The journey to heal

Ex-cult members say it's time to set the record straight

The All Saved Freak Band started in 1968 with (from back left) co-founder Joe Markko on guitar, co-founder Larry Hill, piano; Mike (last name unknown), drums, and Randy Markko on bass.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a three-part series resulting from former members of an Ashtabula County church coming forward to tell their stories after reading about the reported cult-like activities at the Apostolic Faith Church in Jefferson Township.

In 1963, Larry Hill was a street evangelist working in Chicago, when he invited 15-year-old Joe Markko to say "the sinner’s prayer." Five years later, the twosome would start one of the first Christian rock bands in America. In 1971, Hill convinced Ron Taggart to move to his farm/church in Windsor Township. After leaving the church, Taggart began a movement to educate the public about cults.


When Joe Markko walked away from the Church of the Risen Christ in 1979, he was an elder in the church, a licensed minister and the Rev. Larry Hill’s "spiritual son."

Now 57, Markko searches for healing - not from the emotional scars of a dysfunctional childhood and living on the streets of Chicago, or from the loss of his hands after being electrocuted with 27,000 volts of electricity; but rather, from the horrific memories of the 11 years he spent at Hill’s farm/church in Windsor Township.

The recent news reports about cult-like activities at the Apostolic Faith Church in Jefferson Township brought back nightmares of abuse for Markko: "Adults were beaten, I was beaten, but beating children until they quit crying."

Markko never finished the sentence.

He said until he read the May 12 Star Beacon article and an article in the December 2004 edition of Cleveland Scene magazine, where Hill blamed his former members for his demise, he and (former member) Ron Taggart had not plan to step forward.

"We decided it’s time to speak up," Markko said. "He’s lying and we’re not going to take it any more."

Markko’s story really begins at birth when his 15-year-old mother abandoned him, leaving Markko to grow up in foster homes. By the time he was 15, Markko had discovered alcohol and drugs as a way to escape. He met Hill on a street corner on Chicago’s north side. Hill introduced him to Christianity, but the preacher moved back to Ohio shortly thereafter.

Markko’s parole officer later sent him to live with Hill and family at their home in Jefferson. Markko returned to Chicago, but Hill continued to visit him, looking after him as a father would a son.

In August 1968, Hill made one of his trips to Chicago. Markko blames a combination of drugs and a family member’s eerie premonition of death for his wife’s subsequent panic attack and decision to follow Hill back to Ohio.

Afterwards, life became work and church. The group bought a farmhouse in Windsor Township and, although some left the flock because they didn’t like the idea of a commune, about 45 people, moved to the farm, Markko said.

All week they worked on the farm and every weekend, they witnessed and distributed a homemade newspaper, "Freedom Bell" on the streets of Cleveland, talking to prostitutes and addicts, musicians and bartenders, even to Hells Angels. They also took on Ashtabula County, going door-to-door and leasing a tent at the fair. After the Kent State University riots in May 1970, Hill moved his mission work there.

Hill and Markko had started a band, forming what would later be called the All Saved Freak Band. Hill played the piano; Markko, guitar; Hill’s oldest son, Brett, percussion, and Markko’s brother, Randy, bass. Their first song, "There is still hope in Jesus," became the closing song for a local Saturday night radio broadcast: "Time for the Risen Christ."

In the midst of all this, 21-year-old Markko was trying to be a good parent to three young children. He turned to Hill for guidance.

Markko preferred not to talk about what followed, other than to show an old, yellowed copy of "Freedom Bell," where Hill wrote, "The scripture teaches, ’Beat thy son with a rod, and let not your soul spare his tears.’ We’re so squeamish about bruises on our children’s legs, but we can stand and watch their souls and emotions be mutilated."

Today, Markko’s children will have nothing to do with church.

"I did what I did because I believed I was doing it for God," he said. "Intentions were pure, but misguided."

Taggart said he was beaten 13 times with a bullwhip, up to 40 lashes at a time.

Hill, now 70, denied charges of any abuse.

Throughout 1971, the group shuttled back and forth to Kent and the farm, working day and night. Some men kept watch of the farm at night, others dug a tunnel after Hill prophesied China would invade America, and God would only save his prophet, Hill, and his followers, Markko said.

"We were sleep deprived over a long period of time and then sent out on a cross-country drives in the middle of the night," Markko said.

Brett Hill was killed on the way home from a New Year’s Eve concert in Kent. The driver, Tom Miller, fell asleep at the wheel of Taggart’s truck. The vehicle jumped a ditch, crossed a cornfield, the passenger door opened and Brett fell out, rolling under the wheels.

Taggart said when Brett died, he thought Hill would realize the price of sleep deprivation. But that wouldn’t be the case.

More would die, Joe Markko would be maimed, child abuse charges would emerge and Hill would forever blame Taggart for his son’s death.

"He poked me in the chest and said, ’You owe me for the rest of your life. If you had fixed the door of the truck like I told you, my son would still be alive,’" Taggart said, noting there was no time to fix the truck. "Besides, when you joined the church, your possessions were no longer yours."

During a phone interview Thursday, Hill said Taggart told him before the concert that he had fixed the truck.

"He lied to me ... I sold the truck immediately," Hill said.

Today, Taggart, 53 lives in Akron and volunteers for Cult Information Services of Northeast Ohio. For more information, call (330) 929-9734.

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