They promised a left-wing paradise, luring college students with leaflets that bragged of noble work feeding the poor, clothing the hungry and organizing the dispossessed.
But once inside the Provisional Party of Communists, members were gradually manipulated into an intimidating netherworld of empty political slogans, cut off from their families and forced to worship a charismatic leader.
Founded on Long Island in 1972, the party is more of a cult than a genuine political organization, say experts who follow it. Though its rhetoric calls for a left-wing revolution -- and authorities confiscated a cache of weapons when they raided its Brooklyn headquarters Monday night -- the experts say it's all a lot of talk.
"New York police and the feds have always portrayed this group as a wild-eyed revolutionary threat. But serious revolutionary groups have always viewed them as a joke," said Chip Berlet, a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Somerville, Mass., think-tank that has studied the Provisional Party and other left- and right-wing groups since 1981.
"These people have never gotten their act together," he said. "These weapons were props for the cult. I'm not saying we shouldn't, as citizens, be concerned about alienated people with guns, but to portray this as a serious revolutionary movement is a complete fabrication."
The revolutionary rhetoric emerged from the left-wing activism of the 1960s. A source familiar with the "social-justice movement" described the Provisional Party as an offshoot of the Progressive Labor Party, itself an offshoot of the Communist Party USA.
In the late 1960s, the Progressive Labor Party joined the Students for a Democratic Society -- then the nation's dominant leftist student group -- and the SDS splintered. What remained was the Progressive Labor Party and the Weather Underground, a militant group later responsible for several bombings and bank robberies.
The Provisional Party of Communists was formed in Suffolk County by Gino Perente -- also known as Gino Perente-Ramos -- a Minnesota native who falsely claimed to be Mexican to bolster his support of Mexican farmworkers, Berlet said.
Perente, who was of Norwegian descent, lured students and others into the group by mailing attractive flyers to college campuses and public libraries, promising work on a variety of harmless left-wing causes.
But people who became members were quickly sucked into left-wing ideology. Experts say the group once had up to 800 members but is now down to about 150 in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, California and Texas. The group still has about a half dozen offices around New York City, including one in Bellport.
"It had all the characteristics of a destructive cult," said Arnold Markowitz, a social worker and director of the New York-based Cult Hotline and Clinic, which has counseled the families of about a dozen Provisional Party members. "Perente was a self-appointed charismatic leader who would control his members' lives through manipulation and deception."