Corwin Springs, Montana -- The big trouble started 10 years ago, when federal agents arrested Vernon Hamilton for possession of illegally purchased sniper rifles in Spokane, Wash.
There was more. Hamilton was carrying $130,000 worth of gold, cash and crates of ammunition, along with an elaborate false identity he had stolen from a California man who had died of AIDS. And that was only the beginning. His shopping list included armored personnel carriers and radar systems, while a letter he wrote to his friend and boss at the Church Universal and Triumphant here, Edward Francis, outlined plans to arm and outfit an army of 200 people.
For many in Montana, the bust confirmed their worst fears about the church: that it was a gun-packing, survivalist cult. Francis, who would later plead guilty to the federal charges, serve a brief prison sentence and apologize publicly for his actions, was the vice president, media front man and a minister for the New Age sect. He was also the husband of its guru, Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Hamilton was a church employee driving a church-owned vehicle and had a church credit card in his pocket when he was arrested. The U.S. attorney in Spokane called him the "head of security" for the church.
Even for those willing to give the church the benefit of the doubt, this was convincing evidence that these weren't the kind of rural neighbors folks were hoping for.
Tensions between locals and the Church Universal and Triumphant had been strained ever since the church bought its first Montana ranch in 1981. Former members had accused the church of "mind control," of abusing and bilking its own members. They said it was a cult and a dangerous one. The specter of the mass suicides at Jonestown arose constantly - all those bodies rotting in the jungle.
The arrest of Hamilton and Francis, coupled with the church's frenzied construction of fortified bomb shelters, began a cycle of fear and suspicion, both inside and outside the church.
But 10 years later, things are different. Instead of the end of civilization, the church must deal with the end of something much closer at hand. Prophet, the church's founder and charismatic leader, who ran the church as a family corporation for the last 25 years, has Alzheimer's disease. Now the church is trying to prepare for life without her.
There is new leadership in the church and a new land ethic, one that focuses on preservation instead of development. The church is even selling land to the government it once reviled.
It is also no longer as secretive, it seldom gets sued any more, and its members have loosened up. They laugh more.
But that's understandable. It was hard to be jovial in the old days with apocalypse on the fast track. And CUT members knew the end was near. They'd heard the word of God on the subject.
Sheriff Charley Johnson of Montana's Park County was a nervous man in 1989 and 1990. Worried about what he called a "sniper mentality" among some church members, he asked the feds for backup. State Rep. Bob Raney, D-Livingston, asked the governor to declare a state of emergency.
Church members were on edge, too, worried about impending doom, about being attacked by skinheads, or rogue units of the National Guard, or the panic-stricken victims of the doom they believed lay just around the corner.
An entity called Saint Germain, a celestial "Ascended Master" and patron of the church who speaks through Prophet's mouth, warned that the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse "ride up and down on the opposite bank of the Yellowstone" from the church's ranch.
"It could have been terrible," recalled Prophet's son, Sean Prophet, who has since left the church and no longer follows its teachings.
"We could have ended up like Waco," continued Sean Prophet, who was at that time a minister and a board member of the church. "If somebody had made a mistake, or if the government had acted rashly. Anything like that, on either side."
The church held 33,000 acres at the time, making it the biggest landowner in the area, and it had 600 employees, though most of them earned little more than room and board. CUT had been a big newsmaker since it bought a 12,000-acre ranch adjoining Yellowstone National Park in 1981. It kept buying more ranches, developing subdivisions and then, in 1986, after years of denying such plans, it moved its international headquarters from California to Corwin Springs, Mont., a sleepy hamlet surrounded by startlingly beautiful scenery and abundant wildlife.
The church's property included some of the most environmentally sensitive ground in the nation, and officials had big plans for the place. They wanted to build a town of 1,000 people smack in the heart of a major migration corridor for elk and bison, using up scarce winter range. To heat the place, they wanted to tap the geothermal aquifer that feeds Yellowstone's hot springs and geysers, triggering environmentalists' fears for the health of that delicate underground plumbing. A huge bomb shelter, designed to hold 756 people, would underlie some of the best grizzly bear habitat in the ecosystem.
Their plans were ambitious enough that Yellowstone officials declared the church the park's biggest single external threat, bigger than logging on Targhee National Forest, bigger than cyanide heap-leach mining at Cooke City.
Socially, church members tended to stick out in a crowd. Macrobiotic diets gave them a lean demeanor here in meat-and-potatoes country. Certain days of the week called for wearing clothing of certain colors, with an emphasis on purple and violet.
Church members were all from someplace else, usually someplace urban, and they considered themselves to be special; they possessed a spirituality, a "light" that set them apart from what one of their Ascended Masters called the local "riffraff." They came here not to blend in with the existing community, but to build a new one.
That sense of separation, in part, explained why Vernon Hamilton and Edward Francis were buying guns. Church members believed themselves to be spiritual "lightbearers' and while that set them apart from most people, it also made them targets for the "dark forces' that conspired against them: aliens from evil planets, fallen angels, capitalists and communists who plotted together. Nuclear war was more than a possibility, it was downright likely, what with the astrological signs spelling it all out and Mikhail Gorbachev using occult powers in the Kremlin. Elizabeth Clare Prophet knew this because she went to the Kremlin via "mind travel" to eavesdrop, she told the faithful.
Fear was rampant, but church members intended to survive. Visibly nervous people carried radiation suits in their rental cars, ordered ammunition in military calibers by the pallet load, and cleared local shelves of camping and survival gear. An armored personnel carrier arrived from a New Jersey dealer called "Tanks a Lot." One man sandbagged his camp trailer alongside Highway 89 and built a fortified structure on the bank of the Yellowstone River.
"I assume it's a bomb shelter," said then Park County Attorney Nels Swandal, who ordered him to remove it because it was in the floodplain.
Fortified bomb shelters made locals nervous. One rancher looked over his fence at a tower of stone and steel and saw an "abomination."
"This tower is evil," Pete Story said. "It's a war tower in the middle of an area mostly frequented by whitetail deer."
Ever since 1981, rumors had circulated that the church kept a cache of weaponry. Church leaders always insisted that they, like other ranchers, kept only a few varmint rifles around the place. But when Hamilton was arrested in 1989, he was not hauling coyote guns. These were Barret semi-automatic rifles, designed to blow through armor from a mile away.
The apocalyptic fears had many roots in the church's complicated theology, but principal among them were warnings from the Ascended Masters, such as El Morya and the Great Divine Director. They spoke to the faithful through the mouth of Prophet, their "messenger" on earth.
"The profound desire of the Lord our God is to accelerate the judgment cycle," Jesus Christ, also considered an Ascended Master, said through Prophet. "Make haste! Make haste!'
A handful of teenage children of church members couldn't take the weirdness and ran away from home. Local CUT critics set up a self-styled "underground railroad" to help them get away, despite parents' complaints about custodial interference. Some divorced parents came to Montana looking for their kids, worried about children living in such an atmosphere.
"If I receive any evidence that those boys have been inside or around those bomb shelters, I will immediately turn them over to child welfare officials," Judge Thomas Olson ruled in a custody dispute between a church member and her ex-husband.
Prophet warned her followers that the dismantling of the Berlin Wall was a "smokescreen" designed to lull the West into a false sense of security. "Daddy, will we be safe in Belgium?" a teenager named Willem Bellens asked his father in 1990, after his mother was arrested for kidnapping the boy and his sister and taking them to a Montana bomb shelter. "What about when the Russians come?"
In Livingston, 40 miles to the north, where the church's activities had entertained local wags for years, bars hosted "end-of-the-world parties." But after a while, as more and more church members arrived, and as former members told more and more disturbing stories about the church, locals stopped joking. The tension was too thick.
State Rep. Raney called the situation a "powderkeg."
Deadlines came and went for completion of the bomb shelters; the latest was March 15, 1990, when thousands of church members "went underground" and spent the night in their shelters.
Some people in the members-only subdivision of Glastonbury, in the middle of Paradise Valley, peered out the next morning and waved Geiger counters to see if the bombs had fallen. But cars zipped by on the highways, jets passed overhead, and for most people, the world continued to stumble along in the normal way.
On April 10, 1990, the 650,000-gallon fuel tanks at the church's 756-person bomb shelter started cracking open, quickly dumping 31,000 gallons of diesel and gasoline into the groundwater. The cleanup cost nearly $1 million. A county commissioner ran for re-election on an anti-CUT platform and won in a landslide. Bumper stickers with a slash across the letters CUT became common.
There were some ugly incidents, too, committed by some who disliked the church. Vulgar graffiti appeared on and around church property and one night, as a long convoy of church members left midnight services, somebody opened fire on several of the vehicles. Fortunately, nobody was hurt.
"Probably drunks," Sheriff Johnson said. There were no arrests.
After the weapons bust and the fuel leaks, state, federal and county regulators became interested in the church, and lawsuits involving the agencies erupted at all three levels. Reporters arrived in swarms, and church members, some of whom had sold homes, quit jobs and maxed out credit cards to finance and supply the bomb shelters, started leaving in droves. When civilization didn't end after all, creditors demanded payment for the dried beans, plywood and cement that church members had ordered.
Contractors slapped liens on the shelters, trying to force payment, and one church member was jailed for refusing to pay non-church employees.
Donations and tithes to the church began drying up as the legal bills mounted. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld a California ruling that Prophet and the church had defrauded a follower and had to pay his estate $1.5 million. The Internal Revenue Service yanked the church's tax-exempt status for two years, igniting another expensive lawsuit. Even at the very core, in the Prophet family and the board of directors, things began to unravel.
As Prophet's grown children left the church, trusted advisors quit and ex-members in the area formed a "CUT-Free support group." One of Prophet's daughters linked up with a local church critic to write an exposé of the church's secrets. (The two women could not get along, and the book was never published.)
Prophet had foretold the onset of a 12-year period of the descent of planetary karma, "the cumulative weight of mankind's sins," 25,800 years' worth. "The calamities we have seen are a foreshadowing of what will come to pass on April 23, 1990, and following," she said in February of that year. "We might use the expression, "You ain't seen nothin" yet." "
But no bombs fell, and on April 22, 1990, a district judge surveyed the disputes over fuel spills, sewage permits and environmental impacts, and ordered the church to halt all work on its big bomb shelter.
For a while, it seemed like all the karma was falling on the church.
Years passed, though, and by 1999, things had changed. The church still has plenty of critics, but lately, environmentalists have been heaping praise on CUT.
So are conservatives like Sen. Conrad Burns, R-Mont. So is the National Park Service and the State of Montana, both of which have blasted criticism at the church in the past.
Church members and locals in Park and Gallatin counties shop in each others' stores, play sports together, serve on the same committees.
The church says it wants to remove cattle from its ranch and welcome some of Yellowstone's wandering bison.
That would reverse its decade-long policy of no tolerance for bison, one that meant hundreds of the shaggy giants were slaughtered by the state when the animals sought their natural winter range.
When church spokesman Christopher Kelley faxed to a reporter an outline of the proposed bison plan for the church's headquarters ranch, he included a handwritten note on the cover sheet.
"Wildlife rule," he wrote.
Church officials didn't say that kind of thing a decade ago. Not to reporters, anyway. There are several reasons for the improved attitudes.
First, the church has recently agreed to sell or place conservation easements on 7,850 acres of its 12,000-acre headquarters property, called the Royal Teton Ranch. Church officials turned down lucrative offers from developers, saying they wanted to help build bridges to the larger community.
Second, the church never turned a shovel of dirt in its expansive development plans, even though it completed two expensive environmental impact statements and has all the permits it needs to build a new town. Church leaders now say those plans are dead.
CUT has capped its geothermal well and given up the right to use it.
Without complaint and with considerable haste, CUT cleaned a trout stream and groundwater polluted by the fuel spilled from the bomb shelter tanks.
In a settlement with the Internal Revenue Service that restored its tax-exempt status, it agreed to sell the cache of weapons. The church never conceded the guns belonged to the church itself, though records going as far back as 1973 showed a revolving ownership that often included high church officials.
Local planners, sanitarians and police say church members have become cooperative and friendly, no longer trying to avoid development review and other regulations.
Perhaps most significant, the church's new leadership has quit focusing so much on apocalypse. Gilbert Cleirbaut, a Belgian-born efficiency expert and corporate downsizer, became church president in 1996. He doesn't like to talk about the "shelter cycle." It's in the past, he says, and the church is focusing on the future.
"To speak about those things is to go constantly backwards to that bad reputation that we had," he said last year. "That's why I don't want to go back to the shelters. OK, we have it. Let's maintain it. But let's go on."
Still, he has to deal with the failed predictions of Armageddon.
"A lot of people were mad or disgruntled because nothing happened," said Cleirbaut, who quit a job in Europe and came to Montana in 1990. "I was extremely happy that nothing happened. But all of our decree focus was on that (see accompanying story). We were more in the survival mentality than in the future mentality."
He says the church is now in its "second life cycle," one focused not on building up ranch headquarters but on reaching out for new members around the world. CUT is re-engineering how it operates, repackaging its teachings to focus on a more "practical spirituality," and, leaders say, being a lot nicer to its followers and employees. Most would agree that's what the church has to do if it wants to survive.
Until recently, the church bound its members to a variety of rules set down by Prophet. They limited how often married people could have sex, required a vow of secrecy for advanced members, and mandated long hours of hard labor for little or no pay. Followers had to "decree' - a rapid-fire monotone of prayer - for hours at a time. Church employees needed Prophet's permission to marry or even to date.
The rules, combined with Prophet's charismatic leadership, the intense focus on her every word - and what many call her abuse of members for "spiritual" purposes - led many to call the church a destructive cult, one that used mind control and preyed upon its members.
"I hated to be (considered) a cult," Cleirbaut said. "It's something that for me makes me shiver, to be a cult. I really could understand why people were afraid of us."
When Cleirbaut took over, he found an organization hemorrhaging money, overstaffed and underworked, he said.
He has laid off nearly 500 people. Being on staff once signified a certain spiritual attainment, former members say, but Cleirbaut says keeping or losing a job is irrelevant to religious growth. He also closed a number of money-losing businesses and shut the door on the idea of creating a self-sufficient community. Church members didn't make good farmers in this high-desert environment, he said; it's cheaper to buy food.
In short, the church is acting more like a business. Many support the changes wholeheartedly, saying it's what has to be done if the church they love is to survive. Others wonder if it's even a church any more.
Malkolm and Jennifer Kenley sold a thriving business in England to move to Montana and be part of the spiritual community promised by the church. When the church announced in 1998 that the Glastonbury subdivision would be opened to anyone - that it was really just real estate and not the promised land - the Kenleys threatened to sue.
A year later, the Kenleys are gone. Their lawyer refused to talk about what happened.
"The real crisis with the church is with its own membership," said one of the many former officials who have left the church.
Now that Elizabeth Prophet will retire this summer, many doubt that the church can survive.
"I think that particular church needs a guru," said former member Harmony Gates. "That's the way it's been set up since the beginning. I think they'll just fade away."
Cleirbaut and other church officials disagree. They say that Prophet's nearly 40 years of channeling "dictations' from the Ascended Masters leave enough theological material for many lifetimes. Cleirbaut said he wants to "position our church in a way that there is less focus on the guns, but more on what are the good things (we) do, where we are a benefit to society, rather than we create problems to society."
Using the analogy of a supermarket, he says he wants a bigger store.
"We are expanding the aisles," he said. "The products are the same. We are still selling the same kind of teachings. But what we want to do is make it more attractive. The packaging is going to change."
Some reasons for the improved relations between the church and its neighbors are harder to grasp.
Elizabeth Prophet blamed the bad relations of earlier years on biased journalism and religious discrimination. It is the fault "of the press, the politicians, the environmentalists and fundamentalists," she said in 1991. "We never get decent, objective reporting. We are not treated with any respect."
But the improved atmosphere may have something to do with church members finally learning to live in the vast and overpowering landscape they settled in, a place where elk outnumber humans, a place that despite its ruggedness can be surprisingly fragile.
As they come to feel more at home, church members are starting to look and act more like the people around them.
"It's hard to put your finger on it," Ed Francis said in February. He is now divorced from Prophet and has severed all his official ties to the church, though he still lives in the area.
"But church members blend in a lot better than when they first came here. They tend to look like and act like other people who live here. They have become more a part of the community. They've kind of shed some of their urban environment."
In the early years, recalled Francis, "members just hung around with members." Now, he said, "they've grown accustomed to living in a rural or small town environment and have come to prefer many of the characteristics of that life."
Only time will tell if the church will survive without Prophet at the helm.
Cleirbaut is confident the church will endure.
"Our teachings are a gold mine," he said. "Unfortunately, we still don't practice them the way they are given to us. We still have a long way to go."
Scott McMillion has been covering the Church Universal and Triumphant for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle and other newspapers since 1988. He is the author of Mark of the Grizzly: True Stories of Recent Bear Attacks and the Hard Lessons Learned, 1998, Falcon Publishing. He lives in Livingston, Montana.