The cult next door: Teen shares chilling tale of alleged abuse inside the Twelve Tribes sect

First of two parts.

Boston Herald/September 4, 2001
By Dave Wedge

After years of being abused, forced to work in factories, brainwashed and denied a normal childhood, Zebulun Wiseman finally found the strength to run from the ``high-control cult'' he says robbed him of his identity.

"Growing up in there, I saw the inside scoop. There's a lot of things there that just weren't right,'' Wiseman, the 18-year-old son of the group's second in command, Charles "Eddie'' Wiseman, said of living within the Twelve Tribes. "Spanking kids, locking them up. You can't have your own money. They work you. I mean really work you. And you don't get paid. The money goes to the group.''

Over the past three decades, the Twelve Tribes, also known as The Community of Believers or the Messianic Community, has businesses and compounds in New England, including a store on Dorchester Avenue in Boston and property on Cape Cod. The controversial cult has been accused of racism, child abuse, using child labor, kidnapping and questionable medical practices - including some that have led to the deaths of newborns.

Founded by former carnival barker and high school guidance counselor Elbert Eugene Spriggs, the quirky Christian/Hebrew hybrid religion grew from the ashes of the drug-fueled hippie movement of the early 1970s. Formed in Spriggs' hometown of Chattanooga, Tenn., in 1976, the Twelve Tribes bases their religion on Spriggs' haphazard New Testament interpretations.

"This man is viewed as being like Moses,'' says Robert Pardon, executive director of the New England Institute of Religious Research, which has extensively studied the Twelve Tribes. "You've got someone at the top who claims to have a direct pipeline to God and no accountability. When you have those two premises, you've got a deadly combination.''

They heavily recruit new members at peace rallies and rock concerts and were regulars on the Grateful Dead and Phish touring circuits, handing out literature promoting salvation through membership and hawking organic foods, medicines, handcrafted candles, soaps and oils. Claiming to be nothing more than a "spiritual brotherhood,'' their writings encourage the curious to visit their stores, cafes and compounds, saying ``come for a day, or to stay . . .''

But critics charge that the Twelve Tribes is really a brainwashing sham religion that preys on lost souls, sucking members dry of their money, property and identity while fattening the pockets of the reclusive Spriggs. Members turn over their land, homes, cars and bank accounts to the group, vowing to live communally.

"They abuse children and they exploit members for virtual slave labor for nothing more than room and board,'' noted cult expert Rick Ross said, comparing Spriggs' tactics to those of doomsday cult leaders like David Koresh and the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. "They preach that the end of the world is coming very soon. This gives the group a real crisis mentality. It creates urgency and that's a very useful tool for Mr. Spriggs.''

Children are homeschooled until their early teens and then put to work in factories and shops. While state governments regulate home-schooling programs, children of the Twelve Tribes don't receive high school diplomas. They also aren't allowed to seek out high school equivalency degrees or go to college.

Children aren't allowed to fantasize, pretend or have toys. Magazines, TV, radio and music are banned and independent thought is considered sinful. Doctors are rarely used, children aren't given vaccinations and they teach that it's acceptable to lie to those who don't deserve the truth - including the courts, social workers, police officers and the media. They also promote racism, teaching that blacks are naturally subservient to whites and that Martin Luther King Jr. "deserved to be killed."

"There are so many teachings that keep you from being who you are. They keep you from being human,'' ex-member Joellen Griffin said. "You get so absorbed in the teachings that you lose your emotions and your ability to respond to situations. They seem like a tight-knit family, but you just don't know all the misery behind those eyeballs.''

The Twelve Tribes is a federally recognized religion with nonprofit, tax-exempt status. They have between 2,500 and 3,000 members worldwide, including hundreds living in several New England compounds. They have a multi-family home on Melville Avenue in Dorchester and they run the Common Ground cafe, a health food eatery on Dorchester Avenue in Lower Mills.

They run a similar cafe on Main Street in Hyannis and the Common Sense furniture and ``wholesome'' food store in downtown Plymouth. In Hyannis, they recently bought an old colonial home on Main Street which is being expanded, while in Plymouth, they just moved into and are renovating a $400,000 former nursing home on Route 3A.

While most in the group live communally in any of the 30 compounds worldwide, Spriggs globe-trots, dividing his time between palatial homes in Sus, France, Sao Paulo, Brazil, and a swank $402,000 house overlooking Canoe Pond in Brewster.

Spriggs, 64, reportedly has sole control over the group's tithe - a 10 percent skim of all money taken in by the dozens of cafes, stores, workshops and contracting businesses run by members.

"This is just a way for Gene Spriggs to make a lot of money,'' Ross says. "He's a jet-set cult leader. He contracts out their labor and only he knows where every cent is. There's no question Gene Spriggs controls millions of dollars. Where is it? Only he knows.''

Over the past three decades, members of the controversial cult have been embroiled in high-profile kidnapping, abuse and child labor scandals. The most notorious was a 1984 raid in Island Pond, Vt., during which Vermont state police snatched 112 kids after a defector told social workers that the group severely beat his daughter and other children.

Prosecutors were planning on having the children examined by court-appointed doctors but the charges were quickly dropped and the children were sent home after a judge ruled the search was illegal.

Former members say despite the scandals, the alleged abuse has never stopped. In fact, current members readily admit that any elder is permitted - even obligated - to ``discipline'' any child who acts up, striking them with a bamboo rod or a balloon stick dipped in resin to make it sturdy.

"We use a thin, reed-like rod,'' said Twelve Tribes elder William Smith, aka "Kharash.'' "It will inflict pain but not damage tissue.'' Smith, who lives at the group's Basin Farm in Bellows Falls, Vt., also admitted that children start working in factories and farms at a young age but he denied that the group violates any child labor laws.

The group is currently the focus of a New York child labor probe after investigators learned children were making furniture for Robert Redford's Sundance mail order catalog. Redford has since pulled the furniture from the catalog. The cult also lost a lucrative contract with perfume giant Estee Lauder after it was revealed that children helped make their products.

"From time to time, they work with us. But we don't consider it child labor. We don't depend on them as a labor force,'' Smith said. Member Andre Masse, aka ``Kepha,'' lives in the Island Pond community and says the group's teachings are ``misunderstood by those who have evil intentions.''

Masse, 63, refuted allegations of racism, pointing out that there are black members. He also scoffed at claims the group exploits children in factories, saying children merely work alongside their parents to learn trades. "We have our children with us. We don't have them running down the streets. We have them by our side,'' he said.

In recent years, officials have investigated a spate of stillbirths and questionable infant deaths within the sect. In St. Joseph, Mo., a young mother was in labor for five days in May 1998 before the group finally took her to the hospital so doctors could remove the baby that died inside her. Missouri authorities investigated the death but no charges were filed against the group.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., a child born April 2, 2000, to member Manon Stern died hours after birth. Police investigated that death but no charges were filed. There was also a stillbirth in a Twelve Tribes house in Warsaw, Mo., in the summer of 1999, ex-members said. "They let these ladies go through agonizing labor. These children could have survived,'' former member Kris Wetterman, who witnessed one of the stillbirths, said.

In fact, stillbirths are so common that the cult's private burial ground in Island Pond, Vt., includes several unmarked graves of dead children. There have also been outbreaks of whooping cough, hepatitis and other avoidable diseases within the cult which have killed children. In France last year, members Michel Ginhoux, 40, and Dagmar Zoller, 38, were sentenced to six years in jail for negligence after their 19-month-old son, Raphael, died of malnutrition and a treatable heart ailment.

Zeb Wiseman, who spoke out for the first time in an exclusive Herald interview, said he was beaten, locked in rooms and mentally tormented by members who used his mother's 1990 cancer death as an example of what happens to sinners. She was denied medical care, he said.

"It's like a big mind game. You don't have any choice (for) yourself,'' Zeb said. "They subtly control you. When everyone's that controlled, the elders have a lot of power. They really don't care about other people, they just want authority."

Part two of this article.

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