CORWIN SPRINGS, Mont. - The big trouble started 10 years ago, when federal agents arrested Vernon Hamilton for possession of illegally purchased sniper rifles in Spokane, Wash.
There was more. Hamilton was carrying
$130,000 worth of gold, cash and crates of ammunition, along with
an elaborate false identity he had stolen from a California man who
had died of AIDS. And that was only the beginning. His shopping
list included armored personnel carriers and radar systems, while a
letter he wrote to his friend and boss at the Church Universal and
Triumphant here, Edward Francis, outlined plans to arm and outfit
an army of 200 people.
For many in Montana, the
bust confirmed their worst fears about the church: that it was a
gun-packing, survivalist cult. Francis, who would later plead
guilty to the federal charges, serve a brief prison sentence and
apologize publicly for his actions, was the vice president, media
front man and a minister for the New Age sect. He was also the
husband of its guru, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Hamilton was a church
employee driving a church-owned vehicle and had a church credit
card in his pocket when he was arrested. The U.S. attorney in
Spokane called him the "head of security" for the
Even for those willing to give the
church the benefit of the doubt, this was convincing evidence that
these weren't the kind of rural neighbors folks were hoping
Tensions between locals and the Church
Universal and Triumphant had been strained ever since the church
bought its first Montana ranch in 1981. Former members had accused
the church of "mind control," of abusing and bilking its own
members. They said it was a cult and a dangerous one. The specter
of the mass suicides at Jonestown arose constantly - all those
bodies rotting in the jungle.
The arrest of
Hamilton and Francis, coupled with the church's frenzied
construction of fortified bomb shelters, began a cycle of fear and
suspicion, both inside and outside the church.
But 10 years later, things are different. Instead of the end of
civilization, the church must deal with the end of something much
closer at hand. Prophet, the church's founder and charismatic
leader, who ran the church as a family corporation for the last 25
years, has Alzheimer's disease. Now the church is trying to prepare
for life without her.
is new leadership in the church and a new land ethic, one that
focuses on preservation instead of development. The church is even
selling land to the government it once reviled.
It is also no longer as secretive, it seldom gets sued any more,
and its members have loosened up. They laugh
But that's understandable. It was hard to
be jovial in the old days with apocalypse on the fast track. And
CUT members knew the end was near. They'd heard the word of God on
Fast track to
Sheriff Charley Johnson of Montana's Park
County was a nervous man in 1989 and 1990. Worried about what he
called a "sniper mentality" among some church members, he asked the
feds for backup. State Rep. Bob Raney, D-Livingston, asked the
governor to declare a state of emergency.
Church members were on edge, too, worried about impending doom,
about being attacked by skinheads, or rogue units of the National
Guard, or the panic-stricken victims of the doom they believed lay
just around the corner.
An entity called Saint
Germain, a celestial "Ascended Master" and patron of the church who
speaks through Prophet's mouth, warned that the Four Horsemen of
the Apocalypse "ride up and down on the opposite bank of the
Yellowstone" from the church's
"It could have been
terrible," recalled Prophet's son, Sean Prophet, who has since left
the church and no longer follows its
"We could have
ended up like Waco," continued Sean Prophet, who was at that time a
minister and a board member of the church. "If somebody had made a
mistake, or if the government had acted rashly. Anything like that,
on either side."
The church held 33,000 acres
at the time, making it the biggest landowner in the area, and it
had 600 employees, though most of them earned little more than room
and board. CUT had been a big newsmaker since it bought a
12,000-acre ranch adjoining Yellowstone National Park in 1981. It
kept buying more ranches, developing subdivisions and then, in
1986, after years of denying such plans, it moved its international
headquarters from California to Corwin Springs, Mont., a sleepy
hamlet surrounded by startlingly beautiful scenery and abundant
The church's property included some of
the most environmentally sensitive ground in the nation, and
officials had big plans for the place. They wanted to build a town
of 1,000 people smack in the heart of a major migration corridor
for elk and bison, using up scarce winter range. To heat the place,
they wanted to tap the geothermal aquifer that feeds Yellowstone's
hot springs and geysers, triggering environmentalists' fears for
the health of that delicate underground plumbing. A huge bomb
shelter, designed to hold 756 people, would underlie some of the
best grizzly bear habitat in the ecosystem.
Their plans were ambitious enough that Yellowstone officials
declared the church the park's biggest single external threat,
bigger than logging on Targhee National Forest, bigger than cyanide
heap-leach mining at Cooke City.
church members tended to stick out in a crowd. Macrobiotic diets
gave them a lean demeanor here in meat-and-potatoes country.
Certain days of the week called for wearing clothing of certain
colors, with an emphasis on purple and violet.
Church members were all from someplace else, usually someplace
urban, and they considered themselves to be special; they possessed
a spirituality, a "light" that set them apart from what one of
their Ascended Masters called the local "riffraff." They came here
not to blend in with the existing community, but to build a new
That sense of separation, in part,
explained why Vernon Hamilton and Edward Francis were buying guns.
Church members believed themselves to be spiritual "lightbearers'
and while that set them apart from most people, it also made them
targets for the "dark forces' that conspired against them: aliens
from evil planets, fallen angels, capitalists and communists who
plotted together. Nuclear war was more than a possibility, it was
downright likely, what with the astrological signs spelling it all
out and Mikhail Gorbachev using occult powers in the Kremlin.
Elizabeth Clare Prophet knew this because she went to the Kremlin
via "mind travel" to eavesdrop, she told the
Fear was rampant, but church members
intended to survive. Visibly nervous people carried radiation suits
in their rental cars, ordered ammunition in military calibers by
the pallet load, and cleared local shelves of camping and survival
gear. An armored personnel carrier arrived from a New Jersey dealer
called "Tanks a Lot." One man sandbagged his camp trailer alongside
Highway 89 and built a fortified structure on the bank of the
it's a bomb shelter," said then Park County Attorney Nels Swandal,
who ordered him to remove it because it was in the
Fortified bomb shelters made locals
nervous. One rancher looked over his fence at a tower of stone and
steel and saw an "abomination."
"This tower is evil," Pete
Story said. "It's a war tower in the middle of an area mostly
frequented by whitetail deer."
Ever since 1981,
rumors had circulated that the church kept a cache of weaponry.
Church leaders always insisted that they, like other ranchers, kept
only a few varmint rifles around the place. But when Hamilton was
arrested in 1989, he was not hauling coyote guns. These were Barret
semi-automatic rifles, designed to blow through armor from a mile
The apocalyptic fears had many roots in
the church's complicated theology, but principal among them were
warnings from the Ascended Masters, such as El Morya and the Great
Divine Director. They spoke to the faithful through the mouth of
Prophet, their "messenger" on
"The profound desire of
the Lord our God is to accelerate the judgment cycle," Jesus
Christ, also considered an Ascended Master, said through Prophet.
"Make haste! Make haste!'
A handful of teenage
children of church members couldn't take the weirdness and ran away
from home. Local CUT critics set up a self-styled "underground
railroad" to help them get away, despite parents' complaints about
custodial interference. Some divorced parents came to Montana
looking for their kids, worried about children living in such an
"If I receive any
evidence that those boys have been inside or around those bomb
shelters, I will immediately turn them over to child welfare
officials," Judge Thomas Olson ruled in a custody dispute between a
church member and her ex-husband.
her followers that the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was a
"smokescreen" designed to lull the West into a false sense of
security. "Daddy, will we be safe in Belgium?" a teenager named
Willem Bellens asked his father in 1990, after his mother was
arrested for kidnapping the boy and his sister and taking them to a
Montana bomb shelter. "What about when the Russians come?"
In Livingston, 40 miles to the north, where the
church's activities had entertained local wags for years, bars
hosted "end-of-the-world parties." But after a while, as more and
more church members arrived, and as former members told more and
more disturbing stories about the church, locals stopped joking.
The tension was too thick.
State Rep. Raney
called the situation a "powderkeg."
came and went for completion of the bomb shelters; the latest was
March 15, 1990, when thousands of church members "went underground"
and spent the night in their shelters.
people in the members-only subdivision of Glastonbury, in the
middle of Paradise Valley, peered out the next morning and waved
Geiger counters to see if the bombs had fallen. But cars zipped by
on the highways, jets passed overhead, and for most people, the
world continued to stumble along in the normal
Not so the church.
April 10, 1990, the 650,000-gallon fuel tanks at the church's
756-person bomb shelter started cracking open, quickly dumping
31,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline into the groundwater. The
cleanup cost nearly $1 million. A county commissioner ran for
re-election on an anti-CUT platform and won in a landslide. Bumper
stickers with a slash across the letters CUT became
There were some ugly incidents, too,
committed by some who disliked the church. Vulgar graffiti appeared
on and around church property and one night, as a long convoy of
church members left midnight services, somebody opened fire on
several of the vehicles. Fortunately, nobody was
Sheriff Johnson said. There were no arrests.
After the weapons bust and the fuel leaks, state, federal and
county regulators became interested in the church, and lawsuits
involving the agencies erupted at all three levels. Reporters
arrived in swarms, and church members, some of whom had sold homes,
quit jobs and maxed out credit cards to finance and supply the bomb
shelters, started leaving in droves. When civilization didn't end
after all, creditors demanded payment for the dried beans, plywood
and cement that church members had ordered.
Contractors slapped liens on the shelters, trying to force payment,
and one church member was jailed for refusing to pay non-church
Donations and tithes to the church
began drying up as the legal bills mounted. The U.S. Supreme Court
upheld a California ruling that Prophet and the church had
defrauded a follower and had to pay his estate $1.5 million. The
Internal Revenue Service yanked the church's tax-exempt status for
two years, igniting another expensive lawsuit. Even at the very
core, in the Prophet family and the board of directors, things
began to unravel.
As Prophet's grown children
left the church, trusted advisors quit and ex-members in the area
formed a "CUT-Free support group." One of Prophet's daughters
linked up with a local church critic to write an exposé of the
church's secrets. (The two women could not get along, and the book
was never published.)
Prophet had foretold the
onset of a 12-year period of the descent of planetary karma, "the
cumulative weight of mankind's sins," 25,800 years' worth. "The
calamities we have seen are a foreshadowing of what will come to
pass on April 23, 1990, and following," she said in February of
that year. "We might use the expression, "You ain't seen nothin"
But no bombs fell, and on April 22,
1990, a district judge surveyed the disputes over fuel spills,
sewage permits and environmental impacts, and ordered the church to
halt all work on its big bomb shelter.
while, it seemed like all the karma was falling on the
Church says: "Wildlife
Years passed, though, and by 1999, things
had changed. The church still has plenty of critics, but lately,
environmentalists have been heaping praise on
So are conservatives like Sen. Conrad
Burns, R-Mont. So is the National Park Service and the State of
Montana, both of which have blasted criticism at the church in the
Church members and locals in Park and
Gallatin counties shop in each others' stores, play sports
together, serve on the same committees.
church says it wants to remove cattle from its ranch and welcome
some of Yellowstone's wandering bison.
would reverse its decade-long policy of no tolerance for bison, one
that meant hundreds of the shaggy giants were slaughtered by the
state when the animals sought their natural winter
When church spokesman Christopher Kelley
faxed to a reporter an outline of the proposed bison plan for the
church's headquarters ranch, he included a handwritten note on the
Church officials didn't say that kind
of thing a decade ago. Not to reporters, anyway. There are several
reasons for the improved attitudes.
church has recently agreed to sell or place conservation easements
on 7,850 acres of its 12,000-acre headquarters property, called the
Royal Teton Ranch. Church officials turned down lucrative offers
from developers, saying they wanted to help build bridges to the
Second, the church never
turned a shovel of dirt in its expansive development plans, even
though it completed two expensive environmental impact statements
and has all the permits it needs to build a new town. Church
leaders now say those plans are dead.
capped its geothermal well and given up the right to use
Without complaint and with considerable
haste, CUT cleaned a trout stream and groundwater polluted by the
fuel spilled from the bomb shelter tanks.
settlement with the Internal Revenue Service that restored its
tax-exempt status, it agreed to sell the cache of weapons. The
church never conceded the guns belonged to the church itself,
though records going as far back as 1973 showed a revolving
ownership that often included high church
Local planners, sanitarians and
police say church members have become cooperative and friendly, no
longer trying to avoid development review and other
Perhaps most significant, the
church's new leadership has quit focusing so much on apocalypse.
Gilbert Cleirbaut, a Belgian-born efficiency expert and corporate
downsizer, became church president in 1996. He doesn't like to talk
about the "shelter cycle." It's in the past, he says, and the
church is focusing on the
"To speak about those
things is to go constantly backwards to that bad reputation that we
had," he said last year. "That's why I don't want to go back to the
shelters. OK, we have it. Let's maintain it. But let's go on."
Still, he has to deal with the failed
predictions of Armageddon.
lot of people were mad or disgruntled because nothing happened,"
said Cleirbaut, who quit a job in Europe and came to Montana in
1990. "I was extremely happy that nothing happened. But all of our
decree focus was on that (see accompanying story). We were more in
the survival mentality than in the future mentality."
He says the church is now in its "second life
cycle," one focused not on building up ranch headquarters but on
reaching out for new members around the world. CUT is
re-engineering how it operates, repackaging its teachings to focus
on a more "practical spirituality," and, leaders say, being a lot
nicer to its followers and employees. Most would agree that's what
the church has to do if it wants to survive.
Until recently, the church bound its members to a variety of rules
set down by Prophet. They limited how often married people could
have sex, required a vow of secrecy for advanced members, and
mandated long hours of hard labor for little or no pay. Followers
had to "decree' - a rapid-fire monotone of prayer - for hours at a
time. Church employees needed Prophet's permission to marry or even
The rules, combined with Prophet's
charismatic leadership, the intense focus on her every word - and
what many call her abuse of members for "spiritual" purposes - led
many to call the church a destructive cult, one that used mind
control and preyed upon its
"I hated to be
(considered) a cult," Cleirbaut said. "It's something that for me
makes me shiver, to be a cult. I really could understand why people
were afraid of us."
When Cleirbaut took over,
he found an organization hemorrhaging money, overstaffed and
underworked, he said.
He has laid off nearly 500
people. Being on staff once signified a certain spiritual
attainment, former members say, but Cleirbaut says keeping or
losing a job is irrelevant to religious growth. He also closed a
number of money-losing businesses and shut the door on the idea of
creating a self-sufficient community. Church members didn't make
good farmers in this high-desert environment, he said; it's cheaper
to buy food.
In short, the church is acting more
like a business. Many support the changes wholeheartedly, saying
it's what has to be done if the church they love is to survive.
Others wonder if it's even a church any more.
Malkolm and Jennifer Kenley sold a thriving business in England to
move to Montana and be part of the spiritual community promised by
the church. When the church announced in 1998 that the Glastonbury
subdivision would be opened to anyone - that it was really just
real estate and not the promised land - the Kenleys threatened to
A year later, the Kenleys are gone. Their
lawyer refused to talk about what
"The real crisis
with the church is with its own membership," said one of the many
former officials who have left the church.
that Elizabeth Prophet will retire this summer, many doubt that the
church can survive.
that particular church needs a guru," said former member Harmony
Gates. "That's the way it's been set up since the beginning. I
think they'll just fade away."
other church officials disagree. They say that Prophet's nearly 40
years of channeling "dictations' from the Ascended Masters leave
enough theological material for many lifetimes. Cleirbaut said he
wants to "position our church in a way that there is less focus on
the guns, but more on what are the good things (we) do, where we
are a benefit to society, rather than we create problems to
Using the analogy of a supermarket,
he says he wants a bigger
"We are expanding the
aisles," he said. "The products are the same. We are still selling
the same kind of teachings. But what we want to do is make it more
attractive. The packaging is going to change."
Some reasons for the improved relations
between the church and its neighbors are harder to
Elizabeth Prophet blamed the bad
relations of earlier years on biased journalism and religious
discrimination. It is the fault "of the press, the politicians, the
environmentalists and fundamentalists," she said in 1991. "We never
get decent, objective reporting. We are not treated with any
But the improved atmosphere may have
something to do with church members finally learning to live in the
vast and overpowering landscape they settled in, a place where elk
outnumber humans, a place that despite its ruggedness can be
As they come to feel more
at home, church members are starting to look and act more like the
people around them.
to put your finger on it," Ed Francis said in February. He is now
divorced from Prophet and has severed all his official ties to the
church, though he still lives in the
"But church members
blend in a lot better than when they first came here. They tend to
look like and act like other people who live here. They have become
more a part of the community. They've kind of shed some of their
In the early years,
recalled Francis, "members just hung around with members." Now, he
said, "they've grown accustomed to living in a rural or small town
environment and have come to prefer many of the characteristics of
Only time will tell if the church
will survive without Prophet at the helm.
Cleirbaut is confident the church will
"Our teachings are a
gold mine," he said. "Unfortunately, we still don't practice them
the way they are given to us. We still have a long way to go."
Scott McMillion has been
covering the Church Universal and Triumphant for the Bozeman Daily
Chronicle and other newspapers since 1988. He is the author of Mark
of the Grizzly: True Stories of Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard
Lessons Learned, 1998, Falcon Publishing. He lives in Livingston,