"Human behavior never ceases to amaze me," says Hal Mansfield , tipping back in his desk chair. In a low basement room with walls decorated by plaques and awards, the retired Air Force officer gazes at one of two computer screens in front of him. "There 's a lot of high-level weirdness everywhere you go."
Mansfield has been the director of the Religious Movement Resource Center in Fort Collins since its inception in 1981. Operating out of a dimly lit basement in the Elderhaus building at 1105 W. Myrtle St., the center acts as a sort of clearinghouse for all things related to cults, hate groups and even benign clubs—collections of unified people of every stripe.
Mansfield has a Bachelor of Science degree in natural sciences and a Master of Arts degree in counseling from Colorado State University. He says his years with the Air Force working up and down the Amazon River as director of counter-narcotics operations in South America showed him how easily people can fall victim to the often powerful forces of mind control. Mansfield says he witnessed within international drug cartels the kind of commanding energy that can exist in a tight-knit group of people.
Within the United States, groups like the Fundamental Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints—which leaders of the official Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints say is in no way affiliated with the Mormon religion—who recently purchased land in southern Colorado, worry Mansfield. He is concerned about the possibility of "another Waco" from one of the groups he tracks and the harmful effects he says these groups and others like them can have on less discriminating members. So the ex-military man has armed himself with a collection of reading materials on the subject that he claims is unparalleled in the region and a rotating cadre of volunteers who are often ex-cult members themselves. Together, they provide services to people leaving any kind of group and needing legal assistance, counseling or just someone to talk to who knows how they feel.
And how they feel is not usually very good, Mansfield says.
"Ex-members can feel dirty, guilty, then angry," he explains. "That can turn into wanting revenge or wanting to get the word out." Mansfield and his volunteers try to shape the energy of ex-cult members into the latter, pooling their resources with those of other related organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center out of Birmingham, Ala. and the International Cultic Studies Association in Bonita Springs, Fla. to help ex-cult members focus on recovery.
But Mansfield is quick to establish that not all cults are destructive and not all groups can be considered cults. Being strange does not necessarily mean being malevolent, he says.
"You could have a cult of chess players," he says, "and they 're no threat to society."
"Look at the Wiccans," he adds, referring to a worldwide group of people largely involved in Goddess worship. "They 're not destructive. Strange? Yeah. But so am I."
To differentiate between a harmful cult and a benign group of like-minded folks, Mansfield has developed his own succinct definition of what makes a destructive cult—and therefore a potential threat to its members and sometimes to society as whole.
"Essentially, a destructive cult inhibits individual freedom of thought through violence, deception and mind control," he says. These factors often lead to mental abuse, physical abuse and/or financial abuse, he explains, through recruitment techniques that play on the weaknesses of unsuspecting people.
A college town like Fort Collins , Mansfield says, full of young people who are often away from home for the first time and without their normal support groups, is the perfect place for cult recruiters to find new members.
"College freshmen who are separated from their family and friends and maybe just got their first D—they 're down and depressed," Mansfield says. "A good recruiter 's going to pick up on that."
The most common type of activity within the Fort Collins area that Mansfield tracks is less organized, he says, and less established than larger national groups like the National Alliance or similar racial or religious groups.
"The biggest thing you' ve got up here is the no-name group headed by a guy who got a message from God or his toaster oven," says Mansfield . But he maintains that no matter where they are, no one joins any type of cult voluntarily, but is instead systematically recruited.
"Most people will just brush it off," Mansfield says, "unless they hit your hot button—the most vulnerable you are at that moment. If you're feeling down and depressed, they 're going to make you feel loved."
On the RMRC Web site, Mansfield posts a list of eight features for people to watch out for when they suspect they might be targets of a cult recruiter, including excessive or inappropriate friendliness, magical solutions to life 's problems and invitations to isolated weekend workshops with nebulous goals. Mansfield nods repeatedly at the suggestion that several mainstream religions in the United States utilize similar techniques in finding new church members, and stresses that the evaluation of cults is not a black and white issue. Nor should it be, he adds.
"There is no fast dividing line," he says. "It' s a bell-shaped curve—all in matters of degrees. Does Eric Rudolph represent mainstream Christianity? I certainly hope not. You' ve got the fringes of the fringe and that's what we deal with here."
Many of the "fringe" groups Mansfield has his eye on do not agree with the center's goals or its practice of labeling them as destructive cults.
But the small man with an Episcopalian background is not deterred by the inflammatory nature of his work and mentions the Falun Gong and the Sky Kingdom as groups he has his eye on. The Hari Krishnas have been cleaning up their act over the years, he says, and are not as violent and destructive as he says they used to be.
But members of Pastor Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist Church out of Topeka, Kan., well-known in Fort Collins for their attempts to picket CSU football games with their "God Hates Fags" campaign, is as high on Mansfield 's list as the National Vanguard, a newly formed group supporting white power in U.S. government and society.
Mansfield charges only for legal services like sitting on a witness stand in court—something he does from time to time as an expert on the topic of cult studies. He operates the RMRC on an annual budget of $7,000 that he says he gets mostly from individual donations. While Mansfield says his center is not tied to any particular religion and tries not to get involved with ideologies at all, the RMRC is associated with the Interfaith Council in Fort Collins, a group of leaders from the area' s many religious organizations, and CSU's University Campus Ministry, an ecumenical organization geared for college students.
Mansfield proudly points out the Fort Collins Human Relations Award he won in 2005 and says he considers his center a success even in slow months, like summer, when he usually just shows up to the office to check his email. Other times of the year he may as well pull up a cot, he says, there are so many people knocking at his door. But at any time of year, Mansfield says, his library is open to the needy or just the curious who want more information on all things cult related.
"I get a hundred emails a day from people needing help," Mansfield says. "There's a need and I 'm here to fill it."