Most cults share similar attributes

Zwire/October 14, 2001
By Lauren King

The word "cult" generally elicits images from television of the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas, the "Heaven's Gate" group that committed mass suicide to join similar spirits in the passing Hale-Bopp Comet, or the cyanide-laced Kool-Aid that members of the People's Temple drank in Jonestown, Guyana.

When conspiracy to commit murder charges were filed against Westminster residents Scott Caruthers, 56, Dashielle Lashra, 42, David Pearl, 46, and Dulsa Naedek, 42, stories about the group resurfaced, including the allegation that the group is a cult, led by Caruthers.

According to a 1999 child custody case for Naedek's daughter, Caruthers and Lashra, who are married, are alleged to be the leaders of the "BDX Cult."

The lawsuit, filed by Naedek's ex-husband, Timothy S. Hackerman, claims that Caruthers preached that members of his cult would survive the apocalypse and everyone else on earth would be destroyed. The court documents also said that the members worshipped cats, believed in spaceships and that Caruthers and Lashra could transport themselves back and forth between Earth and spaceships. The records also said that one of the tenets of the cult included the submission of female followers to the sexual demands of Caruthers.

But several groups that study cults say it's not the beliefs that the group has, but the behaviors that it displays, that help define it as a "cult."

Joe Szimhart, a cult information specialist based in Pottstown, Pa., said that there are generally four characteristics that define cult behavior:

Dependence on a leader.

Compliance within the group, which could include a group jargon or common dressing habits. A group mentality when it comes to decision making. For example, he said that members will commonly avoid thoughts that are contrary to the group's beliefs.

Devaluing the opinions of outsiders. Szimhart said that the groups consider outsiders, such as family or friends who are not affiliated with the group, less enlightened. He said that cults will test followers before totally accepting them into the group.

Szimhart said that he actually met Caruthers at an art show in Pennsylvania that featured Caruthers' work. He said he has also helped counsel several former members of the "BDX Cult," as well as family members of the cult's followers. Although he hesitated giving specifics about the people he knows, he did say that the group fits his working definition of a cult.

"Members of the BDX organization believe that they are in touch with a higher alien life form," Szimhart said. "These people had a secret jargon, they all tried to think and talk like each other."

Szimhart said that the cult leaders generally try to surround themselves with symbols of power, such as large amounts of money or members who will follow orders.

According to the 1999 child custody case, that's exactly what Caruthers did to his members.

"The plaintiff believes that Caruthers and Lashra have exercised their will over the defendant [Naedek] and other cult members to estrange these people from their families and friends to the extent that the cult members are loyal only to Caruthers and Lashra and will do anything that Caruthers and Lashra direct them to do," the court documents said. "This includes turning over to Caruthers and Lashra their bank accounts or other investments."

Carol Giambalvo, director of the recovery program for the American Family Foundation, agreed that the BDX Cult has the familiar "pyramid" structure of power within the group.

"[The leader] will convince you that they have the only truth," Giambalvo said. "You're always in this environment, and when you're isolated psychologically, you tend not to [interact] with friends or families."

Szimhart said that there are thousands of groups like BDX that consist of a leader and up to 50 followers. But he said that most will form and disband during the years and that the only time the groups get much attention is when the groups push themselves into the spotlight.

"Most of the groups don't get this much notoriety because they don't push that far," Szimhart said. "It's very difficult to track these groups. They usually only get attention when an ex-member complains or the groups come out to the public."

Caruthers, Lashra, Pearl and Naedek were all being held at the Carroll County Detention Center on $1 million bail. They are accused of hiring a hit man to kill a former business associate and three others.

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