Noel Lyons, a member of the U.S. Ski Team from 1976 to 1981 and once one of the country's top professional skiers, found herself in a Vail, Colo., hospital in the spring of 2010 after another round of binge drinking. "I had given up on myself," she would say later. Her boyfriend and sister decided she needed rehabilitative help. Because their resources were limited, they turned to the free Total Freedom Program, a Florida ministry for women and men that identifies itself as Christian.
Cate Iannello, the wife of the leader of Total Freedom Program, "Pastor Guy," met Lyons in July 2010 at the Orlando airport and drove her to what she called "the girls' house," a yellow ranch house in a nondescript neighborhood of nearby Ocoee. Lyons says she arrived "scared out of my mind" and holding a decorative pillow with the image of a buffalo on it. Because the pillow had "past associations" that could evoke demons, she was soon told to put it in the trash.
Lyons walked into the living room with the pastor's wife. She met a woman there who introduced herself as Connie Prince, "the house mom" -- a position Lyons herself would assume eventually. She was introduced to about five other "girls," all white and ranging in age from the 20s into the 50s, who lived in the house.
The house mom rifled through Lyons' bag of clothes. She pulled out particular garments and told her, "Well, you won't be wearing that." Prince confiscated the small amount of money Lyons had, her Ambien sleeping pills, cellphone and phone card.
"Later on I found out it was inappropriate or had accursed symbols," Lyons said of the confiscated clothes when we met at the home of a friend outside Philadelphia where she was staying.
Lyons, now 50, toured the group house with a woman named Susan. Susan, in her early 20s, showed Lyons the bedroom the two women would share. It had bare walls and three beds with mismatched sheets, three dilapidated dressers and one closet. Lyons was then taken to the kitchen, where she sat with other women at a table for prayers and dinner. Afterward the women went into the living room for Lyons' "praying in" ceremony. She was instructed to sit on the floor. The women sat in a circle around her.
"Then they made sure I had no tattoos, which are accursed items," Lyons said. New arrivals with tattoos had to be specially anointed to excise the demons that the ministry claimed were embedded in tattoos.
The circle of women prayed over her, including in the gibberish of "tongues," and anointed her with oil. The women walked through the house after the ceremony. They said more prayers in tongues to rid the house of demons. They dipped their fingers in oil and marked the doorjambs with the sign of the cross to drive out evil spirits. "It's called the Housecleaning Prayer," Lyons said. "And a lot of times they'll put a cross over the beds where our heads rest."
Lyons began to speak to me in a stream of nonsensical sounds to imitate praying in tongues. She instinctively crossed her arms over her chest. "It's like in chanting," she said. "I'm holding my heart because I believed that the enemy was trying to get my heart. So I'm always covering my heart."
She was given a rules handbook and told she had to sign an "intake form" promising to obey the community's edicts. She read in the handbook that she would be forbidden to contact anyone except her immediate family for nine months, which distressed her because of her relationship with her boyfriend in Vail. The form said she would forfeit the right to sue the ministry, which she found odd. She refused to sign the form without a lawyer. She went to her room distraught and frightened, unsure of what to do. She could not sleep. In the middle of the night she went outside and thought about hotwiring one of the cars in order to leave, but, she said, "I had nowhere to go, and I had no money. I had no contact with anyone." At 5:30 a.m. she was told it was time for the ritual morning prayers.
"The house mom leads the prayers and everyone has to be in unison with the prayers." She called these "the paper prayers" because they were printed out on sheets.
"You say your warfare prayer, your deliverance prayer, your third dimensional warrior prayer, it'll make sense to you later on," she explained. "It's all warfare praying."
Lyons was told to go to a designated spot in the house "where you're supposed to communicate with God and have your "David cave time' with him." Before the start of her "David cave time," Lyons, frustrated by being unable to do her normal physical workout, did sit-ups and push-ups in the living room. As she exercised, "people are just walking by, not talking to me," she said.
Lyons was told she was allowed only one cup of coffee a day. She was told that she was permitted to speak by phone only with immediate family members and only when a person of the community monitored the conversation.
Every resident, she found, was expected to be an informant if she or he saw someone break the rules. Many of those at the ministry compound had recently come out of prison and were in the facility as a halfway house requirement.
The female residents "become a posse," Lyons said. "Remember, a lot of these people came from prison. None of the people are qualified to do anything. A lot of these people are supposed to be in a house that transitions them to the real world."