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A "Deprogrammer's" Viewpoint

These observations on the case, and on the issue of cult deprogramming, are provided by Joseph P. Szimhart, who describes his involvement in the Collins-Macchio case. I provide this information with the intention that it be used to help people to understand the matter from several perspectives, and not as an endorsement. For a different perspective please read the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion's Resolution on New Religious Movements.

3 December 1996
Joseph P. Szimhart

Comments regarding a 'deprogramming' incident in Boise, Idaho in November, 1991

The facts, as I remember them, about this case are complex, but I will briefly summarize the incident, and then add my comments. In 1991 LaVerne Collins (now LaVerne Macchio) was married with four sons by her then husband Ross Collins. She was 39. Over a decade earlier, during the early stages of her relationship with Ross, LaVerne had expressed a deep interest in the teachings of Elizabeth Clare Prophet and her Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), a new religious movement founded in 1958, now centered in Montana. CUT belief is based on Theosophy and the worship of an array of ascended masters, gods, and angelic beings from many religions and mythologies. In CUT dogma, Elizabeth Prophet is the only authentic "Messenger" alive through whom these godly beings can and do speak to humankind. Ross and LaVerne's family objected to the CUT, which they regarded as a deceptive "cult." LaVerne's parents and husband confronted her over the issue and apparently convinced LaVerne to not participate in the CUT, to save her relationship with Ross. This agreement seemed to work until 1989-91.

At the time of the Gulf War in the Middle East, Ross Collins, a military man, reported from Idaho for active duty to California. He was separated from his family for half a year. During that time, his wife renewed and enhanced her participation with CUT members and practices, e.g., decreeing (a rapid chanting of prayers and commands that CUT members practice, usually over 2 hours daily). One of these members was a Mr. Macchio, who LaVerne would later marry.

Complicating the situation was (and is) the so-called "bomb shelter cycle" that energized CUT members during the late 1980s. Elizabeth Prophet had delivered prophecies, based partly on astrological interpretation, that the world would enter a "dark" cycle from 1988 through 2000. CUT members were led to believe that America was in danger from any number of catastrophes that included economic collapse and nuclear attack from Communist fronts. In preparation the church and church members spent millions of dollars building and stocking survival shelters in Montana. One shelter on CUT property reportedly holds around 750 members. CUT members felt impelled to move close to these shelters from places as far away as Australia. Some members built their own shelters at local teaching centers. The members in Boise, Idaho built one there as well.

Two dates stand out that hallmark CUT members' move to Montana and to buy shelter space for many thousands of dollars: October 2, 1989 and March 15, 1990. Elizabeth Prophet had indicated that October 2, 1989 was a significant dark day and for church members to be prepared. Many hundreds took this very seriously, uprooted themselves and moved to Montana. The dark day came and went without mishap, but their shelters were not ready in any case. March 15, 1990 was taken by most members to be another dire date. When it came CUT members went underground for the first time--but only for one night. From inside reports the shelters were not all completed, the members were not well-prepared, and a bit of chaos reigned. "On the night of March 15th, in the best shelter of them all (Guru Ma's), kids were screaming as they were strapped into their shelter bunks. Men were hauling out human waste in five gallon buckets for lack of proper toilet facilities. Armed guards patrolled the topside. Similar scenarios of this nightmare repeated itself in every other shelter" (Peter Arnone. October, 1996. FOCUS: an ex-CUT membership newsletter).

Other events alarmed LaVerne Collins' family. In July, 1989 CUT's chief of security, Vernon Hamilton, and Elizabeth Prophet's husband, Ed Francis, were caught and arrested for illegally purchasing weapons for church use for the shelters (see Scott McMillion, February 27, 1995. "Church members' gun-buying outlined: Justice Department documents released to the Chronicle", Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Bozeman, Montana). Since the early 1970s, CUT had apparently amassed an arsenal that included a tank. The weapons were all allegedly legal for private ownership, but the IRS had a problem with a non-profit religion owning an arsenal in secret. So did the local population in Montana. So did the Coehlos (LaVerne's parents). By the time Ross Collins returned from his duty in California, his marriage was in jeopardy. LaVerne's parents and sister tried again to dissuade her from CUT influence on their own, but it did not work. This time LaVerne Collins took out a legal restraining order to keep her family away. It only increased the family's anxiety. By August of 1991, LaVerne Coehlo (Collins-Macchio's mother) and her other daughter began interviewing "deprogrammers" to help them. I was one of the people they contacted.

Beyond exploring non-coercive avenues of talking with LaVerne, my role in advising the Coehlos was limited. When they finally decided to approach LaVerne in November of 1991, I told them that I was not available to help--therefore I was left out of their plans. Whatever their plans were, only Mrs. Coehlo and her other daughter, Patricia, a nurse, arranged the intervention. To the best of my knowledge--and after hearing the evidence in court during my trial in April, 1993--even La Verne's husband, Ross, and her father did not know that the senior LaVerne had planned an abduction. The abduction team, four people from New Jersey, apparently came up with the plan to abduct spontaneously after going out to Idaho to assess the situation. According to Mrs. Coehlo's court testimony, LaVerne Collins was apparently with CUT members nearly all the time, which made it impossible for the mother to approach her freely with information--notwithstanding the existing restraining order. The senior LaVerne's urgency coupled with the security team's inexperience, led to the decision to abduct LaVerne from her home.

Several days after the abduction, Mary Alice Chrnalogar, a former, one year CUT member and "deprogrammer," and Ken Paolini, another former CUT member who was once the head of CUT security during his ten year devotion to the group, were enlisted to talk with LaVerne. Paolini was not a professional "deprogrammer." According to their testimony, they had no idea that an abduction had taken place until after they arrived on the scene. What they were told by Mrs. Coehlo was that she had already been approached by the police in Boise about the abduction. She assured the officer that she would assume responsibility for her daughter LaVerne and bring her home after a few days of discussions. She and her other daughter, who had informed LaVerne's children and husband of what was happening immediately after the abduction, went to join the security team with LaVerne at a motel where she was being allegedly held. The senior LaVerne and the security team assumed that they had official sanction for their actions at that time.

I had known two of the security team members, Joy and Carmine DeSanctis, from a prior case on which they had done surveillance and minimal security work. That case worked out very well and they were comfortable with my abilities during an intervention. They, like Mrs. Coehlo, wanted me to talk with LaVerne if I were available. They discovered through a phone call to me during that week that I could come to Idaho. Carmine DeSanctis with Mrs. Coehlo arranged for my flight. Chrnalogar and Paolini had been there already for a day when I arrived. Like them I learned about the abduction and the "arrangement" with the police officer after I arrived. I also learned from LaVerne Collins that she would "listen" for several days, but wanted to be home before "Thanksgiving."

I will not go into detail about these discussions--suffice it to say that I personally spent little time with LaVerne as she did not seem to be interested in any in-depth look at the CUT. Understandably, she was not happy about the intervention, even though she and her mother and sister seemed to get along well outside of discussions about the CUT.

As per my agreement, after three days I left. I could see by the third day that we were not making any progress with LaVerne. While I sat at the Boise airport, I noticed the local newspaper had an article about the abduction. CUT members had had a press conference. The Boise prosecutor's office were evidently influenced by the CUT already. A few days after I arrived home I learned that the senior LaVerne had been arrested in Boise for "kidnapping." Her other daughter, Patricia who was pregnant at the time, was arrested as she departed from a plane in a California airport that same day. Two months later, at the end of January, 1992, I was the next one arrested at my home in Santa Fe, NM. After being handcuffed inside my home by five officers, I was informed that I was a "fugitive from justice" wanted in Idaho for "aiding and abetting a kidnapping." The warrant included a search document that wanted any and all materials in my home related to the case as well as videos and documents that mentioned CUT, the Hare Krishnas, the Mormons (one prosecutor was a Mormon), the Unification Church (the Moonies), or the Catholic Church. The plaintiff and prosecution seemed to want to prove that I was against all these religions--a bogus notion. I spent the weekend in jail until my wife could gather ten thousand dollars in cash to bail me out. We later signed over the deed to our home as bail.

Chrnalogar and Paolini were also arrested, but not jailed, nor was their bail set so high. The four security persons were arrested soon after, but to my knowledge their bail was much lower as well. Apparently, the prosecutors were initially led to believe that I was the "heavy," and that I may have arranged the entire event. This "belief" proved to be an embarrassment to the prosecutors in court. They hardly cross-examined me after hearing the evidence with my testimony. They had been misled by CUT and "cult" propaganda about deprogrammers, their techniques, and their motives. The charges against the mother and sister were dropped in 1992. The prosecution offered us, the three "deprogrammers," a plea bargain at our arraignment in March of 1992--which was no bargain. We elected to plead "not guilty" and stand trial. The four security persons were to stand trial separately. On April 23, 1993 Paolini and I were acquitted on all counts after nearly a month of litigation before a jury. The jury was "hung" 11 to 1 to acquit Chrnalogar. Charges against her were subsequently dismissed.

Our case was concurrent with the Randy Weaver trial a few blocks away in a Federal court. Weaver was the white separatist accused of murdering an FBI agent when they assaulted his home after trying to serve a warrant. The news also carried events related to the Branch Davidian holdout at Waco, Texas at that time. During the closing arguments in our case by the prosecution on April 19, the Branch Davidian compound went up in flames. The jury's deliberations and verdict in our case were not effected by these events--we spoke with most of the jury members directly after the verdict--but it felt weird to us that two other events related to "mind control" and "cult" activity garnered national attention at that time. Our case received little attention outside of Idaho and Montana.

The security team were offered a relatively lenient plea after the verdict in our trial. They elected not to go to trial due to the expense; they pled guilty to a misdemeanor with a sentence of two weeks maximum in jail. The "necessity defense" allowed by the judge in our case (several jury members told me that Paolini and I would have been acquitted without the necessity defense) was disallowed on appeal to a higher court in the security team's case. In November of 1996, five years after the incident, all four were sentenced to one week in jail, $2,500 fines and some years probation with community service. The security persons agreed in their plea to automatically accept a felony if the necessity defense were disallowed. So each now has a "felony" on their records without a conviction by a jury. Two of them, Michael Howley and Charles Allen Kelly, had never worked on an intervention before. The husband and wife team of Joy and Carmine DeSanctis had engaged Kelly and Howley to help them carry out, what they surmised, to be a "mission of mercy."

Obviously, there are many points of view in a case such as this one. The jury heard our story as well as the plaintiff's. They found Paolini and I innocent unanimously, and Chrnalogar as well save by one vote. Clearly, this was not a simple situation of one side not liking the other side's religion. CUT's prophecies, behavior and influence over LaVerne Collins-Macchio had a deleterious effect on her marriage and relationship with her family. Her choice to follow CUT teachings is protected by law, as it should be, but her family believed that it was necessary to "break" the law to help her and keep their family intact. We, the "deprogrammers," did not try to convince the family that CUT was a dangerous "cult." Nor did we try to talk them into attempting a dramatic intervention. Apparently, the Church Universal and Triumphant's track record and influence over LaVerne had already done that much for the family. My role was to merely explain why I had rejected the CUT, and why I might dissuade anyone from joining it. I may be very good at doing just that, but the choice to accept my information is just that, a choice, and one that I cannot force on anyone under any circumstance. If nothing else, LaVerne Collins-Macchio proved that much.

Note: My "history" with the CUT goes back to the mid 1970s when I first became interested in their teachings. I rejected CUT and similar groups as "manipulative and deceitful" by 1980. Since then I have helped dozens of persons and some family groups reevaluate their CUT devotion and influence them to leave the group. I began to make a thorough study of the "cult mind control" phenomena and continue to today. In 1986 I began working with deprogrammers and exit counselors regarding the influence of a wide variety of groups and sects. I have since become a professional consultant in this arena of new religious movements, controversial therapies and the use of thought reform in such activities. The prosecutors were probably led to seek out negative information I may have had about Mormons, Catholics, "Moonies," Hare Krishnas and the CUT in order to "prove" that I was anti-religion, no matter what it was. I am a Catholic, I have been hired and consulted several times by Mormons, and I do not have anything against the other three groups mentioned in terms of their beliefs. How a person is manipulated or deceived into believing anything is my concern. My religious persuasion does not play a role in my work with people under controversial influences. Although I had in a small percentage of my cases over a four year period worked with security teams, I ceased such activity altogether in 1992. I no longer work with families who elect to restrain a "cult" member at any time during an intervention.

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