Mar 7, 2022

Long days, no pay: Twelve Tribes cult exploits followers for free labor, ex-members say Cult runs businesses like Boulder’s Yellow Deli and Manitou Springs’ Maté Factor on free labor, ex-members say

Shelly Bradbury
The Denver Post
March 7, 2022

Frank W. spent five years working for the Twelve Tribes religious sect and never took home a paycheck.

The 65-year-old Tennessean worked many 12-hour days in various jobs across the country for the religious cult. Never baptized in as a full member, he bent the rules at times, frequently leaving for work so early that he missed mandatory morning worship sessions.

“You can get away with a lot when you are a good worker,” he said. But in 2015, the Twelve Tribes told him he was no longer welcome.

“I said, ‘Well you need to settle up with me then,’” he said, using his middle name and last initial in this story to avoid being identified by current cult members. “And they said, ‘Oh we don’t do that.’”

During its 50-year existence, the Twelve Tribes has distinguished itself among religious cults through its extensive business operations. The group has relied on food service, construction, soap-making, woodworking, farming, solar energy and even an Alaskan fishing operation to make money over the decades. Members live communally, sharing money and resources, and all of the sect’s businesses are staffed by followers who work without pay, ex-members told The Denver Post.

New members must give the group all their possessions when they join, often signing over personal property to the cult’s limited liability companies. Many have nothing to fall back on if they later want to leave the group.

“I messed up my life messing with them,” Frank W. said.

The exploitation of members for labor and money is one of three major problems identified by 10 former members who spoke with The Post after the Twelve Tribes catapulted into Colorado headlines earlier this year when authorities began investigating whether the Marshall fire started on the group’s Boulder County property. Investigators have yet to conclude how the deadly wildfire started, and also are investigating other possible ignition points.

In 26 hours of interviews with The Post, the ex-members also took issue with the Twelve Tribes’ treatment of children and the group’s teachings embracing racism, homophobia and misogyny. The Post reviewed nearly 400 pages of the cult’s internal teachings and is presenting ex-members’ accounts in a series of three stories this week.

The Twelve Tribes’ estimated 3,000 followers live communally in about three dozen worldwide compounds. Now headquartered in North Carolina, the cult was founded in Tennessee in 1972 and made its way into Colorado in the early 2000s.

The group has two established Colorado communities, one in Boulder County and another in Manitou Springs, and can be considered a cult because of its charismatic authoritarian leader, extremist ideology, all-or-nothing belief system, and use of coercion to control and exploit members, cult expert Janja Lalich said.

“They act like they are so separate from the world, but they have the same issues,” Frank W. said. “They want the world’s money. It’s all about money when it really gets down to it.”

Leaders in the Twelve Tribes contacted by The Post either declined to comment or spoke only briefly to defend the group and its practices. A leader with the Boulder County community declined to allow The Post to visit the group’s compound, and the organization did not answer emailed questions about its labor practices.

“My perspective is it’s only wonderful and that’s really all I can say,” said Tim Pendergrass, a current leader who lives in a Florida commune.

In Colorado, the Twelve Tribes owns and operates the Yellow Deli in Boulder and Maté Factor Café in Manitou Springs.

The deli was open 24/7 before the Marshall fire but now operates with limited hours, and has long struggled to turn a profit, said a former 20-year member who once lived in Boulder and who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect family still in the cult. The café in Manitou Springs is one of the Twelve Tribes’ more profitable restaurants because it has a simple menu and can be run by just a couple of people, the ex-member said.

In Kansas, the Twelve Tribes operates an organic sprouts farm and sells the sprouts under the brand name ChloroFields, state business records show.

Most of the Colorado communities’ money comes from construction companies, the ex-member said. One such business, Commonwealth Services LLC, was formed in 2016 and registered to member Matthew Morgan at the group’s Boulder County compound on Eldorado Springs Drive, according to records from the Colorado Secretary of State’s Office. The business uses the trade name CWS Excavating; its website says it’s a “family-owned and operated septic installation company.”

It’s one of a number of construction companies the Twelve Tribes has operated during the last five decades. A Massachusetts-based company, BOJ Construction LLC, pulled in several million dollars a year at its height in the early 2000s and drove the group’s funding, ex-members said. Young men in the cult would travel the country for jobs, rent a little house for everyone and work nearly around the clock without pay until the job was done.

Although the Twelve Tribes observes a day of rest on Saturday, their Sabbath, cult leadership would sometimes declare “pushes” in which working through gatherings — the group’s twice-daily worship sessions — or even on the Sabbath was allowed, Frank W. said.

“Gene (Spriggs, the founder) would say, ‘If it’s for a good cause, God will forgive us for working all the time,’” he said. “What happened, basically, was everything became a push.”

The business profits are used to pay mortgages and living expenses for the communities, the former Boulder member said. Any extra money must then be sent to the Twelve Tribes’ headquarters in Hiddenite, North Carolina, where leaders decide how it is spent.

Although cult members spend long hours staffing the businesses, each individual has very little say over how the money is used. Within each community, one person is designated as being in charge of “personal needs,” and any individual purchases must go through that person, the ex-Boulder member said.

A few years ago, he ran a construction company that made $3 million or $4 million in revenue annually, he said, which paid for about $10,000 in monthly expenses for the community he lived in at the time. Then he’d send whatever was left to Hiddenite, he said.

“I started that business and ran it all, but I was having a hard time buying socks for my daughter,” he said. “That is what I mean about not paying labor. You’re eating millet for breakfast and you can’t buy clothes for your kids.”

In the early days, cult members could keep property or assets in their own names when they joined the group, but that practice was frowned on after some members left and took their assets with them. The leaders of the Twelve Tribes began to favor limited liability companies instead.
Freshly baked breads are displayed on ...
Charles Krupa, The Associated Press
Freshly baked breads are displayed on a shelf at the Blue Blinds Bakery on July 13, 2016, in Plymouth, Mass. The bakery is owned by the Twelve Tribes. About three weeks before the photo was taken, messages began to appear on the bakery’s Facebook page accusing the sect of child abuse and racism. The group denies the allegations.

Vulnerable recruiting pool

Frank W., who went to live with the Twelve Tribes during what he described as the “ultimate midlife crisis,” allowed cult members to sort through his belongings and take what they wanted when he went to live with the group. They nabbed items like a stainless steel table and his refrigerator, he said.

“I was at my wit’s end,” he said. “Religion is the one thing I never really tried to get serious about. So I was like, ‘Oh, why not?’”

When the group kicked him out, leaders eventually agreed to give him a small sum of money, he said, on the grounds it was reimbursement for some improvements he’d made to one of the community’s homes before he went to live with the group.

“They’ll overlook a lot of potential evil in a person if you have money, skills, property,” he said. “There’s a little bit of an obsession with it.”

The Twelve Tribes tends to attract people who are down on their luck, struggling to function in society or even running from the law, ex-members said. The cult used to send a bus to follow Grateful Dead concert tours; Twelve Tribes members would offer first aid, cookies and tea to the band’s hardcore fans.

“People would come on (the bus) and you’d hope they would say, ‘Who the (expletive) are you?’ And you could tell them,” said ex-member Lev David, who lives in Massachusetts. “You didn’t come out and say, ‘Hey we’re a religious organization, we’re looking for recruits.’ You didn’t preach to people.”

David, 52, spoke on the condition he be identified by his Twelve Tribes name, not his legal name, because people in his life now do not know about his past. He joined the cult out of high school in 1987 and left in 2007, after marrying and having four children inside.

During the last five years at the two compounds in Colorado, law enforcement has responded to reports of people arriving at the Twelve Tribes with stolen property and with guns, records show. Cult members have called for help removing trespassers. Family members with relatives in the cult have asked police to check on their loved ones.

In April 2020, 48-year-old Christopher Walker was reported as missing from the Twelve Tribes’ compound in Manitou Springs after he packed a bag, went for a walk and did not return. When he was spotted by police five days after he’d disappeared, Walker said he’d been camping in a cave because he “needed a break from the Twelve Tribes.”

Walker’s father, Ken Walker, said his son lives with bipolar disorder and struggles with homelessness. Christopher Walker lived with the Twelve Tribes for about 18 months, his father said.

“For one-and-a-half years I knew he was safe; he gained 30 pounds,” Ken Walker said. “It’s my impression of the Twelve Tribes that they provide needed services, given how the homeless are treated. They will feed anybody, they will put them up, they will give them something to do.”

He compared his son’s status in the group to that of an “indentured servant,” and said when his son decided to leave, the Twelve Tribes psychologically pressured him to stay, but did nothing else to try to stop him.

“He went in with nothing and he left with nothing,” Ken Walker said. “It’s a great deal if you don’t have anything.”

His son did not return requests for comment.

Many in the Twelve Tribes are earnest, hardworking people who are genuinely trying to do good in the world, ex-members said. There’s a divide in the group between leaders and non-leaders, with constant shifts in the in-crowd and the out-crowd.

“Had I not been in a position of authority or government, at all these (leadership) meetings, I might not have ever left,” ex-member Luke Wiseman said. “I was fine with the lifestyle. It was all I knew. We had a culture, a network, camaraderie, you had a sense that you weren’t all alone. They cared about you and cared what you were doing. But once you are not loyal or once you disagree, all that goes out the window.”

Child labor allegations

Twelve Tribes members’ lives are dominated by work from a young age.

The ex-Boulder member who left in 2016 worked in a factory beginning when he was 13, he said. He did not live in Colorado at the time. His days started with a mandatory 6 a.m. gathering, then he’d head to the factory until 5 p.m. He’d go to the evening gathering again at 6 p.m. and then back to work from about 7:30 p.m. until 10 or 11 p.m., he said.

The Twelve Tribes eventually began referring to such work as apprenticeships.

“What they call apprenticeships is just working in the industry,” he said. “We stopped school at 12 or 13, and that’s pretty much everybody.”

John I. Post, a former member born into the group who left when he was 19, said he began working in the cult’s bakeries and restaurants at age 7.

“School for the children wasn’t a real priority,” he said. “They encouraged all the kids to go to work. That was the focus.”

Former member Jason Wolfe, 46, who previously lived in Colorado, said he began working construction at 13 and was running 40-man crews on commercial sites by 16. His young age was no secret; he remembered a meeting with the owner of another construction company after he turned 19.

“He goes, ‘So Jason, how old are you now?’” Wolfe said. “And I said, ‘I’m 19.’ And he’s like, ‘Congratulations, after five years of being 18, you finally turned 19.’”

The Twelve Tribes is highly patriarchal, and while boys worked outside of the communities, girls spent their time working inside the compounds.

Alina Anderson, who requested to be identified by her middle name and former married name, is pictured at her apartment in Boulder on Feb. 1, 2022. She grew up in the Twelve Tribes religious sect before escaping as a teenager.

After she was kicked out of school, Anderson spent her time doing chores, including preparing meals for about 100 people each day and doing laundry for two single men.

“When I say making lunch, it’s not as simple as going into the kitchen and everything is there,” she said. “It’s, OK, you’re making tomato sandwiches. You make the bread from scratch… then you run outside to the garden and you pick all the tomatoes, then you come in and you wash them, and you run out of time so you just set a cutting board on the table with a bowl of tomatoes… and you make the mayonnaise yourself, too.”

When she left the cult and flew to Colorado just weeks after 9/11, she had no idea the terrorist attack had even happened.

The cult’s labor practices have landed it in hot water in the past — the group faced citations for failing to pay the minimum wage in California in 2008, and for child labor law violations in New York in 2018 after “Inside Edition” obtained hidden camera footage of children working in a production plant.

Cult leaders have defended their unpaid employees as volunteers, and said the “Inside Edition” footage was taken out of context. The Twelve Tribes also operates a nonprofit corporation called T.H.E. Community Apostolic Order. The Twelve Tribes did not respond to a request from The Post to provide the nonprofit’s tax returns.

It’s generally not legal for anyone to work for free, said Scott Moss, director of the division of labor standards and statistics in the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

“There is no religious exception to the minimum wage,” he said.

Workers can’t be unpaid in exchange for room and board, he said. In some situations, Colorado employers can pay employees less than the minimum wage if they provide room and board, but only to a limited degree, and only if the room and board is optional for the employees. An employer also can’t pay employees with the expectation that employees then give their paychecks back to the company, he said.

“Employees can donate to anyone, but if it is a requirement or expectation of keeping your job, and if, in reality, an employee would not keep their job if they did not ‘donate it back,’ then it is not a donation,” Moss said.

Volunteers don’t have to be paid, but people who perform core work for an establishment that provides services to the public and competes with other businesses don’t qualify as volunteers, he said.

“If you’re volunteering at a church’s soup kitchen, that is volunteering,” he said. “If you’re volunteering at a church’s pizzeria that is open to the public and competes with other pizzerias down the street and is doing what other pizzerias do, then that is work.”

Moss added that while child labor laws vary, “under age 9, generally you cannot be employed at anything.”

The Colorado Department of Labor and Employment has no records of past complaints or investigations into the Yellow Deli in Boulder or the Maté Factor in Manitou Springs, Moss said. Neither did Boulder County’s Community Protection Division.

In 2017, Boulder’s Yellow Deli faced potential closure after the building’s condo association attempted to amend the building’s constitution to prevent the restaurant from operating 24/7, citing concerns about homeless people gathering there, the Daily Camera reported. A year after that effort failed, the condo association considered doubling the money the Yellow Deli paid for its share of the building’s costs, the newspaper reported.

At the time, Andrew Wolfe — Jason Wolfe’s father — told the newspaper that the restaurant was supporting seven families in the Twelve Tribes.

Businesses, like a person’s assigned community, were used as a means of control in the Twelve Tribes, ex-members said.

Lower-status members were sent to poorer, less desirable communities. If a person’s business became particularly successful, leaders would give that person a new assignment. If leadership caught wind that a family was contemplating leaving the cult, they might separate the family, sending the wife and children to one community and the husband to another, ex-members said. Or they might fly in a person’s parents from another community, to try to talk the person into staying.

“The only way to get out of there with a family is to sneak and make it so they have no idea at all you want to leave,” the ex-member who left in 2016 said.

Money worked the same way. Wolfe remembered earning $350,000 on a construction project in the early 2000s and being ordered to send it to Twelve Tribes members in Florida, where several members were attempting to build two high-rise condo buildings in Fort Myers.

Dubbed the Cypress Club, that project flopped in spectacular fashion. In February 2002, three members of the Twelve Tribes spent $680,000 to buy a historic former American Legion building along the waterfront in Fort Myers, with public plans to turn the property into a community home for the group.

Two months after they inked the deal, the 77-year-old building burned to the ground in what authorities deemed a deliberately-set fire, according to news reports in the Fort Myers News-Press.

The Tribes members denied setting the blaze — “I loved that building,” one man told the News-Press — and no one from the group was charged.

Within two years, the Twelve Tribes was selling buyers on a high-rise condo project on the property. Working under several limited liability companies, the group promised to build two 32-story buildings with 292 condos, and pre-sold a number of units to fund the project.

Pilings went into the ground — and that was it. The real estate market crashed, and, in 2009, the Twelve Tribes offered buyers a quarter of their deposit money back as they conceded the project would never be built. Some funders sued, as did the bank that funded the project, for $11.8 million. The Tribes eventually sold the property.

Nationwide real estate

Across the United States, the Twelve Tribes owns at least 66 properties worth about $36 million, real estate records show.

Most properties are held in limited liability companies. In the U.S., the group is affiliated with at least 30 limited liability companies that own 52 properties worth about $30 million, records show. Another 14 properties, worth about $5.5 million, are owned by 14 individual cult members.

In Boulder County, the group’s property along Eldorado Springs Drive is owned by two limited liability companies. One belongs to a single member of the Twelve Tribes — Caitlin Toomim, the granddaughter of Houston couple Shirley and David Toomim, whose family helped found Star Furniture, a company estimated to have revenue in the hundreds of millions of dollars in 2020.

Caitlin Toomim joined the Twelve Tribes about 10 years ago with several million dollars in a trust fund, said the former 20-year member who lived in Boulder.

She used the trust-fund money from her grandfather to buy the Boulder properties, said her mother, Penny Toomim. County real estate records show Caitlin Toomim’s LLC purchased the Boulder properties for $1.4 million in 2014.

Penny Toomim said in a brief phone conversation in January that her daughter had a difficult childhood, and that she seems safe and happy with her life in the Twelve Tribes, where she married and has three “well-behaved” children. Caitlin Toomim used to live with the Twelve Tribes in Boulder, her mother said.

“In the beginning, I was going to go kidnap her and bring her home,” Penny Toomim said. She moved from Texas to New York, where her daughter lives, to be closer to her after she joined the group. “But there is nothing wrong with them. I mean, other than some of their beliefs.”

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