On his 60th birthday, Phillip James Kronzer returned from a brief golf vacation to his Los Gatos mansion and the shock of his life. The closets were empty. A typewritten letter was sitting on the faux-marble bar.
Ardath, his wife of 39 years, had left him.
Over the next several months, desperate to understand the reasons for his wife's departure, Kronzer convinced himself she had not left of her own volition.
"I decided something stinks, and I was going to get to the bottom of it," Kronzer said.
So far, getting to the bottom if it has cost Kronzer, a retired manufacturing executive who made a fortune in real estate, $2.5 million, the affection of his children and countless hours of litigation. He was suspected, and later cleared, of sending fake anthrax letters to police in Los Gatos and Campbell. He has stood trial for slander, been rough-handled by thugs and received death threats veiled and explicit.
It is the price Kronzer has paid in his private crusade against what he considers a cult - a tight-knit religious group that capitalized on the lonely and spiritually gullible, cashing in on the devotion of their followers to a questionable moment in Catholic history. And he does it all in the name of a lost love.
"My main thrust was to prove that my wife is under total mind control and has been for 10 years," Kronzer said. "Had I known what I was walking into, I would have been afraid to take it on."
The root of Kronzer's angst lies in the once-sleepy hamlet of Medjugorje (pronounced med-ju-GOR-ee-yah), in what is now Bosnia-Herzegovina. It was on a hillside just outside of town that, on June 24, 1981, six Catholic schoolchildren claimed to see the radiant silhouette of a woman holding an infant in her arms. The next day, the spirit identified itself as the Virgin Mary and began providing messages they were to relay to the world.
Skeptics believe the children invented the story as a joke, but that the Franciscan friars whom they told, sensing a windfall for their impoverished parish, promoted it.
Truth or myth, a windfall there was.
Curious tourists began flocking to Medjugorje. The isolated farming village, home to about 500 before the apparitions, with no paved roads, electricity, running water, telephones, hotels or restaurants, changed radically. More than 15,000 hotel rooms were built over the next two decades. Herds of livestock shepherded over dirt streets gave way to tour buses rumbling along modern roads lined with cafes and souvenir shops.
Travel agencies now offer a wide-range of group packages to Medjugorje, catering to the lucrative "religious tourism" market. One weeklong trip, priced between $1,286 and $1,886, provides a night in the home of Jakov Colo, 33, one of the boys who witnessed the Madonna that day in 1981, and meals cooked by Colo's family. Another tour, for about $1,750, is hosted by 39-year-old Ivan Dragicevic, one of the three visionaries who claims to meet with the Virgin Mary on a daily basis.
Since 1987, the local bishop in the area has condemned the Medjugorje apparitions as a hoax. The Vatican, which has endorsed similar apparitions in Lourdes, France, and Fatima, Portugal, has neither endorsed nor condemned them. "I tend to be skeptical because of my critical training in biblical studies," says religious scholar Rev. Charles Miller, who traveled to Medjugorje this summer. "I still have an open mind on it, but I lean toward the positive. I'm not ready to come out and say its absolutely genuine."
Others are already convinced. Medjugorje has taken its place among Fatima, Lourdes, and Guadalupe, Mexico, as one of the world's most famous meccas for Mary watchers. Between 15 and 20 million pilgrims have visited "the miracle city" in the 23 years since the apparitions.
Two of those pilgrims were Phillip Kronzer and his then-wife, Ardath Talley.
The Kronzers, devout Catholics, were mesmerized by the fantastical news coming out of Medjugorje. Together, they went there in 1987, meeting some of the visionaries themselves, and came back to the states inspired to teach others about the miracles they saw.
But Phillip Kronzer began to grow suspicious of the Medjugorje miracles and sensed that groups were getting rich hyping them. His wife, on the other hand, was convinced the visions were real, and they began to drift apart.
In the years after the breakup of their marriage, Kronzer's grief fermented into rage, and he began to discredit anyone promoting the Medjugorje apparitions or those who claimed to see them.
Kronzer has used his substantial personal assets, estimated at $12 million, to finance his own foundation, a documentary, magazine ads, a website - www.kronzer.org - and a conservative talk-radio program in Denver lashing out at the Medjugorje movement. Mostly, though, he just sues.
Over the course of the last 10 years, Kronzer has sued a Kansas-based nonprofit called the Medjugorje MIR Center, the Indiana group Children of Medjugorje, which produces films and books on the subject, two other nonprofits and a Medjugorje ministry in rural Alabama. He has also financed a lawsuit by five former members of the Alabama group and sued the law firm representing it and at least four of his own associates, claiming they turned on him in his quest to discredit the Medjugorje phenomenon. He is also fighting several countersuits.
The barrage of litigation and related paperwork lies in stacks throughout his ranch home, on a quiet, tree-lined street in Los Gatos just off Highway 17. In his living room, a foot-tall wooden statue of the Virgin Mary stands in a lighted case, overlooking a coffee table piled with legal documents, and family photographs from happier times.
At 70, Kronzer is thick-set and active, an avid golfer before his knee began giving him trouble recently, and he bears a striking resemblance to Donald Sutherland. His face, still handsome under his slightly receding white hair, hardens with an unnerving intensity as the topic turns to his work.
"This is pretty much all I do, seven days a week, 24 hours a day," Kronzer says. "It's war. I'm in a war."
No group has so been the target of that war than a curious Alabama religious community known as Caritas.
On Shelby County Road 43, about 20 miles south of Birmingham, in Sterrett, Ala. (pop. 3,091), lies a secluded commune on a woodsy, 168-acre farm in the countryside. About 50 people, all Catholics, live there year round, having dedicated their lives to promoting the holy messages that continue to come through the Medjugorje visionaries.
There is a stone tabernacle, housing an office and a printing press, a gift shop, a cluster of trailers where adherents live and an open field where a statue of the Virgin Mary rests on some rocks. Set back in the woods is a large, two-story house where the community's charismatic founder, a former landscaper named Terry Colafrancesco, lives with his family.
In 1987, a year after visiting Medjugorje and befriending some of the visionaries, Colafrancesco came back to the United States and founded a nonprofit, spending an estimated $800,000 to promote their messages to the world. He called it Caritas, the Latin word for love.
The next year, one of the star Medjugorje visionaries, Marija Pavlovic Lunetti, visited Colafrancesco at his home in Sterrett and had several visions of the Madonna in Colafrancesco's bedroom and one in the 90-acre cow field across the road.
When word got out, Shelby County Road 43 was clogged with people flocking to see Lunetti. A hundred or more packed into Colafrancesco's house and bedroom while Lunetti channeled visions, and thousands more would pray in the field near the home.
As with the village of Medjugorje years before, the events put Caritas, and Colafrancesco, on the map.
Since then, Colafrancesco has built Caritas into one of the largest Medjugorje organizations in the world. Each year, it collects $1.5-to-$2 million in cash donations, leads a half-dozen trips to Medjugorje for about 150 pilgrims and publishes about half-a-million newsletters, according to IRS records. The community owns $3.8 million in assets and has published a collection of the Medjugorje messages that reportedly grossed more than $1 million. Callers can call Caritas' 24-hour hotline to "hear Our Lady's monthly message" in English by pressing 300, in Croatian by pressing 302, or even Hungarian - 303.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Kronzer himself gave Colafrancesco roughly $2,000 when he believed in what the group was doing. Now he is hell-bent on destroying it.
"The man needs to be stopped," Kronzer said. "All this guy is doing is building himself a huge enterprise and when it all falls apart he will be a multimillionaire."
In 2001, Kronzer filed suit against several Medjugorje groups, including Caritas, which he accused of using "mind control" and "deceptions" to swindle donations out of believers. The suit was dismissed by a Sacramento judge, who ruled the groups had First Amendment protection to preach whatever they wanted.
Later that year, Kronzer financed a suit in Alabama by five former Caritas members and their parents, who claimed Colafrancesco lured them into the community with promises of spiritual fellowship, then manipulated them and swindled them out of their money. They claimed he controls his followers with classic brainwashing tactics - prohibiting TV or newspapers and contact with the outside world, breaking down their mental defenses with grueling days of labor and worship, saturating their minds with propaganda and controlling their behavior to the point that he becomes a kind of god.
Some members complained they were forced to deposit checks from the Caritas nonprofit accounts and write personal checks to Colafrancesco for the same amount, and that Colafrancesco kept the deed for $500,000 worth of Caritas land in his own name, according to the Birmingham Post-Herald.
At the time, Colafrancesco rejected the lawsuit as "just bitterness," according to the Associated Press. It was one of the few times he has talked to the media. After several negative stories in the press, including an 11,000-word exposé in the Birmingham Post-Herald, Colafrancesco has declined most interviews. His attorneys would not comment because of ongoing litigation.
"The only thing I feel is appropriate is not to perpetuate the myths he is espousing," said Dean Burnick, an attorney for Caritas. "Phillip Kronzer lives in his own world."
The war between Kronzer and Colafrancesco escalated sharply in 2002. Caritas published a 136-page fundraising booklet describing the harassment the community had endured since its inception - vulgar phone calls, obscene faxes, a deluge of lawsuits, vandalism, news stories and threats - likening its travails to those of the early Christian Church.
Part of the booklet describes an attempt to blow up Colafrancesco's house. After mass one Saturday night, as the story goes, Colafrancesco and his family were greeted by an overwhelming odor of natural gas. Colafrancesco told his family not to turn on any lights. In the kitchen, he claimed to find the pilot light extinguished, and, chillingly, the knobs of the gas stove left fully opened.
Colafrancesco never explicitly said Kronzer was responsible for the attack on his life, mentioning his name only as part of a "network" of enemies that might have been responsible.
Nevertheless, that was all Kronzer and his legal team needed. In September 2002, they sued Caritas for defamation of character and stalking Kronzer in a Redwood City courthouse. Worried that the court summons would never get through Caritas' defenses, Kronzer's attorneys sent along a Trojan horse of legumes.
"I sent them some lentils from Safeway ... two packages of lentils, about a dollar's worth of food, and I included the service papers," said Kronzer's attorney, Tom Easton. "If they had any idea what it was, they would have refused service."
Kronzer is not a man for understatement or subtleties. He does not mince words or apologize for what he considers the truth. Occasionally, his conviction sometimes gets the better of his discretion, and it comes back to haunt him.
Between Dec. 23, 2002, and Jan. 2, 2003, Kronzer sent three letters to associates that made their way back to Caritas' lawyers. The letters were filled with wild claims: that Colafrancesco was being financed by the Italian Mafia, that Caritas was "a massive smuggling and money laundering scheme," that its work in Medjugorje was a "front for weapons dealings ...and other forms of contraband, possibly including illicit drugs." He even hinted the group might be involved in a 2001 plane crash that killed Michael O'Neill, a former Caritas resident and retired FBI agent, who had grown critical of the community, comparing it to the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, infamy.
Caritas turned the tables on Kronzer and countersued for libel.
After two years of amended complaints, motions, countermotions, appeals and cross-appeals filling a foot-thick court file, the litigation is still in its preliminary stages - the actual trial has not even started yet.
"We're talking a horrendous lawsuit if it goes forward," Easton said.
Ironically, after all the hassle, with legal fees mounting well into the six-figure-range, both complaints are asking for compensatory damages of less than $25,000.
"It's the principle. This guy should be put out of business before he ruins any more families. Plain and simple," Kronzer says. "Unless you have been a victim of these people, you can't understand it."
Kronzer is convinced the reason his wife left him was that she fell under the spell of people promoting Medjugorje, and that anyone associated with the movement is a fraud.
For evidence, he points to the case of Theresa Antonia Lopez.
"Lopez was the place where I started, then we came into a web that was unbelievable," Kronzer said.
Lopez is a former Wendy's manager in Denver, Colo., who said she saw the Virgin Mary during a visit to Medjugorje in 1991 and became an overnight celebrity when she returned to the United States.
Believers flocked to the Mother Cabrini Shrine west of Denver where she claimed to continue to receive messages. At one event, about two dozen people burned their eyes while attempting to see an image of the Madonna in the setting sun.
Lopez toured the country winning over believers at churches and conventions. Kronzer went to one of her conferences at the South San Francisco convention center in 1993. She talked for an hour, with no script, and he found her utterly believable.
On Feb. 22, 1994, after a two-year investigation, a commission led by the Archbishop of Denver, J. Francis Stafford, concluded that Lopez and her visions were a hoax and directed Catholics to avoid promoting or participating in them.
By that time, Lopez had disappeared from public view.
According to Kronzer's telling of the story, a few weeks before the archbishop's denouncement, Lopez was the featured guest at a Medjugorje retreat near Golden, Colo., attended by Kronzer's ex-wife Ardath and a Foster City widow named Marcia Smith in November 1993. Kronzer was not invited.
"When my wife got back from that retreat, I didn't know her," he said. "And from that day on all she would do is stare at me and pick fights."
Seven months later, she left him.
Kronzer believes Smith convinced his wife to leave him so she could donate her eventual divorce settlement, which amounted to several million dollars in cash and assets when finalized in 1996, to Medjugorje groups. A lawsuit officially accusing Smith of luring Ardath Kronzer into divorce was thrown out of court on technical grounds.
"They were controlling her mind, with false apparitions, with one intent, and that was to steal her money," Kronzer claims.
Neither Ardath Talley nor Marcia Smith, both of whom live in Foster City, wanted to confirm or contest Kronzer's interpretation of events.
"This is a very old story that I am not interested in commenting on," Talley said.
The headquarters of Kronzer's campaign is the paper-strewn study in his Los Gatos home. A sign on the door to his study reminds him to "Keep the faith." In a framed cartoon, a frog with his head stuck deep in a gull's beak is pinching closed the bird's throat. The caption says: "Don't ever give up."
Nailed to a door in his study is a small poster of the Medjugorje church, hanging upside down. "To remind me to destroy it," Kronzer said.
Along his long and winding warpath, Kronzer has made more than a few enemies. In May of last year, in perhaps the most bizarre and frightening twist in his saga, one of them struck back hard.
On May 5, 2003, at the Campbell Police Department, white powder spilled out of a letter addressed to a police officer, along with a death threat. Another one arrived at the Los Gatos-Monte Sereno Police Department. A third arrived at a home in San Jose.
The letters, containing a slew of threats against Kronzer's enemies, appeared to come from Kronzer himself.
Kronzer was fingerprinted, interrogated by the FBI, subjected to a polygraph test, asked to submit DNA evidence and eventually released. He claims he is no longer a suspect. The case has never been solved.
Kronzer is convinced the letters were sent as the result of a sprawling conspiracy to steal his money and defame him. In perhaps his most colorful lawsuit suit yet, he accused a network of former employees, an estranged son-in-law, a software company president and his enemies around the United States and Europe of colluding with Caritas thugs to harass him, culminating in the anthrax hoax.
"When you are dealing with the occult, you never know what's going to happen," Kronzer said. The suit is still pending, though the cases against several defendants, including Caritas, were dismissed.
However much evidence Kronzer has to support his claims, and however convinced he is of his own righteousness, there is an undeniable dark side to his work.
To no one is it more apparent than to Ardath Talley, Kronzer's ex-wife.
"It is an effort to intimidate and retaliate against me because Medjugorje is something that he know [SIC] I hold dear," Talley wrote in a 1998 public statement in response to his many accusations.
Since Talley left Kronzer in 1994, she complained he harassed her to the point she had to go into hiding, afraid he would try to abduct her, according to her statement.
Kronzer said he was never planning an abduction, but rather an "intervention," planned in February 1995 with his children to convince her to leave on her own will and enter therapeutic "deprogramming" at a rented cabin in Truckee.
Another plan, concocted about June 1995, was to get her to a restaurant and "if need be, get her sedated somehow to get her to go along with it," then convince her into going to a "safe-house" and into therapy, Kronzer said. Word leaked out and the plot was abandoned.
Talley filed a 30-year restraining order against him in 2001. Their three children no longer speak to him.
"I loved my wife when I met her, and I'll love her to the day I die," Kronzer says. "I don't want to hurt her, I never did, and I am certainly not trying to punish my family. I will not stop until I get the truth, bottom line."
Kronzer has also gone after Marcia Smith, the woman who had supposedly "brainwashed" his wife into leaving him in order to get a piece of the divorce settlement. "I wanted her to let my wife go," Kronzer said. "I will not rest until I prove who this woman is."
Kronzer financed an 80-minute video, a mosaic of conspiracy theories, much of which is dedicated to discrediting not the Medjugorje movement, but Smith herself. At one point, the videos intersperse images of Smith singing jarringly off-key at a Medjugorje conference with violent footage of injured Bosnians being taken to the hospital after a run-in with Croatian police in 1997.
"A careful scrutinizing of his allegations on their face should lead the unbiased investigator to a full understanding and appreciation of the absurdity of his claims," wrote Joseph Russoniello, an attorney for Smith and Talley, in an email.
After a decade of rancor and heartache, and a vast mission to seek out and destroy religious frauds around the world, it is unclear how effective Kronzer has been in his quest. He has sponsored several former Caritas members to undergo treatment at the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, the nation's only clinic specializing in the treatment of people influenced by abusive religious groups. He has also won one lawsuit, by default, but only against a former research associate he worked with, not a "cult."
Most of the groups he has targeted, including Caritas, are still eagerly promoting the Medjugorje apparitions. Each year, thousands of tourists continue to flock to the village in Bosnia-Herzegovina, hoping to get closer to God.
"We're having some limited success," Kronzer admits. "Not as much as we'd like. He has certainly given several groups a difficult time, and perhaps scared others underground for fear of falling into his cross hairs."
"I think these people are hiding out and laying low," says Easton, his attorney. "I think maybe he's done a lot of good."
However much, or little, Kronzer has accomplished so far, he's not slowing down anytime soon. With plenty of money, plenty of time on his hands and plenty of leads yet to chase, Kronzer has pledged to keep up his fight until the day he dies, hoping that someday, by the grace of God, his wife will return to his side.
"In the eyes of the Catholic church, she's still my wife," he said.
In the meantime, he continues to honor his marriage vows while he persists in his mission, a stark two-foot crucifix hanging on the wall over his king-sized bed, his to return to each night, alone.