Defectors voice several charges

Mill Valley Record/April 3, 1985
By Molly Colin, Peter Seidman, and Tony Lewis

Franklin Jones ­­ aka Bubba Free John, aka Da Free John ­­ a self­professed crazy­wise man, calls on his devotees to follow a path of divine ignorance to spiritual enlightenment.

But it is a path that leads to a nightmare of deception, say many former members of the Johannine Daist Communion, the Marin­based religious sect patterned in Jones' image.

Recently a group of ex­members have begun trading stories and say they recognize a pattern of similar emotional, mental, physical and sexual abuse by the church. On March 4, Beverly O'Mahony, wife of JDC president Brian O'Mahony, filed a $5 million lawsuit against the church alleging physical and sexual abuse, fraud and false imprisonment.

Craig Lessor, a high ranking JDC official believes there are "about 20 people who have a beef against the church. I think there are things to justify as a hurt. I think it's human," he said.

According to these former JDC members, Jones has used a blend of Scientology and Eastern religious philosophy to carefully craft a spiritual order that he eventually used for his own personal gain.

That gain includes property in Marin, Clear Lake, Kauii and an isolated island in Fiji. Jones has resided on that island since its 1983 purchase by the church for between $2.1 and $2.5 million from its owners, who included actor Raymond Burr.

The church bought the island with funds donated by JDC member and patron, prominent Bay Area businessman Neal Stewart, specifically for that purpose. Stewart has also donated $1 million to the church for JDC publishing operations.

Somewhere between 300 to 400 of the church's 1,100 members live in Marin, with JDC headquarters located in San Rafael at 750 Adrian Way.

Jones lives on Translation Island in a community known as Hermitage with 30 to 40 members of the church's Renunciate Order, which include eight of his common law wives, and his legal wife of 20 years, Nina.

It is a sanctuary, say members of the church, where a qualification of spiritual maturity is necessary to obtain an invitation to visit the island. But there are exceptions, they say.

Neal Stewart, who has not yet met the proper spiritual level to qualify, visited the island that he bought for the first time earlier this year, according to the church. In addition, those members who have a needed service to offer are allowed on the island.

Jones has not visited the Clear Lake sanctuary since March 1984, according to JDC President Brian O'Mahony. To rank and file JDC members, knowledge of Jones is fairly restricted to that of his teachings through his books, video tapes and records ­ homogenized for their consumption ­ not through personal interaction with him.

JDC centers operate on the East and West coasts, and in England, Australia and New Zealand.

Jones' numerous books are published by the JDC­owned Dawn Horse Press, located on the Clear Lake property.

As one former member, peripherally active in the church, explains some of the attractions JDC held for him, he mentions the Mystery.

"Now you are all waiting for death, as if death were the Mystery, " Jones tells his followers. "Existence is the Mystery! You ought to love it, lick it out, suck its substance make it juice down into your mouth. But you do not do this, because you are only trying to survive. You are not giving yourselves up."

The logic behind the Mystery is the same as that behind Crazy Wisdom ­ there is none, say former members.

But Jones explains it differently. "The quality of my life is that of the Crazy Wise Man of the Mahasiddha tradition," he has written. "One who is neither limited by society or religion or ascetical conventions nor informed by them."

Jones explains "Crazy Wisdom" to his devotees in his book, "Scientific Proof of the Existence of God Will Soon Be Announced by the White House!"

Jones writes that "The 'Crazy Way' of surrender to Truth is founded in the 'humorous seriousness' of Divine Inspiration or that Love which the world calls foolishness. It liberates Man from bondage to the unenlightened conventions of the body­mind...."

But former members say that instead of liberating them from unenlightened conventions, Jones uses systematic brain-washing to forge spiritual bonds that link his devotees to him alone.

And part of the chain that he has forged is an illusion wrapped in a complex mythology. Many of his worldwide followers believe Jones and his mythology are the ultimate answer to their spiritual search for self enlightenment.

But people who were on that search and were drawn close to Jones, so close they say they saw how he really works, were witness to the difference between his public mythology and his private obsessions.

Only a few of his 1,100 members have been close enough to Jones to witness those obsessions. Obsessions which allegedly range from aberrant sexual behavior to excessive drug use to a corruption of absolute power. The rest remain in ignorant bliss.

But for Mark Miller, "It is just ignorance. The whole thing is a fraud."

Miller, 29, followed what he thought was his spiritual master for six years, from 1976 to 1982. Before snapping out from under Jones' spell, he lost his high school sweetheart, who was Playboy's Miss September 1976, to Jones; at the church's insistence he quit his pre­med studies at the University of California; and he gave the church thousands of dollars in cash and personal possessions.

But most of all, he says he lost his individuality, his sense of self worth.

And his is not an isolated story.

One former member, who joined the church in 1975, says he "had been looking for some sort of spiritual community to align myself with." During his six years as a devotee, he says that he gave Jones' church about $30,000 in wages and a small portion of an inheritance.

He says that while he was living in Lake County, Jones and his lieutenants would "bang on people's doors in the middle of the night to kick everybody's butt because they weren't bringing enough money in."

But he didn't lose just money, he says he lost his individuality, his sense of self worth.

Now living in Novato, Jackie Estes, a member from 1974 to 1976, says she turned over $15,000 to the church, money the church used to purchase a farm in Lake County.

A student at U.C. Berkeley, she quit school at the church's demand to follow the teachings of Franklin Jones.

She says she lost her sense of self­esteem, the result of what she calls emotional rape. "Whatever a woman could achieve in this organization, the highest thing they could do was to sleep with him (Jones)," she says.

Another former member joined the church in 1974. She says her indoctrination into the group was "like a drug. You get sucked into a kind of euphoria. It clouds your discrimination in the sense that you give over the part of your soul that lets you judge right from wrong."

She says that shortly after she joined the church, Jones and two of his lieutenants forced her to make a pornographic movie in the church's Clear Lake sanctuary. She says the incident happened after a drunken church member threatened her by smashing a wooden chair to bits in a room outfitted with cameras.

"Then just as this thing was ending, Free John (Jones) came running down the stairs, and the guys slinked off. And (Jones) started to attack me, saying this is right where you're at, you're nothing but a common whore.

"He pushed me to do this thing. This is what is so horrible about this. He would always push you to do these things and then attack you for doing them. So you were just so crazy that you didn't know what was going on." Crazy wisdom.

Other women witnessed similar incidents. "He picked them (the participants) out. We went downstairs. He (Jones) directed them. He participated in the (sexual incidents) totally, but was careful never to appear on camera," says one woman. Crazy wisdom.

High ranking JDC officials admit that for a short period in 1976, the church indulged in sexual experimentation and drug use.

James Steinberg, head of the Hermitage Service Order (the spiritual agency of the church) and JDC's librarian for the past five years, acknowledges that "a few" pornographic movies were made during that time, which the church calls "Indoor Summer."

But Steinberg says that Jones had no hand in making the films, and any decisions to make pornographic movies were made by individual members during church sanctioned parties.

Steinberg also acknowledges that various sex toys, including dildoes, were available to members at the church's Clear Lake property during this period of sexual experimentation.

Church officials and former members both agree on one point: All the films have been destroyed.

Steinberg says the destruction took place a few months after they were made. Steinberg also says that the church's dildo collection was either sold or destroyed, he isn't sure which.

Church officials, including Steinberg and JDC President Brian O'Mahony, steadfastly maintain that the sexual shenanigans were confined to a few months in the summer of 1976.

But women involved in the church after 1976 relate eyewitness accounts that took place into the early 1980s, accounts that contradict statements by church officials.

One woman says that repeated group lesbian sexual acts, involving dildoes, took place under Jones' command as late as 1982. Another woman says she has sustained permanent cervical damage as a result of participation in similar incidents.

In addition to accounts of continual sexual abuse, ex­members say they have seen women being beaten.

On one occasion during a raucous party at the church sanctuary in Clear Lake, eyewitnesses say they saw Jones push his wife Nina down a flight of stairs. They also claim that during that party Jones pulled a sizable hunk of hair from her head.

One of the eyewitnesses says, "the next day I was shocked at how much of her hair was gone. Her face was all bruised."

It was apparently not an isolated incident among church members. One woman, an ex­member, was living in a household in Mill Valley in 1976 when she was beaten up by two men who belonged to the church. At the time, the household was contemplating whether to "buy a big place in Mill Valley for Bubba (Franklin Jones)."

But she disagreed with the plan because she thought the household couldn't afford the mortgage payments. "One of the guys in the house said 'shut up,' and I said 'I don't understand,' ­ and he just started to hit me.

"I was married at the time and he told my husband, 'maybe ­ you ought to do this.' And so my husband started beating me and I went unconscious."

She says that she woke up the next day and discovered she was black and blue from the middle of her back to the middle of her thighs. When she asked the men how many times they had hit her, one of the them said about 75 to 100 times.

After the incident, she talked to church officials. "Nothing was done. They kind of joked about it. They made a joke of the whole thing and nothing was ever done about it," she says.

Steinberg and O'Mahony say the use of marijuana and alcohol was sanctioned by the church during "Indoor Summer," but the use of marijuana was quickly discontinued thereafter. They say alcohol is only used during celebration periods.

Sources the Record has interviewed relate heavy drug use by Jones from the church's beginnings until 1984. Amyl nitrate, LSD and other powerful hallucinogens were also used.

These sources also trace a history of excessive alcohol use that Jones has engaged in during the last 10 years. One eyewitness saw him in 1984 routinely drink two magnums of champagne before breakfast, and continue to drink beer and wine throughout the day until he would finally pass out in the evening.

While Jones indulged in these activities, and allegedly continues to do so, he preaches a dogma that involves strict dietary discipline and abstinence from alcohol, except during church celebrations, which are the only times alcohol and cigarettes are allowed.

In February 1982, Jones presented a lecture titled "The Optimum Diet," reprinted in the October issue of the church's magazine, Crazy Wisdom.

Jones said the following during that lecture: "The more natural and less exaggerated you become in your practice of life altogether, the more minimal your food requirements become so that you can eventually live on simple diet of highly eliminative, and mostly raw foods.

"Once you pass through the process of purifying yourself and overcoming your arbitrary self­based tendencies relative to food, you will discover your own optimum diet.

"Some people can live on a raw diet, a fruit diet, or perhaps, in very rare cases, eventually a diet of breath alone."

At least five people allegedly saw food destined for Jones' table that was hardly the fare of a man who says it is possible to live on breath alone.

Regular grocery deliveries to Jones allegedly included chocolate, caviar, wine, milk­fed veal and other exotic foods.

The Record spoke with a cook who says she baked him a chocolate cake, and another cook, who says he regularly prepared meat for Jones during a time when Jones was prescribing a strict lacto­vegetarian diet for his disciples, who faithfully followed it while seeking spiritual enlightenment.

Crazy wisdom.

When Steinberg, the head of the Hermitage Service Order and fellow devotee Ellen Cutler were asked whether they took literally Jones' statement that it is possible to live on breath alone, they both said yes.

Formerly faithful members of the church who have left the organization say the lacto­vegetarian diet, one of a variety of dietary plans espoused by the church, allegedly is one element in a program of systematic brainwashing of devotees.

One former church member said, "The deprivation in the diet, lack of sleep, overwork and being kept on a monetary thin line because your tithing is so extreme" is a not­so­subtle part of the JDC's indoctrination process.

Tithing is between 10 and 15 percent of devotee's income until the higher levels of the spiritual order, where members are asked to donate as much as they can.

Mark Miller managed a church construction project in Clear Lake in 1981. He says members who were building a home for Franklin Jones routinely put in shifts of 16 hours and longer while subsisting on a stringent vegetarian diet.

The work schedule and the meager fare took a toll on the work force. On Christmas Day, Miller says he told Jones, "The people are tired. They need a break." Miller says Jones replied, "They will work for me until they drop and then they'll get up and work some more."

Regimens such as this, combined with alleged psychological coercion, helped Jones keep his devotees docile, former members say.

"Franklin Jones is the be all and end all of his people's existence," says one former member. "It needn't be said that you'd better take care of this; there is such a complete conditioning throughout their lives relative to him being the be­all of their existence, that to take it on yourself to protect him at any cost is a way to protect yourself and your belief system. That kind of brainwashing is necessary to remain in it. Because if you maintain your individuality, your doubts, your skepticism, you can't stay in it," says the former member.

Jackie Estes recalls that in 1976, the average church household was eight to 22 people and "at any one time we had $6 a month to spend personally. It was a very austere, monastic type of lifestyle the people were living."

"Once you are in, you don't have a house of your own, you have no money and you have a vested interest in this thing. It is not easy to get out," another former member says.

Peer pressure within the group homes and at the Clearlake compound added to members' reluctance to question Franklin Jones and his methods.

An example of the force of the peer pressure manifested itself in 1977 and 1979. For a period of six to nine months in each of those years, members were, in the words of Mark Miller, "herded like cattle" to a blood center on Mission Street in San ­Francisco, where they donated plasma as often as twice a week.

Blood center employees "couldn't get over it because every week, twice a week, these people were told to give plasma. They (blood bank employees) were amazed that people would do this in such numbers," says one former member whose husband was a donor.

Steinberg and Cutler both acknowledge the donation program, but say it was completely voluntary.

"No one was forced to do it," Steinberg says. "There were lots of people who didn't do it. Different people gave at different frequencies."

Cutler, a chiropractor, who with her husband runs the church's health clinic in San Rafael, says, "medical people" in the community researched the effects of giving plasma on a regular basis, but failed to find conclusive results.

A member of the community who gave plasma twice a week for four to five months said he "became very sick" after numerous donations. " A lot of other people suffered various systematic ailments because of lowered resistance."

Cutler says "no one was encouraged to give blood if they were run down."

But the former member who says he gave plasma twice a week has a different perception. He told the Record that during the time of the blood donations, church members were on a diet of raw fruits, vegetables and other items included in a strict vegetarian diet.

He says that members whose blood iron levels weren't up to par were given supplements prior to donating plasma. Supplements were administered so that members would pass blood center screening tests, he says.

At least two former church members allege the donation program was instituted in part to raise money for church coffers.

Steinberg does not entirely disagree, but has a different perception of the donor program. "They (the members) considered it a great public service and also it was clearly something we call service for pay."'

Steinberg explains that "service for pay" is one way church members serve both the JDC and the greater community.

But the former members who talked to the Record say the psychological pressures exerted on them during the donation program were but one example of an overall pattern conducted by Jones and his inner circle.

"They basically implied in their communications with almost anything that they wanted us to do that there was the implication that if you didn't want to do these things, you weren't really serving Free John (Jones). They laid a big guilt trip on you. They made you feel that you were resistive to enlightenment and God if you didn't do these things.

"So it created a tremendous amount of self doubt and low self­esteem. You were letting God down."

"We didn't have any defense. If you said 'no,' they would often dismiss what you were saying as narcissistic."

Other former church members say that an invitation to Jones' retreat in Clear Lake was the carrot held on the end of the stick. If members failed to participate in church programs, such as blood donation drives or regular tithing, they were not "allowed to go on these weekend jaunts," a member says.

"So there were levels of ostracism; never completely formalized in black and white. But it happened."

The psychological conditioning that occurred under direct instruction from Franklin Jones through his church lieutenants was so strong that even after members left the organization, they say they remained in the grip of Franklin Jones.

Even though some of the members have been out of the JDC for several years, it is only now that they are emerging from what they call a mental and emotional fog, the result of what they say was a total reliance on Franklin Jones for their psychological well being. Some members are in therapy in an attempt to heal their wounds. One former member says she regularly visited a therapist for two years before she was able to relate her ordeal.

The difficulty that members encounter in breaking away from the church and in discussing their experiences stems from the systematic process of indoctrination that occurs when a novitiate enters the church. Sources the Record has interviewed all relate essentially the same story about their early experiences.

Once they became entangled in Jones' web, once they entered the hierarchy of the church, they made an attempt to cut off all ties with friends and family members that were not aligned with Franklin Jones and the JDC. The church became their family. The church became their friend. The church became their world, a world ruled by the teachings of one man with absolute power in a closed society.

In this closed society, the church organization assumes all responsibility over the private lives of its members, from where and how they work to where and how they raise their children.

The JDC has three church affiliated schools -- one in San Rafael, one in Clear Lake and one in Hunter, N.Y., about 50 miles south of Albany. The California Schools are day schools. The school in Hunter is a boarding school.

When church members leave the insulated cocoon the church has spun, they find themselves vulnerable to the everyday confusion of outside society.

"After I left JDC, every time I walked out of the house, I wanted to put a bag over my head," said one ex­member. "I felt worthless. I had failed. I couldn't even deal with going to a job. I couldn't imagine going into a bar and having someone come up and talk to me. I couldn't handle any kind of social situation.

"I stayed home alone. That was all I could handle."

"I came out of being held as a hostage. In retrospect, I felt bad. Bad about myself. It took me a long time, but I think I can feel OK about myself again."

"I was in for 10 years and it all only began to hit me about six months ago. Before that I couldn't admit what I had done."

Another ex­church member had similar experiences. He says that people find it difficult to talk about their time in the church "because you've had your own private thing that has never healed. In talking about it now, 1 still have a little of that haunting thing. I understand it now as conditioning, but no one wants to be a 'Judas."'

While some have left the church, passed through a traumatic period, and now firmly believe that the public teachings of Franklin Jones are at odds with his private life, most church members remain stalwart followers.

"We cannot understand who he is based on beliefs," says Brian O'Mahony, "but based on hoping. The man and his teachings are absolutely synonymous. His teachings stand alone as a form of divine agency."

James Steinberg, head of the Hermitage Service Order, began his relationship with Franklin Jones in 1973. "He operates with the highest of integrity. His business is the service of devotees. It is the most genuine thing I have ever encountered in my entire life."

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