A former Florida high school band leader ran a “cult-like” student group that tracked their locations around the clock while compelling them to pay tithes and labor at his farm to prepare for the apocalypse, according to reports.
Former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder and guidance counselor Lenny Finelli both resigned this month after shocking allegations emerged from former students about “The Elder Council,” according to the Daily Commercial.
Finelli, who aided Fielder in running the society, was eventually accused of inappropriate sexual correspondence with a male student whose therapist contacted the school to report the allegations earlier this year.
Elder Council participants said they were subjected to manipulation and exploitation by Fielder, who told them he was a divine presence and hosted regular meetings at his 13-acre farm.
“He told us basically that he had such a close relationship with God that it was very, very, very rare and uncommon for him to get things wrong,” an unnamed member told the Commercial. “And his thing was, ‘If I’m wrong, then God’s going to correct me, you guys don’t need to correct me.’”
A popular and charismatic fixture at the school for many years, Fielder began the group in 2018 and presented it as an outlet for Bible study and fellowship.
But the former member said the venture soon took on darker tones, with Fielder escalating control over their personal lives and sometimes speaking in tongues during attempts at “astral projection.”
Even though they earned only modest adolescent incomes, Fielder demanded regular tithes from his members.
He also used the Life360 app to track their locations around the clock, explaining that he wanted to be able to know their whereabouts when it came time for meetings.
The Commercial reported that Fielder had members perform manual labor at his ranch in preparation for a coming apocalypse.
“Honestly, it was more doing chores on his farm than it was doing ministry work, but that was how we saw it,” the former member said.
Fielder knew that the group’s activities could alarm parents and he coached kids on how to speak to them about it.
“‘Don’t describe this like that because your parents aren’t open to all of this stuff yet,’” the former member said Fielder instructed her. “‘They’re going to think we’re a cult.’”
Dissenting voices and suspicious relatives were dismissed as witches or manipulators. Still, members finally began to break free last year.
The group imploded completely in recent months when the therapist of a former Leesburg student contacted administrators about a male in her care.
She said the former student accused Finelli of asking him sexual questions when he was a 17-year-old student and later dating him after he turned 18.
The Commercial said Fielder had Finelli and the former student delete inappropriate text messages at one point.
“It rocked me to think that I could be in a cult and that everything in my life is completely wrong,” the former member told the Commercial.
Despite those regrets, she told the outlet that she wasn’t convinced Fielder had sinister intentions.
“But I don’t even know if he understood how damaging he was to all of us. I don’t think he does. And I honestly don’t believe it was completely malicious,” she said.
Rather than face disciplinary charges, both Fielder and Finelli resigned from the school this month.
They will not face any criminal charges, and a report by the school denied that the society was a cult.
“This group was in no way affiliated with the school or the district, and any meetings they may have had were held off campus,” Lake County Schools spokesperson Sherri Owens told reporters after the resignations.