Alleged Cult Leader Gwen Shamblin’s Husband Likely Caused Plane Crash That Killed Her

The founder of The Weigh Down, an evangelical weight-loss ministry since accused of abuse, died in a plane crash in 2021.

Alleged Cult Leader Gwen Shamblin’s Husband Likely Caused Plane Crash That Killed Her
Remnant Fellowship Founder Gwen Shamblin in 2004. Photo:John Russell (AP)

Gwen Shamblin—the weight-loss ministry leader who really pioneered divine dieting—likely died because her husband was an incompetent pilot, according to a final report released by the National Transportation Safety Board on Wednesday. “The National Transportation Safety Board determines the probable cause(s) of this accident to be: The pilot’s loss of airplane control during climb due to spatial disorientation,” it read.

In less technical jargon, Shamblin’s husband, the actor Joe Lara, was disoriented while flying in heavy clouds and seemed to think he was climbing in altitude when he was actually descending. There were five others on board, and all seven passengers died when the Cessna C501 crashed into a lake outside of Nashville on March 29, 2021.

Shamblin is best known for founding the Weigh Down Workshop, a worldwide dieting phenomena in the ’80s and ’90s that then, in the late 1990s, became a church called the Remnant Fellowship outside of Nashville. Her book The Weigh Down Diet: Inspirational Way to Lose Weight, Stay Slim, and Find a New You and many VHS tapes also helped popularize her supposedly Christian diet beliefs that included strengthening your connection to God through weight loss.

About six months after the plane crash, a five-part HBO documentary premiered, detailing accusations that Shamblin and her church promoted disordered eating and abuse. The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin basically suggested that Shamblin ran a cult that puts thinness next to godliness. In the documentary, people describe being told they were too fat for heaven—which is not that hard to imagine, given that Shamblin said her followers would learn “how to stop bowing down to the refrigerator and how to bow back down to him.”

But it wasn’t just accusations of food control that dogged Shamblin and her church. Two members of her church, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were sentenced to life in prison plus 30 years for beating their 8-year-old to death in 2003, supposedly on instructions from Shamblin. NewsChannel 5 in Nashville obtained a recording of Shamblin praising Sonya Smith: “That’s a miracle. You’ve got a child that’s going from just bizarre down to in-control. So I praise God,” Shamblin said, according to the news channel.

(Shamblin’s church, which said it has helped “thousands” overcome their vices, of course “categorically” denied the docuseries’ allegations.)

A statement on TheSmithsAreInnocent.Com, which appears to be run by or at least endorsed by Remnant Fellowship, insists that no form of child abuse was uncovered. “Remnant Fellowship, Weigh Down, and Gwen Shamblin Lara have been vetted and exonerated by all skilled agencies that would have been able to uncover any form of child abuse. In addition, there has never been any other child abuse charges against the church or members of the church,” the statement reads.

Shamblin left nothing to her church upon her death. Her massive estate will be split among two children, one of whom is now a leader at Remnant Fellowship.

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