude, and Pastor Joe of [his] decision to remove ourselves and turn over to Satan." (538)
Boutot has removed himself from Cheryl's personal affairs, but someone else is just getting started, someone whose first publication, Help for Growing Families, is failing.
Mary Pride received Sue Welch's information by fax on July 14, 1994. (716) In her summer, 1994 issue of Help for Growing Families, she publishes to readers, "Then, the very day I was due to send this issue to the printer, I received a fax with some startling - even horrifying news. Cheryl Lindsey, publisher of Gentle Spirit, had filed for divorce against her husband. The background of the story revealed even more disturbing facts. These made it clear that I was not going to be able to count on Gentle Spirit taking up the slack left by Help's disappearance...So what do you say, people?...Will you support me in making Help a viable magazine that cannot only fill the gaping void left by Gentle Spirit...?" (200-201) Only problem is, Cheryl had never told Pride Gentle Spirit was going out of business because she had no such plans.
What Cheryl didn't know, however, is that David Ayers, a Pride employee, was putting together at Pride's request a document titled, "Notes for Speaking with Potential Advertisers" for Help. (727) Paragraph 1 of this document is devoted to "those considering shifting to Help from Gentle Spirit." (728)
Q: Tell me about your discussions with David Ayers on that subject.
A: The issue was raised that Gentle Spirit advertisers...might be looking for another advertising outlet. And this is [sic] David's notes that he wrote about what to say if someone contacted us. (728-729)
Pride proves the power of the Internet is a two-edged sword. She put her established presence on America Online (AOL) to work almost immediately as proved by attorney Duffy when she produced post after post after post authored by Pride with subject headings like "More facts," "Yet more facts," "Legitimate marriages" and "Wolves in sheep's clothing." (736-740) When Cheryl fought to have the vicious posts removed from her Gentle Spirit folder on AOL, Pride announces she is starting her own folder to carry on the discussion, a folder entitled Help for Growing Families. Shortly thereafter she begins an additional folder entitled "Divorce and Remarriage."
The most revealing testimony about Pride's involvement in the conspiracy, though, comes from David Ayers, the temporary, part-time employee. He only stayed until October, 1994, in part because "the job had become too much not what I wanted to do and was hired to do." In addition, Ayers reveals he'd been asked to work more hours than originally agreed to. He knew he'd increased revenues yet was asked to work part-time because of "financial concerns and ability to pay" him. On top of this, "Mary is a very, very difficult person to work with," Ayers testified. "She's an authoritarian and micromanages things. I found it increasingly difficult to get along with her personally." Finally, he felt bad for telling advertisers that their ads in "the back to school issue" would come out in July when they didn't come out until after school had begun. (795-797)
And what of those Gentle Spirit advertisers?
Q: ...in putting together this database of potential advertisers that might sustain Help for Growing Families, you looked at the Gentle Spirit magazine. Did Mary Pride tell you to do that?
A: Yes. (801)
While Ayers testifed via deposition that "to go to somebody and say could you drop this [advertising] here and take it up on the other side, that wouldn't be just soliciting advertising normally, it would be also having an attack side to it that I wouldn't be comfortable with," (806) former one-time Gentle Spirit advertiser Rhonda Robinson later testifed she received a call from Ayers.
Q: Did you ever receive a phone call from David Ayers?
A: I believe so ...he basically told me that there wasn't going to be...a Gentle Spirit any longer; that she had been in an adulterous affair; and that if I wanted to know more about it, I could read about it on America Online...
Q: ...What was your understanding of why you received that phone call?
A: Seemed like gossip. It just seemed like...just to spread dirt...Just seemed something to just muddy the waters. It was very distasteful to me. (896-899)
But remember, Ayers was, at heart and by trade, a researcher. Not once, but twice, as late as September, 1994, Ayers spent some of his time as a Pride employee investigating Cheryl's story because "it might be a good topic for an article in homeschooling about that. Kind of an expose article." (807) The idea was quickly dropped after brief investigatory calls and because of Ayers' personal discomfort with the story.
Q: And you shared your concerns with Mary Pride, is that right?
A: ...it was one of these situations where she had ordered me to go forward with this article...(820-821)
Q: ...Did you have any conversations with Mary Pride on the issue of legal liability?
A: Well, I certainly communicated to her a little bit about it. I mean, in my initial interviews, that issue was raised right at the beginning, even in July...(822)
Q: ...Okay. Do you know in what context that was brought up that Michael Farris had been asked about what he thought about it?
A: No, I don't.
Q: Do you know if that was a conversation you had with Mary Pride or one of the other interviewees?
A: That I don't know. I thought it was one of the other interviewees, that somebody had brought up that Farris had commented on what is acceptable and not acceptable to do in these kind of circumstances in terms of how to pursue it.
Q: And pursue what?
A: In other words, you know, an investigative piece or any of those kinds of things. (823-824)
Of course, the cumulative hub-bub results in many Gentle Spirit subscription cancellations. Now tight on money, Cheryl published one more paper issue in late January of 1995 and then publishes two issues online after filling as many subscriptions as possible with back issues.
Cheryl Lindsey Seelhoff's harrassment continued for almost three years until May, 1997, when she filed her lawsuit. "Suddenly," says Cheryl, "the silence is deafening and the harrassment stops."
This report is merely a synopsis of an eight-day trial and a transcript almost 1500 pages long. I urge you to read as much of the transcript for yourself as you can as it becomes available on the Internet to acquaint yourself with the actual scope of events and roles of participants, a scope and roles of such magnitude much supporting evidence could not be included here.
In doing so you will consider many issues: ethics, free markets, indeed, leading a life of doing unto others as you would have others do unto you. Not the least among these issues is how the actions of just a few acting in concert have indelibly left their mark on the homeschooling movement as a whole, as well as on the individuals who compose that movement.
Is Cheryl's the first voice to be silenced? Is information in these quarters always passed to others through the perspectives of a few self-chosen censors and messengers? Is today's homeschooling movement all it may have been?
At one point in his examination as a defense witness, Harris notes, "Whether you are Christian or not, hypocrisy is a problem." (1150) Just 22 pages later, this exchange takes place between attorney Duffy and Harris.
Q: Mr. Harris, you testified earlier that the Bible teaches you should mind your own business. That's one of the things the Bible teaches, isn't that right?
Q: You didn't testify when you first started out that one of the things that the Bible had in mind was that church leaders ought to simply keep their own doorstep clean and mind their own business?
A: No. That's not an accurate interpretation of that passage. It says to mind your own business and to work with your hands, which is a reference to making your own living and not being concerned with other people's concerns, but taking care of your own household."
Mrs. Duffy: Thank you very much, sir. I don't have anything else for this witness, Your Honor.
With that, I don't have anything else, either.
© 1999, Linda Dobson
Special Report: Seelhoff vs. Welch