Fact Check

Did Gwen Shamblin Lara Fake Her Death?

The weight loss church leader was the subject of the HBO Max documentary series, "The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin."

Published Dec 8, 2021

It's false to say that Gwen Shamblin Lara faked her death and that she is alive and in hiding. (Wikimedia Commons)
It's false to say that Gwen Shamblin Lara faked her death and that she is alive and in hiding. (Image Via Wikimedia Commons)
Claim:
Gwen Shamblin Lara faked her death in a plane crash in 2021 and is still alive.

Origin

Beginning in late 2021, a rumor made the rounds that appeared to claim Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin Lara had faked her death and that she did not die in a plane crash. However, this was both misleading and false.

Before her death, Lara was the leader of Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. The congregation's teachings concentrated on weight loss with her "Weigh Down Workshop," a Christian diet program she created in 1986.

On Sept. 30, 2021, her life became the subject of the HBO Max documentary series, "The Way Down: God, Greed and the Cult of Gwen Shamblin."

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wiQSsrQCG6c
 
The episodes documented allegations that the church encouraged abuse of children. One episode covered the 2003 death of 8-year-old Josef Smith, which led to his parents going to prison and the church being raided by authorities in June 2004.

The False Rumor

On Dec. 8, 2021, WPLN journalist Paige Pfleger reported that the false rumor about Lara purportedly faking her death had come from the iHeartRadio program, "The Bobby Bones Show."

We also found several Twitter users who tweeted about the idea of Lara faking her death:

However, as Pfleger noted, such rumors were all baseless and lacked the facts of what happened after her death.

The Plane Crash

On May 29, four months before the documentary series premiered, Lara and six others died in a plane crash after their Cessna 501 crashed into Percy Priest Lake in Smyrna, Tennessee. Her second husband, former "Tarzan" actor Joe Lara, was the pilot that day.

According to USA Today, "the group was traveling to a Women Fighting For America event in Stuart, Florida, according to the organization's founder." They were scheduled to fly to Palm Beach International Airport.

An air traffic controller recording captured the final moments of the flight: 

There was no flight recorder onboard the aircraft. This audio was recorded on the ground.

The Medical Examiner

On June 1, Nashville-based radio station WMOT reported that the local coroner said the bodies of four males and three females had been recovered, which accounted for all of the people who were believed to have been on board:

The Rutherford County Medical Examiner has confirmed that seven bodies have been recovered from Percy Priest, but the identities of the victims have not yet been officially confirmed. The coroner says the bodies include four males and three females.

A county press statement says the Middle Tennessee Regional Forensic Center and family members are helping the coroner positively identify the bodies "biologically and scientifically."

The Remnant Fellowship Church in Brentwood says the seven were all members, including church founder and Christian diet guru Gwen Shamblin.

Two days later, on June 3, News Channel 5 in Nashville reported that the remains had all been identified by the Rutherford County Medical Examiner's Office:

Medical examiner ID's 7 victims from Percy Priest Lake plane crash

All seven victims of the Percy Priest Lake plane crash from over the weekend have been identified.

The Rutherford County Medical Examiner’s Office released the update Thursday, saying the victims were identified as William J. Lara, Gwen S. Lara, Jennifer J. Martin, David L. Martin, Jessica Walters, Jonathan Walters, and Brandon Hannah.

In other words, Lara's remains were both found and identified, meaning that she was no longer was alive after the plane crash. It was both misleading and false to claim that she had faked her death.

In addition to the reporting cited in this story, we also located the National Transportation Safety Board's Aviation Accident Preliminary Report, which can be read in full as a PDF.

In sum, the medical examiner's report confirmed that Lara did not fake her death. Her remains were identified shortly after the plane crash.

Sources

Couple Gets Life In Son’s Beating Death. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/couple-gets-life-in-sons-beating-death/.
 
CNN, Hollie Silverman. “7 People Are Presumed Dead after a Small Plane Crashed into a Lake near Nashville.” CNN, https://www.cnn.com/2021/05/29/us/nashville-tennessee-cesna-plane-crash/index.html.
 
“Four Days in, Mid-Tenn Still Waiting for Official Identification of Jet Crash Victims.” WMOT, 1 June 2021, https://www.wmot.org/from-wmot-news/2021-06-01/four-days-in-mid-tenn-still-waiting-for-official-identification-of-jet-crash-victims.
 
“Medical Examiner ID’s 7 Victims from Percy Priest Lake Plane Crash.” WTVF, 3 June 2021, https://www.newschannel5.com/news/medical-examiner-ids-7-victims-from-percy-priest-lake-plane-crash.
 
“Parents Convicted of Killing Son, 8.” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/id/wbna17191330.
 
Pfleger, Paige. “Myth-Busting: No, There’s Not Evidence That Gwen Shamblin Faked Her Death.” WPLN News - Nashville Public Radio, 8 Dec. 2021, https://wpln.org/post/myth-busting-no-theres-not-evidence-that-gwen-shamblin-faked-her-death/.
 
“‘Tarzan’ Actor Joe Lara Among 7 Plane Crash Victims in Tennessee.” Snopes.com, https://www.snopes.com/ap/2021/05/31/joe-lara-tarzan-plane-crash/.
 
“What to Know about the Plane Crash That Killed Christian Dietitian Gwen Shamblin Lara.” Nashville Tennessean, https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2021/06/01/gwen-shamblin-lara-plane-crash-brentwood-remnant-fellowship-church-updates/7488918002/.

Jordan Liles is a Snopes reporter with expertise in investigating misinformation, inauthentic social media activity, and scams.

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