Busted Halo
feature: religion & spirituality
January 7th, 2004

Tears for the Life of Jenny Sooter

The Dire Consequences of Rigid Religion


Election year 2004 is upon us. As the news media starts to drop other stories and the frenzy begins, the idea of what important news we may miss due to this political preoccupation gives me pause.

What aren’t we hearing about that’s more important than the latest round of endorsements?

A different election year

One storythat fell through the cracks during the 2000 election debacle hit close to home for me.

Lost among the recounts and court battles of November 2000, I had to do a fair amount of online digging to even pull up the local press coverage, finally unearthing a headline at the Kansas City Star web site: “Northland church grieves deaths of pastor’s wife, daughter.

The write-up was a simple one. Mary Lee Sooter, 56, had shot and killed her daughter, 24-year-old Jenny Sooter, before turning the gun on herself in the downstairs hallway of the suburban Kansas City parsonage of the Eagle Heights Baptist Church. Husband and father, the Rev. Tom Sooter, was next door in the church fellowship hall, leading a men’s prayer breakfast.

Jenny Sooter and me
I knew Jenny Sooter back in high school. Our families were acquainted, and she attended the Eagle Heights Christian school, a “sister ministry” to the Tri-City Baptist Church, whose high school I attended.

As juniors and seniors, our
schools often combined for events and chapel services when well-known evangelists came to town. These were those fabled Midwestern K-12 church schools that make Footloose look like Fire Island. Far more concerned with haircuts and hemlines, the state of one’s soul was touted as the ultimate focus, when in reality it was of much less value than the outward, legalistic conservatism that one projected via clothing that adhered strictly to the dress codes.

The ways to lose your soul
As I searched through the news accounts and police reports from my desk in Los Angeles, I felt a knot form and then explode in the pit of my stomach. Detective Andrew Dorothy of the Kansas City police department told reporters on November 6, 2000, that “[Mary Lee Sooter] had scriptures written out beside her bed” and she talked in her notes about how she hated the rebelliousness of her daughter.

I called my dad from my office that day and he informed me that Rev. Sooter had been planning to resign for weeks due to his daughter’s desire to leave the church and move out of their family home. “You see, son?” Dad said. “This just goes to show you that we are all capable of unspeakable evil when we take our eyes off the Savior.”

I wanted to scream at the sky and throw the phone to the ground. “How can you watch this happen and miss the point?” I wanted to yell. “Mary Lee Sooter didn’t ‘take her eyes off of God’ and then shoot her daughter! Her eyes were so full of God that she was blinded to the difference between shooting her daughter with a gun in north Kansas City in 2000 AD, and the ancient Levitical law that ordered rebellious sons and daughters to be stoned to death at the gates of the city.”

But I didn’t yell. And I didn’t scream. I just quietly hung up the phone and sat at my desk, and cried.

When religion hurts
I weep for you, Jenny Sooter; not only for your death, but also for your life. I sat with you in those same pews. I heard those same sermons. I shook in the same fear of a vindictive God who would send me to an eternal punishment for renting the wrong movie, wearing the wrong clothes, listening to the wrong music, or sleeping with the wrong gender. And finally, I too saw the holes in the logic of the violent dogma we were brainwashed by, and I made an escape.

I mourn the life that you will never know, Jenny—free from floral-print dresses and constant fear. I wish that I had been there to help you pack your boxes into your car and move them into your new place. A place where there were fewer straight lines, and more windows with different views of the world, and other colors on the walls besides black and white.

Tears drawing from the NIEHS web site of the National Insitutes of Health.

The Author : Aaron Hartzler
Aaron Hartzler writes from Los Angeles.
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Please note that the editorial staff reserves the right to not post comments it deems to be inappropriate and/or malicious in nature, as well as edit comments for length, clarity and fairness.
  • Martha

    Anonymous isn’t it strange you are the only one that doesn’t have a name. Very Strange! All the personal stories here and the pain is clear and the healing that has taken place over the years in these peoples lives all have a name.
    I was there and I wrote the story. A story that changed my life for the better. Breaking through was the most wonderful feeling in the world. Talk about Born Again! Free, Free at last!


    If bro sooter is truly the “monster” some of you make him out to be, then why does he even bother to travel the country and help people who have endured suffering like him. Nothing he’s saying is a lie. He has really helped people in our church, and some of you people posting comments are probably satanists. Not speaking directly to anyone, but your lies are not based on fact, only rebellion, which, is as the sin of witchcraft, which some of you probably know quite well…

  • B G

    The funeral was very sad as Mary lee was lifted up as being a saint that just “snapped”. Very little was said about Jenny and her casket/remains were sort of out off to the side while Mary lee’s remains were the more centered before the stage. A strange and sad eulogy followed that was given by the son in law something about God knowing that all that happened – would happen. As if it made it all right.
    Mary lee Sooter lived in the flesh not in the spirit and she had for years.
    Tom Sooter lives in the flesh and did not learn anything to profit and share with another.
    Jenny Sooter is dead.

  • Michelle

    Wow! We’ve been involved in this type of church our whole dating and married life. (The first 2 not quite as extreme) We are currently going no where and examining all the things we were taught that we were afraid to question because we didn’t want to be “doubters” or “betrayers of God.” We went to a church associated with this one. Our oldest son was always in trouble in every church we attended. The last one even more so. As we witnessed an older, very nice teen struggle to the point that his parents shunned him, we did not want to go in that direction. We began to ask the questions to each other that we were afraid to admit we had. Choosing to do things differently, we began hearing sermons that were obviously directed towards us parents who were “giving up,” “lowering our standards,” etc. One was even given with tears. My husband had it, and in the car home, hesaid, “I don’t want to come back.” I said, “Well, let’s not!” And we haven’t since. We didn’t realize how oppressed, miserable and how little we laughed until we left! We considered putting our “rebellious” son into this school (almost an hour away), but we heard a strang story about a mother who murdered her daughter. We were told she was involved in Satanism, an that the moth probably didn’t recognize her because demons can change one’s appearance. We thought that odd, so I asked our pastor’s wife about it. I wasn’t going to put my kid in a school like that! Her response, pretty much nothing. I asked her what happened there, and she was not going to say a word. I felt bad, like I was trying to gossip or something. But also, we chose not to put our kid in school there. We did the most unthinkable, put him in a “liberal” christian school. And now, we have totally “dropped” our standards because I homeschool NONE of my children and they are all in a public school. I’m just sorting out thoughts and beliefs and came across this article. We were told none of this when we asked, and this pastor is viewed as a Saint who has endured such difficulty with so much grace. Very sad. I’m angry at myself for staying in places like this for so long. I think I was looking for the “happy, perfect” family, and in my pursuit, I was getting the opposite. MY oldest was affected the most, and I hope one day he will forgive me for all the stupidity I believed and followed!

  • alli blackburn

    i just did some harmless re-search, of the mystery that will never leave… people @ eagle heights who dismiss this story are in their own little world… no mother kills their daughter for “rebelious” reasons… geez… i would be dead by now!!! people over look things because he’s a pastor, she was rebelious… BULL S***!!! there was a straight up murder here & all you religious people are sooooo… ate up that you can’t see it. i’m sooooo over it.

  • N.Ebert

    Kitty Boil, I don’t know who you are but God Bless you for standing up. I feel just like you do and I am not ashamed or afraid to say what I believe. I did not know this man was going around the country as a counselor. To think that he would have the nerve to try and tell others how to salve their problems is sick. He has no business in any ministry where he can manipulate peoples minds while they are weak. No one in their right mind would let him if they knew what he has caused. God will, or has already forgiven him for what he has done to his wife and child. He did it, it was his fault, he is to blame. To allow him to be in the position of influence of other people again is a crime waiting for a chance to happen.
    My question is why? Why would he want to repeat the past? If he was a nut back then, he is still a nut. I can’t get the picture out of my mind of Jenny being killed by her mother. I makes me mad at Sooter every time I think of it.

  • Kitty Boil

    W. Wubben

    Sooter traveling the country counseling is as appalling as Andrea Yates husband doing the same. I knew this family, this mother, this daughter and how Pastor Sooter brainwashed them He ruled his family with fear of damnation and put all the responsibility of his wife because thier TWENTY-FOUR year old ADULT daughter was moving out of their home…and leaving the church. TWENTY FOUR and “rebellious” because she was moving out. I assure YOU if you have only heard his lament of this….you W don’t have all the facts, as a matter of fact, you have NONE of the facts. This tragedy is as much Pastor Sooter’s fault. He drove her to it, disregarded her need for REAL PROFESSIONAL counseling. And now he makes me sick making a ministry out of this awful tragedy and marrying a woman much younger than himself so he can control her as well. You know NOTHING of what this man is really like.

  • W. Wubben

    Bro. Sooter is now traveling the country as a counselor. He was on staff at my church for a few years and was my sunday school teacher. I have to take issue with the term “legalism” being used by so many. Legalism is those who believe in a “works” salvation. While it appears many on here did not like the “standards” that Bro. Sooter expected as Pastor I would encourage you to be careful not to fall into the trap that you can do whatever you want, with whoever you want and there are no consequences. Bro. Sooter is a wonderful counselor and friend. On an hour ride one night he told me of all the things that had happened to his family including his daughter- it goes much deeper than what many of you seem to know about. I thank God for Bro. Sooter and the wisdom God has given him. I’m sorry for those of you who see it differently, not saying you are wrong, but the man you are describing is not the man I know.

  • N.Ebert

    Where is that guy Sooter? He got off scott free. He should be in jail because he caused a murder and a suicide. He caused it to happen and he should have to pay for what he done. Sooter was an X cop, that is why it was kept all hush, hush. No one talked about it and to this day no one will talk about it. Everyone who worked at that school yapped their mouth off everyday all day long about the virtue of following Pastor Sooter’s rules and directions. Yet when everything he stood for and demanded from everyone fell apart on one very sad day, no one wanted to open their mouth.
    They are all guilty, every single one of them because they supported him and followed him as if he were God himself. I took my son out of that school a few years before Jenny was murdered because I was not going to become, or allow my son to become a Sooterite. Jesus died for my sins, not Sooter. Yes I am still angry after all this time because Jenny was my sons friend and he suffered knowing how she died. I’m angry because there were so many goody Christians who supported Sooter and gave him the power he had. Today they are still living their lives like they did when it happened, business as usual. EH is still going strong with many of the same people still running it. No one learned anything except to maybe hold your temper.

  • E. Morgan

    I’ve also gone to a church that was legalistic. After many years I realized I was “man pleasing.” Truth is truth…you can’t get away from biblical truth!!!! But legalism is man made. I’m sorry for the Sooter family. As someone mention…there was problems in the extended family, and possibly problems in the family that went unchecked. I believe he is the man that wrote the hole of no hope! Because of Him, Liz

  • Michelle

    My brothers and I attended Tri-City North which became Eagle Heights. I was the youngest and probably the one of the 3 of us that was most affected by the cult. As a result of the questions that I had (a 6th grader at the time) my mother went to Tom Sooter with those questions and our family was ex-communicated from the church and I was taken out of the school. During one of the services, everyone was told they could not speak to any of our family unless they had Tom Sooters permission prior. I also have suffered psychologically from this. I knew Jenny. I remember hearing about her death and I cried that day. I love your article and it’s great to know that there are others who realize what is going on there.

  • cynthia

    is this the same man that wrote the book titled “the hole of no hope?

  • Austin

    I was in 8th grade when this happened. I still remember the look on Mr. Franseen’s face as we drove into the parking lot.

    I don’t regret my time at EH, it was a tough time, but I made it, and now I know why legalism is completely un-biblical. The whole Sooter incident seemed to be a long time in the making. I’ve since spoken to many childhood friends of Jenny, and shockingly they were not too surprised over what happened. Can you imagine a person not being too surprised over a murder/suicide? But that seems to be the consensus. Pray for the kids still at EH, and pray for the families affected by this tragedy.

  • Melissa H.

    I went to Eagle Heights for a couple of years & was a few grades behind Jenny but I saw her around alot & of course her dad taught taught us Bible class. All I can say is that the situation is very sad but I can’t say I’m completely shocked by it. I agree with the person who wrote this article wholeheartedly. Thankfully my parents pulled me out of there after a couple of years but I always told people that place was like a cult. What’s ironic is there was a genuine cult across the street from the school that I remember students & teachers always talking about in disgust. And I agree that eagle heights did far more to damage faith that help it. They taught only that God is judgemental & someone to fear..didn’t put much emphasis on the positive attributes of God. Hopefully the school has changed a lot or people stay far fat way from there.

  • Suzanne

    I began attending EH when it was still Tri-City North. I knew Jenny and am friends with her sister. I can see the problem with legalism and the trouble it has caused my extended family. They hold alot of grudges to this day. It has made me realize all over again that being a christian is a relationship with Christ and you can’t depend on mere man. You must remember that Mary Lee struggled with mental issues in her extended family; I believe that played a role in this as well. I am not excusing her, but know that she was under tremendous pressure with a difficult medical history from her brother to tend with. I encourage all who read this to remember that the biggest problem in this situation is that people got their eyes off of God and onto a man. Jenny was a dear, sweet girl who was just trying to find her way when her young life was cut off without a future. I pray for healing for all involved; I know it covers a plethora of people. God bless you all from the God of all comfort.

  • debbie

    i will never forget Jenny or that day. I am still haunted by this to this day. I was a member at EH for years, and my children went to school there. Jenny babysat my daughter. I am so glad to be free from the legalism that bound this church, and so very sorry for the senselessness of this, and for all the family and children traumatized

  • Ryan Goss

    Wow, I look at all of these postings, and I remember all of you. My family was close with the Sooter family. They were in our home many times. Jenny was one year older than me. We had a casual friendship. I was living in Indiana when I heard what had happened. I will never forget it. The events surrounding that situation have been one of the defining moments in my life, that set me out on a journey of self discovery. It is truly a heart wrenching account. I weep for all those (some close to me) who are still caught up in that way of thinking, too afraid to step away. My God is bigger than all of that.

  • James

    I also went to Eagle Heights. I was in the sixth grade and at school the morning “the tragedy” happened. I am also glad to see this here. I was just thinking of how traumatic that event was. I feel sorry that I was too young to really know Jenny. To this day I still have trouble separating reality from the the religious extremism that is spread in that cult. In my opinion the real “tragedy” is the fact that few learned from that terrible day. Most remained stuck in their same ways and told those of us who questioned that we were “worldly” or “lacked faith” and never considered that there are more important things to be concerned with than haircuts clothing choices and Christian attitudes.

  • Shawn G

    Add another ex-eagle heightser’s agreement here. I, just like Heidi was thinking about Jenny the other day and surfing for articles and came across yours. I was in class with your sister Michelle as well. It’s taken alot of soul-searching and self-analysis to undo the mental and psychological damage done by that place. But what really scares me is how much more political and social power the fundamentalist movement has now compared to when I was growing up.
    Friends of mine watch the documentary “Jesus Camp” and think that it has to be fake. I have to explain to them all the time that, no, places like these are real and probably even worse than depicted.
    I’m glad to see that there’s at least a little corner on the web where Jenny’s memory is alive and untainted by religious bullshit.

  • Heidi Byers

    I was Heidi Herrin @ the time of Eagle Heights….I agree strongly with your article….I have suffered greatly psychologically after leaving that cult ..but have finally found peace with a God far far different than the one I was made to believe in. I was in class with your sister Michelle. I’m glad you are doing well..I was thinking about Jenny the other day and what happend to her and I was looking on the web and came to your article.. You certaintly arent’ alone in your views..I just wish there was something I could do for the kids who are there today. I’m glad you are doing well; it takes a lot of courage to break away and be who you really are.

    • Shannon Purchase Dearman

      My husband and I just started attending a church 2 weeks ago..next week Tom Sooter is speaking at this church for a few days after reading all comments I’m worried. I like to know who my family will be listening to so I started researching came across this. I never really attended church in my life just because I have always tried to live life on the right path and because I never really knew who to believe or what religion was right so many different views it’s kind of scary!! Would appreciate some advice

      • gooder1


        If you do a quick historical search, you’ll find that the Catholic & Orthodox churches were begun by the Twelve Apostles of Jesus. That would be a good place to start. I myself am Catholic, so I would encourage you to explore your local Catholic Church, but of course I am biased. Anyway, you are lucky that you are exploring it during this time of year, as RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults) starts this month in most all Catholic Churches. The program runs through Easter (about 7 months), and covers everything the Church teaches and believes. If you are convinced after that time of study and reflection, then you would be Baptized, Confirmed, and receive the Eucharist at the Easter Vigil (the Saturday night prior to Easter Sunday). Act soon, as these programs are about to begin.

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