WORLD

Trouble in paradise

A doomsday prophet wears out her welcome

HOLGER JENSEN May 7 1990
WORLD

Trouble in paradise

A doomsday prophet wears out her welcome

HOLGER JENSEN May 7 1990

Trouble in paradise

WORLD

THE UNITED STATES

A doomsday prophet wears out her welcome

While other Americans celebrated Earth Day last week, Montana state Senator Peter Story hosted what he called an “End of the World Party” on his ranch near Yellowstone National Park. Story had planned the event to ridicule his neighbors, members of the Church Universal and Triumphant Inc., whose leader, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, had predicted that Armageddon would occur on April 23. They had built a bomb shelter, topped by a concrete watchtower with menacing gun turrets, right next to Story’s fence line. “It’s downright unneighborly,” he said. “My great-granddaddy fought Indians to settle this country, and I’m not going to be intimidated by that thing.” Montanans who share Story’s distaste for the church came to his barbecue in their pickup trucks and fourwheel-drives, many with the obligatory dogs in the back. There was plenty of beer and country music. And although the world did not end, many guests predicted that it was the beginning of the end for Prophet, the self-proclaimed

Mother of the Universe who had brought trouble to Paradise Valley.

The valley, a scenic swath of Yellowstone River flanked by the snowcapped Absaroka Mountains, stretches 90 km from the town of Livingston to Gardiner. Prophet, 51, who preaches a bizarre blend of religions, mysticism and the occult, moved her church there in 1981 and, last year, she twice predicted the end of the world. Despite those failed prophecies, the latest prediction panicked many of her followers. Starting in March, about 2,000 believers descended on Paradise Valley from as far away as Sweden and Australia, paying up to $12,000 each for

space m the church s bomb shelters.

Many had given up homes, jobs—even families. But church members ran into a host of more mundane problems, including leaking tanks near the main bomb shelter that spilled 31,000 gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel, and brought down the wrath of local authorities. In early April, Prophet backed away from her prediction, telling followers that their prayers had averted a nuclear first-strike by the Soviets.

To the more skeptical media, Guru Ma, “The Mother of the Flame,” as her devotees know her, displayed her cosmic calendar and offered a new scenario. April 23 was not the end of the world, she said, but the start of a 12-year “dark cycle” during which the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse would stalk the planet. Murray Steinman, Prophet’s chief astrologer, explained that there would be a continued potential for economic and military crises, but not necessarily a catastrophic one.

But the locals have expressed doubts about their neighbors’ sanity. “I came here for life in the slow lane,” said Katherine Schmook, a

church opponent originally from Atlanta. “Suddenly, Fm surrounded by people whose dipsticks haven’t seen oil in a long time.” Schmook called the fuel spill “a godsend” because it pointed up the church’s other transgressions.

The three leaking tanks served the main bomb shelter, designed to house Prophet and 750 disciples. On April 23, the day that Prophet had predicted the world would end, state inspectors ordered the church to dig up 35 of its buried tanks. At the same time, a district judge halted all bomb-shelter construction pending an environmental review. The Montana department of health and environmental sciences is now seeking a permanent injunction. And so many federal agencies have expressed an interest in the church’s activities that Representative Pat Williams of Montana announced that he is assembling a task force to co-ordinate their investigations.

The U.S. forest and national parks services have said that they want to determine whether the church’s presence, on the boundary of Yellowstone Park, has had an adverse effect on grizzly bears, elk, antelope and bison migrations. The Environmental Protection Agency and department of transportation are looking into the legality of burying fuel tanks and underground shelters next to America’s premier wilderness preserve. The FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms are checking allegations of gun smuggling and the stockpiling of automatic weapons by church members. The Immigration and Naturalization Service wants to know if the church is harboring illegal aliens. And the Internal Revenue Service is taking another look at the church’s tax-exempt status. It first came under scrutiny in 1985, after one of Prophet’s disgruntled exhusbands (she has been married four times) accused her of using church funds to speculate on the silver market.

Her second husband, Mark Prophet, founded the church in New Jersey in 1958. After stints in Colorado and California, Prophet told Maclean’s, her husband advised her on his deathbed in 1973 to move to Montana. She chose Paradise Valley, a pristine region that harbors both working cattle ranches and vacation retreats of the rich and famous. Actors Peter Fonda and Dennis Quaid, author Tom McGuane and millionaire Malcolm Forbes, who died in February, all bought property there. But, in 1981, Forbes sold his 12,000acre estate at Corwin Springs to Prophet’s church, which attracted an assortment of survivalists, skinheads, astrologers, mystics and other believers in her apocalyptic visions.

The church combines traditional Eastern and Western beliefs with a strange mix of other things: violet flames, King Arthur’s Court, Ascended Masters, Fallen Angels, doomsday economics, anti-communism, astrology, the occult and macrobiotic diets. Prophet claims to be the reincarnation of Queen Guinevere, Marie Antoinette and Martha, the sister of Lazarus and Mary Magdalene. Many nonbelievers say that they find it unsettling to look into Prophet’s cornflower-blue eyes as she recalls how “the crowd

shouted for my head on Bastille Day.”

Prophet claims to be the only one who speaks to the Ascended Masters, one of whom is her late husband, Mark. Others in that heavenly host include Jesus, Buddha, Sir Lancelot and Merlin the Magician. But there are also more mysterious deities, including El Morya, Ray-O-Lite and K-17, whose celestial pedigrees are less clear. Prophet imparts their teachings in the form of what she calls “dictations,” delivered in a trance-like state, or books and leaflets called “Pearls of Wisdom.” Some of the titles include The Lost Years of Jesus and Saint Germain on Alchemy.

Prophet’s third husband, Randall King, who

was once president of the church and later sued it for $22.4 million, said that she was a fraud. Her fourth and current husband, Edward Francis, operates the ranch and says that he is the reincarnation of Captain Cook. Three of her four children also work for the church, but a daughter, Moira, who defected last year, says that her mother is a “hypocrite.” Prophet’s former secretary, Susan Moldenhauer, who was thrown out of the church for having a man in her room, says that her boss had a particular obsession about oral sex. “That got you the second death,” she explained, in which the guilty party is consigned to “50,000 years in outer darkness.”

Many former church members say that Prophet is insane. However, they also paint a picture of a grimly efficient moneymaking machine that targets only wealthy people, then threatens them with eternal damnation or sexual blackmail until they turn over their fortunes to the church. Prophet herself will not say how rich she is. But King, who settled his lawsuit

out of court for a reported $28,000, claimed that Prophet forced church members to confess their most intimate sexual secrets, then used them to extort all their assets.

A Long Island, N.Y., man who sued for the return of his inheritance told the court that he gave Prophet more than $128,000 after she convinced him that she was his “mother from a former life on another planet.” And a California architect, Gregory Mull, won a $ 1.8-million lawsuit when the court ruled that he had become a slave of the church.

Much of that background was well-known by the time the cult arrived in Montana. Articles in the daily Billings Gazette described church

members as brainwashed zombies burying gold and guns in preparation for the cataclysm. When they were not “decreeing,” a rapid-fire psychobabble that is their version of prayer, the paper reported that the cultists were giving each other ritual enemas. Anyone who offended the church was placed on a “hit list” and subjected to chants of “smash, bash, annihilate.” Three Gazette reporters who made the list all suffered broken left legs in accidents within a few months of each other.

Park County was soon in an uproar, and local residents said that cults, brainwashing and enemas were enough to make any upstanding Montanan gather up his family and barricade the house. But nothing happened. The church did not proselytize and it did not, contrary to early predictions, try to take over the county government. Fewer than 50 cult members actually lived on the old Forbes place after the church bought it, and the furor died down. There was renewed controversy in 1986 when Prophet moved her headquarters from Malibu,

Calif., to Montana. By then, the church had acquired two more ranches in Paradise Valley, expanding its holdings to 33,000 acres. Then, church leaders built a private school, a university, a publishing house and brought in several hundred disciples, who work long hours for wages averaging $156 a month. While the cultists clearly made people nervous, local contractors made large profits building church members’ homes and digging their bomb shelters.

The cult did not show its darker side until last year, when Vernon Hamilton, head of the church’s so-called Cosmic Honor Guard, was arrested in the state of Washington for trying to buy .50-calibre anti-aircraft guns under an assumed name. The resulting trial drew attention to other allegations. Schmook, who hosts a weekly radio show in Livingston called A Closer Look from Schmook, was contacted by estranged husbands and wives from around the world seeking children who they said were kidnapped by the other parent. And some of those children began running away from the church, claiming mental and physical abuse.

Schmook and ex-cultist Constance Wagner formed the Network of Friends, which finds homes for the runaways and helps adults cope with the trauma of leaving the church. “I’ve seen it tear up families because I ^ pick up the pieces,” Schmook 2 said. “The children suffer ne° gleet and abandonment. The adults are despairing, paranoid and broke.”

Those still in the church deny the allegations. Carla Capozzi, a Vancouver woman whose father accused her of abandoning her children, admitted that she had to leave them behind when she went to Montana a year ago. But that, she said, was only because her ex-husband, with whom she had joint custody, refused to let them go with her. “I don’t know why my father said those things about me,” she said. “My ex-husband allows the children to visit me whenever they can, so obviously he’s not worried about them being brainwashed.”

Schmook said that the cultists’ cheques are starting to bounce and that they are no longer welcome in local stores. “This is the end of the church,” she said. “They cannot use the bomb shelters, their credit has run out and they’re starting to lose faith with Mrs. Prophet.” Schmook predicted that there would soon be a mass exodus from the church, presenting local authorities with a “psychological state of emergency.” To which Prophet serenely replies: “We will prevail.”

HOLGER JENSEN

in Corwin Springs