Daughter isn't lost, but it feels that way

Family - South African parents agonize over their 18-year-old's abrupt marriage to a spiritual leader in Oregon

Oregonian/April 23, 2006
By Lori Tobias

Gardiner -- A year ago, 18-year-old [D. M.] left for school, telling her parents that she planned to spend the night at a nearby friend's house.

The next time they heard from her, the high school senior from Johannesburg, South Africa, was Oregon-bound and about to become the bride of a 56-year-old man she met over the Internet.

Her husband-to-be was the self-styled leader of a New Age spiritual group known as the Living Love Fellowship, and he called himself Amadon, taken from a book of theology supposedly written by celestial beings.

The two had communicated for about three years but apparently had never met face to face. Her parents say members of the group arranged for the teenager's visa and paid for her plane ticket to come to this former mill town on Oregon's south coast.

[D. M.] was married three days later and hasn't been back to South Africa since.

Their daughter was gone, lost to a stranger on the Internet, courted without their knowledge or approval, [Mr. and Mrs. M.] say. They soon found they had little recourse to bring her back home.

At first, the parents pleaded privately with [D. M.] to return. Then they went public -- taking their story to South African newspapers and warning of the dangers of cyberspace connections.

They also contacted police in both countries, noting that South Africans must be 21 to marry without parental consent in their country. But the age of consent in the United States is 18, and authorities here said the union was perfectly legal.

Their daughter has since essentially cut off correspondence and telephone calls with her parents and two sisters.

The Ms say they don't know what to do next. [Mrs. M.] ventured to Oregon last year to talk to [D. M.], but the teenager was steadfast in her desire to stay. They realize she is old enough, under U.S. law, to make that decision.

But the parents remain anguished by the 10,500-mile separation and wonder about the people who they say separated a smart, but naive young woman from her family, her home and everything she has known.

"They don't seem to think that there is anything wrong with what they have done," said [Mr. M.] , head of the trauma unit at a private hospital near Johannesburg.

"They get to a child when she is 15, wait until she is 18, and then whisk her away into a marriage with a man three times her age. He encouraged our daughter to stop communicating with us."

Devoted to spirituality

Today, [D. M.], now 19, is known as Mana, the name of a Polynesian goddess, her parents said.

She and Amadon, who took his name from a religious figure who resisted the devil, have declined repeated requests for interviews.

The Living Love Fellowship has about 12 members and a Web site that describes the group as a small spiritual family of friends who choose to work and live together to practice their shared values.

Its mission, the site says, "is to encourage all men and women to devote themselves to true spirituality -- the form of spirituality they recognize in their hearts as true and essential -- and to the service of the human family, which is one of true spirituality's natural expressions."

The site offers writings and instruction on spirituality -- from relationships to personal development to world peace -- and an opportunity for feedback from a buddy or mentor.

The Living Love Fellowship first made Oregon news in 1999 when the group paid $350,000 for the former International Paper mill office known here as the Cedar Palace, famous for the 2 million board feet of old-growth timber that went into its construction.

The group runs a for-profit enterprise, Compliance Service of America Inc., from the building. The company helps businesses such as restaurants and bars navigate various alcohol licensing regulations nationwide.

Members of the fellowship spend their days running Compliance Service and their evenings tending to spiritual growth and mentoring. Some of them live together in a large house with a swimming pool about 50 miles from Gardiner in Coos County.

The group members moved to Oregon from Santa Rosa, Calif., after two former employees filed a lawsuit in 1996 against both their spiritual arm and the licensing business, claiming sexual harassment and religious discrimination.

Sara Schorske-Donna, Compliance Service's president and Amadon's ex-wife, told The Oregonian in March 2000 that the parties settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, forcing the operations into bankruptcy. Records filed in bankruptcy court in California list Steve Arden, as Amadon was known then, as an "unemployed writer" with no monthly income.

Since they arrived on the coast, Living Love Fellowship and Compliance Service have kept a low profile. The few locals in Gardiner who know of the business describe the workers as friendly people who tend to stay to themselves -- except at Christmas, when they have caroled around Gardiner. They are virtually unheard of in Coquille and Myrtle Point, two towns close to their home.

"We're fairly private people, just like normal people," said Dyana Nedra, winery and retail licensing supervisor with Compliance Service. Her last name, which she had changed, is Arden spelled backward.

Early interest in religion

[D. M.] began exchanging e-mails with Living Love Fellowship members over the Internet when she was 15, her parents said.

[Mrs. M.] , a 46-year-old medical services office manager, describes her middle daughter as a somewhat solitary child who always yearned for spiritual awareness. She says the fellowship's Web site would have been a powerful draw for [D. M.].

"From an early age, she was reading C.S. Lewis and went on to explore all the religions," [Mrs. M.] said. "Her hunger for spiritual answers was insatiable. I think she always wanted to belong to a spiritual group where there was an exchange of ideas and a discussion of values."

But back then, her parents believed [D. M.] was merely writing to Internet pen pals. It wasn't until two years later, when the 17-year-old announced that Amadon had proposed to her, that her parents began to understand the extent of their daughter's involvement with Living Love Fellowship.

"We were horrified," said [Mrs. M.] "We had noticed changes in [D. M.] in the last two years -- we think that she had been systematically indoctrinated over the Internet."

They said they banned their daughter from the Internet, took her to psychologists and to elders in the family's interdenominational church. They even had her tested for drugs.

[D. M.] grew sullen and resentful, said [Mr. M.] , 47. He wrote Amadon demanding the group cease communication with his daughter. Amadon responded in an e-mail, saying that [D. M.] was misunderstood in her school and that it caused her intense pain.

"Not to take any undue credit, because [D. M.] deserves most of it, but [D. M.] needed me to guide her so that her mystic experience could be made comprehensible/bearable by her," Amadon wrote [the Ms] in a 2004 e-mail sent by way of Schorske-Donna.

Ten months after receiving that e-mail, [Mrs. M.] dropped her daughter off at school, thinking [D. M.] was staying overnight with a friend. The mother got a phone call the next day on March 19, 2005, and found an unidentified American man on the other end.

"He told me that there was a letter from my daughter behind the picture in her room," [Mrs. M.] recalled. "I asked who he was, and he said he didn't have to speak to me."

In the note, [D. M.] wrote that she had gone to see her friends in Oregon and would return April 2. Instead, three days after she left, the Ms received an e-mail and pictures of their daughter's wedding.

An Internet cafe regular

The marriage drew radio and newspaper coverage in South Africa -- and the publicity triggered a telephone call to [the Ms] from the owner of an Internet cafe across from [D. M.] high school. Petra Dorfling said the cafe had [D. M.] school uniform.

That's when her parents said they learned that after they had banned their daughter from the Internet, she had passed herself off as an exchange student and used computers at the cafe to correspond with the Living Love Fellowship.

Dorfling said two women visited and paid roughly $1,500 to create an Internet account for [D. M.] at the cafe and allow her to use its lockers.

"Basically she was coming here from school," Dorfling said. "I realized the situation after I saw the news. She left her school uniform in the locker. I had to unlock and actually break the lock and send all her personal belongings to her mom."

The teenager had used the cafe for about six months before she left for Oregon, Dorfling said.

After she'd gone, her parents said, they found instructions on the computer to [D. M.] from Amadon laying out a timetable for her daily routine. "He sent her tasks to do," said [Mr. M.]"She had to read certain books."

Last May, [K.M. and L.M] , [D. M.] older sister, flew to Oregon and drove to Coos County to see her and check on her welfare. Deputies from the county sheriff's office instructed [K.M. and L.M]  to wait at a junction near the house while they and immigration officers contacted the fellowship members.

[D. M.] wasn't there, but at work at the offices in Gardiner. "The house reminded me of a large sorority," recalled sheriff's Sgt. Kip Oswald. "There were six or seven people there, mostly women. At first they were a little bit defensive. Slowly, when I started talking to this guy, Amadon, he got pretty friendly. He started to become more cooperative and more polite. He described that they were doing their religious work and that they had women working there who were making large sums of money, $150 to $300 an hour."

Sheriff's officials did nothing further, saying there was no reason to believe [D. M.] was in Oregon against her will. "I was satisfied that [D. M.] looked healthy, and although there was an appearance of mental control over her I could find no evidence that she was in danger at the time," Detective Kelley Andrews said in a report on the visit.

[K.M. and L.M] met with  [D. M.] several more times, including under the eye of the group's lawyer at a beach house rented by Living Love Fellowship. But they left after a few days, refusing repeated demands by Amadon -- delivered through [D. M.] -- for an apology for hate mail that the group received from South Africans who read about the marriage, [Mrs. M.] said.

During their visit, they never talked to Amadon in person, she said.

"Too much pain involved"

Since then, [D. M.] has written sporadic e-mails to her family, but she recently said that she wouldn't send anymore. "I think there is too much pain involved in keeping the wounds open for as long as we feel so differently about things," she wrote her family.

Nonetheless, her parents continue to hold out hope that one day their sweet-natured daughter who sang in the church choir, wrote poetry and loved to swim will signal that she wants to return to South Africa.

Meanwhile, they mourn the childhood they say she has sacrificed -- the school boys she never dated, the dances she didn't attend, the high school education left incomplete and the family milestones she has missed, including her grandfather's funeral.

"I think we've accepted there isn't a criminal element, but it's morally horrific," said [Mr. M. ]"The fact that someone can take your daughter away in this manner, it's just shocking. She is married to a man 40 years her senior who has closed her mind at a very young age. She has missed out on her youth."

"We had loved and nurtured this child for 18 years, and he just took her out of our home with no conscience," said [Mrs. M.] "He has no conception of the pain that he had caused us."

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