From horny hippy Yogis, to murderous musicians, to the former leader of the free world, L.A. is where the charming and insane come to groom their cultish ways. If you can make it as a cult leader here, you can make it anywhere. With the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown Massacre approaching, we figured it might be time to take a look at some of our own homegrown cult masterminds.
Donald Defreeze robbing Hibernia Bank in San Francisco
5) Donald “Cinque” Defreeze: Symbionese Liberation Army
After escaping from Soledad State Prison in 1973, where he was serving a 5-15 year sentence for robbing a prostitute, Donald Defreeze decided he wanted to start a black revolutionary group built upon the principles of Kwaanza – presumably a nod to Ron Karenga’s US organization. Only one problem – he couldn’t get any other black people to join. So he did what most aspiring cult leaders of his day did and found a bunch of crazy white people in Berkeley.
After murdering Oakland’s first black school superintendent Marcus Foster, Defreeze's Symbionese Liberation Army, or S.L.A., pulled off their most famous act -- kidnapping and brainwashing 19 year-old media heiress Patty Hearst and holding her for ransom until her father, William Randolph, gave $2 million to the poor.
Papa Hearst complied, but Defreeze and the S.L.A. reneged on their deal and took Patty to Defreeze’s old stomping grounds in Los Angeles instead.
Things didn’t go well.
After a botched shoplifting expedition ended with Patty gunning up Mel’s Sporting Goods store with a submachine gun, Defreeze and his S.L.A. wound up in a massive shootout with the Los Angeles S.W.A.T. team. According to one Inglewood man with inside information about the group, Defreeze assumed that South Central residents would catch the revolutionary fever once the shooting started. "But hey, this isn't Berkeley," the man said. No one jumped in and Defreeze and most of the S.L.A. died in the shootout.
Defreeze loses points for starting a black revolutionary group that didn’t have any black people, but gains serious cred for the fact that his crew of crazy crackers kept the organization going for two years after his death – including Patty Hearst. Now that’s some powerful brainwashing.
Father Yod: Sexytime!
4) Jim “Father Yod” Baker: The Source Family
In 1969, at a time when quasi-mystical “love cults” were springing up across Los Angeles, Father Yod started the most popular of them all, and showed the world what being a cult leader was all about -- sex, and lots of it. With a dash of stretching exercises, some breathing techniques and a whole lot of Yogic mysticism, Yod found a way to turn a trendy Sunset Strip vegetarian restaurant into his personal recruiting depot for freaky tantric experimentation.
Father Yod gets bonus cult leader points for being the only respectable human being on this list. No rape, murder or aggressive brainwashing among his crew. His devotees were hard-working, intelligent, economically self-sufficient individuals who just happened to enjoy getting it on with a bearded living god.
When the Family ran low on money, Yod took away his “children’s” sex privileges until they got jobs. Now that’s discipline.
Yod loses points for believing a little too strongly in his own divinity. He died after convincing himself that his powers would safely navigate him through a solo hang-gliding flight off a 1,300 foot Hawaiian volcano – without ever having taken a lesson.
3) Charles Manson: The Manson Family
The Charles Manson story is one of squandered potential -- a cult leader cut down in his prime before he really had time to stretch his wings.
Oh Charlie, why did you have to order all those people killed? You could have been one the greatest cult leaders the world had ever known. You’d probably have your own megachurch in Orange County right now. You might even be running the Green Party. (Seriously, listen to his rants sometime. He’s like a batshit version of Jared Diamond.)
Instead the whole “Helter Skelter” racewar thing never really caught on and while it certainly speaks to Manson's cult credentials that he got his followers to kill for his vision, the entire effort was premature. He was having tons of sex and converting celebrities to his cause. All he needed to do was hold off the crazy for a couple more years and he could have gone worldwide.
He does gain cult points for the fact that they’re still digging up Manson Family murder victims. You have to run a tight ship to keep that level of secrecy over the years. That’s solid cult leadership. Plus the fact that Manson got Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to pay for his studio time, as well as Gonorrhea treatment for his women, is admirable.
Bonus points for the fact that his music is actually pretty good. Seriously. Have a listen. Manson’s stuff will outlive any of us. More bonus points.
Creepy David Berg in the Philippines
2) “Father” David Berg: Children of God – “The Family”
Jonesin’ for sex with underage teens? What to do…what to do…? If you’re David Berg, you invoke the name of Jesus and start yourself an “end of days” Christian cult.
Your cult has truly gone mainstream when you can molest kids for decades and get away with it – which, according to a 2005 Rolling Stone expose, is exactly what David Berg and his Children of God have done in the L.A. area since 1968.
At their height, the Children of God were purported to have over 9,000 members across the globe. Actor River Phoenix and brother Joaquin were raised among its members. Aside from sheer numbers, organizational endurance and molestational chutzpah, Berg’s Children of God get huge cult points for creating the hilariously titled proselytizing technique “flirty fishing,” whereby the more attractive female followers would seek out lonely businessmen and offer them sex and eternal salvation. “Flirty fishers” were rumored to have a nearly 100 percent conversion rate until the practice was banned in 1987 with the spread of the AIDS virus.
Though Berg died in 1994, his Children of God still live on – though not as he would have wanted. In 2005, after an alleged lifetime of molestation, including being forced to sleep with his own mother Karen Zerby, Berg’s chosen heir, Ricky Rodriguez, murdered fellow “Family” member Angela Smith before committing suicide. Rodriguez, known among the Children of God as Davito, was a product of “flirty fishing” and had been bred to battle the anti-Christ.
His mother Zerby now helms the organization.
1) Ronald Reagan: Reaganomics
So profound a hold does the cult of Reagan have on the national consciousness that even before his death in 2004, his high priests were clamoring to erect a giant Reagan effigy in the middle of the Washington Mall.
With the dueling mantras of “lower taxes” and “smaller government,” Reaganites kept on chanting until the entire nation was sucked in. As president, Reagan repackaged Feudalism, in the form of sweeping executive power and trickle-down economics, and sold it as Americana pulp. Our nation drank up oceans of his evil Hoodoo juice.
Like many leaders, Reagan’s cultish ambitions were born out of failure. A Bel Air resident for most of his life and the former president of the Screen Actor’s Guild, Reagan was a New Deal Democrat until his acting well dried up in the 50’s. His politics conveniently took a sharp turn right when he discovered that selling out was far more profitable than solidarity and he began schilling for General Electric.
Using his powerful Hoodoo, Reagan was able to convince his followers that he was a decent guy, even when his actions spoke otherwise. He divorced his first wife when she wouldn’t support his political career and estranged his two children. When the aforementioned Donald Defreeze kidnapped Patty Hearst and convinced her father to donate food to the poor, Reagan, then governor of California, publicly prayed for an outbreak of botulism. As Christopher Hitchens put it, Reagan had a cuddly “softness on right-wing dictatorships,” including apartheid ridden South Africa.
To this day the cult of Reagan continues to thrive, with politicians invoking His name to pander to yet-to-be-deprogrammed American electorate. Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controller’s strike, the beginning of the end for the American middle class, continues to be looked at as a high-water mark in American politics.
So effective was the Reagan brainwashing that now, with the nation facing a $10 trillion deficit, the notion of raising taxes on the wealthy is largely derided as Socialism. Massive corporate bailouts are essential to the health of the nation while building levees and maintaining our infrastructure is considered superfluous.
Reagan turned himself into King George, and transformed the corporate world into a series of feudal fiefdoms -- all with the complicity of a beguiled American populace. King Gipper is truly the most powerful cult leader the world has ever known.