Controversial church founder, actor husband among 7 presumed dead in Tennessee plane crash


SMYRNA, Tenn. (WKRN) –—The founder of a controversial church in Brentwood was among seven people presumed dead after a small plane crashed in a Tennessee lake Saturday.

FAA officials said a Cessna C501 with seven people on board crashed into Percy Priest Lake near Smyrna around 11 a.m. after departing from the Smyrna Rutherford County Airport.

Tennessee Highway Patrol told NewsNation affiliate WKRN that a small airplane was allegedly seen going into the water near the boat ramp.

The occupants of the plane have been identified as leaders of Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood. Their names are:

  • William J. Lara
  • Gwen S. Lara
  • Jennifer J. Martin
  • David L. Martin
  • Jessica Walters
  • Jonathan Walters
  • Brandon Hannah

On Monday, crews found both of the engines and a significant portion of the jet’s fuselage. Items were lifted from the waters and transported with the assistance of a crane and barge.

Human remains were also recovered, and Rutherford County Medical Examiner’s Office says they can “confidently verify that there are seven individuals, four males and three females.”

“I cannot say enough about the teamwork of all agencies represented from our local public safety agencies to our federal partners,” said Rutherford County Public Safety Director Chris Clark. “Our teams are all committed to doing absolutely everything we can to bring closure during this very tragic situation.”

According to NTSB officials, the preliminary investigation could take up to 14 days, and the entire investigation could take up to 18-24 months.

WKRN obtained the tail number of the plane involved in the crash. Records show it registered to a production company called ‘JL&GL PRODUCTIONS LP’ associated with leaders of Remnant Fellowship Church, specifically Joe Lara and Gwen Shamblin Lara.

Gwen Shamblin Lara started the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999 as an extension of her popular book The Weigh Down Diet. More than 100,000 churches across 66 denominations began holding ‘weigh down workshop’ ministries. In November of 2004, the Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood opened its doors.

“It’s teaching you how to transfer this relationship with the food – and we’ve got one on this country – to a relationship with God,” Shamblin said in a previous interview.

Since the church began, there have been questions and concerns. Shamblin’s public denial of the Holy Trinity led churches to drop her program.

Spirit-watch, a website that issued a 50-page report on the church’s teachings concluded by stating the Remnant Fellowship meets its criteria of being a cult. Shamblin and other church members sued Spirit-Watch and an anonymous blogger who had also been critical of the church.

In 2007, a couple who were members of the church was convicted of murdering their eight-year-old son who was beaten and locked in a wooden box. At the time, Shamblin said the pair was innocent.

William Lara, who goes by his middle name “Joe” married Gwen in 2018. He’s an actor best known in the role of Tarzan in the television series Tarzan: The epic adventures. His work included a Baywatch appearance and a key role in a Gunsmoke movie.

Remnant Fellowship responded to a Facebook message from WKRN prior to officials releasing the identifies of those on board the plane, saying:

“The Shamblins, Hannahs and Laras appreciate your concern, support and prayers.  As has been reported by the media, some family members may have been involved in a plane accident this morning. The families are awaiting details from the authorities. Because no details have been confirmed, the authorities have been unable to communicate with the families of those involved. The families will share details at the appropriate time. In the meantime, the families respectfully request prayers and privacy for all involved, please.”

The leadership section of the Remnant Fellowship Church website lists six people with those last names included in the statement – Joe and Gwen Lara, Michael and Erin Shamblin and Brandon and Elizabeth Hannah.

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