'We trusted him': Former member of The Elder Council shares her experience in 'cult-like' group

·22 min read
A side view shows former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder's home in Ocklawaha. [Cindy Peterson/Correspondent]
A side view shows former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder's home in Ocklawaha. [Cindy Peterson/Correspondent]

A former member of The Elder Council has come forward to share her experience inside the council, a "cult-like group" allegedly run by former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder and former guidance counselor Lenny Finelli.

The Daily Commercial has confirmed that she was a member of The Elder Council, but she has requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the situation.

The former member shared with the Commercial her experience as a member of The Elder Council — what she described as manipulation, brainwashing, emotional abuse, and the trauma she continues to grapple with today.

She said she has decided to share her story now to seek justice for those who have been hurt by this group, as well as the actions of Fielder and Finelli.

More on The Elder Council: Was the former Leesburg High band director's 'Elder Council' a cult? What is a cult?

What we know: Who is Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder, what happened and what's next?

Earlier coverage: Former students describe 'toxic' environment, astral projection under Leesburg band director

How The Elder Council began

Fielder formed The Elder Council in March 2018.

The former member said she was one of the first members of the group and only 17 years old when she joined. At the start, all members were in the LHS band and recruited by Fielder.

"It wasn't odd because we had seen Gabriel Fielder as a mover and shaker already and we trusted him," she said. "We spent a lot of time at rehearsals and on the practice fields so we were just comfortable with him enough for that to happen."

She said when the group was first created, it could've been described as a normal Bible study group, but as time went on it "became something that was more controlling and more manipulative."

When the first four members were recruited, Fielder told them they were creating a "five-fold ministry," meaning that they were a group appointed by God.

Stables can be seen from the road at the former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder's property in Ocklawaha. [Cindy Peterson/Correspondent]
Stables can be seen from the road at the former Leesburg High School band director Gabriel Fielder's property in Ocklawaha. [Cindy Peterson/Correspondent]

Where The Elder Council met

Elder Council meetings first began inside a band parent's house, then inside a separate church where the group rented space, and finally, members began meeting in Fielder's home.

"When it was the worst was when it was in Gabriel Fielder’s home but it had changed a lot more before that," the former member said.

Fielder would hold the meetings inside his permanent residence, on a 13-acre farm in Ocklawaha.

"He passed by this property at some point and he said that God gave him a vision and a prophecy that he was supposed to be living there," she said.

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A woman who boards her horse on Fielder’s farm said Friday she has not seen him for four days, and that he has changed his phone number and did not give her the new number.

She said she has known Fielder since a year ago February, but not was privy to The Elder Council.

“I would see them from a distance sitting around a fire,” Debbie Crane said.

Neither Finelli nor Fielder have returned calls requesting comment. Fielder denied the council was a cult when questioned by Lake County school district investigators, and the district's final report said there was no evidence of a cult.

The inside of Gabriel Fiedler's property in Ocklawaha.
The inside of Gabriel Fiedler's property in Ocklawaha.

'If I’m wrong, then God’s going to correct me'

The former member said the Elder Council was run like a "dictatorship."

"By the end of it, Gabriel was calling himself our 'governor' and that he had a place of authority over us," she said.

At the time Fielder would give what he called "directives," she said. These "directives" were orders or messages from God that he would give to the group.

"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," the former member said. "And his thing was, 'If I’m wrong, then God’s going to correct me, you guys don’t need to correct me.'"

She said there were never any written rules in The Elder Council, but more of implied rules.

"It was very strict on anything that had to do with a sexual nature, or anything that had to do with money, or who you spend your time with — all of that stuff was heavily controlled," she said.

But due to what she characterized as the cult-like nature of the group, members believed the rules that they were following were not coming from Fielder, but from God, the former member said.

In addition to members following these unspoken rules, Fielder also tracked all of their locations on Life360, a tracking app, she said.

He told members it was so he could check where they were if they were running late for a meeting. He would say that instead of bothering them, he could just check to see if they were on their way.

But members had a sense that someone was always watching, the former member said.

'Secret society': Leesburg High band director, counselor ran 'secret society,' hid sexual messages, former student tells police

Gabriel Fielder resigns: School board accepts resignation of Leesburg band director amid accusations he ran cult

'God made him that way'

The former member of The Elder Council said she does not have ill will toward Fielder.

"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.

She added that Fielder was a "very, very intelligent and charismatic person" and someone who "had a way with his words."

But she also said she was never completely comfortable with him, and sensed the other group members felt the same way.

"He told us God had put him in that place of authority to watch over us and that we needed it," she said. "He would constantly tell us, ‘I’m not the person that you go to when you need to cry on someone’s shoulder. I’m the person that’s going to pull you up on your bootstraps and keep you going.'"

The group saw him as harsh, but she said that his behavior was justified because "God made him that way."

The former member also felt as though a lot his teachings were not up to par with scripture. She sometimes felt that the way Fielder would teach would feel "very demeaning."

One instance of this was when she was put in charge for a weekend.

When Fielder decided that he needed to take a break, he would appoint different members to lead the group, the former member said. One day, Fielder didn't like the way she led the group and pulled her aside to reprimand her.

"He told me if I keep going down this path of rebellion that I’m going to end up feeling God’s fire," she said.

Report: LHS band director, counselor violated conduct standards, but 'no evidence' of cult

Inside their 'ministry work'

Not only did Fielder track, demean and police the behavior of members of The Elder Council, he also used them for free manual labor on his farm, the former member said.

Every other Saturday the group would meet for a fellowship day. These meetings would often be spent working on the farm, she said. They built a pole barn, installed sheds and tended to the garden — basically any chore that Fielder could think of that he would mask as "ministry work."

"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 believed that the end of the world was nigh, so many of the projects and "ministry work" revolved around preparing for the apocalypse.

"Kind of live-off-the-land stuff," she said. "So we had a garden that we were encouraged to start, but he would not touch the garden."

Members of The Elder Council would drive 30 minutes, sometimes an hour, multiple times a week to take care of the garden, she said.

On the other Saturdays, the council would host fellowship nights, she said. They would go out to dinner together or participate in a group activity.

"Something that boosted morale a little bit because morale was never very good," she said.

Trailers members built on Gabriel Fielder's property in Ocklawaha.
Trailers members built on Gabriel Fielder's property in Ocklawaha.

'Spirit travel' in The Elder Council

During The Elder Council meetings Fielder would sometimes lead group astral projection, telling the students that it was "spirit travel."

He ensured them that it was Biblical and that they're doing it under God's guidance.

"We did it frequently when he prayed," she said. "Personally, I still think most of that is Biblical, but not exactly the way that we did it."

When Fielder led the group in astral projection they would sit in a quiet room and would usually start off speaking in tongues, a religious practice in which people will make speech-like sounds or words that are in languages unknown to the speaker.

"I believe in tongues, but I also believe tongues can be a form of manipulation because they’re having you enter into this trance-like state," the former member said.

Then Fielder would start talking and asking what the members were seeing, she said. He would then take their responses and try to find a way to make what everyone was seeing correlate.

'It was a lot of money'

The Elder Council was incorporated as a nonprofit organization in 2019 and members tithed money, even when they were high-schoolers.

“He described it as everyone shares all the same resources, money, land everything," she said.

Two members released the amount of money they officially tithed between 2019 to 2020 — one with a total of $1,976 and the other with $1,644.

But these numbers don't even reflect the actual total amount because one member had tithed in other ways before being able to use CashApp when he turned 18.

“I tithed 10% of my income whether it was a tax return or like my weekly paycheck. Everyone did," she said. "It was a lot of money that we ended up giving to that group."

Fielder talked about creating a compound with the money, but the group was dissolved before that happened.

Tithing was something that they were all expected to keep track of.

“If we like started to forget or falter, we would always get a text message – ‘Hey everything OK? You haven’t been tithing.' He was pretty strict about it," she said.

'You were expected to drop everything'

Members were expected to spend every weekend for three years straight with The Elder Council. They were not allowed to work their jobs on Saturdays and were forced to miss important milestones like holidays and birthdays if they fell at the same time.

"Saturdays and Sundays were both meant for the group," she said. "So if literally Christmas landed on a Sunday you wouldn’t be able to be with your family at that time or if your birthday was that day you wouldn’t be able to be with your family at that time."

Although there was sometimes leniency with the Saturday meetings, Sundays were mandatory.

"You were expected to drop everything for a meeting," the former member said.

No one in the group ever risked breaking this rule until the end, she added.

Last year, when two members did miss a meeting, they were shunned by the group for three days.

"We called it 'rebuking them' about where they were going in life," she said.

When they were being shunned, Fielder excluded them from the group chat where they all communicated.

"We were using the temporary chat until those two people were set on the right path again," she said. "He told us to make sure we didn’t talk to either of them."

'They're going to think we're a cult'

The Elder Council did concern some friends and family members. So Fielder coached the members how to speak to others about the group, the former member said.

"'Don’t describe this like that because your parents aren’t open to all of this stuff yet,'" the former member said Fielder told her. "'They’re going to think we’re a cult.’"

She said some of the members came from unstable homes, so they had few parents questioning what the group was doing.

There were, however, some that were vocal about their concern.

"Gabriel would call them a ‘witch’ or a ‘heavy manipulator’ and that we don’t need to listen to her. And then the other one was called just a heavy alcoholic," the former member said. "So if parents had problems, they were basically discounted for having any real input.”

Why were they 'elders'?

The group was called "The Elder Council" because they thought of themselves as "elders" to other churches.

"So us, these young kids, and one or two grown men, we thought that we would be elders to other churches and we wanted to help other churches get right on their path to God," she said.

The group was also very exclusive. At first, anyone was welcome to join, but that ended within the first year of The Elder Council.

Eventually, no one else was allowed to join the group, she said. Even if the members were to get married, their spouses were not allowed to join.

And while The Elder Council started as a Bible study group, as time went on, Fielder's vision for the group shifted and it became a lifelong commitment for the members.

"He had visions of us being together like in eternity, basically," the former member said. "So it was a lifelong commitment that we thought we were making at that time."

The end goal of The Elder Council was for everyone in the group to couple off and eventually all live together on the farm, with an acre of land given to each member of the group.

Lenny Finelli, left, is shown helping at Leesburg High School band camp in 2015. A former student told the Leesburg Police that he and Finelli had a sexual relationship after he had graduated and turned 18, but that Band Director Gabriel Fielder helped cover up sexual messages Finelli sent the student when he was 17.
Lenny Finelli, left, is shown helping at Leesburg High School band camp in 2015. A former student told the Leesburg Police that he and Finelli had a sexual relationship after he had graduated and turned 18, but that Band Director Gabriel Fielder helped cover up sexual messages Finelli sent the student when he was 17.

'One of the most manipulative people I’ve ever met'

The former member of The Elder Council dated Finelli for seven months during her time in the group. She had known Finelli since she was 15 years old. They dated when she was 19 and he was 29 — a nine-and-a-half-year age difference between them.

They started considering to date when they experienced "visions" from God, encouraged by The Elder Council, that they were meant to be together, the former member said.

"Really what that was was just everyone in the group seeming to break off into couples so I think it was just feeling like we had to move on that because he was really the only person left that I could’ve been with," she said.

The "visions" added pressure to their relationship.

"When it started out, it went really fast because obviously we were coming from a place of ‘Yeah, God told us we are going to get married,'" she said.

Since the goal of The Elder Council was for all the members to be together for eternity, Finelli would frequently make comments about their future together.

"He would say that he loved me and he would talk about how many kids he wanted to have, he would talk about what he wanted to name our kids, and how we would raise our kids," she said. "But at the same time having nothing wanting to do with me sexually."

When she and Finelli were dating, he was interested in another member of the council — the former LHS student he sent inappropriate messages to when he was 17.

The student told school district investigators that, when he still an LHS student, Finelli texted him and asked him "sexual questions," the report said. It also says Fielder — who, as a school employee, was a mandatory abuse reporter — knew about the messages between the student and Finelli and deleted them.

After the student graduated and turned 18, Finelli began pursuing the former student while he was dating the former member, she said.

"At the time he was also stressing over the student. So if I would ask him, ‘Oh what’s my birthday?’ He would accidentally say the student’s birthday. When we went on dates, he would want to include the student on our dates," she said. "So on top of feeling neglected and emotionally uncared for, he also showed interest in the student, which I could feel."

And even though Finelli has a degree in mental health counseling, the former member said he showed no empathy when she opened up with her mental health struggles.

"He would say, ‘I just don’t understand how you’re depressed,’ like ‘I don’t understand how you have the perfect Christian life and you’re depressed. That doesn’t make any sense to me,'" she said. "Or he would say, ‘I don’t think you’re hurting enough because I think if you were hurting more then you would actually be trying to do anything that you could to figure out what’s wrong with you.’"

When she shared feelings with the group, their answer would be to do deliverance, a common practice in more Pentecostal religions.

"It wasn’t an exorcism, but if you had something afflicting you, inside of you, you could cast it out," she said. "It wasn’t big dramatic exorcism, but it was talking to you, but talking to a demon that attached itself to you, like the demon of suicide."

When asked to describe Finelli, the former member said: "Lenny Finelli was one of the most manipulative people I’ve ever met."

The couple broke up seven months into their relationship, but both still remained in The Elder Council together after.

“I’ve specifically been diagnosed with PTSD because of my relationship with Lenny Finelli, but everything caused it I’m sure," she said.

Spiritual fathers?

Fielder and Finelli considered themselves "spiritual fathers" to the former student, the former student said. This role first began with Finelli, and then passed on to Fielder.

Finelli had texted Fielder that he had considered himself to have a "big brother kind of role" over the student. During this time, Finelli would track the student's location, watch his grades, and set curfews for him.

With location tracking, Finelli would sometimes get in his car and follow the student, the former member said.

And once Finelli had that "big brother" role taken away from him, Fielder stepped in.

"He was even more heavy-handed," the former member said. "One time Lenny had actually called me with Gabriel in the car and demanded me to go to the student’s house and see what he was doing because he wasn’t answering his phone and his location wasn’t on."

Once the member got to the student's home, they demanded that he be put on the phone. But he was sleeping, and his phone had died.

"I watched as the student just got chewed out by Gabriel Fielder," she said.

The former student, whose name is also withheld because of the nature of this case, told school investigators Fielder was tracking him.

Because of the complex nature of the relationship between Fielder, Fenelli and the student, he had harsher punishments than the other members of the council.

"If the student's grades would drop or anything, or if he was out past a curfew, or even if he drove too fast — because Gabriel Fielder had the highest paying level of Life 360 on him — he would get punished and basically be grounded," she said.

He was not allowed to go anywhere, even work.

Fielder said he would turn off the student's tracking device once he turned 18 years old, but when that time came he told the student: "I was thinking about this and praying about this and I actually think that I’m going to keep your location on until you get married.’"

Once the inappropriate messages began between Finelli and the student, Fielder tried to step in to cover the tracks, the former student said. A Lake County School District report corroborates this.

"I have multiple text threads that show Gabriel talking about, for instance, the two meetings that happened that talked about it being covered up and talking about how we were supposed to be monitoring Fenelli and the student together," the former member said.

Fielder also discussed the situation personally with her, and she has the screenshots.

"Satan almost used Lenny and (former student) to fall and destroy themselves. They've both sinned and now are undergoing correction. Gabe was up late dealing with it all day," Fielder texted the former member, referring to himself in the third person.

'This is wrong, we need to stop this'

The Elder Council saw its end in July 2021.

The former member said she realized it was time to leave after seeing the other members shunned after missing a meeting.

"That’s the situation that basically opened my eyes to understand what was happening there was not OK," she said. "After that happened, I started praying a lot, and I started watching these videos, you know, ‘What does a cult look like?’ ‘What is too much power in the church?’ stuff like that, and starting to really line up everything and see like ‘Okay this is this.’

“It rocked me to think that I could be in a cult and that everything in my life is completely wrong. So I made sure and I did my research before I started separating the group."

She decided she had to do what she could to end the group, or at the very least leave themselves.

"I talked to a few friends who are in the Elder Council that I was closer to and I knew were kind of feeling it with me," she said. "I kind of explained to them, 'This is wrong, we need to stop this.' And most of them were on par with that. They were like, ‘Yeah we agree we just haven’t had the courage to say anything.'"

Although it was harder for some to leave than others, eventually the group had come to an end after three and a half years.

"Right after the group ended I sought therapy and I’ve been in and out of therapy since," she said. "I’ve been able to process and go through a lot of what happened."

This experience has altered her relationship with Christianity, but she still believes in God.

“It dramatically shook my faith. I still have it, I still believe in God. I still believe in prayer," she said. "When you go from wholeheartedly believing this man who you believe as an authority figure and you find out everything is wrong and he’s been basically taking advantage of you, it makes you question everything."

'It feels exactly like what we just went through'

The Lake County School Board accepted Gabriel Fielder and Lenny Fenneli's resignations instead of firing them.

As for why they were allowed to resign instead of getting fired, schools spokeswoman Sherri Owens offered the following statement:

"As a public entity, we do not terminate an employee accused of wrongdoing without first giving them due process and completing an investigation. If an employee wants to resign prior to the completion of a district investigation, we cannot stop them from doing that.

"However, if we find that they violated the Principles of Professional Conduct we report those violations to the Professional Practice Services of (Florida Department of Education) regardless of whether the employee elected to resign prior to the completion of our investigation. FLDOE has the authority to issue sanctions against a teacher's certificate, up to and including permanent revocation of their teaching certificate. The district does not have that authority."

That means, as of now, Fielder and Finelli have faced no professional consequences for their actions. No criminal charges have been filed, either.

"I don’t hate the man but I feel, and a lot of people feel, that there’s been a huge miscarriage of justice that really affected at the very least one young man’s life in a very, very heavy way," the former member said.

This week, the former member sent screenshots of text messages to the school system and offered to meet officials if they needed her to. This was after the investigation had closed.

She wrote in an email to the district that she "had these text threads and despite being told that my name and number were provided in the investigation, no one ever reached out to me."

A response from a school employee reads:

"Thank you so much for the information via email. Due to the information we had collected, there was not a need to contact you."

But the screenshots she provided were included in the investigative file.

“Him not being reported when our friend was 17 years old and getting groomed by him was such a big deal," the former member said. "I couldn’t live with myself if they just got a slap on the wrist.”

As of now, it feels like Fielder and Finelli have essentially gotten away with it, the former member said. It's "a slap in the face" to the people that were in the group and what they went through.

"Even people who went to church with him, band parents, have commented on people's posts about the article and saying, 'he’s been found innocent, it’s fake news,'" she said. "I’ve been seeing a lot of that from the older groups and the people who have had more professional and business dealings with Gabriel and Lenny."

Overall, she said she wants justice.

"I want there to be actual punishment for the people that did something wrong. No rewards. Not him getting set up for the rest of his life with a pension because he did something bad," she said. "It feels like a big group that just wants to protect one of their own, and it feels exactly like what we just went through.”

This article originally appeared on Daily Commercial: Former Elder Council member shares experience in 'cult-like' group