By Shelley Grieshop
Two former followers of The Way International of New Knoxville are suing the ministry for barring them from two cemeteries on the organization's property where their family and friends are buried.
The lawsuit was filed in late September in Shelby County Common Pleas Court, Sidney, on behalf of Shannon L. Bottoms of Nashville, Tenn., and Douglas R. McMullan, a resident of Raleigh, Miss. The pair are represented by attorney Benson Wolman of Columbus.
Bottoms and McMullan seek a right of access to the cemeteries, compensatory damages greater than $15,000, punitive damages "in an amount sufficient to deter future unlawful conduct and to express the indignation and outrage of the community toward their conduct," court costs and attorney fees.
Bottoms' stillborn son was cremated and buried in one of the cemeteries on Way property in 1977. McMullan claims to have friends buried in a second cemetery on the property. Both previously were followers of The Way but left the ministry in April 1985.
Wolman told The Daily Standard he believes one of the reasons a permanent easement has not been granted to his clients by The Way is because Way officials resent them for leaving the nondenominational ministry nearly 20 years ago. Attorneys for The Way, Michael Boller of Sidney and Louis Colombo of Cleveland, denied most of the accusations in their reply filed Oct. 29 and seek to have the lawsuit dismissed. The defense attorneys also seek to have McMullan dismissed from the action.
According to records obtained by The Daily Standard from the Shelby County Sheriff's Office, McMullen, 53, has attempted to enter The Way property without prior permission each October since 2001. Three times out of four he was arrested and twice convicted for trespassing or criminal trespassing, including the most recent incident in October after the civil suit was filed.
Rico Magnelli, public relations coordinator for The Way, told The Daily Standard that McMullan is not permitted on Way property due to a court order stemming from prior trespassing charges against him. McMullan, who wishes to visit both the Way Woods and the Garden of Living Waters cemeteries, would have been granted access from the beginning if he'd only signed an "acknowledgement," Magnelli said.
The acknowledgment document simply states the cemeteries are located on private property and if a visitor is granted permission to enter as a guest, it is a one-time waiver. Although McMullan notifies Way officials before each visit, he refuses to sign the acknowledgment.
"We have made repeated efforts to avoid a conflict with Ms. Bottoms and Mr. McMullan," Magnelli said. "What do they really want?"
Magnelli said on at least one occasion McMullan brought area media representatives to watch as he attempted to trespass on the land.
"Plainly, Mr. McMullan and Shannon Bottoms are less interested in visiting either cemetery than they are in making an issue where none should exist," Way officials said in a media release.
Magnelli said The Way cannot allow the general public to "wander freely" on their private property. One of the cemeteries is located near private homes, he added.
According to the lawsuit, Bottoms and McMullan were promised by Way officials at internment of their loved ones that the sites would be freely accessible to them. At the time the pair received the promises, The Way had no written policies on cemetery access, the lawsuit states. The policies reportedly were not written until 2002 -- the year the cemeteries were registered with the Bureau of Cemeteries -- and then did not reflect any previous promises.
Wolman claims The Way breached its contract to Bottoms who acquired rights to the burial plot at the time her son was buried. Wolman, in court documents, said his client has an implied property and easement right to the grave of her loved ones because "there is no alternative route to access" either cemetery.
"It is a matter of old law that an easement must be created to allow access to cemeteries to (surviving) family and friends," Wolman told The Daily Standard.
Magnelli responded that Bottoms has never been denied -- and will never be denied -- access to visit the Way Woods cemetery where her stillborn child is buried.
During McMullan's last attempt to visit the cemetery Oct. 5, he once again was arrested by deputies as he, his sister and Bottoms tried to enter The Way property. McMullan was charged with criminal trespassing and released on a $1,500 bond. He pleaded not guilty to the charge two days later and a pretrial hearing is set for Nov. 17.
The Way International, a worldwide biblical research, teaching and fellowship ministry, was founded in 1942 and is located at 5500 Wierwille Road. Currently, the Rev. Rosalie F. Rivenbark heads the organization as president.