Alpharetta Mom Working to Rescue Children From Sex Cult in Thailand
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution/1988-09-11
Nine years ago, Pamela Eckhardt's children disappeared.
Her husband had left her two years earlier and taken their daughter and son, then 3 and 4 years old, the Alpharetta woman recalled. They were living in Arkansas; she knew because she had seen them briefly. Then, all of a sudden, they were gone.
But seven months ago, in the instant it took to answer a ringing telephone, the mystery began to unravel.
"Do you have missing children?" asked Passie S. "Pat" Jones, an investigator from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's (GBI) Missing Children Information Center, Mrs. Eckhardt recalled. "We have reason to believe your children are being held by a Christian cult somewhere in Thailand."
An anonymous tip to the GBI launched Mrs. Eckhardt, 35, a manager of a nursery, on an odyssey involving private detectives, two U.S. senators, foreign immigration officials and the State Department. Her waking hours are consumed with the mission of rescuing her children from the Children of God - a cult that she once belonged to that is best known for endorsing practices such as incest, polygamy and prostitution.
"I really had given up hope that I would ever find them," said Mrs. Eckhardt, who has remarried and has three other children. "Then, one night I had a very short dream that lasted two seconds that my two children were standing in front of me. The next day, the call came."
Mrs. Eckhardt's search has been complicated by the fact that government agencies such as the FBI and the State Department have little authority to interfere in the lives of Americans overseas, even to recover children taken by a parent who does not have legal custody.
"There is really nothing the U.S. government can do except make statements and try to exert pressure," said Bradley S. Beckstrom, field representative for Sen. Larry L. Pressler (R-S.D.), who helped in the recovery of a South Dakota woman's four children from a Children of God group near Bangkok.
U.S. officials estimate that cults overseas are holding hundreds of children, Mr. Beckstrom said. To address the problem, Congress in July ratified a pact in which 10 countries agree to return kidnapped children to the custodial parent.
Still, a State Department pamphlet recommends that U.S. parents enlist the help of private agencies to recover abducted children.
After receiving the call from the GBI this year, Mrs. Eckhardt obtained a custody order for the children, whom she asked not be identified, and spoke to Vivian Shillander, the South Dakota mother.
"I talked to her children and asked if they knew my children," Mrs. Eckhardt said. "They said, `Oh yeah, they're our best friends. Their dad used to be there but he was kicked out of the cult. They have a new dad and five new moms.'"
Mrs. Eckhardt verified that her children's visas had been renewed in Thailand within the past year. Then she hired a St. Louis detective agency that specializes in recovering kidnapped children and littered Atlanta area churches with pleas for money to pay the agency's fee of more than $25,000. She has received about $10,000 in donations in the past few months.
The Children of God is a keenly secretive cult composed of dozens of small groups that move frequently, cult experts and former members say.
Formed in 1969 by David Berg, a Californian who calls himself "Moses," the group has an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 members, said Cynthia S. Kisser, executive director of the Chicago-based, non-profit Cult Awareness Network.
The cult interprets the Bible as emphasizing sexual promiscuity at all ages, said Mr. Berg's daughter, Deborah L. Davis of Simi Valley, Calif., who left the group in 1979. The whereabouts of Mr. Berg, 69, is unknown, she said.
"The practices of the Children of God are sexual freedom - to do whatever pleases them - to just live in actual pleasure," Ms. Davis said. "You can have sex whenever you want to, with whoever you want to. They teach incest and child sex."
Mr. Berg prints leather-bound booklets called "Mo Letters," many of which feature cartoons of children in sexual poses. One booklet features a drawing that exalts a practice called "flirty fishing" or "being a hooker for Jesus," in which children "use sex to go out and win people, to proselytize," Ms. Davis said. Money is generally solicited as part of the practice, she said.
Many members were born into the cult because both parents were members. Mrs. Eckhardt joined the Atlanta chapter when she was 17, she said, but quit after her husband left her.
In recent years, a handful of children have been brought back to their parents in the United States. Allied Intelligence Inc., the detective agency Mrs. Eckhardt is using, has "rescued" children in Mexico, Peru and Thailand, said Mr. Kissell.
In the South Dakota woman's case, detectives staked out the Thai visa office until the children's father came to renew their visas. Thai officials insisted that they see where the children were living, and the detectives followed the father to a house in a Bangkok suburb. "While the father was fumbling through the papers trying to figure out who has custody, we left with the children," Mr. Kissell said.
Mrs. Eckhardt also is facing the probability that her children -"who have known nothing else except this cult their whole lives" - will not want to come home. Now 14 and 15, the children must sign their own passports, something they may not be willing to do, she said.
Mrs. Eckhardt knows the pitfalls. When she talks of her children, her voice is tinged with doubt.
"It's hard when you don't see people for so long to even imagine them," she sighed. "Even though I believe that they're going to be here, it's still hard to believe that they're really real people and that they're going to be here."