They sit at a table; hands neatly clasped before them with a manila envelope perched casually underneath. Their names are Dave and Teri Mejia. In the envelope are resource materials the Mejia's have collected to help them in their quest for the part of their hearts and lives that is missing. The missing portion of their hearts, the absent life, has a name: Benjamin Eli Mejia. Ben is their son and he ahas been missing since October 8, 2000.
For the first few months, Ben's disappearance left the Moorpark couple, and Ben's brother, emotionally devastated, paralyzed with grief. Once the family was able to stop feeling sorry for themselves, says Ben's step-mom Teri; "we started to do something to help Ben."
"I'm able to compartmentalize things," says Dave. "But it is always there - on top or on bottom," he says gesturing with his hands, "it just depends on who I'm talking to."
Ben was a student at the University of Hawaii when, at a vulnerable time in his life, he was drawn into a religious group described as a cult. The cult is known as The Roberts Group, named for its leader, Jim Roberts. It is also known as the "Brethren" and has several other names. They recruit intelligent young people, like Ben, who are idealistic and searching for answers to life's questions. And where better to look then on college campuses. It has been reported that the University of Santa Barbara, U.C. Berkeley, and Humboldt State University are among the campuses, from other others around the country, where the Brethren prey on stressed, highly susceptible young adults.
The Mejia's spoke to Ben on his 21st birthday, September 7, 2000. "It was business as usual," says Dave, "just chit chat." Ben thanked his parents for the birthday gifts. On September 16, they had an email from Ben thinking them for the credit card that had a monthly allowance he could charge. As far as Dave and Teri Mejia knew there was "nothing that would give away" what was about to happen.
Ben was stressed out. He was taking "too many classes and worked too many hours," his dad says retrospectively. That was the type of kid Ben was. "He was willing to work as hard as it takes to get it all done," says Dave. In one letter, months before, Ben had written his mother, Melody Antonson, and told her he thought he "might have a nervous breakdown because of all the things on my mind." Ben was also on a spiritual search, but he hadn't discussed it in his letters, emails or calls to his father and stepmother. He had written his mother about it, however.
The Mejia's say Antonson wasn't that concerned. "She felt he was level headed," says Dave. She told Teri she hadn't been alarmed because she trusted Ben, and his involvement with religion was "what she wanted to hear."
The Mejia's describe Ben as "spiritual, not religious. He believed in the church, he was respectful, but he wasn't a goody-two-shoes," says Dave. "He was a normal, average kid." Nevertheless, in his spiritual journey, Ben became fair game. The Mejia's believe "what pulled him in was the group itself, the dynamics. He felt he'd found true Christians." Ben was raised in the Seventh Day Adventist tradition and attended local Christian schools in Simi Valley and Newbury Park. "he found the church hypocritical."
His father and stepmother don't believe Ben was thinking clearly. They do believe the group utilized their usual recruiting pattern of using scripture to make people feel guilty and inadequate.
Ben's girlfriend, Kellie Domen, age 19, had noticed a change in Ben. She became concerned. She went to the pastor at the Baptist dormitory, where she had lived the previous year, and told him about Ben and the group. The pastor told her he would investigate and she should come back the following week. When the pastor saw her a week later "Kellie was typical of the women in the cult," says Dave. Her manner of dress and demeanor were characteristic of the group. It is believed Kellie "became involved to be with Ben." Kellie Domen is also missing.
On October 10, Ben wrote his mother and told her "life just hasn't measured up to what it should be, according to scripture." He said it weighed on his conscience. Ben said he needed to make changes and the "changes conflicted with devoting the majority" of his time to school. He quoted scripture several times and told his mother he had "decided to take some time and live this life in Him. I'm going to travel off the islands, live by faith, and be open to what God shows me and me to do. If God wills," Ben told his mother, he would write from time to time to let her know he was all right. He signed the letter "B." His penmanship was large, strong and willful.
Antonson telephoned the Mejia's "She wasn't hysterical, she was concerned," said Teri and Dave.
The Mejia's immediately got on the Internet. "She didn't understand the cult or how bad it was," says Teri, "but within ten minutes we knew how bad" the situation was.
The Mejia's describe the week that followed as "weird." They found out they had to go to Hawaii to file a missing person report. In Hawaii they talked to the Hawaiian Police department, the FBI, and the University of Hawaii's school security about posting fliers. They even talked to the Bureau of Land and Natural Resources to get permission to post fliers and search the area in the hills behind the university where transients, including Brethren, live.
Since the police don't really consider youth recruited into religious cults as missing persons, the Mejia's discovered "you're on your own. There is no help from the authorities" say Dave and Teri. One detective was bluntly honest Dave says, he told them with 500 homicides a year, this "isn't top priority." He said they would do what they could. The police recommended a private investigator. The Mejia's interviewed him the day they left. Our approach was to be a kidnapping.
Ben and Kellie were spotted on November 3. However, the Mejia's were warned against kidnapping by professional counselors who said forced intervention is illegal and counterproductive. It provides the group "more ammunition to say 'see we told you so.'" The Mejia's decided against it.
On November 4, while Dave and Teri were home in Moorpark, Antonson, her husband, and Kellie's parents met on Oahu to discuss a strategy. But by the next day Ben and Kellie had disappeared before an intervention could be done. Another cult member confirmed "they had left the island." When asked how they could afford it, the man said it was to get a one-way, stand-by ticket for $125.
"They're very clever and resourceful for not having money. It's amazing how they get along," says Dave.
On December 3, 2000, Antonson received a second letter from Ben. Instead of starting "Hi Ma," like the first one, this letter began "Shalom (peace) Mom." More formal and subdued, Ben's penmanship was even different; the letters were sized smaller, it was less legible, it had a delicate appearance.
The letter warned Antonson against Internet sites and groups that speak against the Brethren. He described them as "a collection of sensational falsities." Ben said many were sponsored by families searching for sons and daughters "who think that if they can just find" them, they will "be able to force them live the life they fled." He directed his mother specific Proverbs, and scripture passages he wanted her to read. He told her to only read the King James Version of the Bible as the "truth has become more and more defiled with each new version of the Bible." His letter was filled with cautionary warnings, and quotes from scripture. He talked about testimonies he had heard. His thought process seemed somewhat disjointed. This time he signed the letter, "Ben." There was no mention of contacting me again.
The Mejia's purpose for going public is "two-fold." First, they want to let Ben know they love him, miss him and want to talk to him. Second, they want to raise awareness of these groups.
If you're the one or two percent that this affects, it consumes your life," says Dave.
"Between [the ages of] 17 and 24, people can be recruited into anything," Teri has learned. The Mejia's education on cults began with Internet search the night Ben disappeared. "It is more than you want to know," they say.
The Mejia's found The Roberts Group Parents Network on the Internet. "We've been in touch with parents who haven't seen their kids in 14 to 20 years," says Teri. The parents stay active in the group to help other parents.
The Mejia's, like many other parents also have, made contact with cult expert Rick Ross, of Phoenix, Arizona. It was Ross who dissuaded them from pursuing a "forced intervention."
While Ross explains, the group's [supposed] purpose is to live a "true Christian life according to the First Century," during a telephone interview he said, the Brethren "is one of the worst, and most dangerous, cult groups in the United States. They live a very risky, harsh life," Ross said. "Because of the living conditions, there are people who I believe have died." Ross said living conditions are substandard and unsanitary. There is no medical attention given to those who fall ill, which according to former members is daily. The group is known to scavenge food from garbage dumpsters, leaving members frequently ill with bacterial infections. Those who become involved in the cult, said the expert, seem to "virtually disappear off the planet."
Ross has said the cult's leader, Jim Roberts, appears "driven by personal delusion and power." Viewing himself as the sole "true purveyor of God's words and truth," he places himself in a nearly "Messianic position between God and the world." He described Roberts as a "shadowy figure looming over [the group], and yet those who join may not even [initially] be aware he exists." Roberts communicates with "cell" leaders by phone, said Ross, and now, it is believed, via a laptop computer.
Dave and Teri learned the Roberts Group began around 1971. It was started by ex-Marine, Jim Roberts, the son of a Pentecostal preacher. He treats the cult like a Marine unit, says Dave. There is a hierarchy of sorts with Roberts at the top of the triangle. Head elders lead "cells," subgroups of 10 or 12 members. There are levels of seniority; however, men are not subordinate to women regardless of how "senior" a sister is. Women are always subordinate to everyone. Marriage is forbidden, celibacy is demanded. Jim Roberts has complete control; his word is the final one on all issues.
The group lives a nomadic, dour lifestyle, traveling predominately on bicycles. They scavenge for food, work when necessary -- women baby-sit, men repair bikes -- and only for cash, and they sleep wherever they can find a place. If there is one thing that makes a "brother" or "sister" stand out in a crowd it is their appearance. Men wear long, solid colored tunics, ranging in length from below the knees to mid-thigh, most have side slits for ease of bike riding. While the men wear their hair short, the sport long unkempt beards. Likewise, the sisters wear dresses or skirts that hang to the ground with long sleeves and no open necks. Makeup, jewelry and glasses are never worn. The women's hair is long; it may not be cut, braided or tied back.
"Like all destructive cults, there are levels of information the longer you're in the group," explains Dave. As for the new recruits, like his son Ben, it would be "like you're a baby. You're too new. We can't give you raw meat yet." It is believed that there are between 100 and 200 Brethren members. The Mejia's have been told that within the first year 50 percent of new recruits leave. It is a thread of hope to which they cling.
Brethren frequent university campuses say Dave and Teri, coffeehouses and places where young people go. "They blend in; they're not doing anything wrong, just talking to people. The guy who contacted Ben met him on the library steps." Evidently this "brother" had approached several other students who weren't interested in listening to what he had to say. The Mejia's believe the person who recruited Ben "probably kept talking to him and probably invited him to meetings. It's a process, it's mind control," says Dave. Recruits are taught that to pursue spiritual enlightenment, they must have no contact with their "flesh families."
"Ben said they gave him Bible studies," says Teri.
"Cults have to disassociate the person from their life," says Dave, "but the former self is always there in the subconscious." Because of this, the Mejia's -- if they can find Ben -- plan a "voluntary intervention," 90 percent of which are successful they say. They plan to ask Ben for three days of his time to "come talk with us, tell us what you're doing. You're free to go" if you want at the end of the three days.
"The idea is to get them to reconnect with their real self," says Dave, "so they notice the inconsistencies and hypocrisies and as the reconnect they process what they know to be true." The Mejia's have an "exit counselor" who understands the mind control in a destructive cult, and a former member of the Brethren cult who understands their particular doctrines, along with friends and family available and ready to help.
Those who do leave -- few that they are --- "are very fragile," says Ross. This cult is so harsh, he says, "it takes a lot of time to recover, to reestablish themselves in society."
While they wait and pray for work, Dave and Teri Mejia rely on the Roberts Group Parents Network, which maintains an underground database of knowledge. The Network has identified known and unknown cult members, taking photos of members when they are spotted and notifying parents when they can. Additionally, the Mejia's have drafted a letter, which accompanies a missing person flier that contains information about the cult, too. They are mailing it to friends and family around the country. They also plan to mail notices to bike shops, where Brethren members ply their primary trade, and coffee shops where they recruit new members.
The Mejia's also plan to "go with as much media as possible," says Teri. "if we can avoid additional recruits with any of our efforts," she says hopefully, leaving the sentence unfinished.
If you suspect you child is becoming involved with a cult, Ross strongly advises "do not confront them, gather facts and look for professional help." The expert says you'll have to work quickly within "a narrow window, it might be a matter of weeks." The goal of the Brethren "is to isolate" the recruits. "No matter how nice you are, you will end up with a 'termination letter,' you have a window of time to navigate," says Ross.
"Know what is going on with your kids," pleads Dave. "Don't ignore funky signs. Watch for groups with radical beliefs."
"Communicate with your kids," says Teri. "I didn't know cults were so active. They're out there and actively recruiting. Beware. Be watchful."
Note: Dave and Teri Mejia have established a fund to help them "continue the search for Ben and to get information out to avoid as many recruits [being taken in] as possible." Contributions may be sent to:
The Find Ben Fund
C/O First Western Bank
256 W. Los Angeles Avenue
Moorpark, CA 93021