Benjamin Eli Mejia has been missing since October 8th from the University of Hawaii. He is assumed to be with a possible cult called the Roberts Group.
The parents of a former Ventura County man have launched a search to find their son, who dropped out of sight this fall after joining a religious group in Hawaii that some describe as a cult.
Dave and Teri Mejia of Moorpark, father and step-mother of Ben Eli Mejia, said their son dropped out of the University of Hawaii along with his girlfriend, Kellie Domen, in early October and joined the Roberts Group, described by some as a religious, Bible-based cult. In a letter to his mother, Melody Antonson of Kaua'i, Hawaii, shortly after he disappeared, Mejia, 21, wrote that he wanted to "live by God's word and not only be a hearer of it."
Mejia was briefly spotted on the island of Oahu in November by a private detective his family hired to locate him, but he has not been seen since. His parents have no idea where he is now.Authorities are not looking for Mejia and Domen because both are adults who notified their families after they joined the group.
As a result, Mejia's family is undertaking its own search. The Mejias do not believe their son, who was reared in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition and attended local church schools in Simi Valley and Newbury Park, would join the group voluntarily. "(Ben) really didn't make a free choice," said Dave Mejia. "They knew what to do, how to play on (his) guilt, fear and idealism."
The Mejias plan to send letters to all of their acquaintances regarding Mejia's disappearance asking for help in locating him. They have also established a Web site at www.home.earthlink.net /~findben and have joined the Roberts Group Parents Network.
What the Mejias have learned about the group disturbs them.The group is known for its nomadic, secretive and Spartan lifestyle. Members sever ties with their families and forsake their possessions to roam around the country recruiting and witnessing in the style of Christ and his disciples. "They [believe they] are living the true Christian life according to the first century. That is their pitch," said cult expert Rick Ross, who has consulted parents whose children joined the group.
The group reportedly targets idealistic and intellectually curious students on college campuses. They have been known to recruit at the University of Santa Barbara, U.C. Berkeley, Humboldt State University and other colleges around the country, experts say.
Members travel in small groups of a dozen or more. Followers get around by bikes, scavenge for food and live wherever they can. They call each other by Hebrew names. Men keep long beards and short hair and wear tunics, while women wear ankle-length dresses or skirts with long sleeves and no open necks. They do not wear jewelry or make-up.
The movement of the groups is reportedly controlled by Jim Roberts, an ex-Marine and one-time Pentecostal preacher from Kentucky, who is known as Brother Evangelist, said Ross and others who have studied the group."He appears to be driven by personal delusion and power. He sees himself in an almost Messianic position between God and the world -- that he alone is the true purveyor of God's words and truth," said Ross.
Others, however, see the organization as a group of very dedicated believers. The Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance, a small organization based in Ontario, Canada, includes the Roberts Group among several alternative religions listed and described on its Web site."They are attempting to live a simple life, free of encumbrances, avoiding sin and seeking after righteousness," the OCRT's Web site states. "They feel that the route to a close relationship with God is to simulate the experiences of Jesus' original disciples."
But to Mejia's parents, there are no questions about the group. They believe Mejia's best qualities -- his openmindedness, intellectual curiosity and quest for spirituality -- were used against him. Around the time Mejia met the group, his mother, Antonson, said she and her son had made a commitment to connect more deeply with God. Within days, Antonson said her son met a group member by the name of Mikaiah. "He thought that was the answer to his prayer," she said. The period was difficult for Mejia. In the letter to his mother after he left, the fine arts and graphics design major said he thought he was going to have a "nervous breakdown." "It was extremely stressful for me to be thinking about changes that my life needed and to be taking 17 or 18 credits at the same time, especially when those changes conflicted with devoting the majority of my time to school," he wrote.
In the weeks preceding his disappearance, Mejia sent his mother an e-mail asking her not to pay attention to "slanderous" information about the group. The family of Mejia's girlfriend also noted a change in her, the Mejias said. Unbeknownst to the couple, the woman's family planned an intervention, but the couple disappeared before anything could be done, they said.
According to cult expert Ross, what happened to Mejia is not uncommon. He said each month he receives hundreds of phone calls and e-mails from families seeking help. At any given time, he estimates, several million people in this country are involved in similar groups. "It's a very prevalent problem in our society," said Ross. But many parents, like the Mejias, are not aware of the extent of the problem until it affects them.
"You worry about your kids getting involved in drugs and alcohol. You don't think your kids will be involved in cults," said Teri Mejia.
According to the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center, the following are warning signs that a family member might be involved in a cult:
Honorable persons outside the group are overtly or subtly dismissed.