Esther Wilson Price, an 80 year old Richmond, Va., heiress, was lonely and seriously ill four years ago when the flamboyant leader of a little-known religious cult stepped into her room in a Richmond hospital.
The visit marked the befinning of a remarkable - and baffling - relationship between the two, a tie that has left Pricehs relatives mystified and angry and brought frowns from police in this community 100 miles southwest of St. Louis.
A few months after the hospital encounter, Price joined the cult leader, Joseph Jeffers, at his remote and closely guarded commune here in the Missouri Ozarks. And she brought her money with her - estimated between $2.5 million and $5 million.
"She went from one bank to another," Jeffers said in a recent interview. "She got so many stocks and bonds she couldn't carry them all. A million from this bank, a million from that bank."
Last August, suffering from a cancerous bladder and enduring great pain, Price died in her one-room apartment in a rickety dormitory-like structure at the commune. She left behind a death-bed will, signed with a frail hand, turning her fortune over to Jeffers.
Price's body was returned to Richmond in an inexpensive coffin and she was buried - without her relatives' knowledge - beside her husband in River View Cemetery, as she had wished.
"It's so mysterious," said Ethel Wilson, a sister-in-law, who lives in Richmond. "The body comes in here without anyone knowing and is buried in the cheapest coffin - a woman with $5 million. That doesn't make sense."
Price's relatives now are challenging the will in a Missouri court, claiming it was coerced.
"She was a very gentle person," Wilson said. "She lived all her life with her mother and father - even after she was married. She'd always been protected - overly protected. She wasn't prepared to face the world."
Although the contrast in backgrounds between Price and Jeffers could hardly have been greater, circumstances conspired to bring them together.
The daughter of John T. Wilson, an executive of Richmond's Bank of Commerce and Trust, and widow of lumber businessman Conrad L. Price, Esther Price was left alone when members of her immediate family died in the mid-1960s. Despite her sustantial personal wealth, she spent the last decade in Richmon's aging Jefferson Hotel. During that period, according to Jeffers, she made contact with the cult, responding to an advertisement in a magazine called Fate that caters to fans of the occult.
She struck up a correspondence with Jeffers and at one point planned to bequeath the cult $20,000, according to a 1966 will now on filed in Phelps County (Mo.) Probate Court. In a later will, written in 1976 at the commune, she increased the amount set aside for the cult.
By contrast, Jeffers, 80 cuts a colorful figure. Decked out in fur-collar coasts and hats decorated with feathers, he gets about in a $25, Mercedes as he tends to the affairs of his corporation, Kingdom Voice Inc., the parent of the Yaweh cult (after the Hebrew name for God) and its 350 acre commune here, Yahweh City.
"I'm not a film flammer . . . I'm a jimjammer," Jeffers joked in a recent interview. "They can call me anything they want as long as they call me for lunch."
"He's the Messiah," said Hazel Griffith, a cult member who said she turned over $40,000 to Jeffers in becoming his personal aide. "I take care of Yaheshua (Jeffers). I help him with his clothes in the morning, I bathe him, I keep his bed made and his quarters clean."
Jeffers enjoys similar loyalty from others among his 40 or so followers. The cultists till the soil with hand tools and speak of reincarnation and the power of dreams. They accept a weekly enema as part of a ritual of purification. They worship Yahweh inside a pyramid 28 feet high that they erected - with materials paid for by Price - on the blow of a hill overlooking their settlement.
Jeffers readily acknowledges that a number of widows have given him all the money they had before joining the commune, although one, Mary Hink, an 80 year old who has since left the settlement, said she gave $150,000, not $75,000 as Jeffers had told a reporter.
Jeffers' life style is a far cry from his origins as one of 15 children born to a family of Southern Baptists in Roanoke, Ala. A barnstorming Bible Belt Baptist preacher himself for years Jeffers said he received a divine message when he was 43, in 1941, to found a cult for Yahweh.
The road however, has not been smooth. He was convicted in 1945 in California of interstate transportation of a stolen vehicle and was sentenced to two years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, according to law enforcement records.
Jeffers also was convicted of mail fraud in 1964 in Tueson, Ariz., but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The charges alleged that Jeffers had gambled away religious contributions at a local dog track.
Jeffers has been married five times. His third wife, Helene Veborge, was raped, beaten and killed in Denver in 1956 in a case that remains unsolved. Her portrait, showing a handsome blond, hangs over jeffers' throne in the commune's pyramid.
Jeffers's present wife, Connie Bernice Jeffers, to whom he has been married twice, filed for divorce last Aug. 23, according to court papers in St. Louis County, and seeks $132,000 annually in alimony and child support.
But by that time, the saga of Jeffers, Price and the Yahwehists had taken a sharp turn into a bizarre subplot.
Last Aug, 8, according to court documents, Connie Jeffers, then treasurer and a 30 precent shareholder of Jeffers' Kingdom Voice Inc., withdrew at least $2.2 million from a Kingdom Voice account at City Bank in St. Louis - most of it donated to The yahwehists by Esther Price. The money was deposited in Connie Jeffers personal account.
Kingdom Voice sued Connie Jeffers and the bank on Aug. 15 for return of the funds, but three weeks later there was a new development. On Sept. 7, Jeffers, with two aides, was charged with conspiracy to murder his wife by putting a contract out for her death. The charge against Jeffers was later dropped, but it remains against his two associates, both executives of Kingdom Voice. Both men denied the allegations to a reporter.
Connie Jeffers could not be reached for comment, but in an Oct. 26 civil countersuit she said her actions at the bank had been necessary to preserve the corporation's assests from her husband's "scheme" to use the property for his own ends.
Her suit contends that Jeffers was about to use $100,000 of the Yawehist fortune to launch a personal campaign for the presidency, "$25,000 from the corporation accounts to fund a voyage to Saudi Arabia," and $3 million "for flight from the continental United States by Jeffers and others, who subsequently applied for passports."
Jeffers, according to the counterclaim, also was about to take a $10,000 Jamaican vacation for himself "and a companion, a 24 year old unmarried woman" on funds given to the Yahwehists.
A spokesman for Jeffers yesterday denied the allegations, adding that money for the porposed presidential bid came from funds donated for that specific cause.
Throughout much of the bickering ove her estate, Price remained conscious but in pain, according to a physician who visited her, Dr John James. Attended by cult members serving as nurses, she took no medication for pain "except for one shot of morphine on the last day," Jeffers said. "I tried to get her to take a Manhattan or a Tom Collins to relieve the pain."
According to cult members who knew her, Price was depressed by the legal fighting over her property.
Price died on the morning of Aug. 28. She weighed 70 pounds when funeral director Don James came from St. James to pick up the body. "No one was weeping," James said.
One of Pricehs sisters-in-law in Richmond, Inez Woodward, said she learned of Price's death a week after the burial from Tom Pasley, the Phelps County sheriff. She then contacted Don James. "He told me she was a poor old lady they (the Yahwehists) had been taking care of," she said.
At the insistence of the Richmond relatives and Pasley, Price's body was exhumed Oct. 4 and an official investigation begun into the cause of her death.
Dr. David Wiecking, Virgina's chief medical examiner, concluded in his autopsy that Price died of "carcinoma of the urinary bladder with renal insufficiency" - bladder cancer and kidney failure.
Meanwhile, the controversy over Price's death and the murder conspiracy charge have convinced Jeffers and his followers that it is time to move on. "We're finished here. We're moving out," said Jeffers, who is now considering taking his flock to Brownsville, Tex., or an island off the coast of Australia.