Guru Ma: Saintly or Sinister?

Palm Beach Post/March 29,1992
By Jenny Vogt

She moves among her followers in a heavy cloud of perfume, her long black hair framing the red Hindu tilak spot on her forehead. Intricate tattoos circle her ankles and adorn her wrists. A diamond glitters in her right nostril.

Behold Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho, guru, lover of humanity, angel of mercy, saint. Or egomaniacal, child-obsessed cult priestess. It depends on whom you ask.

To her followers, who have included folk singer Arlo Guthrie and the late Kimberly Bergalis, she is simply Ma. Earlier in life she was Joyce Green Difiore, a Jewish housewife from Brooklyn with little education, lots of chutzpah and a vision of Christ.

"She has the heart of Mother Teresa with the mouth of Bette Midler," a follower said.

Now, she is a flamboyant spiritual leader teaching a hybrid of Eastern and Western religion to more than 150 earnest followers who view her as a living deity and themselves as her chosen people. Most live on or near a secluded, 41-acre ashram or ranch in Indian River County.

But Cho, 51, is not the saint she seems to her disciples, say law enforcement officials, cult experts and eight former followers. To them, she is an ego-driven tyrant whose mind-control tactics make people willing to do anything to win her favor, including giving up their money, personal identities, families, free will-- even their newborn babies.

Cho called the claims "nonsense" and said they are the opinions of former followers who were upset because they didn't receive enough attention from her.

"They threaten to leave. They threaten to destroy me. I don't care," Cho said. "I'm here on earth to serve humanity. That's all I know."

An attorney who represented two former followers trying to retrieve their teenage son and adult twin daughters from Cho in the early 1980s said the group is destructive.

"You don't know what you're getting into once you start dealing with this cult. It's entering the danger zone," said attorney Joe Gersten, a Miami-Dade Metro commissioner.

Cho's Kashi Church Foundation Inc. is tax-exempt and non-profit. It operates a licensed, unaccredited kindergarten-to-12th grade school for about 75 students, a third of whom live off the ranch.

Kashi means "city of light" in Hindu.

Residents live semicommunally in large houses and apartments on the ranch. Most have jobs off the ranch. They share meals and child care. They co-host the annual Indian River Festival, which is Saturday in Vero Beach.

A single resident pays roughly $700 a month for a private room at the ranch, said attorney John Evans, one of 21 disciples employed on the ashram. Cho's charitable work, which emphasizes feeding and caring for the sick, takes her to Palm Beach County, Los Angeles and elsewhere. The work is supported by donations and the sale of her abstract expressionist artwork, Evans said.

Birth certificates list Cho and her husband SooSe Cho as the parents either together or individually of four children born between 1978 and 1982. Cho initially said she had adopted the children, including a 13-year-old boy she said is her grandson. Later, she said she had adopted only two of the children. The remaining two, whose parents still live at the ranch, are "like foster children that I raised," Cho said.

Followers Gina and Richard Rosenkranz, birth parents of one of the "foster children" raised by Cho, said they asked Cho to raise their child for them in 1982 because they felt unable to do so themselves. Gina said she impulsively signed Cho's name to the birth certificate to make it easier for Cho to assume the role of mother to the boy, now 9.

"You have to understand I was so freaked out at the time," said Gina, 33. "I was crazed. I was young and I didn't know what to do. I knew I didn't want to have a baby."

In 1990, the Rosenkranzes changed the names on their child's birth certificate so they would be listed as the parents, but Cho still remains the primary caretaker, they said.

Follower Karen Chappelear, the natural mother of the second of the two "foster children," said the name of SooSe Cho, Cho's husband, appears on her child's birth certificate, but he is not the natural father. She said SooSe Cho agreed to have his name appear on the certificate because Chappelear was unmarried and did not know who the father of her child was.

Chappelear, 39, said she asked Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho to raise her daughter, now 9, because she did not want to do so herself. Cho remains the child's primary caretaker, she added.

"I was very insistent I didn't want to have the child myself and eventually she said she would help me to raise the baby," Chappelear said.

Both Chappelear and the Rosenkranzes said they were never approached by Ma to give their children up to her, but did so of their own volition.

Cho said she had the parents' consent to raise the two children, but she said she was unaware her name was on the birth certificates.

Evans would not allow an interview with the parents of Cho's grandson.

Rosanne Henry, a former follower now living in Colorado, tells a different story. Henry said she and her husband and the three other sets of natural parents were coerced or pressured into giving up their newborn children to Cho in the early 1980s. She said Cho directed all four mothers to deliver at different hospitals and sign Cho's name-- or her maiden name-- as the natural mother on the birth certificate.

Four residents who lived on the ranch at the same time as Henry corroborated her story. Three of them insisted that they remain anonymous.

"It was about the cruelest thing you can do to someone other than murdering your child," Henry said.

Cho denies Henry's story, calling her "just a very sad, depressed woman."

"I was in my 40s. There was no way I wanted to have children," Cho said. "In some cases, the parents were having a very hard time together. There was no money. They didn't want the children. They were going to put them up for adoption. One said that if I would take the child she would have it, but if not she would abort."

The Kashi Church Foundation Inc. has many similarities to Jim Jones' People's Temple, said Dr. Hardat A.S. Sukhdeo, a retired psychiatrist and cult expert who counseled survivors of the 1978 Jonestown, Guyana, massacre.

"Her (Cho's) manipulative behavior very closely resembles Jim Jones and his behavior toward the people in his church," Sukhdeo wrote in a 1982 letter to a Miami circuit judge who decided the child custody suit Gersten was involved in. "The (Kashi) cult is dangerous and destructive."

But Cho has staunch allies, including numerous AIDS patients, their families and caretakers. She has devoted herself to AIDS ministry in the last two years.

Kimberly Bergalis, the Fort Pierce woman who attracted national attention after contracting the AIDS virus from her dentist, was close to Cho before she died in December. Bergalis visited the ranch and Cho visited her at her home. George Bergalis credits Cho with helping make his daughter's last year easier to endure. "I think Ma is the ultimate leader," George Bergalis said. ' I think the area needs to feel privileged to have someone like her and that facility."

He said he had never heard any of the allegations against Cho. "We've heard nothing but good things," he said.

Cho's critics see her community service work as a public relations ploy.

"Jim Jones was once the greatest care-giver for the poor and aged," Sukhdeo said. Cult leaders "get more and more powerful (through community service). . . . The more power they get, the more dangerous they get."

When Ma Jaya Bhagavati Cho came to Florida in 1976, she said she thought it was to die.

"I thought I had a brain tumor, and they gave me three months to live," recalled Cho, in her heavy Brooklyn accent. "I wanted to die very dramatically, so I closed my ashrams in California, New York and Colorado and had them all come here.

"After three months, I said, 'How embarrassing. I'm not dead.' "

Her band of followers has grown from 18 to more than 150 who live on the ranch and in the area near Sebastian. Eight disillusioned devotees who left the ranch say Cho gave them new names, expected large donations, frequently deprived them of sleep, publicly admonished them for personal failures, left them with phobic fears of leaving the ranch and arranged marriages among her followers.

"What you're telling me is nonsense," Cho said. "When you're in the public eye, someone is always going to throw mud at you."

And stories persist that Cho was obsessed with acquiring people's children. "The more children she has, the happier she is," said former follower Michele Rousseau. In 1981, Rousseau fought to regain custody of her then-16- year-old son from Cho, who she said wrested him away.

Rousseau, 60, and her husband, Jean, moved from Toronto to the Kashi ranch in 1977, taking their son Paul, then 12. Older twin daughters came to live on the ranch later.

Rousseau said she and her family were persuaded to give all their money to Cho. They said they also were deprived of sleep and publicly humiliated. They put up with it, she said, because they thought Cho was God and their key to salvation.

The worst was Cho's attempt to sever the family's ties, Rousseau said. It began when Cho exiled her from the ranch in 1978 after she openly disagreed with the guru's command to move out of the room she shared with her husband and son and into a garage on the ranch. Jean Rousseau soon followed his wife off the ranch, but the three children refused to leave.

The Rousseaus sought legal advice in 1981 from Gersten, then a state senator.

The Rousseaus "were real, literal victims whose family was destroyed by this so-called Ma and the cult," Gersten said. "The Rousseaus felt their children had been kidnapped. It was pretty hard to dispute it."

Paul Rousseau, now 27, is an applied physics graduate student at Stanford University. He said Cho brought him into her inner circle of favorites and counseled him to oppose any efforts to remove him from the ranch. Cho even made plans for him to marry a ranch resident to circumvent his parents' guardianship, he said.

"It's amazing to what lengths they went to, to keep me there," he said. "I guess I would have become a good source of cheap labor for the rest of my life had I never left the ranch."

He said Cho emphasized the importance of youthful followers because they were easier to indoctrinate than adults: "For her, children will make much better disciples in the long run."

The Rousseaus regained custody of their son on Dec. 11, 1981, after a nine-member team from the Miami-Dade Police Department descended on a home Cho used as a retreat in Miami and took him into custody under a court order. The twin daughters were no longer minors and therefore beyond the court's reach. They declined to be interviewed for this story.

Paul Rousseau said he was directed to run away from home, publicly accuse his mother of raping him and to break everything in his parents' home.

"I'm not going to answer questions about people from years and years ago," Cho said of Rousseau. "I don't even remember what happened. All I know is I bless everyone."

Five painful years passed before all three Rousseau children severed ties with the Kashi ranch. All were withdrawn and needed extensive therapy, but now are recovered, their mother said.

"I think it's probably even worse when you look at the children," Paul Rousseau said. "The children born in the sect, they don't have a chance in hell. . . . It all makes me terribly sad to think about it. It's kind of like living as a domesticated animal."

Rosanne Henry said she gave her daughter up to Cho just hours after her birth in 1981. It took eight years and a lot of therapy before Henry and her husband finally retrieved their child, she said.

While living on the ranch in 1980, Henry and her husband got Cho's permission to have a baby, Henry said. Midway through the pregnancy, Cho's confidants approached them and at least four other couples expecting babies and asked them to give their children to Cho, she said.

"Wouldn't it be great if you gave your child to Ma?" Henry recalled being asked. "These children are to be her successors."

Henry's husband readily agreed. "I was totally committed to her (Cho)," he said. "She was the most important thing in the world and I would have done almost anything for her. . . . She was giving our child a chance to be the son or daughter of God."

Henry said Cho ordered her to dye her light brown hair black before going to the hospital and pass herself off as Cho so Cho's name would appear on the birth certificate. A handwriting analysis ordered by the Indian River County Sheriff's Office confirmed the "Joyce Cho" signature on the birth certificate is Henry's, said Lt. Mary Hogan, in charge of the department's criminal investigations.

Cho promised Henry and the three other families who had agreed to give up their babies that they could be involved in the children's upbringing. But she made them promise that all four children were to believe Cho and her husband were their natural parents, Henry said.

Cho denied all of Henry's allegations. "I never directed anybody to do anything."

Another former follower who lived on the ranch at the same time, but declined to be identified, said the families were "coerced, cajoled, teased and tricked."

Cho "has a brilliant ability to read people's strengths and weaknesses and needs and then take advantage of that for . . . whatever it is she wants," said the ex-disciple.

When Henry began trying to get her child back in 1989, Lt. Hogan investigated and confirmed Henry's story. But pursuing criminal charges after eight years would have been "extremely difficult," she said.

"Do lay people believe that brainwashing can take place? I say yes, it can," Hogan said. "Is it happening (on the Kashi ranch) now? I can't tell you that. Did it happen in the '80s? Yes. I believe it did."

Cho initially allowed Henry to care for her daughter, named Ganga Chen Cho. But Henry said she and her husband left in 1982 after Cho abruptly banned her from the nursery.

On July 19, 1989, a five-member SWAT team from the sheriff's office went to the Kashi ranch with a court order and removed Ganga Chen Cho. State officials determined that Henry and her husband were fit parents, and the child returned home with them.

Cho dropped her custody petition because "I didn't want to put my baby through that. My first thing in life is the child . . . I just want children to be happy everywhere."

Henry said she believes the Chos dropped their petition because court proceedings would have opened the group up to scrutiny. The court file includes 57 letters in support of Cho, including notes from Arlo Guthrie and an Indian River County commissioner.

Ganga Chen Cho had been emotionally traumatized during her years with the Chos, according to a state Health and Rehabilitative Services psychological evaluation performed shortly after the child left the ranch.

"She shows an especially strong need for maternal affection and for individual attention in general, clearly feeling that she has been basically ignored and that her 'adoptive' parents (the Chos) are controlling rather than loving," the HRS report said. She "has been deprived of a chance to develop a full range of emotions," it said.

The report also said the girl believed Cho was God. When she first came home, Henry said, her daughter prayed to Cho at the dinner table.

"I didn't even look at the HRS report," Cho responded. "I just wanted the best for Ganga."

Henry said her daughter, now 10, is thriving in her natural family in suburban Denver, but still has occasional nightmares about life on the ranch. Cho said she and her husband raised Henry's daughter because she asked her to do so.

"It was just a matter of parents who wanted to abort the baby at a very, very late time," Cho said. "They asked me if I would take the child or they were going to abort it."

A former follower who lived on the ranch in 1981 recalled Cho telling the same story during a group meeting.

"I was sitting there thinking, 'Who the hell are you kidding?' " the follower said. "Ninety percent of us who were there knew what was going on, that Rosanne did not want an abortion. It really made me angry, but nobody said anything, and I knew I couldn't say anything."

Hogan speculated that few people have been able to stand up to Cho over the years.

"She (Cho) must have never had any expectation that anyone would break from the fold and realize something wasn't right in paradise."

If you are lonely, she will be your friend. If you are hungry, she will feed you. If you are unhappy, she will make you laugh.

Cho switches easily back and forth between the roles of comedian and ministering angel to the 175 residents of the Palm Beach County Home & General Care Facility.

Strutting through the corridors like a fashion model working a runway, her charisma makes her 5-foot-8 frame appear 6 feet tall. She spots a man in a wheelchair sitting alone in a hallway.

Doing a little dance in her high-top tennis shoes and matching green top and capri pants, she starts singing loudly and off-key: "You are my desire . . . "

"I tell you," Cho continues in a stage whisper, "I'm a little busy now, but when you have the time, I have the body."

The man glows in response, eagerly downing a cookie from the plate Cho offers.

The 10 people in her entourage stay carefully in the background, hurriedly handing her plates of food when she commands. One carefully shadows her every step with her favorite drink, a diet Pepsi, at the ready.

"We think she's the greatest," said county home Director Doris L. Orestis. "She just wants to give." Cho has never tried to recruit people or solicit donations for the ranch, she added.

Last year, the Palm Beach County Commission gave Cho a certificate of appreciation for her work at the county home. She also makes weekly visits to several other Palm Beach County social services agencies, including Connor's Nursery for babies with AIDS.

She is hands-on with AIDS patients, especially infants. She tells anyone who will listen that the disease is not transmitted by hugging, kissing or touching, all of which she does with fervor.

"My main objective is to teach of service and the sacredness of the human touch. . . . What we love to do more than anything else is to touch where no one else will touch and to feed where there is hunger," Cho said.

Most agree that receiving Cho's attention is heady stuff. She impresses with her ability to remember dozens of people's names and backgrounds. She makes people feel they are special to her.

Former followers recall Cho being at the center of their universe. They say they were eager to do almost anything to get her to smile on them.

"It was basically do anything to get five seconds with Ma," Paul Rousseau said.

But former followers say Cho does not hesitate to use guilt, coercion and threats.

A former disciple now living in New England said Cho, a black belt in tae kwon do, once kicked her in the forehead when she was angry with her. Sandy Schneider said the incident occurred during darshan, the ranch's nightly spiritual gatherings.

"It didn't really hurt," said Schneider, who had been called to sit before Cho. "But it knocked me backward. I was so hurt that she had humiliated me. . . . That's what she does: She strips you of all self- esteem."

Darshan is the forum where Cho's control is most evident. She sweeps through a sea of rapt followers, who clasp their hands and bow to her as she takes her position on an animal skin-draped couch in the center of the room.

Everyone sinks to the floor and sits lotus-style at her feet. Cho dons rhinestone-rimmed glasses to read questions submitted by disciples on everything from what to name the new family pet to what community service work to pursue. She blows kisses to her audience. Parents approach with babies in their arms and Cho kisses the infants with the gusto of a politician.

After bantering with the crowd for a few minutes, Cho closes her eyes, flickers her lids and delivers a soliloquy on the importance of the human touch in her teaching. Finally, she recites a long, rambling poem about a river in India.

Cho also used darshan as a tool to deprive her followers of sleep and thus break their wills, the former followers said. She would often call the rituals late at night and keep them going until sunrise, they said.

Cho denied she ever deprived disciples of sleep. "I wouldn't stay up all night."

Another stage where Cho rules is the weekly yoga and darshan session with students from the ranch's River School. As in nightly darshan, she admonishes the children for various misdeeds while their schoolmates look on.

"Don't cry," she tells one little girl who weeps when Cho orders her to stop talking fresh to her teachers. "You were disrespectful."

Cho knows this because of what she describes as a "rat list" provided by school principal Marie Cirillo. The method is highly effective tool for motivating children, Cirillo said.

As proof, Cirillo pointed to a glowing report by a Rutgers University team who visited the school for six days in 1990. The report, which cost the Kashi Foundation $25,000, called the use of guilt to motivate children "well within the limits of superego mechanisms commonly used by families, religions and authorities everywhere to enhance compliance."

Former followers said visitors to the ashram saw only that part of ranch life that Cho wanted them to see.

Former disciples also said Cho made them feel guilty for wanting to see their families off the ranch.

"It was like, 'How could you bear to leave her (Cho)? She's everything. Your (own) mother is nothing,' "one said.

Cho also warned against trying to leave the ranch permanently, they said. To do so, they were told, meant risking sudden misfortune.

"She told me if I left I would go blind," a former follower recalled.

Cho said residents can leave the ranch anytime they want "with my blessing."

Disciple John Shinavier, who lived on the ranch from 1977 to 1984, said he had no difficulty leaving the ranch and continues to have close ties with Cho. He is involved in Cho's public service work in the Los Angeles area, where he counsels HIV-positive people.

"She's always been the center of controversy," Shinavier said. "Ma's gotten a lot of bad press in the fact that people can't seem to get past the initial, here's a woman who wears jewelry, who sometimes has a foul mouth and it's not what they expect from a holy person."

Former disciples said the majority of Cho's followers have college degrees, many from prestigious schools.

"Oftentimes it is the most searching, intellectually curious and altruistic individuals who do get recruited into destructive cults, so in a way it's a backhanded compliment to be recruited," said Cynthia Kisser, executive director of the Cult Awareness Network in Chicago. "They want people who, once they have been converted, will contribute time, energy and money to make the organization prosper."

Current followers bow to their guru's feet every night at darshan. During the ceremonies, Cho calls children and adults before her and chastises them for their transgressions, including doing poorly in school.

Cho describes her group as a mixture of Catholics, Jews and Protestants with a shared interest in other faiths, including Buddhism, Hinduism and Taoism.

"The reason I embrace Hinduism is simply because it embraces everything. So there's no one's religion here I put down, because I believe in everything," Cho said. She never encouraged anyone to believe she is a saint or God, she insisted.

"I'm nothing like Jesus Christ. I'm not nearly so nice," she said. She considers food-- chocolate cake in particular-- and monthly beauty shop visits to get her hair dyed her major failings. "God forbid I'm perfect . . . I am the mother. That's what I am: the mother."

But at least some of Cho's current followers say she is next to God-- if not God-- in their estimation.

"I think she's a very saintly person," says longtime follower Denis Schiff, 54. "I knew I was in love with her before I met her."

"Ma is my friend," said Louise Cirillo, 77, mother of school principal Marie Cirillo and a ranch resident since 1985. "If I have any problems, I go to her and visit with her."

"I've never been any place like this, where you feel you're loved every minute," added Sundari Beach, 71, a disciple since 1988. "I'd call it the most loving place in the world-- and it's real love."

Another disciple lovingly caressed Cho's white sneakers as they air out after an early morning painting session. Kneeling on a bench, the woman spoke in hushed tones of Cho's godliness, of the beauty of her paintings and of the paint-spattered shoes.

Her eyes grew large as she confided, "I'm very awed by the holiness of these paintings and by her shoes."

Cho admitted followers have even prayed to her exercise equipment, but downplayed such displays of devotion. She said she is more concerned about who will lead her flock when she is gone.

She said she has a successor in mind but would not say who.

She looked off into the distance, her chin in her hands, gently rocking herself.

"But if I could live for another 20 years, we'll be fine," she said. "We'll be fine."

Life on the Kashi Ranch

'I FOUND FULFILLMENT here,' said Kashi resident Ann McNichol, 62, who works as a loan processor at a local mortgage company. 'I came here to visit and she (Cho) said move down here and I said OK. . . . The best thing is I'm a freer person here.'

'SHE HAS A GIFT that's inexplicable,' said a former follower who lived on the ranch in the late '70s and early '80s and spoke on condition of anonymity. ' Some people are born with the gift to paint and she has the gift to read people and sum them up in a very short period and use them to her advantage and I've seen very few people who can stand up to that, and that's the essence of charisma.'

'THE BEAUTIFUL THING is the sense of community and being able to live my life with Ma,' said Leslie, a 43-year-old Kashi ranch resident and part owner of a local travel agency. 'We've very devoted to God, to taking care of our children and leading a real life . . . and people seem to be threatened by that because we're different. We're not hippies. Everyone works hard.'

'THE ALLEGIANCE is always to Joyce and not to your marriage or your spouse,' said a former follower, who lived on the ranch in the early '80s. 'The real world is not a mellow and gentle place. That's a real fabricated type of lifestyle.'

'THERE'S NO ONE who can compare to Ma and the love she gives you,' said non- resident follower Dan Bishop, 42, a former yacht interior decorator from Fort Lauderdale who has the AIDS virus. 'It's not anything like the Hari Krishnas.'

'I LOVE THE PEOPLE there,' said Sandy Schneider, a former follower who left the ranch in 1980. 'Some of those people are like the dearest, best people in the world. They would literally do anything for you. . . . But when you are subtly trained with mind control to believe something you wouldn't normally believe, that is not free will.'

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