THE teachings of a new age dietary guru who claims she has not eaten for five years have been linked with the deaths of at least three of her disciples, including an Australian woman who died in Scotland last week.
A Sunday Times investigation has revealed that Ellen Greve's books and internet sites expounding the wonders of "breatharianism" may have contributed to the fatal fasts of a woman in Brisbane, Australia, last summer and of a German kindergarten teacher in Munich in 1997, as well as the death of 49-year-old Verity Linn last week.
Greve, 43, who is also known as Jasmuheen, claims to have 5,000 followers worldwide and is set to tour Britain in November to promote her philosophy that humans can attain a higher spiritual state by starving themselves. Her business is based mainly on the internet.
Greve charges more than £1,500 for tickets to her seminars, which are said to be attracting increased interest on the eve of the millennium. The questionable nature of Greve's 21-day fasting regime was raised by the Scottish procurator fiscal Alasdair MacDonald last week when he said Linn died amid the bleak moorland of Sutherland because of hypothermia and dehydration, with self-neglect a secondary cause.
Her semi-naked body was found by an angler on Tuesday several miles from the nearest road or habitation, curled up by a lochan. Alarm bells began ringing when Greve's Living on Light book was found among her few possessions. Linn's diary detailed how she stopped eating and drinking on September 4. Her last entry was on September 11, five days before her body was found. For eight years, Linn had worked at the Findhorn Foundation, a new age community that has no links with Greve. None of her colleagues knew of her interest in Greve's claims that humans can survive physically and spiritually on invisible crystals in the air. It is thought she learnt of the cult on the internet.
Tracked down to a seminar in Auckland, New Zealand, last week, Greve said she had no knowledge of Linn but claimed that when told of her death she had "cried for two days".
She described her as a "spiritual warrior whose work was complete". She said she had spoken through cosmic telepathy to one of her "ascended masters", St Germain, who assured her that Linn had found "a very nice way to go out". The other two deaths associated with Greve's 21-day air diet have met with similar pronouncements. Last August Lani Morris, 53, from Melbourne, lost the power of speech and the use of her right arm after seven days of trying to survive on "prianic light", and collapsed three days later, never to recover. Greve later said that perhaps Morris was "not coming from a place of integrity and did not have the right motivation".
Timo Degen, a 31-year-old kindergarten teacher from Munich, died in March 1997 after reading about Greve's quasi-mysticism and the "liberation from the drudgery of food and drink" on one of her many internet sites. On day 12 of his diet he reported having visual problems and a week later he slipped into a coma. A hospital spokesman said Degen had suffered "an almost total circulatory system collapse" and looked as though "he'd been in a concentration camp"; after four weeks on intravenous drips he recovered, only to fall over and die from a head injury.
Greve's followers have been unrepentant, and the German new age magazine Esotera announced that "one death in 5,000 is not too high a price to pay to fight world hunger".
The advantages to the Third World of not eating are a central vein of Greve's publicity, though her critics point out that she has never toured developing countries.
"When your number's up, your number's up, basically," said Greve's British promoter, Gerd Lange. "We know people starve to death in Africa, and much as I feel for these people, I know it's unnecessary had they got the right attunement."
Greve herself is a svelte 7st 6lb, a weight she claims to have "commanded my body to stabilise at". She drinks herbal teas and confesses to the occasional "taste orgasm" involving chocolate or ice cream, but Lange insists she has "eaten only a packet of biscuits" in the past half decade. Successive interviewers have been surprised to find her £148,000 house and swimming pool in Brisbane's prosperous Chapel Hill crammed with food, but Greve insists these are the vegan requirements of Jess Ferguson, 52, her second husband. The local newspaper last week revealed that he has been convicted of fraud and has twice been made a bankrupt. He was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment in 1992 on nine counts of misappropriation of a pension fund but was released two years later. "He's paid his dues and that's in the past," insisted Greve, who began her working life with a mortgage broker but "got sick of making rich people richer. It didn't make my heart sing".
Linn's death has revived anger in the medical profession at Greve's commercial success. Dr Geoff Marks, head of the nutrition programme at Queensland University, called her teachings "dangerous mumbo jumbo". "There is no mechanism by which our bodies can extract nitrogen and other elements from the air," he said.
Dr Dee Dawson, eating disorder specialist at the Rhodes Farm Clinic in north London, said simply that Greve was an "irresponsible nutter". The fifth and youngest child of Norwegian immigrants, Greve claims to trace her techniques back to methods traditionally used by Tibetan monks, and has sworn that she will never need to eat again.
One of Greve's followers, Jeffry Sharp, from Ilkley, West Yorkshire, defended the 21-day fast yesterday, claiming it gave him more energy. "It is certainly not a fad or a cult where someone tells you how to live your life," he said. "I would call it a personal choice."