Historic Aetna Springs called either spiritual retreat or brainwashing center
The Press Democrat, Mar. 7, 2003
By PAUL PAYNE, THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
POPE VALLEY – They came from all around the world to this remote spot in Napa County, searching for light in the teachings of the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.
From 1976 to the mid-90s, devoted members of Moon’s Unification Church occupied the crumbling Aetna Springs resort, where by varying accounts they communed with God or brainwashed legions of recruits, some against their will.
Over the past decade, church activities faded until the 672-acre facility with 34 Mission-style buildings and a nine-hole golf course was leased to a Southern California theme park developer with ambitious plans.
Then, in a quiet deal late last month, Aetna Springs was sold.
Church officials apparently washed their hands of one of three North Coast properties that were the scenes of international controversy and fierce legal disputes a generation ago.
“There are some good memories here,” said church member Mary Larson, a manager of the golf course with her husband, Joel, since the early 1980s. “A lot of people found God here.”
Others were less sentimental about the end of a bizarre era.
“Aetna Springs for years was one of the Moonie brainwashing camps,” said San Anselmo lawyer Ford Greene, who has fought the Unification Church and says he was a captive at a similar camp in Boonville. “To have one less public health hazard in Napa County can’t be anything but good.”
Bryant Morris, the new owner, is a developer of water parks and shopping centers all over the West. He wouldn’t disclose terms of the sale.
Church attorneys didn’t respond to telephone inquiries.
Morris and church affiliates had been suing each other over the lease and the developer’s plans for a $22 million resort. Those plans were rejected by voters in 2000, but the two sides continued the costly legal battle until the church bowed out, Morris said.
Now, the future of Aetna Springs, which was visited in the decades before it was bought by the Unification Church by gubernatorial candidate Ronald Reagan and scores of movie stars, isn’t certain.
Morris hopes to convince elected officials and neighbors that his intentions are good for the residents of Pope Valley.
“We were going to build a four-star resort,” Morris said as he poked through old mattresses and a hand-painted sign that read “Flowers say I love you” — all left behind by church members. “We’ll have to see what the county will let us do.”
Moon, a South Korean evangelist who has claimed to be the second coming of Christ, built a corporate empire of hundreds of companies and a religious following known for mass weddings and aggressive recruiting practices.
At its peak, a Berkeley-based arm of the church, New Educational Development Systems Inc., bought Aetna Springs after acquiring land in Mendocino County and near Calistoga.
The resort was touted as a spiritual retreat for young members wanting to escape the strains of missionary work.
But it became embroiled in controversy amid claims that young people were abducted by a religious cult and forced into a kind of servitude for Moon.
Moon followers were known for streetside flower and candy stands, the proceeds of which fed the empire, critics said.
“It was pretty tough to leave,” said Ford, who walked out of the Boonville camp in 1975 after eight months. “I’m sure that was the desirable feature of the Aetna location — its isolation.”
Later, Moon served a year in prison for income tax evasion.
A candidate for Napa County sheriff ran on the platform of evicting the church.
And Unification Church membership in the United States dipped from a high of about 30,000 to about 3,000.
Some longtime residents remember his smiling followers at Aetna Springs as peaceful members of the community.
“They were good people,” Pope Valley garage owner Brad Kirkpatrick said. “They never bothered us a bit.”
Sally Kimsey, a veterinarian, said at least they didn’t attempt to build out the land — always a controversial issue in the rural valley.
“The Reverend Moon’s grandson went to grade school out here,” Kimsey said. “Frankly, I’m as leery of Bryant Morris as I am of him.”
Meanwhile, Morris is contemplating his next move with the old resort, where he’s planted about 24 acres in wine grapes and has county approval to build a handful of houses where he once sought to build lodging for 200, he said.
The golf course, thought to be the oldest in the state, remains open to the public. And workers peck away at repairs caused by years of neglect.
The once-thriving resort began as a mineral water source and now is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The Moonies … they just thrashed it,” Morris said.
News researchers Vonnie Matthews and Michele Van Hoeck contributed to this report.