YELM — In the past year, the Ramtha School of Enlightenment has ramped up a campaign touting its contributions to Thurston County, raising its profile in the community and drawing more attention to the activities at its gated complex outside of town. But, with this higher profile — or perhaps because of it — there has come a backlash.
Among the controversies:
• Attacks and criticism by former students. In a year-old Web site, www.enlightenmefree.com, some former students say they are disillusioned with the school, which they assert did not deliver on it promises. Some of the students who still live in Thurston County formed a group, Life After Ramtha School of Enlightenment, or LARSE, and held public meetings to address what they charge were fear- generating teachings and wild predictions, designed to foster obedience at the school.
They also have alleged that the school practiced “brainwashing” and cult-like activities. School officials deny the accusations.
• Legal challenges. School founder JZ Knight, through the school’s corporate arm, JZK Inc., has sued another Thurston County spiritual teacher, WhiteWind Weaver, for allegedly stealing Knight’s ideas and Ramtha’s teachings and using them in her own workshop. Weaver heads Art of Life Coaching, a personal growth program based in Lacey and Rainier. A four-day trial is set to begin March 10 in Thurston County Superior Court.
The School of Enlightenment was founded in 1988 by Knight, who claims to be the channeler of an ancient Lemurian male spirit warrior called Ramtha. Its 80-acre, fenced compound is open to staff members and students, but public access is restricted.
The school says it offers students tools to access their inner wisdom, focus their brains more effectively and create what they want in their lives.
In the past year, Knight’s staff has purchased advertisements in The Olympian and other publications and issued news releases to raise public awareness of the economic effects of the school’s thousands of students who attend regular workshops, stay in nearby hotels, shop in local stores and eat at area restaurants. The school attracts about 6,000 students throughout the year with classes at the Yelm site and at other locations around the world. School officials estimate that the local workshop participants contributed almost $2.5 million to the Thurston County economy in 2007.
In addition, JZK Inc. took in more than $2.6 million in sales, according to the latest figures from the financial Web site Hoovers Inc. A second JZ Rose retail outlet, a vintage collectibles store, opened in a three-story building in downtown Bellevue in late 2006, complete with a celebrity spokeswoman, actress Salma Hayek, and holiday tours conducted by Knight, 61.
The school continues to expand its class offerings internationally while maintaining a packed workshop schedule at home.
This year, Ramtha school events and seminars will be offered to the public in 22 countries — including, for the first time, the Czech Republic, Romania, Chile, Uruguay and Paraguay.
Knight, in an interview late last year, said the school’s popularity has increased because of the need people have to find support in troubled times. The same need, she said, can lead to high expectations.
“People are looking for better answers, greater answers, and the way to be inspired toward hope,” Knight said. She said the war in Iraq and climate change have caused a general malaise that has encouraged people to seek comfort and guidance. In addition to spiritual teachings, Ramtha also has, for at least two decades, issued predictions urging people to prepare for natural disasters, directing students and the school staff to build underground bunkers, protected by sheets of copper and at a high enough level to avoid being flooded, and to stockpile emergency supplies.
In 2000, Ramtha predicted that 56 square miles of South Sound eventually would flood. Other predictions have been for earthquakes and infections from tainted water supplies.
Knight said that part of Ramtha’s message is that by learning to access people’s own divinity and by taking precautions, people will be spared from the onslaughts of nature and social upheaval.
Knight said her attackers have their own agendas and should be subject to scrutiny — just as she has been over the past 20 years.
“Everyone knows everything about me,” Knight said, “but you don’t know anything about these people.”
Born Judith Darlene Hampton in Roswell, N.M., in March 1946, Judy Zebra Knight has said that the spirit of Ramtha first appeared to her and her husband in February 1977 in the kitchen of their trailer in Tacoma.
By 1985, she was appearing on “The Merv Griffin Show” and later wrote an autobiography about her experience with Ramtha and channeling. In 1987, Time magazine called her “probably the most celebrated of all current channelers.”
She opened the Ramtha School of Enlightenment in Yelm in 1988.
A few years later, she and her husband, Jeffrey Knight, were involved in a high-profile divorce case that made the tabloids.
Knight also has attracted high-profile devotees through the years, including actresses Linda Evans and Shirley MacLaine.
In 2004, Ramtha school leaders, including her current companion, James Flick, joined community groups to strongly oppose a proposed 75,000-seat NASCAR racetrack in Yelm. The proposal was withdrawn.
Yelm resident David McCarthy, who calls Knight a “spiritual predator,” claims he was ensnared in a web of intimidation and mind control at the school while a student there from 1989 to 1996.
“At one point I was running around scared I was going to get eaten by the lizard people,” he said.
He said that in the early 1990s, he was “brainwashed” by the school’s teachings into believing that the ancient figure Jehovah would return to earth in a spaceship, accompanied by a reptilian entourage.
The “lizard people” were said to feast on human prey who did not fall under Ramtha’s protection, he said.
“A lot of people deny that these things happened,” McCarthy said, noting that the most esoteric Ramtha pronouncements were only revealed to a small inner circle.
“They say these are sacred teachings and that you (outsiders) wouldn’t understand.”
School spokesman Greg Simmons said the school’s teachings included no reference to “lizard people.”
“I don’t recall that ever coming up,” Simmons said.
Simmons said McCarthy and his supporters were “a few disgruntled people” out of what he estimated to be 50,000 to 75,000 students who have gone through the school in the 20 years he has been a participant and staff member and the five years before that when Knight was giving seminars around the country.
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McCarthy said he was beyond “disgruntled” and objected to the characterization.
“JKZ intimidation is a factor in anyone going public criticizing RSE, particularly by former members,” says McCarthy, 55, a member of LARSE. “Is this not a clue that you are dealing with a cult?”
Knight said scientists and researchers have studied the school and do not regard it as a cult. Students do not live at the school full time, and they are free to come and go, she said.
“People come to the school to learn how to make their lives great,” she said. “Then they have to go back to make it great. That’s what they do.”
Most students who decide that the teachings don’t work for them simply leave and don’t come back. The ones who find it helpful go back to their lives and try to apply the teachings, Knight said.
Knight said problems occur when some students, such as McCarthy, “want somebody to do it for you.” When they find out that neither Knight nor Ramtha is going to fix their lives for them, they become disgruntled, she said.
McCarthy says that he was lured by promises that if he were obedient, he would become god-like. He said the school warned that if he didn’t continue to practice the techniques and beliefs, he and his family would not be protected from pending natural catastrophies and destruction.
“Ramtha tells people that if they learn what to do, the art of creating your own reality is really a divine act,” Knight said. “There’s no guru here. You are creating your day. You do it yourself.”
In March 2007, McCarthy and others in his group launched a Web site, www.enlightenmefree.com, that criticizes Knight and the school. They also held a public forum on cults in October in Yelm. The guest speaker was former cult de-programmer Joe Szimhart, who now calls himself an “exit counselor.”
Knight accused McCarthy and Szimhart of having financial motives for their attacks on her and the school.
“They use the word ‘cult’ as a business calling card,” she said. “They convince people they’ve been brainwashed, and then they get to clear them for a huge fee.”
McCarthy and Szimhart denied her assertion.
“That’s absolutely nonsense,” McCarthy said. “If you saw how I live, there’s no way you’d think that.”
McCarthy said he came to Yelm in 1989 after becoming disenchanted with a previous group, the London-based Divine Light Mission. He said he hoped the Ramtha school would be better. After seven years, he said, he realized the Ramtha school was the same as Divine Light: a community led by a strong leader who offers, but never delivers, the ultimate promise of a blessed life and divinity.
“I confess I was a cult- hopper,” McCarthy said. “I was a seeker of truth, of spiritual meaning.”
Former students Karri Konga and Erika Winter-Cobbs said they still bear the scars of their experiences at the school, but they are grateful to have escaped.
Konga, 47, a former Ramtha school staff member for five years and a student there for 14 years before that, said she went into shock last March when she saw the LARSE Web site for the first time. Since then, she has been in treatment for anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, because, she said, the Web site awakened her to the reality of what had occurred while she was at the school.
For 19 years, she had believed in Ramtha’s pronouncements to build underground bunkers to prepare for catastrophes, to keep his teachings secret and to repress her feelings. Now she believes she was under a type of spell, she said.
“No one spoke out before this,” Konga said in explaining her reaction. “People’s minds get twisted and bent, and it’s a really arduous journey back.”
The school has denied Konga’s assertions about past events. Officials say that many other students have improved their lives, healed themselves of disease and become happier and more productive after attending the school.
News releases sent out by Steve Klein, a community liaison for the school, regularly detail individual success stories from people who take the classes. The school also runs regular newspaper advertisements touting the achievements of its students.
“It all depends on your expectations,” said ex-student Fran Pearre, owner of Yelm Acupuncture Clinic. “There’s a point where you have to take charge of it yourself.”
Pearre said the school opened her mind to other ways of thinking and changed the course of her life.
Chris King, a carpet store salesman in Lacey, said he received a lot of benefit from his time at the school. King said he didn’t understand all the fuss.
“If you’re not happy with something, you should just pack up and go,” he said. “That’s what I think.”
But Winter-Cobbs, who moved to Yelm from Munich, Germany, to go to the school, said she was inspired at a deep level by Ramtha’s promise that she would achieve true enlightenment in seven years.
“It’s so easy when you’re a seeker to be taken in,” she said. “Your soul and body are longing.”
After seven years passed, Winter-Cobbs lost faith and quit the school.
“The biggest threat was when they told you you were special, that ‘You’re my people, and nothing bad will happen to you,’ ” Winter-Cobbs said. “Special is a miracle word; we all want to be special to someone.”
According to Mike Wright, the Ramtha school spokesman and teacher, it takes years to realize a key understanding: The ultimate transformation is up to each person, and no one can give it to anyone else.
Wright said he studied with Ramtha for five years before he realized that “Ramtha wasn’t just going to poke a hole in my brain and stick in enlightenment.”
He said that was the point at which he realized he had to create his own spiritual growth and life success.
But not everyone reaches that point, according to some observers.
Jeff Adams, minister of College Street Christian Church in Lacey, said he has counseled several ex-students who have said they suffered emotional distress because of their time at the school.
“They go there seeking hope and the truth and they become dependent on an individual,” Adams said. “Then they become more hopeless in the end.”
He said he makes no judgments about the teachings at the Ramtha school and has no disagreement on matters of faith.
“I just want defecting students to feel safe,” Adams said. “I want a healthy community in Yelm.”
Szimhart, the “exit counselor,” said he no longer tries to help people escape cults. Instead, he helps them find a spiritual path that makes sense for them. “I’m a realist but also a believer,” said Szimhart, 60, who lives in suburban Philadelphia, where he works at a state mental health hospital.
He stopped short of calling Knight and the school a cult, but he is skeptical.
“Ramtha’s one of the hundreds of groups I’ve been consulted about since the early 1980s,” Szimhart said. “There are extraordinary claims being made that need to be tested and questioned — is this person really channeling a spirit or not?”
Puyallup attorney Douglas Kaukl, who represented Knight in the 1992 Pierce County court case involving her late ex- husband Jeffrey Knight, said he supports the Ramtha school and its practices.
The Pierce County case came after Jeffrey Knight, a former horse trainer, was divorced from JZ Knight in the late 1980s. During the divorce, the couple negotiated their own property settlement, but a few years later, Jeffrey Knight filed a motion to vacate the dissolution decree and demand an additional $450,000, Kaukl said.
Kaukl said Jeffrey Knight claimed that his ex-wife had used mind control and brainwashing on him when they negotiated the original deal, and that her actions had rendered him incapable of making a valid agreement.
After an eight-week evidentiary hearing, Pierce County Judge Bruce Cohoe denied the claim, saying that JZ Knight did not practice mind control and was not running a cult.
Jeffrey Knight was subsequently awarded $750,000 based on the value of his ex-wife’s organization at the time of the divorce. He later died of AIDS while the court’s decision against him was on appeal, Kaukl said.
J. Gordon Melton, of the Santa Barbara-based Institute for the Study of American Religion, was one of the most persuasive witnesses in the Pierce County case, according to Kaukl. “He said that if you look at the earmarks of a cult, the leader having complete control, like Jim Jones did at Jonestown, you don’t see that out there” at the Ramtha school, Kaukl said. “You do see people who are very taken by her (Knight), but that doesn’t mean she’s wrapped them up in a mental straightjacket,” Kaukl said.
Melton, interviewed last fall, said he found Knight to be a “person of integrity.” In addition, he said the group dynamics operating at the Ramtha school were no different from those at any large church or spiritual group — including those of mainstream religions.
“There have been a set of people over the years associated with Ramtha who didn’t get what they expected out of it and became critics,” Melton said. “Of course, in this day of the Internet, they can vent that with little effort.”
Melton said his view was shaped by a visit to research activities at the school, after which he wrote a book, “Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha’s School of Ancient Wisdom.”
“I don’t think she’s trying to pull the wool over anybody’s eyes,” Melton said. “I don’t believe as she does, but I’m convinced that she believes it, and acts on her beliefs.”