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The troubled orphanage where at least 13 children died in a fire this month is run by a “cult” once mocked on “Seinfeld” whose members operate Manhattan antiques stores filled with pricey goods.
The nonprofit Church of Bible Understanding, based in Scranton, Penn., ran two orphanages in Haiti, including one where a Feb. 13 blaze killed the children. A Haitian news report Friday said the death toll rose to 18 children and two adults, but a representative of the nonprofit said 13 kids and two adults died.
The homes were not accredited and, after the fire, the government reportedly removed some children from the second facility over the objections of orphanage workers. A lawyer for the orphanage asked to delay a court hearing in Haiti scheduled for Friday, a local news report said.
The fire may have been sparked by a candle used because there were problems with the home’s generators.
The burnt home, where children slept in cramped bedrooms on metal bunk beds, was a far cry from COBU founder Stewart Traill’s $2 million compound in Coral Springs, Fla. or the opulence on display at the Olde Good Things antiques stores in Manhattan.
At the Union Square outpost, an enormous chandelier that once hung in the Palace Theater in Times Square sells for $15,000. The store and its two other NYC locations specializes in high-end salvaged goods including discards from the Waldorf Astoria hotel.
A small display asks patrons to donate clothing and toys “to help us in supporting our orphanages in Haiti.” The Olde Good Things website says half of all proceeds fund the orphanages.
In 2017, the stores were to funnel $6.8 million to the Church of Bible Understanding, according to the nonprofit’s tax filing for that year, the latest available. The filing says $1.1 million was spent on its Haiti operation.
COBU also raked in $2.5 million in 2014 by selling a pre-war Brooklyn apartment building. It previously sold another building on West 47th Street in Manhattan.
Its former carpet cleaning business was parodied as the Sunshine Carpet Cleaners on a 1996 “Seinfeld” episode when George Costanza is dismayed that the “cult” did not recruit him.
Traill started the church, originally called Forever Family, in the 1970s and it was “like a hippie thing,” said former member Judy Sherman. “It was great. People found God.”
“As it progressed, it started getting stranger, more like a business,” said Sherman, 66, who left four decades ago.
Former member James LaRue, 62, said he spent 13 years with COBU, leaving in 1993 and called it “a cult.”
“It centered around one single authoritarian leader,” he said, referring to Traill.
LaRue said Traill preached that he possessed a specific understanding of the Bible that no one else had and those who left were seen as “turning away from your higher calling.”
“God was going to be very displeased with that,” LaRue said.
COBU, which once had thousands of adherents, now is down to perhaps several dozen, he said.
Traill died in 2018. Members of the board did not return requests for comment.
Olde Good Things referred comment to Manhattan publicist Temi Sacks, who refused to answer questions or provide a copy of the church’s latest tax filing, which the IRS requires it to make public.
Sacks issued a “fact sheet” saying the group took care of almost 120 children in Haiti and it distributed food to churches and orphanages. Some children who live in Haitian orphanages are placed there by impoverished parents and are not orphans.
She provided a statement saying, “We are devastated at the loss of life of our children. It would be irresponsible for us to comment until after all the facts are in.”
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