Warning signs

Church or cult? Inside Indy's scariest group

Indianopolis Monthly/July 1, 2007
By Tony Rehagen

Two decades ago, a former minister name Mike Peters brought a handful of people to Indianapolis from Vermont in hopes of building a church without walls. His so-called Church in Indianapolis flourished, growing to close to 200 followers. But now, some former members are coming forward with claims that Peters has brainwashed his disciples, instilling a fear of the outside world and controlling their lives to an alarming degree. To these expatriates, the group is fast becoming a dangerous cult.

You are not welcome.

That much is made evident by the tall metal sign planted at the mouth of Lost Tree Drive, the main artery of the New Augusta Woods neighborhood on the city's northwest side. Standing crooked, as if bent by some massive wind, the post seems to lean into the roadway so as not to be ignored. Pasted in the middle of the sign is a sticker no bigger than a CD jewel case that reads, "No Soliciting: If you do not know the occupants personally, and have not been invited, sales calls are not welcome." Then around the sticker, in bold type: "Residents of this neighborhood that display this sign request that no solicitation of any kind be attempted." A quarter-mile down the road, the same sticker begins to appear on the windows and storm doors of about a dozen houses with uniform black mailboxes emblazoned with gold numbers. The light breeze carries the smell of fresh-cut grass and the purr of small engines as residents take advantage of a dry and sunny day to mow their lawns. Neighbors young and old stand in their yards and driveways in an adjacent cul-de-sac, Long Meadow Court, chatting and laughing beneath a clear blue sky.

One two-story brick house with beige siding in the 4500 block features the warning sticker, supplemented by a homemade sign cautioning UPS and FedEx men to leave packages at the door, "including those that require signatures." The blinds are drawn, and a white curtain shields the door-side window from prying eyes. There is a dingy rubber mat on the porch, but it doesn't say "Welcome."

I am not a salesman. And I wasn't invited. But I do know who lives here. Mike Peters is a founding member and the apparent leader of a group sometimes referred to as CII. CII stands for the Church In Indianapolis, a group of Christians who reject traditional organized religion and worship communally in the two-stories and ranches that line these streets. Since its inception more than 20 years ago, some reports say, the church has grown to include more than 100 followers, most of whom live side-by-side in this neighborhood or in other pockets throughout the city. The church also has a growing number of ex-members scattered across the nation, expatriates who over the past 18 months have come together to mount a campaign against the group. They allege that behind the doors and drawn curtains of this neighborhood, Peters has brainwashed his people, instilling a paranoia of the outside world that has led to an alarming degree of control over members' lives. They claim his interpretations of the Bible keep women out of the workforce, dictate dress codes, and mandate that members never spend time alone away from the group. They say that he has coerced members into arranged marriages and sabotaged couples and families who had been together for years. Some say that Peters has supplanted Christ as the focus of the group's adulation. To these former members, the C in ClI stands for cult.

The lights are on inside Peters' house. I ring the doorbell and wait. After a few moments, the white curtain in the doorway window is brushed quickly aside and two eyes appear for a split second--so fast, I can't make out whether it is a man or a woman, child or adult. Someone is on the other side of the door. But no one answers.

After about a minute, I walk back to my car. And that's when I notice the silence. The yard work has stopped, and the mowers have been left cooling in the yard. There is no traffic. The children are gone. The cul-de-sac, brimming with life just moments ago, is now deserted, as if a storm siren had gone off and the people had all hurried indoors. As I approach my car, I spot a pair of girls standing in the front doorway two houses down. Expressionless, they watch with wide eyes through the crack of a half-open storm door. I drive by and wave. The door quickly shuts, the girls vanishing into the shadows inside.

Public facts of Mike Peters' past are scarce. A police report filed in 2000 after his car was broken into says Peters was born on June 10, 1957, though it does not say where. His Social Security number was issued in Indiana between 1972-73. Records show he graduated from the Rose Hulman Institute of Technology in Terre Haute with a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering in 1979. Other public records indicate that he later spent time in Vermont and Arkansas. The Indiana Secretary of State's office documents Peters' creation of a number of home businesses-including engineering, consulting, and contracting enterprises--in Indianapolis in 1990. Marion County property records show that he and his wife, Katherine, bought the house on Lost Tree Drive in 1997.

Ex-members seem to agree that Peters' parents lived somewhere in Southern Indiana or possibly near Terre Haute. They also report that Peters often claimed to have been raised Catholic before being "born again" in his 20s through the Church of Christ, and that he often spoke of having left a high-paying executive job with Rand McNally to become a Church of Christ preacher. (Rand McNally verified that a Michael H. Peters worked at its Nashville, Tennessee, office as a printing-press room supervisor from March 1981 to April 1984.) The earliest firsthand accounts of Peters described here come from time he spent in South Burlington, Vermont, in the mid-1980s.

In September 1985, after having been expelled years before for a premarital relationship, Gene Fredette returned to worship at the South Burlington Church of Christ. He was greeted by a young preacher who seemed to be breathing life into the congregation. His name was Mike Peters.

Twenty-eight years old, Peters was just under six feet tall and skinny, with a clean-shaven face and a head of dirty blond hair. But when he spoke, Fredette says, "his words were powerful. He didn't yell or holler. He spoke calmly, with conviction and sincerity, with a real love for the Lord. He wasn't a brow-beater. He challenged you and encouraged you." Fredette remembers that Peters' energy, charisma, vast knowledge of the Bible, and electrifying speaking style had quickly won over the younger congregants, himself included, and inspired their dedication.

But while the youth of the church were ready to follow Peters, the elders were slower to rally to their new leader. They resisted the community outreach Peters was preaching. Fredette believes their hesitation bruised Peters' pride and later caused friction with the elders. "Mike always had the ego," he says. "If his words aren't firing you up, something is wrong with you. You have sin. And rather than reach out, he didn't want to waste his time on them." Fredette says Peters started meeting secretly with the younger members outside of church. At the same time, Fredette claims, Peters began pressuring the elders, threatening to publicly expose sins they had confessed to him if they didn't go along with his efforts. "One elder told me, 'When you confess to [Mike Peters], you're signing your death warrant,'" Freddette says.

Eventually, the situation reached its breaking point, and Peters decided to take a handful of followers from South Burlington and start a new church elsewhere. While flying to Indianapolis to assess it as a possible site, Peters later told cohorts, he saw a rainbow in the clouds. He considered it a sign from God that he should plant his church here.

Peters' new church was to be the antithesis of organized religion. No scheduled masses, rituals, or scripted sermons. Here, the true meaning of Christ would be practiced as daily doctrine. It was to be a "Light-walking Church that 'the gates of Hell cannot prevail against,''' Peters would later write. And their goal was to "make ready Jesus' Gride, his Church. She's a special lady, a 'Bride prepared for the return of the Groom,' the King of Glory." Sometime around 1986, the Church In Indianapolis was born.

Tim Szazynski first found Mike Peters and CII in 1987. He and his wife were living in Pittsburgh, where he worked as a carpenter. Szazynski, now age 45, was a committed Christian and had long been searching for an alternative to the traditional structured worship he found empty and unfulfilling. He devoured books and other materials, anything he could get his hands on, to find new ideas. A friend living in Indianapolis told him about a new group of people living out what he had only read about in the New Testament--an organic church with no walls, a body of people devoted to Christ, worshipping together communally every day. He sent Szazynski some audio recordings and Iiterature by Mike Peters. "[The teachings] weren't anything I hadn't read about before," Szazynski says, "but I didn't know about anybody alive that was living this way."

Within a year, Szazynski and his wife-who was four months pregnant-came to Indianapolis to visit the group, which at the time consisted of Peters and about 20 people who had all moved into neighboring apartments at Timber Falls, a complex near Michigan Road and 71st Street. The couple attended a Sunday-morning gathering at a member's apartment, where instead of a formal service moderated by one minister to rows of pew-sitters, people were sitting and standing in a circle, taking turns sharing their thoughts, concerns, and passion for God with no real agenda. "It just seemed like this was what we had been reading in the Scriptures," Szazynski says. "This is what God called church: how people should live amongst each other and share a life together." He and his wife loved the fellowship and how, at the time, there didn't seem to be any leader or hierarchy. Szazynski raised his hand in the middle of the meeting and asked if he and his wife could move to Indianapolis and be a part of the group. No one objected, and within a couple of weeks, the Szazynskis had sold their trailer in Pittsburgh and were on their way to Indianapolis.

ClI was not a commune. Each family leased its own apartment, though the doors were always open and fellow members rarely knocked more than once, if at all, as they came and went. Families ate together, prayed together, and went grocery-shopping together. Their children played and were home-schooled together. Each member had a pager--later replaced by cell phones and PDAs--that would sound when someone wanted to call a gathering of the entire group, usually held in one of the apartments. Most of the men and women worked, and the money they made belonged to them, though group members regularly pitched in to get someone on their feet or help them get through tough financial times.

Szazynski found construction work here. But he and other former members from that time don't remember Peters ever having a regular job. Some say he sold stocks. In 1990, he filed with the state to create Lordin Enterprises, a corporation that included 15 companies providing a wide variety of services including consulting, publishing, roofing, graphic design, carpet cleaning, and housekeeping. Ex-members say he was also supported heavily by outside financial gifts and contributions from within, though this fact didn't bother Szazynski or anyone else, as far as he could tell. At this point in time, although Peters was definitely a prominent and outspoken member, no one saw him as autocratic or dictatorial. Everyone seemed to have an equal say in things. Families were free to come and go as they pleased, even to visit with friends and family outside the group.

The church was flourishing, and the Szazynskis were happy and involved. Eventually, Szazynski even got his brother and his brother's girlfriend to join. When Peters wanted to plant another church in Columbus, Ohio, the Szazynskis moved there for about a year to help cultivate it. In 1988, when Peters moved temporarily to Searcy, Arkansas, to reach out to students attending Harding University--a Christian liberal arts school--the Szazynskis went along and helped bring about 15 young men and women back to Indianapolis. The church's numbers were growing, reaching more than 100 by 1990.

But it was around this time that some members started noticing changes in the group. In the early days, members were discouraged from borrowing money to buy a house. They often talked about Romans 13:8, the passage from the New Testament that says "owe nothing to anyone except to love one another." Having a mortgage, they said, would tie them down and make them unable to pick up and leave according to God's calling. But some former members say Peters challenged the guideline by deciding to buy a nearby house around 1990. Before that time, the only members who owned homes were Indianapolis residents who already owned them when they came aboard, and many of them sold their houses to move into the apartments. Suddenly, Peters was an exception.

Eventually, many members would buy homes--by the year 2000, ex-members say, many of the people who had been in the group longer than a year or two had purchased houses in the New Augusta Woods neighborhood where Peters and much of the church live today. But a trend had started. Mike Peters was setting himself apart.

Szazynski and the others could rationalize Peters owning a house. With many couples in the group having kids and families out growing their tiny apartments, it made sense. And in order to continue with their communal way of living, it seemed logical to seek out a new development like New Augusta Woods--where members could all buy houses together. But Peters' 1990 purchase of the house, it turned out, was only a harbinger of things to come. About that time, ex-members say, Peters began to emerge as the group's unofficial principal and a more frequent exception to the rules.

Peters' personal finances continued to be a mystery to many in the group. While the other men went off to work every day, Peters appeared to have no regular job. And whether he was sustained by selling stocks, returns on his home businesses, tithing, or financial gifts from outside, ex-members say no one really knew where the money was coming from, or for that matter, exactly what Peters was doing with his time. Some former members say Peters spent a great deal of time playing golf, an extravagance that started to ruffle feathers among the group.

Peters also began to carry himself with more self-importance. His opinion came to be the final word on all group matters. He never gave himself a title, never answered to "preacher" or "reverend." But as one ex-member who witnessed Peters' rise in the late 1980s and early 1990s puts it: "You knew whatever Mike said was it. There was no question he was the leader."

Peters' position of leadership was not completely self-proclaimed. Members of the group began looking to Peters for answers. "They believed, and still believe, that the spirit of God speaks through Mike," says an ex-member. And those who followed him closest began to rise in an unspoken hierarchy. There were still no titles or labels, and certainly nothing written down, but Szazynski and others noticed the power in the group starting to shift to a select few. "You never called anyone 'pastor' or 'elder,'" Szazynski says. "But you knew who was who."

By the time Janis Gaines came to CII in May 1992 as a 22-year-old recruit from Harding University, the power structure within the group was evident. At the top was Peters, and just below him were a handful of favored brothers and sisters, families considered to be of higher spiritual standing. Gaines, who left the church in 1994 and now lives in Georgia, refers to this as the "spiritual caste system." Since she was new, and therefore considered a lower-tier member, Gaines was encouraged to spend her time with higher-tier families instead of with her friends in the lower caste. "They said people on the same level as me had no insight," Gaines says. "In other words, 'What are you going to gain or learn from them?'"

Most of what Gaines says she learned from the higher-ups was what she was doing wrong. "Suddenly, everything I did was questioned," she says. In the many translations of the Bible, Hebrews 3:13 reads "encourage one another day after day." Former members say that Peters prefers a different interpretation. On one of the church's seven current Web sites--Allathisfeet.com the subject is addressed: "Almighty God says to you and me that we must, every day, warn each other and help each other. We must be alongside each other every day ... 'Admonish one another daily so that none of you are hardened and deceived.' This is an important (and almost totally disobeyed, world-wide) part of our daily life together." This tenet, which former members now term the "togetherness doctrine," is cited as the basis for the group's need for constant mutual oversight. But Gaines and other former members believe the doctrine is simply a means of control. "I think people were assigned to you when you came into the group," one ex-member says. "And everything you did came back to Mike Peters."

There wasn't much resistance at first. In fact, many former members don't remember exactly when they noticed anything was amiss. "If there were alarm bells along the way, I let them fade," says Szazynski. "It's only within the last two years, since I've been out, that I've begun to see the entire picture." And other than the few outsiders who came into contact with ClI through the books and materials they distributed, the group drew hardly any outside attention. Searches through local newspaper archives yielded only one article regarding Peters or the group.

In 1994, The Indianapolis News ran a story on the deaths of 48 people linked to a cult in Switzerland. The article's subhead read: "Ex-member sees signs of cult in local group." The ex-member was Dennis Elslager, a 30-year-old man who claimed to have been a member of the "church of Indianapolis," a Christian group led by Michael H. Peters, in 1991. Although Elslager had been a member for less than two months, in the story he describes Peters' group as exhibiting the characteristics of a cult. He was quoted as saying that it seemed "reclusive--disdainful and distrustful of other Christian groups," and that "Peters was regarded as an apostle, a prophet-like figure." Furthermore, in the story, Elslager claimed that when he came to Peters with his doubts about the group, Peters proceeded to use a list of sins Elslager had confessed to him when first joining to discredit him in front of other members. Peters was also quoted in the article, denying the allegations. He also claimed he had no title and no leadership role. "I like to think I can help people know Jesus better." Peters is quoted as saying. "I'm definitely visible here."

Though it was front-page news, at the time the story didn't draw much attention in or outside the group. But the allegations would come to be recurring themes among the people of CII in the coming years. However quiet, the first public alarm had been sounded.

When Gaines joined Cll in 1992, the group was already very different from the one the Szazynskis had joined five years earlier. In addition to the emergence of the social chain of command and the resulting micromanagement of daily life, Peters had also used his influence to alter group doctrine. Many of the changes served to further isolate the group from the outside world.

While CII had always criticized the hypocrisy of organized religion, in the early 1990s members' convictions grew stronger. They slowly began to physically cut themselves off from the outside world. Anyone outside the group, even a self-proclaimed Christian, came to be referred to as a "pagan." Because of the togetherness doctrine, a group member could no longer go out shopping or eating anywhere without other members present, lest the solitude leave them vulnerable to temptation. At home, the only real alone time was for personal prayer, and even that activity drew scrutiny by Peters and his lieutenants if they deemed it was an excuse to be alone. Like everything else, the reprimands were subtle. "They never commanded anything," one ex-member says. "But if you didn't do as they said, they would ask. 'Why not? What have you got to hide."

Peters began to discourage women from working outside of the group, another subject addressed on Allathisfeet.com: "There is no context or permission [in the Bible] for 'women [to be] with pagan men in the workplace ...''' As a result, women who had once held regular and, in some cases, high-paying jobs were now staying at home with the group and the children. Some former members say the constant attachment to the group made the women's lives more susceptible to group control. "The women are definitely brainwashed," says one female ex-member. "The men go out to work every day, while day-in, day-out, the women are totally limited to Mike Peters' teachings."

When Gaines arrived, she was still single. She quickly learned that was not what the group intended for her. "It was implied that if I married, I could stay in the group longer," Gaines says. When she spoke with male group members on her own, however, she was admonished for being a flirt. Before long, she went to Peters for help. "He said several men were interested, and he encouraged me to consider marriage. He asked if I would be 'willing to obey God by obeying His choice.''' Gaines had doubts about marrying a relative stranger, but having recently suffered a broken relationship, she rationalized that if love hadn't worked her way maybe it would work God's way. In September 1992, less than four months after she joined, Gaines married a man who, with his family, was also ensconced in the hierarchy. She hardly knew him. The ceremony took place in Peters' backyard, with the host himself presiding. "Before we got married Peters asked me, 'Now, you don't feel like anyone is making you do this?'" she says. "Why would he ask if it wasn't a concern?"

Many members, men and women alike, lived in fe r of the consequences of going against Peters' teachings. And Peters taught them to be afraid of the outside world. Gaines and other ex-members recall that when they went out in "public" they were encouraged to adhere to a strict "doctrine of modesty" in their dress. No short skirts. No sleeveless shirts. The fleshy part of the upper arm was considered sensual. Men could not work with their shirts off. When the group went swimming, boys and girls wore T-shirts and, sometimes, two pairs of trunks or shorts. No bikinis. And if they were at a public pool, even those at their own apartment complexes, members would leave if an outsider showed up improperly dressed. Before long, one former member says, they pretty much avoided public pools altogether.

Peters and higher-tiered members also monitored the flow of outside information. They would view movies, cut out scenes, and then distribute the edited copy to the rest of the group. "At the time, I really appreciated that I could sit down and watch a movie with those things edited out," one ex-member says. "Now I look back and think, 'But somebody had to see those things in order to edit them." On former member remembers Peters going around to different apartments in 1993 and showing videotaped news coverage of the government siege of David Koresh and the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas, where approximately 80 members of the sect perished. "He showed us the video and told us, 'This is how the government can react,''' the ex-member says. "He told us our kids could be taken, that this could happen to us." Members were constantly reminded to have their passports in order, so they could readily leave the country, "if the Lord so willed."

Lisa Morford was 6 years old in 1990, when her family joined CII. Morford remembers the rigid expectations placed on children in the group, and the consequences if those expectations were not met. The group was big on spanking," she says. [My siblings and I] got spanked all the time for everything. We were paranoid of sin." Most of the time the spankings would be at the hands of her parents, but that was not always the case. When her mother was giving birth to her younger brother, Morford and her siblings were sent to other members' houses. "My mother didn't want us to go," she says. "But she felt pressured." The children were split up among prominent families. She says her 3-year-old sister was left in the care of one of the stricter families, and one day,while playing on the trampoline, the sister misbehaved in some small way. The woman of the family corrected her and tried to get the girl to address her as Ms. Julie. She refused. The woman then called Morford's mother at the hospital and asked for permission to spank the girl. The mother acquiesced, but when she came home from the hospital she found that the little girl's bottom was bruised purple.

Morford admits that was an extreme occurrence. "Most of the abuse wasn't abuse like beating," she says. "It was more the mental abuse." She says children were scolded for every little thing--for wanting a specific toy, for being jealous of others' things, even for displaying a "bad attitude." "You would be scared to go out," she says. "You were always scared of getting kidnapped." This estrangement and fear was not limited to strangers. Members were advised not to visit or, in some cases, even speak with relatives outside the group--including parents who were ex-members--and to keep their children from doing the same. They were discouraged from attending family funerals, even when a parent died. Former members also claim that they were asked to sign a uniform Last Will and Testament providing that upon death, their children would be left in the care of CII members, not blood relatives. The documents also asked that their bodies go directly in the ground as soon as legally possible, with no cleaning or embalming and no funeral or visitation. Some ex-members speculate that this was because the group did not want the entanglements of a "family" funeral.

"If you weren't part of the church," Morford says, "you were going to hell."

By the latter part of the 1990s, Peters' tightening grip on the group finally started to spur resistance. In 1994, as her arranged marriage fell apart, Gaines convinced her husband to leave the group in order to save their relationship. In 1996, after her mother began questioning Peters' teachings, Morford's family was asked to leave. Over the next four years, say two other long-standing members who wish to remain anonymous, they and their families left or were asked to leave under similar circumstances after challenging Peters. As the group entered the 21st century, more and more people were leaving or being exiled. And with each new expatriate, new questions arose.

By the early 2000s, Szazynski had been in the group for 16 years. He and his wife had raised six children. With the financial help of the group, Szazynski had bought his home at the end of Long Meadow Court, a two-story with a three-car garage, a few hundred yards from Peters' house.

But even though he had been discouraged from bringing in outside influences, Szazynski continued to read other books and ponder other Christian ideas. And after more than a decade in the group, he began to question Peters' control. At first, his dissent was met with mild ridicule. Fellow members called him a "Bible head" and "bookworm." "They would ask me. 'Why don't you get as excited about our books as you do about these others?'" says Szazynski. He found CII's materials stale, but when he posed questions about the teachings to Peters or any of his unofficial lieutenants, he could never get a straight answer. And as he pressed, the pressure to back off came from an unlikely place.

When he came home from work at night, he began to find his wife unaffectionate toward him, and not just physically. She seemed cold, or at best indifferent. At worst. she'd be downright angry, and they would argue over his apparent lack of faith. Soon Szazynski's children began to follow their mother's lead in emotionally ostracizing him for his supposed spiritual infidelity.

Szazynski and other ex-members say Peters had a subversive influence over other men's wives. The women would confide in him, sometimes confessing intimate details of their marriages, and former members say he would use the husbands' supposed transgressions to drive a wedge between husband and wife. The un-attributed text on Allathisfeet.com describes this tactic, what former members have come to refer to as the "doctrine of withholding affection." "I want to encourage you to understand that withholding your affection is actually a tool in God's toolbox. It's not a judgment or some form of hostility. In I Corinthians 5, God said that if a person calls himself a brother and is in sin, and continues in these sins, then expel him from your midst. Don't eat with him and don't associate with him ... He said this so that this man's soul could be redeemed."

Elizabeth Nelson was a member of the Columbus, Ohio, church in 2000. Although her husband wasn't really involved in the group, she had been given a prominent-enough place to have access to Peters when he came to visit about once a month. She saw him as the authority. So when her marriage fell on. hard times, she was strongly encouraged by fellow members to go to Peters for help. She e-mailed him, telling him that she had caught her husband viewing pornography and that he was addicted. The tension at home reached a fever pitch. and soon Nelson feared that her husband would take their two children and assert that she was in a cult. Peters implored her to "protect the children." to find a "Christian attorney" who could legally protect her from a "fornicating. abusive child-napper." "People [in the group] wanted me to call the police when he just took the kids out, had a good time, and came back," she says. "I now know I was being controlled. It was like being on drugs. There was so much fear involved, and it wasn't fear in reverence. It was more like the fear a slave has for his taskmaster." Nelson left the group in 2002, and today lives in Florida, happily married to the same man.

Szazynski says his wife never overcame that fear. He found himself a stranger in his own house and in his own neighborhood. The situation gradually worsened until one night, in August 2005, while he was sitting on his back deck, a prominent member visited him. The member, one of Peters' lieutenants, told Szazynski that there had been a meeting and it was decided that it was time for him and his family to "partner" 'with a church in another city. In other words, it was time for him to leave. When asked why, the lieutenant told Szazynski he had not been "fruitful." When Szazynski asked if he could keep his job and live in Plainfield, he was told to leave the state.

Within a day, there were cardboard boxes in Szazynski's garage, put there by other members. Within six days, he and his family were out of the house entirely. "I didn't have to leave," he says. "They didn't threaten me. It was my house. There was nothing they could have done legally. But when you've lived with these people for 18 years, raised your children with them, they're your family, and now they're all rejecting you with arms folded and scowls-who wants to live there?"

The family moved to Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where they lived together for an unhappy year. Szazynski says that his wife and kids blamed him for getting them expelled from the group. Every time he would question the group's teachings, he says, they would literally plug their ears with their fingers. Once, his wife even called 911 and claimed he was verbally abusing her. Eventually, she took their six children back to Indianapolis and CII, where, according to Szazynski, they remain today. The couple divorced in December 2006.

Although they had left the group, Gaines and her selected husband divorced as well. Other former members have similar stories: They raised their families in the Indianapolis group, began to question Peters' authority, were declared "unfruitful," and then encouraged, if not simply asked, to leave. They all experienced the same isolation from their families, the same withholding of affection. Some are also going through divorces. Many are reluctant to have their names printed for fear of retribution from Peters and other group members.

Of the dozen ex-members interviewed for this story, few still live in Indiana. They live in California, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Georgia.Scattered to the wind; trying to start anew; far away from Indianapolis, Peters, and his influence, they have also been out of contact with each other. In the past year and half, however, ex-members and affected parties have found each other on the Internet. The primary setting has been a discussion board called Factnet.org--Fight Against Coercive Tactics Network, a site run by a cadre of self-proclaimed former cult members and professionals who "assist victims of cults, mind control, psychological coercion, and fundamentalism ." It is essentially a virtual support group.

On February 26, 2006, someone signed on as "maleman" started a posting thread titled "Indianapolis Group--Also Columbus, OH." He was reaching out because his brother had joined a group in Columbus that "seems to take orders from Indianapolis." That group, he said, was not allowing his brother to visit him or even to speak to their parents. He was asking Web users for information.

That one plea has spawned an online war between CII supporters--including Peters--and ex-members and alienated relatives all over the country. Since then, more than 1,600 posts have been made to the board by dozens who claim to have had contact with the group. The discussion initiated the so-called Factnet List--a 50-page document compiled by anonymous ex-members summarizing their view of CII's religious beliefs and practices. A former member of the Columbus church set up the Web site indianapoliscult.com, which contains signed testimonials from ex-members like Tim Szazynski and Dennis Elslager and testimony from estranged relatives outside the group. The people at Allathisfeet.com responded with a site of their own, Indianapoliscult.org, which, perhaps ironically, provides its own "biblical" criteria for recognizing a cult. The main banners of both Web sites pose the same question: "Is it a cult?"

Peters' phone number and address are listed in the phonebook, but he did not respond to several phone messages. He did, however, keep up a lengthy e-mail correspondence with me over the course of five weeks this spring.

"I don't know how much I'd want to say about the wife-abusers and alcoholics and mentally ill who have said such awful things about those in the church here," his first e-mail began. But he did indicate that a meeting between the two of us would be possible sometime in the near future.

Sometimes Peters' e-mails were short and full of pleasantries, quotations of Scripture, and e-mail smiley faces-: ) . Twice, he even invited me to play racquetball, though he never threw out a time. Other times the messages were long rants that didn't have any smiley faces at all. In these, Peters called out his expelled "detractors" as a "psychotic and wife-abusive handful of people" who were using the magazine to advance their "vendetta." He repeatedly demanded a spreadsheet listing the names of sources and their specific "accusations." The story, he said, would make me an "accessory to blackmail and 'deadbeat' crimes against the law and morality." Almost all of the e-mails included excuses why he could not meet on the days I proposed and vague promises that he would make time for me soon. Once he even picked a Friday evening, and suggested that we might be able to have dinner. But within hours, he canceled.

Finally, more than three weeks after our exchange had begun, he indicated that he would now be difficult to reach. ''I'll be gone quite a lot," he wrote. "Perhaps up to a few years, or longer off and on." The steady stream of messages stopped, and my e-mails to him were greeted with a uniform automated response. Then three days later, came a message, Peters' last in the exchange: "Well, funny world we live in, Internet access CAN be acquired in a desert hut in Niger and a stream in central India, an LA ghetto, and about anywhere, it seems, with enough patience and ingenuity ..." The e-mail talked again about the "malcontents and libelers" with motives for "lying and stalking and harassing" the group. "They bang gongs and try to make it sound as if they are 'many'-but over 20 years have peacefully passed, and the malcontents and libelers are but a handful, just as in any other church or club or organization or family over the course of twenty years."

The message ended with the postscript: "So, do you play racquetball or NOT??:): )"

Then the e-mails stopped altogether.

On another day, a rainy April Wednesday, I drove past the warning sign, onto Lost Tree Drive. Through the blanket of dark clouds above, a break of early-evening sun shone down on the wet pavement. Two girls were out walking a golden retriever. I made a V-turn and parked across the street from Peters' house. A tall, gray-haired man stood in his yard about three houses down, staring at me.

I rang Mike Peters' doorbell. The curtain was brushed briskly aside and drawn back in a split-second. Minutes passed with no answer.

As I turned back to my car, I saw that the gray-haired man had crossed the street and come down the block to meet me. He was accompanied by two others--one of them a tall, lanky man with dark hair who was fingering his handheld PDA as he approached. The street was deserted; the girls and their dog had disappeared.

"Evening," I said. I introduced myself. "I am looking for Mike Peters. Do you know him?"

"I do," said the dark-haired man, displaying a mouth of crooked teeth. "Does he know you're here?"

"He does not," I replied. I asked if they were members of his church.

"With all the negative stuff on the Internet and the people who've contacted you to do their bidding," he said, "we don't have anything to say. We just want to protect our families, our wives, and our children. As I imagine you would. I'll tell Mike you came by."

As I started back toward my car, another sheet of thick gray clouds rolled overhead, extinguishing the sunlight. I reached for my wallet and turned back toward the men to offer them a business card. The dark-haired man reluctantly held out his hand. I felt a drop of rain on my face. "Oh, no," I said, hoping to spark up a conversation. "No more rain. I was hoping all this was over."

"Nope," said the dark-haired man, turning toward the clouds. "Just the calm before the storm."

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