It has been decades since John Neal lived as a child at the Florida-based religious cult House of Prayer for All People, but the abuse and fear he experienced there is never far from his mind.
“It formed me. Like my formative years, my childhood years, were spent out there. That’s who I am,” Neal said in the UCP Audio podcast “The Followers: House of Prayer.” “It’s part of me forever. So, I just can’t forget about it and go on with my life. I have to deal with it every day.”
While living at the House of Prayer in rural Micanopy, Florida, Neal lived through the death of his younger sister Katonya Jackson—who was beaten and prevented from taking her seizure medication— and endured “hundreds” of beatings of his own that left him with life-long scars across his back.
But after years of terror and uncertainty, Neal and his mother, Lea Vera Jackson, fled the cult in a night-time escape that would ultimately allow the mother and son to reclaim their lives.
“It took a while,” Neal would later tell detectives of returning to normal life, according to the podcast. “I didn’t want to let go from out there, but from what I remember, as time went on, I saw that life didn’t have to be like that. Life could be good.”
The Death Of Katonya
Neal moved to the House of Prayer with his mother and younger sister in the 1980s when he was just 6 years old.
“My mom was having a hard time taking care of us,” Neal said of his mother’s decision to adopt a more communal style of living and join the deeply religious community.
The group's leader, Anna Young, had initially seemed “very charming” and “charismatic” and pledged a deep devotion to God, Neal recalled in the podcast.
But life in the community wasn’t as idyllic as it initially appeared. Members were forced to adhere to Young’s strict interpretation of the Bible and all of the children were taken from their parents and placed in her care.
Followers—including Neal and Lea Vera—report enduring horrific punishments like beatings, being locked into a box without food or water for days and living in constant fear of Young and her whims.
Young, who was known as “Mother Anna,” told her followers that Neal’s younger sister Katonya—who was around 2 years old at the time—had a “demon” inside her and subjected the young girl to “incredibly cruel” beatings, Neal would later tell investigators, according to court documents obtained by Oxygen.com.
“He stated he observed Anna Young hold his two year old sister up by one ankle and beat her on the bottoms of her feet and legs,” the affidavit said.
Neal recalled Young forcing his sister to run in circles as she chanted “Jesus.” Anytime she slowed down or stopped, Young would beat her, he told investigators.
The toddler began having seizures but Young did not give the child the medication she required, and she eventually died at a local hospital in 1983 from a seizure disorder, according to The Gainesville Sun.
Neal last saw his sister alive at the hospital with “machines hooked up to her,” he told investigators, according to court records.
The state’s medical examiner’s office would later rule the young girl's death had been preventable.
Life At The House Of Prayer Continues
But Katonya was not the only child to have encountered Young’s wrath. Neal recalled enduring “hundreds” of beatings himself at the rural farm property.
One of the most severe beatings occurred when he was 7 years old. Young allegedly believed the child had taken a piece of candy—something Neal has denied—and ordered that he be beaten with 33 lashes, a number chosen to symbolize the age Jesus had been when he died on the cross, The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported in 2018.
“I was lying on the couch. I remember it was a couch with a yellow cover on it because by the time it was done like the whole couch was just like covered in blood, in my blood,” Neal said of the beating that left him with permanent scars.
While Neal can still remember the searing pain, it’s another image from that day that continues to haunt him.
As the beating continued, he said his mother was brought into the room.
“I am naked, bloody, and my mom was standing there like this with her hand in front of her face. It looked like she was in shock, and I am looking like ‘Help me mom,’ and then they escorted her out,” Neal said. “That’s when I knew I was by myself out there. There was no help for me.”
Lea Vera Jackson described viewing the horrific scene but said much of her memory of the event has been blocked out because of what she believes was “God’s way of protecting my sanity,” she said in the podcast.
“What could I have done?” she asked. “I don’t know. I was too afraid to do anything.”
A hospital employee would discover the deep scars from the beating on Neal’s back a year later after he went to the hospital for a severe scalp infection.
Followers told authorities the young boy had gotten the scars from riding through a glass plate on his bicycle but the case worker assigned to Neal’s case was suspicious and tried to remove him from the home on several occasions, but Neal was always instructed to hide in secret compartments on the farm, eluding authorities.
“When they went in, they would see a very clean house,” Alachua County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson Art Forgey told local station WTLV-WJXX.
A Daring Escape
The brutal and often unpredictable life on the farm continued for years until a chance decision would give Neal and his mom the opportunity they needed to finally flee the House of Prayer.
Instead of sleeping in a room with the other men living in the large house on the property, Neal was ordered to sleep alone in a small, rustic cabin along the edge of the property when he was about 11 years old.
“They got comfortable,” Neal remembered. “They let me get a cabin by myself and it let my mom have access to me one on one.”
Neal’s newly gained privacy would prove to be critical and coincided one day with a rare opportunity Lea Vera was given to go to work on her own.
While at work, Lea Vera said she got a phone call from a friend and former member urging her to leave the religious community and made the “split decision” to leave that night.
She called her sister and arranged for her to meet her at the property later that night, but knew she couldn’t leave without Neal. After getting off work, she parked the vehicle she had driven in its usual spot and then quietly headed through the fields to the small cabin where Neal was sleeping.
She woke him up and convinced him that they were going to go visit his grandmother.
“She liked dragged me all the way up the field. It was pitch black outside. I think all I did was put on my boots,” Neal recalled in the podcast.
Lea Vera’s sister was waiting in her own car and quickly whisked the pair to safety.
After a brief visit to see his grandmother in Gainesville, Lea Vera and Neal were still worried cult members would find them, so they traveled to Atlanta where they could start a new life with Lea Vera’s sister.
“I had to really talk to him and explain to him, ‘John this is not of God,’” Lea Vera said of her efforts to de-program her son after they fled.
Neal told local station WCJB in 2018 that he was raised primarily by his grandmother, Joan Hope, after leaving the cult when he was about 12 years old. He later joined the Air Force and became a father.
“The one thing I learned out there was to trust God,” Neal told the local station.
His memories of life in the House of Prayer would bubble to the surface again after Young’s daughter, Joy Fluker, called the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office in 2016 to report that she believed her mother had killed another child, Emon Harper, at the property in the 1980s.
The call would trigger a new investigation into Young and the horrific acts carried out at the House of Prayer.
“It took a lot of courage from a lot of different people to come forward [and] bring this to light,” Forgey, the Alachue County Sheriff's Office spokesperson, told WTLV.
Young was arrested in 2017 and agreed to plead no contest last month to second-degree murder in Harper’s death and manslaughter in Katonya Jackson’s death—finally giving Neal and his family some measure of closure.
“We still love and miss her to this day,” Neal told the court of his sister, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution. “She was a human being. She was good. She was loved. She would have been 30 years old this year.”
For more information on the House of Prayer, listen to the UCP Audio's "The Followers: House of Prayer" wherever you get your podcasts.
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