It's not difficult to call up an image of the stereotypical American nuclear family--blond, tanned and blue eyed in the pictures, which inevitably crowd the mantelpiece of their neat home. The Dallaire family in Phoenix, Arizona fit the bill perfectly. The massed wattage of their smiles as they stand in football teams, get married, and hold their newborn babies would be enough to light Vegas for a night. But if you took the wattage reading just a few weeks later you'd register as much spark as you would in the average cemetery. The family hardly seem the same people. The blond hair appears to have been teased by sleepless nights and the eyes look as though the lights just went out of them.
Kenny, who beams down on the room from a recent school photograph in his football kit, sits slumped in a chair with a crocheted rug pulled up to his chin. Two nights earlier his mother had packed up a few belongings and slung them in the family 4WD along with him, his 13-year-old sister and their five-month old baby stepbrother. As Kenny watched his Santa Fe ranch-style home in the Arizona desert disappear from view, his mom told him they were going away to look after his grandmother.
The next morning, just as they were finishing breakfast, a complete stranger walked in. "Hi, Rick" said his mother and grandparents. "Who are you?" said Kenny. It was Rick Ross, one of America's best-known cult experts. His unexpected and not entirely welcome appearance next to Kenny's Cheerios heralded the start of Ross' latest deprogramming. To him, it's just another day chipping away at the coalface of America's obsession with weird and sinister religious groups. But to Kenny it could mean the end of the world, as he knows it. And all because his dad, Steve, had found a new bunch of friends.
Steve's new buddies go collectively under the name of The House of Yahweh: a religious group that Ross has down as, "one of the most dangerous cults in America." The House of Yahweh is led by a 64-year-old Texan called Yisrayl Hawkins. He hates the world and its filthy ways, but consoles his flock with the promise of, "A great amount of trouble, a great amount of death." He thinks we only have a year left and predicts that on October 13, 2000: "Nuclear bombs will block out the sun and life as we know it will end." But, and here comes the good part, it will bring about the Second Coming of the Messiah, which only the truly righteous (i.e. Hawkins and his band of merry polygamists) will be saved to witness.
Yisrayl (pronounced Israel) has been his name since 1982, when he had it changed legally. Before that he was the more profane Buffalo Bill Hawkins: a rockabilly singer with Buffalo Bill and his Whippoorwills. He then went on to become a cop and door-to-door Bible salesman, before finding the Lord and coming up with his very own version of The Truth: a heady coupling of Old Testament laws and casual sex. Mad as his mongrel gospel is, Hawkins has managed to convince around 40,000 people across the globe that he's the "witness" who will announce Christ's Second Coming before being murdered by Satan. In return, his flock sends him thousands of dollars a month as tithes. And around 500 of his congregants have sold their homes, packed in their jobs, changed their surnames to Hawkins and moved to the 44-acre trailer park in Abilene, Texas, where their leader reigns supreme. There are persistent rumors that Hawkins has a massive weapons stash on the grounds somewhere, but as yet the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) don't feel they have enough eyewitness evidence to get a warrant, bust in and search for it. They are, perhaps understandably, moving cautiously after their experience in nearby Waco in 1993.
Ross had acted as consultant to the BATF on the activities of the Branch Davidians and is still angry about how they put his evidence to use. "They brought me in for interviews before they went into Waco; I advised them how heavily armed the Davidians were," he says. "The BATF made a terrible mistake by going on the property; if they'd circled it, four agents' lives would have been spared." The whole Waco scenario was an exciting time for Ross: not only did he act as consultant to the Federal Authorities but as a television commentator for CBS [in Dallas]. What none knew at the time was that it also brought him, "One of the toughest cases I ever had." While he was in Texas filing his TV reports, the family of a Waco Davidian member called him. Their daughter had returned home from the compound to fetch her belongings, before making her "final commitment" to the group. While she was home, the government raided the compound, and the standoff, which ended with Koresh, the self-styled "Lamb of God" and many of his followers dying in a blaze of fire, began. The girl was desperate to get back to her "Lamb." Koresh had always told her that of the signals for the end of the world would be when Satan came to the compound and there was a conflict and that he and his followers would be redeemed through apocalyptic death. So there was no way she wanted to miss out on redemption. Her parents, however, weren't keen on the idea. Ross advised them there was nothing he could do at that time: "I told them: If she insists on going--go by car and drive slowly."
So they drove back to Waco and Ross, who [often] spent his daylight hours under the spotlight being interviewed by the media--[managed] to deprogram this girl. "We had to be secretive. The media was staked out [at Waco] waiting for something to happen," he says; "Day to day, it was very monotonous for them and if they'd known I was in that hotel room with that young woman, they'd have gone bananas." He was eventually successful, but does not remember the experience fondly: "It was extreme. Our time together was unpleasant. She was deeply brainwashed and it took a lot of intensive work to pull her out. But she later received follow-up care from a psychologist and went back to normal life."
For those still not in "normal life" Ross became a hate figure during the Waco weeks. To this day he still gets, "Delightful mail from the usual conspiracy theory nuts asking, "How does it feel to be responsible for all those deaths?" Or saying, "You are a killer. You are a butcher. You and the government will get yours." He just shrugs it off: "In the [United States] these days, there's a whole subculture that's developed around conspiracy theories--they are very, very defiant." He believes that the House of Yahweh is equally defiant. And he and many other media commentators and cult experts think the Yahweh's Abilene HQ, known locally as the "white trash empire," could be the scene of the next Waco-style cult explosion.
The House of Yahweh compound is kept under watch by closed circuit television and is under constant guard by the Shamarin--an elite band of heavies dressed in black suits and dark glasses. The Shamarin are trained in fighting techniques and roam the perimeter fences armed with handcuffs and billy clubs. The official line is that they're there to keep out intruders and maintain secrecy, but former members who escaped are singing to the press. They say the Shamarin keep the commune in a state of fear. They also tell tales of promiscuity so rampant and a compound so creepy it makes David Koresh's Waco sound like Disneyland.
Everyone in the House of Yahweh has bought a share of the land and a trailer from Hawkins around three times its actual value. But the land deeds remain with Hawkins and people can be excommunicated and banished from their homes if they're caught breaking any one of the 613 laws he has them living by.
Despite all that, Steve and Kenny were totally hooked. So much so that when Kenny's mom Jackie, carried on going to the supermarket on a Saturday [Sabbath] they called her the devil, accused her of trying to destroy their family and said she'd be murdered by God on the day of judgement. Worried by her husband's mania and the change in her son, who became skinny, depressed and weird, she tried to talk them out of it to rising screams of "devil" and threats that she'd ''burn in a lake of fire." The House of Yahweh isn't big on women's rights--Hawkins believes that a woman has no "head" until she becomes wife, concubine or slave to a man, so men in the House of Yahweh are called "husband head units".
Next Jackie heard that Steve was planning to attend one of the House of Yahweh feasts. It was coming up in three weeks' time and involved a month-long stay in Abilene. She panicked. What if he took the kids? What if they didn't come back? That's when Jackie learned there were people who made a living getting people out of cults--people like Rick Ross. And so began yet another case for the cult-buster. It was a fairly standard start: "A concerned family member saying they're really worried about their son, daughter, husband, wife, whoever, who's gone through a personality change since they got involved in some kind of group. I send them off to do some research. Some I never hear from again; some call back so [concerned] by what they've learned that they want to try to get them out." He gave Jackie his file on the House of Yahweh. It's one of the bulkiest in his database--he has worked on a couple of Yahweh deprogrammings and acted as an expert witness in three child custody cases against the House; all of which resulted either in the courts not allowing the children to return to the Abilene compound or restricting their visits. One glance at the file, and Jackie gave Rick the green light. She'd thought this was something that happened to other people, but her normal, intelligent husband and son had got themselves inducted right into the heart of madness.
The next stage in an intervention for Ross, who claims a 75 per cent success rate, is meeting the family to tell them what can be done and what it costs--$65 an hour including travelling time plus flights, hotel and meal expenses. The only kind of intervention Ross won't take on is an involuntary one--snatching people and deprogramming them against their will. He used to do that but he was sued. "Practically everybody else in the business has been [involved in] illegal kidnapping. [But] nobody does involuntaries any more, no matter how compelling the case." A shame, he says, "Because a lot people have no other way of talking to their loved ones." All cults depend on thought control to get new members in, but they fear the brainwashing might begin to wear thin off-compound so, says Ross, "Many groups won't allow any family contact at all and/or train their members to flee as soon as someone raises issues about the group."
In the old days he'd "grab 'n' run" [with some] as they went off-compound on errands or recruiting missions. He'd hold them in a room under lock and key until he'd had a crack at reversing the thought control. But all the high-profile court cases of the past few years have meant that these days, unless the family can guarantee that the cult member will voluntarily come to their home, he won't take the case on. Once they are with the family he [most often] appears "cold, as a surprise present." Although he feels sad for the families who can't get their cultic relatives to visit them voluntarily, snatching is not an activity he misses. "I [have experienced] a lot of hate. They [have often have become] very angry with me. Supposedly pious people have called me a 'fucking son of a bitch' and a 'damn religious mercenary bastard'." It rarely turned to violence, but one woman in a Bible based group slapped me across the face so hard that she blew out one third of my right eardrum."
Not that his charges are exactly happy to see him at the start of an intervention now. Particularly the ones involved in racist or white supremacist groups: "I have been hired by families to do interventions with skinheads, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, and they have threatened my life and told me that I am a 'Jewish pig' and a 'kike bastard' that needs to be put in the oven or made into soap--the usual ravings of these lunatics." It's obviously a tough job, but one for which his unique mix of thick skin, extraordinarily detailed knowledge of every scripture and sense of mission make him peculiarly well-suited. Unusually for someone in his line of work, Ross is not a former cult member himself. He has no particular doctrine or agenda to push and works with the full range of cults: "Hate groups, such as the antigovernment conspiracy theorists, to therapy groups, or Bible-based groups, which are the most common, to new-age groups, sci-fi groups, UFO groups, neo-Eastern guru meditation groups and the white supremacist groups. He denies he's on any kind of crusade and says he does what he does because he believes in "The right of a human being to be their own person. Cult groups rob people of their personalities--of their unique way of expressing themselves. It's almost as if they steal a person's life; they try to make them a clone in the mould of the group."
Ross first became aware of the world of cults in 1983 when his grandmother's nursing home in Phoenix became infiltrated by, "A very [strange] group that sought to target the elderly; they had purposely gotten jobs as nursing aides in order to proselytize." He [joined] a committee [and effectively] ejected them from the home, started learning about thought control techniques and [after] three years [at a social service agency] set up a private practice as a cult investigator [and interventionist]. Since then he has documented the activities of [hundreds] of cult groups, worked on [hundreds] of cases [and responded to thousands of inquiries].
Ross says there's no such thing as a typical profile of someone who gets inducted into cults. "That's a fantasy," he says. "People want to believe it in order to say: 'Well I'm not in that profile therefore I'm immune.'" He likens [this] to the beginning of the Aids epidemic: "People wanted to believe only certain people could contract the disease, but the reality is everybody's vulnerable." And it's a good analogy: the cults are growing and moving across America like a deadly virus. Ross estimates that [millions of] Americans are living in [such a] subculture.
Part of the reason for this spread is the Internet. Almost all the groups he has within his files have websites and they have found them to be very powerful recruitment tools. Traditionally they sent fit-looking young people out to university campuses to pick up students who were feeling lonely, lost or in need of some kind of focus in their lives. But now they can get upper middle class losers in their bedrooms. "More sophisticated cults are looking for people in a high socio-economic bracket," says Ross, adding that Heaven's Gate--the cult led by Marshall Herff Applewhite in San Diego County, who took almost 40 with him in a mass suicide three years ago--was one of the many computer-connected cults that has flourished in the last decade.
Although the white supremacists have been linked to terrorist acts--such as Buford Farrow's killing spree in California in August 1999--mass suicide is the greatest danger to life posed by the bulk of American cults. Ross puts this down to one thing--mental illness: "Almost by definition the leader of a cult is an unstable character with a borderline personality and paranoid delusions. And the members of a destructive cult have given up their ability to think for themselves and handed over their thinking to a leader. So you have a group of people who wake up every day and go about their business dependent on the psychological stability of one leader, and they [cult leaders] do slip over the edge--as did Applewhite."
As for the Dallaire family, Ross seems to have saved them from destruction. The method he uses is to bombard people with facts. "What you do in an intervention is unravel the programming by looking for a way to penetrate it through new information, critical thinking and analysis," he explains. "Then, finally, the program begins to crack and they're free to think again." All the time Ross has [worked] in the Dallaire house--three days in total--the front door has been on the chain and at the sound of every car passing, someone has gone nervously to the window. When Jackie left she'd called Steve to tell him what she was doing; he screamed down the phone that she'd kidnapped the kids and she'd be murdered by God for it. But they'd been away three days and he hadn't come to try to get them back. And when FHM phoned Ross a few days later, Steve too had been [kept] away from the commune long enough for him to be deprogrammed as well. "It was very tough," said Ross. "The second day I was with him until midnight and he gave me no food"--[Ross joked, alluding to tales of harsh treatment during deprogrammings made by cults]. Ross showed [Steve] videos about thought control, read him hour after hour of articles from critical newspapers and magazines and hammered home again and again the holes in Hawkins' ideology. The deprogramming isn't entirely successful--at the end of the ordeal, Steve says he still wants to observe the Sabbath and call God Yahweh. But, hey, it's a free country and he's shaved his beard off [a requirement for men in the group] and is being nice to Kenny's mother and sister. It seems unlikely they'll be changing their name to Hawkins any time soon.
As for Ross, it looks like he'll be kept busy. The approach of the new millennium is helping to stoke up the grip cults have on people--a recent poll taken by Associated Press showed that nearly one in four of American Christians expect Christ to turn up again in their lifetime. And Ross says the groups he considers most sinister are: "Apocalyptic groups that live in compounds in isolation with the leader. One of the cults I'm most concerned about right now is the True and Living Church--a polygamist group in southern Utah, which follows a man called James Harmston. Another is Concerned Christians who [suddenly] left Denver [with their leader]. Nobody knows where they are. More worryingly, they've taken actual physical steps to fulfil the prophecy of their leader, Monte Miller, who predicts there'll be bloodshed on the streets of Jerusalem [before] the coming of the new century." Ross is also bothered by the year 2000 groups who, he says, have become very extreme: "I think it's very unlikely that we'll go through the year 2000 without some type of cult tragedy: at least one group will self-destruct or explode."
To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here