Five Insane Cults Tied to South Florida

This past Friday, New Times reported that a tiny school in midtown Miami, the Rainbow Cultural Garden, has obvious ties to NXIVM (pronounced "Nexium"), an alleged sex cult run by Albany, New York's Keith Raniere, who was arrested in March on sex-trafficking charges. Raniere's alleged confidant, former Smallville actress Allison Mack, was arrested April 20 on sex-trafficking charges as well. It turns out the school was at one point run by Raquel Perera, the wife of Spanish pop megastar Alejandro Sanz.

After New Times alerted the Florida Department of Children and Families to the school's existence, authorities ordered it shut down for operating without proper licensure. (The school denies having ties to Raniere, Mack, or any alleged cult activity and says the licensing issue is just a bureaucratic snafu.)

This is far from the first time an alleged cult has set up shop in Miami. Here's a primer on the craziest cult cases in South Florida:

1. The NXIVM-tied school founded by Alejandro Sanz's wife:

In 2015, Raquel Perera, wife of 17-time Latin Grammy winner Alejandro Sanz, debuted a school called the Rainbow Cultural Garden in posh midtown Miami. Speaking to Univision, Perera bragged that by immersing toddlers in as many as seven languages at once, the school would revolutionize teaching. Univision credited a New York guru named Keith Raniere with developing the unusual plan.

Fast-forward nearly three years, and Raniere has now been outed as the leader of an alleged sex cult called NXIVM, which is accused of blackmailing women and branding them with flaming-hot irons. Last month, Raniere was arrested by the FBI on sex-trafficking charges; an Albany home tied to the Rainbow Cultural Garden has been raided by the feds, while British authorities are investigating a Rainbow-affiliated school in London.

Now the State of Florida has ordered the midtown Miami school to shut down immediately after New Times brought the facility to the state’s attention. Florida officials say the school was not currently licensed to operate.

“[The Department of Children and Families] has no tolerance for any activities that put children at risk, including operating an unlicensed child-care facility,” David Frady, a spokesperson for the department, said Thursday. “DCF initiated a child protective investigation and ordered the facility to immediately cease operations this afternoon.”

2. The Yahweh Ben Yahweh murder cult:

In 1982, the brothers fell under [Hulon] Mitchell's spell and moved into his fortified Liberty City headquarters; six months later, their mother and two other siblings joined them. Soon a half-brother named Ruben also joined, bringing along a beautiful Bahamian wife and a baby boy named Adolphus. Yahweh renamed the child "Solomon Israel."

From the outside, the group seemed good for the neighborhoods where they settled. Followers helped Yahweh renovate dilapidated homes, open grocery stores, and start clinics. But Mitchell changed. He proclaimed himself the Messiah and gathered a "Circle of 10" — a muscled group of followers armed with six-foot wooden "staffs of life" that were used to beat dissidents. He began controlling every aspect of his devotees' lives.

Inside the Temple of Love, worshippers slept on hard beds with no mattresses and were often limited to one daily meal of rice, beans, and water; women "shared" husbands, who could have sex only in a communal "conjugal room" with Yahweh's permission; they all worked 18-hour days for no pay in the cult's printing shops, stores, and offices. "You had to dedicate your life totally to Yahweh," Ricardo later testified.

Beginning as early as 1981, for a select group called his "Death Angels," that dedication included torture and murder. A follower named Aston Green who argued with Yahweh was beaten to a bloody pulp until semiconscious and then driven into the Everglades and slowly decapitated with a dull machete.

Two years later, a karate champ from Louisiana named Leonard Dupree was cracked over the head with a tire iron, kicked in the groin, and gored through the eyes with a sharpened stick.

White drifters were regularly killed as an initiation rite and their ears given to Yahweh as trophies, witnesses would later testify.

3. The weed-smuggling cult:

By the '70s, smugglers began hauling in marijuana not by the pound, but by the ton. Sneaking pot across the border into Florida became big business — the kind that didn't go unnoticed by the feds, especially when the biggest weed mules weren't exactly subtle.

Take, for instance, the Ethiopian Zion Coptic Church of Miami Beach. Founded by Thomas Reilly, who went by "Brother Louv," and his associates (a group of white guys who went to Jamaica and found God, ganja, and a snake-oil salesman/preacher named Edward Seaga), the so-called church set up shop at 43 Star Island, pissing off the wealthiest people in Miami Beach. Suddenly, their ritzy neighborhood was invaded by a bizarre commune participating in their holy sacrament of smoking weed night and day. In a 1979 CBS Evening News report, Dan Rather noted that many observers considered the Coptics to be "a fraud, a group of rich dope heads who have been allowed to laugh at the law and get away with it."

What they were getting away with was importing millions of dollars' worth of Mary Jane from Jamaica. They owned thousands of acres of fields on the island and even had their own shipping company and freighters to move the drugs, which they argued were a constitutionally protected part of their religion. In 1979, the same year Rather's program televised images of half-naked children in the group playing on the floors of smoke-filled rooms, the top-ranking members of the Zion Coptic Church were indicted for smuggling more than 100 tons of marijuana. Brother Louv eventually landed 15 years in federal prison and served a dozen before getting out in 1994.

4. The turn-of-the-century "Earth is hollow" cult near Estero:

Rapper B.o.B. is embroiled in a feud with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson over whether Earth is flat, because we live in a very strange world. However, if you want to hear about an even stranger theory about the shape of Earth, you don't have to leave the state. Just head to Estero in Southwest Florida and visit the Koreshan State Historic Site, a park dedicated to the history of a turn-of-the-century cult that believed Earth was hollow.

Yep, the Koreshan one-upped B.o.B.'s theory about the shape of Earth and landed on something even stranger. They believed that the planet was indeed a sphere but that humans lived on the inside of that sphere. The sun, they believed, floated in the middle of that sphere.

Like most cults, the Koreshan was founded by a charismatic leader, Cyrus Teed. As a young man, Teed pursued various forms of pseudo-science that weren't quite considered totally crazy during his time, like eclectic physics and alchemy. During one experiment involving electricity in 1869, Teed shocked himself so badly he passed out. He claimed that while he was unconscious, he was visited by a spirit who informed him he was the messiah. He awoke and decided it was his mission to save humanity through his science. He promptly changed his name to Koresh (Hebrew for Cyrus) and started the Koreshan Unity organization.

At the center of Teed's beliefs was cellular cosmogony. He believed Earth was hollow and the sun was a battery-powered contraption that floated in the middle of it. He theorized that stars were just odd reflections of light. He also preached a handful of other odd ideas like reincarnation, alchemy, and immortality; he also said he was the seventh messiah after Jesus. He told his followers he would live forever.

5. The allegedly abusive Kashi Ashram:

From this 1977 retreat in California until her death last year, Ma Jaya's infallibility was nearly unquestioned by her followers. At an isolated Florida ranch near Sebastian, 20 miles north of Vero Beach, she cocooned herself with hundreds who'd abandoned home and family to worship her like a deity. Together, they formed what would become the Kashi Ashram. "I am the breath," she told them. "I am inside you."

For many, to exist near Ma Jaya — a beguiling New Yorker with a tenth-grade education — was rapture. To them, her dogma was beyond the mortal ken. There was incredible benevolence and service to the sick and dying, which eventually afforded her audiences with Pope John Paul II and the Dalai Lama and lured high-profile fans like actress Julia Roberts and folksinger Arlo Guthrie.

But there were also stories of profound cruelty and despotism. Eight former followers interviewed by New Times say Kashi members were beaten for disobedience or spiritual cleansing. A man said he dunked his head into a vat of red paint because Ma Jaya had asked him to. Masked teenagers reportedly battered a 13-year-old boy with rocks inside socks because he'd angered their leader.

In the church's 35 years of existence, adherents claim abuses including beatings, pedophilia, forgery of official documents, and extortion occurred by order of Ma Jaya, according to a New Times analysis of never-before-disclosed court filings, psychological studies, police records, and dozens of interviews with former members. "Kashi Ashram fits every criteria of a destructive cult," says Rick Ross, a nationally recognized authority based in New Jersey. "And the most defining element of a cult is a charismatic leader."

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