Is there a cult operating in Long Beach? Survivors claim sexual abuse, broken families and coerced divorces

Signal Tribune, California/April 13, 2023

By Kristin Farrah Naeem

After decades of silence, a woman is sharing her story of growing up in Morningland, an alleged cult based in Long Beach, and accusing its leaders, some of whom are still in power, of sexually abusing her as a teen.

“‘Handmaid’s Tale’ got nothing on me,” said Frankie Tease, who preferred to use her professional name rather than her legal name.

Between the ages of 8 and 22, Tease’s life revolved around a religious sect in Long Beach—Morningland, which steadily grew following its inception in 1973 by founder Daniel Sperato, known as Donato to his followers.

Tease said her mother Judy was lured into the alleged cult in 1974, after attending a “parents without partners” event in North Long Beach purportedly meant to support single parents. Upon arrival, Tease, her twin sister and their mom were greeted by three women dressed all in white, who treated them to pizza and astrology readings.

Afterwards, Judy and her girls were invited by the women in white to visit their church. At the time, Judy said she was curious about spiritual paths free from traditional religion.

While visiting the church, Judy was enamored by its strong female leadership. She recalls being captivated by Patricia Sperato, Morningland’s soon-to-be leader, and the women clergy members dressed all in white, called gopis, who surrounded her.

“The most appealing thing that got me at first was all the women that were in charge and doing something with their lives,” Judy said. “Now, if you go back to the ‘70s you’ve got to think about how culture was back then. It was a little different, women definitely had a glass ceiling. This was new to me.”

Patricia Sperato came to power in the alleged cult after the death of her husband in 1976. Donato was an employee of the Boys Club in North Long Beach who had amassed a congregation that viewed him as their spiritual teacher.

In 1976, shortly before his death, Donato purchased a synagogue building near the corner of Seventh Street and Molino Avenue in Long Beach. Throughout the years, Morningland has purchased surrounding storefronts, growing their compound to include nearly the entire city block. It was at this compound that Tease and her sister would spend the majority of their youth.

Tease said that when she was 10 years old, she and her family were given new names by Donato and pyramid-shaped medallions to wear. They began to dress in all white and pull away from their extended family.

Morningland after the death of Donato
By the time Tease was 11 years old, Patricia was leading Morningland, and Tease’s family moved a block away from the Morningland compound to be closer to their place of worship.

“[Patricia] was a very charismatic leader,” Tease said. “Sunday services were extremely beautiful.”

But back then, no one in the family suspected that Patricia and the gopis’ power disguised dark secrets about Morningland, which threatened to tear them apart. Tease would go on to accuse Patricia and three of her disciples of sexual assault and abuse.

Former member Lee Offenhauer recalled that with Donato gone, Patricia allegedly swiftly moved to take control of Morningland and crush any resistance to her absolute authority. Those who defied her were allegedly forced to go through “clearing sessions,” during which other members would continuously verbally, and sometimes physically, attack them.

When they were 14 years old, Tease and her twin sister were initiated into a Morningland order called the Daughters of Isis. Tease told the Signal Tribune that this was when Morningland clergy began to instruct the twin girls to watch pornography, grooming them for sexual abuse.

By the time they were 16, Tease said that she and her sister were “fully submerged” into Morningland, living on the compound full-time. Her mother had been asked to do the same, but told clergy she had to continue working to provide for her children. Unbeknownst to their mother, Morningland leaders had pulled the girls out of high school.

Under Patricia’s leadership, Morningland suffered its first major scandal in 1979, when Attorney General George Deukmejian (namesake for the Long Beach Courthouse) ordered a raid on the offices of Morningland’s lawyer, Ed Masry (who is also known for his work with environmental activist Erin Brockovich).

Masry and Patricia were indicted on charges of attempting to bribe former California Lt. Gov. Mervyn Dymally to interfere with a government probe into Morningland and other religious sects. Because the statute of limitations ran out on the charges as the case was ongoing, the charges were eventually dropped.

Allegations of broken marriages and families

Patricia also allegedly broke up and arranged marriages among her members, according to Offenhauer. His marriage was among them.

Offenhauer would help perform music for the Morningland congregation, and was heading into the temple one night in the summer of 1982 when his then-wife informed him that they were getting dinner instead. He found this odd, but she told him it had already been cleared with Morningland leaders.

Offenhauer recalls that when his wife sat down at a restaurant, she began pounding back glasses of wine—unusual behavior since she was never a heavy drinker. She then told Offenhauer that Patricia had approached her at the Morningland compound during one of his musical performances and told her they needed to divorce.

“My wife walks into the room, Patricia is in the back listening to us. And she calls her over and she says to her, about me up there, she says, ‘Wouldn’t you like to just see him grow and blossom?'” Offenhauer said his then-wife told him. “Now put yourself in my wife’s situation, this is a question from the master about your husband, who you love dearly: ‘Would you like to see him grow and blossom?’ So your answer is, ‘Yes, of course.’ Patricia says, ‘Do you want to know what’s the one thing standing in his way?’ And my wife says, ‘Yeah, what is it?’ And Patricia says ‘You.'”

Even though his spouse made it clear she didn’t want to divorce, Offenhauer and his ex-wife went through with Patricia’s request. Offenhauer continued associating with Morningland for six months until he couldn’t stand it anymore and left. To his knowledge, his ex-wife is still a member.

Other members were excommunicated, cut off from everything they knew suddenly and without warning, and shunned by their loved ones still in Morningland.

This was Judy’s fate.

Once her children reached legal adulthood at 18, Judy said she was kicked out of Morningland. One night around 1984, 25 members, Judy among them, were told they were no longer welcome at the compound without any explanation. She’s still not sure exactly why.

Tease said that she and her sister, who had been indoctrinated since childhood, chose to stay at the Morningland compound rather than leave with their mother. They had a hard time deciding whether they should even say goodbye to Judy, and in the end, only Frankie opted to.

Accusation of sexual abuse by leaders

“They kicked her out and then they had full access to us,” Tease said. “My sister and I became concubines at that point […] It was extremely, extremely painful, though no blood was shed, it was extremely painful.”

Tease claims that Patricia would order the twins to have sexual relations with her, as well as with other high-ranking clergy members. While Patricia has since died, Tease said three of her abusers are currently in charge of Morningland.

Morningland gives its members new names once they join. Besides Patricia Sperato, the Signal Tribune was only able to learn the legal or birth names of one of the individuals Tease said groomed her—Terry Smith, known as the Lama within Morningland. The Morningland names of the two others have been identified as Seravati and Chokru.

Judy said she spent the first three years after her excommunication trying to get the city of Long Beach to show concern about her daughters and other resident members of Morningland living on the compound, to no avail.

She went on to find a job at the post office, where she didn’t hide the fact that her children were still in Morningland. In December 1986, concerned coworkers who delivered mail in the area around Morningland informed Judy that the entire compound had been locked down because a bomb had been discovered on the premises.

While her mother didn’t know it at the time, Tease was upstairs in the building where the bomb had been planted. According to multiple media reports of the incident at the time, the man who planted the bomb accused Morningland of aggressively trying to recruit his sister.

It happened to rain that day, and the moisture caused the bomb to malfunction and fail to properly detonate.

Around the same time as the bombing, Morningland was drawing controversy after investigations by the media. In October 1986 the Long Beach Press-Telegram described how Morningland followers claimed Patricia could cure people of AIDs. Another October 1986 article by the Associated Press described accusations by former members who accused Morningland of pressuring them to have abortions and vasectomies.

Although Morningland was still shunning her, Judy said she would drive to the compound and sit inside her car every year on the twins’ birthday, undeterred even when one year Morningland members came out and began to record and insult her. Among them was one of her daughter’s alleged abusers, the Lama, the same man who used to pick the twins up from school.

Judy reached out to the Cult Awareness Network, a former organization that aided people who want to get their loved ones out of cults. She was told that the Cult Awareness Network mostly focused on adults who had been lured into cults, and that it would be exponentially harder to convince someone who had been raised in a cult since childhood to leave.

At 22, Tease said she was subjected to her last, particularly brutal sexual assault at the hand of Patricia, which finally convinced her to leave Morningland in 1986.

Patricia eventually died in 2004, and her body was buried under an altar on the Morningland compound, where it remains to this day.

Breaking the silence

Having been pulled from high school by Morningland, Tease said she had no education and was unprepared to enter the outside world. She was able to start a career through exotic dancing and burlesque, and went on to start organizing shows in Las Vegas.

Tease and her mother were able to reconnect after a complicated healing process. When they first met again, Tease confronted Judy with her memories of sexual abuse in Morningland, which Judy had been previously unaware of. After that, Tease and Judy didn’t talk for seven years.

But in 2021, mother and daughter were able to reconcile, and Tease is now coming forward with her story. She’s been reaching out to local news outlets, started a podcast discussing Morningland, and is currently working on a memoir about her time in the alleged cult.

“This is a perspective I can bring,” Tease told the Signal Tribune. “I didn’t get lured in, I was just there with my mom and conditioned. I was never responsible for being attracted to these ideas so I can speak with impunity [about] how stupid this is. This is the advantage the cult kid has.”

Because her twin sister is not yet willing to speak publicly about the alleged sexual abuse, Tease and Judy are not sharing their full names, in order to protect her privacy.

Questions left unanswered

The Signal Tribune reached out to the Long Beach Police Department (LBPD) to ask if the police had investigated or had any information that could be shared with the public regarding whether people are allowed to reside on the Morningland property.

LBPD spokesperson Richard Mejia replied, “Unless you’re inquiring about a specific incident that has a corresponding date/time and police response, I wouldn’t be able to search the criminal history of a residence nor an individual.”

According to Long Beach Development Services, the area can be used for a mix of commercial and residential uses. However, when specifically asked if the Morningland building, located at 2600 E 7th St., was able to be used as a residence, Development Services said, “At this time, the Development Services Department is not able to readily access the historical records on the property to determine whether people have been allowed to live at the property.”

Those who drive by the compound today will notice numerous security cameras on the outer walls, and that the large windows of each storefront have been completely covered, keeping anyone outside from peering in.

The Signal Tribune reached out to Morningland, which declined to comment on Tease’s accusations.

[A previous version of this article was published before the Signal Tribunereceived a reply from Development Services. The article has been updated with the information provided by Development Services.]

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