Nov 10, 2021

Sex rituals and fine wines: Inside alleged Cali cult the Fellowship of Friends

Sara Stewart
NY Post
November 9, 2021

Stop us if you’ve heard this one before: The male leader of a quasi-religious group is alleged to have been sexually exploiting his followers. When confronted with this behavior, he responds that he’s a higher-evolved “Conscious Being” and thus, “a law unto himself.”

In a story that echoes the trial of NXIVM founder Keith Raniere, the new six-part Spotify podcast “Revelations” explores a California doomsday cult called the Fellowship of Friends. Jennings Brown, a Brooklyn-based investigative reporter, spent three years researching the group, visiting their Yuba County compound, Apollo, several times and speaking with ex-members who describe greed, hypocrisy and cruelty hidden beneath a veneer of intellectual and cultural refinement, spiced up with semi-regular predictions about the end of the world. Despite repeated allegations of abuse within the organization, it’s still up and running.

But the Fellowship of Friends wasn’t always known as a dangerous cult. For a time, the organization was primarily renowned as a maker of world-class natural wine. Their Renaissance brand has been raved about as “special, age-worthy, one-of-a-kind wines, at the very top tier of what California can produce.”

But the business is shuttered now, and the group likely to encounter more scrutiny after Brown’s podcast, which includes interviews with seven male ex-members claiming sexual abuse by the cult’s leader, Robert Earl Burton. “They told me about these sex rituals where [the leader] would attempt to have sex with 100 followers in a day,” Brown told The Post. “He called them love fests.”

Burton, born in 1939, is a former Arkansas school teacher who reinvented himself in the 1970s as a California guru. He studied the teachings of a self-help movement called the Fourth Way, founded by Russian philosopher George Gurdjieff, who taught practices he claimed would bring about heightened self-awareness. Burton adapted the methods, preaching that one should immerse oneself in the finer things in life, abolish negative thinking and live in harmony with dictates given to Burton by his “44 angels.”

He claimed these angels, a who’s who of historical greats including Leonardo da Vinci, William Shakespeare, Dante Alighieri and Benjamin Franklin, gave him instructions on how his followers should live. Every so often, his angels predicted apocalypse. So Burton instructed followers to fund his ever-expanding “Galleria,” a collection of largely Western European artwork he claimed would one day rekindle civilization. (Conveniently, the building doubled as his house.) In 1996, the Fellowship’s collection of antique Chinese furniture sold for $11.2 million at a Christie’s auction.

In the early days, during the 1970s, Burton’s demands were bizarre: Athletic activity, humor, eyeglasses, mixed-breed pets and using the word “I” were all verboten. Women, deemed spiritually inferior, allegedly were forbidden from getting pregnant.

“One of the most horrifying things I heard was the rule about abortions,” says Brown, who speaks to four ex-members in the podcast about Burton’s alleged dictate that any member who got pregnant had to terminate.

Bottles from Renaissance Wines
Renaissance wines
Renaissance Wine via Facebook
“I very much got the sense that women were second or third-class citizens. I think a lot of them came because their husbands or boyfriends were interested in spiritual awakening.”

Among his interviewees is a male ex-member, “Nathan,” who claims Burton insisted Nathan’s wife end her pregnancy. Says the man: “When my wife became pregnant, he [Burton] said that the child should be aborted. His explanation was that the child would be born too soon to be included on the ark. And being the fool that I was, I accepted the explanation. It wasn’t my best act here on Earth. My wife didn’t agree to it. It was kind of against her will.”

Despite condemning homosexuality, Burton was allegedly preying on young, attractive male followers, always targeting straight men.
Meanwhile, despite condemning homosexuality, Burton was allegedly preying on young, attractive male followers, always targeting straight men. Many ex-members speak to Brown in the podcast about the alleged abuse, some of them giving firsthand accounts of being victimized and others who knew what was going on, including a woman who was Burton’s housekeeper for years.

The Fellowship did not respond to The Post’s requests for comment. In the podcast, Brown confronts Greg Holman, president of the Fellowship, about the sexual exploitation allegations. Holman responds that he doesn’t think they’re true but that any member is welcome to come to him — as long as they’re “loaded for bear” with facts and evidence, he adds. 

In 1996, a lawsuit was filed by former member Troy Buzbee, who alleged Burton sexually exploited him when he was 17. According to Brown’s reporting, in the mid-1990s, Burton sexually assaulted Troy’s father, Richard Buzbee. Says Brown in the podcast, “Richard then told friends and family about the abuse and found many others who alleged similar experiences — including, to his horror, his own son. Richard included this in a letter he sent out to other Fellowship members to warn them. He wrote: ‘The greatest shock came from my son Troy, who told me that Robert had been actively pursuing him for sex from the time he entered the school — at age seventeen.’ “

The suit was settled out of court. And in 2005, Brown reports, US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) investigated a tip that the Fellowship was bringing non-US citizens into the country and paying for their religious visas, intending for the recruits to be in sexual servitude to Burton. In 2012, Brown learned from federal documents obtained in a Freedom of Information Act request, the Drug Enforcement Administration, along with ICE, raided the Apollo compound, calling it a search for evidence of drug production.

But nothing came of it. Holman tells Brown in the podcast, “I turn around and look at [a DEA agent] and say, ‘Can you honestly tell me you thought the Fellowship was a part of a national drug distribution ring?’ But he looked and he smiled and said, ‘No, but we thought it was a good opportunity to take a look at you.’“
As the Fellowship became aware it was under scrutiny, it started recruiting farther afield, says Brown. “The men in [Burton’s] inner circle came in from Eastern Europe,” he says. “In the fourth episode, I interviewed a couple of these men, one from Russia and one from Romania.”

Brown also talks to former Chief Financial Officer Charles Randall, who claims the Fellowship was designated a religion only to avoid an IRS audit. “We made up the religion to cover the fact that it was otherwise Robert doing whatever the hell he wanted,” says Randall, who left the Fellowship in 1994, noting he was disillusioned by claims of sexual coercion.

There is at least one main difference between the Fellowship and NXIVM, though: This group is still in operation, with Brown estimating its worldwide membership to be 1,500 and around 500 at the California headquarters. “Robert is still very active,” Brown says. “Even though he’s getting up there in age, I saw no reason to think his alleged coercive behavior has stopped.”


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