The remains of seven Brentwood, Tennessee, residents and church leaders killed when a plane crashed into a lake are in the process of being identified as a recovery effort continued Monday.
Rutherford County spokeswoman Ashley McDonald and Rutherford County Fire Rescue Capt. John Ingle said at at news conference Sunday night that family members and the medical examiner were working to identify remains.
Gwen Shamblin Lara, founder of the controversial Remnant Fellowship Church, is presumed dead in the crash, along with her husband, Joe Lara, who briefly played the role of Tarzan in a 1990s television series. Lara’s religious movement links Christianity and weight loss through her church, which gained an international following. Her “Weigh Down Workshop,” a Bible study founded in 1986, aimed to turn people away from vices, including overeating.
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The couple, along with son-in-law Brandon Hannah, David and Jennifer Martin, and Jessica and Jonathan Walters, were headed from Smyrna, Tennessee, to Palm Beach, Florida, when they crashed into Percy Priest Lake shortly after takeoff Saturday.
McDonald said multiple agencies – about 100 people – have worked the case since Saturday morning. They suspended their recovery Sunday night and planned to resume Monday morning.
Gwen Shamblin Lara’s ‘actions and words changed thousands of lives’
Elizabeth Shamblin Hannah, the daughter of Lara and wife of Brandon Hannah, submitted a statement delivered by McDonald at the news conference.
“The seven Remnant Fellowship leaders lost yesterday including my husband and my mother were some of the finest, most righteous and loving people I have ever known,” Hannah’s statement said. “I want the entire world to know that my mother, Gwen Shamblin Lara, was the kindest, most gentle, selfless and loving mother and best friend to me and my brother. Her actions and words changed thousands of lives for the better.
“Her message of loving God with all of your heart will live on forever and ever and continue to change lives for all eternity.”
She described her husband as “one of the most selfless and loving spouses and fathers on the planet” who put God first.
“These amazing seven leaders will go down in history as some of the finest Christians anyone will ever meet,” she said.
Michael Shamblin, Lara’s son, said in a statement his mother positively affected millions of people around the world.
“My family is asking for prayers at this time, and we hope everyone who was affected, especially the children of the passengers, know they are very loved, and we will take care of their needs in the upcoming years,” he said. “Joe Lara was such a wonderful husband to my mother and he will be missed.”
Jennifer and David Martin’s family members, including daughter Ashton Martin Jost and Jennifer’s mother, Diane McCord, expressed their gratitude to investigators and authorities in a statement delivered by McDonald.
Because the National Transportation Safety Board heads the investigation, McDonald directed questions about the investigation to the agency, which didn’t have a spokesperson at the news conference.
Ingle said crews worked overnight searching the water through 10 a.m. Sunday. Dive operations began Sunday. Airplane parts were recovered from the water, although it’s unclear how much of the plane remains.
Debris stretched across a half-mile area of the lake. The remaining plane parts will be removed by crane and divers over the next few days, Ingle said. He wouldn’t say which parts of the plane were recovered. An exact impact location hadn’t been determined.
It is unclear who was flying the plane when it crashed and whether any witnesses saw the crash or what happened in the moments leading up it.
“We can’t answer any questions regarding the investigation, the plane, anything like that,” McDonald said.
Lamar Hill boat ramp and Fort Sanders recreational areas will remain closed Monday.
Victims were longtime church leaders
Hannah, a Williamson County real estate agent who led the firm Brandon Hannah Properties, was married to Lara’s daughter, Elizabeth. The two wed in 2003 and had four children. They oversaw the church’s youth ministry program.
Jennifer and David Martin had five children and joined the church in 1999 after first meeting Lara in the Weigh Down Workshop. On the church’s website, the couple said they were raised to be lackadaisical Christians, but through Lara’s mentoring, they discovered the importance of more deeply honoring their faith.
Jessica and Jonathan Walters were married in the church in 2002 and had three children. Like the Martins, the Walters on the church’s website credited Lara for their faith and strong marriage.
Faith was rooted in controversy
Lara and the church she founded have been rooted in controversy because of views of food and weight loss promoted through her ministry and Christian weight-loss book, which sold more than 1 million copies. She viewed overeating as a sign of greed and gluttony.
The church, founded in 1999 with eight members, ballooned into a following with at least 170 churches.
Lara supported Georgia church members Joseph and Sonya Smith, who were charged after the death of their 8-year-old son, Josef, in 2003. The Smiths were convicted in 2007 by a jury in Josef’s beating death, but the church said they were innocent.
When a Tennessee pastor criticized Lara and called the church a “cult” on his blog, Lara sued, but a judge tossed out her defamation suit.
Lara told the Tennessean in 2011 that the church was just “old-fashioned religion.”
According to its website, the church is “an international community of people who are finding renewed hope, profound love and deep purpose by putting the undiluted teachings of Jesus Christ into practice.”
Contributing: Adam Tamburin and Keith Sharon, Nashville Tennessean; and Kerri Bartlett, Daily Herald