Cult's inner circle in jail

Apocalyptic group known for lawsuits, retribution threats; 4 charged in death plot

Baltimore Sun/October 7, 2001
By Dan Fesperman

For one shining evening in 1999, Marylander Scott Caruthers was the toast of Philadelphia. The occasion was a $500,000 party that Caruthers threw for himself, celebrating an exhibit of his computer-generated drawings of starships and space aliens.

Three hundred guests glided among ice sculptures and spreads of lobster and caviar, while a dance band played late into the night. Caruthers arrived in a limousine with a woman on either arm - wife Dashielle Lashra on one side, live-in companion Dulsa Naedek on the other. Also close at hand was friend and lawyer David Pearl, a look of adoration on his face.

Last Thursday, Caruthers, Pearl, Lashra and Naedek were together again, this time in more humble surroundings. They wore leg irons, handcuffs and the orange jumpsuits of the Carroll County jail, seated in a row before a Maryland District Court judge.

But it was Caruthers, 56, who was again the main attraction, named as the chief plotter in an alleged murder-for-hire conspiracy in which all four were charged on Wednesday. The scheme allegedly targeted four enemies from Caruthers' recent past.

To some acquaintances, it was an eerily predictable turn of events, having watched the group's casual friendships of the 1980s turn into the insular, obedient relationships associated with cults - a tight orbit of about 10 people, with Caruthers at the center. Theirs was a world in which talk of space aliens and imminent doom was commonplace, and where anyone questioning Caruthers was either written off, sued or threatened.

"Because of the type of apocalyptic information we were hearing about them, it certainly always had the potential for something like this," said Mark Powers, who helped investigate Caruthers several years ago for concerned family members. "An apocalyptic group, when pushed, takes care of the people who are pushing it."

Among those who were "pushing" Caruthers' group were three of the alleged murder targets - Timothy Hackerman, 41, Lewis Dardick, 42, and Michael Tulkoff, 38. Out of concern for family members caught up in the group, they tried to pry open its secrets, and in doing so they set off a spate of lawsuits and child custody actions.

Eventually, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission joined the fray, by opening an investigation of Carnegie International Corp., a company co-founded by Caruthers in 1996.

Another Carnegie co-founder, and its current chief executive, is the fourth alleged target for murder, E. David Gable, 51, who acquaintances say is well-positioned to damage Caruthers' reputation, not only in the SEC probe but in a Carnegie lawsuit against its former accounting firm. In addition, Gable and Lashra are adversaries in a civil suit filed this year in Baltimore County - a dispute over ownership of a bar.

The defendants' attorneys say it's ludicrous to think they'd want Gable killed, because that would hurt the value of the Carnegie stock shares they own. The so-called plot, their attorneys say, is itself a conspiracy against them.

"There is a lot of fog being created by a lot of people," attorney Richard Gershberg argued at a bail hearing Thursday on behalf of Caruthers, Lashra and Naedek. Gershberg is more than their attorney, a role he'll soon relinquish. He and his wife, Elaine, are among Caruthers' closest friends. He is also Pearl's former law partner, and Naedek's brother. And his wife, Elaine, may have best characterized the group's devotion to Caruthers in a journal entry made public last year. Dated Dec. 4, 1998, she wrote that even Richard would be an outcast if he didn't come around to Caruthers' way of living.

"I have been learning to distance myself from Rick for so many reasons," she wrote. "His psychometry is potentially a threat to everyone and everything, and I refuse to be culpable in harming our Commander, myself, or anyone else that is so important to the Program."

It is that brand of loyalty that has worried observers most during the past several years. But it took years for outside family members to find out what sort of relationships were evolving at Caruthers' home on a quiet suburban cul-de-sac just north of Westminster.

Caruthers grew up in Anne Arundel County. After dropping out of high school and washing out of the Army, he led a vagabond's existence that took him in and out of countless jobs and four marriages. Twice he took a new wife before divorcing the previous one, and according to one, he was talking of being chased by space aliens by age 17. A few years later he began making up stories about working for the military and the CIA.

Not until 1984, when he was 39, would his fortunes significantly improve, after he got an idea for a no-grip exercise weight called Strongput. Shaped like a miniature football helmet, it made a splash at fitness shows and on network television. But despite attracting $2.7 million in backing, mostly from a few hundred Marylanders, it never got off the ground, partly because it was so expensive to manufacture.

It was in the early years of Strongput that Cauthers met Pearl and Gershberg, who were law partners. He also met Lashra, then known as Irmina Dzambo. She was a newlywed, but left her husband to move in with Caruthers in Glen Burnie, although he still had a wife in Baltimore County.

Debra Hackerman (who would later change her name to Dulsa Naedek) also met Caruthers then. She, too, left her husband to move in with Caruthers. Years later, Amy Dardick met Caruthers and left her husband, Lewis Dardick, spending much of her time with Caruthers.

Lewis Dardick, a lawyer, was working with Gershberg and Pearl at the time, and got to see firsthand the way Caruthers operated. By then, Caruthers' account of his "secret life" depicted him as a space alien, and leader of a group called Beta Dominion Xenophilia. Those who followed his "training" would be saved from apocalyptic "earth changes."

"The way he operates is, you break down one barrier of the way you live, and then he would have you break down another one," Dardick said in an interview with The Sun, long before he became an alleged murder target. "Before long, you're doing everything he wants."

Bob Bonnell, the marketing director for Strongput, said Caruthers promised great rewards for followers, but dire consequences for the disobedient, while alluding to his supposed intelligence connections.

"He said, 'You're going to have a Jaguar [when Strongput succeeds]. ... But don't do us wrong, because the black van could show up at any time, and you know what that means," Bonnell said. "His threats became deeper and more sinister the longer you were involved."

Caruthers wasn't the only member of the group claiming power to exact retribution. A report taken by Baltimore County police Officer B.M. Strayer told of a statement Debra Hackerman (now Dulsa Naedek, one of the co-defendants) made to her estranged husband, Tim (now one of the alleged targets), on June 29, 1997.

She warned Hackerman, according to the report: "One call and you'll be gone."

Relatives of several members of the group eventually became worried enough to begin fighting back, and they were led by three of the men allegedly targeted for murder. Tim Hackerman, Lewis Dardick and Michael Tulkoff's father, Martin (the uncle of Elaine Gershberg), hired a private detective, with Michael working actively behind the scenes.

The investigator retrieved a fax machine cartridge from Caruthers' garbage containing imprints of hundreds of journal entries by members of the group.

Their tone is summed up by a line from Dulsa Naedek, who wrote of Caruthers on Jan. 27, 1999, "I need Him more than life itself."

Group members later said the entries, which included sexually explicit references to the women's liaisons with Caruthers, were fictitious accounts of role-playing exercises intended to help Caruthers write science fiction.

But the inquiring family members weren't swayed, and on June 15, 1999, Lewis Dardick and Tim Hackerman filed for emergency custody of their children, to get them away from Caruthers' influence. The court complied, and both Amy Dardick and Dulsa Naedek eventually agreed to surrender custody altogether.

The custody actions were filed three days before Caruthers' Philadelphia party. In the meantime, Strongput had gone broke, and Caruthers had co-founded Carnegie International, a Hunt Valley telecommunications company, along with Gable, who became chief executive. Caruthers later parted ways with the company, but held onto stock shares worth millions.

Financial irregularities prompted the American Stock Exchange to halt trading of Carnegie stock on April 29, 1999, and the stock was worth less than a hundredth of its former value when trading resumed more than a year later.

Caruthers never paid most of the bills for his lavish Philadelphia party, resulting in a bankruptcy suit. The SEC investigation began, and Gable, who might have been an ally in the case, instead kept his distance, no longer either a friend or a colleague.

With creditors, critics and regulators closing in, Caruthers and his friends lashed back. During an interview with The Sun in late 1999, Caruthers and Pearl suggested that some of their detractors were secretly homosexuals, or had been in trouble with the law. Pearl faxed a memo to The Sun on Jan. 25, 2000, in which he said that Dulsa Naedek and Amy Dardick would soon be suing the Tulkoffs "as well as Tim Hackerman, Lewis Dardick and others that have assisted in the defamation and injury to us."

The suits were never filed. But two months ago, state police say, Caruthers began discussing a harsher form of retaliation, allegedly making an offer to a newly hired bodyguard, Amir Tabassi. Lashra, Pearl and Naedek soon joined in the discussions, police said, and Tabassi decided to tell Bradley Bauhof, a Westminster attorney who had represented Caruthers in child support actions taken by an ex-wife.

Bauhof told Tabassi to inform Gable of the brewing plot, according to police. Tabassi then arranged a meeting for Tuesday, Sept. 25, at the Harriman House restaurant on Reisterstown Road. Bauhof went, too, and after Gable arrived he phoned attorney Christopher Ohly, who represents Carnegie in a current lawsuit, to join them.

Ohly then informed the FBI, which alerted state police, and Wednesday at 2 a.m., state police cars converged on Caruthers' house while a helicopter hovered overhead. Caruthers has not yet offered a comment on the case, and he and the other three defendants remain in jail, not having posted the $1 million bond.

But in his interview with The Sun in late 1999, he offered an all-purpose defense of sorts against whatever his critics might say.

"I am not the terrible person people say I am," Caruthers said. " ... I leave people alone, but they don't always leave you alone. I don't portray myself as an innocent victim of a conspiracy, but I do know a lot of people have gotten together. I have shared my views openly and naively with a lot of people, and I guess that can get you in a lot of hot water if you don't know what their opinions are going to be."

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