Mar 4, 2024

Former 'cult leader' loses defamation trial against book author

Benjamin Seeder
The Advocate
March 4 2024

The former head of the Universal Knowledge new age organisation has failed in her libel claim against former acolyte and book author Carli McConkey.

In his decision published on Monday, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Estcourt ruled that all of the imputations against alleged ex cult leader Natasha Lakaev were either true or substantially true.

Ms Lakaev sued Ms McConkey for defamation in the Tasmanian Supreme Court, after the publication of her book, 'The Cult Effect', in 2017.

The much-delayed trial began last year, and the court heard testimony that Ms Lakaev had claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ as well as one of 12 members of the 'Intergalactic Council of the Universe'.

During the trial, claims emerged that Ms Lakaev's Universal Knowledge organisation had prophesised the end of the world in 2012, and had offered courses to followers that taught them how to survive the end of times by switching dimensions.

Followers paid tens of thousands of dollars to access various courses, were subject to abuse and exposed to gay pornography, the trial heard.

The court heard that Ms Lakaev had raised over $400,000 from members who became shareholders in Universal Knowledge, and that Ms Lakaev admitted that none of these investors had seen a return.

Another former member testified that in one five-hour session in the late 1990s, participants were encouraged to abuse and bully a woman; a noose was then hung as encouragement for the woman to kill herself.

During the trial, Ms Lakaev, who now lives in Geeveston, south of Hobart, denied burning down the garage of her own bed and breakfast business to collect $80,000 in insurance money.

Ms Lakaev denied that Universal Knowledge members were indoctrinated, and that she ran a cult.

She also denied encouraging drug use among the members, and denied a claim that a pregnant woman was pinned under gym mats and suffocated as part of one course.

In his decision, published on Monday, Justice Estcourt found all of the imputations published in Ms McConkey's book and associated newspaper articles were either wholly true or substantially true.

"I have no difficulty in finding that the plaintiff wrongfully indoctrinated people," Justice Estcourt wrote.

"I have not the slightest doubt that the plaintiff knowingly and wrongfully indoctrinated people into her bizarre belief system."

He found that the imputation from the book that Ms Lakaev had "battered" Ms McConkey and others was absolutely true.

Justice Estcourt found that both Ms Lakaev and her witnesses were unreliable.

"I regard the plaintiff as a dishonest and unreliable witness and the people she called to give evidence as part of her case as not independent witnesses," he wrote.

Justice Estcourt wrote that he was persuaded to a "very high level of satisfaction" that Ms Lakaev was an "arrant liar".

"In my view her evidence, where it differs from that of the defendant or her witnesses, should not be accepted unless it is supported by truly independent evidence or by ontologically objective fact."

Justice Estcourt also found true that Dr Lakaev was a bully, and unlawfully obtained financial advantages from her cult members.

Universal Knowledge's predecessor organisation was founded in the 1990s and was based in rural NSW.

My MP husband Andrew Bridgen was captured by antivax 'cult'

The opera singer Nevena Bridgen lived a glamorous life attending high-profile events and rubbing shoulders with prime ministers. But then, she says, her husband became ‘radicalised’

Caroline Wheeler, Political Editor
The Sunday Times
March 02 2024

Andrew Bridgen was in Sweden speaking at an event hosted by Robert F Kennedy Jr’s antivax group while his young son was at home facing a medical crisis.

The former Conservative MP, who has become a leading voice in the global campaign against vaccinations, ignored frantic calls from his wife, Nevena, as their five-year-old’s health deteriorated, she claims.

Nevena, whose family hail from Serbia, was alone in London with her sick child, going backwards and forwards to the hospital, while she says her husband was on the streets of Sweden “acting as an antivax revolutionary and neglecting his son during a health emergency”.

It was the moment Nevena, 43, finally concluded that her husband had been captured by what she considers a“cult”.

Today, she reveals how her marriage and life have been torn apart by a “sect” she claims has “taken over” her husband.

She said: “The first alarming sign of radicalisation was when it was obvious that he was turning on us, when our child got terribly ill … There was no way of pleading with him. The human cost of radicalisation and the devastating impact it can have on individuals and their families, and in this case, our family, was spelled out for me for the first time in bold colours.”

Nevena, a classically-trained opera singer, who filed for divorce this month, claims she and her son have been left homeless after her marriage to Bridgen, 59, broke down and he “abandoned them”.

She also criticises the Conservative Party and the parliamentary authorities for failing to protect him from “radicalisation”.

In January last year he was suspended from the party after sharing a post on Twitter/X comparing Covid-19 vaccines to the Holocaust. A few months later he was permanently expelled and now serves as an independent MP for North West Leicestershire.

Her interview paints a picture of the paranoia and misinformation that fuels the antivax movement. She alleges her husband was told by his new friends to cut her adrift because she was an MI6 spy.

Speaking in a hotel by the Palace of Westminster, where she once rubbed shoulders with prime ministers and senior members of the government, Nevena said: “The antivax conspiracy theorist movement destroyed my life when Andrew became their foot soldier.”

She claims that he is willing to put indoctrination and the extremist ideology of the movement above his wife and an innocent child. She believes he needed to “get rid of her” as she did not “fully align with his extremist beliefs”.

“I watched my life shatter into pieces as I lost access to the household bank account … and kicked out on the street with a child just in time for Christmas,” she said.

Bridgen is building “Andrew’s Army” to mobilise support for him and his antivax views before the general election. He launched a website last week urging people to become his “foot soldiers” to help him “overturn the old political order”.

“Being a phone soldier in Andrew’s Army will require courage,” he writes. “It will not be for the faint-hearted. But if you share my convictions about the issues I raise and you want to ensure I can get through to my constituents despite the ever intensifying attempts to cancel me, become a phone soldier in Andrew’s Army today.”

Bridgen appears to have become radicalised to the antivax cause over several years. He has tweeted about the Covid-19 jab more than 100 times since 2022, when he first began to warn of alleged vaccine harms. After previously encouraging his social media followers to get vaccinated, he advocated for a “common sense” approach — opposing booster jabs for anyone over the age of 12.

By July 2022, his position had begun to harden. He warned on Twitter/X that “no one outside a vulnerable group should be boosted. No healthy children should be vaccinated.” In December that year, Bridgen called for the vaccine to be suspended.

A few months into 2023, Bridgen began to slip into conspiracy theories. Posting on Twitter/X in September, he claimed that Pfizer had “switched” the medically approved vaccine for an untested variant. Later, he alleged the vaccines were “defective”.

Last February, he hosted a dinner at the exclusive Carlton Club, from where he is allegedly now banned, for “vaccine sceptics”. They included John Mappin, a hotelier in Cornwall who said that mask-wearing and the jabs rollout were a “holocaust of the mind” and claimed the Duke of Edinburgh died as a result of being vaccinated. Robert Malone, a vaccine-sceptic doctor, was invited to give “evidence of the harms that the injections have done to innocent civilians”.

Bridgen has since shared a platform with Meryl Nass, who had her licence as a doctor in the US state of Maine suspended during the pandemic over the sharing of misinformation, and Philipp Kruse, a Swiss lawyer associated with an anti-vaccine group.

He has brought his views to Westminster. In an outburst in the Commons last week, Bridgen asked for a debate on “crimes against humanity and the appropriate punishment for those who perpetrate, collude in and cover up atrocities and crimes so severe that the ultimate punishment may be required”.

In response, Penny Mordaunt, leader of the House of Commons, cautioned him to “reflect on his own behaviour and what he does on social media, and on the security measures that have had to be stepped up for MPs in the wake of some of his social media tweets and questions”. She added: “I am going to call out, on every occasion, when he does things that I think are a danger to our democracy.”

Nevena claims Bridgen is a different man to the one she met more than seven years ago when she was at the height of her success as an international opera singer.

Her first steps towards a singing career began in 1999 when she was 18 years old in the bomb shelters of Belgrade. Her talent was spotted by a professor at the Belgrade music academy, who offered to give the promising young soprano some lessons if they managed to leave the shelter alive. She eventually completed her formal training in Serbia before studying for a master’s degree at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. She lived in the British capital, where her sister, Ksenija, was a student at the London School of Economics, for a further six years before returning to the national opera in Belgrade in 2014.

Two years later, during a brief trip to London, she was introduced to Bridgen by a mutual acquaintance. She was in rehearsals for a new production of Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi, in which she was playing a leading role. Back in Belgrade, Nevena struck up an increasingly close friendship with Bridgen over long telephone calls and he offered to come to Belgrade in late 2016 to see her perform.

Nevena recalled: “It was a great surprise to me because he has never been to Belgrade, he’d never been to Serbia, and I thought it was very brave to sit on the plane and just come. But we clicked and we became very close over a very short period of time and it really felt like there was a connection; we both wanted the same things out of life in terms of wanting to have a family, wanting to have a relationship and something meaningful.”

In April 2017, Bridgen proposed in the heart of Belgrade’s old town. They married in the Serbian capital later that month and Nevena moved to England in the summer. Their son was born on September 8, 2018, but the cracks had begun to appear. It was the height of the fallout from Brexit and the stress appeared to take its toll on Bridgen.

Nevena claims that during her lengthy labour he told her she was “not a spring chicken” and, the moment they arrived home from hospital, he rushed off to meet Theresa May.

With Bridgen often away at work, Nevena said she felt like a “single parent who was married”. Prevented from working here and unable to drive his car, she grew to feel completely dependent on her husband, who gave her a limited monthly allowance for her and her baby to live on. She also relied on a small salary from her work as an opera singer in Belgrade, which she was forced to give up when her son began school.

While being married to Bridgen meant she was invited to high-profile events and was introduced to several prime ministers, Nevena still felt isolated. She decided to set up her own support group and lifestyle blog, the Wives of Westminster, intended to be a vehicle for female empowerment.

The couple were also mired in a legal battle with Bridgen’s younger brother, Paul. The dispute was over the Bridgen family business, AB Produce, which supplies potatoes and other vegetables to catering companies. In 2022, the MP and his family were ordered to vacate his £1.5 million constituency home with a swimming pool and stables, set in 5.5 acres in the Leicestershire village of Coleorton.

Bridgen was eventually forced to borrow at least £3.9 million from a former Tory donor to help fund the legal battle. “We were always under pressure,” said Nevena. “It was really tough but there was always this promise of a normal life and that there would be a silver lining.”

Instead, Bridgen began to descend into antivax conspiracies. An early lockdown sceptic, he then turned to so-called vaccine “damages”. The Independent reported that he badgered government ministers for months over the issue. He also frequently retweeted claims by Aseem Malhotra, a cardiologist and anti-vaccine campaigner who has been accused of promoting misleading information about the safety of Covid vaccines, after the pair met at the launch of the all-party parliamentary group on Covid-19 vaccine damage in July 2022.

In a Commons adjournment debate before Christmas 2022, Bridgen reiterated his call for vaccinations to end: “Three months ago, one of the most eminent and trusted cardiologists, a man with an international reputation, Dr Aseem Malhotra, published peer-reviewed research that concluded that there should be a complete cessation of the administration of the Covid mRNA vaccines for everyone because of clear and robust data of significant harms and little ongoing benefit.”

Bridgen said that a senior British Heart Foundation figure was involved in “covering up clear data that reveals that the mRNA vaccine increases inflammation of the heart arteries” — something the charity “categorically” denied.

Bridgen, who is understood to deny belonging to or being associated with any “sect” or “cult”, says that this work is aimed at safeguarding the health and safety of the constituents who voted for him.

The first “red flag” for Nevena came when she heard him speaking to a group on a Zoom call while at her sister’s flat in Washington DC during the Christmas holidays in 2022. She said it was the first sign she saw he was being influenced.

“It was crazy, they were talking about crimes against humanity and someone saying that this was all done to eradicate the population,” she said. “They went on to say something along the lines of ‘You have to do your job now and call out the mainstream media and tell people the truth. This is your mission.’ The person spoke of a global military alliance. They were basically encouraging insurrection and saying the military should take this into their own hands.”

After he finished the call, she says she demanded that he stop. She asked him how he could put himself in a position like this, because they could have been recording him to use as blackmail. “I was trying to offer him advice but he didn’t take it.”

Days after parliament returned in January 2023, Bridgen was suspended from the Conservative Party after tweeting a vaccine efficacy chart with the caption: “As one consultant said to me, this is the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust.”

In April, he was permanently expelled, joining Laurence Fox’s right-wing Reclaim Party a month later but leaving in December.

Nevena claims being ousted from the Tories sealed her family’s fate. “The Conservative Party didn’t deal with this properly,” she alleges. “They didn’t pick up the early signs of indoctrination and radicalisation. The way they dealt with him was to cancel him — and that was the moment it opened the doors for all these people to come in.

“Suddenly there were all these people coming into our lives and taking over. There is this parallel reality that is very present out there. And I’m in the middle of it all trying desperately to keep our family together.”

Nevena believes Bridgen is unlikely to be the last MP to be targeted by conspiracy theorist groups. “There is no system to protect MPs from these kinds of things,” she said. “They [the Conservative Party] just accelerated his radicalisation and pushed him further down the road. Once he was out of the Conservative Party, he was a free agent, a target of the ‘antivax cult’. And now he’s not just an MP any more, he’s also the international leader of these groups.”

Nevena claims Bridgen would frequently meet antivax “whistleblowers” in the middle of the night. “There was no longer time for me or his child,” she said. “He just spent time with these people and then he would come home and dump all this paralysing fear on me, telling me that we were all going to die in five years’ time. If I refused to listen he would get aggravated. I became a person he no longer trusted.”

Nevena claims the “scales [finally] fell” from her eyes last autumn when he attended the conference, arranged by Robert F Kennedy Jr’s antivax group Children’s Health Defense, in Sweden. During his absence the couple’s son became unwell and his health quickly deteriorated. She claims that despite repeated attempts to ask Bridgen to return home, he did not — even as his son lay gravely ill in hospital.

Facebook posts show Bridgen speaking at events and enjoying dinners in Sweden. “That was the moment where I felt he was putting the ideology before the health and wellbeing of his child and showed the full neglect of his parental responsibilities,” Nevena said.

When Bridgen returned home after more than a week’s absence, Nevena confronted him about his behaviour. His response shocked her. She claims he told her that the whole of “humanity was at stake” and if he succeeded he would be saving the world — something he hoped his son would one day be proud of. Nevena said: “I felt like I was in that Matrix film and that he was telling me he was the chosen one. Except this is not a blockbuster movie, this is my life.”

Not long afterwards, she claims Bridgen convinced her to give up the tenancy on their Westminster taxpayer-funded flat to look for a new home. The couple signed the lease on a new flat not long before Nevena flew back to Belgrade for her aunt’s funeral. She claims that on the day of the funeral, Bridgen texted Nevena to say he had cancelled the lease on the new flat — effectively leaving her and her son homeless. He also blocked her number, leaving her no way to contact him.

She claims the only money she had was £1,200 he had transferred into her personal account, although Bridgen claims she has always had access to her own funds.

“I was slowly rolling into homelessness because on December 21 our tenancy would run out on the existing Westminster flat and we had nowhere else to go,” she said. Bridgen disputes this account of events last year.

Nevena believes Bridgen wanted to force her and her son, who is British and in full-time education here, to return to Belgrade. “He knows I can’t rent because I don’t have the money to put down a deposit.”

Nevena began talking to charities about finding a homeless shelter and signing up for universal credit.Bridgen insists he has never stopped any payments for his son.“The last three prime ministers and half of the government were sending cards and congratulations to celebrate the birth of our child,” Nevena said. “I was supposed to be part of a political circle and a community who knew me and my child since the day he was born and yet I found myself about to be put out on the street with absolutely no support.”

Nevena’s sister came to her rescue. She cashed in her life savings and put down a year’s rent on a flat for Nevena and her son so they could remain in London. They only have a few pieces of furniture.

Nevena is now looking for a job and claiming benefits, while Bridgen pays her a monthly sum towards the upkeep of their child. He does not pay towards Nevena’s living costs and claims she still has access to her small salary as an opera singer — something she disputes.

In contrast, Bridgen still lives with all the trappings of an MP’s lifestyle. In mid-December, he won his case against his brother and claims he will soon be the 100 per cent shareholder of the multimillion-pound business.

Of the conspiracy theories that Nevena believes drove a wedge between her and Bridgen, she says: “Parliament doesn’t have the systems in place to deal with things like that and to guard MPs against it. They didn’t recognise it and they let him slide into this. I was fighting the cult and now me and my child are the collateral.”

The Conservative Party was contacted for a response but declined comment. However, a source questioned what action the party could have taken.

Former 'cult' leader Natasha Lakaev loses Tas defamation trial

‘Given to grandiosity’: Judge slams former ‘cult’ leader Natasha Lakaev as she loses Tas defamation trial

A former “cult leader” now living in the Huon Valley has failed in her latest defamation battle, with a Hobart judge slamming her as an “arrant liar” and finding all claims made about her were true.

Amber Wilson
The Mercury 
March 4, 2024

A former “cult leader” now living in Tasmania has failed in her latest defamation legal battle, with a Hobart judge slamming her as an “arrant liar” who “wrongfully indoctrinated people into her bizarre belief system”.

Natasha Lakaev, the former leader of NSW organisation Universal Knowledge, moved to Geeveston some years ago and is now the proprietor of bed and breakfast, The Bears Went Over The Mountain.

Her unsuccessful defamation claim against former acolyte Carli McConkey comes after a lengthy 34-day trial in the Supreme Court of Tasmania, which aired dozens of bizarre claims – including that Lakaev claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus Christ, “one of 12 on the “Intergalactic Council of the Universe”, and that she’d been “a lady in waiting in Atlantis”.

It was also alleged Dr Lakaev claimed she came from the “bird tribes” from a different dimension and remembered all of her past lives.

During the trial, Dr Lakaev admitted that her personal improvement courses had included “genital rubbing” and the watching of porn, and told the court she had saved the life of her terminally-ill baby son by giving him herbal remedies.

Dr Lakaev denied during the trial that one of her sub-companies, Lightspeed, had been a “psychic horse-betting scheme”, but claimed instead it was a gambling system based on a “very clever mathematical system” by a “very intelligent” man, who had since died.

In his newly-published judgment, Justice Stephen Estcourt has ruled in favour of Ms McConkey, finding all claims she made about Dr Lakaev in her self-published book The Cult Effect, in newspaper articles reproduced within the book, and via social media posts, were either absolutely or substantially true.

Agreeing with Ms McConkey’s claims and finding her to be a truthful and reliable witness, he found it absolutely true that Dr Lakaev was indeed “a cult leader” who “wrongfully indoctrinated people into her bizarre belief system” and who physically assaulted her followers.

He also found it true that Dr Lakaev was a criminal, that she used and encouraged others in her cult to use illicit drugs, that she was a bully, and unlawfully obtained financial advantages from her cult members.

Justice Estcourt found it was substantially true that Dr Lakaev was a “violent extremist” and that she was not a fit and proper person to practise as a psychologist.

He praised Ms McConkey – who represented herself during the trial – for her honesty, for her keeping of extensive documentation, and her ability to remain unshaken during cross-examination.

“I could not have been more impressed with the defendant’s evidence,” Justice Estcourt said.

In contrast, he described Lakaev as having given “frequent garrulous and seemingly interminable and convoluted answers to questions asked of her” in court and at times spoke in a “rambling, self-aggrandising” manner.

Justice Estcourt said Lakaev “was given to grandiosity” and “untruthful exaggeration” when it came to discussing her “powers as a healer and self-healer” – and said he was unconvinced by her denials that she’d ever claimed to be a reincarnation of Jesus.

He said her evidence, given over 17 days of cross-examination, showed a lack of candour and persuaded him, “to a very high level of satisfaction” that Lakaev was an “arrant liar”.

Justice Estcourt also ruled that Lakaev pay Ms McConkey’s costs in fighting the defamation case.

The current case was the latest in a string of defamation battles waged by Dr Lakaev, including proceedings against A Current Affair, Bond University, other former followers, Fairfax Media, News Corp, and a United States dance school.

Mar 3, 2024

Inside an Internet Cult: Missing Persons, Nude Meditation, Desperate Families

Six people suddenly vanished from a home in Missouri in August. Police believe alleged cult leader Rashad Jamal links them

Liam Quinn
March 3, 2024


Cartisha Morgan first noticed something was different about her daughter Ma’Kayla, a young single mother of a toddler, when Ma’Kayla gave her a candle as a birthday present. They year before, Ma'Kayla had given Morgan a Michael Kors bag.

“I don’t do candles or crystals,” Morgan says.

Up until that point, Ma’Kayla Wickerson, 24, wasn’t really into that stuff either. But she was becoming overwhelmed by motherhood. Still living with her mother and then 2-year-old daughter, Malaiyah, in the St. Louis area, Ma’Kayla started dressing in more off-beat clothing and began seeing a psychic. At the time, though, Morgan had no indication she was involved in anything potentially dangerous.

Ma’Kayla further surprised her mother when in Nov. 2022, she announced that she and Malaiyah were moving into a rented home in Berkeley, Mo., not far from St. Louis Lambert International Airport. 

Morgan was happy for her daughter at first, but in March, she was informed by Ma’Kayla's employer that she had stopped showing up to her well-paying job. When Morgan went over to the Berkeley house to ask her daughter what was going on, she was instead met by a man she’d never seen before holding a gun. He wouldn’t let her in and Ma’Kayla wouldn’t come out to speak to her mother face-to-face.

“I haven’t seen her or Malaiyah since then,” Morgan says. 

Five months after that encounter, Ma’Kayla, now 26, Malaiyah, 3, and the four other residents of that home vanished without a trace. Police who searched the home soon discovered the identities of the other missing individuals: Naaman Williams, 29; Mikayla Thompson, 24; Gerrielle German, 27; and her 3-year-old son Ashton Mitchell.

Investigators believe the group to be followers of Rashad Jamal, who is currently serving a prison sentence in Georgia following a 2023 child molestation conviction. He has not been charged in connection with any of the disappearances.

The six missing persons were last seen on surveillance video at a store in Florissant, Mo., on Aug. 6, 2023. Maj. Steve Runge, the lead investigator for the Berkeley Police Department, asserts that the six are a part of a cult, and that they don’t want to be found. Before that, neighbors reported seeing the group meditating in the backyard, sometimes in the nude, a ritual allegedly in line with Jamal's beliefs.

Runge has been investigating the six and thus Jamal over the past seven months. Jamal, whose legal name is Rashad Jamal White, is a Chicago native. He moved to Atlanta to pursue a music career under the name Jeda D, but his music ambitions never took off. In 2020, however, Jamal started to develop a following on his Facebook live streams, preaching conspiracy theories and other unconventional ideas, including one on how the government uses devices meant to look like pigeons to spy on people. 

“He calls himself a god,” Runge says.

The ideas, also featured on various social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, include musings on natural phenomena, Black history and mythology, says his former girlfriend Darshell Smith, who is also the mother of his young son.

“I didn’t want to hear anything he had to say on that,” Smith tells PEOPLE. “It sounded like gibberish.”

Jamal’s influence persists, despite his various legal troubles. Having previously pleaded guilty to a domestic battery charge in Wisconsin in 2017, Jamal was convicted in 2023 for sexually abusing a 10-year-old girl.

Smith, who still faces threats online from Jamal’s followers, has since started a GoFundMe for her children and is writing a book on her experiences, called Incomplete Shellz: The Breaking of a Chrysalis.

Jamal has been in custody since his arrest in 2022, yet he has over 100,000 followers across his various social media platforms. His school of thought is known as the University of Cosmic Intelligence, which according to its website is “geared toward enlightening and illuminating minds.”

Thousands have added their signatures to different online petitions calling for his release. Unable to conduct interviews because of his terms of confinement, Jamal, speaking through a spokesperson, “vehemently denies” being a cult leader.

“Rashad Jamal is a devoted father and husband, who has tirelessly advocated for peace and social justice,” his publicist Tay Yoncé tells PEOPLE in a statement. “His teachings have always been rooted in love, unity and enlightenment, and he is deeply troubled by the distressing events surrounding these allegations.”

Reuben Mitchell, who lives in Tennessee, has been through Morgan’s ordeal before. His daughter was three years old when her mother left with her to live off the grid. Looking for answers, he says he received strange messages on Facebook referring to his daughter as a “fake child” that led him to Jamal and his teaching, which he believes his daughter’s mother fell into.

Mitchell filed for emergency custody, which was granted, and eventually his daughter was located at a school in Washington, D.C. When he drove down to reunite with her, she was shocked to see him, having been told that her father was dead.

“She’s resilient,” Mitchell says. “I’m making sure she’s experiencing normalcy and love.”

Morgan, like Mitchell was at one point, is still stuck searching for answers and is praying for a similar outcome.

“My heart hurts so bad,” Morgan says. “I need to learn how to live while this is going on.”

If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual abuse, text "STRENGTH" to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 to be connected to a certified crisis counselor.

If you suspect child abuse, call the Childhelp National Child Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-Child or 1-800-422-4453, or go to All calls are toll-free and confidential. The hotline is available 24/7 in more than 170 languages.

Russia jails Jehovah's Witness for 8 years after 'mole' secretly films worship meeting
March 1, 2024

(Reuters) – A court in southwestern Russia has sentenced a Jehovah’s Witness to eight years in prison after finding him guilty of organising “extremist activities”, according to a spokesman for the group.

Russia’s Supreme Court designated the Christian denomination as “extremist” in 2017, liquidating and banning its nearly 400 chapters across the country.

Russia counted roughly 175,000 active believers at the time of the ban, according to the group’s Russian website. Since then, raids, interrogations and jailings of adherents have occurred with some regularity.

The case against Aleksandr Chagan, 52, was built around a “mole” who secretly filmed worship meetings held by videoconference, said the spokesman, Jarrod Lopes.

Sentenced by a court in Tolyatti on Thursday, Chagan is the sixth Witness to receive eight years, the longest term imposed since the ban, Lopes said.

Religious life in Russia is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church, which is championed by and loyal to President Vladimir Putin. Some Orthodox scholars view Jehovah’s Witnesses, known for door-to-door preaching and refusing military service, as a “totalitarian sect”.

At least 794 Witnesses have been criminally charged in Russia for their faith, and 127 are currently serving prison sentences, Lopes said.

Last month, four Witnesses in the same Russian region were handed seven-year jail terms in Samara, the same region as Chagan, while a female believer was sentenced in Tolyatti to two years’ forced labour.

The European Court of Human Rights, the court of the Council of Europe, ruled in June 2022 that the ban was illegal, three months after the Council expelled Russia over its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Mar 2, 2024


Nestled in a serene primordial forest glen, the Hermit’s Cave is one of Philadelphia’s most intriguing historical landmarks, yet most visitors come upon it by surprise or pass by it unknowingly.

Who was the Hermit?

"Johannes Kelpius, a brilliant Transylvanian scholar, led his followers to the Wissahickon wilderness in 1694 to await the end of the world. In the centuries that followed, lore and legend have surrounded this mysterious Hermit of the Wissahickon.  His historic and symbolic significance has inspired many romantic gothic stories popularized by Philadelphia authors like Edgar Allen Poe and George Lippard, but what do we really know of Kelpius and the first doomsday cult in America?

Young Kelpius was part of a radical German Pietist sect led by Johann Zimmerman called the Chapter of Perfection. Zimmerman studied the Great Comet of 1680 and believed the wonders of the sky were a sign of the end times which he determined would occur in 1694. When Zimmerman died unexpectedly, just as the sect was preparing to set sail for the New World, he bequeathed all his writings, astrolabes, telescopes, and almanacs to twenty-six-year-old Kelpius who became the de facto leader of the group.

These 40 celibate monks (all of whom were men), called themselves “The Society of the Woman of the Wilderness.” Their inspiration was based on an elaborate interpretation of the biblical passage from the Book of Revelations 12:16 in which a woman waited at the edge of the wilderness in prayer and meditation to prepare for the End of Days. They interpreted this verse to mean they should find a location at the edge of the wilderness to await the apocalypse."

Alleged cult leader 'Natureboy' learns his sentence after being found guilty of rape

11 Alive
Author: Meleah Lyden, Tracey Amick-Peer, Donesha Aldridge (11Alive)
March 1, 2024

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — A judge sentenced alleged cult leader Eligio Bishop to life without parole plus 10 years after a jury found him guilty of rape and other charges Friday. 

The 40-year-old, known as "Natureboy," is the alleged leader of the "Carbon Nation" group. He was arrested in April 2022. A grand jury later indicted him on five charges, including rape in July 2022.

Below is a breakdown of the verdict and his sentencing: 

  • Count 1 - Rape - Guilty (Sentenced to life without possibility of parole)
  • Count 2- False imprisonment - Guilty (Sentenced to 10 years, to run consecutively)
  • Count 3 - Prohibition on nude or sexually explicit electronic transmissions (12 months to serve, to run concurrent with false imprisonment sentence)
  • Count 4 - Prohibition on nude or sexually explicit electronic transmissions (Sentenced to 5 years, to run concurrent with false imprisonment sentence)
  • Count 5 - Prohibition on nude or sexually explicit electronic transmissions (Sentenced to 5 years, to run concurrent with false imprisonment sentence)

For context about this case, a former member of the alleged cult who identified herself as his girlfriend said he posted revenge porn "because she left him." Police reports detailed that the woman told authorities that "she had joined a sex cult in which her boyfriend is the leader" and that "she did live together with Mr. Bishop, and he has posted sexually explicit videos of her and him without her consent on X, formerly known as Twitter. Later, Bishop's wife and former cult member told 11Alive he had sexually and emotionally abused members.

Before the judge handed down the sentence Friday, some of the witnesses gave statements to the court, sharing some of the abuse they experienced. One of them even described Bishop as “a monster to us all."

"Now you are a prisioner, like you prisoned us," she said. 

Bishop, who the judge told to direct his comments to her, made a statement, claiming he wasn't upset. He repeated several times, "I forgive you" and "I still love you" in court.

The judge said Bishop didn't show remorse during the trial, which led to his life without parole sentence. 

“You’re a master manipulator and probably the classic definition of a narcissist," she said. 

One of the witnesses said past years are time that she will never get back, but was glad that justice was being served.

Kingston polygamist sect trafficked children, violated federal labor laws, Utah lawsuit alleges

The 10 plaintiffs are all former members of the Kingston polygamist sect.

Jordan Miller
The Salt Lake Tribune
March 2, 2024

Ten women have filed a federal racketeering lawsuit against the Kingston polygamous sect, alleging the Kingstons trafficked women and children “for decades” while acting under the pretense of a religious community.

The 136-page federal complaint filed in Utah on Wednesday names nearly 50 defendants — including at least 14 members of the Kingston family, the Davis County Cooperative Society, and Vanguard Academy, a public charter school run by the sect. The filing also lists 450 unidentified businesses as defendants that the complaint states the sect operates.

One defendant — South Salt Lake-based Standard Restaurant Supply — was cited by the federal government last year for violating child labor laws.

An attempt to reach legal counsel for the Davis County Cooperative Society, also known as the Kingston Group, was not immediately returned.

The Kingston sect was the target of a separate lawsuit filed in 3rd District Court in 2022, which outlined similar allegations of sexual abuse and trafficking, according to The Guardian. The plaintiffs in that case, many of whom are identified as plaintiffs in the federal complaint, asked to voluntarily dismiss the case last year with the intent to “include additional facts, parties and federal claims” in a separate federal complaint, court records show.

The federal complaint filed this week describes the plaintiffs as 10 young women who, “from their earliest memories until their eventual escapes, were victims of economic and sexual crimes perpetrated by ‘the Order,’ a criminal enterprise and polygamous religious sect.”

Some plaintiffs were forced to marry close relatives who beat and raped them, the complaint alleges. Others fled before “the Order” could “lock them” into similar marriages, it states.

“Almost all were denied an ordinary education, physically abused (or threatened with abuse), taught to fear outsiders, and forced to work for years of their childhoods,” the complaint states, “often in grueling jobs, with little or no pay.”

While the plaintiffs are identified in the complaint, The Salt Lake Tribune generally does not identify alleged victims of sexual abuse without their consent. A request for comment from defense attorney Roger Hoole, who is representing the plaintiffs, wasn’t immediately returned.

Of the ten women, at least four appear to be closely related to the sect’s leader, Paul Elden Kingston. The filing details allegations of sexual abuse perpetrated by members of the sect against the plaintiffs, including incest.

The suit lists 12 causes of action against the defendants, including two allegations of labor trafficking; two allegations of sex trafficking; violation of the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA); and two violations of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act.

The list continues with allegations of sexual battery and abuse of children; sexual battery and rape of adults; negligent sexual battery and abuse of a child; conversion — defined as when someone intentionally deprives another of their money; and infliction of emotional distress.

The complaint states that the plaintiffs don’t intend to “disparage the lawful religious aspects or beliefs of the Order,” noting that their allegations, including fraud, child abuse, kidnapping, child endangerment and wage theft, are instead directed at the sect’s “unlawful religious and business practices.”

“The Order engages in a systemic and systematic pattern of unlawful activity designed to enrich certain Order members at the expense of others and to grow the Order’s ranks by pushing girls and young women to have as many children as possible,” the complaint states, adding that some of the plaintiffs began working for Kingston-owned businesses when they were as young as 4 years old.

These children were also forced to commit crimes, the complaint alleges, including falsifying tax returns or destroying evidence.

“It also involves children in various business activities designed to ‘Bleed the Beast’ — that is, in the words of the Order, to defraud federal, state, and municipal government entities,” the suit alleges.

The complaint contends the defendants’ conduct was either “willful and malicious,” “intentional,” or conduct that “manifests a knowing and reckless indifference toward” and “disregard of” each plaintiff’s rights.

The lawsuit seeks a number of damages to be proven at trial, including unpaid minimum wages and overtime wages, and general and punitive damages.

U.S District Magistrate Judge Jared C. Bennett issued an order to propose a schedule for the complaint on Thursday, according to the docket.

As of Friday afternoon, no formal response had been filed by the lawsuit’s defendants, court records show.

Mar 1, 2024

Sex cult leader Eligio Bishop sentenced to life

FOX 5 News
March 1, 2024

Closing arguments end, fate of alleged cult leader 'Natureboy' Eligio Bishop now in jury's hands

The jury will start deliberations Friday.
Author: Meleah Lyden, Tracey Amick-Peer

February 29, 2024

DEKALB COUNTY, Ga. — A case involving alleged cult leader Eligio Bishop is now in the hands of the jury after the judge gave them instructions Thursday evening. The jury is expected to begin deliberations Friday morning.

The 40-year-old, known as "Natureboy," is the alleged leader of the "Carbon Nation" group. He was arrested in April 2022; a grand jury later indicted him on charges of rape, false imprisonment and three counts of prohibition on nude or sexually explicit electronic transmissions in July of 2022.

A former member of the cult who identified herself as his girlfriend said he posted revenge porn "because she left him." Police reports detailed that the woman told authorities that "she had joined a sex cult in which her boyfriend is the leader" and that "she did live together with Mr. Bishop, and he has posted sexually explicit videos of her and him without her consent on X, formerly known as Twitter. Later, Bishop's wife and former cult member told 11Alive he had sexually and emotionally abused members.

Bishop was not in the courtroom Thursday and instead decided to watch his trial from the DeKalb County Jail as he said he was afraid to be there after someone tested positive for COVID-19 this week.

The first witnesses to the defense took the stand on Thursday as well. One of them was a man who said at 17, he joined "Carbon Nation," which prosecutors argue is a cult. The witness was adamantly against this definition.

"It's a tribe. I joined a tribe of my own free will," he said.

He also claimed the rules weren't rules. Instead, they were ways they all agreed to live. One example he gave was about going to the bathroom outside. He also stated he believed Bishop to be a god -- a "messiah" -- as he called it.

Some witnesses also claimed that any violence in the group was acting in order to get more attention online.

"It was all for entertainment purpose. We decided that humanity is in a very special time right now, and we come with a very important message," a witness said.

The prosecution called out one witness who claimed violence in a video was members imitating the Will Smith and Chris Rock slapping incident from the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony. The prosecution claimed the video was from a time period before the awards show. The same witness stated she posted porn online of the victim -- not Bishop.

The defense witnesses claimed the trial against Bishop was corrupt and that people who hated their group were trying to stop them from getting their message out.

That being said, victims who testified earlier in the trial said that Bishop cut off their contact with the outside world and controlled his members.

"He considers himself to be god. He went from 'I’m your higher self' to master teacher to god. He believes he is the end all be all -- the alpha and omega," a victim stated.

In an interview with detectives from 2022 that was played in the courtroom, Bishop told detectives that he was acting and claimed any sex with him was consensual.

“Raping who? I wouldn't rape anyone. I have all of these women. Why would I rape someone? I have five women. Why would I rape a girl? I’m a lady’s man," he argued in his interview with police.

Another victim stated she joined the group in 2017 and said she was punished for breaking the rules.

"He wanted us to approach him a certain way by calling him 'my king.' There was a time I was called in a room and didn’t address him that way, and I was made to do squats -- he made his wife leave the room, and that led to him raping me," she said.

A separate victim also claimed that he posted revenge porn of her.

"After I left, Nature Boy started leaking videos of me that I didn’t want out there,” she said.

The jury is expected to be in court by 9 a.m., and they will start deliberations once everyone has arrived.




Religion Dispatches

It is more than paradoxical that an ostensibly Christian university leader would say, “We are here to put a knife to the throat of religion.” But that’s what Apostle Greg Hood, the founder of Kingdom University in Franklin, Tennessee believes so heartily he emblazoned it on a KU t-shirt.

This is not a hoax. In fact, the bloody tee epitomizes the paradoxes of the New Apostolic Reformation—a movement that says it means to bust out of the “demonic prison” of  religion, knives out. Religion is, of course, one of the seven mountains of culture that NAR seeks to conquer to achieve Christian dominion (the other six being government, family, education, business, media, and arts & entertainment). The rhetoric they employ when discussing how to do it can be violent, if not always t-shirt worthy. But understanding the paradox of religion killing religion helps us understand this campaign for a paradigmatic change in the direction of American and world Christianity.

There’s a certain tension in the NAR, between the metaphorical and the physical; the hyperbolic and the actual. But most often, these are not mutually exclusive. 

They are unambiguous about seeking to remove “demonic obstacles” to the re-emergence of what, in their view, is the church as intended by Jesus. They call this first century-style church “the Ekklesia”—which is Greek for church. The demonic infrastructure impeding God’s intentions for the Ekklesia includes religious institutions; church offices and leaders; denominations; and, not only denominational doctrines, but even traditional prayers. (And, of course, everyone who doesn’t share their religious and political views.)

“Religion when pure is very powerful,” writes Apostle Chuck Pierce in his introduction to the late C. Peter Wagner’s 2005 book, Freedom from the Religious Spirit: Understanding How Deceptive Religious Forces Try to Destroy God’s Plan and Purpose for His Church. “However,” he adds, “religion is also defined as an organized system of doctrine with an approved pattern of behavior.”

Pierce, who’s on the faculty of Kingdom University (the new apostolic school that features the bloody t-shirt) continues, “Demons of doctrine rob individuals of their freedom to worship a holy God in purity.” And they do this, he says, “by instituting rules and regulations for their worship.” 

Pierce, like other apostolic leaders, says he communicates directly with God and issues prophecies on God’s behalf. “I have always had to maneuver past spirits of religion that would resist this gift of God,” he complains. “Demons hate revelation from God. They resist those gifts… that bring revelatory freedom… They attempt to stone the revelation of apostles and prophets because this revealed word establishes God’s foundation in the Church for this age.”

These prominent apostles aren’t merely talking about ossified institutions, feckless leaders, stale ideas, empty rituals, or guardians of the status quo in various Christian denominations. And while the theological details can be fluid to say the least, they all involve some version of the Ekklesia taking political power or leading an End Times army (or both) along with a heavenly host of angels. 

There is no Plan B

Nevertheless, it was probably all but inevitable that these revolutionaries would themselves seek to institutionalize. In fact, KU isn’t the first to do so. Other movement-affiliated schools to follow this path include Wagner University (named for founder C. Peter Wagner) and Apostle Bill Johnson’s Bethel School for Supernatural Ministry, both in California; Charis Bible College in Colorado (see RD coverage here and here); and Apostle Randy Clark’s ministry in Pennsylvania, which has long sponsored several institutions of higher learning, including the Global Awakening Theological Seminary. 

But the trend is epitomized by KU whose program claims to feature weekend classes held mostly via streaming video, on about 20 “campuses” at apostolic centers in 10 states and four countries. US campuses include Tony Kemp Ministries in Quincy, Illinois; Freedom & Fire Church in Winslow, Indiana, and King’s Gate Worship Center in Tupelo, Mississippi.

The movement that so often casts traditional forms of seminary and higher education as demonic is, paradoxically, creating its own system of higher education, religious training, and credentialing. 

That may be why Apostle Dutch Sheets in a recently removed video seeks to assure prospective students that KU is no traditional seminary: 

“It’s not so much about theology and training in a Bible school setting, it’s more of the instruction—hands on, live, what is God saying to the Church today? And how do we prepare ourselves for what he is about to do?”

For two decades Sheets and Pierce have led the development of the politics of the Ekklesia in each state. Their success may be measured in part by the supernaturally-charged politics of the NAR that’s powered many recent electoral campaigns, most prominently those of Donald Trump, but also the 2022 GOP gubernatorial candidacies of state Sen. Doug Mastriano in Pennsylvania and State Sen. Brian Dahle in California. 

“When we are born again,” says Sheets, in a 2021 “Daily Prayer with Dutch” video, “we are no longer simply humans… we are a new race of supernatural beings called Christians.” NAR is about the organization of this supernatural race into the Ekklesia, whose purpose he says is “managing and governing the earth.” 

In fairness, Sheets also tells viewers: “obviously we are not to expand the Christian faith or God’s rule by physical force or domination, as some religions do. We are to invade, quote-unquote, our culture, workplace, city, nation, etcetera, with the spiritual might of God’s kingdom.”

But Sheets’ vision is not always so restrained. He often suggests that the final battle to bring in the Kingdom is either already underway or about to break out—and that the Ekklesia will be in it to win it. For example, in a June 2022 “Daily Prayer” video titled “Taking territory for Christ,” Sheets explains that what Jesus wants, “[he] will do through us. We are Plan A. And there is no Plan B.” He ticks off words from scripture that, he says, apply to Plan A: fight, warfare, endurance, victory, overcomer, conqueror, power, and authority

Trampled under the feet of the Ekklesia

At a June 2023 conference led by Apostle Tim Sheets (brother of Dutch), which took place at the Oasis Church in Ohio, Hood announced that he’d had a dream in which God said to “Deploy the Ekklesia.” 

In a conference recording Hood makes the ahistorical claim that pastors led the American Revolution against “the Crown that was oppressing the nation.” He then claims: 

“I believe we are in that day again. I believe we are in a day in which God is raising up… apostolic leaders that are leading an apostolic company into a new kind of revolution for this nation.”

He goes on to float a conspiracy theory about how the criminal indictments against Donald Trump are “not about things that he’s done wrong,” but the result of an unnamed “they” who are trying to keep him out of the presidential race. Hood then claims (this was prior to Trump’s January 6 indictment), that “they” want to convict him of “treason” and “execute him to make a point to anybody else that comes up and stands in their way.” It should be noted that, while it may be the most accurate word to describe his actions, Trump was not charged with treason, and death is not a punishment for the crimes for which he stands accused.

Some NAR apostles and prophets, including Hood and the brothers Sheets, say that God speaks to them through dreams. In Hood’s dream, he says, he was with several apostles in a “command center” at the Oasis Church. The date was January 7, 2020, suggesting that what was occurring was a continuation of what got started on the 6th. Hood describes seeing keys like what the president of the United States would need to unlock the nuclear football. “The church” he says, “is getting ready to release a powerful force… that the enemy will not be able to withstand.”

“We’re not dealing here with politics… or bad presidents,” he declares. “We’re dealing with demonic strongholds that are controlling people, that are using people to keep their agenda.”

Switching back to his dream in the “command center,” Hood recounts:  

“[Apostle Jane Hamon, daughter-in-law of Bill Hamon] was releasing armed drones towards Washington DC. Each of these drones had targets they were locked on and I knew that most of the targets were political targets, unrighteous rulers, people that had partnered with the Enemy and his agenda; people within the system that had compromised and that so had sold America out; these were being eliminated, removed from their offices and their voices were rendered helpless.”

He nevertheless claims “we’re not attacking people”—even as he employs military metaphors and scenarios in which people would inevitably be killed in real life, including by nuclear weapons and drone strikes.

“Wicked things… are happening in our nation,” he says, because “wicked people are ruling at the moment.”  

Back in the dream, Dutch Sheets was wearing a general’s uniform with the name “Dutch Patton”—which Hood took to mean General George Patton, who during WWII famously carried an ivory-handled Colt .45 engraved with his initials, GSP.  Hood incorrectly claims it was pearl handled and engraved with “Isaiah 45”—like the one carried by General Dutch in the dream. (Isaiah 45 introduces the story of the Persian King Cyrus, who Apostle Lance Wallnau famously linked to Donald Trump as part of an effort to justify his candidacy to evangelical Christians.)

Hood goes on to say that the Ekklesia is about to go out on the “battlefield” to “reclaim geography that belongs to God… to take back those nations that have been under the tutelage and oppression of demonic forces.” 

At the end of the dream, “number 45” (he never refers to Trump by name) comes to the command center and gives a “medal of freedom” to Sheets—“knowing of what had been done, that what had been accomplished was from the efforts of both.” 

This is interesting in light of the actual role of the Sheets brothers in facilitating the events of January 6th.

Hood offers a slick mix of historical revisionism and biblical and dream interpretation to envision the role of the Ekklesia. He casts apostles as they appeared in his dream as central figures in history; and the members of the church as heroic martyrs in the conflict to come. He urges them not to fear death when they stand on the ramparts where God has assigned them. “Only you will behold and see the reward of the wicked. The reward of the wicked is slaughter. It is being trampled under the feet of the Ekklesia.” 

The Ekklesia, of course, is to ascend and conquer the 7 mountains of culture. One who epitomizes what’s possible is Tom Parker the elected Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court who grabbed headlines with his theocratic concurring opinion in a case where the court ruled that frozen embryos are people. Parker has been involved with NAR for years, and will no doubt serve as a role model for future generations.

I believe that children are our future

Even as top apostles prime the pump for possible real-world violence, and encourage the Ekklesia to envision themselves as an End Times army, they are, paradoxically, also planning for the future governance of society. While it’s not uncommon for churches to sponsor Christian schools, at least one apostolic center, Impact Church International in Concord, North Carolina, not only hosts a KU campus, but also the K4-12 Daniel Christian Academy, which is explicitly devoted to teaching about the seven mountains of dominion.

From the website of the Daniel Christian Academy.

Apostle and Pastor Donna Wise of Impact Church International claims in a 2022 post that too often the church, broadly speaking, is “concerned more with numbers and dollars rather than a powerful ‘Ekklesia’ whose purpose is to bring the will and rule of God into our nation.” The result, she says, is a “culture of darkness filling our religious assemblies, governments and schools.” 

Taking churches to church is de rigueur among some NAR leaders. 

Indeed, Apostle Jim Garlow brought a similar message to City Elders, a NAR political project, in September 2023. What’s actually important, he says, in a video of his speech, isn’t how many people attend Sunday services, but “how many are deployed into action—who are actually threats to the enemy of God.” 

A more explicit example of the bloody t-shirt’s meaning would be difficult to find.

Feb 29, 2024

Airman who set self on fire grew up on religious compound, had anarchist past

Emily Davies, Peter Hermann and Dan Lamothe
Washington Post 

February 26, 2024

Less than two weeks before Aaron Bushnell walked toward the gates of the Israeli Embassy on Sunday, he and a friend talked by phone about their shared identities as anarchists and what kinds of risks and sacrifices were needed to be effective.

Bushnell, 25, mentioned nothing violent or self-sacrificial, the friend said.

Then on Sunday, Bushnell texted that friend, who described the exchange on the condition of anonymity to protect his safety.

“I hope you’ll understand. I love you,” Bushnell wrote in a message reviewed by The Washington Post. “This doesn’t even make sense, but I feel like I’m going to miss you.”

He sent the friend a copy of his will on Sunday. In it, he gave his cat to his neighbor and a fridge full of root beers to the friend.

Twelve minutes later, Bushnell, who was a senior airman in the U.S. Air Force, doused himself with a liquid and set himself on fire. He had posted a video online saying he did not want to be “complicit in genocide.” He shouted “Free Palestine” as he burned.

Secret Service officers extinguished the blaze. Bushnell died seven hours later at a hospital.

His suicidal protest instantly won him praise among some antiwar and pro-Palestinian activists, while others said they were devastated that he would take an action so extreme. But how a young man who liked The Lord of the Rings and karaoke became the man ablaze in a camouflage military uniform remains a mystery, even among some of his closest friends.

Bushnell was raised in a religious compound in Orleans, Mass., on Cape Cod, according to Susan Wilkins, 59, who said she was a member of the group from 1970 to 2005. She said that she knew Bushnell and his family on the compound and that he was still a member when she left. Wilkins said she heard through members of Bushnell’s family that he eventually left the group.

Wilkins’s account is consistent with those of multiple others who said Bushnell had told them about his childhood in the religious group or who had heard about his affiliation from his family members.

The group, called the Community of Jesus, has faced allegations of inappropriate behavior, which it has publicly disputed. In a lawsuit against an Ontario school, where many officials were alleged to be members of the U.S.-based religious group, former students called the Community of Jesus a “charismatic sect” and alleged that it “created an environment of control, intimidation and humiliation that fostered and inflicted enduring harms on its students.” The school, now defunct, disputed the allegations. Last year, an appeals court in Canada awarded 10.8 million Canadian dollars to the former students, who attended the Ontario school between 1973 and 1997.

A receptionist who answered the phone at the Community of Jesus declined to put a call from a reporter through to someone in authority. Emails to the group were not answered.

Multiple people who said they were former members of the Community of Jesus described their years after leaving the compound as particularly challenging. They said former members, soon after they depart the group, often long for a sense of belonging.

“A lot of us that got out are very much into social justice, trying to defend those who don’t or can’t defend themselves, because that is what we went through,” said Bonnie Zampino, 54, who said she was a member of the group for three years in the 1980s.

Wilkins also said it is common for members of the Community of Jesus to join the military, describing the transition as moving from “one high-control group to another high-control group.”

The Air Force said in a statement Monday night that Bushnell’s death is under investigation by military officials, a common practice after the death of a service member. He was a cyberdefense operations specialist with the 531st Intelligence Support Squadron at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, and had been in the Air Force since May 2020, the service said.

To support someone going through a mentally tough time: Offer a safe space to talk and listen. Validate and affirm their feelings. Don’t engage in toxic positivity. Don’t be pushy with advice. Ask how you can help.

In recent years, depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation have reached historic highs, especially among children and teens. Experts say urgent reforms are needed for America’s underfunded, fragmented and difficult-to-access mental health system.

Lupe Barboza, 32, said she met Bushnell in San Antonio in 2022 at an event for a socialist organization. She said they bonded over their politics and started working together to deliver clothing and food to people experiencing homelessness.

“He was outraged, and he knew that no one who is in charge is listening to the protesters out there every week,” Barboza said. “He knows that he has privilege as a White man and a member of the military.”

Other friends from San Antonio said they had talked with Bushnell about the Palestinians and their shared distaste for the U.S. role in the Israel-Gaza war. But he had not expressed to them any indication of what would take place in Washington on Sunday.

They also said he moved to Ohio earlier this year for a course for service members transitioning out of the military.

One of his friends, Levi Pierpont, 23, met him for lunch in Ohio in January. Over plates of butter chicken, the two talked about their involvement in the military and what they hoped to do after leaving the force. They had met in basic training in May 2020, when they were both still excited about joining the military and how it could help them experience more of the world, Pierpont said.

Pierpont said he grew disillusioned with the military over time — concerned with what he saw as flippant attitudes toward violence within the force — and said he left as a conscientious objector. (The Air Force did not immediately respond to a request for comment on his account.) By 2024, Bushnell had become more open about his objections to the military, Pierpont said. In the wake of George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis in 2020, Bushnell told Pierpont he had started to research the history of the United States and wanted to take a stand against all state-sanctioned violence.

Bushnell had considered leaving the military early, Pierpont said, but he had decided he was close enough to the end of his required service to stick it out. Bushnell was scheduled to leave the military in May, Pierpont said.

At the January lunch, Bushnell told Pierpont that he planned to find a job that would let him make enough money to support himself while engaging in political activism on the side. Pierpont said he encouraged his friend to go to college and get a degree in something related to his beliefs.

Self-immolations are rare, but a number are connected to antiwar protests, perhaps most famously that of a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire in Saigon during the Vietnam War. An American Quaker self-immolated in 1965 at the Pentagon.

During the Iraq War, an antiwar protester self-immolated near the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago. In 2010, a street vendor self-immolated in Tunisia, an act of defiance that served as a spark for the Arab Spring, in which numerous heads of state were forced out in uprisings. In 2022, a Colorado man died after setting himself on fire outside the Supreme Court in what his father believed was a climate change protest. In December, a woman self-immolated outside the Israeli Consulate in Atlanta. She had a Palestinian flag with her, authorities said at the time.

U.S. service members are prohibited from acts of political protest, under the Pentagon’s long-standing policy of remaining nonpartisan while civilian leaders oversee policy decisions. While no one else in uniform has stepped out against the war in Gaza as stridently as Bushnell, some service members do have misgivings about it and frustration that critics of the war blame U.S. military support for Israeli military actions.

Since the Israel-Gaza war began in October, at least 29,782 people have been killed in the Gaza Strip, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack and says 240 soldiers have been killed since the start of its military operation in Gaza.

Hamas and allied fighters took more than 250 people hostage during the attack. More than 100 were freed in exchange for more than 200 Palestinian detainees during a November pause in fighting. Israeli authorities believe that more than 100 hostages remain in Gaza.

On Monday afternoon, about 80 demonstrators showed up at the Israeli Embassy to support Bushnell and condemn Israel for the war. Among them was Sam Osta, playing an audio recording of Bushnell setting himself on fire.

“I wish I would have known. I would have stopped him,” said Osta, 55, who first met Bushnell at a protest at the Lincoln Memorial in 2022. “His life means a lot, and it’s horrifying what happened.”

Some of Bushnell’s friends, including Barboza, said they last saw him in January at his going-away party in San Antonio. It was at a karaoke bar. He belted out song after song, many of which were from “Les Misérables,” which he was known to love. And one was Mandy Moore’s “Wind in My Hair” from the TV series based on the movie “Tangled.”

“I got a smile on my face,” Bushnell sang, “and I’m walking on air.”

Peter Jamison, Omari Daniels, Ellie Silverman, Hannah Allam and Razzan Nakhlawi contributed to this report.

Courtroom fireworks as alleged cult leader tries to fire lawyer

Emily Kean and Lauren Silver
Court TV
February 27, 2024

DECATUR, Ga. (Court TV) — The fourth day of Eligio Bishop‘s trial saw fireworks in court as the defendant argued with the judge after announcing he wanted to fire his attorney.
Bishop faces several charges, including rape, after allegedly leading an online cult known as “Carbon Nation.” He has switched attorneys at least three times since 2022, and has been represented by Robert Booker during the trial, which began on Feb. 22.

After Judge Stacey Hydrick denied a defense motion to dismiss counts 3, 4 and 5, which are related to revenge porn, Bishop announced that he wanted to fire his attorney and hire a new one. Hydrick was adamant that he had only two options: proceed with his current attorney or represent himself pro se.

\“You don’t get to choose a different attorney in the middle of a trial,” Judge Hydrick said.”We don’t stop for you to get a new lawyer. You proceed with Mr. Booker or you proceed by yourself. Period.”

Judge Hydrick, who was wearing a mask when court began, warned Bishop that representing himself was a “terrible, terrible, terrible idea.”

While it wasn’t stated in court that the judge was who had COVID-19, Bishop brought it up, saying that he was concerned and that he was not being treated fairly. Judge Hydrick told Bishop that if he was concerned about COVID-19, he could ask to be kept in a holding cell but he would not be able to see or hear the proceedings.

Judge Hydrick told Bishop that if he fired his attorney and asked to be removed from court the trial would move directly to closing arguments because there would be nobody present to present his case. Ultimately, Bishop decided not to fire his attorney.

The proceedings ended early for the day after a brief conference in chambers with the judge and attorneys, after which Hydrick revealed to the jury that she had tested positive for COVID-19.

Ex-Jehovah's Witnesses in Brazil Fight Against Social Ostracism and Seek Dialogue

Discover the stories of Jefferson Alexandrino de Lima and Fabiano de Amo, who challenge the practice of shunning in religious communities. Their experiences shed light on the need for dialogue, respect, and inclusivity.

Saboor Bayat
February 28, 2024

In 2008, Jefferson Alexandrino de Lima's life took a significant turn after joining the Jehovah's Witnesses in Pernambuco, Brazil. Embracing the faith fully, he ascended to roles of responsibility within the community, dedicating years to its service. Yet, by 2020, questioning internal guidelines led to a drastic change, marking the beginning of his social ostracization. This experience of being treated as deceased by friends, family, and community leaders pushed Lima, now a psychology graduate, to explore the depths of 'Religious ostracism and depression' in his academic thesis. Concurrently, Fabiano de Amo, sharing a similar journey of faith and exit, initiated a virtual petition advocating for the rights and respectful treatment of disaffiliated members.

Understanding the Impact of Ostracism

Lima's academic pursuit sheds light on the psychological ramifications of being ostracized by a religious community. His thesis, rooted in personal experience, aims to highlight the profound effects such exclusion can have on mental health, specifically focusing on depression among former Jehovah's Witnesses. This body of work not only contributes to academic discourse but also offers a beacon of understanding and validation for others enduring similar isolation.

The Push for Change and Dialogue

Amo's virtual petition represents a collective call to action from those who have left the faith, seeking to bridge the divide between current and former Jehovah's Witnesses. This movement emphasizes the need for dialogue, freedom, and mutual respect, challenging the practice of shunning those who choose to leave. It is a testament to the resilience and solidarity among ex-members, striving for a future where personal faith decisions do not result in social exclusion.

Institutional Response and the Way Forward

Despite these allegations, the institution overseeing Jehovah's Witnesses in Brazil maintains that leaving the faith is a matter of personal choice and insists that it does not encourage the severing of family or community ties. This stance, however, contrasts with the experiences shared by Lima, Amo, and others, highlighting a disconnect between official statements and lived realities. As this dialogue unfolds, the broader community is urged to reflect on the principles of understanding and compassion, paving the way for a more inclusive approach to faith and belonging.

The stories of Jefferson Alexandrino de Lima and Fabiano de Amo underscore a critical conversation about religious identity, belonging, and the human right to choose one's path. Their courage in facing ostracism head-on, coupled with their efforts to foster change, signals a hopeful shift towards inclusivity and respect within religious communities and beyond.

Feb 25, 2024

Transcendental Meditation

Transcendental Meditation |

" ... In 1970, after having trouble with Indian tax authorities, he moved his headquarters to Italy, returning to India in the late 1970s.That same year, the City of Hope Foundation in Los Angeles gave the Maharishi their “Man of Hope” award."

" ... In January 1988, offices at the Maharishinagar complex in New Delhi were raided by Indian tax authorities and the Maharishi and his organisation were accused of falsifying expenses. Reports on the value of stocks, fixed-deposit notes, cash and jewels confiscated, vary from source to source. The Maharishi, who was “headquartered in Switzerland” at the time, reportedly moved to the Netherlands “after the Indian government accused him of tax fraud”.) Following an earthquake in Armenia, the Maharishi trained Russian TM teachers and set up a Maharishi Ayurveda training centre in the Urals region. Beginning in 1989, the Maharishi’s movement began incorporating the term “Maharishi” into the names of their new and existing entities, concepts and programmes."

" ... The GCWP unsuccessfully attempted to establish a sovereign micronation when it offered US$1.3 billion to the President of Suriname for a 200-year lease of 3,500 acres (14 km2) of land and in 2002, attempted to choose a king for the Talamanca, a “remote Indian reservation” in Costa Rica."

" ... The Maharishi is credited with heading charitable organisations, for-profit businesses, and real estate investments whose total value has been estimated at various times, to range from US$2 to US$5 billion. The real estate alone was valued in 2003 at between $3.6 and $5 billion. Holdings in the United States, estimated at $250 million in 2008, include dozens of hotels, commercial buildings and undeveloped land.[296] The Maharishi “amassed a personal fortune that his spokesman told one reporter may exceed $1 billion”.Accor ding to a 2008 article in The Times, the Maharishi “was reported to have an income of six million pounds”. The Maharishi’s movement is said to be funded through donations, course fees for Transcendental Meditation and various real estate transactions.

In his biography of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, The Story of the Maharishi (published 1976), William Jefferson suggests that the financial aspect of the TM organisation was one of the greatest controversies it faced. Questions were raised about the Maharishi’s mission, comments from leaders of the movement at that time, and fees and charges the TM organisation levied on followers. Jefferson says that the concerns with money came from journalists more than those who have learned to meditate.[303]"

" ... Just four years after his death, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Rs 60,000 crore fortune is at the centre of an ugly battle between two groups of followers

Maharishi died in February 2008, leaving behind more than 12,000 acres of land across India.  all vested with the Spiritual Regeneration Movement (SRM) Foundation, set up by the guru in 1959. The guru established several societies with the SRM Foundation and Maharishi Global University based in Greater Noida in Uttar Pradesh at the top of the list. The other four educational institutions are Maharishi Shiksha Sansthan, Maharishi Ved Vigyan Vidyapeeth, Maharishi Gandharva Ved Vidyapeeth and Mahila Dhyan Vidyapeeth that run 148 schools in 16 states across India."

" ... Maharishi Nagar Colony in Sector 39 of Noida, which the guru’s followers built in the late 1970s, is in a state of neglect.The colony, spread over more than 900 acres, currently houses four buildings, each with more than 800 rooms. Most rooms lie in total neglect. A helipad once used by the guru is now dedicated to grazing cattle. Local real estate agents peg the worth of the land at Rs 15,000 crore. “The global university no longer operates from here.500-odd devotees of the guru stay in the colony, doing odd jobs to run the ashram.A mere four years after his death, the Maharishi’s legacy in India is in tatters."

" ... Ivanka Trump’s Gurus Say Their Techniques Can End War and Make You Fly
Celebs from Katy Perry to Ivanka say Transcendental Meditation helps them focus. The movement’s chief promises more: quasi-magical powers and the ability to steer world events.

The Daily Beast/October 13, 2018
By Justin Rohrlich

When the David Lynch Foundation held a gala for Transcendental Meditation at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., last year, it drew a star-studded crowd. Comedians Jerry Seinfeld and Margaret Cho were there. So was the singer Kesha, as well as White House advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who had recently published a self-help book that included a section extolling TM’s benefits.

It was a pleasant, 77-degree June evening in the District. The guests wore cocktail attire, and the event was set up almost like a Hollywood premiere, with pre-show celebrity interviews on a red carpet. That’s where Kesha asked for a hug from Seinfeld, who brusquely refused her request while cameras were rolling (she later got one from Bob Dylan). Seinfeld laughed with Jay Leno for the cameras; Hugh Jackman, who co-hosted the event with Katie Couric, posed with real estate developer Jeffrey Abramson and his wife Rona. Jay Leno, Ben Folds, singer Angelique Kidjo, classical guitarist Sharon Isbin, and Seinfeld, Cho, and Kesha performed for the assembled luminaries.

The event was yet another sign that TM, with its lengthy (and growing) client roster of the rich and famous, had cemented a place among America’s cultural elites. Although independent estimates vary, TM officials claim that roughly 10 million people have learned the technique, which is meant to control anxiety, reduce stress, and increase their overall well-being.

“Transcendental meditation is a practice I picked up several years ago and I couldn’t do half of what I do in a day without it,” Ivanka Trump wrote in her book. “Twenty minutes is ideal for calming the mind, eliminating distractions, and boosting my productivity.”

The fundraiser promised to provide TM instruction so that underprivileged kids, military veterans, and trauma survivors could avail themselves of its benefits."

" ... David Vago, a Vanderbilt University neuroscientist who studies the effects of meditation, pointed out that all of the Maharishi Effect studies are basically correlation without causation.  “As much as I’d like to believe that crime rates will reduce in a causal response to group meditation increases, I have a hard time buying this kind of correlational research,” Vago told The Daily Beast.

Clinicaltrials [.]gov, which tracks accredited clinical research studies, found 910 studies of mindfulness currently underway, but only 14 studies of TM—half of which began before 2002. While TM officials often note that the National Institute of Health has funded research in TM to the tune of $24 million, that funding ended in 2010.

In 2014, an independent meta-analysis of meditation research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association for Internal Medicine found “insufficient evidence that mantra meditation programs [such as TM] had an effect on any of the psychological stress and well-being outcomes we examined.” An earlier review of TM data by the NIH also found insufficient evidence that TM lowered blood pressure as claimed.

Other assertions have been fact-checked to TM’s detriment. The organization’s American home base of Fairfield, Iowa has a population of roughly 10,000 residents. In 1993, reporter Scott Shane inquired about the crime rate in the area, figuring that crime must be virtually non-existent what with all the advanced meditating going there on all the time. “Crime here is about the same as any small town in rural America,” Fairfield police chief Randy Cooksey told Shane. In fact, Cooksey said, “I’d say there’s been a steady increase. I think, based on my statistics in Fairfield, I can show they have no impact on crime here.”"

" ... Dennis Roark, the former chairman of the physics department at Maharishi University has described TM’s research as “crackpot science.” Roark said he resigned his position after being told to link TM’s effects to legitimate physics—a notion he described as “preposterous.”

“Although there is substantial work in the physics of quantum mechanics giving to consciousness an essential role, even a causal role, there is no evidence or argument that could connect some sort of universal consciousness to be subjectively experienced with a unified field of all physics,” Roark wrote. “In fact, the existing scientific work suggests just the opposite.”

“The style of research they use is what I call ‘painting the bullseye around the arrow,’” says ex-TMer Patrick Ryan, who attended Maharishi International University, the progenitor to MUM, against his Navy master chief father’s advice, and spent 10 years in the movement as a “spiritual warrior” before quitting in the 1980s. “If a bunch of TM meditators get together and the stock market goes up, TM made it happen. If there’s another course and crime rates go down, or if accidents go down, TM created that. Find a positive thing that’s happened and take credit for it.”"

" ... The relentless focus on money is one of the main reasons Southern California meditation teacher Lorin Roche left TM in 1975.

“The whole focus of TM in the United States became to get all the teachers and all the half-million or more people who had learned TM, to go take expensive advanced courses and learn to levitate,” Roche wrote on his personal blog. “Soon there were tens of thousands of Siddhas trying, but failing, to levitate, all across the United States and around the world.”

Roche “benefited from TM tremendously, but it was a different organization when I was there,” he told The Daily Beast. “Once it became worth a billion dollars, it just changed.”

One billion may be a low estimate. According to The Economist, the Maharishi’s land holdings alone were worth $3 billion in 1998. A 2012 investigation by India Today estimated Maharishi’s real estate assets at the time of his death 10 years later to be worth Rs 60,000 crore—roughly $9 billion.

Although private donations have dwindled in recent years, from $31.6 million in 2008 to $1.5 million in 2015, there still seems to be plenty of money around, and there are dozens of separate but related TM organizations across the globe. The Daily Beast’s detailed review of TM-related financial documentation revealed a byzantine tangle of non- and for-profit corporations, global land holdings, and hundreds of millions of dollars—maybe more—flowing each year through the various entities that make up TM."