Families remember cult members

Concerned Christians, who vanished in '98, left relatives grieving lost ties

Denver Rocky Mountain News/October 10, 2001
By Kevin Williams

Boulder -- An image of a rose decorates the left side of the envelope.

Inside is a note dated July 18, 2000, to Jan:

"I'm sending you this picture of Nicky because I know you still love her and because I love you enough to let you know that I will always love you -- no matter what."

Betty Chavez, 48, holds the worn envelope in her hand, a smudged "Return to Sender" box withering any hope she had of reaching her sister, Jan Cooper. Cooper is a member of Concerned Christians, the doomsday cult led by Monte Kim Miller that disappeared from the area in October 1998. Nicky is Cooper's 19-year-old daughter, who left her mom before the cult's departure to live with her biological father. Chavez thought a picture, along with a written message, might appeal to her sister's emotions and bring her home.

Cooper, 53, and her husband, John, left their Boulder home and a seemingly ideal life without a word to anyone three years ago. That was when cult leader Miller predicted Denver would be destroyed by an earthquake. Media coverage was intense for a time, but now it seems the group is all but forgotten by the public.

Not forgotten by the families, however, who have been dealing with a silent pain since the cult's departure. Chavez hasn't received a letter, telephone call or e-mail, the cult's most consistent form of communication, from her sister in more than a year.

Rather than give up, Chavez wrote a book. Published in June, CULT, A Sister's Memoir, is an account of the ordeal Chavez and her family have been through. She discusses the history of the cult, the people involved, her efforts to maintain contact with her sister and the death of their older sister, Carol.

High-profile cults -- Branch Davidians, Aum Supreme Truth, Heaven's Gate -- have been in the spotlight over the past decade. These apocalyptic groups are part of 2,500-3,000 cults nationwide, incorporating from 5 to 10 million members, according to the Wellspring Retreat & Resource Center in Albany, Ohio, a recovery center for former cult members.

Concerned Christians has perhaps 100 members scattered throughout the United States and some foreign countries. The group began in Denver in the early '80s, initially preaching against the evils of cults and New Age movements. Ironically, Miller was a cult expert, exposing groups similar to his present-day flock.

"He became what he used to teach against," says Mark Roggeman, a cult specialist and police officer in Denver.

Chavez, a former member of Concerned Christians, writes the group was once a fairly normal, Christian-based religion. She says Miller got carried away, claiming God was speaking through him and saying members must give up their secular lifestyles and sever family connections.

Chavez learned Cooper and her husband left Boulder during an evening news report covering the disappearance of cult members.

For Sherry Clark, who lives in Redstone, the mass exodus of cult members in 1998 only added insult to injury. At that point, it had been a year since she had spoken to her daughter, Malene, 41, and her grandchildren, who were involved in Concerned Christians.

"It's like a living death," she says, her voice shaking, "there's no closure. I don't know if she's dead or alive. I don't know where she is."

Clark says she thinks about her daughter every day, praying she will come home. There's some anger, too: Relatives in the family have died, without Malene knowing.

Chavez has similar feelings about Cooper not sharing in their older sister's illness and her death in October 2000. Chavez also wants to dispel the public's negative impressions of cult members.

"These people are not crazy," she says. "They're very strong-willed. Imagine giving up everything you have for something you believe in. It takes a very strong character to do that."

Often times, Roggeman says, people join cults when they are emotionally vulnerable. Those already in the group take you in as if they are your best friends, appearing to care about your well-being.

"It's the suspension of critical thinking that would be common amongst all of them," says cult specialist Bill Honsberger, director of Haven Ministries in Denver. "To me, there's got to be some component that allows for very brilliant people to just quit thinking. It's a sad thing, and families are the ones who pay the price."

Chavez describes how she waited at JFK airport when Cooper and her husband were deported from Greece to New York City in December 1999, after authorities learned about the group and feared violence.

She tried to talk to her sister, but Cooper simply ignored her. At that point she realized how ill-equipped she was to get her to come home.

Since the earthquake never hit Denver and Miller's second prediction that he would die in a shoot-out on the streets of Jerusalem on Dec. 31, 1999, only to be resurrected three days later never came true, Roggeman says he "can't help but believe some of them are asking questions."

Even so, it's never easy to escape, he says.

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