What Is The Yahweh Cult? A Sordid Tale Of Slavery, Torture, Sodomy And Murder Among Farmers In Nebraska

How did a group of impoverished farmer folk in rural America gather to commit such heinous crimes?

By Benjamin H. Smith

Murders A-Z is a collection of true crime stories that take an in-depth look at both little-known and famous murders throughout history. 

How did Michael Wayne Ryan assemble a group of impoverished farmer folk in rural America — and involve them in crimes worse than they'd ever imagined?

Life in America’s heartland has often been rough. But the 1980s saw the worst farm crisis since The Great Depression, according to sources like Minnesota’s Star Tribune, as production outpaced demand, leading prices and profits to fall. Confronted with bankruptcy, foreclosures and looming poverty, many turned to religion. Others looked for someone to blame.

Cult leader Michael Ryan did both, drawing in followers with a blend of anti-Semitism, white supremacy and doomsday prophecies. Ryan told his followers he spoke directly to God, or as he called him, Yahweh, and those who disobeyed him would suffer the worst of deaths. In “Deadly Cults” on Oxygen, former members of the Yahweh Cult of Rulo, Nebraska give shocking details of the heinous crimes of Michael Ryan and his followers. 

Born in 1948, Michael Wayne Ryan was a high school dropout who worked various manual jobs to support his wife and children, according to a profile in New York Daily News. He worked as a truck driver until a back injury forced him off the road. Feeling acute financial pressure and physical pain, he began using marijuana and looking for something to give him the spiritual strength to carry on despite life’s challenges. 

Unfortunately, he found it in the Christian Identity movement, which the Southern Poverty Law Center dubs “a unique anti-Semitic and racist theology that rose to a position of commanding influence on the racist right in the 1980s.”

In the early ’80s, Ryan began attending rallies by James Wickstrom, who preached Christian Identity theology and anti-government sentiments, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center

From Wickstrom, Ryan learned the basics tenants of the Christian Identity movement. Despite the group’s anti-Semitism, they used the ancient Hebrew name for God “Yahweh,” with some adherents even following a traditionally kosher diet. 

According to court documents, Wickstrom taught Ryan what was known as the “arm test,” where he would hold a person’s arm and shoulder and ask a question of Yahweh to learn his will. If the answer was "no," the arm would drop. If the answer was "yes," the arm would stay up. The person holding the arm and asking questions had complete control of the other person’s movements, and could manipulate the answers to his advantage. It was a trick Ryan would use once he began attracting his own followers. 

Ryan soon earned a reputation as "Wickstrom's main man in Kansas," according to the SPLC. At one of Wickstrom’s appearances, Ryan met widower Rick Stice, who owned a struggling pig farm in Rulo, Nebraska, where he lived with his three children. Stice invited Ryan and his family and followers to move onto the farm where they would study the Bible, smoke pot, and amass weapons in preparation for Armageddon.  

Ryan told his followers he spoke directly to Yahweh and was possessed by the spirit of the Archangel Michael, according to court documents. It is Archangel Michael who leads the army of God against the forces of Satan in the Bible’s Book of Revelation, which tells of an apocalypse which presages the “Second Coming” of Jesus Christ. 

Ryan referred to himself as “The King,” according to NPR Nebraska, and said Yahweh commanded he take multiple wives, eventually four in all, who he referred to as his “Queens,” according to the Daily News. He told Stice to stop raising pigs, as they weren’t kosher, according to the Chicago Tribune. By stealing farm equipment and cattle, the cult would support itself and buy firearms and ammunition. Eventually, the Rulo cult would grow to around 25 members. 

In early 1985, cult members James Thimm and Rick Stice (who had a 5-year-old son named  Luke) ran afoul of Ryan after expressing doubts about Yahweh and the validity of the arm tests. According to court documents, Thimm and Rick Stice were demoted to "slaves," made to sleep outside chained to a porch and at various points forced to copulate with a goat and sodomize each other as punishment. 

Father and son Rick and Luke Stice were also forced to perform oral sex on each other. 

Ryan repeatedly abused Luke Stice, calling him a "dog," a "mongrel” and "dogshit," according to court documents. Rick Stice later testified Ryan put ashes from his cigarette in Luke’s mouth, spit on him, shot him in the arm, and tied a whip around the boy’s neck and lifted him off the ground, according to the Lincoln Journal Star

Around March 25, 1985, the 6’2” Ryan, who weighed over 230 pounds, slammed the 5-year-old boy into a cabinet, resulting in a fatal head injury. Ryan ordered Thimm and Rick Stice to bury him in a shallow unmarked grave. In the weeks after his son’s death, Rick Stice repeatedly ran away from the cult, leaving for good on April 4. 

Ryan next turned his wrath on James Thimm. On April 27, 1985, he was beaten by Ryan and the other male members of the cult after being accused of poisoning a turkey being eaten at a communal meal. He was then taken to one of the former pig pens where he endured days of horrific physical and sexual abuse before being murdered. 

According to court documents, Ryan, his 16-year-old son Dennis, and cult members Timothy Haverkamp, James Haverkamp, and John David Andreas repeatedly sodomized Thimm with the handle of a shovel and a pick, causing grievous internal injuries. 

Ryan then commanded each of the five men to whip Thimm 15 times, a total of 75 lashes. Ryan had the men shoot off the tips of Thimm’s fingers on his left hand. Ryan then broke Thimm’s arm and removed the skin from part of Thimm’s leg with a razor blade and pliers. Afterwards he commanded his son and Haverkamp to break Thimm’s legs. 

Finally. Ryan stomped in Thimm’s chest, breaking his ribs and ordered Haverkamp to shoot him in the head. 

Thimm was buried in an unmarked grave. 

That June, James Haverkamp and Andreas were arrested for stealing farm machinery in Kansas, according to court documents. As a result, authorities raided the farm, finding a weapons cache that included 150,000 rounds of ammunition and over $250,000 worth of stolen property, according to the Daily News. 

While in custody, Haverkamp and Andreas told police about the murders, and another raid in late August turned up the dead bodies of Luke Stice and James Thimm. Michael and Dennis Ryan and Timothy Haverkamp were all charged with first-degree murder, The New York Times reported.

Michael and Dennis Ryan went on trial in March 1986, by which time Timothy Haverkamp had already pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, according to the Associated Press. When asked why he had participated in the torture and murder of James Thimm, Dennis Ryan said, “Because that’s what Yahweh wanted,″ the Associated Press reported. After 18 days of testimony, they were both found guilty, Michael of first-degree murder, his son to second-degree murder, according to The New York Times.

In October 1986, Michael Ryan was sentenced to death, according to the news service UPI. He had pleaded no contest to second-degree murder charges related to the death of Luke Stice. Dennis Ryan was given a life sentence, but was released in 1997, after 12 years in prison and pleading guilty to manslaughter, according to local Kansas newspaper Hiawatha World

After pleading guilty to assault charges, former cult members James Haverkamp and John Andreas were sentenced to 26 years in prison, but released in 1998, according to the Daily News. Timothy Haverkamp was sentenced to 10 years to life but was released in 2009, after serving 23 in prison. In 2014, the Omaha World-Herald reported the Nebraska Board of Pardons made the rare move of commuting his sentence, releasing him from a lifetime of supervision. 

On May 24, 2015, after almost 30 years in prison, and several stays of execution, Michael Ryan died on death row at the age of 66, according to the Lincoln Star Journal. The cause of death was cancer. 

He had been unrepentant up to the end, believing he had been following Yahweh’s wishes all along. 

When told he was dying, Dennis Ryan, who hadn’t spoken to his father since their arrest and convictions told Omaha Magazine, “Best for everybody. Good riddance. Flush him down the toilet for all I care.”

Dennis Ryan and other former cult members give shocking testimony in the upcoming episode of “Deadly Cults,” the documentary series on the inner workings of lethal cultish behavior, on Oxygen, Sundays 8/7c.

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