Inside the Westboro Baptist Church

TOPEKA, Kan. -- A tall wall connects Westboro Baptist Church to the five houses it owns on this block bordering 12th Street, and a huge upside-down American flag dominates the sky.

Inside the church is a large office that serves as headquarters of a nationwide fax harassment campaign, complete with manila research folders, stacks of archives and a huge, industrial-strength facsimile machine.

Just past the office is the sanctuary, with its cheap carpeting, wood paneling — and about a dozen Day-Glo picket signs stacked in a corner. The sign on top is typical: "Fag Navy," it reads.

Welcome to the world of Fred Phelps, Sr.

From this complex, Topeka's most infamous cleric has preached hatred of gay men and lesbians for at least 10 years. Over the decades since his church opened its doors in 1955, Phelps has gathered members of his extended family, helping to install them in the houses that surround the church.

It is from here, in the complex surrounding a swimming pool that is used as a baptismal font, that the boiling rage of Fred Phelps has poured out against any and all of his perceived enemies.

And it was here that Phelps raised his 13 children.

It was an unusual family by any account. From a young age, Fred Phelps' children earned a major part of the family's income, perhaps even all of it, when they were required to sell candy door-to-door for hours after school each day.

Their daily running regimen was so comprehensive — punishing, according to many — that the family was profiled several times in fitness magazines. They were fed a diet of old-time fundamentalism and, allegedly, discipline that amounted to abuse.

In a series of newspaper and television interviews over the years, three of Phelps' children — the only three who are estranged from their father — have alleged that they were attacked both physically and psychologically.

Fred Phelps, they say, meant to hurt his children and to turn them against the rest of the world.

Mark and Nathan Phelps and sister Dortha "Dotti" Bird offer plenty of brutal details — details that their father has long dismissed as "a sea of fag lies." Nathan told the Intelligence Report that he was beaten with a leather strap regularly. Then, he says, Fred Phelps switched to a mattock handle — like an axe handle — and beat Nathan until he "couldn't lie down or sit down for a week." The three charge that Phelps also beat their mother, forced the children to fast and more.

But Phelps' alleged violence — which his nine loyal children deny — never really caught up with him. A child abuse case was brought against Phelps for abuse of Nathan and his brother Jonathan, Nathan says, but was dropped when the children refused to cooperate with the prosecutor, fearing their father's reprisals.

The estranged children say that most of the family has stayed loyal because their father has filled them with the fear of God. "He would tear you down and make you feel terrible and there wasn't any way but his way," Dotti said.

"Of course," she added, "he called it God's way."

Phelps' message has kept most of his family loyal, but has sometimes worked a bit too well. Nathan Phelps says he left not because he didn't believe. Rather, he concluded he had "already been delivered unto Satan" and there was nothing left to lose. So he planned to secretly leave as soon as he reached the age of legal majority.

On the night before he turned 18, he prepared by hiding his packed car just around the corner.

"I went back in [the house] and stood at the bottom of the stairs and watched the clock," Nathan Phelps recalled recently. "When it hit midnight, I yelled at the top of my lungs, ran out the back door, and was gone forever."