Lawsuit filed against Yuba County ‘cult’

A civil lawsuit was filed late last week against the Fellowship of Friends, its leader and several others connected with what at least one former member described as a “cult” that is located in the foothills of Yuba County.

With a 1,200-acre compound in Oregon House called Apollo, the Fellowship of Friends describes itself as a “group of men and women, young and old, who have gathered together to share the lifetime pursuit of being present.” Also home to a once thriving wine-making business, Renaissance Vineyard and Winery, the property is still home to its “spiritual leader,” Robert Earl Burton, and those who follow his “Fourth Way” teachings.

The group says it was “founded fifty years ago on the Fourth Way teachings of George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky” and that it embraces “the practical wisdom of all great spiritual traditions, recognizing that all esoteric schools teach the same thing: how to be present to your own life.”

Years after its founding, however, the Fellowship experienced a series of controversial incidents that led to the decline of its wine business and subsequently its membership numbers. Allegations of sexual abuse and end-of-world prophecies that never came to fruition seemed to hurt the perception of the group and its leader.

In the 1980s and 1990s, former members of the Fellowship sued Burton, alleging that he used his position as leader to sexually prey on the young men in the group. Despite other members sharing similar stories, Burton has never been convicted of what was alleged.

As of last week, six individuals have now publicly come forward to file a similar lawsuit against Burton and others associated with the Fellowship. Named in the suit are Burton, the Fellowship of Friends corporation, Renaissance Vineyard and Winery Inc., and several unnamed individuals or “Does.”

According to the suit filed in Yuba County, the plaintiffs claim that they were “sexually assaulted, sexually battered, raped, harassed, groomed, and/or otherwise attacked during their time” with the Fellowship and under the leadership of Burton.

Each plaintiff in the suit claims that they joined the Fellowship “seeking enlightenment and answers to the most basic questions of life.” Instead, the suit says, they found that Burton “took advantage of and manipulated” members “in order to target, unduly influence, and sexually abuse his male members,” including the plaintiffs.

The suit claims that the Fellowship knew about these alleged actions of Burton and covered them up, thereby enabling, aiding, and abetting what its leader was doing.

“The actual effect of the DEFENDANTS’ fraudulent and predatory conduct is that, by way of intentional imposition of undue influence on Plaintiffs without their knowledge and consent, tremendous pressure and a requirement of total commitment resulted; causing the members, including Plaintiffs, to be coerced and indoctrinated to conform completely to the group, to sever all ties with the past and outside world, and to give up any independent thoughts or actions,” the suit says. “Such actions by the DEFENDANTS result in the loss of one’s independence, self-reliance, and capacity to exercise an informed, intelligent, and voluntary consent for its members, including Plaintiffs.”

Along with sexual allegations against Burton, the suit also claims that the Fellowship of Friends is a nonprofit corporation that was “created as an attempt to avoid payment of taxes, escape accountability for the consequences of their conduct, chill civil judgments, and confuse courts and those seeking redress for these DEFENDANTS’ acts and conduct.”

The suit also claims that Renaissance Vineyard and the Fellowship itself were used to “enforce” Burton’s “orders and carry out his attacks on groups, agencies, and/or individuals,” including the plaintiffs. It claims that the Fellowship and Renaissance Vineyard “have been a shell” that Burton “used and continues to use as a conduit for the conduct of his personal business, property, and affairs, including the predation” of the Fellowship’s members.

According to the suit, Burton has used the Fellowship and Renaissance Vineyard for his own personal gain and “enjoyment.”

Greg Holman, president of the Fellowship of Friends, said the group is aware of the suit, but has yet to be officially served.

“We have not yet been served this suit,” Holman told the Appeal on Tuesday. “We’ve noticed that it’s there, we haven’t been served. It’s my policy not to comment on any ongoing litigation.”

Steven Dambeck, who was still a member of the Fellowship last year, told the Appeal in February 2022 that past allegations against the group haven’t been entirely accurate or fair.

‘Burton’s Boys’

Included in the suit is a brief history of Burton and the Fellowship, which at least one member described as a “cult.”

According to the suit, Burton was forced to resign in March 1967 from a teaching position at an elementary school because he was being “too friendly” with his fourth grade students. A handful of years later in 1971, he formed the Fellowship of Friends.

The suit describes the Fellowship as a “high-control organization” that was “intentionally and fraudulently designed to serve the emotional, financial, sexual, and/or power needs” of Burton. The suit claims that Burton and other Fellowship members “imposed undue influence” on prospective members without their knowledge or consent, going so far as “threatening, and following through with, punishment of members for any perceived disobedience, in thought or deed.”

The Fellowship, according to the suit, used different practices to achieve this undue influence.

“These practices subjected, and do subject, a prospective member to techniques of thought reform and undue influence designed and intended to undermine and eliminate their capacity for autonomy and independent thought,” the suit claims. “Such techniques include, but are not limited to, isolation, sleep deprivation, the creation of inner conflict, positive and negative reinforcement through peer group pressure, informing on peers, monopolization of time and attention, prohibition against dissent and negativity, alteration of punishment and leniency, the clear assertion of authority and dominion, and the inducement of fear, guilt, and emotional dependency. As a result, prospective members are bombarded by deception and coercive influence with the singular intent of fraudulently forcing a state of blind obedience within that member to Defendant BURTON.”

According to the suit, these practices eventually result in a member who is unable to “think clearly or make decisions” and reduce a person’s self esteem, eventually “regressing to a childlike, dependent state of mind, incapable of resisting defendant's control, exploitation, and abuse.”

The suit claims that Burton “intentionally targeted young, vulnerable male members to sexually abuse by way of his power, authority, and substantial influence.” It also claims that the Fellowship, its members and those associated with Renaissance Vineyard knew of Burton’s intentions and “enabled, covered up, aided, and abetted” him.

According to the suit, men would be “summoned” to Burton’s bedroom by others in the Fellowship. There were also hotel rooms booked in which Burton would host four to eight other men at a time, all coordinated by the Fellowship and those who followed it, the suit claims.

“Defendant Burton's sexual abuse of young, male members was so rampant and so open and obvious that members knew he had an ‘entourage of boys’ and referred to them as ‘Burton’s Boys,’” the suit says. 

‘A false guru’

The suit against Burton and the Fellowship details, in chronological order, incidents in which the group allegedly knew of its leader’s actions, but failed to address them.

In 1976, the suit says a female member confronted Miles Barth, a man described as Burton’s “second-in-command” and a board member, about rumors of sexual activity between Burton and his “vulnerable students.” Burton, according to the suit, publicly claimed he was celibate. The suit claims that Barth “did nothing” about the accusations against Burton and the “abuse continued.”

Linda Kaplan, who the suit says is also known as Belinda Rockwood, was a member of the Fellowship and held a senior leadership position, the suit claims.

“When a female member confronted Linda Kaplan over concerns for the male members’ well-being, Linda replied, ‘Why is this bothering you all of a sudden? This has been going on for years,’” the suit claims. “Linda Kaplan did nothing and the abuse continued.”

According to the suit, that female member who approached Kaplan was employed as Burton’s “housekeeper and laundress.” The housekeeper claimed that Burton went through “multiple tubes of lubricant a day” and that she would find “deposits of brown-colored lubricant in the underwear” of Burton and his “Burton’s Boys.”

That housekeeper allegedly confronted Barth around 1977 about her discoveries, but was told “Whatever you see, don’t talk about it,” the suit claims.

Helga Ruth Mueller, also known as Guinevere or Helga Barth, was married to Miles Barth. Around 1979, the suit alleges that Mueller “would send young male members to a female member to be ‘coached’ and/or ‘warned’ in advance of being victimized” by Burton. After that warning, Miles Barth would then send the “young male members” to Burton, the suit says.

According to the suit, the Fellowship and its board members were aware of the allegations against Burton but failed to act over the years. By 1984, Burton would go on to institute a “no gossip” principle for the Fellowship’s members to prevent further discussion about the alleged abuse taking place.

In the 1990s, letters were released that detailed much of what Burton and the group were doing, including Burton’s affinity for art, an “endless vacation,” “gigantic year-end bonuses” and other actions.

On Nov. 18, 1994, Charles Preston, a former member of the Fellowship of Friends, wrote a letter to Burton and copied the Fellowship’s Board of Directors, the suit says. That letter reads as follows:

“... I have also heard the painful stories of several people you have indiscriminately abused sexually, emotionally and psychologically, and I will not stand for it. You have lost the right to indulge your predatory habits under a protective shroud of secrecy. All of your followers, current and former, as well as the public, must now know exactly who and what you are.

“You, Burton, have used well-worn yet effective control cliches such as the imminence of physical and economic catastrophe to scare people into staying with you.... and your ‘school’ is but another cult and you have become a false guru and sexual predator corrupted by unchecked power, no longer worthy of your sincere students’ trust and support.”

Again, the Fellowship and the board “failed to investigate” the “statements of sexual predation” and failed to take action, according to the suit.

“Instead, defendants covered up the allegations of sexual abuse committed by Defendant BURTON and did nothing further. Defendant Burton's abuse continued,” the suit says.

Over the years, the abuse would go on, according to the suit. Between 2002 and 2005, members of the Fellowship organized two days in which Burton would “attempt, and did in fact attempt, to have sex” with “100 men in a day.” The suit claims these days were called “Lovefests” and occurred on Valentine’s Day in back-to-back years. According to the suit, Burton sexually assaulted between 70-80 men during the “Lovefests.”

In 2015, a former female member filed a report with the FBI over concerns about what she believed was still happening inside the Fellowship, including labor and sexual human trafficking. She said members of the Fellowship had been engaging in this behavior for “decades.”

In 2019, that same former female member again filed a report with the FBI outlining similar allegations, including that the Fellowship’s members “had, for decades, been recruiting and illegally hosting people on visas for the purposes of working” on the Oregon House compound for “both cheap labor and for the sexual satisfaction” of Burton.

According to the suit, the plaintiffs are demanding a jury trial and an award for “special (economic) and general (non-economic) damages,” punitive damages, attorney’s fees, litigation costs, and “other and further relief as the Court deems just and proper.”

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