Sect leader's island is awash in mystery

Miami Herald/March 16, 2004
By Curtis Morgan

The island was curious enough, mysteriously -- and illegally -- popping up in the protected shallows of Biscayne National Park.

More than a year later, the case has only turned stranger.

The workers who built it -- by hacking a boardwalk through 300 feet of lush park-owned mangroves -- have vanished. And investigators have never located the owner of an elaborate hideaway at the end of the boardwalk.

But they have learned enough to say she's even more colorful than the name on Miami-Dade property records -- Celestia De Lamour -- might suggest.

Federal and county sources who have done background checks on her say De Lamour is better known internationally as Ching Hai, or ''Supreme Master'' of a sect with a string of meditation centers and vegetarian restaurants that sell everything from spiritual tapes to jewelry and ''celestial clothing'' the guru is said to design herself.

The Suma Ching Hai International Association, based in Taiwan, reportedly claims as many as two million members in 50 countries and boasts numerous websites, such as

Since the early 1990s, the Vietnamese-born woman has been the subject of articles from Australia to Los Angeles.

She made her biggest splash in 1996 when followers donated $640,000 to President Bill Clinton's legal defense fund. The White House, embarrassed by an earlier scandal involving foreign contributions, returned the money. A Washington Post profile at the time pronounced her ''one of the richest religious cult leaders today.''

Restoration Costs

But the national park is still trying to figure out if it can recoup an estimated $1 million in environmental restoration costs from a charismatic and controversial mystic who has amassed a fortune extolling simplicity.

Until last year, Ching Hai lived on and off in Miami for several years virtually unknown. Then in January 2003 a tip led inspectors from Miami-Dade's Department of Environmental Resources Management to an illegal construction on national park property just south of the Deering Estate off Old Cutler Road.

What they found: several tons of rock measuring 32 feet by 42 feet forming an island atop protected sea grass. And the island was growing. Workers were loading more boulders in a wheelbarrow when inspectors arrived.

Until the discovery, records show De Lamour, under a variety of spellings, owned a considerable amount of pricey Florida real estate, including 34 undeveloped acres in New Port Richey and a handful of properties in Miami-Dade. Most of it was waterfront, fitting for a leader whose name in Mandarin loosely translates to ''blue sea.''

She lived on and off at two Venetian Isles bayfront homes, where she bemused neighbors before moving out, seemingly overnight, about six months ago. Records show both homes have since changed hands.

''She was a very kind person, just very, very strange,'' said one neighbor who did not want to be identified. ''There was just a lot of weird stuff.''

Stuff like this: scurrying minions who always referred to her as ''the master.'' Odd construction projects, often done after midnight, like aviaries or landscaping, fences or screens to shield the property.

De Lamour, said another neighbor, described herself as a designer but talked little about herself. At one home, neighbors rarely saw anyone, only cars. At another, the petite woman was pleasant when encountered -- sometimes to a fault, offering extravagant gifts like expensive designer clothes on a whim.

''You had to be careful what you said. Just mention you were cold and the next thing you know she was coming with bags full of Ralph Lauren sweaters,'' the neighbor said. 'When I made a comment about why she was bringing over all this stuff all the time, she said, 'I have so such money I don't know what to do with it.' ''

Property Seized

Ching Hai is apparently flush enough not to fight when the Miami-Dade County Police Department seized five acres off Old Cutler that she paid $800,000 for two years ago. The county sold it last month -- for a cut-rate $300,000 -- to the Village of Palmetto Bay, which intends to turn it into a park.

Detectives, court records show, made repeated efforts to contact De Lamour or representatives at other homes and mailing addresses. Most of the time, no one answered. Workers who did shrugged off questions. No one representing De Lamour ever made a call or wrote a letter about the county's property seizure.

''It appeared very secretive,'' said Robert Fiallo, a Miami-Dade police attorney. ''Nobody knew anything.''

Federal prosecutors also indicted Teng Kun Hsu, a laborer who directed the work, on pollution and destruction of federal property charges. But he never showed up in court, records show, and was declared a fugitive on Sept. 15.

The U.S. attorney's office would not comment, and a federal public defender representing Hsu did not return calls.

Investigators believe he may have fled to his home in Taiwan, also home to the headquarters of Suma Ching Hai International.

Place for Retreat

In initial interviews with county inspectors, Hsu said he had created the compound -- complete with a 50-foot-long aviary and a sprawling patio built around three RVs packed with all the comforts of home, from air purifiers to curling irons -- as a retreat and meditation area for the owner.

Whether Ching Hai should be considered a ''cult leader'' is the subject of debate among people who track such groups. The group offers no dark doomsday messages but instead practices a form of meditation called quan yin, which taps into some sort of inner music, and stresses vegetarianism along with simple rules against lying, stealing or ''sexual misconduct.''

''It's not a scary cult. It's a little more free-flowing,'' said David Lane, a professor at California State University who tracks what he called ''new religious movements.'' ''Today, it's politically incorrect to call anything a cult,'' he said.

Lane and Rick Ross, another authority on such groups, said the most common complaints were Ching Hai's ''unusual influence'' over followers, who may devote large amounts of time to serving her or large amounts of cash to buying her religious materials.

''It's common for her devotees to work at these restaurants with little if any meaningful compensation,'' Ross said. ''That makes her businesses very profitable.''

More than two dozen calls by The Herald over several months to Ching Hai centers in New York and California were not returned.

Only one Florida follower listed on the group's website responded and she flatly rejected the ''cult'' label.

''It's not a cult, it's a spiritual meditation association. There's nothing bad about that,'' said the member, who did not want her named used but said she had been in the group for nine years and held a full-time outside job.

She said she had never heard of De Lamour or problems in Miami, but if any illegal work was done on the master's property, ''it's quite probably she knows nothing of this.''

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