N.Y. man helps teens flee group: Effort similar to 'underground railroad'

Boston Herald/September 5, 2001
By Dave Wedge

A New York man, distraught over his friend's total immersion in the Twelve Tribes, has set up an "underground railroad" to help teens flee the allegedly abusive, mind-controlling cult.

"When we pick these kids up, they're afraid," Kevin Coughlin said of the former members he has helped leave the controversial religious sect. "They're told that if they leave, they're no longer under the anointed and they could be killed. At the very least, (they're told) they'll go to the `Lake of Fire.' "

Coughlin, who lives in upstate New York near Albany, has helped several people leave the group in recent months, including Zeb and Nathan Wiseman, sons of the cult's second in command, Charles "Eddie" Wiseman. Zeb Wiseman fled in May, just days after his 18th birthday, by hopping into Coughlin's pickup truck during a planned late-night escape from the group's Cambridge, N.Y., commune. Zeb lived in a Taunton "safe house" for a few weeks, worked closely with Middleboro-based cult deprogrammer Robert Pardon, and is now staying with relatives in Georgia.

Coughlin's name is well-known among children who were born into the cult and many contact him through e-mail, seeking help leaving. He helps arrange their flight and then harbors them in a network of safe houses run by ex-members who know what the children need to assimilate into the mainstream.

"You walk into the community and see everyone smiling, but then there's what's going on inside. All people see is one big happy family, but they don't see what's underneath," Coughlin said.

He says the escapees he's dealt with tell horrific tales of routine physical and mental abuse. Some say they've been locked in basements and closets, whipped with thin sticks and forced to work in the cult's factories, making soap, furniture and other products sold commercially by the Twelve Tribes. Teens are "shuttled back and forth on the Mass Pike" between New York and Massachusetts, laboring or working construction jobs for any of the group's various contracting businesses.

"These kids say they're working all the time. They push, push, push," Coughlin said. "A lot of the communities' success is on the backs of these young men. Many, many hours. And they make no money. Everything is for the community."

One teen living with Coughlin said he was punished for "sexual immorality" at age 9 and spent a month in a basement. He wasn't allowed to leave and was given only a bucket to go to the bathroom.

"I've heard enough now to know, this isn't just one kid exaggerating. It's normal for these kids to experience this type of craziness," he said. "Thank God some of these kids are coming out. You can see how angry some of the kids get."

The group homeschools the children until about age 14, but because the kids are often shuttled between communities, it's difficult for states to track their progress. Coughlin said the children who leave are immediately given basic skills tests and routinely score below average. One recent teenage defector failed the math portion with a score of 20 and barely passed the English section.

"His first instinct was to get angry at the people who were supposedly teaching him," Coughlin said. "He said, `I've never even heard of half of this stuff."

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