U. Hawaii students still missing, possibly in cult

October 20, 2000
By Mary Vorsino

They were young, outgoing, and sociable. She enjoyed music and theater. He enjoyed surfing and art. Now, the average, seemingly normal couple, have disappeared together.

University of Hawaii sophomore Kellie Domen and UH junior Benjamin Mejia have been missing since Oct. 6, 2000.

The Honolulu Police Department is investigating, but has no leads in its search for Domen and Mejia, according to Sergeant Wallace Choy from the Criminal Investigation Department.

Both families reported that they had received one letter from their child since their child's disappearance.

"The letter we received," said UH senior Kevin Domen, Kellie's brother, "told us that 'this decision was her own.'"

Melody Antonson, Mejia's mother, received a letter from her son almost six days after his disappearance. She said the letter was brief, and that "it was in Ben's style, but it wasn't Ben."

The Robert Parents Group, a national organization made up of parents of children in "The Brethren Cult," said on their Web site (trancenet.org/roberts/) that this is typical.

They said that new recruits are customarily allowed to write three letters home; the third letter, usually the last, declares to family, "This is the last letter you will ever get from me," the group said.

Cult connections

Though authorities are still speculating on the matter, family and friends of Domen and Mejia suspect that a religious group that both students were involved in, sometimes called "The Brethren" or the "Brothers and Sisters," is responsible for their disappearance.

Kevin first heard about the group from his sister's dormmates.

"About three weeks ago, my sister stated to some of her dormmates that she knew that Ben had gotten involved in a religious cult," he said.

Minister Sean Lathrop, director of Baptist Collegiate Ministries and Domen's dormitory pastor, agrees.

"She talked to her friends about the concern that Ben was in a cult," he said.

To learn more about the group her boyfriend had joined, Domen attended one of the group's meetings, her friends said.

After that first meeting, Domen began to "defend their approach to life and their beliefs," Lathrop said.

UH junior Justin Burnett, a close friend of Mejia, is concerned by Mejia's disappearance.

"Ben is one of the most excellent human beings that I've ever met in my life," Burnett said.

Antonson is puzzled about the disappearance of her son as well. "Ben was always so hesitant to hear someone's ideas. When he said he was studying with a man who 'knew the truth,' I wasn't concerned," she said.

Personality changes

Kevin said that he saw the change in his sister weeks before her disappearance.

"Her whole demeanor changed after the first meeting with these people," he said. "She started to wear long-sleeve shirts, long pants and no make-up. Her usual outgoing personality was gone."

Julie Foster, Domen's mother, also noticed a change in her daughter. "She joined the cult and began to stray away from her friends," she said.

Lathrop began to notice a change in Domen's demeanor in September.

"The change was dramatic, it seemed fairly abrupt," he said. "She was a lot less talkative, all of a sudden she began to wear long jeans, and no make-up."

Antonson is also aware of a change in appearance in Mejia.

"He started changing his appearance, wearing long baggy pants with long sleeve shirts, and he stopped maintaining his appearance," she said.

The Robert Parents Group cites such "signs" -- a change in appearance and demeanor -- as common, once someone has joined "The Brethren."

"College campuses tend to be the main area of recruitment," according the the group's Web site. "Most of the members (in this cult) were above average in intelligence and had been attending university when they joined the group."

The search

The search will continue for Domen and Mejia. Both families, originally from Kauai, are working with HPD and the Kauai police department. Local efforts on Oahu are also being instituted on campus with the help of family and friends.

"Ben has a lot of friends and family that are helping with the search," Antonson said. "Posters are being displayed around campus, but many of them have been stripped down."

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