Tucson Center: Bringing the Cultists Back
Los Angeles Times (1886-Current File); Jan 3, 1977; ProQuest Historical Newspapers Los Angeles Times (1881 - 1986) pg. 1A
Tucson Center: Bringing the Cultists Back
Gets Legal Custody of Young Sect Members for Deprogramming
Times Religion Writer
TUCSON - If a young attorney named Michael Edward Trauscht has his way, this desert city will become known as the anticult capital of the world.
Trauscht, a former deputy attorney for Pima County. and his team of professional "deprogrammers" already claim to have extricated about 70 young persons from the so-called new religious cults and returned them to normal life.
His Freedom of Thought Foundation here is the nation's first deprogramming service that enables parents to gain 30-day custody of their children - regardless of age - through the courts.
"Our deprogram team is the only one to go legal," said Trauscht, a restless, energetic man of 28.
Deprogramming, to Trauscht, is a process that breaks the tie to a certain belief. Those who oppose it call it a form of brainwashing.
Deprogramming centers and organizations are being established across the nation as the burgeoning new religious groups continue to lure more young people into controversial and nontraditional lifestyles.
Frantic parents, heartsick at seeing their sons and daughters swept away, are paying professional deprogrammers tens of thousands of dollars in an attempt to break the grip of the cult and get the young person to "think for himself" again.
But the cults, hiring expensive lawyers themselves, are girding for all-out battle. And some religionists, psychologists and civil rights leaders have increasing qualms about the legality, propriety and permanency of deprogramming.
One outspoken opponent referred to the Freedom of Thought Foundation and the growing network of related deprogramming groups as an "outrageous nationwide conspiracy to deprive people of their civil and religious rights."
Trauscht insists that he agrees that individuals should be guaranteed freedom of religion, speech and association.
"But somewhere inherent in those rights is freedom of thought," he said during a hasty interview before rushing to the airport to meet members of his deprogramming team who were arranging the "pickup" of a cult member. "We argue that the courts have a duty to see that those rights are not taken away."
Joe Alexander, senior deprogrammer on the Freedom of Thought Foundation team, claims to have deprogrammed about 600 persons in the last five years. He learned deprogramming techniques from the patriarch deprogrammer, Ted Patrick, who is now in jail in California for falsely imprisoning and detaining cultists against their will.
Trauscht, Wayne Howard, a Phoenix attorney, Alexander and his wife, Esther, and their son, Joe Jr., opened the foundation rehabilitation center here with a $105,000 donation from the parents of a person deprogrammed from an Eastern religious sect.
Alexander, a short, graying man
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who ran a car agency in Ohio until going full time into deprogramming in the fall of 1979, asserts that his method uses no physical force or violence and does not attempt to make a subject give up his religious faith.
"Look, I'm not here to take God out of your life," Alexander told a young person under deprogramming recently. "I want you to realize that what you're involved in is not of God."
But not all persons on the receiving end of deprogramming agree. Some have returned to the religious groups from which the Freedom of Thought Foundation was trying to separate them. Several court tests are pending.
And tales of brutality, harassment and deprivation of food, sleep and privacy at the hands of their "captors" are told by persons "unsuccessfully" deprogrammed, as well as by former cultists who say they were "psychologically kidnapped" by cult leaders who turned them into "robots for God."
The uniqueness of the Tucson-based foundation is that Trauscht and Howard seem to have found - thus far - the only legal means of gaining parental custody of a cult member for 30 days through a court order, The document is issued by a judge on the basis of testimony from psychologists, physicians, former cult members and often the parents themselves.
The legal instrument is usually called a "temporary conservatorship. Typically, a deprogram "rescue team" operates like this, according to interviews with team members and former cult members:
Trauscht acts as a legal consultant, Howard as a lawyer for the parents, the Alexanders and young ex-cult members as deprogrammers (and restrainers in case the subject tries to escape).
In perhaps half the cases, Tucson psychologist Kevin Gilmartin has gone along to study the group or to assist in counseling. Law enforcement personnel also are brought into the picture to serve the legal papers and to give evidence that the operation is sanctioned by the law.
"Prior to Trauscht's legal precedent," said Alexander, 58, "we would snatch the kid on a street corner and hustle him to a motel room."
Now, armed with the court order, the approach is more sophisticated, though the target of deprogramming is still rushed to a motel room, usually a short drive from where he is apprehended,
There he is subjected to intense questioning, often for many hours at a time, over several days. The critical point is reached, deprogrammers say, when the subject suddenly "sees the light" and disavows his faith.
"When you deprogram, all you are doing is trying to show the kid what he is involved in, and promote him to think on his own," Trauscht said. "It helps to have former cult people point out how they were mentally manipulated and financially raped."
A pro-deprogramming psychologist has called the process "reality-inducing therapy."
Whatever you call it, the process is costly, often running $3,000 to $5,000 for legal fees alone.
Other costs often include flying out the professional deprogramming team, renting from three to five motel rooms a day for up to a week and paying for meals, telephone calls and security protection. The total tab can easily reach $25,000.
The Freedom of Thought Foundation, a nonprofit corporation funded by donations, does not charge parents for the 30 days of rehabilitation at the Tucson ranch house.
Trauscht and Alexander started in separate strands of deprogramming before joining operations in Tucson just over a year ago.
Trauscht, then a special deputy county attornty, had been reading Vincent Bugliosi's "Helter Skelter," an account of the "hypnotic hold" of Charles Manson over his notorious "family." So when some parents complained to him that their sons had become members of a wandering cult called Brother Evangelist, or the Body, he went to the sect's mountain camp to investigate.
Pretending to be backpacking in the area, Trauscht and a police officer companion infiltrated the nomadic group, which periodically trekked down to the cities to preach and to forage in garbage cans for food.
Appalled by what he saw, Trauscht obtained a writ of habeus corpus for the two 23-year-old men on grounds that they were under "mind control." The parents flew in Alexander, who was known by Trauscht to have a reputation as a skilled deprogrammer. After a weekend with Alexander, who has had no formal training in psychology, the two cultists promptly shed their robes, donned street clothes, shaved and dropped the rigidly fundamentalist doctrines of the cult.
Publicity about the incident brought in dozens of calls from other distraught parents and soon Trauscht and the Alexanders were jetting around the nation, advising local officials and attorneys on legal procedures to temporarily remove people from sects,
"I'm getting 20 to 50 calls a day from worried families," Trauscht said the other day. "People are begging for help."
Joe Alexander, a seemingly mild-mannered man of Roman Catholic background, and his wife, Esther, an attractive blonde first became interested in deprogramming when Alexander's nephew become involved in the Tony and Susan Alamo Christian Foundation five years ago.
A controversial fundamentalist group, its main operation is on a large ranch in Saugus. The organization attracts large numbers of young people, many of whom are former drug addicts, to live a highly regimented life.
Ted Patrick, the original deprogrammer - known as "black lightning" for his tactics of swooping in and removing cultists from their environment - worked with Alexander's nephew.
Alexander was impressed with Patrick, who had been a special representative for community relations under former Gov. Ronald Reagan. So when Patrick was in the Akron area 10 days later, Alexander helped him with another deprogramming, then worked with Patrick off and on for several years.
The Alexander home often was used as the "rehabilitation" center after initial deprogramming in a motel or hotel.
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Several years later, Alexander abandoned his car agency to become a full-time deprogrammer. His wife assumed an increasingly important role working with girls in the rehabilitation process, helping several hundred during the last three years.
During an extended interview in the large stucco home on the outskirts of Tucson which is headquarters for Freedom of Thought and its rehabilitation center, the Alexanders talked about how young people are prepared at the center for reentry into the "normal world."
"We make friends with them first," said Mrs. Alexander, who regards herself as a kind of "substitute mother."
The young people are allowed to eat and sleep as much as they wish, play games or work on crafts. Informal talks are held daily, and sometimes Mrs. Alexander takes the girls into town to shop.
The Alexanders and "junior" deprogrammers always keep an eye on anyone who seems unstable or might try to flee.
"No one has gone back after they have spent the full 30 days here without any connection with the cult or its members," said Mrs. Alexander. "We want them to have the opportunity to think without any interfering with their life.
"At first it's difficult for them to make decisions, but as the days go by, their minds start clearing."
Although household tasks are shared and there is no segregation of the sexes, sexual activity is prohibited between unmarried persons. Smoking is discouraged, and though the Alexanders are not teetotalers, alcohol is served only in the form of wine with certain meals.
Parents of young people in the rehabilitation program are encouraged to go to Tucson for four or five days of the sessions in order to get a feel for the process.
No effort is made to introduce any specific religion to those being rehabilitated, according to Alexander.
"I'm not concerned about a person's religious beliefs," Trauscht said. "We are concerned about the techniques used to achieve these beliefs."
Nonsectarian prayers are read before meals, but in the case of most former cult members, Bible reading is discouraged "because of the way it has been twisted and programmed in the convert's mind" by the sect, Alexander said.
"We suggest they can see the Bible during their last week here with us." he added. "We make sure they can handle the Bible ( understand it correctly) before they walk out of here."
Gilmartin, the Tucson psychologist who heads the Pima Court Clinic, is sometimes called in to work individually
Parents are encouraged to visit their children at the Tucson center.
with youngsters during the rehabilitation period, but he said he does this by arrangement with their parents and only with the consent of the young person involved.
Gilmartin, during an interview, was careful to point out that he is not a part of the Freedom of Thought deprogram team, though he has participated in or observed 25 to 30 cases. (Alexander said he had been involved in nearly 50.)
"I don't see myself as an anticult advocate," Gilmartin said. "I've seen some kids helped by the cults - others have been devastated by them."
The worst aspect of the "new religion" cults, according to Gilmartin, is "a lot of waste in potentially very creative people."
The psychologist, 27, believes that a particular type of young person is particularly susceptible to cult involvement: "Someone just entering adulthood, bright people who are abstractly related, often into things like painting and philosophy."
The Alexanders, on the other hand, said there is no pattern of background or personality types for those who get caught up in cult religions.
One of the most debatable aspects of deprogramming is whether physical force and abuse are inflicted by deprogrammers.
Trauscht and Howard use "stakeouts" to keep tabs on a young person whose parents have hired them. When the person is apprehended and served with the court order, he often tries to escape.
"We've had to handcuff two for about 15 minutes," Trauscht admitted. "But we tell them that they are free to go back to their cult after 30 days if they want to."
Although efforts were made by a Times reporter and a photographer to witness a deprogramming, beginning with the "pick up," Freedom of Thought officials said they would allow observation only of deprogramming, and that must be through a "one-way window" at a deprogramming facility in an unspecified city.
The Times rejected this because it would keep the deprogram subject from knowing that an outsider was witnessing the procedure.
Gilmartin said he had never seen any deprogrammer physically restrain anyone, though constant guard is kept to prevent escape.
Walter Robert Taylor, a young Old Catholic monk, has indicated differently. He joined a monastery having Hindu overtones and which has no official connection with the Roman Catholic Church.
In depositions in a case now before the Oklahoma Supreme Court. Taylor, who was "unsuccessfully" deprogrammed by Trauscht and Howard, alleges he was "put through a series of abusive techniques."
After he was taken from the Oklahoma City monastery through "a temporary guardianship of his father," Taylor said, he was flown to Akron and "kept in a motel by a goon squad … My monastic clothes were ripped off me while four persons held me down. My cross was taken from me. "I was harassed for 13 hours or more per day about my religious beliefs by various persons working in shifts. I was kept awake and not permitted to sleep on various occasions. My wallet … was stolen by them from me and I was not permitted to read the Psalms … "
Taylor also alleges that the deprogrammers, including Trauscht, Howard and some of Taylor's family, threatened him with bodily harm and commitment to a mental institution if he did not renounce his religion.
Howard, asked about the case, said that it was exaggerated and would not stand up in court.
Taylor's testimony differs from that of several former members of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church who were among the dozen persons living in the Tucson rehabilitation center early last month.
Larry Gumbriner, 21, said he was a former student at
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Pfizer College, Claremont, before entering the Moon sect. He seemed to sum up the opinions of the others as they chatted with a reporter in the rehabilitation kitchen:
"There was no physical harassment during my deprogramming (by Alexander, Trauscht and others). I was well fed, I could sleep when I wanted to. Nobody beat me or threatened to."
Alexander and Trauscht claim a 96% rate of success for the 70 cases they have handled since "going legal."
They are called upon to deprogram 10 Moonies for every one of any other group, according to Alexander. Other religious groups whose members turn up in deprogram operations are the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Hare Krishna), the Divine Light Mission (Maharaj Ji, the teen-age Indian guru's group), the fundamentalistics, commune-style Children of God, and others.
Despite emphasis by the Alexanders and the young people at the rehabilitation center on the low-key approach to produce "a free-thinking person with his own free will," some of Alexander's comments seem to suggest he is capable of a different line of thinking and approach.
Though he believes cults should be protected by the First Amendment, Alexander added that in his opinion members of them "have no right to worship as they do."
When speaking of his nephew "flipping out" when he was with the Alamo Foundation. Alexander said that if the boy had been his son, he would "break his bones and take him off to an institution if necessary" in order to separate him from the cult.
In another conversation, Alexander spoke of once smashing his son's custom motorcycle with a crowbar to prevent his taking off on a trip to California with other cyclists to visit the Alamo Foundation.
The elder Alexander said that he strongly believes that cults are under Satanic influence: "I believe their leaders could be the anti-Christ himself."
He also thinks it is far worse for young people to be "caught up in a cult" than to become involved in hippie life-styles or in taking drugs.
Trauscht, raised a Roman Catholic, believes his approach to deprogramming through the courts is solid and that it avoids the snarl of criminal charges of kidnaping and false imprisonment which have beset other deprogramming efforts, including the Madonna Slavin case in Arcadia several months ago in which the mother and four relatives of the Hare Krishna devotee were charged with falsely imprisoning the girl. A $2.5 million damage suit against the relatives and deprogrammers was filed by the Krishna organization and the girl.
But one Northern California lawyer is going all out to break the chain of legal victories by the Freedom of Thought Foundation.
Ralph Baker, representing a young man who rejoined the Moon cult after an abortive deprogramming, told The Times he is looking for a "test case" to challenge the constitutionality of the temporary conservatorship approach.
"It's a misuse of the conservatorship law … which was originally designed to protect elderly and senile poeple from doing irrational things like giving away their money," Baker said.
According to the San Francisco attorney, who has filed petitions to quash temporary conservatorship orders in three Moon religion cases, a 10-day notice should be given before a court hearing is scheduled to decide whether a conservatorship is needed.
"There is no open hearing - those attorneys (Trauscht and Howard) simply go before a judge and get the conservatorship which allows parents to scoop up their kids for 30 days. It deprives a person of his liberty and civil rights without due process of law," Baker said.
Trauscht and Howard counter that to make public announcement of such court hearings would destroy their chances of locating their deprogramming target.
"The cults hide their victims and move them around," Howard said. "Even as it is, it may take three or four trys before we are able to isolate the individual and make good on a pickup."
An executive of Americans United for Separation of Church and State sees harmful implications for religious liberty in deprogramming.
"Though proselyting tactics adopted by some religious groups are certainly improper," said Andrew Leigh Gunn, "neither state authorities nor overzealous but well-meaning individuals have the right to kidnap, detain, interrogate or deconvert mature individuals … The right of individuals to change their religion has always been central to the American understanding of religious liberty."
But Trauscht insists that freedom of thought - not religion - is the issue.
Gilmartin, the psychologist who has participated in many of the Freedom of Thought deprogrammings, said he wholeheartedly supports Trauscht and his associates. But he also said there should be better controls on deprogramming.
The courtroom should be the forum to determine what kind of coercion or mind control is involved, both in cult proselytism and in deprogramming, he said.
In any case, the ranks of professional deprogrammers are swelling and court cases are multiplying. And it is becoming increasingly evident that deprogramming is far more than an intergenerational, private squabble over family faith.