Real Life

They escaped Gloriavale – only for this young family to be torn apart by a bike crash

"They turned to me and said there was nothing else they could do," sobs Zoe Max, whose husband Jeremy slipped away in the back of the ambulance. "All I could think was, 'The children. They're so young.'"

As Zoe Max raced from her car on to the road where her injured husband Jeremy lay, she leaned down and took his hand. Beneath the 21-year-old’s helmet, he still showed signs of life. The motorbike he’d been riding moments earlier was metres away, crashed against a fence.

“It’s OK, babe, I’m here,” the mum of three whispered, praying aloud for the man she married five years ago in the strict religious community of Gloriavale. “You’re going to be OK.”

When his fit, young body was carried into an ambulance on January 6, Zoe climbed inside too, before the vehicle sped away, sirens blazing.

At the couple’s nearby farmhouse in Temuka, South Canterbury, their children, Simeon, three, Alessia Lily, one, and four-month-old Dylan, waited with Jeremy’s workmate.

“The paramedic was really calm doing his thing. I thought Jeremy was going to be OK,” explains Zoe, 22, recalling the evening her husband lost control of his bike on his way home from work as a farmer. He’d suffered a head injury, undetectable from the outside, save for a small amount of blood escaping his ear.

“They told me he had a faint pulse, but more often than not in these situations, there’s little chance of survival. That’s when it hit me.”

The young couple shortly after they married.

Just before the speeding ambulance reached Timaru Hospital, it switched off its sirens. “They turned to me and said there was nothing else they could do,” sobs Zoe, speaking with Woman’s Day about the accident that killed her best friend. “All I could think was, ‘The children. They’re so young.'”

Zoe and Jeremy met as kids in Gloriavale, but it was years later – when she was 15 and he 14 – that an unexpected spark ignited. Unlike many teenage sweethearts, there were no first dates or long conversations on the phone. They weren’t even allowed to make eye contact.

“Growing up in Gloriavale, girls aren’t supposed to talk to boys – it’s looked down on,” explains Zoe, whose Australian mother and Canadian father joined Gloriavale when they were in their early 20s.

It was in a laundry room that Jeremy approached Zoe, then known as Worthy. He told the quiet-natured teen he liked her and asked if she felt the same. Nervously, she nodded.

“I was terrified someone would see us,” she tells. “We’d be in big trouble with the leaders. We talked for 10 minutes and I was embarrassed because I hadn’t spoken to a boy since I was a kid! But it was also really exciting.”

With baby Simeon, just before being excommunicated and estranged from their families.

Zoe was drawn to the boldness of the mousy-haired male, dubbed a “rebel” at the West Coast compound. “I liked that he was a bad boy!” she laughs.

“The good boys would never talk to us. He also worked out and took it really seriously, which was looked down on. He welded his own dumbbells using metal he found.”

Zoe recalls meeting Jeremy in dark corners to talk, away from watchful eyes. “Every time I thought about liking Jeremy, I told myself I couldn’t do it because it was so sinful.”

But before long, their relationship turned physical. Zoe explains shyly, “You want to do what’s right to please your parents and God, but wanting to talk to boys is natural. The attraction is natural.”

Jeremy found it hard to sit still and had been busy making plans for his family’s future.

When they attempted to “do the right thing” by telling Gloriavale leaders about their intimacy, the pair were instantly shunned and made to cut all contact with each other. “I wasn’t allowed near him and had to have my mum with me 24/7,” claims the widow, who is one of eight children.

“They wouldn’t let me talk to other girls or go to Saturday night youth group. It made me feel so shameful.”

After three months of extra work and spending all her spare time reading the Bible, Zoe was told she had shown repentance. However, to regain the leaders’ trust, she was asked to make her commitment official and sign a multi-page document agreeing to follow Gloriavale’s rules. She did so.

“Your mind is so controlled by what everyone thinks of you there and I did what they wanted,” explains the petite blonde. But she made it her mission to convince the leaders she and Jeremy should marry.

Gloriavale founder Hopeful Christian – who has since passed away and was the grandfather of Jeremy – eventually granted her wish.

“I don’t think he could see us doing anything else,” shrugs Zoe, who wasn’t given the traditional Gloriavale wedding or allowed to wear the pink dress like others who marry within the compound.

Jeremy and Zoe grew up in the religious community of Gloriavale.

By age 18, the loved-up teen had given birth to her first son Simeon, whose religious name was approved by Hopeful. “I was really excited!” she says.

“I don’t want to say there’s nothing else to live for in there, but not a lot happens. It’s the start of some independence, something to call yours, which is special.”

Welcoming their baby was one of the few times Zoe saw Jeremy cry. “He was so amazed I’d just done that for us,” she smiles. Becoming a father only strengthened the young man’s determination to confront the control at Gloriavale. Eventually, says Zoe, he was instructed to leave.

“He was very strong-willed and wouldn’t hold back if he believed something,” tells Zoe, whose living room walls are covered with happy family photos taken weeks before Jeremy’s death.

“I didn’t like it so much because it meant he was always in trouble,” she adds, “but I learned to love it.”

Left to raise (from left) Alessia Lily, baby Dylan and Simeon on her own, Zoe is struggling to make sense of life without Jeremy.

In 2016, after much agonising, Zoe made the heart-wrenching decision to follow Jeremy out of Gloriavale with Simeon.

She recalls, “I didn’t want to at first because in their eyes, you’re going straight to hell and you’re taking your child with you. Jeremy didn’t believe that, but for me, it took a lot more convincing.”

Zoe admits that if it wasn’t for her husband, she probably wouldn’t have left. “I was depressed and guilty, and felt so condemned because I was disobeying the leaders. It sounds ridiculous, but that’s what you’re told every single day growing up. It took me a year to let go of that mindset.”

After securing work at a stone-cutting factory in Timaru, Jeremy was thrilled to welcome daughter Alessia Lily in 2017. He soon found work as a farmer and baby Dylan arrived, seven weeks early but surprisingly healthy in September 2018.

“Jeremy was always talking about growing up with the kids and how awesome it was we were so young and could do everything with them.”

Now living on a farm just out of Temuka, the young family added hunting dog Indy to their brood. After work, Jeremy would work out in their home gym, hunt and dive, and play rugby socially with a club.

Two weeks before Christmas, he taught Simeon how to ride his new bicycle, which the hands-on dad gifted early because he was too excited to wait.

“He was so fun-loving and passionate about everything he did,” recalls Zoe, who often took her fashion-forward hubby’s advice on what to wear.

“Every time he came home from work, he’d tell me some plan or idea, which I’d support. We’d planned to leave the farm in February to follow Jeremy’s dream of a rafting career, since he never wanted to be a farmer. He just did it for his family.”

Quietly, she adds, “In the time we had out here, Jeremy did so much with his life.”

Holding tiny newborn Dylan.

On what would be his final day, Jeremy got up early for work as usual and came home for lunch, having a quick nap before chatting to friends who visited. Then he hugged Zoe goodbye for the last time.

“I’d started walking to the dairy to see him with the kids later that afternoon, but it started raining, so we turned back,” she says. “I wish I’d gone down.”

It was after 5pm when a workmate turned up to the house and told Zoe to drive down the road because there had been an accident.

It wasn’t long before she found her husband. He was lying on the road beside two tractors that had stopped to help. Shortly after, Zoe’s world fell apart when the ambulance switched off its sirens.

“He was wearing a helmet, so it would’ve been the speed he was going and colliding with the road,” weeps the grief-stricken mum of the cause of death.

Daddy’s girl Alessia Lily on Jeremy’s new dirt bike.

Zoe was grateful to be able to organise Jeremy’s funeral. The children left painted handprints on his coffin and photographs of the kids were stuck to the inside of the lid.

A prized dirt bike he’d bought a couple of months earlier led the hearse, ridden by his brother Liberty, 18, who also started a new life outside of Gloriavale, in the South Island.

Despite being estranged from other members of the compound after they left, Zoe was visited by her parents the day after the accident. Jeremy’s parents attended their son’s heartbreaking burial, although they didn’t go to the service.

Today, as Zoe’s energetic first-born races around the backyard on his bike, followed by an assertive young Alessia Lily guiding her doll in a pink pushchair, Zoe watches. “Simeon reminds me of Jeremy,” she smiles faintly. “He’s always the leader with his friends on little missions.”

A bereft Zoe beside her husband’s coffin.

The hardest part of losing the man she fought tirelessly to love is the hole it’s left.

“Jeremy was so much a part of our lives. It feels empty. He’s missing out on his kids’ lives and what we’d planned together,” says Zoe, who is getting by thanks to a Givealittle page set up by friends. Her husband didn’t have life insurance.

“He loved it when I dressed nice and dyed my hair, and would always say it. I miss those little things that as a wife make you feel special.”

Three years ago, when she left Gloriavale with an uncertain future, Zoe never imagined she’d have to endure anything so difficult again.

“The amount of stress and strain put on our relationship was an emotional roller-coaster for us. But losing Jeremy has definitely been a lot harder.”

The young mum admits she did consider returning to Gloriavale. “But in reality, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t do that to my children,” she sighs.

There is something that brings Zoe comfort as she mourns the man she adored.

“A few weeks before he died, Jeremy told me, ‘There’s no point in arguing because we always love each other in the end.’ I really took it to heart and we didn’t argue that whole time,” she says, dabbing away tears.

“It’s so nice that the last little while was like that and he knew how much I loved him. We loved each other so much. I just wish he could’ve been here for longer.”

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