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10 Dark Mysteries Involving Strange Cults

by Robin Warder
fact checked by Jamie Frater

Most people can’t understand the decision to join a cult. It’s hard to fathom the motivation behind someone who abandons everything for a group with controversial and unorthodox beliefs and practices. The potentially horrific nature of cults really came into the spotlight in the 1960s, when cult leader Charles Manson convinced members of his “family” to commit a series of barbaric murders. This demonstrated that people who have been brainwashed by cults are capable of doing anything, which is why cult activity has been at the center of some bizarre unsolved murders and unexplained disappearances.

10The Disappearance Of The Tarkington Children

The Gray Standoff on ABC 20/20 Part 1 of 2

Over the years, there have been numerous armed standoffs between law enforcement and fanatical religious cults, and they have often ended in violence. Believe it or not, one of these standoffs has been going on in Trinidad, Texas for 15 straight years.

John Joe Gray is the zealot leader of a religious militant sect known as the Embassy of Heaven Church, an organization which rejects government authority. In December 1999, Gray was indicted for assaulting a state trooper. After failing to appear in court, he barricaded himself behind a padlocked gate on his 47-acre wooded ranch, refusing to leave the property and threatening violence against any trespassers. At the time, at least 15 of Gray’s family members and followers were believed to be holed up inside the compound. They have lived there ever since.

The most troubling aspect of this story is an unsolved mystery involving two missing children. For three years, Gray’s daughter, Lisa, was married to a man named Keith Tarkington. The couple had two sons, Joe and Samuel. Keith became perturbed by Lisa’s cult-like family and filed for divorce in April 1999. He was granted custody of his children when Lisa failed to show up for their divorce hearings. The last time Keith spoke to his ex-wife and two sons was outside the gate of her family compound, but he has not seen them since. Even though Gray claims that that Lisa, Joe, and Samuel are no longer living at his ranch, there have been no confirmed sightings of them for nearly 16 years.

Even though there is a warrant for Gray’s arrest, authorities have not ventured onto his property, fearing that the situation could escalate into a violent bloodbath. As a result, Keith Tarkington still does not know the fate of his two children.

9The Disappearance Of Charles Southern

In 1987, 39-year-old Charles Southern worked as a college English professor in Chicago. His life took a bizarre turn after he joined a cult-like spiritual sect known as “Conscious Development of Body, Mind, and Soul,” run by a woman named Terri Hoffman. Shortly after Southern underwent one of her meditation sessions, his family found him wandering the streets and rambling incoherently. Southern wound up hospitalized and soon became disillusioned with Hoffman and her sect.

Southern had plans to take a vacation to India in December, but during that month, he mysteriously vanished without explanation. Southern’s family found his passport at his residence, indicating he had not left on his scheduled trip.

There were other disturbing clues, too. A vial containing the poison curare was found in a drawer. Some of Southern’s clothing was folded on a ceremonial stool to resemble a Nigerian tribal symbol for death.

Southern’s family also found two notes, which appeared to be his last will and testament. They named Terri Hoffman as the executor of his estate, but the will was so badly written that Southern’s family doubts he was the author. This would not be the only inheritance Hoffman ever collected. Over the years, 11 people associated with Hoffman’s cult have committed suicide or died under suspicious circumstances, and in many of these cases, their wills named Hoffman as the beneficiary. In fact, prior to leaving her his estate, Hoffman’s own husband committed suicide after making a farewell video where he claimed to have terminal cancer. An autopsy showed no trace of cancer in his body.

Nonetheless, there has never been any evidence to file criminal charges against Terri Hoffman, and Charles Southern remains missing.

8The Murder Of The Mills Family


Photo credit: Jonestown Institute

Few stories about cults are more horrifying than the Jonestown Massacre. On November 18, 1978, Jim Jones convinced over 900 followers from his cult, the Peoples Temple, to participate in a mass suicide by ingesting cyanide at their Jonestown commune in Guyana.

In one of his final recordings, Jones mentioned a couple named Deanna and Elmer Mertle. For years, the Mertles had lived in the Peoples Temple with their five children, but they left after Jones had one of their daughters beaten. After changing their names to Jeanne and Al Mills, the couple became very outspoken about Jones’s unsavory practices. Jeannie published a memoir about her experiences and was very active in helping other people defect from the cult. Jones often threatened retribution against the Mills family, and 15 months after the Jonestown Massacre, they became the victims of another tragedy.

On February 27, 1980, Al, Jeannie, and their 15-year-old daughter, Daphene, were shot to death inside their Berkeley, California home. Rumors circulated that the Mills family had been murdered by a vengeful hit squad made up of surviving members of the Peoples Temple. However, the investigation soon turned to the couple’s 17-year-old son, Eddie, who’d been left unharmed.

Eddie claimed to have been watching TV in his bedroom while the shootings took place and was unaware they were happening. Authorities found Eddie’s story suspicious since there were no signs of forced entry and Eddie had microscopic traces of gunshot residue on his hands. However, the murder weapon could not be found. In 2005, Eddie Mills was arrested on suspicion of murdering his family.

In the end, there was no evidence to press charges against him, so he was released, and the murders remain unsolved.

7The Disappearances Of Chantelle And Leela McDougall

Doomsday cult family disappears from Australia

In October 2007, 27-year-old Chantelle McDougall and her six-year-old daughter, Leela, mysteriously vanished from their hometown of Nannup, Australia. At the time, Chantelle was living with her 45-year-old husband, Simon Kadwell, who also went missing without explanation.

Chantelle had gotten involved with Simon when she was still a teenager. At the time, the family lived in a caravan owned by 40-year-old Antonio Popic, who also disappeared. They left everything behind, including their wallets and credit cards. They were last seen selling Chantelle’s vehicle for $4,000, but none of the money in her bank account has ever been touched. However, things took a bizarre turn once investigators started delving into the background of Simon Kadwell.

It turned out he had previously lived in England under his real name, Gary Feldman, and had stolen the identity of another Brit named Simon Kadwell before moving to Australia. He lived under numerous aliases over the years and was the head of a bizarre New Age religious cult. The cult followed the teachings of a doomsday book entitled Servers of the Divine Plan, based around the idea of “servers” taking a specific position on Earth to prepare for the impending apocalypse.

Chantelle McDougall and her daughter were also members of this cult and had cut off all communication with Chantelle’s immediate family. It’s theorized that all four missing individuals traveled to a specific location to prepare for doomsday, but there is no evidence of them ever leaving Australia. They have practically vanished off the face of the Earth and have not been seen for over seven years.

6The Suspicious Suicide Of Bethany Deaton

Introducing BHOP: Bethany House of Prayer

The International House of Prayer (IHOP) is a religious organization based out of Kansas City, Missouri. One of their worship groups, consisting of over 20 people, is run by Tyler Deaton, who found himself at the center of controversy after the death of his 27-year-old wife, Bethany.

On October 30, 2012, Bethany Denton was found dead in the back seat of a van near Longview Lake. She had been suffocated by a plastic bag over her head, and an empty pill bottle and handwritten suicide note were found at the scene. Initially, authorities did not find anything suspicious about Bethany’s death, but nine days later, a fellow IHOP member named Micah Moore walked into the police station and confessed to murdering her. He claimed to be acting under the orders of Tyler Deaton.

Tyler came under fire for running his worship group like a cult. All of his followers lived together in two houses, separated by sex, and he controlled every aspect of their lives. Tyler had been married to Bethany for 10 weeks but carried on affairs with other men, believing his marriage would cure his homosexuality.

According to Micah, Tyler ordered him to murder Bethany because she had been sexually assaulted by other men in the group and Tyler wanted to prevent her from talking about it. Micah was subsequently charged with first-degree murder. While Micah claimed that he’d forged Bethany’s suicide note, his DNA was not found on the bag over her head, and a handwriting analysis concluded that she likely wrote the note herself. Micah later recanted his confession, and with no other evidence to implicate him, prosecutors dropped the murder charge in November 2014.

Officially, Bethany Deaton’s death is still considered a suicide, but many suspicions remain about her death.

5The Murder Of John Gilbride

John Africa’s MOVE Organization-K. Brown

During the 1970s, a liberation group called MOVE was formed in Philadelphia, led by Vincent Lopez Leaphart, who changed his name to “John Africa.” MOVE became known as an urban religious cult with a strong anti-government stance, and they had numerous brushes the law.

On May 13, 1985, MOVE became engaged in an armed standoff with the police at their barricaded hideout on Osage Avenue. A shoot-out ensued, and an explosive charge was dropped on MOVE’s hideout. The charge ignited a gasoline container. The subsequent fire took out the entire city block, claiming the lives of 11 MOVE members, including John Africa. This would not be the last time MOVE found itself at the center of controversy.

Years after Africa’s death, his widow married John Gilbride, a white man 20 years younger than her and fascinated by MOVE. They had a son together, but Gilbride eventually became perturbed by MOVE’s radical cult practices and filed for divorce. The couple found themselves engaged in a heated custody battle over their son.

In September 2002, Gilbride testified at a custody hearing that members of MOVE had threatened to kill him. On September 27, Gilbride was just hours away from having his first court-ordered visitation with his son when he was shot to death inside his car outside an apartment complex in Maple Shade, New Jersey.

Suspicion immediately turned toward MOVE, who responded with the claim that the government murdered Gilbride to frame them. They even implied that he might have faked his own death. Thus far, there has never been any evidence to definitely tie MOVE to John Gilbride’s murder, which remains unsolved.

4The Disappearance Of Rose Cole


Photo credit: User2004/Wikimedia

In 1958, Charles E. Dederich founded a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program in Santa Monica, California called Synanon. As the years went on, Synanon expanded beyond drug treatment and attracted people interested in an alternative lifestyle. By the 1970s, it had devolved into a dangerous religious cult.

It got to the point where anyone who joined Synanon was forced to turn over all their assets to them and become a lifetime member. Anyone who tried to leave the cult would face serious consequences. By the time the 1990s rolled around, Synanon was shut down by the Internal Revenue Service for financial misdeeds, and some of its members were even convicted of attempted murder. One unresolved mystery which surrounded Synanon was the disappearance of a teenage girl named Rose Cole.

In 1972, Rose was 15 years old and ran away from home. After she was found, Rose told a judge that she used and sold drugs, so she was sentenced to a court-ordered stay in Synanon’s treatment program. Months later, Rose Cole vanished without a trace. The story goes that Rose ran away from Synanon at some point.

Her family received two letters from her, where she claimed to be living on the streets of San Francisco and suffering from a kidney infection. In her last letter, Rose expressed fear that Synanon officials would find her, and said she would not write again until she turned 18 and became a legal adult. Rose’s family never heard from her after that, though there were unverified rumors that she contacted her father sometime during the 1980s to confirm she was still living on the streets.

While there’s no evidence that Synanon caused Rose Cole’s disappearance, the organization’s shady history has caused much speculation.

3The Murder Of Maureen Dutton


Photo credit: James Cowan

At approximately 6:00 PM on December 20, 1961, Brian Dutton returned to his home in the Knotty Ash region of Liverpool and was shocked to find his wife, Maureen, lying dead on the living room floor. She had been stabbed 14 times. Maureen had been watching over her two young sons, two-year-old David and 22-day-old Andrew. Both children were unharmed, and while it’s believed that David witnessed his mother’s murder, he was unable to reveal any clear details.

Investigators were left baffled by the crime since nothing was stolen from the house and Maureen was not sexually assaulted. However, rumors began circulating that Maureen had been the victim of a ritualistic murder perpetrated by a religious cult.

The cult followed the Polynesian god Tiki and was known for making sacrifices to Tiki during the winter solstice. An hour and a half before Maureen was found dead, witnesses reported seeing a frantic woman on a bus who muttered about needing to get to London to board a plane. That same afternoon, a suspicious young man was seen in Maureen’s neighborhood, vomiting behind a church.

The day before the murder, a man posing as a doctor called upon the Halewood home of another woman with a newborn baby. This man examined the woman, but when her husband checked into the doctor’s background, he could find no record of any doctors under the name this man provided. Months later, a male nurse was arrested for stealing drugs and equipment from three local hospitals. He had been passing himself off as a doctor and had a distinctive tattoo on his arm identifying him as a Tiki worshiper. However, police were never able to tie him to the murder. To this day, no one knows who was responsible for killing Maureen Dutton.

2The Disappearance Of Alexander Olive

In the early 1980s, a young woman named Rosemary Olive became involved with the charismatic Ulysses Roberson. She eventually gave birth to a son named Alexander, whom Ulysses renamed “Salaam.”

Ulysses engaged in abusive relationships with several different women, who were forced to father his children and live together as a quasi-polygamist cult. Ulysses abused all his children. Alexander was his most frequent target since he was biracial and Ulysses believed the boy was harboring a demon inside his body. When Alexander was four years old, Rosemary finally broke free from Ulysses’s cult and went to live with her son in San Francisco. On November 9, 1985, Ulysses abducted Alexander from his home, and this was the last time his mother ever saw him.

Rosemary traveled to South Lake Tahoe to demand the return of her son, but Ulysses proceeded to beat her. Ulysses served one year in jail for assaulting Rosemary but denied all knowledge of Alexander’s whereabouts. After Ulysses was convicted of an unrelated rape in 1997, two of his former girlfriends finally came forward and told authorities that shortly after Alexander was abducted from his mother, they witnessed Ulysses beating the boy with a piece of firewood and taking his lifeless body on a van ride to a remote area.

When DNA tests found traces of Alexander’s blood in Ulysses’s van, he was charged with Alexander’s murder. Even though Ulysses maintained his innocence, he was convicted of second-degree murder in 2009 and sentenced to 15 years to life in prison. Alexander’s body has never been found.

1The Disappearance Of Carlos Castaneda’s Witches

What Happened to the “Witches” of Carlos Castaneda?

The infamous New Age figure Carlos Castaneda gained prominence after publishing a 1968 memoir entitled The Teachings of Don Juan. The book described Castaneda’s magical adventures with a Yaqui Native American shaman named Don Juan. Even though the book was since been debunked as fiction, it sold millions of copies, and Castaneda also found success by teaching a movement technique called Tensegrity.

During the 1990s, Castaneda formed a corporation called Cleargreen to promote Tensegrity and recruited five women to help run his operation. However, Castaneda’s operation was run like a cult, as all five of these women changed their names, abandoned their old lives, and lived in complete seclusion with him as his lovers. They became known as Castaneda’s “witches.”

On April 27, 1998, Castaneda died of liver cancer. However, his death was kept secret and not revealed to the media for two months. By that time, Castaneda’s witches were nowhere to be found.

Castaneda’s five female followers were Amalia Marquez, Patricia Partin, Florinda Donner-Grau, Taisha Abelar, and Kylie Lundahl. Shortly after Castaneda’s death, these women closed down the Los Angeles compound where they lived with him. The phone numbers for all these women were disconnected, and they completely disappeared. Partin’s car was soon found abandoned in the Panamint Dunes area of Death Valley National Park.

In 2003, skeletal remains were discovered in Death Valley and were eventually identified as Partin. Her cause of death could not be determined but is believed to be suicide. It’s been speculated that all five of Castaneda’s witches went off somewhere to commit suicide after his death. Even though Cleargreen continues to operate to this day, no trace of the other four missing women has ever been found.

fact checked by Jamie Frater