Oct 26, 2021

Man charged in cult case

Jamaica Observer 
October 26, 2021

MONTEGO BAY, St James — The police have charged a member of Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in St James with murder.

He has been identified as 37-year-old André Ruddock.

Ruddock was charged yesterday afternoon at the Major Investigations Task Force (MIT) division in Kingston with one count of murder and one count of wounding with intent.

He is accused of slashing the throat of Appliance Traders Limited employee Taneka Gardner and wounding another congregant two Sundays ago during what is believed to be a bizarre ritual involving human sacrifice at the religious organisation's building in Albion, Montego Bay.

Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) Stephanie Lindsay, who heads the Jamaica Constabulary Force's (JCF) Corporate Communications Unit, said Ruddock was the other individual in yesterday's ill-fated convoy that transported the now-deceased leader of Pathways International Kevin Smith. Both men were destined for a question-and-answer session in Kingston.

Police report that at around 9:30 am, one of the vehicles transporting Smith and members of the JCF overturned on the Linstead bypass in St Catherine. Smith and Police Constable Orlando Irons of the Montego Bay Fugitive Apprehension Team were confirmed dead upon arrival at hospital while two other lawmen remain in hospital in serious condition.

Smith was to be questioned by detectives as they moved to slap him with two counts of murder, two counts of wounding with intent, and one count of illegal possession of firearm.

SSP Lindsay said no court hearing date has yet been set for Ruddock.


Oct 25, 2021

As some in the Western world reject traditional religion, they're redirecting their faith - not losing it

Antony Funnell for Future Tense

ABC Radio National

October 23, 2021

The language of traditional religion is as steeped in hierarchy as it is in history.

According to most doctrines, God is the shepherd – and we the flock. Humans are controlled from the heavens by the deity or deities we serve.

But advances in neuroscience and psychology present a very different story, one in which the human brain is hardwired for spiritual thought and where religious beliefs and practices come and go over time, depending on our real-world needs and fears.

It could help explain many of the fundamental shifts occurring in religious observance and belief, from the return of European paganism to a growing interest in individualistic forms of spirituality.

Reassessing the rise of atheism

When people assess the future of religion, an initial observation is that Western societies are becoming less religious, but religious scholar Linda Woodhead takes issue with this popular idea.

When people tick "no religion" on a census form that doesn't mean they've turned away from all belief, she told ABC RN's Future Tense.

Instead it often just indicates that they no longer want to be identified with an established faith.

"People in many cases are still spiritual, they still want lots of the goods that religion can offer, but in a way that's more personally meaningful for them," she says.

And in a consumerist world where personal choice is prioritised, Professor Woodhead argues more and more people are opting to craft their own form of religious belief.

"Young people are very concerned about their identities. They want to find a spiritual, moral and communal life that is personally meaningful for them, and they want to have much more authority in their quest and in their spiritual development," she says.

Professor Woodhead points to a revival of pre-Christian traditions, including the pagan faith Rodnovery in modern day Russia, and the official state recognition of Germanic Heathenism in Norway.

She says such developments are partly a yearning for culture, meaning and symbolism, and are more than mere appropriation.

"At the heart of it, all religion is about people wanting a deeper connection with some greater power or powers.

"Religions that don't deliver that, [where] people feel they are not getting that kind of spiritual sustenance, they are the religions that fall away and die. I think that is what has happened to the [traditional] churches," she says.

Nothing is written in stone

Connor Wood, a research associate with the Centre for Mind and Culture in Boston, agrees that formalised religion is giving way to more individualistic, even "idiosyncratic" spiritual beliefs.

But, he says it's important to remember that religions have always come and gone — that faith is dynamic.

"There are countless small-scale societies whose religious, spiritual and ritual traditions have disappeared without ever having been recorded," Dr Wood says.

He says even enduring religions like Christianity have reinvented themselves many times over centuries, and argues belief structures that survive are those that best meet individual or societal needs, or both.

Islam, for example, spread quickly along the trading routes of the Middle East and North Africa, because it offered a system of trust verification for traders.

"[The traders] might have never seen each other before, but you see that this guy is doing the Salat prayer, midday prayer to Allah, and you say, okay, I know that this guy … he's in the same sort of world as I am and I can trust him," Dr Wood says.

Similarly, the Roman Emperor Constantine's embrace of the relatively minor cult of Christianity served Rome's rulers well because it brought a sense of cohesion to their far-flung empire.

"If you have a religion that gets people to cooperate in very large-scale, pretty predictable ways over the long-term, you might have a keeper," Dr Wood says.

All in the mind

According to psychologist Justin Barrett, spiritual belief evolved because it fulfills a particular human need, and people are "hyper-sensitive" to the idea of human-like agency when looking for meaning and purpose in the world.

"It seems that the conceptual path of least resistance for us is to think in terms of whodunnit as opposed to what are the mechanisms by which this came about," he says.

Professor Barrett, a former head of the Cognition, Religion and Theology Project at Oxford University, says God concepts and ancestor spirits therefore make sense to us because they fit neatly into that "cognitive gap".

"We quickly figure out from early childhood that humans won't do the job for a lot of these whodunnit problems, and so we seem to find something a little bit bigger and mightier, more knowledgeable and more powerful than human beings, much more satisfying," he says.

A conspiratorial alignment

Professor Barrett argues our instinctive desire to ascribe human-like agency to external sources also helps explain why people join celebrity cults, populist political causes and even conspiracy groups like QAnon.

He says what we typically recognise as the tenets of religion, for example the belief in a higher order and the acceptance of unquestioned faith, are similar to those shared by many social and political movements.

"It's sort of mixing and matching different kinds of psychological triggers, if you will," Professor Barrett says.

"What it lays bare is that the kinds of psychological dynamics that undergird religious systems can show up in other kinds of 'almost' religious behaviour."

He says this demonstrates religious thinking isn't unique, and that it's part of human culture and the way we try to make sense of what's happening around us.

Professor Barrett also argues that, whether centred in the brain or in the heavens, spirituality is here to stay.

He says the demise of religion has been regularly predicted for at least the last 150 years, and despite their best efforts both Stalin and Mao failed to stamp it out.

"So, I think we should immediately be a little bit hesitant before we declare the death of religion. In part because it seems to have very deep evolutionary and psychological roots," Professor Barrett says.

"We may see religions change in their form. We may see them serving slightly different social [or] meaning-making roles, but they sure don't seem to be going away anytime soon."



Leader of Cult That Sacrificed Humans Dies in Cop Car Crash

Clinton Pickering
Noor Ibrahim
Deputy World Editor
Daily Beast
October 25, 2021

MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA—Jamaican cult leader Kevin Smith, who has been in custody since Sunday after two of his followers were killed in a “human sacrifice” ritual, has died in a car crash.

The accident took place on Monday morning while police were transporting Smith from Montego Bay to Kingston where he was set to be formally charged in connection with the murders.

Head of Jamaica’s Constabulary Forces communication unit, Senior Superintendent Stephanie Lindsay, confirmed the death of Smith and a police officer along the Bog Walk main road.

She told The Daily Beast: “They were taking him to Kingston to be formally charged; there was an accident and all four people in the vehicle received serious injuries. Two died, a police constable and Mr. Smith and the other two police officers are in critical condition.”

As head of his Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries, Smith was arrested last week after police swooped down on his church in Montego Bay in response to a report that a human sacrifice was taking place in the church, where more than 100 followers had gathered, dressed in white robes.

According to survivors who spoke to local Jamaican media outlets, the ritual involved senior members of the church “stabbing” and “slashing” several congregants who were told they’d be embarking on a “heavenly journey.” Two of the church members were killed over the course of the ritual, and one was killed during the police raid on the property.

“When I saw blood and the young lady fell, I said ‘This is it for me,’” one member who managed to escape the church told the Jamaican Observer.

On the day of the gruesome ordeal, Smith had posted to Facebook asking his congregants to leave their cellphones at home before heading to the church, warning them of an incoming “flood.” One of the members had reportedly snuck a phone in and called police after witnessing the horror of another congregant getting killed.

“The people have been brainwashed.”

“It is traumatizing. It traumatized me so much I’ve not been sleeping or eating well. I’ve not left home to do no business because of what is taking place,” one neighbor who knew Smith told The Daily Beast at the time.

Milton Ricketts, another source who knew Smith well, had told The Daily Beast that the troubling activities at Smith’s church had been “going on for years.” “The people have been brainwashed, including the children, and they have been taught things which are unscriptural and they have suffered damage in their soul.”

According to Ricketts, Smith would demand his followers to “take a knee,” when addressing him, asking them to refer to him as “Crown Bishop… at all times.”

A Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries pamphlet obtained by The Daily Beast introduced Smith as “former crown Ambassador of the Throne of Nubia Sheba, globe traveller to over 100 countries worldwide and Yeshu’a Hamashiach end time Prophet to the Nations.”

Police had previously told The Daily Beast that they were investigating “a case of double murder and three counts of wounding,” in connection with the Oct. 17 incident and more than 40 church members have been arrested over the ordeal so far. The police probe had also involved searches of two of Smith’s luxury homes before he died on Monday.


Oct 24, 2021

Long Arm of Russian Law Reaches Obscure Siberian Church

Long Arm of Russian Law Reaches Obscure Siberian Church

By Valerie Hopkins

New York Times
Oct. 24, 2021

ABODE OF DAWN, Russia — High on a hilltop bathed in the autumnal colors of pine, birch and larch trees, Aleksei Demidov paused for a few minutes of quiet prayer. He was directing his thoughts to his religious teacher, known as Vissarion, hoping he might feel his energy.

As he prayed, a cluster of small bells rang out from a spindly wooden gazebo. They belonged to the Church of the Last Testament, founded in 1991 by Vissarion. Except then his name was Sergei Torop, and he was just a former police officer and an amateur artist.

These days, Mr. Demidov and thousands of other church members consider Vissarion a living god. The Russian state, however, considers him a criminal.

For most of three decades, Mr. Torop and his followers practiced their faith in relative obscurity and without government interference.

But that ended in September of last year, when he and two aides were spirited away in helicopters in a dramatic operation led by federal security services. Russia’s Investigative Committee, the country’s top federal prosecutorial authority, accused them of “creating a religious group whose activities may impose violence on citizens,” allegations they deny.

A year later, the three men are still being held without criminal indictment in a prison in the industrial city of Novosibirsk, 1,000 miles from their church community. No trial has been scheduled.

Since taking power at the turn of the century, President Vladimir V. Putin has gone to great lengths to silence critics and prevent any person or group from gaining too much influence. He has forced out and locked up oligarchs, muted the news media and tried to defang political opposition — like Aleksei A. Navalny.

The state has also cracked down on nonconformist religious organizations, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, which was outlawed in 2017 and declared an “extremist” organization, on par with Islamic State militants.

Though there are accusations of extortion and mistreatment of members of the Church of the Last Testament, scholars and criminal justice experts say the arrest of Mr. Torop underscores the government’s intolerance of anything that veers from the mainstream — even a small, marginal group living in the middle of the forest, led by a former police officer claiming to be God.

“There is an idea that there is a defined spiritual essence of Russian culture, meaning conservative values and so on, that is in danger,” said Alexander Panchenko, the head of the Center for Anthropology of Religion at the European University at St. Petersburg, who has been asked to serve as an expert witness in an administrative procedure that could strip the church of its legal status as a church, an act that he said was based on “false accusations.”

“Somehow the new religious movements are now dangerous as well,” Mr. Panchenko said.

Roman Lunkin, the head of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences, compared the crackdown on religious groups with a 2012 law on “foreign agents” that has been used against journalists and activists critical of the government or of its conservative policies.

“There were no court cases about the Church of Last Testament that proved any psychological or other abuse, like financial extortion,” Mr. Lunkin said. “That is only antisectarian hysteria.”

He said the church’s extreme remoteness worked against it. “Almost nobody will miss them or will try to defend them, even in Russian liberal circles,” he said.

Since Russia emerged from an era of atheistic communism after the breakup of the Soviet Union, its myriad religions have featured an array of proselytizers, gurus and teachers like Mr. Torop. When he established his church three decades ago, thousands of spiritual seekers flocked to hear him as he held gnomic lectures at events across the former Soviet Union. He adopted the name Vissarion, which he said meant “life-giving” and was given to him by God.

His “Last Testament,” a New Age text outlining a set of principles, focused on self-improvement, self-governance and community.

Many believers abandoned their cities, jobs and even spouses in the hopes of building a better world amid the harsh conditions of a forest in the Siberian taiga, which at that time was a four-hour walk from the closest (unpaved) road.

“It was a euphoric time, even though it was so difficult,” said Ivanna Vedernikova, 50, who joined the church in 1998 and married one of Mr. Torop’s arrested associates. “We were living in tents and generating electricity by hand, but we knew we were building a new society.”

The community of Abode of Dawn now consists of about 80 families living on the mountains, with thousands of others — no one knows exactly how many because the organization does not keep a list — spread out across several villages about an hour and a half’s drive away, along the Kazyr River.

On Sundays, Vissarion would descend from his residence above the circular village, the Heavenly Abode, and answer questions from the faithful, which were collected by an aide and collated into a series now consisting of 23 gold-embossed tomes.

These days, his followers say they communicate with him in prison each night at 10:05 during a ritual they call “sliyaniya,” which means integration or blending; they direct their thoughts to him for 15 minutes, and he addresses them in his thoughts.

When they arrested Mr. Torop last year, the Russian authorities relied on accusations from several former members of the community, who spoke about conditions during its first decade of existence. Elena Melnikova, whose husband is a former church member, told Russian state-owned media that while there was no requirement to donate money, it was encouraged.

She said that some food items were banned and that seeking medical care was difficult. The church drew notice in 2000 when two children died because the community is so remote that they could not get medical help in time. But Ms. Melnikova also said that conditions had softened since the early days.

The accusations come from a vague Soviet-era law used to punish nonregistered groups like Baptists, evangelicals and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mr. Lunkin said. The prosecutors’ office did not respond to messages seeking information about the status of the case.

In interviews last month with more than two dozen church members, none said that they had been mistreated or strained financially, and all that they could come and go freely for work or school. They said the church did not impose a financial burden on them. When the authorities searched Mr. Torop’s home, they found only 700 rubles (about $10).

Mr. Torop and his church have not been politically active or spoken out against the government. Instead, followers believe their very independence from normal Russian life is what made their church a target. “We’ve created a self-sustaining society, and our freedom is dangerous for the system,” said Aleksandr A. Komogortsev, 46, a disciple who was a police officer in Moscow for 11 years before moving to one of the biggest villages three years ago.

“We have shown how it is possible to live outside the system,” he said, gushing over a breakfast of salad and potato dumplings about how fulfilling it was to work with his hands.

Tanya Denisova, 68, a follower since 1999, said the church was focused on God’s judgment, not politics. She moved to the village in 2001, after divorcing her husband, who did not want to join the church.

“We came here to get away from politics,” she said.

Like the other faithful, Ms. Denisova eats a vegetarian diet, mostly of food grown in her large garden. Pictures of Vissarion, referred to as “the teacher,” and reproductions of his paintings hang in many rooms of her house.

Each village where followers live, like Ms. Denisova’s Petropavlovka, functions as a “united family,” with the household heads meeting each morning after a brief prayer service to discuss urgent communal work to be done for the day, and with weekly evening sessions where members of the community can solve disputes, request assistance or offer help.

At one recent meeting, members approved two new weddings after ensuring the betrothed couples were ready for marriage.

For many of the believers, their leader’s arrest, combined with the coronavirus pandemic, is a sign that Judgment Day approaches.

Others said they felt his arrest was the fulfillment of a prophecy, comparing their teacher’s plight with that of Jesus more than 2,000 years ago.

Stanislav M. Kazakov, the head of a small private school in the village of Cheremshanka, said the arrest had made the teacher more famous in Russia and abroad, which he hoped would draw more adherents.

Mr. Kazakov said his school, like other community institutions, had been subjected to repeated inspections and fines since 2019, with at least 100 students as young as 8 questioned by the police. He said the arrest and intimidation by the police had made the community stronger.

“They thought we would fall apart without him,” he said. “But in the past year, we have returned to the kind of community that holds each other together.”

Are Cults Good Or Evil?1996


Do religious cults ruin people’s lives or change them for the better?

Dissatisfaction with the main Christian churches can provide cults - or new religious movements, with opportunities to attract new recruits.

Some people believe cults are evil and sinister groups who brainwash people and ruin lives. Others who have joined cults say their lives have changed for the better.

People shopping in Dublin’s Ilac Centre give their opinions on whether there is any harm to religious cults. Some people interviewed believe cults are very dangerous, associating them with satanic rituals, witchcraft and black magic.

One woman admits she does not know much about cults but fears,

They brainwash everybody and take their money.

Another woman thinks cults are prey on intelligent, successful people who need to fill a void in their lives,

I think people should be very wary.

A man who says he is a Catholic has a relaxed attitude to what people chose to believe, I think everybody is entitled to whatever religion they would like to adopt.

However an elderly woman is entirely dismissive of cults,

Catholics don’t go in for them things you know.

‘Gerry Ryan Tonight’ (GRT) is an Irish chat show hosted by Gerry Ryan that aired live for three series on Network 2 between 1995 and 1997. The studio-based light entertainment show featured guest interviews and live music. It was produced by Charlie McCarthy.

This episode of ‘Gerry Ryan Tonight’ was broadcast on 23 October 1996. The presenter is Gerry Ryan. The reporter is Hilary Fennell.


Oct 21, 2021

Human Sacrifice Is the Gruesome End to This Cult’s Creepy History

Clinton Pickering
Daily Beast
October 20, 2021

MONTEGO BAY, JAMAICA—The 144 men, women and children summoned to church, robed in white, found themselves witnessing a macabre ritual of sacrificial death and facing the long arms of police and military personnel.

The hellish nightmare played out in the Jamaican city of Montego Bay on the night of Sunday, Oct. 17, in contravention of a government decree that, with a few exceptions, there should be no movement islandwide in keeping with ongoing efforts to contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19 pandemic. If anyone saw this coming, they had kept it secret. Even some police officers were among the church’s congregation, the city’s Police Commissioner, Antony Anderson, said in a press briefing about the incident
The church of the self-styled “Prophet to the Nations,” proclaimed as His Excellency Dr. Kevin O. Smith, has been operating for many years under his Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries. A copy of his biography obtained by The Daily Beast identifies Smith as “former crown Ambassador of the Throne of Nubia Sheba, globe traveller to over 100 countries worldwide and Yeshu’a Hamashiach end time Prophet to the Nations.”

“It traumatized me so much I’ve not been sleeping or eating well.”
In Facebook posts on Sunday, Smith had warned his followers of an incoming “flood” and instructed them not to take their cell phones to church that evening, but one member’s disobedience might have prevented a massacre. The police disclosed that it was an errant female follower who was overwhelmed by the sight of another young lady being killed in front of the congregation that caused her to leave and call the police.The Pathways Christian Cathedral, approximately a mile from downtown Montego Bay, became the scene of a deadly confrontation when police and army personnel responded to the call.

Stephanie Lindsay, head of the Jamaica Constabulary Force communications arm, told The Daily Beast that “from the police standpoint, we’re currently investigating a case of double murder and three counts of wounding.” A third death that occurred during the face-off with police is under investigation. Lindsay added that “the leader of the congregation along with others are in police custody as the police try to decipher exactly what transpired.”

While Lindsay couldn’t yet provide details about the circumstances of the fatalities, one female congregant who spoke with the Jamaican Observer on the condition of anonymity said that she was waiting to enter the church when she witnessed another woman’s throat being “slashed” inside. “When I saw blood and the young lady fell, I said ‘This is it for me,’” she told the outlet, adding that she escaped with a teenager after seeing two other members leap over the property’s fence in the midst of the chaos. Another anonymous escapee, who was reportedly inside the church when the “ritual” commenced, told Jamaica’s Gleaner she witnessed a “senior” church figure stabbing members after being told they’d be embarking on a “heavenly journey.”

Merline Lewin, a Montego Bay resident who lives a stone’s throw from the church, was in shock over the ordeal. “It is traumatizing. It traumatized me so much I’ve not been sleeping or eating well. I’ve not left home to do no business because of what is taking place,” she told The Daily Beast.

Two days had passed, but she remembered what happened that Sunday night vividly. “It is so shocking to know that this man came up here almost three and a half years ago, and the first time I spoke with this man, he told me he is going to put this community on the map. I didn’t know what he meant by that.” She said she continued to communicate with him on social media, including Facebook and WhatsApp, until about a year ago when the cows, goats, pigs and fowls Smith had allowed to roam freely in his churchyard sparked tension between them.

Lewin said she found it very unusual for Smith to keep all of these animals at the church he built in a residential community within the city. “I asked him why didn’t he carry them to a country area? He said it was safer here for him.”

According to Lewin, Smith also was seeking to purchase land next door, situated between his church and a Yahweh church, which itself was embroiled in a major tussle with police two years ago over children taken from their homes to stay at the church.

In his biography, Smith is also described as “an ordained minister of the Gospel at 17 years old and at 18 years old, he was ordained the National Evangelist for Canada by his Bishops. His dedication to the work of God coupled with his humble disposition was the catalyst that set in motion his meteoric rise as God’s mouthpiece and prophet to the nations.” He claimed a church membership of 800.

“These people come and Satan sets them up in what he calls a church, which is a smokescreen; it was from day one a cult.”

Smith had allegedly built rooms in the back of the church and “had children over there, young people with babies come over there and live,” Lewin said.

The dramatic event last Sunday night was somewhat reminiscent of the Jim Jones saga in the U.S., with police having to commandeer their way into the church amidst opposition and an exchange of gunfire that sent church members, clad only in white gowns, and children scampering for cover, says Lewin.

While the police try to unravel what might have been taking place at the church behind a chin-high wall, Milton Ricketts, who, though not a member of the church, says he knew Smith well after having lived in the same community as him, told The Daily Beast the unfolding drama wasn’t surprising to him.

“This man, not only has he done this despicable thing, but it has been going on for years,” Ricketts said. “And the people have been brainwashed, including the children, and they have been taught things which are unscriptural and they have suffered damage in their soul.”

Ricketts told The Daily Beast he had been hearing strange tales about Smith’s attitude of “self-importance.” “I observed it myself, he likes to have people bowing down before [him], to be subservient,” said Smith. Even to serve him water, “they would have to take the knee and he had to be addressed by his preferred title, Crown Bishop at all times.”

Ricketts and Lewin said that congregants were told how much money they needed to offer to Smith, who allegedly raked in thousands from his followers.

Referring to the tight hold Smith had over his congregation, Ricketts told The Daily Beast: “I do know he has caused splits in families, serious split to the extent where I know of a family where the kids were estranged from the parents. The parents were excommunicated from the church and the kids never spoke to the parents again.”

Ricketts, a devout Christian, said he is deeply concerned for the psychological well-being of the children attending what he preferred to call Smith’s organization, rather than a church. “These people come and Satan sets them up in what he calls a church, which is a smokescreen; it was from day one a cult,” he said.

Ricketts claims the children’s minds have been warped and that “their emotions are not what they ought to be.” “Some seeds have been sown deep, deep in the recesses of these children’s minds,” he said. “And they might not germinate right now, but they are going to produce the truth one day.”

All the adults taken into custody have been charged for breaching the country’s Disaster Risk Management Act, under which government’s sets out COVID-related security measures. The female members have been released on bail, and the 14 children involved have been taken into custody and are now wards of the state.


Oct 19, 2021


Janet Silvera/Senior Gleaner
Jamaica Gleaner 
October 19, 2021

The bloodstained concrete where Tanicka Gordon, the woman who was reportedly sacrificed in a bizarre ritual in St James on Sunday, was testament to the horror that unfolded at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Ministries in Paradise.

The rainbow-themed ritual, which included two days of fasting, came to a nightmarish end on Sunday night as members dressed in white at the Dr Kevin O. Smith-led cult-like operation, where those considered unclean were reportedly told that their blood had to be shed.

Before the ritual could end, the police stormed the Norwood Avenue facility with 144 congregants, including children, in attendance, preparing, as they were told, for an ark (His Excellency Kevin Smith’s Ark).

Goats, cows and rabbits were all part of the script, and by 7:40 on Sunday night, three people were dead – two as a part of the sacrifice – and three taken to hospital for treatment.

Police Commissioner Antony Anderson yesterday told the media that the police were alerted by a congregant who had been injured when she chose to disobey the instructions given to her by the leaders.

“She gave other information, which led us to believe that persons were at risk. On responding to that report by the person who was injured, the first team of police that arrived were shot at,” he said, adding that they had to get backup.

“We were concerned that some form of ritualised killing was going to take place and so we did an entry,” explained the police commissioner.

When the police stormed the facility, they found a number of people who had been injured by other members of the church, and decided to secure the premises.

“There were about 14 children and 31 women, and so we see that as a rescue of these children, based on what we saw when we came in,” added Anderson.

Photos secured by The Gleaner showed men bound with cord, some naked and others with their torso skimpily covered with a piece of cloth. Food could also be seen strewn to the ground.

In the midst of the ritual was a policewoman attached to a station in Kingston.

Teachers, tax collectors, soldiers and sales agents also numbered among hundreds of believers following the man trained in psychology.

Smith, reportedly from Glengoffe in St Catherine, lived in Canada for 10 years before returning to Jamaica with a doctorate in psychology.

“He used to heal people, but he has deviated and became radicalised, and as a result, some members left him,” a former member of the congregation told The Gleaner.

With no proof that other such cultist organisations had sprung up across the island, Anderson said if that were so, it would be a matter of concern.

“Hopefully, this isn’t the start of a wave of it. I don’t see any sign of that. But, of course, it’s a cause of concern,” he stated.

Anderson admitted that the group had been on the police intelligence radar before, but not in relation to the gorish hell which unfolded on Sunday.

He lauded Senior Superintendent Vernon Ellis, head of the St James Police Division, and his team for taking the information seriously when they received the call and for moving quickly to cauterise the matter.

“Otherwise, we could have perhaps had more persons killed,” he added.



WATCH: ‘Cult’ leaders in custody, more details on eerie church rituals

Loop News 
October 18, 2021

A screengrab from a video of members of a cult-like church in Albion, St James being detained by the security forces after a gun battle and three deaths on Sunday.
The leader and other top-tier figures of a cult group that was operating in a church in Albion, St James were taken into police custody following a clampdown on the organisation on Sunday, with a body count of three after the engagement.

According to source who claimed to have been at the macabre scene at the church during the exercise, several naked male members of the group were spotted in the church, where a number of knives of varying descriptions were also discovered.

Several bloodied members of the group, including a female whose throat was slashed, were also reportedly observed.

Reports are that the bodies of two people were found at the premises, while the third person was shot during an exchange of gunfire with the police.

Sources reported that the police received information that rituals that were placing the lives of several individuals were been carried out at the location.

Reports from the Corporate Communications Unit (CCU), the police’s information arm, are that law enforcers responded to the information and upon reaching the location, came under gunfire.

A gunfight then reportedly ensued, during which a man was fatally shot by the security forces.

A search was carried out after the shooting and the bodies of two other persons were found at the premises.

The police said one of the bodies was found with gunshot wounds and the other with stab wounds.


Alleged pastor of 'cult' church warned congregants on Facebook that 'flood was coming'

Jamaican Observer
October 18, 2021

ST JAMES, Jamaica— The alleged pastor of the St James-based Pathway International Kingdom Restoration Ministries gave specific instructions to his reported congregants on Sunday, hours before members of the faith engaged in a standoff with the security forces.

The pastor warned the church members that they should "immediately" visit the church, as a "flood was coming", among other things.

The pastor, whose identity is being withheld, is believed to among 42 members of the ministry detained by the police for questioning in relation to Sunday's bizarre killing of two congregants inside the church building. 

Read - 42 members of 'cult' held by police after suspected ritual killings 

For months, the male pastor referred to himself as "Jamaica's eminent international ambassador Israel god King 999", "crown bishop", and "End Time Nabi".

He has also issued several cryptic warnings, which suggested hard times would grip the world. In addition, he was a strong advocate against the COVID-19 vaccines.

In several Facebook posts on Sunday, the self-styled 'religious royalty' urged his followers to come to his church.

"PCC go immediately today (Sunday), now. The Flood is coming. Go Now. RUN. LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. Leave immediately. Leave immediately. Run. All who are sealed yesterday come now," read one of his strange posts.

In another, he said, "THE ARK is Loading now! 123 Albion Road. Leave immediately dressed in White. PCC registered only now." 

The ministry is located in Albion Road in St James, and members of the congregation were found by the police attired in white at the location on Sunday night. 

Meanwhile, the male pastor instructed people to leave their cell phones at home and attend a meeting that was planned for today, Heroes Day. 

"All Members of Pathways baptized under my hands only must be present at church this Day October 18, 2021. All Cell Phone Must be switch off and left at your homes. Wrap in aluminum file. You will not be able to come on the property otherwise," he warned.

The St James 'clergyman' also claimed that "999 plands bearing the number 6 will fall from my heavens across Jamaica and the Whole World".

Speaking on Monday, Police Commissioner Major General Antony Anderson, said 31 women and 11 men have been detained for questioning.

Commissioner Anderson also noted that a member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) is also in custody, and there are suspicions that other police personnel are involved.

"There was a police woman here and we are processing that as well. We are aware of a couple other [officers] who may be members of the congregation based on what we are seeing inside and of course, more information is coming in," he said.

He said that members of the police force were alerted to the premises where a three-day convention was being held, after receiving a report from an injured congregant who was rushed to the hospital.

"A congregant here, apparently when she chose to disobey some instructions given to her by the leaders of this organisation, reported to the police that she was injured and other information that led us to believe that the [others] here were at risk," said the police commissioner.

"We were very concerned that some form of ritualised killing was going to take place here and so we did an entry last night," he added.

The police commissioner said that based on reports to the police, some 144 congregants received messages to meet at the religious location for the convention.


Three people dead after Jamaica police raid cult compound on fear of 'ritualized killings'

KINGSTON, Oct 18 (Reuters) - Three people were left dead and three hospitalized after Jamaican police raided the compound of a small religious organization due to concerns the group was preparing to carry out "ritualized killing," Jamaican police said on Monday.

Police responded on Sunday to reports that a congregant had been injured at the Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Church in the town of Albion, outside the resort town of Montego Bay, said Antony Anderson of the Jamaica Constabulary Force.

Upon arrival, police were shot at and separately attacked by a man wielding a knife, leading to an altercation in which one person died, Anderson said, adding that police later entered the compound by force.

"A member of this church ... had been injured apparently when she chose to disobey some instructions given to her by the leaders of the organization," Anderson said.

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"We were very concerned that some form of ritualized killing was going to take place here," said Anderson outside the compound, in comments broadcast by local media. "There are cultlike behaviors and a cultlike set-up that we have seen here."

It was not immediately evident how the other two people died. Consulted by Reuters, police said they could not provide further details.

Anderson said that 14 children were rescued, while 31 women and 11 men remained in custody. The group had summoned 144 followers to be present on Sunday night.

Pathways International Kingdom Restoration Church did not respond to a phone call and an email seeking comment. Police said the church's leader, Kevin Smith, was being questioned.

Reporting by Kate Chappell; Writing by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Sandra Maler


The case of the Martha’s Vineyard heiress and the Florida psychic who took her for millions


Vera Pratt moved to the island at age 70 hoping to find many years of happiness. Then she met “Psychic Angela” and her future got a whole lot more complicated.

By Alexander Huls
Boston Globe 
October 19, 2021

Nobody is quite sure when Vera Pratt began to believe that demons had entered her body and lodged near her right shoulder blade. But when they did, Pratt couldn’t help but wonder what part of her life they wouldn’t hurt. She blamed them for erasing her e-mails, interfering with her cellphone signal, and breaking her pellet stove. Most of all, she blamed them for sabotaging the less-lonely future she had hoped for when, at age 70, she moved from Washington, D.C., into a $2 million home on Martha’s Vineyard.

Pratt rarely spent that amount of money on herself, even if she easily could. She was the great-granddaughter of Charles Pratt, a partner at John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company, whose fortune in 1891 was estimated at $20 million, the equivalent of $576 million today. Although Pratt was an heiress with a sizeable trust, she never felt comfortable with her wealth. Driven instead by a seemingly bottomless generosity, she preferred to enrich others — family, charities, refugees.

But in 2006, Pratt decided to finally invest in herself, buying her 3,000-square-foot home in Chilmark and planning to attune her remaining years to her passions. Of her four bedrooms, she dedicated one to canning food and another to meditation. She gave herself an art studio where she could paint more of her Impressionist landscapes. She aimed to spend her days in her garden planting broccoli, lettuce, and strawberries. She would lend her melodic alto soprano to a local choir, take up dancing again, and — after never marrying due to a lifetime of romantic disappointments — perhaps find a good man.

Those were her plans, but the demons were hijacking all of them.

Pratt found hope one day when she came across an advertisement in a magazine for a Florida woman who went by the name Psychic Angela. Pratt believed in alternative spirituality and healing. She was interested in Eastern medicine and philosophies. She even believed herself to be mildly psychic, but found the prospect too frightening to pursue.

But psychic abilities in others weren’t frightening to Pratt, and her intuition led her to believe that Angela was the person she could trust to restore the promise of her remaining years.

As she prepared to call Psychic Angela, Pratt couldn’t see the future. She couldn’t have known that the woman she would come to share her deepest secrets with was really named Sally Ann Johnson, and that their business arrangement over the next nearly seven years would lead to an investigation that started with a curious Vineyard police officer and ended with the FBI. And she couldn’t have known that Johnson would fail at her goal — to exorcise the demons — despite the more than $3.5 million dollars she would get from Pratt to try.

Vera Christine Pratt was born in New York City on the eve of Valentine’s Day 1935. She was a dutiful child, more likely to follow than lead. As she grew into a young woman, she considered herself plain, but to anyone who ever met her, she was beautiful and tall, with striking bright eyes. She was drawn to the arts — singing, painting, and pottery. A love of the outdoors cultivated on a family farm led to a landscape architecture degree from Radcliffe College in the ‘50s — she’d also earn a degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the ‘70s — and a lifelong passion for walking and gardening.

Pratt also longed to fall in love. She never failed to inspire the attention of suitors, but for reasons only she could know, gravitated toward married or otherwise unobtainable men. Heartbreak hardened a belief that she wasn’t emotionally confident enough to have a loving partnership, and the subsequent hurt led to a loneliness she was sometimes too eager to fill.

The lack of a romantic partner, however, didn’t stop her from living an adventurous life. She traveled the world, visiting Europe and Africa, Asia and South America. She learned about Jungian psychology in Vienna. She studied with Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist experimenting with psychedelic drugs. She befriended Yule Kilcher, a key figure in admitting Alaska as the 50th state and an advocate for nature conservation.

She also continuously left her mark on the world with her generosity. She did so with loved ones, paying the private high school and college tuitions of nephews, nieces, godchildren — all of whom she doted on. She donated to Oxfam and the American Civil Liberties Union, and bought houses for Tibetan refugees in New Mexico and Maryland. She also helped fund a holistic facility in Washington, D.C., called the Green Cross Clinic of the Americas (later the Center for Natural and Traditional Medicine), which offered herbal medicine and acupuncture on a sliding fee scale.

“Something that made life meaningful for her was to help people,” says Liz Gude, a childhood friend who became Pratt’s neighbor in Chilmark. But now, in 2006, it was Pratt who needed help.

After they first spoke on the phone, Pratt felt confident that the woman she knew as Angela could help turn her life around. The psychic advertised herself as having two decades of experience helping dignitaries and corporate executives to straighten out their lives and achieve happiness. “I have not failed a case yet,” she wrote on the Yelp page of one of her businesses.

When she first spoke to Pratt, Sally Ann Johnson was in her early 30s, light blond, with a preference for large sunglasses and the high-end pastel clothing common to Florida. Her formal education had stopped at second grade, but she’d made a living in Miami and New York City through her psychic abilities, which she described as rooted deep in her family and American Romani culture. Among the Roma, pejoratively known as Gypsies, psychic and spiritual abilities are seen as God-given gifts that are relatively common among women. Johnson’s grandmother and mother were said to have similar abilities.

After their phone call, Johnson set in motion a course of treatment that would shape Pratt’s life for years. The psychic would dedicate her mind, body, and soul to praying the demons away for hours, sometimes late into the night, and, as she would tell Pratt, at the expense of time spent with her own family. Pratt received instructions to place crystals around her home to ward off negative energy, and to clean them regularly. She should pray and meditate, as well as light incense and ring a gong daily.

Johnson would typically report through phone or e-mail from Florida on her own progress as well as Pratt’s, which she said she could sense from afar. But early into their relationship, Johnson also began making house calls, traveling from Florida to Martha’s Vineyard and back, sometimes several times a month, to manage Pratt’s treatment. These efforts were not free.

Psychic and spiritual healing services can be costly, with some practitioners reportedly earning $300,000 a year or more. A simple tarot card reading in a strip mall may be $25, but prices escalate quickly. A regimen of energy-filled bath salts, necklaces, or candles — often sold by a psychic and meant to aid in battles against negative energy — can cost $1,000. Removing an evil-eye curse costs $2,500. Casting a love spell can go for $12,000. A soul clearing, $20,000. An “image renewal” can run $50,000.

She e-mailed the psychic frequently, and spent hours on the phone with her. Pratt shared updates on her family and friends, about which man in her choir she could imagine falling in love with, and described at length her eating and digestion habits.

Pratt was familiar with what psychics cost. She had used spiritual healers in the past, so paying thousands of dollars didn’t appear to faze her. She had the money — and wasn’t the happiness of her remaining years worth it?

Pratt’s investment in Johnson also went beyond her services and into companionship. Pratt was a reserved person who kept her inner life private — even from family — but here was someone who knew her hopes and despair, her strengths and vulnerabilities, the way a life partner would. Pratt had spent a lifetime longing to share her life with someone and, though a spiritual healer wasn’t what she had imagined, now she did. She e-mailed Johnson frequently, and spent hours on the phone with her. Pratt shared updates on her family and friends, about which man in her choir she could imagine falling in love with, and described at length her eating and digestion habits. Most of all, she shared with Johnson her optimism that her demons would be expelled, and her life would be hers once more.

Although Pratt saw only intermittent progress in their first years together, her faith in her healer and friend remained undaunted. She saw no reason to doubt Johnson.

“I know we can beat this one. It will just take time and great resolve, and much help from our dear God and holy spirits,” Pratt wrote Johnson in a December 2009 e-mail. “I know you have never failed anyone.”

Among Pratt’s greatest hopes for post-demon living was a “joyous social life.” She wanted to travel again with good company, to have new friendships grow, existing ones flourish, and entertain family in her home. As Johnson remained in her life, however, the opposite happened. Once a fixture in her half-brother’s family, Pratt would suddenly cancel planned visits. Childhood friends she caught up with regularly were dropped because of demonic interference with cellphones. She rejected holiday invitations from her niece, who also lived on Martha’s Vineyard.

Pratt’s personality appeared different, too. On walks with her friend Liz Gude, her tone of voice and laugh seemed to change. Sometimes what she said made little sense, leaving others uncertain how to respond. She began talking about little else but her demons and “Angela.” Pratt sensed the change herself, but seemed unable to attribute any of it to Johnson’s influence. “I felt a hurt, that I do not have such loving friends now — that it seems these days I am not a woman people look forward to being with,” she wrote in an e-mail.

Some wondered if the changes in Pratt weren’t also indicative of a growing dementia. Sometimes she would give her niece’s children hugs, other times she wouldn’t recognize them. She often seemed to struggle to remember something that happened only days before. She would park her car, then require help finding it.

Pratt’s family began to worry if the deterioration of her mind was putting her at risk of being taken advantage of by her psychic. In the best of times, Pratt could be unquestioning about the people she gave money to. In fact, past psychics had exploited her financially. “Anybody could make an appeal and it could be valid,” Gude says.

Florida criminal defense lawyers Paul Petruzzi and Beatriz Vazquez would later represent Sally Ann Johnson in court. Petruzzi says he “didn’t see any indication from any real source that [Pratt] was incompetent until — at least — the very end of their relationship,” after police became involved. (The lawyers were unable to make Johnson available for an interview. Johnson herself didn’t respond to an e-mail to one of her businesses and was unable to be reached through calls to multiple phone numbers associated with her name in public records.)

In November 2010, Pratt’s older brother, Peter Pratt, raised his concerns in an e-mail after she told him her funds were low. “Unfortunately, it’s happened before and will happen again especially as your healer ups her demands as you become more addicted to her calls,” he wrote. “Although you always feel this one is special, she’s costing you more and more. I hope you at least go for a second opinion before you lose all your friends, family, house and assets. SORRY TO BE DISPARAGING, BUT I’M VERY CONCERNED.”

Vera Pratt appeared to brush the concern aside. “This gal is wonderful, and I don’t mind giving her money,” she responded. If she had any concern about the length of the treatment without anything to show for it, she ascribed it to the difficulty of the demons, not an ineffective treatment.

Experts say the elderly are often targeted by fraudsters due to common feelings of trust, vulnerability, and isolation.

Going into 2011, some five years into her time with Johnson, Pratt remained optimistic she could still be helped, even as her family’s doubts grew. “This is going to be a wonderful year for me I think,” she wrote Johnson in an e-mail, “and all because of your great efforts.”

Pratt’s loved ones were right to have their doubts. One source of Pratt’s withdrawal was allegedly, at least in part, Johnson telling the heiress that her family and friends were full of negative energy and couldn’t be trusted. The result was that, as early as 2009, Pratt began to depend on Johnson’s approval for any social outing, according to interviews and documents filed in court. She wouldn’t consider having her family over for Christmas dinners, or going to choir practices, unless Johnson said it was OK. (Petruzzi disputes the allegation that Johnson separated Pratt from her family. He says, instead, that it was the family’s longstanding lack of approval of Pratt’s beliefs that caused distance.)

Johnson also dissuaded Pratt from something that was meaningful to her: generosity. Pratt was told not to spend money on others — especially family — because giving it to others would return bad energy.

Money was safe when it came to Johnson’s payments, however. Pratt was instructed to send wire transfers to bank accounts under several different names. Johnson maintained a number of businesses, and also went by the names Sally Reed and Angelia Johnson. Sometimes Pratt made out checks to Johnson. Other times the psychic escorted Pratt directly to Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank to withdraw cash to pay her fees. Dutiful in her gratitude, Pratt obliged. Johnson even had her name added to Pratt’s American Express credit card account, and used it liberally, spending at least $20,000 on entertainment and jewelry alone, according to prosecutors.

Pratt paid the bills, but they were adding up. By February 2011, she was surprised to find her funds running low. “I hadn’t really looked at all I was giving you,” she wrote in an e-mail to Johnson. Still, she said she wanted to keep working together. According to a government sentencing memorandum, nearly two years later, in December 2012, Johnson asked Pratt for somewhere between $125,000 and $175,000. “What [Johnson] asked for to deal with demons was too much,” Pratt confided in her diary. “Apparently, I am getting very low on funds.”

As Pratt’s accounts shrunk, Johnson’s grew. Her lifestyle filled with Celine and Chanel handbags, Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent shoes, and a Porsche Cayenne. In Aventura, Florida, she lived in a 3,270-square-foot, half-a-million-dollar condo. She had a sizeable New York City Flatiron District home with a kitchen that a visiting Washington Post journalist, asking psychics to predict the 2016 election, described as being as big as the reporter’s entire apartment. When Johnson visited Pratt on the Vineyard, she sometimes stayed at the $500-a-night Harbor View Hotel.

Johnson’s quality of life mirrored that of people believed to be members of her extended family with spiritual abilities. Rose Marks, the mother of Johnson’s life partner, owned a Fort Lauderdale mansion at which one could reportedly find 400 rings, 100 watches, 200 necklaces, several Harley-Davidsons, and a white Rolls-Royce. Gina Marks, Rose’s daughter, co-wrote a book under a pseudonym called Miami Psychic. In it, she boasts of driving Bentleys and Mercedes, wearing $4,000 sundresses, and paying $200,000 for home renovations that included imported goods from Italy, Spain, and Brazil. Both Rose and Gina Marks have served jail time for fraud related to their work as psychics.

Illustration of a psychic looking into a crystal ball that shows a person outside a house.
Experts say the elderly are often targeted by fraudsters due to common feelings of trust, vulnerability, and isolation. Psychic scammers then persuade their victims that only the psychic has their best interests at heart, and everyone else is out to get them. As the connection with the psychic gets stronger, contact with others gets weaker. The resulting dependency is leveraged to persuade victims that their money is cursed and only safe with the psychic, and that more money is owed because the task is taking longer than expected. If money isn’t paid, victims are warned something bad could happen to them.

Some psychics are also known to solicit offerings of other kinds. Reporting on the Marks family and other psychics showed one asked a client for a gold coin for each year the client lacked faith, resulting in a tally of 32 coins worth over $400,000. Another psychic asked a client to buy her a $28,900 gold Rolex watch as a “sacrifice.”

Johnson’s relationship with Pratt exhibited many of these elements, though she would never be charged with fraud. For example, she had asked Pratt — as Pratt described in her diary — to “every night lay all gold coins on bed [and] lie on them. Pick up all stones, put on altar [and] transfer energy to coins.” Pratt was then told to give Johnson the coins for safekeeping, though it turned out they wouldn’t be returned. “I thought I was going to get some of my money back,” Pratt later wrote.

Petruzzi, one of Johnson’s lawyers, argues that any intimations of fraud “were from the perspective of people who did not share the same type of beliefs in healing that Pratt did.” In court proceedings, he explained, “There are a lot of things that we spend our money on that others would say was a complete waste . . . however, this is what [Pratt] believed, and that’s what made her feel content.”

Pratt didn’t seem to think of herself as a victim. Sometimes she would question Johnson’s methods, even wonder if any progress had come from their work, but, entering the sixth year of their relationship, she was dedicated to continuing it. She kept receiving visits from Johnson and dutifully followed her instructions: spending time among crystals, wearing a special necklace, fasting, and praying in the morning for 30 minutes before eating anything, then imagining the color pink coming in and out of her body.

Meanwhile, the woman Pratt had been all her life was disappearing. Gone was the loving and attentive relative her family knew, the generous philanthropist, the yearning romantic. Despite her promises, Johnson hadn’t saved Pratt’s remaining years. Because of the money she was taking in, she might even have made it necessary for Pratt to be saved.

Whatever questions the police detective could get out, he recalls, Johnson quickly answered on Pratt’s behalf. Eventually, the psychic stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her, leaving Pratt inside.

On Friday, November 8, 2013, a call came into the Chilmark Police Department. Earlier that day, Pratt had asked her goddaughter (who asked not to be named in this story) to help pay her electricity bill. Surprised that Pratt didn’t seem to have money, she set up a three-way call with Pratt’s bank and found out there was a lot of money leaving the account. She decided to involve the police.

The case was assigned to Detective Sean Slavin, who happened to be Pratt’s neighbor, a half-mile as the crow flies. He had often seen her working in her garden. They would wave to each other as he passed by on the road. Soon, Slavin knocked on Pratt’s door and met his neighbor for the first time.

Pratt was inconsistent about how much had gone missing. At one point, she told Slavin the amount had been $500, but later it became $15.

Slavin noticed some disorganization around Pratt’s home, like mail and newspapers piled up on counters. His attention was especially drawn to empty shelves with their books gathering dust in moving boxes.

“Are you going anywhere?” he recalls asking.

“Oh yeah, I’m going to move eventually,” she answered. “Once my healer gives me the OK and all the demons are gone.”

“Do you mean personal demons or demonic spirits?”

“Oh no. Evil spirits,” Pratt said.

Slavin asked Pratt how much she paid her healer, and she said the figure was likely somewhere around $15,000 over the last five years. He left with contact information for her brother, Peter, and half-brother, Johnathan Lash, intent on finding out more. (Johnson’s lawyer says he saw no evidence to support Slavin’s descriptions of his visit with Pratt, as recorded in his police report.)

Less than a week later, on November 14, Slavin called Pratt. She mentioned that Johnson was on the island and would be coming by to visit. Slavin decided he wanted to meet this healer himself. He drove to Pratt’s house, backed into a nearby driveway, and waited.

After about 45 minutes, a BMW sport-utility vehicle pulled up. Slavin followed into the driveway. Johnson was already inside when he knocked on the door. Pratt answered, but Johnson quickly intercepted. Whatever questions Slavin could get out, Johnson quickly answered on Pratt’s behalf. Eventually, Johnson stepped out onto the porch and closed the door behind her, leaving Pratt inside.

Slavin thought Johnson might be surprised, even intimidated, by a police officer asking questions. Instead, she came across as combative. When he asked Johnson what she did for Pratt, she said she was helping. When Slavin asked her how much money she was charging Pratt, he remembers her snapping, “None of your business.”

Slavin dispensed with formalities.

“What you’re doing to her isn’t right,” he said.

“How dare you say that?”

“You’re not going to get away with this,” Slavin promised. “I’m going to find out what’s going on.”

Johnson took Slavin’s promise seriously. That same day, she instructed Pratt not to talk to him again, according to Pratt’s diary. Johnson would also later produce a letter written by Pratt, signed that same day, declaring that any money she had given Johnson so far was a gift, “given with a full sense of generosity.” The date of that letter would cause prosecutors to suspect Johnson manipulated Pratt into signing it. The letter went further, attempting to grant Johnson power of attorney status, authorizing only her to take care of Pratt’s “health, living conditions, and finances.”

Meanwhile, Slavin got in touch with Pratt’s brothers, wanting to find out if they knew what was going on. They did. Because they had power of attorney, the trust and the bank had been calling them, letting them know about money flowing out of their sister’s accounts. They weren’t sure, but believed Pratt may have given as much as $500,000 to Johnson.

Slavin wondered why the family hadn’t put a stop to Johnson’s work, but he didn’t know that both brothers had been agonizing over how to strike a balance between allowing Pratt her independence and protecting her. “I felt we should have done more and sooner, but I didn’t know how, and I didn’t know whether it was ethical,” Lash says.

Lash’s daughter, Elle, also eventually came to see the difficulty of the situation. “What I didn’t understand at the time is [that you] can’t just say to an adult sibling, ‘Don’t do that.’ They’re an adult person and it’s their life and they’re not necessarily going to listen to you,” she says. “And they may, in fact, say, ‘I don’t like what you’re saying,’ and cut you out [of their life].”

But Slavin’s authority offered Pratt’s family the means to intervene. They informed Pratt’s financial institutions — the Charles Pratt Trust and Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank — that the detective could have access to her financial records.

Slavin spent several weeks looking into how much Pratt had paid to Johnson. By early 2014, he got a number from the bank: It wasn’t $500,000. It was $3.5 million.

After the financial revelations, Pratt’s family hired a caretaker for her named Beth Toomey. A former police chief in West Tisbury, she had been Slavin’s boss when he had worked on the force there. Initially, Pratt wanted nothing to do with Toomey, but eventually came to trust her. So much so that the fog of Johnson’s influence began to lift, and Pratt demonstrated bursts of awareness that her relationship with the psychic had been unhealthy.

When Toomey heard from Slavin in May 2014 about the $3.5 million, she decided to temporarily move into Pratt’s house. Toomey worried what someone might do to preserve such a sizeable stream of income.

Johnson fought her removal from Pratt’s life. She told Pratt they still had work to do, that she should move to Florida, that money was still owed. At one point, Toomey spoke with Johnson on the phone. The psychic insisted that she was the only one who should watch after Pratt, and objected to Toomey’s interference with her phone calls. Johnson asked if Pratt was going to have 24-hour care from now on, Toomey recalls. Toomey, suspecting an attempt to determine when Pratt would be alone, answered “Yes,” and then hung up.

Johnson continued to call until Toomey changed Pratt’s number. They secured a harassment prevention order legally forbidding Johnson from contacting Pratt ever again. After nearly seven years, the relationship between the psychic and the heiress had come to an end.

So, too, did Pratt’s time in the Vineyard home in which she’d invested so many of her hopes; her family moved her to an assisted living facility in Falmouth. Pratt’s mental decline had begun to accelerate, and they feared for her safety. About a month after Johnson’s last contact, for instance, Pratt left her home, intending to drive to Cambridge. She believed she still lived in an apartment there she’d called home in her 20s. Toomey rushed after, persuading the harbormaster to hold the ferry before it left.

“I’m really glad you’re here,” Pratt said, sitting behind the wheel of her car. “I don’t remember where I was going.”

By April 2015, Detective Sean Slavin needed backup, but was still struggling to get a government agency interested in investigating Johnson.

It’s not uncommon for victims of psychic scams to encounter dead ends with the legal system. Those who go to the authorities may be told their situation is a civil, not criminal, matter. Some are outright laughed at, says Bob Nygaard, a private investigator in Florida who specializes in helping victims of psychic fraud. He calls this the crime after the crime. “First you have the con artist who cons the victim, and then there’s law enforcement who talk victims into thinking they’re not a victim.” This further enables would-be scammers, allowing them to remain unconcerned about law enforcement intervention. “They know that the victims are going to be met with laughter, misreporting, and ignorance most of the time,” Nygaard says.

Slavin didn’t plan on giving up. “I just couldn’t live with the fact that this person was going to get away with this,” he says.

A breakthrough came when he got in touch with an FBI agent named Sarah DeLair. Slavin learned the FBI couldn’t pursue allegations of psychic fraud — Johnson said she was offering a real service, and Pratt believed she was getting what she paid for. But the FBI could get at the case indirectly by going after the taxes they believed Johnson hadn’t paid. (Johnson’s lawyer objected to this strategy in court, admonishing how “the government is turning the tax case into a fraud case.”) The FBI coordinated with IRS Criminal Investigation to analyze Johnson’s financial history, and the process revealed evidence of income discrepancies. Johnson did not make the $4,100 a month she would later claim in a presentencing report, but often received as much as $50,000 a month from Pratt. The agency also discovered the wire transfers, the payments made out to aliases, the trips to Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, and the charges racked up on the American Express card.

By August 30, 2017, the FBI and IRS-CI had gathered enough evidence for prosecutors to formally charge Johnson with tax evasion. She had failed to pay $725,000 dollars to the IRS on the millions the authorities said she received from Pratt. Although Johnson maintained the money from Pratt was from gifts or for psychic services rendered, she pled guilty to interfering with the administration of the internal revenue laws on October 7, 2017, and awaited sentencing.

To Protect Pratt’s anonymity, nobody was allowed to say her name on January 17, 2018, during a hearing in Boston’s John J. Moakley United States Courthouse. But Sally Ann Johnson was the only one who didn’t really seem to even acknowledge her existence. It was as if Pratt — referred to in court only as “Jane Doe” or by her initials “VP” — didn’t quite register to Johnson.

Johnson was allowed to make a statement before she was sentenced. She apologized for her tax oversights, but only indirectly alluded to Pratt. “I would never do anything deceitful to anybody,” Johnson told the court. “There is nobody that I would ever take for granted.” She was sentenced to 26 months in prison and required to pay restitution of $725,912 to the IRS and $3,567,300 to Pratt. (As of last summer, Johnson, now out of prison, had repaid under $38,000 toward her restitution. Because she had been unable to find full-time work, she has been allowed to pay $25 per month.)

A month after Johnson was convicted, on February 8, 2018, Pratt died at the age of 82. One of the last people to see her was her sister-in-law Elaine. At one point during their conversation, Elaine complimented Pratt’s blouse.

“I want to give it to you,” Pratt said, and began unbuttoning the shirt.

“When you’ve finished wearing it, I’ll take it,” Elaine gently countered.

Pratt insisted, continuing to unbutton, until Elaine spoke to her, as if to a child. “You know what we could do? We could button this back up one button a time.” Pratt did as she was told.

“In those last moments I saw her, I felt really connected to her,” Elaine says.

Her last memory of Pratt was one more act of generosity in a lifetime full of them: Pratt willing to give away the shirt on her back. She was, in a way, truly Vera one last time.

Alexander Huls is a journalist based in Toronto whose work has appeared in The New York Times, Esquire, and other publications. Send comments to magazine@globe.com


Opinion: America’s ‘troubled teen industry’ needs reform so kids can avoid the abuse I endured

Opinion by Paris Hilton
Washington Post 
October 18, 2021

Paris Hilton is an entrepreneur, model, actress and influencer.

When I was 16 years old, I was awakened one night by two men with handcuffs. They asked if I wanted to go “the easy way or the hard way” before carrying me from my home as I screamed for help. I had no idea why or where I was being taken against my will. I soon learned I was being sent to hell.

The men took me to the airport as part of a parent-approved kidnapping. Like countless other parents of teens, my parents had searched for solutions to my rebellious behavior. Unfortunately, they fell for the misleading marketing of the “troubled teen industry” — therapeutic boarding schools, military-style boot camps, juvenile justice facilities, behavior modification programs and other facilities that generate roughly $50 billion annually in part by pitching “tough love” as the answer to problematic behavior.

Few people are aware of the abuses and tragedies that occur within the walls of some facilities.

At all four facilities I was sent to in my teens, I endured physical and psychological abuse by staff: I was choked, slapped across the face, spied on while showering and deprived of sleep. I was called vulgar names and forced to take medication without a diagnosis. At one Utah facility, I was locked in solitary confinement in a room where the walls were covered in scratch marks and blood stains.

I couldn’t report this abuse because all communication with the outside world was monitored and censored. Many congregate-care facilities drive wedges between parents and children by telling parents not to believe their kids when they report mistreatment and by telling children that their cries for help will never be believed. And some children in these facilities have no loved ones to turn to.

Sadly, this industry has thrived for decades thanks to a systemic lack of transparency and accountability. An estimated 120,000 young people are housed in congregate-care facilities at any given time across the country, many of them placed through the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. But there is little oversight. State inspections are typically minimal, and there is no federal or other organized data tracking placements, reporting critical incidents or monitoring quality of care.

Some states spend several hundred dollars per child, per day, for “care” that is systemically abusive. Some children exit facilities more traumatized than when they entered.

The last time the federal government looked seriously at problems with congregate care was the 2008 Government Accountability Office report “Residential Programs: Selected Cases of Death, Abuse, and Deceptive Marketing.” Despite its finding that “ineffective management and operating practices, in addition to untrained staff, contributed to the death and abuse of youth,” there are still no federal reporting requirements governing congregate-care facilities in non-Medicaid-funded psychiatric residential treatment facilities.

No child should die in the name of “treatment.” But too many children have. Cornelius Frederick was a 16-year-old boy who liked chess, basketball and card tricks. A ward of the state, he was sent to Lakeside Academy, a residential treatment facility in Kalamazoo, Mich., operated by a for-profit Alabama company, Sequel Youth and Family Services.

On April 29, 2020, Cornelius threw a sandwich in the Lakeside cafeteria. For that, he was pushed to the ground and physically restrained by seven staffers. As news reports and a graphic video documented, adults placed their weight on Cornelius’s chest for nearly 12 minutes — continuing well after he became unresponsive. Yet staff waited 12 more minutes before Lakeside’s nurse called 911. Cornelius died in a local hospital two days later; his death, by suffocation, was ruled a homicide.

This was not the first incident of dangerous, improper restraints at a Sequel-run facility. In response to media attention that followed Cornelius’s death, the company said that the restraint used on Cornelius violated its policies and that it is transitioning to “a restraint-free model of care.” That’s not good enough.

Perhaps if Congress had acted on the GAO report more than a decade ago, Cornelius and dozens of other children would still be alive today.

Congress and President Biden need to enact a basic federal “bill of rights” for youths in congregate care. Every child placed in these facilities should have a right to a safe, humane environment, free from threats and practices of solitary confinement, and physical or chemical restraint at the whim of staff. Had such rights existed and been enforced, I and countless other survivors could have been spared the abuse and trauma that have haunted us into adulthood.

Congress must also provide states with funding to create comprehensive reporting systems for incidents of institutional abuse and to establish standards for best practices and staff training. It should also require states to prove that children’s basic rights are being protected.

Ensuring that children, including at-risk children, are safe from institutional abuse, neglect and coercion isn’t a Republican or Democratic issue — it’s a basic human rights issue that requires immediate action. Those in power have an obligation to protect the powerless.


Oct 18, 2021

8 Famous Figures Who Believed in Communicating with the Dead

Queen Victoria, pictured wearing mourning jewelry including a bracelet depicting an image of Prince Albert, c. 1895.  Bob Thomas/Popperfoto/Getty Images
Spiritualism's popularity waxed and waned throughout the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, and surged on the heels of major wars and pandemics.

October 5, 2021

While belief in an afterlife is a cornerstone of many ancient and modern religions and cultures worldwide, the idea that it's possible to communicate with the dead never reached the same level of acceptance. But, for a period of about a century, beginning in the 1840s, sending messages between the human and spirit worlds was popular not only as a religion, but also as a pastime.

Though a few 18th-century European thinkers toyed with the concept of a potential connection between science and the supernatural, the new religious movement known as modern Spiritualism got its start in upstate New York in 1848. That's when two sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, became locally and later, internationally famous after claiming they could get in touch with people beyond the grave. For some, the work of mediums like the Fox sisters was purely entertainment. But for others, it became a religion, and is still practiced as one in a few remaining communities today.

Spiritualism's popularity waxed and waned throughout the remainder of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, predictably surging following massive losses of life, like the Civil War, World War I and the 1918 Flu Pandemic. And although the Spiritualist movement never completely faded out, it didn't hold the same appeal after World War II. But for close to 100 years, Spiritualism attracted people from every part of society—including celebrities.

Here's a look at eight famous figures who, at some point in their lives, believed it was possible to communicate with the dead.

1. Thomas Edison

When Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, the first record he created was of his own voice reciting the nursery rhyme "Mary Had a Little Lamb." Then, in 1920, he announced plans to capture a different type of voice: one that belonged to those no longer living. Specifically, a "spirit phone" capable of talking to the dead, says Marc Hartzman, historian and author of Chasing Ghosts: A Tour of Our Fascination with Spirits and the Supernatural.

"Aside from the life-changing feat of breaking through the veil, I believe his interest in Spiritualism was simply to demonstrate that science, not mediums and Ouija boards, was the way to do it," Hartzman says. In fact, in 1920, Edison told American Magazine that "the methods and apparatus commonly used and discussed are just a lot of unscientific nonsense."

Some believe Edison's supposed belief in communicating with the dead was a joke, or a chance to make headlines and capitalize on Spiritualism's popularity, according to Hartzman, who adds that is certainly possible. But at the same time, Edison did have an unusual hypothesis regarding what happens after humans die.

"The inventor spoke of his belief in the idea of life units," Hartzman explains. "In a nutshell, a hundred trillion of them make up a human being and keep us functioning. When we die, the life units move onto someone else."

2. Mae West

After experiencing severe abdominal pains while performing in Chicago in 1929, writer, activist and star of the vaudeville stage and silver screen Mae West, then age 36, believed that her relief finally came at the hands of a Spiritualist healer named Sri Deva Ram Suku. A collection of West's papers from 1928 through 1984 housed in Harvard University's Schlesinger Library contains clippings, correspondence and pamphlets related to her involvement with Spiritualism, including Thomas John "Jack" Kelly, a well-known medium who became West's spiritual advisor and friend.

The archive also features papers documenting West's multiple trips to Lily Dale, a Spiritualist camp outside Buffalo, New York where she would visit Kelly for readings and healing. This included a stay in the summer of 1955, when West was on hand for the July 3 dedication of a new healing temple in the community.

3. Queen Victoria

Though modern Spiritualism had been around since the 1840s, it gained substantial traction in the United Kingdom once Queen Victoria became interested in the practice. Distraught over the 1861 death of her husband, Prince Albert, Victoria entered her "mourning period," which lasted until the end of her life in 1901, and involved wearing all-black as well as mourning jewelry, which contained photos of Albert and locks of his hair. It also included attempts to get in touch with Albert in the afterlife.

Not long after Albert's death, a 13-year-old medium named Robert James Lees claimed that the prince had gotten in touch during one of his séances saying that he had a message for the queen. Upon hearing this, Victoria arranged a séance with Lees, during which he referred to information no one else would know; most notably, a pet name he had for her, according to Hartzman.

"The teen performed numerous séances for the Queen at Buckingham Palace before turning over his mediumistic duties to another medium," he explains. "Victoria continued holding séances at the palace and was known to seek her dead husband's advice in political matters."

4. Arthur Conan Doyle

Although Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is best known today as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was also one of the best-known Spiritualists. "The credulous writer believed firmly in the powers of many mediums, and was even convinced in the existence of fairies after a couple of teenage girls faked some photos," Hartzman says.

It all started when Doyle joined a séance in 1880. Though he was initially a skeptic, he gradually became convinced that it was possible to communicate with the dead. In an 1887 letter to the weekly Spiritualist periodical Light, Doyle wrote that "it was absolutely certain that intelligence could exist apart from the body," and that "after weighing the evidence, I could no more doubt the existence of the phenomena than I could doubt the existence of lions in Africa."

"His interest grew much stronger after he believed he heard a personal message from his son," Hartzman explains. Holmes' son Kingsley died from pneumonia contracted after being seriously wounded in the 1916 Battle of the Somme. Doyle ended up touring Europe and America to preach the wonders of Spiritualism and the afterlife.

Doyle's fervent beliefs eventually strained his friendship with famed escape artist and illusionist Harry Houdini, who saw Spiritualism as a con, and spent years debunking the alleged communication that occurred during séances, and exposing mediums as frauds. According to Hartzman, their relationship took a substantial hit after Lady Doyle claimed to have received a long-winded message from Houdini's mother, and Houdini refused to believe it.

"Despite Houdini's efforts to expose frauds, Doyle's beliefs never wavered," Hartzman says. "In fact, he even claimed a spirit named Pheneas—who was thousands of years old—was in regular contact with him and his wife and advised them on such things as travel and real estate."

5. Mary Todd Lincoln

Though Mary Todd Lincoln famously attempted to get in touch with her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, following his 1865 assassination, her involvement with Spiritualism began three years earlier, when their son Willie died from typhoid fever at the age of 11. Mary Todd initially attended seances as a way to cope with her grief, but found them to be so comforting that she started hosting her own.

According to the White House Historical Association, there is evidence that Mary Todd held as many as eight seances in the White House (specifically, the Red Room) following Willie's death, and that the president attended a few of them.

But what may seem odd today was quite common at the time, says Lucile Scott, journalist and author of An American Covenant: A Story of Women, Mysticism and the Making of Modern America. "Mary Todd Lincoln joined the vast wave of Americans turning to Spiritualism during the Civil War, as the ghosts of fallen soldiers and both literal and spiritual ruin proliferated across the country," she says. "In the late 1850s, approximately 10 percent of the American free adult populace allied itself with Spiritualism in some form or fashion, a trend that continued into the 1860s."

However, the movement's popularity and widespread acceptance wouldn't last, and soon faced backlash, including from the medical establishment. "Doctors coined the term 'mediomania,' linking insanity to Spiritualism, and then redefined insanity's symptoms as the most common side effects of entrancement—rigidity, seizure, ecstasy," Scott explains.

But Mary Todd, by this time mourning both her son and husband, continued to attempt to communicate with the deceased members of her family. This, along with what was deemed "improper" and "unladylike" displays of grief after the president's assassination, made Mary Todd the object of public ridicule.

"In 1872, both the Boston Herald and the New York Times mocked Mary for attending a séance to contact her late husband's spirit," Scott says. "Then, in 1875, Mary's son Robert had her briefly committed to a sanitarium for her Spiritualist practices."
6. Victoria Woodhull

Perhaps best known for her 1872 run for the presidency of the United States as the first woman to do so, Victoria Woodhull spent her lifetime blazing trails across multiple disciplines. From an early age, it's thought she believed that she received special guidance and protection from spirits of the deceased, which empowered her to take actions unusual for a woman at the time.

In addition to her candidacy for president, Woodhull was also the first woman to own a Wall Street investment firm, found her own newspaper, and speak before Congress demanding that women be granted the right to vote. And while her run for political office didn't end with her moving into the White House, Woodhull was elected ​​president of the American Association of Spiritualists in 1871, calling it "the chief honor" of her life.

7. Dan Akyroyd

In addition to being a member of the original cast of Saturday Night Live when the show premiered in 1975, Dan Akyroyd is closely associated with his starring role in the Ghostbusters movie franchise. In fact, not only did he co-write the script, but the idea for the 1984 film was his own. And Akroyd didn't have to look far for inspiration: His great-grandfather, Sam Aykroyd, was part of a Spiritualist community in Canada, where he regularly hosted seances in the family's farmhouse throughout the 1920 and 1930s.

In 2009, Peter Aykroyd (Dan's father and Sam's grandson) published a book called A History of Ghosts, which documents the general history of Spiritualism, as well as the Akykroyd family's role in the community. Discussing Spiritualism in a May 2020 interview with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Dan Aykroyd noted: "We believe—and I guess it's my religion—that you can speak from the other side, [and] that the consciousness survives."

8. Hilma af Klint

Although early-20th-century artists like ​​Vasily Kandinsky and Piet Mondrian are largely credited with sparking the phenomenon of abstract Western art, a Swedish painter named Hilma af Klimt began creating similar bold, colorful and geometric pieces even earlier. Other than art, af Klimt had another major interest in her life: Spiritualism. According to Scott, it is thought that she first showed Spiritualist inclinations in 1879, at the age of 17, which was shortly before embarking on a career as an artist.

"In 1896, Hilma began to hold regular seances with four other women who called themselves The Five," Scott explains. "As part of their communications with the other side, the women began to produce automatic drawings channeled from the spirits." While Hilma more formally aligned herself with other Spiritualist movements, she continued to paint her spiritually derived subjects until her death in 1944.

Some of af Klimt's best-known works are part of a series called The Paintings for the Temple, that Scott says "sought to represent the transcendent pulsing realms we cannot observe with our senses." She began painting the series in 1906, after spirits got in touch with her and the rest of The Five urging her to take on the project, and completed it in 1915.

"The spirits told her that the paintings would one day be housed in a temple, which Hilma envisioned as consisting of multiple levels connected by a spiral path," Scott notes. "Just over 100 years after she finished the series, her work was featured in New York's Guggenheim Museum, a temple to the arts with just such a design."

Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D., is a bioethicist and journalist, as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for numerous publications, including Rolling Stone, The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Atlantic.