NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Controversial diet guru and church leader Gwen Lara and her husband, actor Joe Lara are believed dead among seven people Authorities said after a small plane crashed into a lake in Tennessee.
The Cessna C501 was driving to Palm Beach, Florida when it crashed on Percy Priest Lake about 3 miles from the flight’s start point in Smyrna, Tennessee, authorities said. Rutherford County Fire Rescue Capt. Joshua Sanders said in a statement on Sunday that restoration efforts focused on examining an 800-meter-wide field of debris in the lake.
“Our efforts have shifted from a rescue operation to a recovery operation,” he said earlier. “We are no longer looking for … living victims at this point.”
Diving teams from the local emergency agencies found human remains and parts of the plane that had crashed on the lake. “The rubble is about half a mile wide,” said John Ingle, Rutherford County’s fire captain and incident commander.
Crews are flying drones while recovery efforts continue.
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 have all been deemed dead by Rutherford County, according to the Rutherford County press release.
All were from Brentwood, Tennesee, a suburb of Nashville with about 40,000 residents.
No one on that flight was qualified to fly the aircraft, according to the Federal Aviation Administration website. Joe Lara, 58, had a pilot’s license but hasn’t updated his medical certification since 2017. Medical certification is required every two years.
Brandon Hannah, another church leader with a pilot’s license, was on the flight but was not certified for the Cessna 500 series, according to the FAA database.
A recording of communications between the control tower and the pilot recorded on LiveATC.com revealed that seconds prior to the crash, an alarm went off in the aircraft’s cockpit, indicating a mechanical failure of the 1982 aircraft.
Gwen Lara, 66, was the founder of the Remnant Fellowship Church and author of The Weigh Down Diet.
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 the media reported, some family members may have been involved in an airplane accident this morning. … The families will provide details in due course. In the meantime, the families respectfully ask for prayers and privacy for all concerned, please.”
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Founded in 1999, the Remnant Fellowship reportedly has more than 1,500 members in 150 communities around the world. Gwen Lara had said that being overweight was a sign of greed and gluttony. She said children should obey parents, women should obey husbands, and members should obey church leaders.
Lara had been a lightning rod for news coverage in the years after the Church was organized based on what she termed “belief-based” weight loss. The Remnant Fellowship website lists foods before drugs, depression, self-focus, money, anger, selfishness, envy, and jealousy as the idols that need to be “put down”.
Critics accused the church of being a cult. Still, thousands of churches in the US and around the world have started using her book and videos as guides.
According to a profile in The Tennessean a decade ago, Lara packed her own church full of bright and skinny people. She made insensitive comments on skinny Jews in concentration camps, claiming that genetics don’t play a role in losing weight.
She was interviewed by Larry King and featured in an article in New York magazine.
Jennifer and David Martin, two of the victims, joined the Remnant Fellowship in 1999. They had five children. The Martins commended Gwen on the Remnant Fellowship website for moving from passive Christians to active Christians.
“Every year our marriage gets BETTER,” wrote David Martin. “Our children have a relationship with God and they want to be close to us as parents. Our finances have been restored. We have learned to stop sin, and the amazing and cool result of this … is that this Remnant Fellowship Church is full of which is people who can say the same thing! “
On Sunday, Gwen Lara’s daughter Elizabeth Hannah sent a text to the remaining families asking for prayers. Hannah wrote that the plane “had to crash for a controlled, fast landing”.
The text states that the Laras were on the plane, along with the leaders of the remains David and Jennifer Martin, Jonathan and Jessica Walters, and Elizabeth Hannah’s husband, Brandon.
Authorities said the 1982 Cessna plane left Smyrna Airport at 10:53 a.m. on Saturday. It crashed shortly after launch, according to the press release. The National Transportation Safety Board led the investigation.
Featuring: Kerri Bartlett and Adam Tambourine, Nashville Tennessean; The Associated Press.