Residents of a small town in northern Maine are worried that a cult plans to swell the town’s population and seize control of the government.
“Man, it’s like a movie or a Stephen King novel. Really, that’s what it is,” Gary Blankenship, the purported cult leader, said Friday.
He insisted there is no cult and no desire to take over. But he also said he hopes hundreds of his followers will move to the area and create a town of their own, comments that are unlikely to assuage the concern felt by locals.
“I’m doing this out of love,” Blankenship said, “and love conquers all.”
With a population of 747, St. Agatha borders Long Lake in the St. John Valley in rural Aroostook County – pretty enough to attract tourists who take advantage of both its trails and boating opportunities.
Residents are “welcoming, hospitable people who would give you the shirt off their back,” as Town Manager Aubrie Michaud put it Friday.
But Blankenship, a 35-year-old internet guru of sorts who moved there five months ago, isn’t feeling the normally friendly vibe.
“It’s like their hearts are as cold as five feet of snow,” he said.
Blankenship said he’s had death threats, beer bottles tossed at his house regularly and a steady stream of abuse from scared locals who have come to fear his plans for a hometown they love.
Some of the animosity is connected to a dispute about his right to stay in a house he repaired, but much of it is tied to harsh words Blankenship has had about the town and worries that he’s bringing allies to St. Agatha to gain control of the place.
Blankenship has more than 800 Facebook followers who appear to pay rapt attention to a steady stream of videos and memes that he churns out with the hashtag #CULTure.
“I’ve got a worldwide network of people,” he said, whom he’s trying to bring together to survive some unidentified calamity ahead.
He’s living in a 16-room, Civil War-era house next to the post office in St. Agatha that he called “the jewel of the town.” In his videos, he refers to it as a refuge and as his headquarters “where, more or less, everything will transpire.”
Blankenship said in one video that there’s plenty of space for anyone who comes.
“We’ll never run out of room because we’ll buy other properties,” he said.
There is some dispute about whether he’s allowed to be in the formerly vacant dwelling — an eviction proceeding is underway — but it’s clear from his videos he has fixed it up quite a bit since arriving in town.
Blankenship appears in his videos to be a middle-age man with long dark hair, a burly beard, a mustache and some tattoos, with kindly eyes and a penchant for repeating himself.
He doesn’t present himself as a preacher or a prophet. He comes across more like a friend who’s perhaps a little off.
A North Carolina native who called himself “a bad alcoholic” in the past, Blankenship has moved around a lot over the years and wound up in northern Maine last summer, where he got to work as a licensed contractor and came to appreciate the vast expanse of thinly populated country.
He said he signed a deal to buy a long-abandoned house in the center of St. Agatha and quickly moved to replace its leaky roof and begin tackling a long list of repairs.
At first, he said, neighbors loved him, bringing him cakes and pies as they expressed gratitude for his willingness to fix a key piece of property, to invest in the town.
But that didn’t last.
By mid-November, he was posting online memes that raised alarms among locals.
One read, “What if I said we’re building a town of like-minded people and you’re invited. #CULTure.”
On Nov. 12, Blankenship posted on one of his Facebook pages that he was picking up a fellow in Bangor who had just flown in from California.
“To all the other families who are preparing their journey here,” he said, “I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. I’m looking forward to seeing you all soon.”
In the same post, he mentioned a brother in Chicago who planned to buy a house in St. Agatha and a woman from North Carolina who was on her way with her family.
“When people come together, anything is possible,” Blankenship wrote.
A month later, he posted about a woman “who arrived with her seven beautiful children from Alabama this week” and mentioned “we have three women all working in the school system” already “spreading our light and love to our future.”
Questions began to circulate in town about his intentions.
Michaud said she cautioned folks “not be so skeptical toward people who come from away.”
It turned ugly in the second week of December, when somebody accused Blankenship’s teenage daughter of threatening to shoot up a school. The rumor was so widespread that at least 350 students in the region stayed home to avoid the perceived danger.
The talk wasn’t true, Blankenship said, but it led to his wife, mother and a friend losing their school jobs and much of the town turning against him.
“These people are after me,” he said, “spreading all these lies and slander.”
That things were going sour is clear from Blankenship’s post on Dec. 11 that said his life had been threatened “and so was the lives of our family by locals here. It’s a dark world we live in. The Love of many has waxed cold.”
In the same Facebook post, he asked, “When your followers outnumber the population of the town that’s persecuting you for sharing love to others, what do you do?!”
Michaud said she went to talk to him.
“It wasn’t until I heard from his own mouth that he believed our town to be a ‘dying wasteland’ where the residents are ‘ignorant’ that I began to understand the community’s concerns,” she said.
“It is a dying wasteland,” Blankenship insisted Friday. “Do the math.”
Statistically, he said, most of the people who live in St. Agatha are going to be dead within two decades. Its average age is more than 51, records show.
“I wouldn’t want this town if you gave it to me,” Blankenship said.
He said his call to followers to join him in the town isn’t part of a plot to take over the town. It’s just a way to gather like-minded people, he said, and perhaps create a brand-new, self-sufficient town once they get 150 or more to the area.
“It’s not a cult,” he said. “It’s our culture.”
But, he said, he recognized he’s “outside the norm” and that most people would probably think he heads a cult.
“I’m just showing people love,” Blankenship said, adding he doesn’t deserve the scorn and hate directed at him.
He said many are calling him Satan or an heir to cult leaders of the past who led their flocks to destruction.
“I’ve been called Jim Jones. I’ve been called David Koresh. I’ve been called Charles Manson,” Blankenship said. But he considers himself more like Jesus, even in appearance.
Jones led 918 of his followers to death in the Guyana jungle in 1978. Koresh died with 80 of his followers after a 1993 government siege in Waco, Texas. Manson’s cult committed nine infamous murders in California in 1969.
Whatever Blankenship is, the stress of his battle with the community is getting to him.
Blankenship said he decided this week to “step away from Facebook” for a while and decompress. He said he had “a mini-stroke” Thursday brought on by all the pressure.
He said, though, he has no plans to quit St. Agatha or give up his efforts to bring followers to join him.
“Will I probably go down like one of those cult leaders?” he asked. “My family fears for their lives.”
Michaud said Blankenship “asks the community to respect his beliefs and support him through his visions of bringing ‘150 people and more into this town to take it over and create his own town’ when he hasn’t respected the community or taken a step back to realize that we love this town exactly the way it is.”
“When you love a town as much as the people here love this town, you’re going to experience adversity when your intentions are to take it over yourself to create something different,” she said.
“Our beliefs, heritage and morals run deep within every person in this town,” Michaud said. “We’re proud of it.”
“We pass that passion down to new generations, and every year more young families are coming here so that their children may experience the heartbeat of this town as their parents did,” she said.
All the community wants, Michaud said, is for everyone to live under a simple motto: “Do unto others as you want to be done unto you.”
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