Suicide. Sexual misconduct. Bankruptcy. Divorce. A Berkeley/ San Jose cult promises heaven– and delivers hell.
Interviewer: Are you God?
Reverend Bill: I’m not God of the universe. But I am the resident spirit here in this body.
–San Jose Mercury News, June 10, 2000
‘CULT” IS A LOADED WORD. It conjures up images of the Jonestown massacre, of mass weddings conducted by Reverend Sun Myung Moon, of Texas compounds erupting in flames. None of that has happened at the Spiritual Rights Foundation, a “psychic church” based out of a Victorian in Berkeley that keeps an affiliated seminary in San Jose. The disasters at SRF have been quiet. The world pays little attention when one deranged man blows his brains out with a shotgun. Or when well-paid lawyers sweep sexual misconduct under the rug. Or when average, working-class people file for bankruptcy and lose custody of their children. But all this and more has been happening at SRF. And now its victims, some of them struggling to recover from years of indoctrination and programming, are beginning to strike back.
Lucille Boushey, a San Jose resident and systems administrator at Hewlett-Packard, thought she had a secure, happy marriage. But then her husband, Dan, begin to disappear at night with no explanation. He withdrew large amounts of money from their bank account and wouldn’t tell her what it was for. Finally Lucille confronted him and demanded to know what was going on. She didn’t know what to expect: a mistress, a gambling problem, drug addiction. But that wasn’t it at all. Dan said he had simply joined a church. It was called the Spiritual Rights Foundation. It was a good thing, he said. It made him feel happy.
Her husband’s explanations didn’t quite satisfy Lucille. She began snooping around. And the more she uncovered about SRF, the more concerned she became.
SRF, she learned, was founded 19 years ago as a nonprofit religious corporation. It espouses a potent mixture of New Age spiritualism and fundamentalist Christianity (“fear God and feel your chakra” is how one former member describes it). SRF ministers teach numerous classes each week, covering topics like energy healing, meditation, male and female energy, and trance hypnotherapy. Members are expected to devote 40-plus hours a week to SRF, as much as a full-time job. They’re also expected to donate up to 80 percent of their income through a combination of class fees, tithes and gifts. The most devout members live on SRF property, surrounded by other believers and insulated from the corrupting influence of outside friends and family. Most parents elect to keep their children out of public schools and teach them at home, to ensure they’re raised to follow the path of the church.
In exchange for all this, members become part of the spiritual elite. They believe they’re more advanced than normal people, have a higher awareness of God and the universe. They’re the chosen ones. They’re special. Since he joined the church, Dan Boushey had begun to feel that he was special too.
Soon after he told her about his new commitment to SRF, Lucille’s relationship with her husband began to deteriorate. “We fought over everything,” she says. “How much money he gave the church, how much time he spent there, everything.” Eventually they agreed to divorce and share custody of their child, Danielle. But it didn’t work out. Lucille was concerned about the indoctrination Danielle was receiving from the SRF membership. When she learned that her daughter had been “tranced”–hypnotized–without her consent, she took action and filed for sole custody of their daughter.
Dan Boushey had told his wife that SRF was changing his entire life. Three years later, Lucille Boushey says it’s changed her life too: she’s losing her home, losing her job, scrambling to pay over $25,000 in lawyer’s fees and battling for the welfare of her daughter. All because of the legal fight against her husband and his church.
Lucille Boushey is not alone. Hers is one of at least three active custody lawsuits swirling around SRF, filed by people whose wives or husbands are still raising their children in the church. These people form the core of a growing community of former SRF members and relatives in the Bay Area, most of whom are only now beginning to make contact with each other again, trying to heal old wounds and understand their old lives.
Taken together, these recovering believers set out a long, astonishing list of grievances against the church. Sexual abuse. Emotional abuse. Welfare fraud. Financial exploitation of members. Failure to provide for their children’s education and upbringing–and turning those children against their parents.
At the center of the church (and the church’s problems) is its spiritual leader and guru, a onetime gambler and street hustler who founded SRF back in 1982. His name is William Baldwin, a.k.a. William Duby, a.k.a. Reverend Bill.
DETAILS ABOUT Rev. Bill’s life before the church are sketchy. Former members say he describes himself as a repentant sinner who, during the ’70s, became a kind of street-level prophet for skid row types in Emeryville. Rev. Bill knew them all: prostitutes and junkies, winos and runaways, gamblers down on their luck. He would offer what comfort he could, even occasionally helping them to win money at the poker tables of the Oaks Card Club, where he worked as a floor manager. But sometimes his aid was not so benevolent.
One of Rev. Bill’s favorite stories from this period is about how he tried to help an acquaintance kick a heroin habit. He secretly filled the junkie’s syringe with battery acid and then warned him not to shoot up. The junkie did anyway and died. Former SRF members say Rev. Bill told them the death illustrated the mercy and judgment of God–as well as that of Rev. Bill himself.
Eventually, Rev. Bill drifted into the New Age philosophies popular at the time, studying the teachings of the 18th-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, among others. He soon fell in with Marc Reymont, a famous psychic–and convicted con artist–whose predictions graced the pages of the National Enquirer. He also started taking classes from Rev. Lewis Bostwick, founder of the Church of the Divine Man and the Berkeley Psychic Institute. When Reymont was murdered in 1982, Rev. Bill decided the time was right pass on what he had learned from Bostwick and Reymont to others. That year, he founded the Spiritual Rights Foundation.
Rev. Bill is a charismatic in the old-fashioned sense of the word, a man who claims direct insight into God and the universe (on several occasions, he’s professed to channel Jesus Christ). He can hold listeners spellbound for hours at a time, speaking with the kind of frenetic pace and energy shared by maniacs and speed freaks. Members would commonly leave an all-night session awed by Rev. Bill’s sermons, but unable to recall the specifics of what he said. They knew only that it was incredible, inspirational. Divine.
“He’s brilliant, in his own way,” says Patrick O’Reilly, who studied SRF for a few months and teaches psychology at UC-Berkeley. “Almost impossible not to watch. A lot of his shtick seems extemporaneous, almost like an Abbott and Costello routine, but it works.” O’Reilly interviewed SRF members and attended several classes a week, giving him firsthand glimpses of Rev. Bill’s star power. “Outsiders may not understand how one man could exert this kind of control, but once you see Rev. Bill in action, it makes more sense,” says O’Reilly. “He’s inviolable. He’s made himself the center of the world for these people.”
It was this tremendous charisma that enabled SRF to gain new converts. The church grew to about 20 hard-core members, with dozens more taking classes and dabbling on the periphery. By 1985, SRF had swelled to the point where Rev. Bill was able to move the group into a Victorian on Ellsworth Avenue (which now boasts a sauna, hot tub and satellite dish), just three blocks from the UC-Berkeley campus. Shortly thereafter, SRF acquired two other properties in Berkeley, on Russell and California streets. Clearly the church was prospering in more than just the spiritual realm.
SRF’s growth also had some unusual personal benefits for Rev. Bill. One of the first members of the church was Angela Silva (Rev. Angela), now nominal president of SRF. She and another member, Robin DuMolin (Rev. Robin), have been living as co-wives of Rev. Bill for more than a decade. It’s an arrangement that Rev. Bill justifies with reference to scripture and universal law.
“Nothing he does is wrong,” says Michael Kahn, an ex-member of SRF. “He twists everything so that it sets him up as a perfect being. He’s genius at it.”
Kahn was Rev. Bill’s righthand man during these early years. At the time, he owned and operated Black & White Liquors, at the corner of 40th and San Pablo (just a few blocks down from Rev. Bill’s old haunts at the Oaks Club). Black & White was a prime source of income for SRF; Kahn says that Rev. Bill would routinely order members to work at the liquor store for free. “He told people to go work and they did,” Kahn says now. “They worked for nothing and then SRF got a cut of the profits. And some SRF people were actually paid employees of mine, and Rev. Bill got a cut of their paychecks, too, through the tithe. It was such a scam.”
Kahn says that Rev. Bill abused his power in other ways as well. The most serious allegation involves the statutory rape of Rev. Angela’s 15-year-old daughter.
According to Kahn, Rev. Bill called him one day and asked him to find a good lawyer. When Kahn asked why, Rev. Bill told him that he had had sex with Rev. Angela’s daughter in order to–as Kahn recalls it–“impress her cervix with his semen so that no other man would satisfy her.” Rev. Angela and the girl’s father were divorced; she ran away to her father and reported Rev. Bill to the police. Kahn says the lawyer he hired for Rev. Bill reached an arrangement whereby the girl would leave Rev. Angela and SRF forever to go live with her father. In exchange, the father would not file charges against Rev. Bill.
Very few people within SRF knew about the incident at the time. But Kahn, who left SRF shortly thereafter, says it had a profound effect on how Rev. Bill ran the church. For years, Rev. Bill had boasted to his membership that he received mental disability checks each month from the Social Security Administration (he seemed proud, say ex-believers, that the government considered him crazy). After the episode with Rev. Angela’s daughter, he was afraid the authorities would learn he received outside income from the church and take away his SSI stipend, forcing him to pay back everything he had received so far and drawing the ire of the IRS.
To avoid this, Rev. Bill erased all official ties between himself and the financial operations of the church. His name no longer appears on any church records or properties, nor does it appear on the books of any of SRF’s associated businesses. Rev. Bill is not even listed as a member of SRF’s board of directors.
But that doesn’t mean Rev. Bill isn’t making a buck.
Surreal Estate: Spiritual Rights Foundation’s properties include three houses in Berkeley, including this one on Alcatraz Avenue. Its headquarters is located in a Victorian on Ellsworth.
IF YOU DIDN’T know Larry Adams very well, you might have said he was on top of the world. He was a successful businessman who ran a profitable construction company. He and his wife shared a large home in the Berkeley hills, where they had raised two children together. They should have been happy.
But Adams was also a committed member of SRF and a fervent follower of Rev. Bill. He donated homes in Hawaii and North Lake Tahoe to SRF, as well as numerous gifts to Rev. Bill personally (including a brand-new Harley-Davidson motorcycle). Despite this largesse, Rev. Bill treated Adams the same way he treats everyone else in his flock: horribly.
Former members say that Rev. Bill maintains his power by acting like the worst kind of tyrannical father. You desperately want his approval even as you’re terribly afraid of him. He’ll scream at you when you’ve done something he doesn’t like and then turn around and give you “the light,” which Rev. Bill says is an energy beam of pure love and wisdom emanating from his spirit. He’ll accuse you of undermining his teaching and then praise you for achieving a higher level of understanding. This is all designed, ex-members now recognize, to keep his followers off-balance and seeking his favor. Not surprisingly, much of his disapprobation is reserved for those who challenge him.
“As long as you agreed with him you were fine,” remembers Michael Hodson, who left SRF three years ago. “Anyone who showed any backbone got beaten down.”
One of Rev. Bill’s favorite tactics is to single out someone for ridicule during a class, in front of everyone in the church. The most blatant kind of peer pressure, this strategy is incredibly effective in insular groups like SRF. “You didn’t feel sorry for the person he went after,” says Hodson. “You were just glad, relieved, that it wasn’t you. You’d do anything to make sure he didn’t go after you.”
Even worse, sometimes Rev. Bill would force people to turn on each other, nipping at open wounds like dogs eager for their master’s approval. In “readings,” one member would psychically interpret another member’s energies and auras; if Rev. Bill wasn’t satisfied with the “honesty” (i.e., level of criticism), he’d replace the reader with someone more to his liking. Someone more brutal.
“There was no such thing as personal,” says one former SRF member. “Everybody knew everyone else’s business–who you were sleeping with, how much money you made. And Rev. Bill made sure to use it all against you.”
This brand of psychological abuse, always severe, reached new levels with Larry Adams. According to several former members, Rev. Bill kept Adams close at hand for years, tormenting him mercilessly and goading him into ever more bizarre behavior. Eventually, Adams snapped and went off to the Sierra foothills in order, he said, to prove his psychic ability by searching for gold. When he returned a few months later, the 56-year-old Adams put a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger.
A man who was in SRF at the time says the entire church was shocked by the suicide, but Rev. Bill transferred the blame back onto Adams himself. “[Rev. Bill] told us his teaching was a two-edged sword,” says the former member, speaking on a condition of anonymity. “If you weren’t prepared for it, it would destroy you and turn your mind to mush. He said that’s what happened to Larry.”
By all accounts, Rev. Bill is not a sentimental man. He doesn’t let tragedy stop him from seizing an opportunity. Just three months after the suicide in August of 1993, Rev. Bill–through SRF–purchased Adams’ construction company from Diane Adams, the still-grieving widow, for an amount that one former member describes as “peanuts.” She left the church shortly thereafter and moved out of the state. Rev. Bill appointed one of his wives, Rev. Angela, as titular president of the company, which he renamed Liberty Construction, Inc. Another longtime SRF member, Steve Sanchez, was put in charge of Liberty’s day-to-day operations. Sanchez, who left SRF late last year, refuses to discuss his time at the church because he’s currently involved in a custody fight over his daughter, who still lives with her mother at SRF. But in publicly available court documents, Sanchez claims that 10 percent of Liberty’s revenue was funneled directly to the church. In addition, he claims that Rev. Bill frequently used Liberty’s contractors for personal work without paying them–including approximately $10,000 in repairs to his home at SRF’s Victorian headquarters in Berkeley.
The clients of Liberty Construction–Berkeley and Oakland residents building decks and remodeling homes–are never told that their payments help fund SRF’s activities.
An equally dubious relationship is said to exist between Rev. Bill and a car dealership called McNevin Cadillac & Volkswagen. Former members say that Rev. Bill has struck a deal so that whenever SRF members need a new vehicle–and sometimes even when they don’t–Rev. Bill strongly suggests they buy a car at McNevin. He has even marched followers down to the El Cerrito lot himself to personally ensure that they buy from his friend, McNevin salesman Wes Andrade. In exchange, Rev. Bill purportedly receives special courtesies from Andrade: discounted purchases, free loaners, reduced repair costs, etc. This produces the appearance, at least, of a very unsavory arrangement: Rev. Bill exploiting his influence with his membership in order to generate sales for his friend and financial considerations for himself.
Andrade denies any such deal exists. But McNevin advertises in the SRF newspaper and the church website (www.celestia.com) lists McNevin as one of the SRF sponsors. One former member recently estimated that SRF members have bought at least 20 McNevin vehicles–including several motor homes. Rev. Bill himself currently drives a McNevin car; so does his wife Rev. Angela.
Rev. Bill’s affiliation with Liberty Construction is a secret; his connection to McNevin Cadillac is something like a gentleman’s agreement, two nudges and a wink. But not all of SRF’s business activities are so undercover. It has plenty of other, more public ways to bring revenue into the church. (And all this revenue, say former members, finds its way to Rev. Bill, one way or another.)
SRF directly operates a 900 psychic hotline ($4.98 the first minute, $1.98 every minute thereafter). It produces and distributes video and audio tapes featuring Rev. Bill and other ministers, which sell from $11 to $29.95 each. It runs a weekly radio show, prints 20,000 copies of its bimonthly newspaper, American Spirit, and runs the International Spiritual Hypnotherapy Institute (ISHI), which teaches believers how to “trance” incoming customers.
And perhaps the biggest moneymaker is SRF’s seminary, the Academy for Psychic Studies, which offers clairvoyant training for students from its branch offices in Berkeley and San Jose. Students pay $100–considered a donation and not tuition, paid up front or upon completion of each class–for a six-week beginner course that covers topics such as “Healing,” “Female Energy,” “Running Energy” and “Beginning Trance.” After completion of the six-week course, students receive a graduation certificate, which, despite its implications of prestige, is not a qualifier for anything. However, if they choose, graduates of the six-week course can enroll in a second-level class. It takes time and money to keep SRF’s many interests humming along. Luckily for Rev. Bill, his followers supply as much of each as he cares to demand. And he demands a lot. Sometimes even your children.
Work Will Set You Free
IT’S TAKEN him many years, but Michael Schemel says now he finally understands what the Spiritual Rights Foundation was all about. “When I first joined SRF, they had this saying: ‘Freedom is the essence of life,'” says Schemel. “But later I realized it was all a joke. I don’t think anyone in that group is really free.”
Schemel says he started taking classes at SRF in 1988, after hearing Rev. Bill’s radio show on KEST-AM. In short order, both he and his then girlfriend enrolled in SRF’s flagship “year class”–actually 18 months–modeled on a similar class originally taught by Rev. Bill’s mentor, Rev. Bostwick from the Berkeley Psychic Institute.
The year class was designed to hone the participant’s spiritual edge to the point where they became an SRF reverend or minister in their own right. But Rev. Bill’s year class had some unusual requirements. The class itself demanded an initial $1,000 down payment (now up to $2,000), with another $120-$150 in fees per month. But both Schemel and his girlfriend also had to sign contracts in which they agreed to at least 15 volunteer “work-hours” each week, when they would answer the psychic hotline and give energy readings to paying outsiders. If they failed to work the requisite amount, Rev. Bill could fine them up to $15 per hour. Most SRF members volunteered above and beyond the official contract–Rev. Bill expected it of them, and many were on welfare and didn’t work outside jobs–but Schemel couldn’t. He’d taken a job driving a cab in order to pay for the class and found he was constantly falling into debt to the church. “I didn’t read [the contract] carefully at all,” says Schemel. “It was a total surprise when I found these bills in my mailbox. But I paid them. For a while, anyway.”
As his involvement with SRF deepened, Schemel became uncomfortable with Rev. Bill’s influence. The beginning of the end came when Rev. Bill took it upon himself to dictate the terms of Schemel’s sex life: Upon hearing that Schemel and his girlfriend were experimenting with Taoist teachings about sexual intercourse, Rev. Bill demanded they stop immediately. “It’s not for a Western body,” Schemel remembers Rev. Bill saying.
On September 18, 1989, Schemel’s girlfriend gave birth to their first and only child. Schemel, concerned that he would not be able to afford child care payments because of the money he was paying to the church and the child support he paid for two other children, did not put his name on the birth certificate. This allowed his girlfriend to qualify more easily for welfare support, which she did.
In 1991, Schemel left SRF, finally fed up with Rev. Bill’s megalomania and the plummeting balance in his bank account. The visitation program he and his son’s mother agreed to was dismantled the following Christmas Eve, when she told Schemel he’d never see his son again. SRF was concerned, she said, that he wasn’t raising the boy in the ways of the church. Since he wasn’t on the birth certificate, Schemel had no legal standing to object and had to grudgingly acquiesce. Schemel now sees Rev. Bill’s fingerprints all over his ex-girlfriend’s decision. “[Rev. Bill] doesn’t want fathers around,” says Schemel bitterly. “It erodes his power. Ideally, he’d have mothers and children and nobody else.”
Other former SRF members, who say that Rev. Bill took delight in attacking men for being snakes and sexual predators, echo Schemel’s observations. He’d banish them to one of several motor homes the church owned, where the men would live–forcibly separated from their wives and girlfriends–for several months or even several years. If they ever came back, they were only subjected to more abuse.
“He was really graphic about everything,” recalls one former member. “He’d tell you the problem was your wife wanted to suck his [Rev. Bill’s] dick and not your stinky dick. That was the way he talked. It was juvenile and obscene, but that’s Rev. Bill.”
Unable to afford a lawyer, and unable to prove he’s the boy’s father, Schemel hasn’t seen his son in almost a decade. What he hears has him worried. Like the eight or nine other children in the church, his son is regularly tranced (i.e., hypnotized) by Rev. Bill and other ministers. In trance, the children are placed into disassociated states and then encouraged to play or act out fantasies, such as pretending to be a cartoon character or a star soccer player. Harmless enough, except the children are well below the age of consent necessary for agreeing to hypnosis–not to mention the fact that in these states they’re exceptionally vulnerable to suggestion and domination by others.
“There is an inherent danger for children in being continually instructed to enter into trance states,” a psychologist familiar with SRF kids testified in a recent custody lawsuit involving the church. “One of the principal dangers is that they can be easily manipulated and forced to act under the direction of a dominant authority figure, such as Mr. Duby [Rev. Bill].”
Rev. Bill and other church figures don’t seem to think there’s anything wrong with trancing young children; in fact, they’ve encouraged the kids to boast about it. “I like going into trance because you can do anything,” one of SRF’s children, a 10-year-old, wrote in a personal statement posted on the SRF website. “One of the adults trances us a couple of times a week and we have a lot of fun–I also get to clean out bad energy when I am in a trance. I always feel better after I trance and it is my favorite part of the day.”
Schemel is also worried about his son’s education. Like the other kids at SRF, his son is being home-schooled by adults in the church. Last year, the Berkeley School District investigated SRF after a former member accused the church of neglecting its children’s education. He said SRF kids received as little as three hours of class each week, spending much of their time helping raise goats and chickens at SRF’s private ranch out at Bethel Island. Kept away from other children, the SRF kids reportedly falling behind their peers in terms of both intellectual and emotional development.
These accusations had extra credibility because the whistleblower–a man named Mason McKinley, whose wife and daughter remain in the church–had been SRF’s primary “teacher” for many years. But nothing ever became of McKinley’s charges.
“The law is all screwed up,” says John Adams, the deputy district attorney who reluctantly decided to drop the case. “You and I could start up the John and Dann School of Astrology and that would be considered a legitimate private school. They really need to tighten up those laws,” he adds. “The way they are now, it would be easy to run a sham.”
So SRF’s children are growing up isolated from mainstream society, denied a good education and prohibited from socializing with children outside the church. And this is why many ex-members now say they really have problems with SRF. In the past, Rev. Bill had exploited mature adults who were responsible for their own actions. Maybe the decisions they made were unwise, but they were still capable of making those decisions. Kids, however, are a different story.
One woman, a former SRF member, says she was shocked when she recently spent time with a 12-year-old girl who’d lived within the church her whole life. “The girl acted like she was 6 or 7. That was her emotional and intellectual age, I think. She’s had no socialization, no real contact with normal kids in the outside world. It’s sad. It’s so sad.”
Note to the reader: The information included in this article is based on interviews with former members of SRF (many of whom did not wish to be identified by name); relatives of current SRF members; cult and religious experts; and legal and public school officials in Berkeley and Alameda County. Publications and audiotapes of SRF were also reviewed, as were court records of divorce and custody lawsuits involving SRF members.
Rev. Bill, Rev. Angela and several other current SRF members either did not return phone calls or refused to speak on the record for this article. Rev. Bill almost never responds to media requests–the sole exception in recent years was an interview last June in the Religion & Ethics section of the San Jose Mercury News (featured topics: astral projections, corrupt energy and the drowning of Atlantis).