NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Controversial diet guru and church leader Gwen Lara and her husband, actor Joe Lara, are among seven people presumed dead after a small plane crashed into a Tennessee lake, authorities said.
The Cessna C501 was bound for Palm Beach, Florida, when it crashed on Percy Priest Lake about 3 miles from where the flight took off in Smyrna, Tennessee, authorities said. Rutherford County Fire Rescue Capt. Joshua Sanders said in a statement Sunday that recovery efforts were focused on examining a half-mile-wide debris field in the lake.
“Our efforts have transitioned from a rescue effort to that of a recovery effort,” he said earlier. “We are no longer … looking for live victims at this point.”
Dive teams from local emergency agencies found human remains and pieces of the plane that crashed on the lake. “The debris field is approximately a half of a mile wide,” said Rutherford County Fire Captain and Incident Commander John Ingle.
Crews are flying drones as the recovery effort continues.
Search and recovery efforts began shortly after the plane crashed. On Saturday night, the Rutherford County government confirmed the names of the seven people on board.
William J. Lara, Gwen S. Lara, Jennifer J. Martin, David L. Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters and Brandon Hannah were all presumed dead, according to the Rutherford County news release.
All of them were from Brentwood, Tennesee, a suburban Nashville city of about 40,000.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration website, no one on that flight was qualified to fly the plane. Joe Lara, 58, had a pilot’s license but had not updated his medical certification since 2017. The medical certification is required every two years.
Brandon Hannah, another church leader with a pilot license, was on the flight, but he didn’t have a certification for the Cessna 500 series, according to the FAA database.
A recording of the communication between the control tower and the pilot, captured on LiveATC.com, revealed an alarm going off in the cockpit of the plane seconds before it crashed, suggesting a mechanical failure in the aircraft, which was built in 1982.
Gwen Lara, 66, was founder of the Remnant Fellowship Church and author of “The Weigh Down Diet,” a program based on “helping people turn away from the love of food and toward a love of God,” her website says.
Joe Lara, 58, briefly played Tarzan in the TV series “Tarzan: The Epic Adventures” in the 1990s.
The church issued a statement shortly after the crash.
“The Shamblins, Hannahs and Laras appreciate your concern, support and prayers,” the statement said. “As has been reported by the media, some family members may have been involved in a plane accident this morning. … The families will share details at the appropriate time. In the meantime, the families respectfully request prayers and privacy for all involved, please.”
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The Remnant Fellowship, founded in 1999, reportedly has more than 1,500 members in 150 congregations around the world. Gwen Lara had said being overweight was a sign of greed and gluttony. She said children were to obey parents, wives were to obey husbands and members were to obey church leaders.
Lara had been a lightning rod for news coverage over the years after she founded the church based on what she called “faith-based” weight loss. The Remnant Fellowship website lists food ahead of drugs, depression, self focus, money, anger, selfishness, envy and jealousy as the idols that need to be “laid down.”
Detractors accused the church of being a cult. Yet thousands of churches around the U.S. and the world started using her book and videos as guides.
Lara packed her own church full of radiant and thin people, according to a profile in The Tennessean a decade ago. She made insensitive comments about thin Jews in concentration camps and has claimed genetics don’t play a role in weight loss.
She was interviewed by Larry King and featured in an article by New Yorker magazine.
Jennifer and David Martin, two of the victims, joined the Remnant Fellowship at its inception in 1999. They had five children. The Martins, on the Remnant Fellowship website, praised Gwen for changing them from passive Christians to active Christians.
“Each year of our marriage gets BETTER,” David Martin wrote. “Our children have a relationship with God and they WANT to be near us as parents. Our finances have been restored. We have learned to STOP sinning, and the amazing and cool result of doing that… is that this Remnant Fellowship Church is FULL of people who can say the same thing!”
On Sunday, Gwen Lara’s daughter, Elizabeth Hannah, sent out a text to Remnant families asking for prayers. Hannah texted that the plane “had to go down for a controlled, quick landing.”
The text as saying that the Laras were on the plane, along with Remnant leaders David and Jennifer Martin, Jonathan and Jessica Walters and Elizabeth Hannah’s husband, Brandon.
Authorities said the 1982 Cessna plane left the Smyrna Airport at 10:53 a.m. Saturday. It crashed soon after takeoff, according to the news release. The National Transportation Safety Board was leading the investigation.
Contributing: Kerri Bartlett and Adam Tamburin, Nashville Tennessean; The Associated Press.
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