Trouble Taints a Cerebral Sanctuary
Deep in the Sierra foothills, at the end of a twisting road, lies Apollo--an oasis of high culture in the outback. A mock French chateau houses a museum and library stuffed with rare art and books. A vineyard on terraced hillsides produces award-winning wines.
Apollo is the worldwide headquarters of the Fellowship of Friends, whose 2,000 cerebral members believe that keen self-awareness, a positive outlook and immersion in life’s finest things--from Baccarat crystal to Johann Sebastian Bach--offer a path to higher consciousness.
They have been led on this journey for 25 years by Robert Earl Burton, a former schoolteacher who has guided everything from when his followers bear children to what sort of shoes they wear. Burton tells members he speaks with 44 angels who watch over his flock--among them Abraham Lincoln, Plato and Jesus Christ--believers say. Burton also has predicted that Apollo will be the lone surviving outpost after a global nuclear holocaust in 2006.
Disillusioned former members say the fellowship is more than just another California curiosity. A growing number of them--as well as some academics--call it a cult that entraps its mostly well-educated members with a false promise of spiritual evolution. A recently ended lawsuit and accounts from ex-members echo that claim and add another: Burton, they say, has for years seduced young males in the group.
The suit and similar allegations by other members have spurred dozens to leave the group. It was brought by a Marin County man who claims Burton first demanded sex from him at age 17. Troy Buzbee, who had asked for $5 million in damages, charged that Burton brainwashes members into a state of “absolute submission,” allowing him to feed a “voracious appetite for sexual perversion.”
Fellowship officials and their attorney, Abraham Goldman, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews about the group and Burton. The Buzbee suit was settled late last month. Buzbee’s attorney, Ford Greene, would not comment except to say the case “is over.”
Several former members, including some who held high-level positions, said the details in the suit served to confirm for them what a number of followers had come to suspect about the 57-year-old Burton.
“For years I ignored or justified a lot of things, but this I could not ignore,” said Pamella Cavanna, 54, who left the fellowship last year after devoting two decades and more than $250,000 to Burton and his teachings. “A teacher should have moral standards that we aspire to. Instead, Robert has standards we are forced to overlook.”
Former members, as well as court records, fellowship documents and Burton’s prolific writings to the faithful, reveal much about the group and a leader who rose from humble beginnings to command a little-known $26-million empire.
To outsiders, the fellowship can have an entrancing face. Its headquarters sprawl across 1,300 acres in Yuba County about 70 miles north of Sacramento. Its Renaissance winery produces cabernets and Rieslings that have been poured for American presidents and are respected by wine experts. The Apollo Opera company recently mounted an acclaimed production of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in nearby Grass Valley.
The fellowship also has a reputation in the art and antique world as a serious collector. The group recently liquidated its museum full of antique Chinese furniture, a collection considered among the world’s preeminent holdings. The collection fetched $11.2 million at Christie’s auction house in New York, where Disney chief Michael Ovitz was among the buyers, snagging a pair of elaborately carved cabinets for $607,500.
The winery, opera and antiques--along with the art, gardens, fountains, rare Persian carpets, inlaid Steinway pianos and other valuables sprinkled around the property--reflect the fellowship’s guiding philosophy. A refined social and cultural milieu, writes Burton, helps a believer “awaken his higher centers” and develop an immortal soul.
“Robert always used to say, ‘Beauty creates its likeness in those who pursue it,’ ” recalls one former member from Los Angeles who asked not to be named.
Burton commands an annual salary estimated by the group’s former chief financial officer at $250,000 or more. Members serve as his bodyguards and chauffeurs, and one is often assigned to record his observations for the faithful. Rarely seen around Yuba County, Burton travels frequently in Europe, where he meets with followers and shops for collectibles for his stately Louis XVI-style home on the Apollo grounds.
Partial to silk socks, Burton at one time insisted his underwear be pressed, say ex-members. He also enjoys golf, manicures, fresh flowers, fine wine--and food. Standing more than 6 feet tall, he is slender now but at one point weighed close to 300 pounds.
A butcher’s son born in Mineral, Ark., Burton graduated from San Jose State in 1963 and taught elementary school in Contra Costa County. In 1970, while living in a Volkswagen bus in Berkeley, he formed the fellowship, apparently after convincing a circle of followers that he possessed the powers of a superior being.
“He was quite wonderful then, a charming person of great knowledge,” recalled Stella Wirk, who was one of Burton’s first 10 students. Wirk said she and her husband were expelled from the group in the early 1980s after refusing to pay a $3,000 fine imposed by Burton for violating his rule against smoking.
Today, about 500 followers live and work at or near Apollo. Others live, work or study at more than 65 fellowship “teaching centers” worldwide. They hold regular jobs but, according to ex-members, socialize mainly among themselves and fill their off hours with meetings, dinners, concerts and other fellowship events.
Members are encouraged to limit contact with family and other outsiders whom Burton refers to as “dead” and “food for the moon.” “Men do not understand what an affliction it is to be average and to participate with the stagnate masses,” he once wrote.
The fellowship attracts followers who are highly educated and well-heeled. Believers tithe 10% of their income and make other “donations” throughout the year, according to the group’s literature. An average American member gives more than $6,000 annually, the wealthy much more, said Charles Randall, the fellowship’s former chief financial officer. He quit the group in 1994 after sending a letter to a fellowship official expressing disillusionment and advising him that men felt coerced to join Burton’s “harem.” Randall said the fellowship’s annual income exceeded $5 million when he left.
Many members joined after finding fellowship bookmarks planted in volumes at metaphysical bookstores. The bookmarks guide the curious to upcoming “prospective student” meetings, held at lavish homes rented by the fellowship. After attending three such meetings, a recruit is invited to join, according to a lengthy 1993 explanation of the group written by members and published in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat, a Yuba County newspaper.
The group’s roots are in the arcane teachings of two early 20th century Russian philosophers, George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky, whose ideas are referred to as The Fourth Way. One central premise is that humans are spiritually “asleep” and must strive for constant self-awareness to achieve true consciousness. Disciples must also refrain from expressing negativity, such as complaining, gossiping or using defensive body language. Such behavior is said to drain energy needed for the pursuit of enlightenment.
“It’s all very stimulating stuff in the beginning--the ideas, the caliber of the people you meet, the music, the fancy dinners, Walt Whitman, all the culture,” said Ron Lancaster, a member for nine years who joined while working at Hughes Aircraft Co. in El Segundo and left over Burton’s alleged sexual conduct. “But there’s no doubt it’s a cult. Our lives were totally controlled.”
Over the years, the members’ personal hygiene, pets, hobbies, reading material and diet all have been influenced by Burton, often through written pronouncements.
In a June 1980 issue of the Renaissance Vine, a bulletin for members, they were told “the exercise of not expressing wit . . . has been resumed.” At one point, Burton told members to trade their eyeglasses for contact lenses because “it makes the face a more beautiful impression.” Any “discomfort from wearing the lenses,” Burton said, “is good for voluntary suffering.”
Another time he told married couples to wait five years before bearing children. Premarital sex and adultery were explicitly prohibited, as were homosexual relationships until the early 1990s, ex-members said. For a long period, women were required to wear skirts.
Members were notified in 1979 that “a new exercise begins this month: We are to avoid placing our elbows on flat surfaces such as tables or desks; armchairs are fine. . . . Additionally, we are asked to avoid using the word ‘thing,’ beginning August 1.” To help shock members into spiritual wakefulness, Burton has periodically banned the use of such everyday terms as “I,” “really,” “oh” and “hi.”
“It was strange,” said Lancaster. “Instead of saying, ‘I’ll have a cup of coffee,’ you’d say, ‘It wants a cup of coffee’ or just, ‘Cup of coffee.’ ”
As part of his emphasis on refined living, Burton once sought to turn his flock into a replica of an 18th century English aristocracy. Members took Anglicized names and were told to use their utensils in the European fashion, with the fork in the left hand, tines pointed down. During this period, the common “cookie” became a “biscuit.”
Inside the Fellowship
Burton is also regarded by followers as a prophet. When he forecast a worldwide recession in 1984, believers urgently stockpiled provisions and weapons. He has predicted that a 1998 earthquake will consume the West Coast but spare Apollo. As for the 2006 apocalypse, Burton says Apollo is an “eternal city” that will preserve culture for the ages.
Some ex-believers say now that Burton’s rules and pronouncements were a distraction, Wirk said, “to keep us from reflecting on what was really going on.” At the time, however, the members said they followed Burton faithfully, believing that obedience would accelerate their spiritual growth.
“When people join these groups, they don’t go in planning to surrender their critical thinking and personal autonomy to the will of the big kahuna. But that’s exactly what happens,” said Joel Friedlander, a fellowship member for 22 years who was editor of Burton’s 1991 book, “Self-Remembering.”
“The indoctrination is so complete, and the peer pressure so great, that gradually the old you is replaced by a new you who believes all the propaganda, including the line that eternal damnation is the price of getting out.”
Margaret Singer, a professor emeritus of psychology at UC Berkeley and a cult expert, said the fellowship uses techniques common to many cults. Veneration of a single living leader, authoritarian structure and intensive control of members’ lives fit the classic profile, she said.
“They look for people who are a bit lonely or needy and they shower them with love, making them feel special,” said Singer, who has tracked the fellowship and talked with many alumni. “From there, the control and manipulation happen one step at a time.”
With the fellowship, Singer said, “it’s all centered around giving money to Burton . . . his personality sets the tone and controls every little thing the group does.”
Once in the fellowship, members become addicted to the feeling of belonging to a blessed elite, ex-believers say. Leaving that behind--especially after large investments of time and money over a period of many years--takes tremendous will, they say.
“It was terrifying to leave, because you’re trained to view outsiders as this mass of sleeping humanity with no possibility,” said a Bay Area woman who spent 20 years as a traveling teacher in the group. “And when you finally do get out, the fellowship community--95% of all the people you’ve known for the last 20 years--just drops you. You feel like you’ve wasted your life and have no place in the world.”
Many ex-members said they were not spurred to leave until allegations emerged about Burton’s sexual behavior. For years, they said, the teacher’s alleged conduct was unknown because of strict rules against gossiping or speaking ill of him. Moreover, they said, Burton claimed to be celibate, saving his sexual energy for the good of his flock.
Word of the leader’s alleged habits first slipped out in 1984, when Samuel Sanders--a former member of the fellowship board of directors--sued the group, claiming fraud and alleging that Burton used his “god-figure role” to prey sexually upon impressionable young men. The Sanders suit--which was settled in 1988--led an estimated 100 members to quit.
A similar number left in 1995 after ex-member Richard Buzbee wrote an open letter to the fellowship’s followers, claiming that Burton had demanded sex from him and had a sexual relationship with Buzbee’s son, Troy, for many years.
Troy Buzbee, now 27, sued last April, claiming that Burton first seduced him when Buzbee was 17. Declaring himself “an angel in a man’s body,” Burton allegedly told Buzbee that the gods wished for the two to be close.
“Burton would kiss [Troy Buzbee] on the forehead, which he said represented the seat of the soul and then instruct [Buzbee] to ‘separate’ from his body and just ‘let go,’ ” said the suit, which alleged the sexual encounters continued for more than five years and that Burton had sex with other young men. Although Buzbee said he was repulsed and suffered “self-loathing,” his “brain was programmed to believe that there was no place to go,” the lawsuit said.
Troy Buzbee is now married with a young daughter. He declined to be interviewed after the suit was settled, said his lawyer.
Numerous other ex-members have told similar stories in open letters to the membership and to each other, in newspaper accounts and in interviews with The Times.
Thomas Easley, Burton’s secretary and chauffeur in the mid-1970s, has alleged that Burton forced him to have oral sex on many occasions, assuring Easley that surrendering to him would “please the gods and help my soul evolve.
“To understand how this can happen, you have to realize that this man is considered the height of the human species, the second Christ, the light,” Easley, a member for 18 years and now an artist in South Lake Tahoe, told The Times. “Your instinct, of course, is to run away and refuse him. But how do you reject the teacher, the person in whom you’ve placed all your faith?”
Easley has copies of letters from other ex-members describing sexual relationships with Burton. Easley wrote to Goldman seeking an apology from Burton, and in a June 9, 1990, response the fellowship attorney wrote that Burton was willing to apologize if Easley agreed not to sue in the future. Easley’s charges were reported in 1993 in the Marysville Appeal-Democrat.
Bruce Levy, an ex-member who restores rare books in Grass Valley, also has discussed having a sexual relationship with Burton.
“No one held a gun to my head,” said Levy in an interview with The Times, “but in a spiritual sense, he did. Under his teachings, one has to do what one doesn’t want to do in order to evolve spiritually. . . . It’s the least you can do for your teacher.”
Goldman, Burton’s attorney, acknowledged in a 1995 article in the San Diego Union that the leader had sex with the senior Buzbee and at least one other male follower. Goldman said it was Burton’s policy not to make public comments, and added that “we don’t think a [sexual] relationship between a leader and a member of the congregation is abusive in and of itself.”
Despite the controversy around Burton, the fellowship enjoys a relatively comfortable coexistence with its neighbors in Oregon House, a wisp of a town populated by retirees and urban refugees. In the early years, locals were wary of the newcomers, who poured in with chain saws to clear manzanita and terraced the hills to plant grapevines. The group also raised suspicions by closing a county road that crossed its property and buying up surrounding land when it became available.
Yuba County Assessor David Brown said the fellowship has rankled some people by seeking special tax exemptions to avoid paying property taxes, which totaled $273,000 last year. When one exemption--for the Apollo museum--was denied, the fellowship took the matter to court but ultimately lost. The fellowship is exempt from state and federal income taxes as a religious organization.
“At first . . . there was a lot of anxiety about them,” said former county Supervisor John Mistler. “But they’ve worked hard on their image.”
Some civic leaders now view the fellowship and its Renaissance winery--the county’s third-largest taxpayer--as a source of pride. The group keeps a stretch of road litter-free through the state’s Adopt-a-Highway program and gives generously to the local Lions Club.
“This year, they’ve offered $10,000 toward our new community center, and around here, that’s a big deal,” said Ken Eaton, a retired contractor in Oregon House. “We don’t understand them, but we live with them.”
Meanwhile, ex-members say they live with lingering effects of their time at Apollo. One woman, who has been out of the group for two years, cannot listen to Bach without feeling a chill. Another catches herself standing in a daze in the supermarket, unable to make decisions such as which brand of soap to buy.
Janja Lalich, who runs a support group for ex-cult members in Alameda and who has counseled fellowship alumni, said such “mental traumas can be devastating.”
“The real tragedy of groups like the fellowship,” she said, “is they rip off the best and brightest people in society and use them like slaves for years. When these people get out--if they get out--there’s an awful lot of pain to overcome.”
Scott Wilson of The Times library contributed to this story.