May 25, 2007

A mother's grief: 'The cult guru who turned my son into a zombie'

Jenny Johnston
Daily Mail (UK)
May 25, 2007

Primary school teacher Rita Van Gordon is going through the sort of anguish any mother does when she loses a child. Her eyes brim with tears as she remembers what a lovely boy her eldest son, William, was. She finds it painful to talk about the potential his life held: four A-levels, a university degree, the £50,000-a-year job he secured at just 23.

What makes Rita, 51, different from other grieving mothers, however, is that her son is not dead.

William, now 28, has simply cut her out of his life - in the most extraordinary of circumstances.

Three years ago, then happily engaged, William was befriended by a man who described himself as a Buddhist monk.

From the start, Edo Shonnin exerted a remarkable influence on the young retail manager, encouraging him to convert to Buddhism and convincing him to think again about every aspect of his life.

Unfortunately, somewhere in this ‘re-thinking’, William changed — and Rita’s life fell apart.

First her son quit his job, then he split up with the woman he had wanted to marry. He shaved his head and donned the robes of a Buddhist monk.

But it wasn’t the external changes that worried his family; it was the ones that seemed to alter his very personality.

He became distant — "odd", says his mother — and often fell into weird trances. He started speaking in a strange accent, a cross between Dutch and South African, even though he was Cheshire born and bred.

Less than two years after he met Edo, he pretty much severed all ties with his parents. The last time they saw him was across a courtroom in April 2007, as he wanted to sell the property he jointly owned with his father.

Today, William lives with Edo in the Welsh countryside, where the pair have set up a Buddhist retreat.

But his mother believes he has been coerced into this life — trapped in some brainwashing cult by a man who is, at best, someone who likes to reinvent his own life; at worst, a dangerous conman with a talent for deception.

The police have been involved in the increasingly acrimonious tug of war between William’s parents and his Buddhist guru - with accusations being hurled on both sides.

Rita and her husband Bill, an engineering consultant, hired a private detective to investigate Edo and discovered he is a twice-married Glaswegian, rather than a holy guru. And they have tracked down people they claim are former "victims" of his methods.

Last year, in desperation, Rita even attempted to have her own son sectioned under the Mental Health Act, claiming brainwashing meant he didn’t know his own mind.

"The truth is I cannot simply walk away and leave William to be destroyed by this man," she says with a heavy heart.

"We know he is a charlatan and my son has been taken in.

"If I could talk to William, I believe I could get him back. But we are never allowed to be alone with him.

"We have seen our son change from a bright, enthusiastic, confident young man, devoted to his family, to a hostile, closed-down, brainwashed zombie.

"Whenever I phone William on his mobile, Edo answers and says: 'He’s busy.' We are not allowed to visit.

"Occasionally I get through to William, but he often says: 'How did you get this number? Don’t call here again.'

"It’s just unbelievable, but we’ve consulted a cult expert and much of it is a recognised form of brainwashing."

In October 2005 - already despairing at the path her son was on, but unable to get through to him in person - Rita wrote to William.

"It was a difficult but I hoped it would bring him some comfort," she says.

"I wrote: 'Always remember I am your mum, and that my love for you is unlimited and unconditional. The bond between us is unbreakable. Nothing is more important to me than your interests and well-being, and nobody will ever put you first as I do. Don’t let yourself be persuaded otherwise.'"

It is a recognised fact that even the brightest, most strong-minded individuals can fall victim to dangerous cults. It’s this thought that Rita Van Gordon holds on to.

The alternative - that her son simply doesn’t want to know his own family - is simply too terrible to contemplate.

The speed and intensity with which William seemed to change certainly supports her theory.

One of four children, William was by all accounts a bright child. "He always tried very hard at whatever he did," his mother recalls.

"He was captain of the school football team. He swam for the local swimming team. He was a soloist in the choir. Academically, he was great. He got four A-levels and a place at Durham University. We were thrilled for him, and so proud."

William’s choice of subject at university - geo-science - seemed to sum up his practical nature. It was there he met his future fiancee Helen, and seemed set on a high-flying life.

After graduating, he got a job with a retail group and was soon commanding a £50,000 salary and company car.

Yet he wasn’t happy - even his mother knew that. The corporate life left him dissatisfied and he started applying for jobs in the charity sector to "do something worthy".

But after several rejections, he decided to go on a Buddhist retreat to France. His parents were more bemused than worried.

"He was going to this place called Plum Village to think about his life. We didn’t think it that unusual as he was always a curious young man who had an appetite to try new things."

In fact, William asked his mother if she would like to go with him. She regrets her answer: that she was unable to take time off work.

"I wonder now if he was just ripe for the picking," she says. "He was brought up Catholic. We weren’t an overly religious family, but he was spiritually curious and I think he was looking for something when he met Edo."

At first his family was happy that William had 'found himself' on the trip. He returned buzzing with excitement about his new friend - a Buddhist monk who was 'inspirational'.

Soon Edo came to stay with William in the house he’d bought with Helen in Manchester. He was welcomed.

"We all felt sorry for Edo because he told us he had cancer," remembers Rita. "He’d had a terrible life. He said, too, that he’d lost his parents, wife and children in a car accident.

"At first he seemed everything you’d expect from a Buddhist monk. He wore long brown robes and constantly stroked beads around his neck."

In time, though, alarm bells started jangling. First there was the food: although he claimed to be a strict vegetarian, Edo tucked into roast dinners during his visit to Manchester.

"He said that he would politely accept whatever food was put in front of him," says Rita.

"But he smoked quite heavily, too, and was very fond of gin, wine and Guinness. This struck me as odd for someone so supposedly spiritual.

"Odder still was that he managed to eat with such gusto when he supposedly had throat cancer.

"Another weird thing was his accent. He spoke with this odd foreign accent, even though he is Scottish. I guess it made him more authentic."

Edo was supposed to stay with William and Helen for a week. After a month passed, Helen became concerned.

William’s reaction wasn’t to ask his friend to leave — but to buy him a caravan to live in. "He got this caravan for a few hundred pounds, but it wasn’t good enough for Edo, so the next thing we knew William was paying for a bedsit for him," Rita recalls.

"We were a bit worried, but William is very generous, so we didn’t make a big deal about it.

"He kept talking about what an amazingly good person Edo was, how money didn’t matter to him, how sound his values were. He claimed he had become 'enlightened' by him, but when I asked what he meant, he couldn’t tell me.

"Once, he even said Edo could make himself disappear. He was already under Edo’s spell."

Once Rita started questioning aspects of Edo’s life story, the whole thing seemed to unravel. "He claimed to be a surgeon and a psychiatrist, and to have worked extensively in war-torn countries for Medicines sans Frontieres, but when I asked him about his time in Iran - where I have been twice - he clearly had never been there.

"He said he had studied at Yale and Cambridge, and had written 32 books. But it didn’t stand up to the mildest scrutiny - he couldn’t tell us what the books were or what college he was at at Cambridge."

Suspicions aroused, Rita turned detective. She contacted monks at the French retreat who told her Edo was not a monk, but had been so keen, as a layman, that they allowed him to wear robes and to do "guided meditations".

Rita is furious that they gave him such responsibility when he was clearly ill-qualified.

William, though, would not hear a word against his friend. "By then we were convinced Edo was just after William’s money, and told him so," Rita says.

"He wouldn’t hear of it. Every time we tried to talk to him, he would just sit down and leave us, or go into some sort of weird trance. It was scary.

"By this time, he had lost loads of weight - about two stone - and he was always too busy to sleep.

"Bill and I started to look on cult awareness websites, and were horrified to find out that food and sleep deprivation are known tactics for recruitment into cults.

"It weakens them and makes them more susceptible to brainwashing. With every day that passed came more evidence that something sinister was going on.

"William started saying things like, 'I’m so enlightened that even the flowers smile at me,'" Rita recalls.

"We wondered if he was on drugs, but I think it’s more likely that he was just hypnotised by this man."

At the end of 2005, William and Helen split up. "Helen had a breakdown. She was devastated. She couldn’t convince him that Edo was anything other than genuine," Rita says.

"The next thing we knew, Edo had moved in with William. From there, it all went downhill."

As well as buying a home with Helen, William had invested in a 'buy to let' property with his father. One day, William announced that he wanted to sell up, to put money into a business venture with Edo.

Bill refused — and the ensuing legal wrangle ended up in court. It ruined what was left of their relationship.

Rita recalls: "The court asked if William had 'capacity issues' - in other words, 'Is he all there?'

"I said: 'No, he has been brainwashed.' I even tried to get him sectioned under the Mental Health Act, but our GP said William would have to agree to be examined, which he wouldn’t."

It was at this time that Rita employed a private detective to find out more about Edo’s past. She discovered that his real name is Edward Penny and that he has been twice married to British women.

"One of his ex-wives said that Penny was evil and that the mere mention of his name made her shudder with fear," Rita says.

"We also spoke to his sister, Suzanne Richardson, who hadn’t seen Edo for more than 20 years. She said her mother was still alive - so the car crash he talked about was clearly a lie."

The situation became murkier. As their son became more deeply involved, whispered doubts turned into full-blown confrontations.

At one point Edo went to the police, claiming that Bill had attacked him - something he vehemently denies, and no charges were ever brought.

He then claimed Bill was keeping radioactive material at home - again prompting a police visit.

"It was rubbish, of course, but it shows what sort of a man we are dealing with," says Rita. "He will do anything to turn our son against us."

In March 2006, William and Edo moved to Wales, setting up the Pine Forest Sangha retreat in a rambling property William bought, using his savings and a mortgage, for £300,000.

Two months before they moved in, his mother tried again to get through to her son. "We went out for lunch. Edo insisted on coming too.

"As the day wore on, I felt William was becoming more like his old self - more chatty, less weird and distracted - but Edo was visibly furious.

"Just as I started to talk to William about his future," Rita recalls, "Edo became 'ill' and asked William to go to the loo with him. When they came back, he was different: blank - like a robot.

"He used to have such a wicked sense of humour but now he is so serious. He looks so unhappy. He has just cut himself off.

"None of his siblings or friends can get through to him either. My daughter missed him terribly at her wedding this year. She broke down at the altar because of it."

Rita recently made contact with a former guest at her son’s retreat. What was said left her devastated. "This woman described William - my clever son - as being lovely, but a bit simple - like someone with learning difficulties.

"She said he shuffled rather than walked, and that she thought there was something seriously wrong with him.

"I worry that Edo keeps him so exhausted with tasks that he can’t even think for himself."

The Mail has learned that this former guest has herself launched a complaint to the Charities Commission about the retreat.

Rita is also concerned that Edo claims he has been visiting schools and colleges across Wales to spread his message. "It beggars belief. We have seen our intelligent young son suspend all reasoning and end up a brainwashed zombie.

"Surely he can’t be given the chance to wreck other young lives too?"

But even if Edo’s reputation is challenged, there is no guarantee that William will "comes to his senses", as she puts it.

Rita clings to the hope that when she does get see her son again, she will be able to get through to him.

"The last time I saw William, before the court case, he tried to hypnotise me. He kept saying: 'Look into my eyes.' I snapped back - as I used to do when he was three, and being naughty: 'Just stop that, William.' And he did.

"That gives me hope. He is still my boy. I can still get through to him on some level. Now I just have to get through on a deeper level, and stop him throwing his life away."

May 12, 2007

A doctor often visits Jeffs in S. Utah jail

Salt Lake Tribune
May 12, 2007

It's unclear whether he is providing medical care; public records request is pending

(AP) A polygamist church leader who appeared frail and disengaged during recent court proceedings was repeatedly visited in April by a man described as his personal physician, records from a southern Utah jail show.

Lloyd Hammon Barlow first saw Warren Jeffs, head of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in the Washington County jail on Feb. 12, about two weeks after he was rushed to a St. George hospital for undisclosed treatment.

Barlow's visit also came three days after documents related to a request for ''privileged physician contact'' were filed under seal in 5th District Court in St. George.

Between April 2 and April 27, Barlow saw Jeffs nine times, Purgatory Correctional Facility records obtained by The Associated Press through a public records request show. It is unclear, however, if he is providing medical care.

Jeffs, 51, is in jail awaiting a trial on two first-degree felony counts of rape as an accomplice for his role in a 2001 spiritual marriage between a 14-year-old follower and her 19-year-old cousin. No trial date is set.

On Friday, attorneys for a Utah media coalition, including The Salt Lake Tribune, asked 5th District Judge James Shumate to open several records filed under seal in the case. The judge had asked whether the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, often called HIPAA, applied to courts.

In the new brief, the attorney argued the federal act applies only to health care providers and health insurance plans. Washington County prosecutors agreed in a separate filing.

Earlier this week, a "Report of a Competence to Proceed Evaluation,'' conducted by Associated Behavior Consultants of Holladay and dated April 6, was noted on the case docket.

Jeffs was visited by a ''Dr. Nielsen'' during the week of April 9. Although no first name was listed, state records list Eric Nielsen, a clinical social worker, as the firm's registered agent. He did not return a telephone message from The AP.

Barlow is a Utah-licensed family practitioner and surgeon with a degree from the University of Utah, records show. AP's efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. Jeffs' Salt Lake City defense attorneys Walter Bugden and Tara Isaacson declined comment.

Shumate has scheduled a May 25 hearing on unsealing the documents. Media attorneys argued in Friday's filing that when court documents are filed, "a presumptive right of access attaches that requires a party to meet a stringent constitutional test before documents may be placed under seal."

They added: "Even if HIPAA were applicable to court records (which it is not), it would be trumped by this constitutional right of access," they wrote.

Jeffs' other visitors in April included his mother, Merilyn Jeffs; his first wife, Annette Barlow Jeffs; another wife, Naomie Jeffs, who was with Jeffs when he was arrested last year; a son and other church members.

May 8, 2007

4 cases of measles in county confirmed

Diane Chun, Staff Writer
Gainesville Sun (FL)
May 8, 2007

A fourth case of measles has been confirmed in Alachua County, Health Director Tom Belcuore said Monday.

The outbreak of measles cases, the first in the county in 22 years, has been tied to the Hare Krishna community in Alachua. The first case was diagnosed around April 1 in someone who had recently traveled to India.

"This is an old case, one that goes back to mid-April," Belcuore said of the latest confirmed case of measles, in a student attending Santa Fe Community College.

A case involving a University of Florida student was confirmed by the Health Department on April 29. His brother, an SFCC student, also came down with measles in mid-April.

All have ties to Alachua's Krishna community, which with more than 800 members is one of the largest representations of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness outside of India. Many members have elected not to be vaccinated, and some cite religious reasons.

Bennye Alligood, SFCC's vice president for community relations, said the two community college students were in SFCC's high-school dual-enrollment program.

Alligood said SFCC students were on semester break this week, but would be informed of the two cases on campus when they logged on to the school's Web site to get their final grades.

Measles is a highly contagious disease, with an average of 12 additional people infected for every case. The incubation period is eight to 12 days, and the person with measles is contagious for four days before and four days after the characteristic rash appears.

Health Department officials have asked members of the Krishna community to voluntarily restrict their travel and have advised them not to congregate in large groups or attend school until the danger of spreading the measles has passed.

Krishna community members will not serve lunches on UF's Plaza of the Americas while the risk of contagion continues.

David Jakupko, an Alachua Realtor and ISKCON member, said the choice to be immunized is left up to the individual, but "absolutely there is concern about the spread of measles in our community and we are being careful here."

Within any faith-based organization, Jakupko explained, there is leeway to make personal choices. Whether or not to be vaccinated is one of those choices.

"We went out Sunday and offered a free vaccination to anyone who wanted it," Belcuore said, adding that more than 50 had accepted.

He said the Health Department would continue to work with community members.

Diane Chun can be reached at 352-374-5041 or

May 7, 2007

A Struggle Inside AA

Nick Summers
May 7, 2007

Recovering alcoholics say a Washington, D.C., group has hijacked the 12-step program's name.

By the time May Clancy turned 15 years old, she was well on her way to drinking herself to death. A middle-school student from Potomac, Md., she had been through 11 different psychiatric and alcohol-rehab programs in two years. Each time, she started drinking again as soon as she got out. Her parents were terrified. "We'd taken her to hospitals—everything possible to get her the best care that we could," says May's father, Mike. "And all these places told us that they didn't think she could make it without Alcoholics Anonymous."

So in November 2005, when May agreed to begin attending meetings at Midtown, one of the oldest and largest AA groups in the Washington, D.C., area, it felt like a miracle. Other AA meetings in the city attracted mostly older men and women; Midtown was known as a place for recovering alcoholics in their teens and 20s. Some of the group's senior members were older, but there were also dozens of high-school and college kids with stories a lot like hers. From the moment she arrived, they seemed to go out of their way to welcome her. At first, May was thrilled to find a group of people who accepted her as she was. "When I went there," she says, "I didn't really talk to anybody, didn't trust anybody. And these people would hang out with me even if I didn't say anything, and include me in conversations. I was desperate to be liked at that point."

But something about Midtown was not right. After a few months, the group's embrace of May began to feel like a chokehold. She says the sponsor assigned to give her moral support and help keep her sober pressured her to cut off ties to anyone outside the group. Another member snatched her cell phone and deleted names in the directory. She says she was pressured to stop taking the medication a doctor had prescribed to manage her bipolar disorder: group members told her she couldn't be sober if she was taking any kind of drug. There was a hierarchy to the group. Younger members were sometimes expected to wash cars, clean houses and do other menial chores for more senior members.

May says she was especially uncomfortable with the emphasis on dating within the group and sex between members. She would listen as girls her age compared notes on the men in the group they had been encouraged to sleep with, some of whom were decades older.

Her suspicions were confirmed when she left Midtown and began attending a different AA meeting. She was surprised—and relieved—to find that many of Midtown's common practices were exactly the opposite of what Alcoholics Anonymous literature teaches. By design, there are no "leaders" in AA groups who exert control over other members. AA doesn't expect members to ignore doctors' prescriptions. It doesn't tell them to turn their backs on friends and family. And far from encouraging sex, AA groups overwhelmingly frown on intimate relationships for the first year of sobriety, when a recovering alcoholic is thought to be most vulnerable.

May's story isn't unique. Now 16, she is one of hundreds of recovering alcoholics who are taking sides in a bitter, unprecedented dispute among Alcoholics Anonymous adherents that pits members of Midtown, who insist the organization has saved their lives and kept them sober, against angry former members, who charge it is a coercive, cultlike group that uses the trusted AA name to induce young alcoholics into a radical fringe movement that has little resemblance to traditional AA.

It is a fight that has been largely waged in private. Some of Midtown's most driven critics organized a committee, dubbed the Concerned Friends Group, and created an anonymous MySpace page for ex-members to share stories. They have, unsuccessfully, tried to have Midtown expelled from churches where its meetings are held and have made numerous complaints to the police. (Law-enforcement officials say they have investigated the group but have not found evidence of criminal wrongdoing.) Many of the people involved in the dispute are recovering alcoholics and have been reluctant to go public with their allegations—both because it is a violation of AA's "anonymous" credo, and because they do not want it known that they are alcoholics. But in dozens of interviews with NEWSWEEK, recovering alcoholics and mental-health professionals describe a group that exerts an unusual amount of control and sometimes seems to put the social desires of some members above the recovery of others.

Despite repeated requests for comment, no current Midtown members agreed to be interviewed on the record, citing AA's tradition of anonymity in the press and their belief that negative publicity scares on-the-fence alcoholics from getting the help they need. But those who spoke or e-mailed without giving their names for publication say that Midtown is a flourishing group that has saved their lives, and that those who criticize it resent their success, have scores to settle or are simply making it all up.

Lauren Dougherty says that doesn't describe her at all. Now 29, she loved all the attention she got when she decided to sober up and join Midtown 11 years ago. A member of her family was an alcoholic, and Dougherty had sat in the back during AA meetings before. But Midtown was different from the meetings she remembered. Her first night, she was introduced to another member of the group and told, "She's your sponsor." Dougherty thought that was odd. AA sponsors are chosen, not assigned. But everyone was so friendly she let it pass. They gave her specific instructions about which Midtown meeting she should attend each day, and told her to cut off friends from her old life, even the ones who didn't drink. Soon her new circle of friends insisted she get an "AA boyfriend." Like May, Dougherty says there was pressure to sleep with older group members, which she refused to do. ("They live off of sex," says Meredith, a 19-year-old former member who, like several others, did not want her full name used to avoid being outed as an alcoholic. "I feel like their way of dealing with alcohol addiction is just by having sex with each other. Being in that group made me want to drink more.")

Disgusted, Dougherty tried to quit the group. She says her sponsor was furious. "You can't trust any of your own thoughts," she said. "You can't go into your own head unsupervised." At first, Dougherty didn't know what to believe, until a rehab counselor told her in no uncertain terms to get out.

Some former members say they too were made to believe that leaving Midtown would doom their recovery. Twenty-six-year-old Kristen spent eight years with the group, shunning family and outside friends. When she applied to go to art school in Richmond, Va., her sponsor, an older man, cursed her out. "You will drink," he told her. "You will fail. You will die." The reaction of her sponsor persuaded her to leave the group once and for all. She began secretly attending other AA meetings in the area. "I was so tired of being afraid all the time," she says. "I'd rather die than be in Midtown again."

Former members claim that Midtown makes it difficult to leave in other ways. About half the group's approximately 300 members rent houses with each other across the D.C. area. Many find work through contacts in the group. For them, exiting Midtown is not just a matter of walking out the door—it means getting evicted, breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and starting a social life from scratch.

The group's practices have raised concerns among some recovery professionals. Jay Eubanks, who oversees the Gaithersburg, Md., branch of the Kolmac Clinic chain of intensive outpatient rehabs, says patients who come to him from Midtown often need "damage control" to unlearn what the group taught them. "They start isolating people, getting them away from any feedback other than their own ... Only go to their meetings, only talk to people in their group. If you're seeing a therapist, stop seeing a therapist; if you're in treatment, stop going to treatment; if you're being medicated, stop seeing a doctor."

Midtown's approach to treatment so concerned Dr. Ellen Dye, a clinical psychologist in Rockville, Md., that she wrote an open letter to the Washington recovery community in August 2006, detailing two patients' experiences with the group. One young woman, she wrote, was "assigned a boyfriend" and pressured to go off antidepressants; she became actively suicidal and was hospitalized. The second was bossed so severely that he is now unwilling to attend any AA meetings, despite his worsening alcoholism. "At this point," Dye concluded, "I am very apprehensive about referring any clients to AA even if they are severe alcoholics. I think that it is essential that this group be eliminated from AA so that my colleagues and I can feel safe making these referrals again." While most recovery specialists know about Midtown, Dye said, parents and general therapists don't. "We're all saying, 'Go to AA, go to AA,' and we may be sending people into this terrible situation and not realizing it."

Other recovery specialists are more conflicted. Beth Kane-Davidson, director of the addictions center at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Md., says that the center stopped steering patients to Midtown during the past year. But, she adds, "the flip side is, I know people in the group that have long-term sobriety and are doing great." For some recovering alcoholics, she says, "Midtown has been a real godsend. It's taken them in and structured their activities, and filled the void left because they're not using anymore. But where do you draw the line? Given that the line is so fine, we try to err on the safe side."

David Hanrahan has a similar perspective. He got sober in 1985 while attending some of the meetings that later coalesced into the Midtown network; in his mid-30s, he drifted away when he decided he was more comfortable around recovering alcoholics closer to his own age. Hanrahan says a little disorder and disagreement inside AA isn't necessarily a bad thing—in fact, it almost always works out for the good. "I think AA is a miraculous organization that is run by nobody and controlled by nobody, and is complete, pure anarchy—as long as it's tied to the 12 steps—and I mean that in a good way," he says. "There are meetings all over the world, and anyone can start one, and nobody's in charge of it. That's AA's strength and weakness, right there." Hanrahan is concerned by the direction Midtown has taken in the past 20 years, but he also fears that its most organized critics care more about harming the group than reforming AA.

What does Alcoholics Anonymous itself have to say about Midtown? Nothing. A completely decentralized organization, AA has no spokesperson and no national leaders. Its worldwide headquarters in New York—which largely serves to distribute its literature and help people set up local meetings—declined to comment. AA has always relied on locals to govern themselves. Midtown can claim as much right to the Alcoholics Anonymous name as more traditional AA groups. For struggling alcoholics already wary of seeking help, it's another reminder that it isn't always easy to find someone to trust.

A Homestead Divided: Former Homestead members, anti-cult group accuse sect of deception, controlling lives

Cindy V. Culp, Staff Writer
Waco Tribune-Herald
May 7, 2007

Phillip Arnn has created a public presence for a group of people who once felt invisible.

For years, some former members of Homestead Heritage say they felt power- less to counter the stream of glowing news media reports about the local religious community. To varying degrees, they tried explaining to friends and co-workers that what they read or heard about Homestead Heritage was only part of the story.

But those efforts had limited reach. As soon as the calendar rolled around to Thanksgiving or Labor Day or one of the other times when Homestead Heritage holds public events, the articles and television spots started again, extolling the seemingly simple, everyday virtues of a religious group living in a picturesque stretch of Central Texas just north of Waco.

About two years ago, though, the ex-members began to have an organized presence. Fittingly enough, that presence was spurred by yet another flattering news story about Homestead Heritage — this time by Baylor University seminary professor Roger Olson in Christianity Today magazine.

The article, published in February 2005, was predictably complimentary, the exes say. But the difference this time was that the story reached a national audience.

Some ex-members wrote letters to the editor in protest. But what really gave them a platform were the efforts of a group called Watchman Fellowship.

A Christian organization focused on cults, Watchman Fellowship has gathered information about Homestead Heritage for more than a decade. But until the Christianity Today article came out, the group was not a priority.

“Up until (then), it was a small group that really didn’t have a footprint except in home school programs,” Arnn says.

After publication of the article, though, Watchman Fellowship felt a duty to step up its education efforts about the group, Arnn says. The organization doesn’t consider Homestead Heritage dangerous in a physical or legal sense, he says. But it does believe the group deceives people and is spiritually abusive.

“There are many Christians in the group,” Arnn says, “but the group is not Christian.”

Watchman Fellowship set up an Internet discussion board on which ex-members could post their experiences about Homestead Heritage. Arnn also organized a workshop for ex-members held in Waco in April 2005. The idea was to provide them with a forum to discuss their experiences, Arnn says, as well as help heal them from the “spiritual abuse” they encountered at Homestead Heritage.

Thirty-two adults came to the meeting. About twice that many were expected, but they opted out after family members still in Homestead Heritage threatened to completely cut them off if they attended, Arnn and the ex-members claim. Others couldn’t attend because they live far away, they say.

Homestead Heritage officials contend the meeting served as an opportunity for Watchman Fellowship to indoctrinate the ex-members, spurring them to embellish and invent stories to make Homestead Heritage appear sinister. But the exes dispute that notion. All Watchman Fellowship did, they say, was give them an opportunity to talk with others who had gone through similar experiences and provide them with a way to better share those stories with others.

A common theme

Each of the dozen ex-members interviewed by the Tribune-Herald offers a different story about how he or she joined the group. One thing they all have in common, though, is that they joined Homestead Heritage because of the lifestyle they believed it exemplified — wholesome Christian living in the context of community.

For some, Homestead Heritage’s rules and customs were merely an expansion of the out-of-the-mainstream lifestyle they had already embraced. For others, Homestead Heritage was night and day from what they were used to in traditional church settings.

Del and Francie Barcus were an example of the first sort of family. Living in Arizona in the late 1980s, Del held an executive-level position with luggage giant Samsonite.

Because of their religious convictions, the Barcuses had no television, home-schooled their children and required their girls to wear long dresses. They searched all over Arizona for a church that held the same beliefs but were disappointed Sunday after Sunday.

Then, like a gift from God, they say, they received a home-schooling newsletter that included a write-up about one of Homestead Heritage’s crafts fairs. The group was in Colorado then, but after the Barcuses looked at the photos and saw people who looked like them, they felt compelled to contact the church.

That was 1988. During the next several years, the family became more acquainted with Homestead Heritage through visits to the ranch in Colorado and the church in Austin, hosting an elder in their home and reading some of the group’s literature.

They eventually joined while still living in Arizona. Then in 1993, Del quit his job and moved the family to Waco. Doing so meant an 80 percent pay cut, a sobering reality for the family of seven. But they gladly accepted it, believing this was God’s will.

Bob and Katherine Beechner, on the other hand, were living a more typical life in Central Texas when they heard about Homestead Heritage. They were certainly on a spiritual search, but until then, they sought God through traditional avenues.

Saved in a Baptist church after they got married, the Beechners then moved to an Assembly of God congregation. After that they worshipped with some charismatic home churches.

But as they prepared for the birth of their first child in 1987, the Beechners found themselves at a crossroad. Their home church was in the process of dissolving and the 24-year-olds were about to be left without a spiritual home.

When a friend mentioned a group that believed in home schooling and living in community, they became intrigued. About then, Homestead Heritage began holding regular meetings in Waco, so the timing seemed heaven-sent.

After attending a couple of meetings, the Beechners could barely contain their excitement, they recall. The church’s commitment to living in community was so in line with what the couple had been seeking that it almost seemed too good to be true.

Asking questions

Because they had been Christians for only three years, though, the Beechners wanted to be sure they were making the right move. So they say they asked what they thought were some discerning questions.

After lengthy discussions with leaders in which they say they got all the right answers, the Beechners were convinced. Bob kept his job as a firefighter with the Waco Fire Department but, beyond that, the couple looked forward to a complete life transformation.

That’s not to say these couples didn’t have some doubts. From the beginning, some things struck them as odd. The leaders were evasive, they claim, when asked certain theological questions. And the couples say they were increasingly asked to cede control over personal or family affairs.

Putting doubts aside

But both couples shoved such reservations aside. The doubts, they reasoned, arose from their inability to comprehend a higher truth or the devil trying to plant seeds of doubt in their minds. Homestead Heritage leaders spoke with such confidence and quoted Scripture with such authority that they felt unworthy to question them, they say now.

It didn’t hurt that the two couples were then treated like royalty. Both say they remember picnics and other events held in their honor as they became acquainted with Homestead Heritage. The Barcuses even got front-row seats at a wedding during one visit to the group, despite barely knowing the bride or groom.

“We were treated like a million bucks,” Del Barcus says. “. . . The whole thing was orchestrated to you. You felt pretty special.”

Once the Beechners and the Barcuses officially joined the group, the honeymoon period ended, they say. Evenings went from being filled with leisurely barbecues to church-related work sessions. Strings were attached through rules and regulations to what they thought was unconditional love.

Worst of all, the couples say, they started to understand that common Christian phrases and concepts meant something entirely different at Homestead Heritage. For example, submitting to God’s authority and submitting to the leaders’ authority is considered one and the same, they say.

The authority of leaders was so revered that it amounted to all but deification, the exes claim. Robin Engell, a member for eight years, says she remembers founder Blair Adams saying that when he spoke, it was as if Christ was right there speaking. Her group leader used a similar line, saying “I am Christ to you,” she recalls.

“The idea I always got was even though it was not the same person, it was the same office,” Engell says.

That authority supposedly gives leaders the power to forgive or not forgive sin, says former member Jeremy Crow, 30, who became part of Homestead Heritage at age 10 when his family joined. Because of this authority, members are willing to follow whatever rules are set out for them, no matter how arbitrary, strange or inconsequential they may seem. If they don’t comply, they’re told they could lose their salvation, he says.

Perhaps the most obvious category of rules pertains to dress. All of the ex-members knew when they joined that their appearance would be set apart from the world. But they were still surprised by the ever-evolving dress code, they say.

When the Beechners joined, women were allowed to wear their hair down. Later they were told they had to wear it up. Eventually the standard became so strict that strands framing the face were banned.

Similarly, bobby socks were forbidden because they supposedly showed off women’s legs too much. Eyebrow-plucking was deemed worldly. And floral print for clothing was denounced, supposedly because the word “flower” came from the same root as the word “florid,” which can mean excessively ornate or showy.

“It got to be nonsense,” Katherine Beechner says.

The dress code also was ratcheted up for men. At first they were allowed to wear T-shirts. Then collared shirts were mandated because ones without collars were supposedly worn by gay men, the exes say. Finally, it was dictated that shirts be long-sleeved, at least for work duties.

When it came to jeans, Levis were outlawed for a while. Then it was Wranglers. Finally, the leadership said Dickies was the only brand permitted.

Perhaps the most controversial dress rule, though, was an eventual ban on wedding rings, several ex-members say. For years, marriage bands had been allowed, even though jewelry in general was not. Then suddenly it was announced the rings would no longer be permitted.

“It was an evolving thing . . . and it was never good news,” Bob Beechner says.

Ex-members say many dietary rules were drawn from the Old Testament, such as prohibitions against pork and shellfish. Others have been added, such as no white sugar, no white flour and no caffeine.

The most important rules, though, pertain to conduct, according to ex-members. The group’s code of conduct goes well beyond the normal “shalts” and “shalt nots” of mainstream Christianity. There are prohibitions against everything from listening to the radio to reading newspapers to voting, the exes say.

Strict rules govern how males and females should comport themselves, the ex-members say. People of the opposite sex who aren’t married aren’t supposed to be alone together.

And there is a general rule against anything deemed “worldly,” the ex-members say. That includes everything from wearing sunglasses to driving on oversized truck tires to putting up Christmas trees.

Breaking rules

Breaking a nonspiritual rule is usually regarded as less serious than violating a moral decree, the ex-members say. For example, wearing cowboy boots is a lesser offense than lying. Even so, Homestead Heritage routinely punishes people for nonspiritual offenses, the ex-members say.

Sometimes people were admonished in private when they broke rules. More often, they were confronted before others, if not the entire community, in sessions that usually grew intense, the ex-members say.

“There is jumping and screaming and yelling and humiliation that you can’t even imagine,” Jeremy Crow says.

People are sometimes subjected to such treatment even for instances that don’t violate the rules, the exes say. Once a church leader admonished an 11-year-old girl, screaming at her because she walked into a meeting with a somber expression on her face, the Beechners allege.

“You’ve got to toe the line or this can happen to you,” Katherine Beechner says of such humiliation. “That’s the subtle message.”

Members also are expected to tell on one another, further aggravating disharmony in the religious community, ex-members say. Consequently, friendships are shallow. Even marriage relationships are jeopardized, they say.

Francie Barcus remembers once when she told another woman in the group she didn’t understand why it mattered if a woman wanted to trim her hair. Within minutes, Del got a call from a church leader asking why Francie was cutting her hair, she alleges.

But the worst effect of so many rules is that members always felt they were one step away from losing salvation, the exes say. Engell remembers going to bed every night wondering if everything she had done that day was up to divine standard.

One time she even got up in the early hours of the morning to rearrange her silverware and drinking glasses because she worried they might be too sloppy, she says.

Other ex-members recount similar feelings. They say the “good news” of the Gospel was never preached in meetings. Jesus’ crucifixion was mentioned only in a historical context or to make the point that members must be obedient. The idea that God would forgive them through grace was nonexistent, they say.

Homestead Heritage taught that followers needed church leaders to help them succeed in being righteous enough for heaven, the former members allege. A frequent saying was that members might be able to nail down their feet and even one hand to the cross on their own. But to completely die in the flesh, or rid themselves of sin, they needed the church to nail down the final hand.

Getting permission

That literal lording over of members causes them to feel compelled to run many decisions by their leaders, the exes say. Getting permission for certain major decisions such as marriage was explicitly required.

For many other decisions, gaining permission is an unspoken rule. If a family wants to go on vacation, for example, the head of the household is expected to run the itinerary by his group leader, the exes say.

If the leader disagrees with the course of action, for whatever reason, the follower is told it isn’t God’s will, the ex-member allege. Those who protest are worn down through repeated prayer sessions or rebuked publicly.

“They want you to come to them constantly with every aspect of your life,” Bob Beechner says. “After a while, you lose your decision-making ability.”

That loss of control wasn’t the only way in which home life was affected, the ex-members say. Families rarely had time to themselves, they complain, because of onerous church duties.

The men all had assigned jobs, ranging from helping with the production of Homestead Heritage literature to property maintenance. On nights when there weren’t meetings, men would often get off their regular jobs, grab a quick supper at home, then head to Homestead Heritage property to work late into the evening, the exes say.

The men also had to rotate turns on overnight watch duty.

While the need for men to do some church work is understandable, even desirable, they say, the workload ultimately proved too burdensome to maintain a healthy family life. So much so, Bob Beechner acknowledges with a sheepish grin, that he would always volunteer to host people who came to visit Homestead Heritage over the weekend.

That’s because host families weren’t expected to do regular church duties during such visits. Instead, they were encouraged to show the guests a good time. So Katherine would bake homemade bread instead of buying it at the store, the children would dust off the ice cream-maker and Bob would clean off the grill.

“The phone wouldn’t ring a single time,” Bob recalls.

Women at Homestead Heritage also have a large load to carry, the ex-members say. Besides house work and schooling, they are expected to perform some group chores and lend a helping hand to others in the fellowship. The end result is like a wacky game of musical chairs, where one woman will watch another’s children so that woman can clean the house of yet another who is assisting someone who is sick.

Children’s education also suffers, the ex-members allege. When he was a boy, Crow says, learning a craft and community duties were deemed more important than academics.

By the time Crow was 12 or 13, his schooling had largely stopped, he says. By 15, it was over completely. After he left the group, he got his GED, but it took a lot of studying, he says.

Engell and the Barcuses echo this complaint, saying most children at Homestead Heritage are not nearly as well educated as people might believe. Church officials heavily edit the student papers displayed on Homestead Heritage property to make children appear academically advanced, they say.

The same sort of deception kicks into overdrive each year for the Thanksgiving festival, ex-members say. The weeks leading up to the event are the most hated time of year at Homestead Heritage, they say, as members work around the clock to get everything looking just right.

Visitors are told the event is a time of celebration, the culmination of a year’s worth of work. But for members, it’s a consummate reminder of how life in the group isn’t what it appears, Homestead Heritage exes say.

Followers know how to do all of the crafts and trades exhibited at the event. They aren’t faked in that sense, the exes say.

But mostly, all the eye-popping goods and nostalgia-inducing activities are part of a hobby or business, the ex-members say. They don’t represent how most people at Homestead Heritage actually live.

‘A fantasy’

One ex-member says the immensely popular event is almost like an Anabaptist Disneyworld. All of the things people enjoy are displayed with painstaking attention to detail. At the same time, anything that might stop visitors from having a good time — and spending money — are kept from view.

Members are even told they cannot attend unless they’re smiling, the exes say.

“It’s a fantasy,” Crow says. “It’s not real.”

Such claims might seem far-fetched to people who have visited the property, the ex-members say. When they tell people what Homestead Heritage is really like, people offer such responses as: “But what about that beautiful homestead we toured?” “Their furniture was the best quality I have ever seen.” Or “I saw the gardens with my own eyes. And that ice cream. It was to die for.”

But that’s why the facade is so convincing, the ex-members say. All of those statements are true, yet not true at the same time.

Yes, Homestead Heritage has beautiful houses and exquisite gardens, the exes say. Yes, many followers are highly skilled craftsmen and excellent culinarians. And, yes, the children can sing like angels as they play handmade instruments.

But it’s equally true that many members live in mobile homes or fixer-uppers with meager gardens; that women use microwaves to cook and men use electric saws to work with wood; and that the children sometimes scowl and throw fits.

That carefully manufactured effect is what most bothers those who have left the group. It’s one thing for people to agree to live a certain way in exchange for certain benefits if all conditions, restrictions and rules are made clear at the outset, the ex-members say.

It’s quite another for people to enter into such an agreement, then later learn the benefits don’t truly exist. That’s why the facade is so dangerous, they say. It lures people into the fold who otherwise wouldn’t consider the group’s rigid, all-controlling lifestyle.

Engell puts it this way: “We just figured they knew what they were doing because the product looked so good.”

The facade is also troubling because, to maintain it, followers must engage in deception that is contrary to the faith they promote, the exes say. The Barcuses recall one time when a member was using a state-of-the-art lawn mower to manicure the grounds. Suddenly, a church leader came running from the office and told him to put it away and get out a hand mower instead because a magazine editor was coming for an interview.

Similarly, followers were given a book they were expected to read to answer visitors’ questions, the exes say. They were often drilled on the material before fairs and instructed to give answers that wouldn’t offend people’s sensibilities.

For example, if a visitor asked if children from Homestead Heritage could go to college, the answer was supposed to be yes, says former member Becky Crow, Jeremy’s mother. However, she says that’s not true. Leaders rationalized the lie, she alleges, by telling followers that in America any adult is free to do what he or she chooses.

Prospective members in particular are misled, the ex-members say. At first, picnics and other special “fellowships” are held just for them in a process Homestead Heritage adherents call “courting.”

Honeymoon period

The honeymoon period is then played out in religious meetings where the usual rigidity and humiliation is left out, the ex-members say. The sessions are even tailored to the visitor on many occasions. For example, if a person is from a noncharismatic religious background, members are told not to raise their hands or pray loudly.

“We staged a lot of stuff for a lot of people,” Jeremy Crow says.

Prospective members also aren’t allowed to see the full range of group literature, the ex-members say. The rationale given by church leaders is that just as someone wouldn’t take an upper-level college course before the prerequisite, people must read foundational literature before progressing to more advanced material. But the real motive at work, the exes allege, is the group knows many people wouldn’t join if they read it all.

Even once people officially join the church, they aren’t told the whole of the group’s beliefs right away, the exes say. Months, even years, pass before people truly understand the dynamics.

Looking back, ex-members say they can scarcely believe they bought into the ruse. But they did, largely because of the promise of the good life, they say.

“There were so many red flags,” Engell says. “But it just looks so good, you want to ignore them. You want to think it’s your imagination, because this is your dream, this is what you have wanted all of your life.”

Then, once people join, other factors kick in that make leaving difficult. The former members acknowledge no physical constraints keep people at Homestead Heritage. However, they contend a host of intangibles keep people hooked.

Most families are supported through jobs offered either by Homestead Heritage or one of its followers, so leaving means losing a livelihood. Families can also face losing their homes.

People who live on Homestead Heritage land sign a contract to vacate if they ever leave the church. Others live in nearby neighborhoods made up almost entirely of Homestead Heritage members. While they have the option of staying even if they leave the church, doing so can prove socially awkward, leaving them and their families ostracized.

Even more powerful is the fear of losing relationships, the exes say. When people join, they’re told to distance themselves from friends and extended family. Before long, the only real connections they have are with others in the group — and they know if they leave, those connections will be limited or cut off.

But the biggest threat, the ex-members say, is that people feel they’ll be damned if they leave — both in this life and the next.

Leaving the church

Jeremy Crow says he was repeatedly told that going to other churches would constitute leaving God because other churches had “less light” than Homestead Heritage. When he and his wife decided to leave four years ago, a leader told him the action might trigger a vision the leader had of Crow’s newborn son being run over and killed by a truck.

Jeremy Crow doesn’t believe the vision came from God, but the idea is still hard to shake.

“It is one of those nagging things in my head,” he says.

Crow’s mother says she remembers longing for death — not because she was suicidal but because she viewed death as the only release from group life. Just thinking about leaving was scary. It would be like other Christians considering the idea of forever severing themselves from God, she says.

“I don’t know how to explain the fear that overcomes you,” she says.

Engell agrees, saying the idea she would fall from God’s grace if she ever left terrified her.

“It was like God would turn his back on me and the devil could have a heyday and do whatever he wanted with me,” she says.

Ultimately, the ex-members say they left because God mercifully created circumstances in their lives that caused them to question Homestead Heritage.

Impact on children

The Beechners say it started as a realization that the group was having a negative impact on their children. The younger children would often throw fits before meetings, sometimes almost becoming hysterical.

Most worrisome was the attitude their older son developed, the couple says. He saw God as something akin to a hateful tyrant, a view they feared would only intensify as the years advanced.

When the Beechners approached church leadership about their concerns, Bob was told he was the problem, not the church. Unable to work things out, the family eventually left.

For the Barcuses, seeds of doubt took root when they couldn’t get a straight answer from church leadership about what other groups qualified as Christians, they say. That prompted yet more questions, and with each sidestep or vague response from church leaders, they came closer to concluding something was wrong.

One of the last straws was the realization that Homestead Heritage followers didn’t believe people outside the fellowship could enter heaven, the Barcuses say.

“That was one of the things that bothered us, how they reviled the body of Christ at large,” Francie Barcus says. “. . . It’s hard to verbalize why you just don’t pick up and leave. But it’s just not that easy.”

As difficult as leaving was, it was but the beginning of a painful process, the ex-members say.

For the Beechners, one of the most difficult aspects was being shunned. Their first taste of it came a few days after they officially left the group. Katherine and the children were at a local grocery when they saw a family from the fellowship that they had been close to. She and her children were eager to say hello, but the mother and children turned away from them without so much as a greeting.

“One day the phone rings 50 times,” Bob Beechner says, “and the next day, it doesn’t ring at all.”

Spiritual troubles

Returning to religious life also proved difficult, the Beechners say. They recall one Sunday, soon after the family began going to its first church after Homestead Heritage, when their oldest son’s name was called by the pastor at the end of the service.

He was being called to the stage to receive an award for Bible memorization. But because of his time at Homestead Heritage, he assumed he was being called out for discipline and started shaking, they say.

“It triggered a visceral reaction,” Bob says.

Francie Barcus says she experienced the same sort of emotional turmoil. Only recently has she reached the point where she can bear to cut her hair or wear pants. For so long, she was programmed to believe such actions were offenses against God, she says.

Those with family still in the group have it the worst, the exes say. Communication largely ceases between those who are in and those who are out, they say.

That’s the case with the Crows. Becky’s only daughter — Jeremy’s sister — remains with the group, married to one of founder Blair Adams’ sons. Jeremy’s in-laws are also members.

When they first left, there was an exchange of a few letters and telephone calls, Becky and Jeremy say. But such exchanges were only designed to draw them back into the group. After they started speaking out against Homestead Heritage, communication stopped.

Relationships destroyed

The fact they’re now speaking out in a more public way will probably destroy any chance of a relationship with those loved ones, the ex-members say. Time and again, they have seen the aggressive way in which Homestead Heritage deals with criticism, either by claiming persecution or engaging in character assassination.

The exes can list off a litany of examples. But because most of the situations weren’t recorded in any way, they know it’s their word against the group’s.

However, there are two documented examples that they cite as proof of a pattern.

One is a booklet the church group published in 1993. It was produced in response to the criticisms of Susan Armstrong, the woman who Homestead Heritage claims first alerted Watchman Fellowship to its existence.

The situation began when Armstrong sent a letter to various home-schooling organizations criticizing Homestead Heritage’s literature for its theological stances. Homestead fired back with a response that is nearly 100 pages long.

Much of the defense mounted in the booklet is similar to the defense Homestead Heritage is using against its current critics. Some of the language is near verbatim to the statements members gave the Tribune-Herald in recent interviews.

A ‘yellow star’

For example, the document asserts Armstrong is trying to label them with a “yellow star,” alluding to the badge Jews were forced to wear under Nazi rule. It warns that Armstrong’s criticisms might be the first volley in a broader doctrinal witch hunt. They say all Christians should be wary of what Armstrong is doing — a tenet of their current argument.

Another striking example of how Homestead Heritage tries to silence critics, ex-members say, is a document titled “Response to Clinton Elder.” It was penned in 1994 after a man by that name wrote a letter to church leaders outlining his problems with the group.

The complaints listed in the letter are much the same as those voiced by ex-members now. That’s important, the exes say, because Homestead Heritage officials claim no one had such problems with the group until Phillip Arnn of Watchman Fellowship started manipulating people a couple of years ago.

The document is also important because it demonstrates the ferocity with which Homestead Heritage responds to criticism, the ex-members say. At well over 200 pages, the response addresses Elder’s claims point by point. But it also includes a catalog of various sins the group claims Elder committed, reaching back as far as grade school.

Even more galling, the ex-members say, the book was required reading for all followers at the time.

Elder, who is 54 and still lives in the Waco area, says the book was hurtful. Many of the men who helped write it had known him since junior high school, he says.

Elder readily admits many criticisms about him in the book are true. But some material is either untrue or taken out of context. More importantly, some material was gleaned from confessions he made to church leaders, he says.

Because of that, Elder decided to bring legal action against the group. He didn’t want to destroy it, he says. He simply wanted to send a message that it shouldn’t disclose personal details about its members.

Settling the matter

The matter never went to court. When Elder and his attorney met with Homestead Heritage members, a monetary settlement was reached. Because of the terms of that settlement, both Elder and church members say they can’t disclose the amount.

During a recent interview, Elder said he wanted to make it clear he did not give the Tribune-Herald a copy of the group’s response. The ex-member also said he wanted to keep his comments about Homestead Heritage limited, though there is a lot he could say.

The main thing Elder wants to communicate to the public, he said, is that the group hides its true nature from outsiders. While he disagrees with the group on points ranging from dietary rules to doctrine, that’s not really what troubles him, he said. People are free to believe what they want, just as he once did.

But engaging in deception as Homestead Heritage does to gain new members is wrong, he said.

“I just want people to have full disclosure,” Elder said.  757-5744