The God Life

Seattle Weekly/May 4, 2005
By Philip Dawdy

James King had dozens of people under his sway, and his obscure New Gnostic Church had few issues with the outside world - until he and his mistress seduced the 17-year-old daughter of two church members

Last Dec. 30, Samara Lane sat across from her parents in a booth at the 13 Coins restaurant in Seattle. James King was beside her. Lane was 17 years old and a high-school student. Her parents were in their mid-30s. King was 47 years old then, balding, with graying hair. For more than a decade, he had been a kind of guru to the family.

"Why don't you tell them?" King said to Lane.

"Do you want me to tell them about the plan?" Lane asked.

King said that she should.

"Well, when I turn 18," Lane said, "James and I are going to get married, have kids, and move to Montana or Chile."

"You may not see much of Samara," King said to Lane's parents. "The first year we are married, we're going to travel."

Lane's mother, who asked not to be identified for this article, was bowled over. She was a member of King's group, the New Gnostic Church. It is a church with no meeting house but perhaps as many as 100 members in Washington. King promotes an ideology of creating "heaven on Earth" through methods, say former members, derived from self-empowerment movements and Scientology.

Some former members call the church a cult and accuse King of brainwashing them and others. They say they went along with "the process," as King calls it, because it helped them clean out what they regarded as mental garbage. He helped them deal with issues. In return, they were to give money and their trust to King.

Lane's mother felt that King was betraying that trust. She knew that the guru at that time had a wife in central Washington and a longtime mistress in Bellevue, and that he had had sex with some female members of the group over the past 15 years. She was appalled by King and her daughter's plan.

"James, you are always saying to women, 'You've always wanted me,'" she recalls telling him. "That confuses grown women. What do you think that does to a 17-year-old? None of these women want you!"

Both Lane's mother and Kurt Benshoof, her father, had suspected for weeks that something was going on between King and their daughter. Since November, Samara Lane had regularly visited King and his mistress, Barbara Loran, 44, a chiropractor and naturopath, at Loran's home in Bellevue. Confronted earlier in December by Lane's mother, King insisted that his interest in her daughter was strictly platonic. But within weeks of the meeting at the restaurant, Lane admitted to her parents that she had been having sex with King, whose group she'd belonged to since she was 13, and with Loran, who had long been her primary provider of medical care. After this admission, Lane's parents had Lane "deprogrammed" by a cult expert [Rick Ross] and contacted authorities.

As a result, the King County Sheriff's Office has opened a criminal investigation of King and Loran for allegedly having sex with a minor. Also, both are under investigation by the state Department of Health for allegedly violating state medical regulations.

Meanwhile, King's church seems to be falling apart. In the wake of Lane's experience, Benshoof estimates, some 40 members have left King's group. Some are speaking openly about their experience in the New Gnostic Church?after years of barely acknowledging its existence, even to close relatives. They also are reckoning with themselves over why they fell into King's grip in the first place.

'The Process'

Little is known about King and the New Gnostic Church beyond accounts of former members and King's writings. King did not respond to multiple inquiries by Seattle Weekly for an interview. The church's Web site is no longer operational. But at least a partial picture of the man can be derived from what 13 former members have told Seattle Weekly and from as many affidavits written by former members, which were prepared for a recent custody case and have been submitted to the sheriff's office.

King moved to Washington in the late 1980s. Former members say he has said that he formerly lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and he has worked for the Church of Scientology. King wore REI clothes and sandals and listened to pop musician Meredith Brooks.

The late '80s and early '90s were a time of a peculiar spiritual rebirth. Charismatic Christianity was on the rise. So, too, were New Age groups and the self-empowerment movement. Some groups were organized around a central figure, or guru, who defined the group's principles, as opposed to relying on new interpretations of ancient religious tomes. Here, the emphasis was on learning about your soul and self to a point where you were in charge of your existence rather than being whipsawed by external factors. For New Gnostic Church members, King was the guide on a journey to the center of their selves.

He told them that humans are their own gods, capable of "godlife," as he called it, and are creators of every moment of their existence. Few people, he claimed, could enter this charmed circle of existence. Others were hampered by issues with depression, issues with sex, issues with other humans, issues with self-growth. Interpreting experiences through this cloak of issues was an inauthentic way to be human, King taught. The answer was to strip these issues away.

In a brochure for the church, King describes his approach as "the deal." The brochure describes this as "absolute elimination of all opposition to the goal [heaven on Earth] from moment to moment through constant and eternal vigilance. In brief, an eternal willingness to pay any price as the price of freedom for all mankind for all eternity with a transcendence beyond the need to pay any price at all."

Recruits came to King on the recommendation of friends. "You saw one of your friends who had been to James and was doing really well, and you wanted that for yourself," says Benshoof, Lane's father. Typically, former members say, recruits sought help from King when they were at a troubled point in their lives. A relationship had fallen apart, they were doing drugs, somehow they were in a rough patch and life didn't make sense and filled them with the kind of hollowness that sends some people to conventional churches or into unbridled hedonism in search of answers. Aspirants came to King's church from all walks of life. There were starving artists, strippers, small-business owners, and Microsoft employees.

To become a member of King's church, the former members say, applicants agreed to spend a week with King on his property in Wauconda in rural and isolated Okanogan County in north-central Washington. They paid King anywhere from $500 to $2,000, sometimes more. During the week, King gave them a copy of his "Flight Manual," a 78-page document filled with what he termed "aphorisms." He put them through a series of 12-hour sessions known as "processing." This consisted of sitting across from King in his office and delving into personal issues, somewhat like psychotherapy.

At one point during the processing, King asked aspirants to put their hands into his. When they did, he would say, "Thank you," and lower their hands. Seconds later, he would ask for their hands again and repeat the procedure. Some former members described this as lasting more than 10 minutes, apparently until King felt the person was giving their hands without hesitation.

Experts describe this as a prototypical way of creating a hypnotic bond to a leader. "It's so classic, it's almost laughable," says Steven Hassan, a Massachusetts expert on cults. Hassan, who has been in contact with former members of the New Gnostic Church, classifies it as a personality cult.

Benshoof, Samara Lane's father, recalls that on the second morning of his processing, King asked him if he had ever stolen anything. "I put my head in my hands and started crying," he says, "and when I looked up, it was many hours later and it was dark outside." Other former members say they remember feeling similarly disoriented during processing.

Once aspirants finished the process, they joined "the group"?other church members?in twice-monthly gatherings at members' homes in the Seattle area. At these meetings, known as "group," King sat in a recliner and asked members about their issues, how they felt about themselves, their worlds, and their behaviors. This, too, was known among members as "the process."

In interviews and in the affidavits, former members say that they were highly dependent on King. Some phoned him at all hours between group meetings seeking his counsel. At times, King held virtual sessions with group members by means of Internet chat rooms. Other times, he communicated through instant messaging. This kind of supplicant- master relationship is typical of cults, according to experts in the field.

New Gnostic Church members were expected to tithe 10 percent of their earnings. Not all gave that much. Some, such as Benshoof, gave King about $1,000 a year. Others, like Jim and Bev Cox of Port Angeles, gave King as much as $5,000 a year.

Some members came to King more than a decade ago. One of those was Barbara Loran. Then married, in 1993 Loran was introduced to King by a co-worker, according to her now-former husband, Dean. (He asked Seattle Weekly not to identify him by last name so as to protect the privacy of the couple's daughter.) Married to Dean since 1985, Loran worked as a chiropractor in Bellevue.

Dean, who never became a member of the church, says the week Loran spent being processed by King had a huge impact. Like him, she was a vegetarian. "When she came back, the first thing she did was cook a big steak," Dean says. "She was drinking, too."

Dean asked her what was going on. Loran answered, "Ask James." She refused to talk with her husband otherwise.

Dean called King.

"If you are calling to save your marriage, forget it," Dean says King told him. Soon after, Loran moved out of the couple's house.

'He Groomed Me'

When King processed women at his Wauconda ranch, it was not a hands-off experience. In interviews and affidavits, some women report that they had sex with King during their initial week.

"He told me I had issues with sex and that I was sending him sexual energy," says Tawña Lucero, 33, a former group member who was processed by King in 1996. "He said, 'You want to fuck like you've never wanted to fuck before.' I wasn't attracted to him. Then he told me that the way to get clear of them [issues] was to have sex with him, since he had no issues with sex."

The two had sex at the ranch and a few other times after her return to Seattle. King regularly visited Seattle to run his twice-monthly groups. He also had a similar group in the Spokane area, former members say.

One of King's teachings was that humans are not their bodies. If you assumed that the way your body experienced the world was reality, you had issues that would block you from reaching godlife?and the worst thing in King's universe was to have issues.

One female who went through King's process was Samara Lane. She did this in 2001, when she was 13 years old. Her mother sent her to King because Lane was depressed, experimenting with drugs, and feeling suicidal, and conventional therapy had failed. Since she trusted King with her own psyche, she says she felt comfortable sending her daughter to him to work on her issues.

King, 43 at the time, worked with Lane on issues and other things.

"He groomed me," says Lane, now 17. "I was trying to have sex with him, he said: 'You are attracted to me; you are sending me sexual energy.'

"I'd been raised to respect him. He's fully god realized. I took it as truth. He was more like a priest than a counselor."

Having been processed, Lane began attending group sessions on a regular basis. She was the youngest member of the church by at least 10 years. Like others, she approached King between the twice-monthly sessions for guidance.

Early last November, Lane instant- messaged King. Lane, who had just turned 17, says she told King that she was having sexual issues. King asked her to call him. She did.

A week later, King arranged to meet Lane and picked her up after school near Seattle Central Community College, where she was taking classes for high-school credit. The two went to the 13 Coins. She had chicken parmigiana. He had a bowl of soup. King told her, Lane says, that he and Loran, his mistress, wanted her to have a sexual relationship with them.

"He stated that Barb [Loran] and he were looking for a third partner and I appeared to be interested," Lane says.

According to former group members, it was not the first time King tried to rope a female into a sexual relationship with him and Loran. One woman says she left the group the month before, after having sex with King but rejecting a relationship with him and Loran.

After the meal, King kissed Lane outside of the restaurant.

"I was flattered, to be honest," Lane says, explaining that within the group's culture, King's interest was to be viewed as a prize.

Lane says she and King stayed in contact but did not have sex. Loran began text-messaging Lane on her cell phone. Lane did not tell her parents what was happening. At the time, she lived with her father, Benshoof, in Seattle.

Late in November, King picked her up from school again. He showed the girl a copy of the state law, she says, relating to an adult having sex with a minor. Washington law states that 16- and 17-year-olds can consent to sex with an adult?unless the adult is in a supervisory position to the youth.

"Do you think I'm in a supervisory role?" Lane remembers King framing the issue.

"No," she answered. She and some of the other former group members say that they regularly agreed with King, even when it wasn't logical?because he was James King.

King and Lane talked more. She was not overly warm to his idea. "I think the best way to get over this is to sleep with us," Lane says King told her. Soon enough, she did, in the basement of Loran's rented duplex in Bellevue.

Soon after, King and Loran gave Lane a cell phone. Lane says this was so the two could text-message her at school and at other times without her parents knowing. In addition, the duo e-mailed her regularly.

Lane began calling her mother by her first name instead of "Mom." Both King and Loran told her that her parents were crazy, according to Lane. She says that she had sex with the two adults 10 times between November 2004 and January 2005.

But it wasn't until three weeks after the Dec. 30 meeting with her parents and King at the restaurant that the truth came out. Her parents' suspicions had deepened toward their guru and his mistress. Lane's parents ordered their daughter to halt all communications with King and Loran on Jan. 22. Lane ignored them. There was a series of e-mail and text messages between the girl and King and Loran that day and the next. Lane saved some of the messages. In one e-mail, Lane says, King asked her to take out a restraining order against her parents. She did not do this. Meantime, in a series of text messages, Lane says Loran continued to instruct her in sexual techniques.

Soon after, when her parents caught wind of the continued chatter, Lane's mother packed her into a car and drove her to a relative's home near Wenatchee, where Lane then admitted to having sex with King, her spiritual adviser and counselor, and Loran, her health care provider.

Health Care As a Sideline

In late January, both of Lane's parents left the church and began contacting other members. They told them about what had happened between their daughter and King and Loran. Lane told some of them herself at a breakaway-group meeting organized by her father. Former members estimate the New Gnostic Church at that point had between 75 and 100 members, spread among Seattle, Spokane, and the Wauconda area. Within weeks, about 40 people, by Benshoof's count, left the group.

The affair between King and Loran and Lane had been an eye-opener.

"People believed he'd never do anything like this," says Lucero. "He betrayed everyone's trust." Says Lane's mother: "I sent my baby to him for help when she was 13, when she was suicidal, and this is how he betrays me."

King was supposed to be leading them to enlightenment. Some had even turned to Loran for health care. As it happened, quite often King was the one providing chiropractic services as well, though he is not certified as a chiropractor by the state Department of Health's Medical Quality Assurance Commission. It is against state regulations for anyone to practice medicine without a license.

A dozen former group members, including Lane, state that King performed chiropractic procedures on them, including spinal adjustments and a complex set of facial and cranial procedures that took four days to complete. At times, he performed this work at Loran's Bellevue clinic, Endless Health Northwest, according to those on whom he worked.

They say, too, that at times King performed procedures while Loran, the licensed practitioner, was not in the room. They say they paid or turned over insurance billing information to the clinic for work performed by King. Under state medical regulations, licensed practitioners face sanctions for letting someone perform medicine without a license at their business.

In addition, two former members report having had sex with both King and Loran, although the sex did not take place at the clinic. Under state medical regulations, licensed practitioners are forbidden to have sex with patients.

Lisa Noonan, deputy director of the state Medical Quality Assurance Commission, confirms that an investigation into practices by King and Loran is under way. Loran did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

And then there was the money.

King didn't limit himself to accepting tithes from group members. Bev Cox, Jim Cox's wife, says that King talked her into investing $5,000 in the gold market through an investment managed by King. When she asked for her money back, he did not return it.

Others report that King lured them into what they call multilevel marketing scams, typically involving vitamins. Some members invested $1,000 with King in that manner and made nothing in return. Says Jim Cox: "We were so duped."

What's more, others say that King convinced them to shield some of their assets in offshore trusts.

So great was King's tug on members that Benshoof, a general contractor by trade, almost wrote King a check for $20,000 last fall as a tithe following a successful project?even while he'd begun to suspect that King was up to something with his daughter.

As troubling as it sounds that adults were so influenced by King, Samara Lane wasn't the only youngster whose life was affected by him and Loran.

A Custody Battle

After Loran divorced her husband, Dean, in 1995, the two shared custody of their daughter. Dean worked as a flight attendant. Loran continued work as a chiropractor and enrolled in the four-year naturopathy program at Bastyr University in Kenmore. She graduated in 1999 and was licensed as a naturopath the following year.

In 2002, Loran told Dean that she wanted to move to the Republic area in north-central Washington. She wanted to take their daughter with her.

Dean would have none of it. His daughter was already under King's influence at least one week a month when King was in Bellevue. He didn't want it to go further.

He launched a court fight against Loran's proposed move, introducing into King County Superior Court some details of the New Gnostic Church. Loran fought back. Some group members, including some of those who now have left the church, submitted affidavits essentially questioning Dean's fitness as a father.

After several months, Loran relented and promised to remain in the Bellevue area. In exchange, Dean agreed to less visitation with his daughter. The custody agreement was set to expire later this year, so Dean figured that would mean another all-out legal battle with his ex-wife over whether she could move their daughter, now 13, to Eastern Washington?with the winner getting full custody. "Then, out of the blue, God hands me this phone call from Kurt," says Dean, referring to Benshoof. The call came in early February, when Benshoof was unraveling what had transpired with his daughter.

"I had to get my daughter away from James and Barb," says Dean, who worried that King's interest in youth might not stop with a 17- year-old. Dean was troubled, too, after hearing former group members describe King's "process" techniques. He worried that King might have tried them on his daughter. Over the next month, Dean arranged for affidavits from former group members concerning King and Loran, as well as the incident with Lane.

Dean called his ex-wife and suggested that they meet. They did, at a Starbucks in Bellevue. "As we were walking from the parking lot to the shop, I said, 'Barb, it sounds like you have a lot going on in your life right now. I only have one concern: the well-being of our daughter. I think she'd be best served with me.' And she said, 'I agree.' I was thrown she would give up that easy."

In March, Dean says, when their daughter rejoined him, in the same parking lot, Loran showed no outward emotion. Neither did their daughter. "It was like absolutely nothing had happened," Dean says. "She had total detachment. Barb and James taught her well."

Dean plans to have his daughter see a cult deprogrammer [Rick Ross] later this month.

Criminal Investigation

Like former group members, Dean would like to see King pay a price for his deeds. "He's caused a lot of families a lot of pain," he says. "I know I am one of many who has been through this."

Benshoof and Lane's mother, among others, want to see King and Loran charged by the King County Prosecuting Attorney's Office for sexual misconduct with a minor. It's not clear if that will happen. The King County Sheriff's Office began investigating allegations against King in February and has not yet turned the case over to the prosecutor, says Dan Satterberg, Prosecutor Norm Maleng's chief of staff. Satterberg says that prosecutors will decide soon whether to file any charges.

If he and Loran aren't criminally charged, the worst King might face, at the hands of the Department of Health, is an order to stop practicing medicine without a license, according to Noonan of the Medical Quality Assurance Commission. Loran could be facing harsher punishment in the health care arena. Under state regulations, she could lose her naturopathic and chiropractic licenses.

The former group members Seattle Weekly interviewed say that when they were in the church, they felt detached from and unaffected by the world, as if they were members of an elite and immune brotherhood. They'd been processed, stripped of issues, and the rest of humanity had not.

But now, these former members seem very much in this world. They joke about their days in the church. To a one, they seem well adjusted. But they worry about those still under King's sway.

Benshoof, in particular, has tried to convince people who are still in the church to understand that King is no enlightened being. Brett Barton, a former business associate of Benshoof's who is still a member, didn't take kindly to Benshoof's prodding by phone and e-mail. He filed a restraining order against Benshoof.

At a hearing in King County Superior Court on April 26, Barton sat in the courtroom, expressionless, with his head down and his hands in his lap. When he spoke to Judge Barbara Harris, it was barely above a whisper.

This wasn't courtroom nervousness. It was something else that is hard to describe.

Harris granted the order, which states that Benshoof shall not contact Barton for one year.

As he left the courtroom, Barton declined to answer questions about the New Gnostic Church. "You are talking to the wrong person," he said.

Former church member Larry Benjamin says that King's influence on people, excessive though it might seem, isn't all bad. "He helped a lot of people get out of their mental garbage. I have never seen someone with his ability," Benjamin says. "At the same time, you know he could have continued helping more people. . . . James did overstep his authority for sexual advantage."

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