Trouble From Denmark
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.
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.)
So where do you go when the whole world is looking for you? Why, Miami, of course. The instant city where anyone can hide in plain sight. "It's sunny and it's on the sea and these Danes, being basically Vikings, they love the sea," quips Michael Durham, a British journalist who has been writing about Tvind for seven years.
For Jakob Rubin and Michael Ulveman, investigative journalists for Jyllands-Posten, Denmark's largest newspaper, this was the story of a lifetime. They spent months preparing, following up tips from confidential sources who assured them Miami was where they had the best chance of finding Petersen. Their mission was so secret that only they and their editors knew what they were up to when they suddenly disappeared from Denmark.
So here they were, holed up in a hotel room, on a strict budget and with a whole strange town to search. And they knew that other reporters had come here and failed before them. "We knew for years that Tvind was having some kind of central place in Miami because they have a lot of activities [including aid projects and plantations] in South and Central America and the Caribbean," divulges Rubin. "And the bosses from these would come back to Miami to report [to Petersen]. But Danish journalists waited outside the Tvind apartments for half a year." To no avail. Mogens and his globe-trotting Danes were never spotted.
Rubin and Ulveman knew they had to be smarter and more daring if they were going to get their man. They spent a few days staking out the condo units in the Sterling and La Gorce Palace down the street, purchased by Petersen's aides through a Tvind company called Chilton Intervest Corp. One of the difficult aspects of tracking Mogens and his business dealings is that he never signs anything and officially owns nothing. Everything is accomplished through a boggling array of companies headed by a handful of the Tvind inner circle, those who've been with Petersen since his days as a sort of socialist education guru, leading students on long journeys to the Middle East and Africa back in the Beatles' era.
In their hotel, Rubin says, the reporters hit the same wall that had stopped many other journalists. "We were deciding how to attack the situation. We realized we had to get on Fisher Island," where Petersen was believed to occupy two penthouse apartments with two female associates. That was going to be a challenge, especially on a budget. Dubbed "an international Martha's Vineyard with warmer waters" by Florida Travel magazine, Fisher Island is an exclusive 216-acre playground for the rich and reclusive. It can be reached only by ferrying across Biscayne Bay or by helicopter. The island's expensive hotel, converted from William Vanderbilt's old winter home, seemed out of reach. And at first it was. "The price for a night was so high that our newspaper could not afford [it] unless we could guarantee the story," Rubin recounts.
But the persistent journalists were helped by the devastated post-September 11 tourist economy that left most Miami hotels empty. "The third time we called, they told us there was a possibility of getting a [steep] discount," Rubin recalls. And so the real undercover work began.
Posing as wealthy tourists, Rubin and Ulveman tried to look the part. They bought obnoxious Hawaiian shirts and wore them over shorts and sandals. They carried cameras but were forced to hide them because island residents, a collection of superstars (at one time Oprah Winfrey, Boris Becker, and Mel Brooks), business moguls (former Hebrew National hot dog CEO Isidore "Skip" Pines, retired Rockefeller Group CEO Richard Voell, and former Cigarette Racing Team owner Robert Torter), and folks with connections to major crime, are a bit camera-shy. Once checked into the hotel, the pair commissioned a golf cart to take a tour: "We were driving around in our Hawaii equipment with tennis rackets and pretending we were naive millionaires," Rubin laughs.
The journalists spent five days on the island, casing the joint, so to speak. The goal was to meet Petersen, but in the meantime, they attempted to learn something about the man from Fisher Island Club employees and other island residents. With their garish outfits and peculiar habits, the duo must have appeared odd. But they benefited from the strict rules on the freakishly private island that prevent employees from becoming too curious about residents or guests. "We were definitely behaving strangely," Rubin confesses. "We were driving around his house 20 or 30 times a day. The security people never stopped us because they were afraid we might be somebody's [eccentric, powerful] sons."
That see-no-evil latitude gave them license to discover two Mercedes parked in the garage in the spots reserved for Petersen's flat, and to learn that the second apartment had been purchased to accommodate Petersen's two Leonberger dogs. (The building allows only one dog per apartment.) They also learned Petersen's habit of jogging along a pathway near the water with the large canines. From confidential sources the journalists were able to get their hands on pictures of the interior of Petersen's penthouse, and to talk to people who'd been inside. There were marble floors, a grand piano, fireplace, five bathrooms, a fitness room, and a personal spa. The bedroom held a four-poster bed and teak dressers. But few they talked to could say they'd seen Petersen himself, or the middle-aged women who were often with him.
One resident who lives in the same building as Amdi remembers receiving a strange call one afternoon in October as he napped, recovering from South Beach excess. "I thought it was a prank call," says the 33-year-old mortgage company owner (who asked that his name not be revealed). "[The Danish journalists] said they wanted to meet me at the bar and show me some pictures and articles. I figured if it was the real thing, I would have heard from the FBI." (Local FBI sources confirm that Danish police had in fact been in contact with them regarding a cooperative investigation.) Rubin and Ulveman also spoke briefly with Petersen's personal trainer, Oscar Carucci. Carucci described Mogens as a charismatic, inspirational guy, a sort of Tony Robbins type who told him, "If you have a dream, follow it."
The journalists carried with them a miniature photograph copied from a Petersen identification card that had fallen (Rubin declined to reveal how) into their hands. The only recent photograph known to exist, it shows an almost skeletally thin man who appears much older than his 63 years. The picture doesn't show his height, but he is nearly six and a half feet tall. His hard countenance and thin lips, "like a Nazi criminal," remind Rubin of European fugitives of another age. Looking at this picture, few people on the island could say they knew the man. Some were able to provide small assistance, both on and off the record. "It wasn't difficult to get people to cooperate," Rubin says. "We just showed them the [scandalous] articles about him."
In the end, Rubin and Ulveman never met Petersen. He may have been tipped off that they were lying in wait on Fisher Island, or he may simply have been ensconced in one of his many other international hideouts, as indifferent as an old lion. Soon after the reporters left, the apartments that had provided an anonymous haven to the Petersen crew for ten years were put up for sale. The Danes returned home to write, with the help of colleague Orla Borg, a huge, splashy story that took up eight pages of Jyllands-Posten's October 28 issue. "The story was ruling the media for several weeks in Denmark," Rubin proclaims proudly.
Like other journalists in other countries to whom New Times spoke for this story, Rubin has spent a great deal of time contemplating the mystery that surrounds Petersen and his followers. And like them he expresses a mixture of fascination and horror with the man. "You need a real crazy genius to [exploit] the idea of helping the world -- to make himself and a select few rich," Rubin muses. "He must be so disciplined, being so far away and maintaining control over everything. It's extraordinary."
Rubin pauses, and you can almost hear him shaking his head across the phone line all the way from Copenhagen. "None of the [top echelon] insiders ever betrayed him," he says. "That's amazing. The loyalty -- combined with fear -- is beyond normal." Steen Thomsen, a former Tvind teacher who joined the organization in 1972 and left in 1998, calling it a "cult," accounts for this endless loyalty in a 1998 report he sent to the Danish Ministry of Education. Tvind members were bound financially -- some members were forced to sign papers making them responsible for large loans or property. They were bound psychologically by being forced to cut all ties to the past and to regard the outside world as the "enemy." Members were broken down through isolation, group pressure, even hunger and sleep deprivation -- to the point where they would respond to the most capricious, unreasonable requests. Thomsen tells of the day he and another man, Lars Peter Pendrup, a Tvind school principal, were walking slowly by Petersen when he suddenly shouted at Lars to hurry his pace. "Just for once, Lars Peter, could you move? Can you run there!" Thomsen remembers Petersen saying while pointing to a distant destination. "And there! (pointing to another)." "Like this, he [commanded] the then 40-year-old principal to run the gauntlet of teachers' group comrades [who were hanging around]," Thomsen wrote.
THE TENTACLES OF TVIND
"In the times of atrocious apartheid, in the times of the Cold War, in the times of the belligerent ideologies, the prevailing images were in black and white. It was that simple. Either for or against.
... The basic ideological battle between fascism, capitalism and communism finally fought to a decisive end, with a multitude of versions of parliamentary democracy, connected to the free marketplace as every nation's understanding of its economy. Humanists deliberated while they saw it happen. Now it has happened. The world will for a long time have to develop within the framework of ... parliamentary democracy with a free marketplace. This charter thus accepts these conditions as the framework within which the activities of HUMANA PEOPLE TO PEOPLE shall unfold."
Although this sounds like the kind of pedagogical nonsense a bright teenager, high on Ginsberg and caffeine, might read to his friends at 2:00 a.m. in some Denny's smoking section, it's actually part of the "charter" of Humana People to People, one of the more well-known nonprofit groups run by Tvind. Its headquarters is in Zimbabwe, where Tvind helped president Robert Mugabe gain power in the Seventies and continues to support him today. In the United States, another prominent Tvind spinoff is Planet Aid, which according to its Website collects used clothing from hundreds of yellow boxes in states including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, New York, and Pennsylvania. Still another, according to Danish police, is called U'SAgain. They sell the clothes and the money supposedly goes to development projects in poor countries.
Zahara Heckscher, the former volunteer, remembers one of those projects. It inspired her later to cowrite a book, "How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas," about the many legitimate volunteer organizations, with a warning chapter on a Tvind group. Heckscher was one of the first Americans to be recruited by the Institute for International Cooperation and Development in Massachusetts. The students were to create a fruit tree orchard for local farmers in Zambia, study, travel to other African nations, and spend a couple of months traveling the U.S. to talk about their experiences. "It sounded so perfect on paper," Heckscher recalls. "I had worked in the anti-apartheid movement and I wanted to volunteer in Africa." They each paid several thousand dollars for the privilege of volunteering.
In Zambia, the group of about a dozen young students was based in the small farming town of Mkushi. Heckscher says a major sign that something was wrong came when they met their first Zambian farmers. "They said, Do you know this land was stolen from us? We cleared it and the government took it away from us and gave it to [Tvind].' We thought the idea was to help poor farmers grow food for their families and to maintain independence from South Africa."
The Americans and 150 Zambians created a model orchard of thousands of fruit trees. But Heckscher became increasingly uncomfortable with the way the Danish-led team was accomplishing its goal. First the trees were planted in the dry season, so Zambians were hired to walk down to the river to get buckets of water. Then they used pesticides on the trees. The workers weren't trained, nor did they have masks. "It was sort of this European model that didn't really work there," Heckscher says. "It just got worse and worse. They started building houses in a row pattern instead of the usual [Zambian] circle. It turned out [the group leaders] made them tear down their homes and rebuild in this grid [like a European village]. One of the directors said to me, We need to make them think like us.' I found that shocking."
Economic imperialism disguised as environmental charity and poverty relief? Oh yes, as Heckscher later realized. She describes the project leader, a man named Rudy, as a strange, contradictory character who spent most of his time cozying up to Zambian government officials. "He had a certain charm and charisma and also a streak of racism, a complete disrespect for the Africans and their culture," she laments. When a Danish woman, a top Tvind leader, visited the project, Heckscher was equally dismayed. "She was so dreadful," she says. "She kept talking about their plantation in Belize where all these happy little workers were. She sounded like an imperialist capitalist coming in with all these projects that were making a lot of money while masquerading as aid projects." Worse, she displayed the relentless optimism of the cultist. In the end, the orchard failed, and the Zambians were fired, turned off their former land.
As Heckscher looks back, she sees the warning signs she'd ignored. How the group had tried to control every waking moment with exhausting schedules and inadequate food. How the volunteers were isolated from the outside world and encouraged not to question what they were told. "If you look at the things that cults do -- sleep deprivation, the charismatic leader, humiliation, isolation ... [Tvind has] it all," she acknowledges. "They don't have a religion, but they do have an obscure political theory that no one can clearly articulate."
She continues. "There are a lot of good volunteer projects out there. This is the only one we found that was completely illegitimate. What I see is a bunch of projects designed to make money. Volunteers pay $5000 [initiation], then raise another $5000 on the street, selling postcards. The used-clothing business [consists of donated] clothes being sold overseas, and Tvind gets free labor. What a great deal!"
Christoffer Holmsteen was fourteen in the early Eighties when his parents put him in a Tvind "travel school" in Denmark; he was bored with regular school and wanted to learn to sail. The travel part he liked, but Holmsteen says the school itself was creepy. In the mornings the students would learn social theory and a much-revised version of history. In the afternoon they would take apart buses for scrap metal to pay for their trips to Morocco and Algeria.
Holmsteen remembers being required to read a book written by a Tvind leader named Mikael Norling (now the head of Planet Aid's office in New York), praising the genocidal Cambodian Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge. "[The book] talks about how wonderful they [Khmer] are and absolutely nothing about the several million people they killed," he recollects. "Then the next year I saw The Killing Fields and realized [Norling] was all propaganda." Holmsteen also viewed a number of North Korean propaganda films while at the school. (Norling once hosted a party in Denmark commemorating the birthday of North Korea's despotic founding father, Kim II Sung, according to Boston magazine.)
Marianna Maver, a former teacher at a Tvind school in Virginia in the mid-Eighties, has similar memories. The Tvind group had contracted with the state to run a small facility for juvenile delinquents. Maver initially thought the Danes were "just really into saving the world. My impression was it was sort of an Outward Bound, a travel experience school, and I was all for that," she sighs. "I found out that they just tell you what you want to hear."
Maver (now a massage therapist in Michigan) became uncomfortable almost immediately with what was going on. "The agenda was to teach this sort of Maoist propaganda," she claims. "There were no textbooks and few materials. They hired me with no questions and I didn't have a teaching degree." Then things got even weirder. "They were pushing me to move on campus," Maver shudders. "They said, All of us are turning our [paychecks] over to the school. You can live with us and we'll take care of your needs.' They got grumpy when I refused."
Maver soon quit and reported the school to state authorities, who shut it down in 1985 because of numerous complaints from state social workers (security and safety infractions, neglect, students attacking other students, etc.). She also reported the group to the FBI, which she says did nothing. "They probably just put me on their kook list," she chortles. "What could be crazier than a Danish-European communist cult? No wonder the FBI didn't believe me. It's nuts."
THE ENGLISH CONNECTION
The very nuttiness of the notion that such an ominous organization on the scale of Tvind could exist helped it operate under the radar of most media and government authorities for decades, according to English journalist Michael Durham. "It all seems so unlikely," he admits. After many years of negative publicity in Denmark, where Tvind began, the group has little credibility in its home country and is being hounded by Danish police, who are trying to prove Petersen's flunkies embezzled most of the tax-free money donated to humanitarian projects it took in. The police further charge that many of those projects were phony, created out of thin air to capture grant money. Some of Tvind's fraudulent organizations and schools have also been closed down in England, Spain, and France.
But Tvind companies, like the AIDS retrovirus, simply metamorphosed, changed names and moved to new locations, where populaces were unsuspecting. And it would often take years before a nosy reporter or concerned official would notice that something was dramatically wrong. That changed in 1999, when Durham, a contributor to newspapers such as The Observer and The Times of London, designed a Website (www.tvindalert.org.uk) to aid journalists around the world in investigating Tvind activities. (The Website has also become a gathering place for former members of Tvind organizations and for parents looking for help in rescuing their kids.)
Durham has been investigating Tvind schools and charities operating in England since 1995. His website was originally just a collection of newspaper articles and a dossier, full of tantalizing leads he'd never had time to follow. He felt a website might generate new sources. "Before I knew it the messages were just pouring in from people all over the world saying, This is what happened to me.'"
His first glimpse into the international scope of Tvind came when he spoke with Steen Thomsen, a former headmaster of a Tvind school in Britain, who had recently become disillusioned. "He told me a story of this huge, multinational organization that was corrupt top to toe and run by one powerful, shady figure," Durham recounts. "It was run rather along the lines of organized crime in that it was compartmentalized and highly structured. It was all very cleverly done, but it was touching the lives of thousands of young people. [Thomsen] called it a cult."
So is Mogens Amdi Petersen a cult leader? And if so, how did he transform from being an idealistic, passionate young teacher in Denmark in the mid-Sixties into a corrupt old mindfucker?
It all began as the Age of Idealism broke into pieces with hard drugs, the assassinations of great world leaders, total consumer permissiveness, and what appears, with hindsight, to be a general decline in standards in the West. Petersen, sensing a wanderlust among disaffected youth, created a traveling school for young adults designed to teach them the ways of the world by actually taking them into it. As charismatic as an actor, he led groups on long treks into Turkey and other exotic places and put them to work building schools in Denmark. As part of a trendy anti-nuclear kick in the Seventies, they built a huge windmill at the first Tvind school. Later they put the rest of their Third World "development" apparatus together.
But from the beginning there was trouble. To maximize Tvind profit, the forfeiture-of-wages policy was introduced. "Teachers" were expected to contribute all of their time and energy to the cause, and were systematically isolated from the outside world: "Late in the Seventies all of us members [were sent] home ... where our old documents, private letters, and family pictures were stored, to burn it all," Thomsen wrote in 1998. "... Amdi Petersen will use all means necessary to ensure his followers say farewell to their history, enabling them to stand naked in front of Him, their big Leader."
Petersen was also paranoid. Thomsen says he required rooms to be scanned for electronic bugs before he entered them, would only contact members via cell phones, and urged members to fear letter and car bombs. He further claims that marriage and children were heavily discouraged and that some female members were pushed toward sterilization. Why would people allow this to happen to them? "They are in complete awe of him," Durham marvels. "He's like a god. [If] Amdi says, Pack your bags for Tibet and leave the wife tomorrow,' you do it."
It was when these negative aspects began to surface in public, marring the carefully cultivated Good Samaritan image Tvind used as a front (and perhaps Petersen had twisted into a pathological rationale for his own behavior), that Petersen and his followers became even more secretive. He completely withdrew in 1979, signaling a possible emotional crisis. And the international hunt of the journalists began in earnest. "There has been a sense of a game between us, the journalists and [Tvind], sort of a little hunt," Durham says, with relish.
Nuri Kino is a Swedish journalist who went undercover at a Swedish clothing factory to expose it as a moneymaking scam for Tvind. He says his own fascination with Petersen occasionally borders on obsession. "He's an asshole, a fucking fascist," the hyper-expressive Kino spits. "Because they are hurting a lot of people. And I can't help being fascinated -- to get in their brain and understand the motivation. Amdi must have one of the most incredible brains in the world."
Durham agrees. "The [compelling] question is, all of the people who are in it, do they know what they are doing? Are they evil, or is the wool being pulled over their eyes, too? It's a question that's never been resolved." Jakob Rubin, the Danish reporter, is equally puzzled. "We don't yet understand what the purpose of Tvind is," he acknowledges. "Yes, Mr. Petersen is trying to collect millions, but that [simple answer] is not satisfying. We believe they were trying to create an alternative economic world order."
Durham is convinced that the Jyllands-Posten story describing in detail the lifestyle Petersen and his cronies enjoyed in Miami was important because it fleshed out the rumors that had haunted Tvind since Petersen's disappearance more than twenty years ago. "For the first time, the Danish people were presented with the evidence," he exults. "They were suddenly asking themselves, Is that where all our money went?' It really tipped the mood in Scandinavia."
This was the story Durham had been waiting for ever since Steen Thomsen told him that Miami, with its easy-access international ports, was being used as the headquarters of Tvind's expansion into Central and South America. Thomsen recounted a summit meeting held in 1997 in one of the Tvind Miami condos. "He described enormous, luxurious condominiums and said that although [it wasn't known then], that's one of Tvind's world headquarters. It sounded like the plot of a James Bond movie. They all sat around and Amdi said, Okay, I want you to go to Fiji or Brazil,' or whatever. That is why Tvind is now establishing itself in all these areas. This is the office where they are carving up the world!'"
They may have been carving up the world from a condo off Miami Beach, but Tvind kept a low profile in town. New Times phoned Anne-Lise Gustafson, the longtime Danish consul in Miami. She knew the Tvind story well from the European newspapers but had never, to her knowledge, encountered Petersen or his cronies. Once, however, back in the early Eighties, she did meet a Tvind sailing ship at the Port of Miami. The captain had asked her, as consul, to greet the students traveling onboard. It was not a pleasant experience. Gustafson describes the ship as barely seaworthy, full of juvenile delinquents that the captain told her kept trying to escape. "It was Tvind," she says, trying to reconstruct the memory. "They would take [troubled students] out on a ship and straighten them out [while teaching them to sail]. My husband, who was in the navy for many years, said it was irresponsible to take anyone out on that [unsafe] boat."
But was Amdi always a monster, or did something happen to him along the way? That is the personal agony of Steen Thomsen, a man who gave 26 years of his life for his belief in Petersen's social revolution. "What is the aim [of Tvind]?" Thomsen wrote. "Surely, once it was a Chinese-inspired revolution when it all took its beginnings in the late Sixties and early Seventies. Amdi Petersen was for most of us a revolutionary hero on level with Chairman Mao, Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and others."
And then suddenly it happened. February 17, 2002, in the wee hours of Sunday morning, Mogens Amdi Petersen flew into Los Angeles airport from Africa, en route to Mexico. He presented his passport at customs as usual, expecting the usual perfunctory stamp. But after September 11, airport security had been tightened. An INS officer checked his name against a list of people wanted by federal law enforcement. Turned out the FBI had agreed to arrest Petersen on sight and hold him for the Danish government, which wants him and several of his inner circle for massive tax fraud and embezzlement of roughly $11 million (and this from only one of his charities -- Danish police case summary notes include Citibank accounts in Miami).
Petersen was unceremoniously dumped into a cell in the Metropolitan Detention Center in Los Angeles. Danish authorities immediately requested extradition. The U.S. Attorney's Office in L.A., which teamed with Danish prosecutors to argue against releasing Petersen on bond before U.S. Magistrate Stephen Hillman, was besieged by the Danish press. "I've got about a million Danish reporters I have to deal with today," complained a harried Thom Mrozek, public affairs officer for the Attorney's Office. "They are all over this shit. It's amazing. There's about ten or twelve of them who flew in from Copenhagen for this!"
Petersen, in a move considered unusual by observers aware of his generally secretive nature, hired high-profile attorney Robert Shapiro (one of O.J. Simpson's murder trial "Dream Team" lawyers). Shapiro, a situational ethicist who found grave fault with Simpson defense tactics only when that trial was won, immediately began portraying his client as a "philanthropist." Nevertheless, he lost his bid to get Mogens bonded out when the judge declared him "a serious flight risk." Danish newspapers and the Los Angeles Times reported he had recently applied for both Brazilian and Zimbabwean citizenship, and Danish cops believed he was preparing to hide out somewhere in South America since his Fisher Island hideout had been blown.
In a Los Angeles courtroom, the orange-jumpsuited Petersen has looked tired and despondent. This is a picture journalists like Jakob Rubin savor:
"Now in the detention center is this very tall guy, very skinny and old," he imagines. "He's there and he's definitely not liking it because he's used to the best of everything. He's breaking down very fast ..."
But maybe not. Nuri Kino in Sweden puts a darker spin on Petersen's impending court trial: "I hope they can put him in jail, but my fear is that that will make [his followers] even more tight, and will make [Tvind] grow, because it's them against the whole world."
Kino's voice drops: "Like he's their martyr."
Get the Weekly Newsletter