ST. PETERSBURG - They studied the Bible and babysat children. And, of course, they put up Christmas lights.
Angela Hunnicutt, Lytricia Gardner and Wesley Earl Ball were all longtime members of Ted Kresge's Gospel of Truth ministry. They lived in poverty and anonymity, part of the tight-knit group who installed a nationally renowned Christmas display with tens of thousands of lights every year.
This April, all three were jailed on capital sexual battery charges. Several children have told police gruesome stories of how they were tortured and sexually abused as ministry members looked on.
Police say they have no evidence that Kresge knew about the abuse, and they have not charged him with a crime. But a review of court records, including depositions from the Kresges and former ministry members, shows that the three defendants were close to the ministry founder.
Hunnicutt, 43, and Gardner, 40, were described in depositions as the ministry's babysitters. Ball, 72, was called Kresge's "right-hand man." All three face a pretrial hearing in January.
Attorneys for the three defendants did not respond to requests for comment. Kresge has declined to discuss the allegations against the ministry members because of the pending charges.
Not a 'pastor' but a 'missionary'
They lived together in shabby rented houses. One person involved with the ministry recalled piles of dirty laundry, 10 kids running around amid roaches.
Their lives were saturated with religious faith. Kimberly Kresge, ministry head Ted Kresge's wife, described in a deposition how they routinely went through neighborhoods and knocked on doors to recruit new members.
"We don't have what we call a church. We're missionaries," Ted Kresge said in a deposition. "Never claimed to be a church. Never claimed to be a pastor. I'm a missionary."
Before he was a missionary, Ted Kresge was a karate champion who won 103 straight tournament matches in the 1960s.
But after watching a movie called The Late, Great Planet Earth narrated by Orson Welles, Kresge began studying the Bible with his wife and came to believe the Apocalypse was near.
In 1977, the Kresges began decorating their Oakdale street home for Christmas. By 1981, he was certain the world would end that year, and popular enough that a free lecture drew a crowd of hundreds who heard him proclaim: "Do not doubt the dates I have given you."
But the world did not end. He acknowledged that the ministry's credibility dwindled as a result.
Around 1985, according to a deposition given by Kimberly Kresge, the Kresges met Wesley Earl Ball through a mutual friend at a bank. He was an accountant fleeing tens of thousands of dollars in debts in Virginia, court records show.
According to a deposition given by a person involved in the ministry, Ball became Kresge's "right-hand man." The name of the person giving the deposition was redacted from court records.
About nine months after the Kresges met Ball, according to records, Hunnicutt and Gardner joined the ministry.
"As I understand, basically, they grew up together," Kimberly Kresge said in a deposition. "They were very close."
Deposition: Roaches were food
All three lived in poverty, making little money. When he divorced his wife in 1987, Ball said he was a "minister/accountant" who made $428 a month. In 1996, he filed for bankruptcy, owing tens of thousands of dollars. By this year, Ball's residence was listed in state records as the ministry's principal place of business.
The other ministry members gathered regularly at the small house Ball rented with Hunnicutt and Gardner at 860A 20th Ave. S. Ted Kresge said in his deposition that they mostly studied the Bible together.
Two other people involved with the ministry, whose names were redacted in court records, said in depositions that they had seen a great deal of poverty, but no sexual abuse. One person recalled old wood floors and poorly lit bedrooms in addition to a room where the dirty clothes reached to the ceiling.
That person remembered a ministry member picking roaches off the wall and cooking them.
"You weren't to look in people's mouths when they were talking," that person said in a deposition. "You were to look at their eyes."
Four people - two pairs of siblings - told police this year that they were forced to have sex with each other while Ball, Hunnicutt and Gardner watched in the 1980s and 1990s. Ball is accused of raping one girl with a screwdriver and broomstick.
Prosecutor Stephanie Bergen said the proceedings were still in the early stages of the discovery process.
Despite the allegations against ministry members, Kresge went on with his Christmas display again this year. He hopes to draw a big crowd.
Whoever stole the Sun, put it back and we'll drop all the charges!