Jun 1, 1993

Cult Problems Grow As Following Shrinks

Brother Julius, aka Julius Schacknow. (STEPHEN DUNN / Hartford Courant)

Gerald Renner
Hartford Courant
June 1, 1993

The business of the "sinful messiah" has fallen on hard times.

Followers of Julius Schacknow, a cult leader known as Brother Julius, have been deserting him as fast as the central Connecticut business empire they built up in the 1980s has collapsed in the 1990s.

A dedicated corps of 200 devoted followers has dwindled to perhaps 50 or fewer. Many who have quit tell stories of sexual and financial exploitation, and say Brother Julius is acting in an increasingly bizarre and abusive way.

In addition, the federal government is seeking the return of $2 million that is missing from two government-protected pension funds set up for workers in a construction business.

Recent interviews with people who have broken with Schacknow, sources close to the secretive cult and public documents draw a picture of a disintegrating enterprise that had been built up around the Bible-quoting preacher and his "chief apostle," who had a genius for business ventures.

Schacknow, 68, has declined to be interviewed by The Courant for this story.

He has operated in central Connecticut for 23 years, ever since he moved from New Jersey and proclaimed at an outdoor revival in Trumbull in 1970 that he was Jesus Christ reincarnated.

Several hundred idealistic young people, hungry for spiritual direction, flocked to the guidance of the long-haired preacher who wore a white robe and had mesmerizing green eyes.

He set up a base in Meriden and commanded national attention as a cult leader until, in 1976, he stopped making public appearances.

Driven by what they saw as a holy mission to advance "the Work," Schacknow's followers throughout the 1980s oversaw the building of an expanding, multimillion-dollar real estate and construction business.

They achieved an outstanding financial success under the direction of two of Schacknow's closest associates, Paul Sweetman, his "chief apostle," and Joseph Joyce, another top "apostle."

Among the businesses was J-Anne North/Century 21, a real estate company based in Southington that operated five Century 21 franchises in central Connecticut and did $100 million in sales a year, national franchise records show.

Their contracting business, County Wide Construction Co. and its affiliate, County Wide Home Improvement and Maintenance Co., did major work for towns, private developers and homeowners.

Schacknow himself stayed aloof from direct involvement in the businesses but exhorted his followers to give their utmost. People who quit complained that they put in long work days, were paid below-minimum wages and sometimes were denied sales commissions.

But, if the 1980s marked the ascendancy of the self-proclaimed messiah, his decline and fall is being tracked in the 1990s.

Many people have left him, former followers say, including several of Schacknow's "12 apostles," the key men who had been in charge.

Schacknow, whose self-description progressed from prophet to reincarnation of Jesus Christ and finally to God almighty, is reported to be ailing. He frequently calls off his six-hour-long Sunday services he holds in a rented Veterans of Foreign Wars hall on Route 10 in Plainville.

Although David Koresh of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, called himself a "sinful messiah," Schacknow virtually coined the term in the 1970s, claiming that he had to sin himself to know what sin was like.

Born into a Jewish family in Brooklyn in 1924, Schacknow converted to Christianity after he served in the Navy in World War II. He recounts his conversion in an autobiography he wrote in 1947 for admission to the Bible Institute of Los Angeles, a fundamentalist school.

He was an outstanding student of the Bible. But from his earliest days as a preacher he was being accused of using his charisma and position as a religious leader to manipulate young women, suggesting that it was God's will that they sleep with him.

At least two women, including a stepdaughter, accused Schacknow in separate lawsuits in 1986 and 1988 of having sexually abused them when they were children. Their civil suits were settled out of court for undisclosed sums, and no criminal charges were ever brought against him.

All but one of the six Century 21 real estate franchises the Juliusites ran have closed or been sold. Joseph Joyce continues to run J-Anne North in Southington with a reduced staff.

County Wide has gone out of business. The 130 people who worked for County Wide and had money coming to them from two federally protected pension plans have found that nothing is left to pay them, court records show.

Paul Sweetman and Alfred Dube Jr., another "apostle," were trustees of the plans. The U.S. Labor Department has accused them of having taken more than $2 million from the plans for personal loans and loans to companies in which they had an interest.

Sweetman and Dube agreed to reimburse the pension plans $1.8 million by January 1994, and to waive their rights to their share of more than $300,000, in an order signed by federal Judge Alan H. Nevas in the U.S. District Court in Bridgeport on Jan. 28.

They made an initial payment of $10,000 but missed making a $100,000 installment due April 28, said John Chavez, a Labor Department spokesman in Boston.

No further action is being taken against them at this time because, Chavez said, "They are continuing to show the department good faith efforts to try to raise the money."

But those who are owed the money raise questions about how much good faith Sweetman and Dube are showing.

"As far as I am concerned, I think they took the money and squirreled it away and we won't ever see it," said Bob Langston.

Langston, who had been a follower of Brother Julius for nearly 20 years, had been in charge of County Wide's aluminum division. When he quit both the job and the cult, he sought his pension money but, he said, "I was getting the runaround from everyone."

He complained to the Labor Department, which investigated and took civil action against Sweetman and Dube.

In a consent decree with the Labor Department, Sweetman and Dube cite assets that will be used to reimburse the pension plans. But one asset they cite is highly questionable.

For instance, Sweetman and Dube said in the consent decree that County Wide will assign $1.3 million due to the pension plans from Prentiss House Inc., which owned a condominium development called Prentice House in the Kensington section of Berlin.

What is not mentioned is that Sweetman is president and the major shareholder in Prentiss House Inc., which has a shaky financial base. It has not made mortgage payments on the condominium development since February 1991 and is in arrears on taxes to the town of Berlin, court records show.

Last month the Superior Court in New Britain ordered the condominium development to be sold Nov. 6. Fleet Bank holds the mortgage, which amounted to more than $1.4 million in unpaid principal and interest two years ago. The wholesale value of the property was assessed at about $1.7 million in a 1992 court document.

"If County Wide or Sweetman is anticipating any revenue from Prentiss to pay toward the $2 million, I doubt if there will be anything paid," said Joseph Gall of Milford, secretary of Prentiss House Inc. He said he lost $175,000 when he went into partnership with Sweetman to convert a factory building into condominiums.

The factory building was converted into condominiums by County Wide Construction, Gall said. An initial estimate that the conversion would cost $45 a square foot soared to $90 a square foot by the time the job was done, Gall said.

Sweetman, who had been living in Cheshire, could not be reached for comment. Dube, who also lives in Cheshire, said, "I have nothing to say."

David Wayne Winters, who represents Sweetman in negotiations with the Labor Department, said, "I just cannot discuss my client's business. I just won't comment."

Julius Schacknow is also unavailable for comment. He has shunned public appearances for 17 years and rarely gives interviews. He turned down a request from the Courant for one last month.

In a two-hour interview with The Courant six years ago, he reiterated his claims to divinity and said he had come to call the world to repent.

"I'm your creator and I've come to punish the world for their sins, for their ungodliness, their crookedness, breaking my commandments ... and treating people who love me as Jesus with contempt. ... You are interviewing Jesus, who has returned like a

thief in the night," he said.

Of the allegations against him, he said: "I won't comment. You have no interest in the truth. You're interested in smutty material that will satisfy the lustful eyes and ears of your public."

He maintains the same position. He responded virtually the same way to a reporter from the Boston Globe in an interview in Boston last month.

Former followers say Schacknow circulates among seven "wives," staying with each one no more than one or two days a week, a regimen he has followed for years. His main "wife" lives in Berlin. An aide drives him from place to place because he has never learned to drive, people close to him said.

But he leads a diminishing flock.

"All the big guns are leaving and when an apostle leaves it has a great effect on everybody in his group," said John Goski, 41, formerly of Bristol, who spent 18 years in the cult.

Each apostle has charge of people who were born under each of the 12 astrological signs, Goski said, so when an apostle quits it has a demoralizing effect.

"He is threatening the people who leave him now," Goski said. The threats are not directly physical but a warning that the deserters will reap divine retribution.

"When I came out he threatened me. He said things like, `One of your kids may die.' Getting the courage to leave is the real miracle," said Goski, who joined Schacknow as a 20-year-old looking for spiritual direction.

A web of friendships, family and work kept him tied to the cult, even after he wanted to leave, Goski said. He finally quit two years ago and has since moved with his wife, Pat, and two children to northern New Jersey.

Pat Goski said Schacknow's tolerance of sexual abuse of some children in the cult caused many people to leave.

Schacknow's son, Daniel Sweetman, 30, was sentenced in Superior Court in Meriden in September to a year in prison for sexually abusing four children. He was released on probation in March. Police investigated allegations against another cult member but said no parents would make a formal complaint.

Daniel Sweetman is the son of Schacknow and Schacknow's former wife, Joanne Sweetman, who is known in the cult as the "holy spirit." She left Schacknow and has been living with Paul Sweetman for at least 20 years, people who know them, including their children, said.

Schacknow and Sweetman swapped wives in New Jersey in the late 1960s, the sources said. Sweetman's first wife, Minnie, who went to live with Schacknow, died in 1970.

Schacknow has recently been pressuring women to share their husbands because so many men have quit the cult, one women who had been with him nearly 20 years said.

"That was the big issue. It was very possible your husband would have to take in another woman," said the woman, who quit two years ago.

She declined to be publicly identified because she did not want to be embarrassed at her place of employment.

She said she and some other women "weren't going to sleep with Julius and we weren't going to swap wives. ... He got into a rampage where he wanted to get rid of people and he got rid of us."

She said throwing people out of the group was Schacknow's way

of exercising his authority. People usually begged him to return, she said, but she and her husband decided they had had enough.

"I guess Julius did us a favor," she said