Mother saves daughter from religious sect

Star Tribune/November 9, 2003
By Matt Russell

Rochester, Minn. -- After four tense days in Spain, Kathy Hansen rejected the Children of God and came back to Minnesota with her mother, Joanne.

Watching Kathy slowly return to her old self, Joanne saw the pain that 6 1/2 years in the Children of God had caused her daughter. Joanne also realized what kind of changes Kathy had gone through during her time with the group.

Continuing to speak publicly against groups such as the Children of God, Joanne described how they recruited members and what parents could do to get their children out. Kathy joined Joanne at some of the talks.

As more people asked for help, Joanne got more deeply involved, meeting with parents individually as they struggled to decide whether they should arrange deprogramming for their children.

In some cases, Joanne got involved even deeper, going to deprogrammings to comfort parents and explain to them what was happening.

Then one day she was asked to do more.

Joanne first heard about Bill and Sandy Eilers in the summer of 1982.

Bill Eilers was 24 and Sandy was 23. That spring, the couple had moved to a farm in Galesville, Wis., and joined a controversial religious group called the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Bill and Sandy's parents worried about the effect the group was having on their children's lives.

Sandy was six months pregnant and her parents wondered what kind of medical care the group would allow her and her baby to receive. There was also concern about what effect the group was having on Bill's mental health.

By August, Sandy's parents didn't feel welcome at the farm where Bill and Sandy lived with other Disciples members. Looking for a way to get to their daughter without Disciples members around, Sandy's parents remembered a pregnancy checkup Sandy had in Winona later that month.

They thought it would be the last visit to the doctor the Disciples would allow Sandy to have, Joanne said.

After meeting with Sandy's parents and Bill's mother and stepfather, Joanne sensed their determination to do something to get Bill and Sandy away from the Disciples. Joanne agreed to help them plan an abduction and deprogramming for the day of Sandy's doctor appointment.

Joanne stayed with Bill and Sandy's parents at Tau Center, a Winona retreat building where the deprogramming was scheduled. Deprogrammers grabbed Bill and Sandy in the parking lot of the Winona Clinic after Sandy's appointment, stuffing the couple into separate vans and driving them to Tau Center.

The story made headlines that week as police, knowing Bill and Sandy were members of the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, speculated that their abduction was linked to a deprogramming attempt. Media attention increased as Disciples members staged a hunger strike over what they saw as police inaction in finding Bill and Sandy.

Inside Tau Center, Joanne stayed with Bill and Sandy's parents while deprogrammers talked with the couple, reading them Scripture and trying to convince them they had been brainwashed.

Sandy rejected the Disciples after a day of deprogramming.

Bill fought the deprogrammers at first but relented halfway through the week, convincing the deprogrammers that he had also rejected the Disciples.

Almost a week after the abduction, the deprogrammers decided to move Bill and Sandy to an Iowa City rehabilitation center where the deprogramming process would continue.

Joanne remembers worrying as darkness fell and the cars were readied for the drive to Iowa. Something told her that Bill was just pretending to reject the Disciples.

She was right.

Moments after the car Bill was riding in pulled away from Tau Center, he opened his door and jumped out, calling for help.

When Joanne and the deprogrammers heard that Bill escaped, they grabbed their bags and left Tau Center. They hoped they could get away before the police came.

They didn't make it far before they were pulled over. Joanne and the four deprogrammers with her were ordered out of the car and arrested.

In October 1982, a grand jury dropped the two felony charges of false imprisonment and conspiracy that had been brought against Joanne and the four deprogrammers.

In comments in a news article at that time, Winona County Attorney Julius Gernes said he wasn't surprised at the grand jury's decision. Testimony in the case had failed to prove the charges beyond a reasonable doubt, he said.

Outraged at the grand jury's decision, Bill Eilers followed with a $5.1 million lawsuit alleging that his civil rights were violated as the result of his abduction and deprogramming.

Taking the unusual step of overstepping the jury, a federal judge ruled in 1984 that Eilers had been falsely imprisoned.

The jury awarded Eilers $10,000 in damages in compensation for his false imprisonment, but it found that the deprogrammers did not violate Eilers' constitutional rights.

The jury also refused to award punitive damages in connection with Eilers' charges that the deprogrammers had acted maliciously during the abduction and deprogramming.

Joanne said she didn't plan any more deprogrammings after what happened to Bill and Sandy. Only recently did she finish paying off lawyer fees related to the case.

She continued to speak out against mind control even as the case was in court, however, and continued to speak out against religious sects like the Children of God throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

At age 77, Joanne still lives in Austin with her husband, Leo. She recently stopped giving talks about mind control, but she self-published a book last year about Kathy's deprogramming called "Blinded by Deceit." She hopes the book will help people become aware of how mind control can work.

"I think she's pretty courageous," Kathy said. "When I came out [of the Children of God] and found out she was giving talks, I was amazed. I said 'Whoa, keep going.' She just never really quit."

Sandy gave birth to a baby boy three months after the abduction in Winona. She later remarried. Still parted from the Disciples of the Lord Jesus Christ, she continues to exchange Christmas cards with Joanne.

Bill returned to the Disciples after the deprogramming, but later left the group, Joanne said.

Bill declined comment for this story.

Kathy remains parted from the Children of God. Recently, she came home with her brothers and sisters to throw a surprise party for her father's 80th birthday.

A new family picture was taken during the party with Joanne and Leo smiling and holding hands and Kathy standing next to them. Joanne was glad to have her family home again.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.