The stories behind the most sinister cults in Bay Area history.
By Todd Dever
We all take great pride in the Bay Area’s tradition of leading the world in technology, wine, culture and progressive politics … but there’s one more field in which we lead the globe, though it’s rarely celebrated. For the past 40 years, the Bay Area has been the world’s top breeding ground for totally whacked-out, bizarro, kinky, freakazoid cults.
We’ve handpicked what we believe are the worst of the most bizarre cults with ties to the Bay Area and presented their stories below. But don’t think for a moment that crazy cults are a thing of the past, the unfortunate hangover of the hippie era. “Since I started my work in 1982, the cult phenomenon has just been growing and growing and growing,” says full-time cult basher Rick Ross, who runs the Rick Ross Institute, a non-profit anti-cult foundation he founded after watching his grandmother get duped by a scam cult. “I can’t think of any time in the last 20 years that it’s been bigger than it is right now. I think America has become increasingly religious, and we’re at the most religious point in our nation’s history. People are searching for answers, a sense of community and belonging. These groups seem to provide that and [cults are] becoming an ever-increasing phenomenon in America.”
(aka Johannine Daist Communion)
Founder: Frank Jones (aka Da Free John, Bubba Free John).
History: Adi Da rose to cult prominence in the ’80s and continues to thrive. Followers believe Bubba Free John is God incarnate. His latest book is titled Adi Da: The Promised God-Child is Here. Up until 15 years ago, Adi Da owned the Dawn Horse Bookstore in San Rafael (now known as the Open Secret Bookstore) and used it as its primary Bay Area recruiting center. In 1983, Bubba Free John purchased a remote Fijian island from actor Raymond Burr for $2.1 million. He lives there with hundreds of his devotees, including a harem of women, one of whom, Julie Anderson, was Playboy’s Playmate of the Month in September 1976. Most of Adi Da’s 1,000 – 3,000 members are concentrated in Marin County.
Sex scandal: In 1985, a former San Francisco Symphony flutist filed a $5 million lawsuit against Adi Da alleging false imprisonment, clergy malpractice, orders to surrender her children, assault, brainwashing and forced participation in sex orgies. Many former members cite Bubba Free John’s appetite for caviar and women’s lingerie.
ANANDA CHURCH OF SELF REALIZATION
Founder: Donald J. Walters (aka Swami Kriyananda)
History: Founded in 1968, Ananda has gone from a local commune to an international mega-cult with branches throughout North America and Europe. Based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, the group teaches members how to live by classic yogic teachings. Today, Ananda owns and operates the successful East West Bookstore in Mountain View, in addition to a church and 100-person commune in Palo Alto. The Ananda Community near Nevada City, California, has its own elementary and middle schools, two publishing houses, dairy farm, medical clinic, bakery, market and construction guild. They also have their own telephone company, named Ananda Bell.
Sex scandal: In 1994, Anne-Marie Bertolucci of Palo Alto was awarded more than $300,000 in damages against Swami Kriyananda for sexual exploitation she claimed occurred while she was a member. Then, in 1998, a Redwood City jury awarded six former female members more than $1 million after they proved that the Swami and other church officials used their positions of religious authority to sexually manipulate them.
(aka The Family International, Children of God, God’s Salvation Church)
Founder: David Berg (aka Moses)
History: Started in the ’60s in Oakland as a community devoted to sexual liberation (they even claimed that sexual relations could exist between adults and children, until public scrutiny forced the group to issue a declaration of condemnation against pedophilia in 1986), the Family promotes awareness of the impending apocalypse – in which Family members will lead the battle against Satan as Jesus Christ returns. Today, the Family boasts 8,000 “full-time missionaries” in more than 100 countries. In December of last year, two Family missionaries visited a Milpitas High School Spanish class to hand out religious leaflets and spread their gospel. The school board has since disciplined the Spanish teacher.
Sex scandal: You might recall news headlines from January about a 29-year-old named Ricky “Davidito” Rodriguez, who stabbed a Family board member to death before killing himself in an attempt to track down the secret location of his parents. Turns out he wanted to kill them, too, in revenge for raising him amidst alleged rampant sexual abuse at “The Family.” Rodriguez claimed that by the age of nine, he was having daily forced sex with scores of women to prepare him for becoming a group leader. In a video he made the night before the murder, Rodriguez is seen loading bullets into his gun and saying, “Anger does not begin to describe how I feel about these people. I’ve seen how ugly humans can get.” Stephen Kent, a professor of sociology at the University of Alberta, has interviewed dozens of former Family members and claims pedophilia was widespread in the group before the mid-’80s.
Founder: James Warren Jones (aka Jim Jones)
History: Preaching a hybrid belief system of Christianity and communism, Jim Jones had attracted more than 1,000 followers by the mid-’60s, most of them from the Bay Area. When the IRS started snooping around, suspicious that Jones was bilking his minions out of huge sums of money, the People’s Temple suddenly moved to a 27,000-acre commune in Guyana, South America. In November of 1978, congressman Leo Ryan led a group of journalists to Guyana to investigate the cult. When 16 cult members secretly begged Ryan to take them home with him, Ryan made the fatal mistake of informing Jones. As a result, Ryan and three others were killed in an assault at the airport by Jones’ henchmen. At that point, Jones realized his jig was up. Rather than rot in jail for his crimes, he convinced his cult to drink poisoned Kool Aid so they could die with him and rendezvous in the next life on their very own planet. When it was all said and done, 914 people died, including 276 children.
Sex scandal: During the murder-conspiracy trial of former Temple member Larry Layton, testimony from multiple witnesses established that Jones used sex to humiliate and subjugate followers who misbehaved.
THE FELLOWSHIP OF FRIENDS
Founder: Robert Earl Burton
History: Founded as a non-profit church in 1971 by a former elementary school teacher and San Jose State alum, FoF members believe their leader is “an angel in a man’s body,” whose spiritual authority is trumped only by Jesus Christ. Followers also believe that Burton has the ability to speak with up to 44 other angels, including Benjamin Franklin. Burton is renowned for his strange rules (no swimming, smoking or jokes are allowed – and homosexuality was banned until 1993, despite Burton’s allegedly renowned appetite for men) and even stranger predictions (though he was wrong about predicting a 1998 earthquake that would destroy California, he sticks by his claim that a nuclear holocaust will ruin the earth in ’06 and only FoF members will be spared). More than 600 FoF members live on their infamous Yuba County vineyard known as Apollo, where they produce up to 40,000 cases of wine per year under the Renaissance Vineyard and Emery labels. Their award-winning wine is so respected in the industry that it has been served to the Prince of Wales, former president George H. W. Bush, at one of Ronald Reagan’s birthday parties, and the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco sells the Renaissance Cabernet 1996 for $10 a glass.
Sex scandal: Though the church is more noted for tax evasion (they’re currently paying off more than $2 million in back taxes), the FoF was slapped with a $5 million lawsuit in 1996 by a former member who claimed he was brainwashed and sexually abused by Burton. The suit stated the church was a front for Burton’s “voracious appetite for perverted sexual pleasure and elegant lifestyle.” The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount.
THE HELZER GROUP
(aka Children of Thunder)
Founder: Glenn Taylor Helzer
History: Glenn Helzer, a self-styled spiritual awareness guru and Martinez native, only needed two followers in his cult to wreak havoc on the Bay Area in 2000. Helzer, a former stockbroker and Mormon, who was excommunicated from the church because of drug use, convinced his younger brother Justin and a woman named Dawn Godman that he was a prophet. Their mission was to defeat Satan by first training Brazilian orphans to kill the leaders of the Mormon Church so Helzer could become its new leader. Naturally, they would need money to carry out their ambitious plans, so they extorted $100,000 from a retired couple in Concord before bludgeoning them to death. Two days later, Glenn and Justin killed Selina Bishop, daughter of ’70s rock star Elvin Bishop. The following day, Glenn and Godman shot to death Bishop’s mother and stepfather in Marin County because Glenn feared they might suspect them in the death of their daughter. The Helzer brothers and Godman were arrested on August 7, 2000.
Sex scandal: None
THE MANSON FAMILY
Founder: Charles Manson
History: Perhaps the most infamous cult leader of all time, Charles Manson began his cult career in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district in 1967. Once he’d recruited a core group of followers from the Bay Area, Manson’s Family moved to the desert in Southern California before embarking on their murderous rampage, killing 12 Los Angelinos in 1969, including actress Sharon Tate (who was pregnant with director Roman Polanski’s baby) and coffee heiress Abigail Folger.
Sex scandal: Manson first recruited young women into his cult and convinced them he was the Son of God before using them to seduce men to join the Family. Manson himself once initiated a 13-year-old girl by sodomizing her in front of the rest of the group, which held frequent orgies that Manson conducted but never participated in.
SPIRITUAL RIGHTS FOUNDATION
Founder: William Baldwin (aka William Duby, Reverend Bill)
History: Blending New Age spiritualism and fundamentalist Christian doctrine, Reverend Bill went from being a down-and-out gambling addict to becoming the founding father of the SRF with his self-proclaimed insight into God and ability to channel the thoughts of Jesus. Founded as a non-profit religious organization in 1981, the SRF runs the Academy for Psychic Studies schools in Berkeley and San Jose, operates “1-900” psychic numbers, and allegedly requires its members to donate 40-plus hours per week and up to two-thirds of their income to the SRF. Most parents in the group elect to home-school their children rather than subject them to outside influences. One former member, successful businessman Larry Adams, blew his own head off with a shotgun in 1993 after failing to find gold in the Sierra foothills with his SRF-honed psychic ability. If interested in learning more about the wonders of SRF, you can listen to Reverend Bill give a sermon each Tuesday on KEST 1450 AM between 10:00am and 11:00am.
Sex scandal: Although it has never been proven, several former members allege that Reverend Bill seduced the 15-year-old daughter of one of his top aides, Reverend Angela.
SYMBIONESE LIBERATION ARMY
Founder: Donald DeFreeze (aka Cinque Mtune)
History: Upon escaping from San Quentin prison in 1973 (where he was serving time on an armed robbery conviction), Donald DeFreeze founded the SLA as a militant cult with designs on bringing down America’s ruling class. Recruiting heavily at the UC Berkeley campus, the SLA is most renowned for their abduction and subsequent brainwashing of 19-year-old Patty Hearst, daughter of media mogul Randolph Hearst. After forcing Ms. Hearst to rob a San Francisco bank, the SLA saga ended in dramatic fashion on May 17, 1974, when more than 100 law enforcement officers surrounded the SLA’s Los Angeles headquarters and killed most of the members, including DeFreeze, in a vicious gun battle.
Sex scandal: After her kidnapping, Hearst was raped by her captors and kept blindfolded in a closet for days while she was programmed to support SLA politics.
Founder: Charles Dederich
History: After Synanon purchased land in Marin County in 1967 to build a drug rehabilitation center, the group received large donations from Fortune 500 companies and much political support for their work in turning around troubled lives. But the dream morphed into a nightmare once Dederich became intoxicated with power. The rehab center quickly became little more than a front for a Synanon cult where violence and emotional abuse were rampant. As word leaked about the troubles within Synanon and concerned relatives and Marin neighbors started snooping around, Dederich declared a “holy war” against anyone who confronted his group. One local rancher was attacked by a Synanon mob for helping Synanon runaways. A man who tried to retrieve his child from Synanon was beaten with croquet mallets on his own front lawn. And a lawyer who sued Synanon was bitten by a rattlesnake planted in his mailbox – doctors had to use 11 vials of anti-venom to save his life.
Sex scandal: In 1976, Dederich decided that children were a nuisance, so he ordered all of his male members to undergo vasectomies, sans himself. And when his wife died of cancer in ’77, he chose a new wife and ordered all married couples to break up and take new partners so they could share in their master’s experience.
THE WRIGHT FAMILY
Founder: Winnfred Wright
History: The saga of the Wright Family made national headlines in 2001 after a few women entered the Kaiser Permanente emergency room in San Rafael with a dead baby in tote. One of the women calmly told the receptionist, “Our child isn’t breathing.” When a doctor informed them that their 16-month-old baby could not be revived and had died of malnutrition, the women barely reacted. One of them asked if there was a coroner on duty. When the doctor said that there was, she replied, “Good, because we’re ready to go home.” The ensuing investigation by police unearthed one of the most bizarre cult tales of our time, centered around an African-American man named Winnfred Wright who brainwashed four white women (one of them an heiress to the Xerox fortune) into becoming his servile wives out of reparation for the sins committed by whites against blacks. From their Marinwood home (north of San Francisco), the women bore him 13 children, all of whom were imprisoned in their house and weren’t allowed to go to school or a doctor and were often beaten. Wright and the three eldest women of his cult are currently serving time for the negligent death of the baby.
Sex scandal: Not only did Wright convince his four wives that serving him sexually was their duty, he had them go out in public to lure other women to have sex with him.
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