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How Did Gwen Shamblin From HBO's 'The Way Down' Die?

Controversial church leader Gwen Shamblin lost her life in a small plane crash in May alongside her husband Joe Lara and five other church members. 

By Jill Sederstrom

For more than two decades, Gwen Shamblin Lara encouraged her followers to turn to God to lose unwanted pounds as the leader of a controversial Tennessee-based church beset by accusations that it encouraged child abuse, isolated members from the outside world and controlled nearly every aspect of its adherents' lives.

But Shamblin’s reign came to a sudden halt on May 29, 2021 when the 66-year-old died in a small plane crash along with her husband, Joe Lara, and five other church leaders.

Shamblin’s life, meteoric rise to fame and the practices and policies of her controversial religious group are the focus of the HBO Max docuseries “The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin.” Shamblin gained notoriety as the founder of the Weigh Down workshops in the mid 1980s, which promised to help people lose weight and keep the pounds off through the power of prayer, shifting from an obsession with food to an obsession with God.

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She claimed her ideas in the workshop — which later served as the basis for the 1997 book “The Weigh Down Diet: Inspirational Way To Lose Weight, Stay Slim And Find A New You” — taught people “how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down” to God, according to the docuseries.

She started her own church, known as the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999, which embraced those same philosophies and, as the docuseries explores, was accused of condoning child abuse among church members — a charge Shamblin denied.

Shamblin was killed when the 1982 Cessna 501 she had been flying in went down in Percy Priest Lake on May 29, shortly after taking off from the Smyrna Airport in Tennessee, according to The Tennessean.

A witness reported seeing the plane go “straight down” into a shallow area of the lake, killing all seven church members on board.

Along with Shamblin and Lara, Jennifer J. Martin, David L. Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters and Shamblin’s son-in-law Brandon Hannah were also killed.

Hannah had been the husband of Shamblin’s daughter, Elizabeth Hannah.  

Shortly after the crash, Elizabeth sent out a text to families of the Remnant Fellowship church saying the plane “had to go down for a controlled, quick landing,” local station WVTF reported.

The group had been traveling to a “We The People Patriots’ Day Rally” in Florida, which featured speakers including those who supported former President Donald Trump, according to USA Today.

“We have lost a true patriot and a woman who loved God and everybody around her,” Christie Hutcherson, the founder of Women Fighting for America, said after Shamblin’s death. “She was extremely generous and loving and caring.”

Authorities were able to recover about two-thirds of the airplane from the lake, including the main cabin door and most of the tail section.

A flight data recorder recovered from the crash scene captured the final moments of communication between the plane’s pilot—believed to be Lara—and the control tower before the plane crashed into the water.

A cockpit recording revealed an alarm had been going off before the crash, suggesting a possible mechanical failure in the aircraft, according to local news station WTVF.

Although both Lara and Brandon Hannah were pilots, it is believed that Lara—who held commercial pilot certificates for airplanes and helicopters—had been piloting the plane that day, according to the Tennessean.

Lara’s most recent FAA medical certificate to fly had been issued on Nov. 12, 2019, according to the local paper.

In a statement released by the church shortly after the deaths, Shamblin’s children Michael Shamblin and Elizabeth Hannah planned to “continue the dream” started by their mother.

Elizabeth Hannah seemingly assumed the reign’s of her mother’s church in the final moments of the third episode of the docuseries, as she addressed the congregation in a black dress.

“I know what I’m called to do and I always told my mother, ‘If something happens to you, you know I’ll do it. You know I’ll do it for God. It’s not what I want to do, but you know I’ll do it,’” she said.

She went on to say that congregation was on “the verge of walking into the promise land” as she took over the church’s leadership.

“Let’s not blow it,” she said. “Let’s do what’s right. Let’s go all the way into the promised land together.”  

The final two parts of the docuseries are expected to be released next year and will deal with the aftermath of Shamblin’s death.

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