Immortality eludes People Unlimited founder

Charles Paul Brown, a Scottsdale preacher who believed he would live forever, is dead at age 79. But his message lives on.

The Republic, Arizona/November 16, 2014

By Ryan Van Velzer

A community of immortals

Charles Paul Brown wasn't supposed to die.

He was supposed to live forever, along with disciples in a half-dozen countries all over the world who embraced his philosophy of physical immortality.

But Brown died in October of complications from Parkinson's and heart disease, according to the website for People Unlimited, the group he began in Scottsdale more than 30 years ago. He was 79.

The community of immortals he founded is left without its figurehead — and with an apparent contradiction to reconcile. Yet its leaders continue to conduct business as usual, collecting thousands of dollars per year in fees for monthly meetings, retreats and coaching that they say lead to the secret to unlimited life.

His wife, Bernadeane "Bernie" Brown, and business partner James Strole preach Brown's evangel at weekly meetings in a converted office at a north Scottsdale business complex near Bell Road and 94th Street. Adherents watch on a live stream in countries as far away as Israel and New Zealand.

Communications director Joe Bardin, in an e-mail, confirmed Brown's death. He said Bernie Brown and Strole tamped down the immortality rhetoric in recent years, but did not directly address whether Brown's death otherwise affected the group's messages or marketing thrusts.

"While the ideas of immortality burned brightly within him, the living of it often eluded him," Bardin wrote. "Too much stress and not enough exercise undoubtedly contributed to the heart disease and Parkinson's from which he suffered.

"…To honor his memory, we re-dedicate ourselves to living the life he envisioned and so compellingly spoke of to so many — a life free of death," Bardin's e-mail said.

The group, which has dwindled in membership over the decades, has for years preached immortality, urging adherants to leave behind "the Cult of Death."

Rick Ross, executive director and founder of the Cult Education Institute, a New Jersey group that tracks information about groups it considers to be cults, predicted little will change because of Brown's death. The leadership will find a loophole, a reason why Brown was not actually immortal, Ross said.

"In my opinion, they fit the criteria that establishes what I call the nucleus of a destructive cult," Ross said.

A cellular awakening

Like any origin story, it's difficult to decipher myth from reality.

In 1959, while studying to become a gospel preacher, Brown had an experience. Some say his body glowed. Others such as Lynne Ericksson, a former member who left 20 years ago, said Brown had a powerful vision with Bible verses flashing before his eyes, each verse supporting the idea that physical immortality was real.

Brown said the event was a "cellular awakening." Later, he would describe it as "a piercing through to the core of the cells and atoms of the body, which awaken the DNA," according to an article he wrote for Living Unlimited, a magazine published by People Unlimited.

The experience left him bedridden for three months, Ericksson said. But Brown arose physically immortal, or so he believed, she said.

For the next five decades, Brown preached about immortality alongside Bernadeane and later, their friend and business partner, Strole, Ericksson said.

Together, they told people that to live forever they must "dethrone death," accept immortality into their DNA and share it with those around them.

In 1982, Brown began the Eternal Flame Foundation to share his immortality through "cellular intercourse" — the idea that by communicating and being in close proximity to him, you, too, could be immortal.

The organization has changed its name several times since the early 1980s; it has been known as the Flame Foundation, People Forever and CBJ (Charles, Bernie and James). It was incorporated as a Scottsdale-based business in 1996 as People Unlimited Inc. under the ownership of Bernie Brown and Strole, alongside its non-profit, People Unlimited Charities.

They preached immortal living in 26 countries on four continents, according to Brown's obituary on the group's website. They appeared in print, spoke on Larry King and even became the focus of a 20/20 investigation. But a wave of articles written in the mid '90s swayed public opinion against the group motivating Brown, Bernie and Strole to step out of the limelight. For more than a decade, the group has operated away from public scrutiny, media and groups that track cult movements.

The group has claimed members in England, Israel, Australia, New Zealand, Venezuela, Argentina and Switzerland. At one time, the organization had 30,000 people in more than 18 countries on its mailing list, according to a 1994 Phoenix Gazette article.

But a schism formed within the group and membership shrank between '94 and '95 when the relationship between Brown, Bernie and Strole hit a rough patch, Ericksson said.

Around the same time, Donald Leon, a lawyer and prominent figure within the immortal community, died. Membership never fully recovered.

Today, the group is smaller but still counts around 130 members in Scottsdale and more throughout the world.

Walking the path of immortality

Bernie Brown's wrinkled hands quiver with a nervous excitement as she speaks. Her voice ebbs and flows with the tide of her passion. Behind her, Strole sits on stage in a tuxedo, nodding his head in agreement and waiting to speak.

"You don't have to be old," Bernie whispers to the audience in a video uploaded on the People Unlimited YouTube page on Sept. 29, 2014.

Her brunette hair and blonde highlights ripple with the nodding of her head. Her voice intones, shrill and sharp. She is 77 years old. She looks forward to being 100, she says.

"We have to bring about a feeling in our gut it's natural to live. It's what should be," she said. "It hasn't been OK to be alive. It hasn't been OK to say that you're going to be here forever. Why not say it?"

The crowd explodes in applause. Much like an evangelist tent revival, People Unlimited members stand, shout and clap to encourage the speakers.

Through the decades, the language has changed, but at its roots, the group's message remains the same.

In a Living Unlimited article printed in the 1990s, Bernie Brown wrote: "I am physically immortal. I have something to say about whether or not I live or die. And you do too. I have stepped off death row, never to go back there again."

But living immortal is a double-edged sword. In order to truly be immortal, you have to leave behind the rest of society, what Bernie calls "the Cult of Death."

"There are many cults on this planet, but the largest one is the cult of death," Bernie Brown wrote in a 1994 article in Forever Alive, another one of the group's magazines. "It's composed of human beings who have made an agreement to die. All down through history, this agreement has been the strongest force at work on the planet."

These days, Strole and Bernie have traded Brown's gospel-style preaching for self-help, power-of-positive-thinking motivational speeches, all of which are made up on the spot, Bardin said. Instead of overtly stating they are physically immortal, they emphasize that they are trying to be physically immortal and admit that is not always possible, Bardin said.

"What we're saying is you have the potential to be unlimited, which means unlimited lifespan, unlimited creativity, unlimited prosperity, and we're really interested in exploring the frontiers of that. That's what we're about. So there is a huge amount of personal accountability that is involved," Bardin said.

Strole and Bernie Brown declined to comment for this story.

The price of immortality

A 1992-1993 audit of the group, when it was known as the Flame Foundation, showed the three founders each received salaries totaling $431,597, with $1.12 million in earnings from event revenue, fund-raising and sales of materials, according to the Phoenix Gazette.

The most current information available for People Unlimited Charities, the non-profit arm, shows a net income of $61,679 between 2010 and 2012, some of which has gone to support Tumbleweed Center for Youth Development, Bardin said. People Unlimited Inc., the business, is not required to release financial records.

Bardin said that members pay to learn to overcome limitations in their lives. A $245 monthly fee covers two weekly meetings and one weekend meeting, he said.

Members also pay to go on three-day intensive retreats, which cost another $150 to $200 on average as well as additional fees to Strole and Bernie for "life coaching," said Sylvie Imelda Shene, who took an interest in the group but declined membership around 2010.

In the six years that John Lloyd was part of the organization, he said he spent more than $14,000 learning how to be immortal in addition to out-of-pocket costs when picking up the tab for golf outings and dinners.

"I recall when my accountant saw how much I was giving CBJ (Charles, Bernie and James) he called because he thought it was an error or I was going out of my mind," he said. "Honestly, I feel like a damn fool for falling for it all."

The group's non-profit status designates it as an interfaith organization, but Bardin said People Unlimited is a business.

"We don't see ourselves as a religion," he said. "People Unlimited is a company. Maybe it would be better if more people who were doing good things in the world were paid for them rather than guys that can dunk a ball really well or sing pop songs."

Ross, the cult researcher, said that People Unlimited acts like a business but functions as a religion.

"It is a religion in that it is a subjective belief system not a scientific reality," Ross said. "My experience with People Unlimited is they are not stockpiling weapons, they are not mixing poison Kool-Aid, but what they do is exploit people. They exploit people financially and they create a great deal of stress."

Together forever

Lynne Ericksson was married to Donald Leon until his death on Dec. 27, 1993.

Encouraged by a friend, the couple went to their first meeting and became energized by the charisma and vitality of the group, Ericksson said.

Leon, a psychologist, spiritual medium and American Indian shaman, enjoyed learning belief systems. He used to tell Ericksson that the only way to learn a new set of beliefs was to immerse yourself.

So that's what they did.

By 1987, they fully committed to what was then called the Flame Foundation. They attended weekly meetings, helped pay for events and became close to Brown, Bernie and Strole.

Ericksson took on the role of photographer while Leon became the unofficial translator. They listened to Brown preach, and afterward, Leon would boil down Brown's message into a conversational, more palatable message for audiences, she said.

As the years wore on, Leon persuaded Brown, Bernie and Strole that their message needed to get out to the world. So they began to travel. First to England, Ireland, Amsterdam and Italy. Later, branching out to places as far away as Argentina, and Israel — home of the group's largest following outside the U.S.

Once, while travelling through Israel, Leon and Ericksson left the group to go sightseeing, but didn't tell anyone. Upon their return, Bernie scolded the couple in public for breaking away from the group, Ericksson said.

"That's not why we're here," Ericksson recalled Bernie saying to her.

Group members called this practice a "touch." Ross says public shaming is a thought-reform technique used to prevent dissent, shut down critical thinking and conform an individual to the group's ideology.

However, the "touch" was not always negative, Ericksson said. At times, it could help people overcome inhibitions. Ericksson once made a comment that she didn't like kids. Bernie, who had two kids of her own with Brown, felt she had to break that down.

"Bernie had a hissing fit. She was screaming at me. It shakes you. It cracks your persona. It's like getting hit in the face with a bucket of ice water. I had to think about it," Ericksson said. "Kids are my favorite thing in life now."

A death in the family

Leon first became sick at the 1993 annual convergence where members from all over the world gathered at a hotel in Scottsdale for a week-long celebration that included meetings, raves, drinking and parties.

"We had the best parties that existed in the whole wide world," Ericksson said. "Part of the reason they were so great was because of the connection with everyone."

At the party, Leon nearly collapsed.

The couple consulted several doctors looking for alternative health treatments without knowing what was wrong with Leon.

At the end of August, Ericksson took him to a naturopathic doctor, but Leon was so ill he couldn't even get out of the car. The doctor came outside, gave Leon a shot of B vitamins and asked if he'd ever been tested for cancer.

By the time Leon received a diagnosis, the cancer had spread through his entire body.

The immortal community rallied around Leon. They offered condolences. They hugged. They spent time with Leon, Ericksson said.

"If you're still breathing, they are on your side," she said. "They did that with Chuck (Charles Paul Brown's nickname). People visited him in the nursing home all the time."

But Leon died. Just like Brown would die two decades later.

"He (Leon) believed up until the last second that he was going to be fine," Ericksson said. "It was one of my regrets. That when he still lucid, we would have had a different conversation if we had accepted that."

In death, the community turned their backs on Leon, she said. They said he wasn't committed to immortality. That he never really "got it," Ericksson said. Within a year, Ericksson left the community for good.

Lloyd, a former member, described Leon's death as a "shot in the bowel to my immortality."

"Anyone who died, they came up with a reason why. They would say you didn't have full commitment to CBJ (Charles, Paul and Bernie). They basically said that Donald was not fully committed to them, and that's like saying St. Peter wasn't fully committed to Jesus," Lloyd said.

Ross, who says he receives at least one complaint a year about the community for its practices, said that the message at the time was "by acknowledging death, he (Leon) gave place to death and dying."

"The spin is that he is dying and somehow it's his fault, like most groups called cults there can never be anything wrong with the group's basic assumptions. It's your fault if something is going wrong," Ross said.

And now, at 79 years old, Charles Paul Brown is also dead.

Many current and former members would describe Brown as the heart and soul of the group, Ericksson said.

Lloyd described Brown as an inspiration, a friend and mentor.

"It is impossible to put into words what Chuck meant to so many people. For me, he was an inspiration who awakened the feeling of boundless living without any limitations. Some of the most fond memories of my life will always be the times we spent together sharing our deepest and most profound thoughts," he wrote in a Facebook post.

Others in a Facebook thread on Brown's death described him as "amazing," and "remarkable."

Bardin called Brown's demise a "tragic loss" for the community.

"Before longevity had even entered the mainstream jargon, Charles was declaring that the time is now to shrug off our old deathist ways and embrace a new and unlimited potential for the human species," he said.

In the few years before Brown's demise as his health declined in his battle with Parkinson's disease, Bernie and Strole replaced Brown as the leaders of the organization, but continued to care for Brown privately.

Many more within the community rallied around him in the same way they had rallied around Leon, Ericksson said.

In September, Ericksson went to see Brown for the first time in many years, she said.

Brown lay in bed asleep. He looked weak. Gaunt.

He awoke pleased to see Ericksson.

"Hi, sweetheart," he said.

They exchanged stories about old friends. Brown told Ericksson he loved her. She replied in kind.

Brown fell back asleep. This time, he wouldn't rise from his bed an immortal.

"Chuck and Donald absolutely adored each other. I'm so glad they are together now. I'm sure they are having a grand old time," Ericksson said.

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