Submerged Spirit: Bay Area writer tells tale of life to so-called cult

ANG Newspapers/May 23, 2005
By Candace Murphy

You wouldn't think a cult would advertise in the classifieds.

But there it was. In black and white. Buried in the pages of the Classified Flea Market, a weekly East Bay publication that boasts more than 3,000 ads "for everything from antique furniture to late model automobiles."

It was only a few inches of newsprint, really. A few lines that caught the eye of Steve Sanchez, 25 and living in Hayward. The ad offered a free psychic reading. As the survivor of a tough childhood, Sanchez thought it sounded like a good deal: After a difficult past, see the future. For free.

"When I talk about it now, people are like, 'Man, you must have been crazy to get sucked into that,'" says Sanchez, now 45 and living in Albany. "But it was a time I wanted spirituality in my life. I had a wife and a young daughter and was working any menial job I could. I was in therapy. I wanted answers. Basically, I was seeking. So I answered an ad."

The advertisement had been placed by the Spiritual Rights Foundation, a Berkeley organization that calls itself a church and calls its seminary an Academy for Psychic Studies. Its motto: "Freedom is the essence of life."

Sanchez, though, who spent 15 years with the SRF, calls it a cult. And though many stories have been published in the last six years about the SRF and its now-deceased but then-charismatic leader, Rev. Bill Duby, Sanchez is the first to write a book, titled "Spiritual Perversion" ($19.95/Turnkey Press).

Throughout the book, for legal reasons, Sanchez uses the name Rev. Will and calls it the Spiritual Lights Foundation. Though Rev. Bill is dead, the Spiritual Rights Foundation lives on. It's still located in Berkeley and obviously not pleased with "Spiritual Perversion." According to Sanchez' publicist, Phenix & Phenix, the SRF is suing because its name is mentioned in a blurb on the bookseller's Web site. A message left by this newspaper for Rev. Robin DuMolin, a member of the SRF's board of directors, was not returned.

That a so-called cult thrived in Berkeley, in the East Bay, anywhere, really, is not so much of a surprise. According to the Jewish Board of Family and Children's Services, about 180,000 Americans are actively recruited by cults each year. The chances of succumbing to recruitment, they say, are twice as great as catching chicken pox.

That Sanchez managed to extricate himself from the SRF, though, and write about it, is a feat. Among those who study cults, Sanchez is being compared to Deborah Layton, famous for her book, "Seductive Poison: A Jonestown Survivor's Story of Life and Death in the Peoples Temple." They say that by putting pen to paper, Sanchez has fortified his chances of leading a healthy life. These days the author runs a construction company and has a wife, a baby daughter and a nice home.

Al Siebert, author of "The Survivor Personality" and "The Resiliency Advantage" and director of the Resiliency Center in Portland, Ore., has long held that heroic survivors have two things in common: They integrate their traumatic experience into their identity and make it a part of their life story, and they talk or write about it so as to help others.

"It takes great emotional courage to do that," says Siebert about Sanchez' endeavor. "In writing about a cult, the main thing he's wrestling with is the power of the cult. The cult builds up this image: 'We are truly enlightened and good, and the people that don't hear us? They suck. They are bad people, they're depraved, they're dolts.' It's horrible. That's what he was fighting."

Sanchez says the process was not easy. The idea for the book was borne from a five-page testimony his lawyer had requested he write while seeking to regain custody of the daughter he had with his second wife, who was still in the SRF. He wrote 30 pages. A book was the next natural step, and after four years of writing and editing, it finally was published in February.

"There were times writing it that I'd go through the deepest, darkest experiences all over again," says Sanchez. "I have post-traumatic stress disorder. A lot of these things trigger it. There are some very difficult, enraging themes. But I'm a persevering person. I'm not one to run away from things. I just went through it."

Sanchez leaves little to the imagination in his 428-page tome. He begins with his courting, a dance that was initiated the moment he stepped through the door for the psychic reading. In the middle of that fateful meeting, Rev. "Will" strode through the door and interrupted the reading.

"He was short and starting to get a belly, but he carried himself with a military look and posture," writes Sanchez in "Spiritual Perversion." He had a flat, square, earthy face with severe cheekbones and lots of pockmarks. Intelligence danced around his eyes. He instantly commanded the attention of the room. The readers went silent and sat up straight. They put their hands palms up in their laps and looked like they had gone into meditation. I definitely got the feeling something special was going on."

The Reverend went to admonish the readers, saying that Sanchez' psychic abilities were so obvious. And just like that, he was reeled in.

Over the next 15 years, each painstakingly detailed in Sanchez' compelling writing voice, Sanchez witnessed sexual abuse and child molestation by Rev. "Will." His first marriage ended and later his second, a union made within the SRF, as his wife fell under the spell of the "SLF's" magnetic leader. He would watch his wages dwindle, as the organization tithed up to 80 percent of his income, leaving him unable to pay child support from his first marriage.

Through it all, Sanchez stuck by the SRF. He even rose through its ranks, became a "minister" and helped found a branch in San Jose.

In its heyday, in the early'90s, about 20 ministers and a dozen ministers-in-training lived on three of the group's properties, including one at 2432 Ellsworth St., a lavender Victorian that served as its headquarters.

"We all felt like disciples, that was the atmosphere. But at the same time, he'd make us feel like Judas," says Sanchez of Rev. Bill. "He'd say, 'If you're thinking of leaving, you're a Judas.' No one wanted to be that. They'd just work harder to be in good standing. I ended up staying so long because I started the San Jose branch."

But as Sanchez writes, in San Jose, he was his own man. And his allegiance finally waned. When he left the organization in 1999, he had nothing. No money. Two estranged wives. Two estranged daughters. And once again, an uncertain future.

"Once I woke up, it was therapeutic to fight," says Sanchez, who at one time was among seven other former members fighting in court to get custody of children still in the SRF.

It is obviously a new day. Sanchez has contact with both his daughters, Helen, from his first marriage, and Kaitley, from his marriage within the cult. He married his wife Prema a year and a half ago, and they now have a 51/2-month-old daughter they named River. He's even in the black, big time, as he is proud to share that he earned a profit of $230,000 last year.

He says the SRF has none of the power it had before, either, partly because of negative publicity from the child custody battles and partly because of the death of Rev. Bill, who died of a heart attack in 2001.

"It was extremely difficult, painful," says Sanchez. "But life is wonderful. In the end, I believe it's good to face things and be honest.

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