The case would have nothing to do with Samanta Roy’s group, except that Priebe’s defense rested partly on what he claimed was the emotional and physical abuse that took place in the group and which he said played a part in his actions.
In affidavits filed in one lawsuit two years ago, group members disputed claims of abuse and say they are being persecuted by the media for their religious beliefs.
Three former members appeared in Priebe’s defense during a 2002 hearing on a motion to suppress a statement about the criminal acts that Priebe had signed. Priebe maintained that as a result of being in the group he had been conditioned to fear the police and sign anything put in front of him.
“When (Samanta Roy) passed out documents for us to sign, if he told us to do things, we just did it,” Priebe testified. “We didn’t question anything. My ability to say no or to question anything was long gone after 25 years in Rama’s group.”
Among the former followers who testified at the hearing was Gail Langsjoen. She has been one of the most vocal of those who have made allegations about abuse in the group in the past and has been interviewed previously in newspaper and television reports.
“We, as a matter of routine, were chastised and rebuked. We were humiliated publicly in front of the group,” Langsjoen testified.
Former member Lori Ballinger testified at the hearing about the alleged abuse of children in the group.
“Children, especially, would be kicked, or hit with a board, or an instrument,” she told the court. “They would be put in a barrel. They would be left in the barrel, a large pickle barrel for many hours, often from the end of the morning meeting or the middle morning meeting until 11:00 at night or so.”
Former member Bill Eilers testified to the emotional deprivation he claimed to have suffered.
“I was in the group for seven years,” he said. “I totally lost the ’80s. I never heard a radio. I never saw a television. I never read a newspaper unless I was instructed to. I worked on a farm. I never went to town. I never saw a woman, never got a hug, never talked to people unless I was instructed to.”
Priebe ultimately entered an Alford Plea and was sentenced to 12 years in prison. In an Alford Plea, the defendant does not admit their guilt, but acknowledges that the judge is finding them guilty.
While the Priebe case was ongoing, TV stations in Green Bay and Minneapolis broadcast news stories repeating some of the allegations. Members of the group responded in court.
On November 15, 2001, KSTP-TV in Minneapolis was sued in United States District Court by anonymous plaintiffs charging defamation, libel, and invasion of privacy. The lawsuit sought an injunction prohibiting “Seeking Salvation,” a two-part investigative report about the group from being broadcast. A judge allowed the report to be aired.
A lawsuit was also filed against Young Broadcasting of Green Bay, Inc., WBAY-TV and reporter Natalie Arnold in 2002 by the estranged wife and family members of Priebe. The suit involved a news broadcast by WBAY in February and March of that year.
The plaintiffs alleged a conspiracy between the news media defendants and their sources – who were not named as defendants – to deprive the plaintiffs of their First Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion.
“I am surprised that a public news station in the United States of America has the brazen courage to publicly characterize and degrade an organization by labeling it a ‘cult’ without any evidence or truth,” one member of Priebe’s family stated in an affidavit.
The complaint maintained that Priebe and other former followers, including Langsjoen, her daughters, and Elina Lane, conspired to hold the group up to public ridicule and to arouse suspicion, distrust and antagonism.
“I know Elina Lane, as I grew up with her,” said Priebe’s son, Taberah Benson in his affidavit. “Her lies are just plain absurd. The allegation that ‘mind control’ occurs is ridiculous.” He further states that members are free to come and go and that no one is forced to do anything.
“I have never been abused and know that no other child was ever abused,” he added.
The lawsuit maintained that the allegations were part of Priebe’s defense strategy.
“After the advent of criminal proceedings against Priebe, he and/or Lane would contact a ‘former member’ and ask that person to support false allegations and accusations of ‘mind control’ and ‘abusive culture’ for Priebe’s defense in his criminal case pending in Shawano County Circuit Court, Wisconsin,” stated a brief filed in June 2002.
The brief drew a picture of a broader coordinated effort against the group that allegedly included the Leo J. Ryan Educational Foundation, formerly known as the Cult Awareness Network.
The brief noted that Priebe and Lane spoke at a foundation conference in October of 2001, during the time Priebe was building the case for his defense. Both did video interviews that can be found on the foundation’s web site and elsewhere.
Lane, as the brief noted, also appeared on the Montel Williams Show for a program about cult groups. Her allegations included such things as mental and physical abuse, solitary confinement and the use of a cattle prod as punishment.
“During her interview on that show, Lane was making the same outrageous lies, only more exaggerated than what was published on WBAY and KSTP,” the plaintiff’s brief maintained.
Briefs and affidavits submitted to the court by members of the group detailed a history of harassment and even violence against the group. They also drew parallels between media coverage of the group and historical episodes of persecution.
In one case, historical examples given in an affidavit – citing “medieval times in European history,” the Spanish Inquisition, and “the New England Salem Witch hunt” – closely resemble language in the brief that cites the Dark Ages and Salem Witch Hunt, and refers at one point to “Inquisition tactics.”
At another point, language in the January 28, 2002 brief referring to the kings and nobles of the Dark Ages mirrors the comments of an apparent group member quoted in WBAY-TV’s broadcast.
“WBAY is clearly resorting to representing the interests of the mainstream churches much like the kings and nobles did in the dark ages,” said Linda Gray in a transcript of an interview in the WBAY news report.
The brief maintained that the group had been a target for more than two decades.
“For the past 25 years, news media in Minnesota and Wisconsin have willingly and intentionally joined together to falsely attack the Plaintiffs’ religious group with false accusations and slanderous ‘news,'” a January 2002 brief stated.
The court’s decision, handed down on Dec. 26, 2002, ruled in favor of WBAY-TV citing lack of evidence of a conspiracy or any intent to violate the Plaintiffs’ civil rights. However, the court declined to grant a defense motion to bring sanctions against the group for bringing the lawsuit.
“I agree that the case was weak, but I do not believe that it was so weak as to be frivolous,” said District Judge Lynn Adelman. He also said there was reason to believe from the Minnesota case against KSTP that “perhaps Priebe was seeking to use the media for his own ends.”
The Priebe case, however, was not the first time allegations of abuse have been made against the group, as is noted in one of the briefs filed by the plaintiffs.
“The allegations to be made against subject group in WBAY’s broadcast have been made numerous times in years past,” states the January 2002 brief, adding that no evidence has ever been produced to support those allegations.
“The broadcast reasserts the same baseless allegations and accusations made against the group from 1976 to 1985,” the brief states.
It was during those years that five members of the group were abducted in deprogramming attempts. The incidents are recounted in briefs and affidavits filed by the plaintiffs in the WBAY-TV lawsuit.
The brief also alleges that a WCCO-TV documentary on religious cults entitled “Thy Will Be Done” – which incorporated footage of one of the attempted deprogramming sessions – was timed to coincide with an upcoming trial.
“This film was broadcast in full on January 3, 1980 immediately prior to the onset of the trial against the deprogrammers,” the brief stated, citing the affidavit of group member Margaret Nett.
A complaint was filed by Brother Rama Behera and The Disciples of the Lord Jesus against WCCO-TV in Minneapolis accusing the station of violating the fairness doctrine and engaging in a personal attack. In February 1983, the FCC upheld a ruling by its staff that cleared WCCO-TV of those charges.
Some members left the group before later reports of abuse surfaced. Some of those interviewed by the Leader said they did not see anything as severe as some of those later reports, though they did see instances of children being disciplined.
“Those allegations were somewhat overblown,” one former member said. However, this former member said “Rama was a strict disciplinarian.”
Another former member, Elliot Lane, said he had seen Rama use a cattle prod publicly, though not in the way described by some other former followers. Lane, who is Elina’s father, described Rama using it as a kind of joke.
“Outside, when we were working or building something, he would play around with it, put it on the back of one of the kids, and everybody would laugh,” Lane told the Leader in a recent interview. “It was a fling for a couple of days, a short term thing.”
Lane said he had no knowledge of the abuse that was later alleged by Elina – which she said occurred out of public view – but he added he believes his daughter’s accounts.
There has been at least one known investigation by the Shawano County Sheriff’s Department into alleged abuse but none of the allegations has led to any criminal complaints.
“One of the problems we ran into was the statute of limitations,” said Sheriff’s Department Investigator Randall Giese, who was part of that investigation. “And people involved in the group during the time frame that would put it in the statute of limitations won’t talk to us.”
Several former members of the group have reiterated the abuse claims over the years, including Eva Dickenson when she was part of the group. Others include her son, Lee, daughter Holly, and granddaughter, Elina.
The Leader is aware of fewer than a dozen former members who have gone public with abuse claims, including Langsjoen and her children and at least four people related to Hall. According to Priebe’s 2001 video interview, at least 187 people have left the group since 1975.
The Leader in September sent several letters to Samanta Roy and other leaders of the group requesting information and an interview. There was no response.