Is the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps a religious cult? Are members harboring weapons, recruiting and brainwashing children - things they were accused of doing when their headquarters were in California? Or are the self-proclaimed "Soldiers of God" simply people who practice their religious freedom, bake and sell bread and insist on privacy?
Current group members aren't offering any clues, but El Pasoan Bob Heddon, 65, remembers why he beat a hasty retreat after joining the Berino group seven months ago. Heddon, still recovering emotionally from the death of his wife, was looking for Christian fellowship and Bible study. What he found in Berino was something quite different.
Group members wore black uniforms with berets, saluted and addressed each other by military titles.
"There wasn't a Bible in sight," Heddon said. "They had sort of holy roller-type prayer meetings in the mornings and in the evenings where everyone rolled around on the floor and talked in tongues."
No televisions, no radios, no children's toys were in sight at the schoolhouse, Heddon said. The bottom floor was a huge kitchen, where "soldiers" baked hundreds of loaves of bread every morning. The upper floor was full of Wisdom's Cry, a tabloid newspaper published and mostly written by the group's leaders.
Several attempts by the El Paso Times to contact the group by telephone, personal visits and certified mail were unsuccessful. On one occasion, a group member fled into the building when a reporter approached - then declined to answer the door.
Residents in tiny Berino, about 25 miles north of El Paso on Highway 478, may never know exactly what goes on behind the closed doors and heavy-curtained windows of their old red-brick schoolhouse, which closed in the mid-1950s.
Sometimes, they see the "soldiers" out landscaping, tending the garden, loading or unloading two big trucks. Occasionally, group members step out for a morning run or stop by the post office. Dressed in conservative, everyday clothing, some drive to El Paso or Las Cruces, where they sell baskets of bread and distribute literature.
"But mostly, they just keep to themselves," Berino postmaster Ernestina Acosta said. The post office and her home are across the highway from the old schoolhouse. "They're good neighbors, hard workers, very quiet, courteous people."
They're also very private. Neighbors said they had no idea how many people live in the schoolhouse or whether there are any children there. Heddon estimated 10 to 12 people lived there seven months ago, most of them adults, a few in their teens. Eight years ago, the group had 25 to 30 members in Sacramento, California, according to news reports.
The group's leaders, Deborah and Jim Green, call themselves "generals." They wrote and published a tabloid newspaper called The Battle Cry in Sacramento, and now publish Wisdom's Cry in Berino. Distributed free by group members and through the mail, the newspaper criticizes other religions, forecasts impending doom for mankind and calls upon group members, God's chosen "soldiers," to carry on.
Critic casts doubt on mission
The Greens are intelligent, crafty people who have become adept at controlling others, said Robert Blasier, a Sacramento lawyer. He said he has represented parents of several group members. Today, he is part of the defense team at the O.J. Simpson trial in Los Angeles.
Deborah Green, who went by the name Lila Green in Sacramento, is especially convincing, Blasier said.
"Lila Green is the real power behind the group," he said. "She's one of those people you look in the eyes and you feel real strange - a Charlie Manson type."
In the El Paso-Las Cruces area, the group's only obvious contacts with the public are through its publications and when members go out into communities to sell bread. If it weren't for its past, the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps might be described as a group of model Berino citizens minding its own business.
In 10 years, the ministry has lived in five different compounds in three states and has changed its name at least three times.
In Sacramento, parents picketed the group's headquarters in the 1980s, claiming children were being recruited and brainwashed, according to a new account in the Sacramento Bee. In 1989, the ministry lost a $1 million lawsuit by default to a former member who said she was brainwashed, imprisoned and forced to divorce her husband and surrender legal custody of her four children. The group called itself Free Love Ministries then, and sometimes the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps in its newspaper.
Near Cool, Calif., and at another northern California compound, the group was accused of conducting militaristic training exercises after it was forced to abandon its headquarters in Sacramento. There, the group called itself Free Land Mountain for a while, Blasier said.
In Klamath Falls, Ore., residents were so suspicious of the group that they refused to eat at its restaurant, effectively banishing it from the town in 1992. "They called themselves the Aggressive Christian Ministry Oregon," said Sue Todd, a local church member. "The girls all wore blue skirts, knee-high socks and red or maroon sweaters. Some had babies. The community pretty much ignored them. They bought a couple houses - left them in shambles."
Today, in Berino and at another group compound near Gallup, N.M., neighbors are curious, even though there has been no trouble, no reports of weapons and no obvious recruiting activities.
Neighbors in the dark
Mike Sanchez, an investigator with the County Sheriff's Department, said his office hasn't received any complaints or reports about the group in Berino. Like most others, he said he's in the dark about the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps and its motives.
Former members say the group has a small farm and makes furniture at its remote compound 30 miles southeast of Gallup, where McKinley County sheriff's investigators said they've been "keeping an eye" on the strangers.
"We've done some intelligence work, but so far we have no information on who the hell they are," said Sgt. John Yearley of the McKinley County Sheriff's Department. "We only see four or five of them at a time. I understand there are some children out there. Ranchers and farmers around them say they can be pretty aggressive protecting their property lines."
In the two years the ministry has occupied the Berino schoolhouse, the secrecy and seclusion has spawned curiosity, but little fear among folks who live or work nearby.
"I would like to know more about them," said Sister Camilla Verret, administrator of Immaculate Conception Church in Berino. She said suspicions have been aroused, mostly because of the group's secretive nature. " . . . I've been hearing things," Verret said. "Things about cults."
Another neighbor who asked not to be identified said she's afraid to let her small children play outside near the old schoolhouse.
Others, including postmaster Acosta, said the group has caused no problems. Like many other Berino residents, she said she's curious about the group, but not worried. Some say she should be worried.
"It's a mental prison. They tore apart my life," said Maura Schmierer of Sacramento. She joined the group in 1982 when its headquarters were in Sacramento. "They made me give up my children, told all kinds of lies about me . . . made my husband think I was a witch."
Schmierer left the group, then called Free Love Ministries, in 1987. She filed a $20 million lawsuit alleging she was forced to divorce her husband and surrender legal custody of her four children. Her lawsuit also accused the group of holding her captive in a 5-by-12- foot wooden shed with a low ceiling that prevented her from standing upright.
"They claimed that God had judged me, so they excommunicated me and put me in a shed in the basement," Schmierer, now 47, said.
A year later she was awarded a $1 million default judgment against the Greens, the ministry and other group leaders. She regained custody of her two youngest children, but two others remained in the group with their father, she said.
Schmierer said her daughter, Rebecca, 26, returned home five years ago. Her son Nathaniel, 19, left the Gallup, N.M. compound in the middle of the night and came home six months ago. Her ex-husband, Steven Schmierer, is still with the group in Gallup but has changed his name, she said.
Maura Schmierer said her son Nathaniel had been with the group about 13 years, moving with it from California to Oregon and finally to the group's compound in Gallup. After he returned home to Sacramento, he estimated there were a total of about 30 people in the group's compounds at Berino and Gallup. Many of the group members he described, she said, "are the same ones as when I was there nine years ago."
Blasier represented Schmierer in the lawsuit. He said no one from Free Love Ministries showed up in court to contest it. As part of the judgement, the court seized the group's four houses and three small art stores. A lien also was acquired on the group's properties near Cool, in northern California.
All the properties were found vandalized after the group left them, he said.
Former group members said the Greens consider themselves prophets, chosen people who hear messages directly from God.
"They separate themselves from the world, believing the world is evil," Maura Schmierer said. "They have some Christian principles, but they totally take Scripture out of context - far out in left field. They've made statements like every other church in America is going to hell."
Searching for answers
Newcomers to the group often are people who are spiritually lost, looking for answers or help, said Doug Shearer, senior pastor at New Hope Christian Fellowship in Sacramento. He said his church has helped several refugees from the Aggressive Christianity Missions Corps get their lives back together.
"They're forced out of marriages, away from children. It's a wretched thing," Shearer said. "And these types of organizations tend to get worse over time. They tend to develop a paranoia, a persecution complex."
Blasier, who said he has helped at least 10 families try to retrieve children from the group, said the ministry's control techniques were typical of cult-type brainwashing. New members are forced to divorce themselves from the past, destroy mementos and photos, and reject all family ties. He said group members also are deprived of sleep, which induces a state of submission in many people, according to cult researchers.
Schmierer, now a registered nurse in Sacramento, said she still feels intimidated by the group's "generals." But, she said Berino residents shouldn't consider them a threat to the community.
"They're not like Jim Jones or David Koresh because they don't have the following. They are just power hungry. They want to have control over people," she said. "They're always looking for recruits."