Trouble From Denmark

Wacky Danish cult leader Mogens Amdi Petersen was a guest on tony Fisher Island until recently; now he's staying with the State of California

On a typically sweltering subtropical day in October, two pale-faced men just shy of 40 years old step off a plane at an eerily empty Miami International Airport. They note this to each other in a language unusual even in this crossroads of the world as they stroll ever so casually toward the baggage claim, and then over to the counter to rent a car. The rental agent is delighted, as Miami's tourist industry has been dealt a severe blow by the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington exactly three weeks prior. The two men, Jakob and Michael, ease the car out of its preassigned parking space, consulting a map of Miami's twisting, unfamiliar terrain. Their destination: Miami Beach.

The men watch as the strip malls, warehouses, and general destitution of the inner city give way to the breathtaking views of blue Biscayne Bay and the palm trees on the Julia Tuttle Causeway. Up ahead, they can see the island chain that forms the eastern edge of the bay, striking with its gleaming glass-and-steel condos and pleasure hotels.

The car follows the road almost to the ocean, turning left to prowl along Collins Avenue in the direction of a pre-Renaissance Beach charmingly stuck in the downhill phase of its Fifties and Sixties heyday. The car stops in the dead zone halfway between the fabulousness of the Eden Roc/Fontainebleau stretch and Little Buenos Aires, the section of the Beach named for its new and vibrant population of young Argentines.

Polly Becker
Polly Becker

The hotel Jakob and Michael have chosen as their base of operations is the innocuous Comfort Inn, strategically located just a few blocks south of the Sterling, a luxury condo on 67th Street where they hope to catch the man they've traveled secretly from Copenhagen to find -- a man who most definitely does not want to be caught.

The man is Mogens Amdi Petersen, the mysterious and wealthy leader of a global network of companies operating under the cover of a charity organization some have called a dangerous cult. The Petersen empire includes schools for troubled youth in Denmark; used-clothing shops and volunteer-recruitment centers (for aid projects in Africa and Central America) in Europe and the U.S.; plantations in Belize, Brazil, and Malaysia; real estate and shipping companies in the Caribbean and Florida; a satellite television station; and a wild-animal ranch in Zimbabwe. There is also a 130-foot luxury yacht (once docked in Palm Beach) named after the woman who played Scarlett's maid in "Gone with the Wind" -- Butterfly McQueen.

Mogens hasn't been seen by the public in 22 years, going underground in 1979 after Denmark and other countries began to sniff him out. And for almost that long government officials, journalists, and police in several nations have been searching for the man behind an organization called Tvind ("Twin" in old Danish, with folkloric associations to the occult), so named for the Denmark farm where Petersen's followers built their first school in the early Seventies. In August 2001 Danish police cracked the security code on computers seized in a raid on several Tvind buildings months earlier, convinced it would provide the evidence they needed to charge Petersen and a small circle of his top aides with embezzling millions of dollars meant for charity purposes. Tvind's utopian dream of the Sixties counterculture devolved into a twisted, brave new corporate world.

Over the years horror stories have emerged in numerous media reports about young, idealistic college students from England, France, Scandinavia, and the United States lured to questionable Tvind "humanitarian aid" projects in Africa and Central and South America. Story after story recounted the travails of students who were injured or abused, contracted tropical diseases, or were stranded in strange countries and left to find their own way home. Some students, who nevertheless found these experiences positively life-changing, were indoctrinated to become part of Tvind, working as teachers of future students and turning control of their wages and lives over to the collective. Here is Alex Casteel, a former volunteer and four-year veteran of Tvind (he worked on child aid in Guatemala): "People like me agree to join the teachers' group because we believe in doing humanitarian work," the British resident explains. "We agree that our salary should go into a pooled account believing this money [would] be used to fund new projects. Then the reality appears."

"[Tvind volunteers are] a lot of young people who are in a transitional phase in their life," adds Zahara Heckscher, a former volunteer who in the late 1980s went to Africa with a Tvind organization as a 22-year-old world-beater fresh out of college. "People who are drifting a little bit. They are idealistic, not very skilled or experienced." Heckscher quickly became disillusioned with the motives and methods of the Danish leaders of the project and quit her group (an offshoot in Massachusetts called the Institute for International Cooperation and Development).

It is only in the past couple of years, through the efforts of law enforcement and an international jumble of journalists, that people in many countries have begun to see the sheer scope of the Tvind enterprise, disguised as myriad, seemingly unrelated companies and charities. With his luxury lifestyle, hidden global reach, and loyal cadre of "mistresses," the charismatic Petersen is almost mythic -- David Koresh minus the armed-to-the-teeth compound, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh absent the cool robes and bioterrorism, or Reverend Sun Myung Moon, sans loony religious pretensions. (Maybe even Charlie Manson without the lethal girlfriends.)

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