The Messed Up Truth About The Yahweh Cult Of Nebraska

The life that Rick Stice loved was quickly dwindling away. After several years of marriage to his high school sweetheart and the purchase of a thriving hog operation, he and his family were beginning to be beset by a series of events that might rival those of Job (per the Chicago Tribune). His hog farm in southeast Nebraska wasn't performing as well as needed, and he and his wife Sondra were forced to make certain financial sacrifices so that they could pay the banknote every month. One of the cutbacks the couple made was the cancelation of their health insurance. As luck would have it, in April 1982, shortly after canceling their policies, Sondra was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, a form of cancer that can be combatted with proper treatment. But without insurance to pay for it, her life would be over within a year of being diagnosed.

Desperate for a way out, Stice and his wife began to attend local religious revival meetings in hopes of finding a faith healer. This led them to meetings held by white nationalist and Christian Identity leader James Wickstrom. It was Wickstrom who persuaded Stice that his financial problems were the result of Jewish bankers, also preaching that this same conspiracy was making it more difficult for the white race to multiply and survive.

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The arm test

Also present at these meetings was Michael Ryan, an unemployed livestock truck driver from the nearby state of Kansas (via the Chicago Tribune). As domineering as he was charismatic, days after Sondra Stice died from cancer, Ryan convinced Rick Stice to allow him and several others to take up residence on Stice's farm. Claiming that God (or "Yahweh," as Ryan referred to the deity) had a direct line of communication through him, Ryan began to amass a small number of followers from James Wickstrom's revival meetings.

Considered to be Wickstrom's right-hand man in Kansas, Ryan had a lot of influence over the Nebraska attendees at Wickstrom's meetings. Wickstrom taught Ryan well, and Ryan was able to use his mentor's schemes to win his way onto Stice's farmland. One trick Ryan learned from Wickstrom was the "arm test." According to the Chicago Tribune, this would involve the subject holding his or her arm at a 45-degree angle from the shoulder. The person who administered the test (Ryan) would grab the subject's shoulder with one hand and the subject's wrist with the other. The administrator would then address Yahweh and ask a question involving the subject. If the arm stayed up, Yahweh's answer was "yes." But if it dropped, Yahweh's answer was "no."

Several years later, at Ryan's trial for murder, psychologists testified that it was the administrator of the arm test that had all of the control due to how the shoulder was gripped. But Ryan was able to master this test and used it for notorious purposes.

Ryan's numbers grow

Soon, over two dozen members (some coming as defectors from a local Mennonite community) were housed on the farm (per the Chicago Tribune). Using the arm test, Michael Ryan persuaded Rick Stice to stop raising hogs, as they weren't kosher. When the farm went into foreclosure, two fellow cult members bought the deed so that they could continue to reside there. Without any income from hogs, Ryan announced that the members of the new commune would need to make ends meet by stealing from nearby farms. The arm test came in handy here when it came time to convince his followers that they needed to break the law. With what they were able to steal and resell, Ryan's people bought ammunition, stockpiling quite a cache of rifles and automatic weapons.

Ryan continued to use the arm test to bend his followers to his will and various whims. He also began to use it as a way to punish and torture them, with sodomy often being Ryan's punishment of choice. It was Stice and fellow cult member James Thimm who first objected to these punishments and openly questioned the validity of the arm test. This enraged Ryan, who pitted the rest of the cult members against the two doubters. Ryan then set his intense rage upon Stice's 5-year-old son, Luke.

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The murder of Luke Stice

Michael Ryan told his followers that Luke Stice was a "mongrel" and "the seed of Satan" (per the New York Daily News). The amount of sexual abuse the child was forced to endure at the hands of cult members (including his father) is too grisly to mention, but it was all ordered by Ryan as a way to punish fellow cult members for having impure thoughts.

But the seemingly non-stop physical abuse was too much for the tiny child's body to withstand. He was constantly being thrown around by Ryan, and one evening, the violence claimed the life of the 5-year-old — Ryan took his frustrations out on Luke one last time, throwing him into a bookcase. Luke landed on his head and was put to bed without his injuries being examined. He died later that night in his sleep and, under orders from Ryan, was buried by his father in a shallow grave on the property.

Without Luke to abuse, Ryan turned his sights on another cult member. This time, it was 27-year-old James Thimm who would be subjected to the majority of the cult leader's ire. Angry that Thimm and Rick Stice had questioned his authority, Ryan demoted these two men to "slave" status and kept them chained on the porch. The two men were forced to sodomize each other as punishment, as well as forced to have sex with a goat (per Oxygen). 

Rick Stice ran away from the cult on April 4, 1985, leaving Thimm to face the rage of Ryan alone.

James Thimm was tortured for days

After months of being chained up, beaten, and forcibly raped, one might think that this would be all that the young man could endure. But the horror that James Thimm was going to face was only at the beginning stages. According to Ryan's son, Dennis, Ryan declared that Yahweh was going to test Thimm (via Oxygen). 

What this test consisted of was the men of the cult leading Thimm to a shed where he was bound in chains. Under orders from Ryan, the men kicked and beat Thimm and whipped him with a bullwhip. The following day, the cult members Tim Haverkamp, James Haverkamp, John Andreas, and Ryan's son Dennis beat, whipped, and sexually abused Thimm.

Still not satisfied with the level of torture that was being administered, Ryan ordered that Thimm be lashed again with the whip, instructing for 15 lashes on both sides of his body. Ryan and his underlings continued to brutalize Thimm before leaving him in the shed while they ate lunch. During this break, Ryan said that he had a message from Yahweh that Thimm was to be dead by afternoon. He then went out to the shed and stomped on Thimm's chest until he died. Cult members buried Thimm in an unmarked grave on the property.

A weapons arrest led authorites to a murder scene

In June of 1985, John Andreas and James Haverkamp were arrested for carrying concealed weapons. This led investigators to Michael Ryan's compound, where they raided the property of its cache of weapons, bomb-making equipment, and over $250,000 worth of stolen property from nearby farms (via the New York Daily News). Before the second raid in August of that year, Andreas and Haverkamp told police that two murders had taken place on the property and that they could help them locate the bodies. 

When police ascended upon the property, they discovered the bodies of Luke Stice and James Thimm in shallow ruts (via the Chicago Tribune). The discovery of these bodies, along with the statements from Andreas and Haverkamp, was enough to get cult members charged with a variety of offenses, including first-degree murder charges for their leader Ryan and various murder and assault charges for other cult members.

Michael Ryan was sentenced to death for his crimes

The members of the cult were punished, with cult leader Michael Ryan being found guilty of the second-degree murder of Luke Stice and the first-degree murder of James Thimm. He was sentenced to death by lethal injection (via Oxygen). The younger Ryan was sentenced to life in prison for the second-degree murder of Thimm but was later released after a new trial was granted, and he was instead found guilty on a lesser manslaughter charge. 

For his participation in Thimm's murder, Timothy Haverkamp was convicted of second-degree murder; he served his time and was released in 2009. James Haverkamp and Andreas were convicted of various assault charges and sentenced to 26 years. They were released after 13 years in 1998 (per the New York Daily News).

Michael Ryan avoided his death by capital punishment and died in his Nebraska prison cell of natural causes in 2015.