And now, we bring you a report on what has been called one of the most secretive and impenetrable religious cults in this country.
They are known as The Brethren or more commonly the Garbage Eaters because of the way they live. Experts say over the years, they and their leader, Jim Roberts, have targeted religious college kids and convinced hundreds of them to reject their parents and disappear into the shadows.
There was a time, of course, when parents tried to seize and deprogram these kids. But in recent years, many courts have made that difficult. So tonight, the parents have come to television with a message — tell your children to be beware of these strangers quoting scriptures from the Bible.
(Voice Over) You may have walked right by them in a crowd, bearded men in tunics who look pious and a little strange. Look closely, because some parents believe they are scriptural robots assigned to target and capture your college – age children.
Here at Berkeley, they stand on street corners and strike up conversations at random. To the spiritual kids, they quote from the Bible and promise a life of certainty. The lonely kids, they offer support.
At Columbia University, they lure students with a provocative question — do right and wrong exist? They offer a place among God’s chosen with such intensity that in days, sometimes hours, students drop out and disappear.
They are nomads. Recently, some of them camped in this house in Cleveland, tacking scriptures on the walls, even on the mattress. They move secretly from state to state in cells of a handful of people. They live off food from garbage dumpsters.
This is a video taken years ago behind a fast – food restaurant in Minneapolis. Two brothers dumpster diving, combing through, picking at half – eaten sandwiches. And experts tells us everything they do is controlled by the whims of one man — the enigmatic founder, Jim Roberts, whom they call “the elder.” These are the last published photographs of him in 1975.
The parents believe he is a bizarre, unstable religious fanatic who steals the minds of promising kids, some from the best universities in the country — Harvard, Brown, Northwestern — leaving their anguished mothers and fathers desperate to find them.
JIM FOSTER (PH), KRAIG’S (PH)FATHER He’s right there. He’s right there. He’s right behind the sign.
PAT FOSTER, KRAIG’S MOTHER Where?
JIM FOSTER See him?
PAT FOSTER Oh, my God!
JIM FOSTER No. No.
PAT FOSTER It’s not?
JIM FOSTER I thought it was. False alarm. Sorry about that.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Jim Foster has been looking for his son, Kraig, for 14 years. Kraig was a warm, smart business major at Humboldt State University in California, when he met and succumbed in only one week to a recruiter for The Brethren. On the other side of the country, Charles and Dorothy Rooney (ph) have traveled from Boston to New York to spend yet another weekend looking for their son, Patrick. She says she had always worried, but about the wrong things.
DOROTHY ROONEY, PATRICK’S MOTHER Drinking and alcohol and AIDS. I worried about a lot of things, but I never worried about this. I didn’t know there was any …
CHARLES ROONEY, PATRICK’S FATHER Any kind of such danger existed.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Their boy, Patrick, was a popular athlete, a nationally ranked skier in high school and a skateboarder. His parents say he was not even particularly religious. Yet two weeks after meeting a recruiter for The Brethren, he sold his gear, quit college and has never called home. His parents are baffled that their gregarious kid became the withdrawn figure in this surveillance photo taken by another parent.
CHARLES ROONEY We’re going to have pick things up a little bit here …
DIANE SAWYER (VO) This day, following a lead, the Rooneys spot two Brethren on Staten Island and follow them secretly to corner them on the ferry.
CHARLES ROONEY Do you belong to a group called the Jim Roberts group? Or The Brethren? We’re looking for my son. My son’s name is Patrick.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) The brothers are cold and unmoved.
DOROTHY ROONEY You’re not listening, are you? You’re not listening.
CHARLES ROONEY Do you know what we’re talking about? Do you understand that kind of an inner feeling and love for people, particularly family, your own family?
DIANE SAWYER (VO) The brothers finally say they don’t know Patrick. For the 20th time in a year and a half, the Rooneys go back home empty-handed.
CHARLES ROONEY Now his second older brother’s getting married, and he wants Patrick home to be the best man. (Crying)
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Before they left the ferry, the impassive men in the tunics sent a message. Repent.
JIM SIEGELMAN, CULT EXPERT They use the Bible practically to tie a rope around these people’s mind.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Jim Siegelman and Flo Conway (ph) have studied cults for 20 years. They say the Roberts group hijacks kids with lightning speed by using what their parents taught-high moral standards, respect for the Bible.
JIM SIEGELMAN They’ll talk to students. They talk to people for a couple of hours, and someone will say, “I’m not sure I want to go off with you. Let me think about this.” They go, “If you think about this, the devil is going to pluck the seed we’ve planted from your mind.”
DIANE SAWYER (on camera) Does it mean their parents did something wrong?
JIM SIEGELMAN No, I’d say more often than not, it means their parents did something right. Their parents let these kids be open-minded.
1ST FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER There is a place in Bible where Jesus said a man’s enemies will arise out of those-his own family. But Jim Roberts turned that around and presented a case that everyone in your family is your enemy.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) These former Brethren, all devout Christians, were members of the group ranging from 14 months to 15 years. They say Roberts promised a truly spiritual life but ruled with a weapon of fear. (on camera) But families, the Bible is full of families.
1ST FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER You had no choice because it was a package deal. If you communicated with your family, you were put out of the group. In his mind, he was sending them to hell because, you know, that was what it meant to leave the group in his mind.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) They told us submission to Roberts and his brethren began with isolation and a gradual loss of identity. They changed their names to Hebrew, spent six and seven hours a day studying the Bible and singing hymns like this one.
FORMER BRETHREN MEMBERS (singing) And how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) And copying scripture in tiny uniform handwriting. They not only gave all their possessions and money to the group, but in the name of piety, gave up their laughter and joy.
2ND FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER We weren’t allowed to show emotion. It’s not that it wasn’t there. We just weren’t allowed to show it.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) The rule in his group is no sex without marriage. But the former members say Roberts has allowed no marriages in the last eight years.
2ND FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER I remember Jim Roberts telling me once that looking leads to liking, liking leads to lusting and lusting leads to sin.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) The women did the cooking and cleaning and were told to keep their heads down and be shame-faced. The men did the recruiting and foraging for food. The former members showed us how and told us one male in every cell sent reports to Roberts. But even through suffering, people remained obedient. The former members said abscessed teeth would go untreated. So would broken bones because Roberts allowed no outside medical care. They told us a child had died from lack of medical care. (on camera) Did you want to say to them take the child to a hospital?
3RD FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Well, I did tell the sisters that short of taking the child to a hospital, you know, it will die.
2ND FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Even though many of us would have liked to seen this child taken to the hospital, we wouldn’t dare say-suggest it.
DIANE SAWYER Does it seem inconceivable to you now that you stood by as a child was dying?
2ND FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Yeah.
DIANE SAWYER What do you think he cared about the most, Jim Roberts?
4TH FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Control.
1ST FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Yes.
4TH FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Bottom line, control.
1ST FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER Yes. Control.
DIANE SAWYER But who decided when you would move and who would go where?
1ST FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER He decided all of that.
2ND FORMER BRETHREN MEMBER He was a man of mystery, which led you to believe that there was a holiness about him because you didn’t know him.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Roberts was the son of a Paducah, Kentucky, Pentecostal minister-a poor student who, after a stint in the Marines, ran a hairdressing shop before forming a religious group of his own in the ’70s. Today, he’s said to be bizarre, spacey, a wanderer. He’s been seen using pay phones to send instructions to his lieutenants like this man, Jonathan, a cell leader in Berkeley. These former members who once lived by his instructions say they left the group 10 years to 20 years ago because somehow they came to see him as more a manipulator than leader. (on camera) What advice would you give to parents terrified that their child will wander into this? (No response)
DIANE SAWYER Silence. (VO) It’s hard to know how to protect your children when their good intentions are what make them vulnerable.
JUDY WILCOX, BART’S MOTHER He was the all-American kid.
LARRY WILCOX, BART’S FATHER The kind of child that you pray for.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) It has been seven years since Judy and Larry Wilcox’s son, Bart, a former exchange scholar in South Africa-an athlete, a Christian-sent his mother this hand-drawn birthday card from the University of Idaho, thanking her for being such a great mom. A few days later, he met a member of The Brethren. Another letter arrived.
LARRY WILCOX “Mom and Dad, I’ve dropped out of school. I’ve given everything away. Don’t worry about me.” DIANE SAWYER (VO) And not long after that, a bombshell-in the tiny scrawl used by the other Brethren.
LARRY WILCOX It said “God willing, this will be the last time you ever hear from me.”
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Months later, as they were searching for Bart at this Portland house, he ducked out a window while they went in the front door. And then, last year in Phoenix …
LARRY WILCOX In many cases, we tried to get to him. In some, we barely missed him. In one, I walked by him.
JUDY WILCOX And didn’t know it.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Bart was lying nearby, asleep on a bench. Today, the Wilcoxes pass out flyers and maintain a Web site in hopes of finding their son. But this is one of the men who tries to make sure they can’t. That lieutenant of the Berkeley cell, Jonathan. We saw him hauling garbage back from a dumpster. But when we asked him about it, he bristled.
JONATHAN, THE BRETHREN CULT MEMBER A friend of mine found these. But what’s wrong with that? If people want to say you’re Garbage Eaters, then maybe they need to rethink it.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) We did some research on Jonathan and were surprised to learn that he keeps a personal bank account, an inheritance of thousands of dollars. And unlike many of the others, he sometimes sees his family. So when we saw him once more biking to a pay phone, we followed. As we said, that’s how he gets instructions from Jim Roberts. (on camera) Are you talking to Mr Roberts?
JONATHAN No, I’m not.
DIANE SAWYER Could I speak with him?
JONATHAN It’s not him.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) He refused to shake my hand, saying he doesn’t touch women. So we asked about the three young men whose parents are in such pain-the Wilcoxes, the Rooneys, the Fosters. (on camera) Is it possible for you to tell us where Kraig Foster is?
JONATHAN No. I don’t know where he is.
DIANE SAWYER Can you tell us where Bart Wilcox is?
JONATHAN I don’t know that either.
DIANE SAWYER Patrick Rooney.
JONATHAN I don’t know who he is. I don’t know where those people are.
DIANE SAWYER Can you tell us someone who can find them for us? Can you help us find them?
JONATHAN They’re OK.
DIANE SAWYER You don’t know them, but you know they’re OK?
JONATHAN Well, excuse me. I do know Patrick. I know all three of them. At first, I didn’t know who you meant, but I do know. They’re fine. They’re fine. Their parents know what they’re doing.
DIANE SAWYER Why-are parents the enemy?
JONATHAN It’s really grievous. Sometimes they can be, OK? Sometimes they do. They do. They have, in the past, kidnapped their children. They’ve taken them by force.
DIANE SAWYER But not recently. Nobody’s been taken by force.
JONATHAN We’ve been hiding for that reason, so they can’t do it.
DIANE SAWYER But you see your parents?
DIANE SAWYER Yeah.
JONATHAN Well, I have.
DIANE SAWYER Yeah, so why can’t they?
JONATHAN It’s their choice. It is. It’s their choice.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Before we left, we made one more try with Jonathan. Would he at least deliver to Bart Wilcox some letters from his family. (on camera) As God is your witness, do you promise to deliver these letters?
JONATHAN No. I don’t. I don’t promise.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Reluctantly, he agreed.
JONATHAN I’ll take the letters, but you guys are really grievous. You all are really grievous. You’re painted up like jezebel. You, yeah, it’s sickening. You are all really grievous people.
DIANE SAWYER (on camera) In a moment, you’ll see what happens when some parents do find their children. But as you can imagine, there is often heartbreak in these stories. You remember the Rooneys, the parents we saw on the Staten Island ferry at the beginning of this piece? Well, in an earlier expedition in search of their son Patrick, some other parents were taking surveillance photos as Mr Rooney-he’s there in the light baseball cap-talked to one of The Brethren. When the Rooneys came home and looked at the photos, they realized that their son had been standing only a few feet away from his father, who didn’t know it.
ANNOUNCER A dramatic meeting between a mother and son she could barely recognize, years after his disappearance into a shadowy group.
GEORGIA BUSWEILER I got face to face, and I just said, “Do you know me?”
ANNOUNCER And watch PrimeTime’s surprising encounter with the reclusive leader of The Brethren, when PrimeTime continue after this from our ABC stations. (Station Break)
ANNOUNCER PrimeTime-from New York, Diane Sawyer.
DIANE SAWYER As we said, the law now makes it difficult for parents to seize their children. Of course, presuming that they can find them, and only Jim Roberts knows where they are among The Brethren. Beyond that, our experts tell us that members of this group are particularly hard to talk out. So what are parents to do? Take the case of a young man who disappeared three years ago and what, in some ways, is the most baffling recruit of all. (VO) At age 25, Don Busweiler (ph) was a vibrant young entrepreneur with a lucrative clothing line called Pervert worn by Janet Jackson and other stars. He’d been a model himself and owned his own clothing store in South Miami Beach. But it was stressful, and suddenly, one day he tossed his belongings into the Atlantic and said he’d found God with The Brethren. That was three years ago. These are surveillance photos of Busweiler taken in California. And when his mother, Georgia, saw them, she flew out to find him.
JIM FOSTER That’s a brother right there.
GEORGIA BUSWEILER, DON’S MOTHER That’s not Don.
JIM FOSTER No. That’s not Don.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) She was helped in her search by another parent, Jim Foster, whom you met at the top of our story. For four days, they searched together futilely.
GEORGIA BUSWEILER I just feel like it’s hopeless. I just feel like I’m not ever going to find him.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Then last week, Georgia got word that Don had shown up in Houston. There he is, sitting in a cafe, perhaps trying to recruit someone, when his mother walks into the door.
GEORGIA BUSWEILER I was getting close, and I’m like, he’s not reacting. He’s just staring at me, and I was staring at him. I got face-to-face and I just said, “Do you know me?” And he said, “Yeah, ma.” And I lost it. I hugged him, and then I just asked him, “Please don’t run away.” And he said, “I’m not going to run away.”
DIANE SAWYER (VO) He told her he was pursuing a life with God and that The Brethren are now his family. He said he hadn’t called her for fear she’d kidnap or try to deprogram him. She promised she wouldn’t but said she needs him in her life. After eight hours, she was about to leave when he surprised her.
GEORGIA BUSWEILER He said, “Ma, come here.” And he grabbed me and hugged me. It was like so great. I still can’t believe he did it. I was just so happy and fortunate just that I got to hug him and let him know how I feel.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) But the next day, he refused to meet with her again. At the end of last week, he returned a call but told her he was staying in the group.
GEORGIA BUSWEILER I’m just going to give it some time, and hopefully he’ll keep in touch with me. Because I told him if he did that, I wouldn’t be searching all over the world for him. And all he did was keep telling me he’d pray about it.
FLO CONWAY, CULT EXPERT These parents are up against artillery in terms of the kind of programming that these people are going through 24 hours a day.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Again, experts Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. They say there’s no magic phrase that can snap someone out of the hammerlock of a cult.
JIM SIEGELMAN That’s why this phenomenon is so insidious because these people can be in that waking trance state for years at a time and tell you that they totally believe that they’ve made a free choice, that they totally believe they are in control of their mind.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Which brings us back to Jim Foster, who has spent $75,000 and 14 years looking for his son Kraig. Kraig-the loving boy, the Eagle scout, the college business major. Who, before he vanished, sent his parents this letter.
JIM FOSTER “I don’t know when I will contact you again, probably not for a while.”
DIANE SAWYER (VO) During the course of this piece, Jim Foster got word that Kraig had been sighted in New Orleans. He gathered his wife, Pat, and Kraig’s older brother, Keith. They had rehearsed this moment for years-how they’re remind him of the old days, how they’d mount a psychological assault with love. With their binoculars and video cameras, they had parked across from this rundown house near the French Quarter, when another member of The Brethren came up and accused them of stalking. Jim started an intense negotiation. He said other members could stand guard if only he could speak to his son. After 14 years, finally Kraig came riding up. The 18-year-old was now 32. He didn’t hug them and spoke mostly by quoting scriptures.
PAT FOSTER I didn’t sense that he was feeling anything. It was all rote. All– everything he said was related to scripture that he’d memorized.
JIM FOSTER Kraig told us that he was loving us by remaining separate from us.
PAT FOSTER But he didn’t even want to smile. I said, “Do you ever smile?” And he said “I try not to.”
JIM FOSTER We’re a threat to him. Because if we get through to him, and he leaves the church, to him, he’s going to hell.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Kraig gave them only an hour. They could feel time running out.
KEITH FOSTER, KRAIG’S BROTHER It felt really powerless to reach him. I told Kraig that I feel caught between wondering whether to grieve for him permanently or to hope for him to return. And his immediate response was “grieve me permanently.”
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Kraig climbed back on his bike and rode off. As he left, he asked them to stop searching for him. They made no promise.
JIM FOSTER I told him, I said, you know, “I’ve not agreed to anything here.”
DIANE SAWYER (VO) When he was almost out of sight, his brother Keith walked toward the fence.
KEITH FOSTER I shouted out, you know, “I love you, and I miss you.”
DIANE SAWYER (VO) And one more thing happened in the course of our report. One day, we were staking out a Brethren house in Richmond, California, when a man walked by. We wondered, did he look familiar? The next day a PrimeTime producer followed him as he walked to a bus stop. As impossible as it seems, this was the man from that old 1975 picture of the elder.
PrimeTime PRODUCER Mr Roberts, I’m with PrimeTime.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) Out of the public eye for 23 years, Jim Roberts surfaces again-strangely jumpy and nervous. We noticed his hair looked dyed, and he seemed to be carrying a computer case. We said we wanted to know about his group.
JIM ROBERTS We no ways believe that we’re a cult.
PrimeTime PRODUCER What about your views on family? A lot of people feel like you are encouraging your members to cut their ties with their families.
JIM ROBERTS Well, sometimes we do that because of what Christ taught.
PrimeTime PRODUCER And what is that, sir?
JIM ROBERTS Well, maybe at a later time, I could speak with you.
PrimeTime PRODUCER OK, well, would you? How could I reach you?
JIM ROBERTS Pardon?
PrimeTime PRODUCER How could I reach you?
JIM ROBERTS Well, I need to catch this bus now.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) We remembered what one of the parents had told us.
PARENT Like the vampires, I don’t think Jim Roberts can stand the light of day. And he doesn’t want to be in a position where he has to defend what he does.
DIANE SAWYER (VO) And how does he answer the other scriptures, the one that says, “Honor thy father and mother?” The one that says, “Return to the parents for this is acceptable in the sight of God? ” (on camera) And the parents say one thing you can do is tell your children about groups like this, warn them to be on guard. You can get more information on this story on our Web site at abcnews.com on the Web or AOL.
Mar. 25, 1998
Diane Sawyer, Reporting