To his neighbors, Lee Kaplan was quiet and aloof. His three-bedroom Pennsylvania home was hidden behind overgrown shrubbery and at times almost seemed empty. However, behind closed doors, authorities allege Kaplan was living with 12 young girls who considered him a prophet of God as he repeatedly sexually abused them.
To Kaplan, six of the girls were not only his followers but also his “wives,” Bucks County authorities allege.
“Kaplan had constructed his own sick family unit in which he was the [girls’] father, prophet and God,” Rick Ross, founder and director of the Cult Education Institute, tells PEOPLE, describing law enforcement allegations against the Pennsylvania man. “And these girls were his followers.”
In June the girls were rescued by Lower Southampton police, and in November Kaplan pleaded not guilty to more than a dozen charges including rape of a child and involuntary deviate sexual intercourse.
He allegedly not only fathered two children with the eldest girl but also sexually abused five of her younger sisters over the course of years, with the consent of their parents, Bucks County District Attorney Matthew Weintraub said.
“This guy set up a virtual feeding ground of victims,” Weintraub told PEOPLE in a previous interview, calling the situation “cult-like.”
“He preyed upon [the girls] one by one,” he said.
Ryan Hyde, Kaplan’s attorney, denounces claims that Kaplan led a cult.
“I believe Mr. Kaplan befriended this family and really thought this was a family and friend relationship,” Hyde tells PEOPLE. “He’s really hurt by the allegations.”
Ross, who has worked with authorities and victims in cult cases for more than 30 years, says Kaplan isn’t the first person accused of successfully running a cult in plain sight. The 51-year-old allegedly took advantage of the girls’ parents, Daniel and Savilla Stoltzfus, Ross tells PEOPLE. They were vulnerable in both finances and faith, which is common, he says.
The couple are themselves facing child endangerment charges but will not face any additional charges, Weintraub said in November. They have pleaded not guilty.
Authorities say Kaplan went unnoticed for years because the girls’ parents also believed Kaplan was a prophet.
The children were raised Amish, born with no birth certificates and home schooled together, officials say, but the Stoltzfus family left the Amish community after they met Kaplan, a former business partner of Daniel’s.
The newly independent family was vulnerable and preconditioned to relying on faith for answers, Ross says.
“[Cult leaders] can be functional and charming, but they don’t have empathy or sympathy,” he says of the men and women who establish cults.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, Craig Penglase, Savilla’s attorney, says he believes Kaplan always planned on taking advantage of the “simple-minded” family.
“I think he knew from the beginning — he met Daniel and he presented himself immediately as this God figure,” Penglase tells PEOPLE.
During police questioning following their children’s rescue, Daniel and Savilla told authorities that in exchange for financial support, their eldest daughter, who was 14 at the time, was “gifted” to Kaplan.
In a previous interview, Penglase defended his client’s agreement as a “difference in culture.”
“Everything [Savilla] did was for her family, and what she did in this case was what she thought was right,” Penglase said. “It may have been misguided, it may have been weird to you and me, but that was her belief.”
Penglase says Kaplan later allegedly convinced Daniel to give him his wife, who then had a sexual relationship with her daughters’ alleged abuser as part of his preaching.
“It’s very sad. She’s very sad,” Penglase says. “She was traded [by Daniel] just like the children were.”
Penglase reveals Savilla, David and their daughters still believe Kaplan is a prophet of God: “This man destroyed an entire family.”
Daniel’s attorney could not be reached for comment.
Before the eldest girl moved into Kaplan’s home more than four years ago, the girl told authorities she and Kaplan shared a bedroom at her parents’ Lancaster County home in Pennsylvania.
But that wasn’t enough for Kaplan, authorities allege. So the girl moved to his home and Savilla and her other daughters followed shortly after. (Savilla only learned about her daughter’s alleged sexual abuse by Kaplan when she learned about the teen’s first pregnancy, Penglase has said.)
Ross says it essential for cult leaders to keep their followers close and in a “controlled environment.”
“These children … had no conception of what was right and what was wrong other than what Kaplan told them,” the Cults Inside and Out author explains. “He was able to completely control everything that went into their minds. They had no alternate frame of reference, it was simply what Kaplan said and that was it.”
Ross alleges that moving the girls into his home was Kaplan’s final step in creating his “family cult.”
“The human mind really is fragile, and if you place a person in such an environment … is you can begin to manipulate the mind itself,” Ross says, describing the process as a form of brainwashing.