A family is waging a court battle with a church that they say is a religious cult over the estate of a woman who was found dead on an Arkansas River bank in April.
Linda Mauer belonged to the Living Spirit Foundation and moved with it from California to Oklahoma in 2003. The church, under the direction of its spiritual leader, Solomae Sananda, formerly Cheryl Stoycoff, is based in Inola, its Web site shows.
After joining the Living Spirit Foundation, which describes itself as a nondenominational, interfaith, nontraditional and Christ- based spiritual organization, Mauer began using the first name 'Bethany.'
Two passersby found her body April 1 in a muddy area thick with brush north of the 21st Street Bridge.
A detective at the time noted some "suspicious circumstances" but no obvious signs of trauma to her body.
The Medical Examiner's Office still has not determined the cause of her death, which police are still investigating.
Will challenged: Sananda's husband, Clyde Stoycoff, filed a petition for probate of a lost will in Tulsa County District Court in June, claiming that Mauer willed her estate to him, Sananda and the Living Spirit Foundation, court records show.
Stoycoff describes himself as an ordained minister, director of ministerial services and business manager for the foundation, its Web site shows.
A copy of the will was filed with the court, but the motion indicates that Stoycoff believes that the original will is at Mauer's former home and that he cannot obtain it from the current landlord without court authority. His lawyer, R. Theron Williams, would not comment on Stoycoff's behalf.
Mauer's family objects to the photocopy, saying a copy is not admissible under Oklahoma law. Andy Townsend, the Tulsa lawyer who represents Mauer's family in the probate case, said the relatives, who live in other states, also would not comment.
A hearing is scheduled for Aug. 1, when a judge will decide whether the photocopy can be admitted. Even if the judge allows the copy to be used, or if the original is found, the family maintains that the will is not binding for several reasons, including the suspicious circumstances of Mauer's death.
In a written objection, Townsend stated that "in some circles" the Living Spirit Foundation would be called a cult.
"Cults are notorious for exerting undue influence and pressure on their members to give up their worldly possessions in favor of the cult," the motion states.
Townsend said Mauer met Sananda through a yoga class and that Sananda encouraged her to join the Living Spirit Foundation.
Mauer's mother later died, and Mauer inherited an undisclosed sum of money. She left California with Stoycoff and Sananda on the day of her mother's funeral, which she did not attend, Townsend said.
The family claims that there is evidence that Mauer was influenced by the group during her life, and they believe that she was "under duress and/or undue influence by members of this cult at the time she executed the alleged Last Will and Testament," a court filing states.
The family also asserts that Mauer was under psychiatric care and was not in her right mind when the will was written. They say she was emaciated at the time of her death and "believed to be starving herself or under the direction to do so."
Townsend also questioned the timing of the probate case.
"I think it is kind of fast, if they are concerned about this person, to be seeking the money before her cause of death is even determined," he said.
Withdrawing from life: In a message posted on the Living Spirit Foundation's Internet discussion board April 7, Stoycoff wrote that Mauer was a critical part of the "ascension process" and that she suffered in this "mission." The discussion board has since been removed from the Web site.
Stoycoff described Mauer as the "gatekeeper" who "held the energy at the 'gates of hell' at bay so Christ could form the new Earth through His body." He also described the isolation of her last weeks of life.
"In the last month, it had become necessary for her to isolate herself from virtually everyone. This was a knowing that she had and, it seems I may have been the one exception. I visited with her about three weeks ago. That was the last time I saw her," he wrote.
"Because of her isolation, when the time came and her mission was complete, she drove to a public place last Friday morning (April 1), laid down and, with the assistance of a bevy of angels, went home to be with her True Love in the peace she so richly deserves. In the midst of my selfish sorrow of my missing her, I am overjoyed at her current circumstance."
Stoycoff filed a copy of an e-mail with the court that Mauer apparently sent to him March 8 asking him to be her "point of contact" for her funeral arrangements. In the e-mail she calls Stoycoff "Bro" and said she was preparing for "when that time comes (and I'm old and grey and have few remaining teeth) to go home."
She wrote in the e-mail that all arrangements would be handled through a funeral home and that she wanted no service.
"Also, they would have any information necessary for a Death Certificate (they're the only ones who can issue this, otherwise it delays the releasing of funds by quite some time and this would expedite the processing of the will. This was a big factor in the decision as you would have almost immediate access to any assets," the document states.
Mauer also reportedly wrote that Sananda had talked once during lunch about needing funds for one of her sons' schooling. Mauer asked Stoycoff whether Sananda would be uncomfortable if she offered to "chip in on" the schooling.
Paula Sullivan, a Tulsa woman who befriended Mauer, said Mauer changed both physically and emotionally before she last saw her in the winter.
"In the dozens of walks and even more cups of tea shared, Linda only spoke of spiritual topics -- Scriptures and the inquiry classes she was taking in the Catholic Church. The last time I had tea with her in her apartment, she told me Clyde Stoycoff said Solomae was 'expanding exponentially through spiritual realms.' "
Sullivan said Mauer was always very excited when she spoke about Sananda. But Mauer told Sullivan that she believed she had "denser energies" surrounding herself and that it wasn't good for her to be physically near Sananda because of these dark energies, Sullivan said.
Mauer often looked frightened and was getting thinner and thinner, Sullivan said. She wore large clothes, so it was hard to tell just how much weight she was losing, she said.
"By the end of November, she was saying regularly, 'I'm in a dark night of the spirits,' " Sullivan said.
Sullivan said Mauer seemed all of sudden to cut everyone who knew her out of her life except the Stoycoffs. She said she last saw Mauer in January.
"She came up to my door to return a book, and I opened the door. She looked terrified and started backing away. I asked her to come in, but she ran backwards up the street like she was terrified of me.
"She also said she 'sensed this would all be over January 16th,' " Sullivan said. "I started calling her January 17th. She wouldn't answer her phone, and her answering machine wasn't turned on."