When truck driver turned preacher Gene Jandreau wanted to start a home for boys with severe behavioral problems, the child welfare community embraced him. No one else was providing the desperately needed service. Tampa businessman and philanthropist Bob Thomas even donated 70 acres of land and money to build the home, and became a co-founder of Jesus Loves You Inc. in 1976.
Though the two men came from different backgrounds, they seemed to share a common virtue: concern for children.
But Thomas' faith in Jandreau began to waver when allegations of child abuse by Jandreau surfaced in 1980. It evaporated completely when Thomas sued Jandreau that year to prevent his sale of the Jesus Loves You Inc. property. That bitter legal struggle lasted for years.
Now the FBI thinks Jandreau was the mastermind behind Thomas' kidnapping in January, a puzzling affair that remains so despite Jandreau's arrest last week.
Gary Betz, a lawyer who once represented Thomas and the state in a civil action against Jandreau, said the devout Catholic was an easy mark for Jandreau's type of machinations.
"Jandreau, as a preacher, had the ability to bring religious concepts to a discussion," he said. And Thomas, who hosts a Bible commentary show on WBVM radio and taught Bible classes at a state prison, was eager to listen.
"Thomas bought the whole thing, hook, line and sinker," Betz said.
Jandreau, 51, is charged with trying to extort $5-million from Thomas, 66, after two or three men abducted him from his Palm Ceia home as he left for church Jan. 14. The men who actually did the kidnapping have not been caught.
The FBI arrested Jandreau in Miami last week, after trailing him around the country for four and a half months. He was indicted in Tampa on conspiracy and extortion charges, and is being held without bail.
Thomas has refused to say anything about his kidnapping since he was released unharmed at a north Tampa shopping center two days after his abduction. FBI officials say no ransom was paid in exchange for his safe return.
10 years ago
Investigators think Jandreau's hostility toward Thomas began 10 years ago, when Thomas went to court to regain control of the Jesus Loves You home, which had become the subject of child abuse investigations and a takeover attempt by Jandreau.
One former follower of Jandreau told sheriff's detectives in 1982 that Jandreau seemed to blame Thomas for financial problems that plagued him after he moved to Tennessee. Jandreau even talked of having Thomas killed at the time, the follower said.
Betz, who represented Thomas in the civil lawsuit over control of the Jesus Loves You property, said Jandreau thought that because he ran the home, all of its assets belonged to him.
But through it all, Betz said, Thomas never felt any real animosity toward Jandreau.
"At first, he didn't even want to believe the stuff I told him about Jandreau," he said. "He turned the other cheek."
Troubles at boys' home
It wasn't long after the Jesus Loves You Inc. facility came into being that trouble began.
In November 1976, two retarded residents from Jesus Loves You were killed by a train in Brandon, three days after they were noticed missing. The case was ruled an accident by the sheriff's office.
In 1981, sheriff's deputies charged Jandreau with four counts of child abuse. Records show that a former staff member at Jesus Loves You accused Jandreau of directing or participating in severe forms of discipline at the home.
The witness alleged that boys were often given ice baths for as long as 10 minutes, forced to stand on a stump all day, locked in metal cabinets and forced to carry concrete blocks on their arms for such transgressions as wetting the bed.
Only one charge ever went to trial, and the judge acquitted Jandreau after the state presented its case. Jandreau turned custody of about 80 boys back to HRS in 1981.
Around the same time, prosecutors also were investigating Jandreau's financial dealings at Jesus Loves You. Jandreau received about $250 a month from the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) for the care of each of about 80 boys.
"HRS was giving him some pretty big money," said David Farash, an assistant state attorney at the time. "The problem was, the HRS contract wasn't very specific." So, while prosecutors thought Jandreau may have been using the funds for personal use, it was not clearly illegal, and no charges were ever filed.
The investigations involving Jesus Loves You concerned Thomas, who served on the home's board of directors but was not active in the daily operations.
After Thomas learned Jandreau had replaced him on the board of directors with Jandreau's own family and followers, he brought a civil lawsuit to regain some control of the charitable organization.
According to court records, Jandreau began moving assets from the home, including cattle and equipment, to Tennessee, where he and about 25 followers hoped to start a similar operation. By mid-1981, Jandreau's Hillsborough County operation was gone.
The real break in the civil case came in 1982, when Jandreau's daughter and son-in-law fled Jandreau's Tennessee commune and returned to Tampa. Mark David Branch told Thomas' attorney that Jandreau had written minutes to phony board meetings that purported that Thomas had been removed as a director. Branch also testified that Jandreau instructed him and other followers to lie about operations at Jesus Loves You.
Branch told the attorneys, and later sheriff's investigators, that he and Loryetta (Jandreau) Branch left Tennessee because "he does not believe that a Christian should want to kill or have free sex like what is going on within the organization."
Tommy Thompson, the district attorney for tiny Smith County, Tenn., where the home was located, said he knew about Jandreau's troubles in Florida and kept a close eye on the high-security farm.
"It was kind of a cult deal," Thompson said. "I thought Jandreau was an overbearing S.O.B., but he could be smooth and articulate too."
Ed Clemons, a former associate of Jandreau, now owns the Tennessee farm with his immediate family. He said he parted ways with Jandreau a few years back, over a "personal matter" that he would not discuss.
No one is certain of Jandreau's whereabouts before his arrest. His daughter and Mark Branch, who live in Thonotosassa, said they hadn't seen him since they left Tennessee in 1982, and declined to discuss him.
Betz said Jandreau had the ability of "mind control."
"He had the lay minister personality. . . . Everything was for love," Betz said. "They believed in everything he said, in the guise of God and Jesus Christ."