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Cults and cops.

In the early days of the Waco siege, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms mouthpiece Jack Killorin told reporters that the original February 28 raid had been intended to head off an expected Jonestown-like event inside the Mount Carmel compound. Now, one tragedy later, we're all left wondering who might have been advising the ATF behind the scenes and predicting another People's Temple in the making.

Police agencies have long relied upon outside "cult experts" when surveiling groups deemed deviant or bizarre. Some of the information has been biased, and much of it just incorrect--evangelical samizdat posing as criminology.

Take the case of the Elf Lore Family ELF, for short), an Indiana-based neopagan group. In 1985, ELFers gathered in a clearing in a Brown County forest. A local deputy sheriff, also a recent attendee at a "cult training seminar," watched the members of the group dance around a bonfire and concluded that they were "really" engaging in a Grand Guignol--like orgy of blood-drinking and animal sacrifice.

Other observers (among them a conservation officer) saw no such thing, nor did anyone else. Still, the local newspapers went with the deputy's version of events. "Satanic Rites Held at Yellowood Forest" read the headline to a story about ghastly rites that never took place.

The deputy sheriff saw both what he wanted to see and what he was trained to see, caught up as he was in a closed system of expectation. William Guinea, an Indiana folklorist who studied and wrote on the competing interpretations of this single event, concluded that opposing subcultures (here, those of neopagans and a Christian police officer) "could produce separate legends from a single event"

Similar (and similarly misguided) "expert" tip-offs have led to embarrasing confrontations for police departments. Several years ago, cops in a New England town raided what they thought was the meeting-place of a murderous satanic blood cult. Told by local "experts" that the group was planning to gather in order to sacrifice a blonde, blue-eyed baby, anxious authorities broke down the doors only to discover the amazed members of a medieval recreation society.

Likewise, some years back police descended upon the Northeast Kingdom Community, a Christian commune in Island Pond, Vermont, with a long history of cordial relations with the town. There the authorities alleged that children were being systematically abused by "cult members," and some 350 kids were swept up in a raid that was as dramatic as it was expensive. An investigation followed, and shamefaced state officials were forced to concede that child abuse had indeed taken place --that is, when the terrified kids were rounded up during the sweep itself.

One of the experts relied upon in the Island Pond case was Rick Ross, professional deprogrammer and self-proclaimed anti-cultist. Ironically, Ross was one of several cult experts consulted by ATF in the Branch Davidian stand-off which began, in part, due to child-abuse allegations.
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Title Annotation:Against the Grain; police cult experts often overreact
Author:O'Sullivan, Gerry
Publication:The Humanist
Article Type:Column
Date:Jul 1, 1993
Words:482
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