Its Leader Dead, Fringe Group Lives on for Its Own Sake

The New York Times/November 18, 1996
By John Kifner

New York -- Even as a young man -- before he formally declared war on northern California -- Gerald William Doeden was known as a fast-talking con artist who got away with cashing checks in bars signed "Jesus H. Christ" and could quote Shakespeare from memory by the yard.

Jeri Doeden went on to become Field Commander Eugenio Perente-Ramos, an entirely fictitious persona, and would tell his adoring followers that he had been, variously, a guerrilla in Guatemala and Nicaragua, a Cuban revolutionary, a paratrooper, an Alcatraz inmate and above all, a longtime labor organizer and close associate of Cesar Chavez of the farm workers' movement.

Tall, gaunt, clad in with a dashing, wide-brimmed hat, walking with a limp -- an old bullet wound, he said, although in truth it came from a car crash in his hard-drinking, drug-filled youth -- he gathered around him a group of followers who lived quietly in Brooklyn for 20 years, talking of revolution far into the night but mostly filling out and filing mounds of paperwork.

"The Cave," he called his headquarters in a Crown Heights brownstone, where sentries watched from windows, walkie-talkies crackled and every minute, every movement was regimented, including the rambling post-midnight speeches that were a hallmark of his control.

The group, called the National Labor Federation and sometimes the Provisional Communist Party, carried on after Perente-Ramos died at age 59 in March 1995. And last Monday night the police, responding to a complaint of a crying child in the group's headquarters, were stunned to find a cache of 16 pistols, 26 rifles, 5 shotguns and 2 machine guns.

Tenants of the building said Sunday that they had been unnerved, and their children traumatized, to learn that they were living so close to so many weapons. Some tenants met with a psychologists' group to let out their fears about their suddenly notorious neighbors.

But the account that emerged from interviews with former members and their relatives, experts on fringe groups and law enforcement officials, was of a group that carried out virtually no political activities, existing solely to perpetuate itself by raising money and recruiting new members. Indeed, the weapons, the totems of revolution, may well have lain half-forgotten in their secret closet for years.

After the initial sensation of helmeted police officers' surrounding the block, FBI agents and other officials at the Joint Terrorism Task Force in Manhattan seemed more bemused than alarmed. "No one's even talking about it here," a top-ranking law enforcement officer said a few days after the raid. "It's not even on our radar."

Yet in a strange way, the group was a sort of success, managing to attract hundreds of well-meaning young people who, isolated and exhausted by 18 hours a day of make-work, developed a slavish devotion to Perente-Ramos.

Posing as organizers of farm workers and maids, as champions of women's rights, as helpers of people whose heat had been cut off in winter, they talked their way onto college campuses, and got donations of money and food from businesses and even doctors' and lawyers' groups.

The organization eventually took over Invest Yourself, a well-known guide to volunteer agencies and projects that had been published by a committee of mainstream church organizations. The guide, distributed widely on college campuses and in libraries, gave the group an aura of respectability and a valuable recruiting tool.

A Droning Lecturer on Revolution

Even near the end of his life, Perente-Ramos exerted a strange hold on those around him in Brooklyn. In January 1994, sitting in a wheelchair and alternately breathing oxygen from a machine and chain-smoking Lucky Strikes, he gave a lecture to a room packed with devotees, a person who was there recalled. He wore fringed leather and sunglasses -- at 2 in the morning. Women stood around him, crushing out his cigarette stubs and wiping his brow and chin. Some listeners fell asleep.

In a tape recording of the lecture, Perente-Ramos' droning is interrupted by long pauses, disconnected asides and hacking, coughing and spitting.

"This is a continuance in the historical chronology of dislocations, phenomena that deals with the cracks in the floor," the field commander says. "Trotsky in his related writings gives Stalin a next-to-invisible role in the process that was taking place there, saying he was a mere minister of minorities.

"During the civil war . . . there was 24 other armed struggles going on inside what was the Soviet Union," he continues. "Socialism retreated from a single state, single rule of socialism," he says, his coughing breaking the sentence.

"And when I think of war, I think of war again. Those who are for the revolution before . . . from time to time . . . none needed more space in order to actually go and set up administration or leadership in one place or another. They find themselves unrepentant . . . they find themselves revealed and confused."

At the end of the lecture, the person present recalled, he declared "Patria o Muerte!" and his followers jumped to their feet, echoing the shout. Then his wheelchair was rolled away with military precision.

"Gino," said Janja A. Lalich, a California researcher who has studied Perente-Ramos' group and counseled former members, "was a piece of work."

Although he claimed to be a Mexican-American born in Montana, he was actually of Norwegian heritage, born in Minnesota in 1935. His family moved to Marysville, Calif., when he was young; he graduated from high school there and took some classes at Yuba College in Marysville, where he acted in Shakespeare plays and was a disk jockey and ad salesman for a radio station. "I could never figure out how this nice, Norwegian Lutheran boy got transformed into a Hispanic," said Ruth S. Mikkelsen, who was married to him from 1960 to 1962 and is now a high school principal.

"When I met him he was extremely interesting," she said in a telephone interview. "He was very, very bright, probably one of the smartest people I've ever met. He would read piles and piles and piles of books and remember everything he read.

"I think the last time I saw him was when he came over, dressed all up in military regalia, around 1969 or 1970."

In March 1970, when Perente-Ramos was floating around the radical fringes of the San Francisco Bay area, he distributed a proclamation declaring that his Liberation Army of Revolutionary Group Organizations was starting an armed insurrection by a uniformed fighting force (whose members would tie on red armbands in case they did not have time to change).

Even the FBI did not take him seriously. But Perente-Ramos was soon arrested for failing to pay child support for his daughter, disappeared from California and turned up in New York, claiming to be an organizer for Chavez.

People in the Marysville area still remember him, though, recalling such scams as passing fake checks in bars -- figuring a bartender would be too embarrassed to complain that he had cashed a check signed by Christ -- and selling tickets for nonexistent raffles.

"I'll tell you one thing about him," Bill McJunkin, an old drinking buddy, told The Appeal-Democrat, the Marysville-Yuba City paper. "He never did an honest day's work in his life. The guy had a vivid imagination. Give him two words and he could write a novel. The guy was infamous for turning a cup of coffee into an all-night meal."

The vivid imagination created not only Gino Perente-Ramos, but the National Labor Federation, which spun off about 40 front groups. There were names like the Eastern Farm Workers Association, which supposedly organized migrant workers in Long Island's potato fields; the Women's Press Collective; the California Homemakers' Association, and Western Massachusetts Labor Action, all funneling money and fresh volunteers to the headquarters at 1107 Carroll Street and two adjacent apartment buildings.

"This was a very destructive cult group that ensnared young people," said Arnold Markowitz, director of the cult clinic of the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, who has worked with a dozen families of group members. "They hid behind some good liberal causes to go after people who are looking for a deeper purpose in life, working for change, working for the downtrodden."

Likely volunteers for the front groups were channeled to Carroll Street for intensive training. Some of the women, researchers and former members said, were also sexual partners of Perente-Ramos until his last, sickly years.

Isolation, Exhaustion and "a Great Spiel"

The indoctrination, Mr. Markowitz, other researchers and former members said, was an intense process of isolation and exhaustion. Members were given vast amounts of make-work, including telephone solicitations, forms to fill out, papers and proposals to write and lectures to attend.

They got little sleep and were rarely allowed to leave. They were told the FBI and CIA were watching them and might swoop down at any moment. At the same time, they were told that their work was urgent, because the revolution was just around the corner.

"They talked all these grand ideas," said Jeff Whitnack, who joined the cult briefly in 1984 and was one of the few former members to allow his name to be used. "It was an international socialist movement that had connections in Nicaragua and was headed in Havana, kind of like the Comintern. It was a great spiel."

Ms. Lalich, the California researcher, said: "This group, I have to say, does pretty much nothing. Its goal isn't really social change; it's just to perpetuate itself. It would be funny if it wasn't for the waste of young people's lives, which is very sad. These were people completely dedicated, working 24 hours a day."

Perhaps the group's greatest coup was taking over Invest Yourself, a guide to volunteer groups published annually since 1946 by church groups operating from the building at 475 Riverside Drive and 119th Street in Manhattan, which houses the National Council of Churches. The group slipped in more than 30 of its own groups among the listings. Its current editor is listed as Susan Angus, one of those arrested last Monday, and it is still in circulation.

Things did not always go so smoothly. On Feb. 17, 1984, the FBI raided three offices of the National Labor Federation, apparently spurred by a widely distributed announcement by Perente-Ramos that the revolution was to begin two days hence. The raid was something of an embarrassment to the authorities, who wound up returning the few weapons they seized and making no arrests. The FBI did, however, seize a vast amount of paperwork, including page after page of military instructions from the Field Commander and elaborate diagrams on the secret hiding places of various weapons.

And in 1986, seven members of the group were convicted of forging $7,700 in checks from the account of Mia Prior, a woman who had fled the group but left her checkbook behind.

After Perente-Ramos died, a struggle emerged between East and West Coast factions of his group, researchers said, and leadership appears to have been assumed by a woman named Margaret Ribar. The main headquarters was moved to the offices of the Western Service Workers' Association, a front group in the San Francisco area.

Less Emphasis On Military Plans

In recent years, there seemed to be less and less mention of the "military fraction," the name in the group's documents, seized in the 1984 raid, for the inner circle that Perente-Ramos emphasized in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and which carried out weapons maintenance and training. A woman who joined the group four years ago and left in disillusionment last year said she had been unaware of the weapons hidden in the closet.

"And if I didn't know that there were guns in there, then I'm sure that the vast majority of people in there didn't know," said the woman, who said she had been a supervisor in the group. "My suspicion is that the guns must have been put there many, many years ago. I honestly can't figure out which closet they might have been hidden behind."

Another young woman, who said she was virtually imprisoned there for five "miserable" months last year until she managed to bolt out the door while others were at a lecture, said: "If there was anything like that, it was not known to the general group. I never saw any evidence of it."

Still, life at 1107 Carroll Street seemed to be going on at the same pressured, bureaucratic pace, although the group was now trying to renovate the building.

"I would have liked to sleep more," the former supervisor said. "There was a lot of pressure to sleep less and work harder. I think I got pretty disillusioned. You find you put so much in and you don't get a lot back."

"I haven't really been able to think about political and social issues," she continued, describing her difficulty in adjusting to life outside the group. "When you're standing on a platform so convinced of what you're saying and then find out it doesn't make a lot of sense, it's hard to figure out where to go."

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.