A mystery in Miami as sect leader and an instant island disappear

Independent.co.uk/March 28, 2004
By David Usborne

The rangers at the Biscayne Bay National Park in South Florida know an environmental violation when they see one. But when a tip-off last year led them to a site inside the narrow mangrove forest that fringes the ocean about 15 miles south of Miami, they were as perplexed as they were angry.

Several months later - and just as they started last week to clear up the mess - the mystery of this illegal encroachment on park territory is as deep as ever. What were these people thinking? And what exactly - if they had ever been able to complete it - would this eccentric little hideaway have been used for?

The answers, like something from a Carl Hiaasen novel, appear to stretch far beyond what the Park Service is normally used to dealing with. This, as it turns out, was the work of a worldwide religious sect known as the Suma Ching Hai International Association, which teaches a form of meditation, inspired by Christianity and Buddhism, called quan yin.

Three motorised caravans were parked just inside the boundaries of the park on the edge of the mangroves, all encased in pristine wooden decking. On the deck's edge was a 50ft aviary. From there, a path had been hacked through the mangroves to the sea and a wooden boardwalk built through it.

That was not the end of it, however. The 350ft boardwalk, finished with a wood and glass balustrade, culminated in a causeway across the water to a tiny man-made island, about 50ft across, made of large boulders of limestone set upon the ocean bed and sea grass.

The good news for the national park authorities is that they are free now to dismantle everything. Within a day of the compound being discovered, workers - who were still pushing boulders down the boardwalk in wheelbarrows to make the island bigger - abruptly vanished. An area of private property outside the park, but linked to the compound, has been seized by the Miami-Dade County Police and sold, at a steep discount, to the local community of Palmetto Bay, which plans to turn it into a park.

By Friday, all that was left of the strange project was the island itself - leaving a film of white on the water with each ebb and flow of the tide - and the aviary.

In just two days last week, a team of 30 park rangers had ripped up the decking and the boardwalk and were busy planting new mangrove saplings in the wound where the boardwalk had led. A barge will arrive soon to remove the island itself.

But who should be paying the roughly $1m (£550,000) bill for all this restoration? That, according to police sources, would be a woman who owned the adjacent property, after buying it in 2002 for $750,000 (£400,000). She goes by the name - in Florida, at least - of Celestia De Lamour.

It was her minions, as far as anyone can tell, who began building the complex in the mangroves, and the island, for her pleasure.

To the great frustration of the Park Service, there is no finding Ms De Lamour, who is none other than the Supreme Master of the Suma Ching Hai. Based in Taiwan, the movement boasts two million members in 50 countries, including Britain, and has several websites, most notably www.godsdirectcontact.org. It also advocates vegetarianism and has a string of vegetarian restaurants. "The police can't locate her," reports Charles Scurr, who is village manager for Palmetto Bay. "She seems to be everywhere, but nowhere". According to records, she owned two luxury homes in the Miami area. Both are now empty.

Mr Scurr, who oversaw the purchase of the De Lamour property on behalf of Palmetto Bay for $300,000, had hopes of persuading the Park Service to preserve the boardwalk, causeway and island and turn the area into an educational park for visitors. He was shocked when we arrived last week to find the park rangers tearing everything up. For the chief biologist of Biscayne Bay National Park, Rick Clark, however, there was never any question about the need to undo the environmental crime. "We have an obligation to try to restore the area to its original condition," he said, picking his way carefully along what used to be boardwalk, trying not to disturb the new saplings.

He is still shocked by what happened, without anyone from the Park Service even noticing. This is the longest strip of coastal mangrove growth still surviving in South Florida. "It really is all that remains of old South Florida," he explains. "In my 19 years with the National Park I have never come across an encroachment of this magnitude. It is still amazing to me."

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