To His Son It Is a Fantasy Island, but to the Tv Show's Producer, His Offspring Fell Prey to a Cult
04/27/1981 at 01:00 AM EDT
Wearing masks and surgical gloves, the invasion party arrived at the River of Life Ranch and Ministry and Truth Station in Apple Valley, Calif. at dawn on Feb. 21. They burst into the main building of the rural religious commune and scoured the bedrooms, shining flashlights and scuffling with sleepy residents. Finally they grabbed three ministry members—Dennis Webster, 36, and two of his three sons, Todd, 9, and Benjamin, 9 months—carried them to a waiting Jeep and sped off. After a high-speed chase, which ended with police halting the kidnappers, the Websters were freed and three of their captors arrested. After an investigation, a total of 14 people were charged with kidnapping and conspiracy in the case, including Dennis Webster's mother, Gloria, and his father, Skip, the co-producer of ABC's Fantasy Island series.
Once a writer for Charlie's Angels, Skip Webster, 56, explains that he was worried about Dennis' involvement in a dangerous "cult." The River of Life, Skip insists, not only brainwashes its members but advocates child beatings. Linda Marshall, 22, a onetime believer who was abducted and "deprogrammed" early this year, confirms the child abuse. "They think that beatings bring you close to God," Marshall explains. "I saw welts and bruises on the little ones." Even Dennis Webster admits using force on his infant, Benjamin. "At first we tried verbal correction and then a pop on the butt," he says. "Then, for a day or two, I hit him with a belt a couple of times. It's beautiful the way he responded to that and he's not needed it since."
A former CBS lab technician, Dennis joined the River of Life community 16 months ago, and remains fervent in his beliefs. In fact, he may file a civil suit against his parents for their unsuccessful snatch. "I had hoped it wouldn't come to this," he said, "but kidnapping can't be swept under the carpet."
The River of Life was founded in 1978 by Ed Mitchell, co-author of a book entitled The Mystery of Babylon Revealed. "I received the call of the Lord to serve while I was working as manager of a supermarket," Mitchell reports. Soon after, he recruited a small band of followers in the nearby town of Thousand Oaks, Calif. That group fell apart when a diabetic member died of insulin deficiency after converting to Mitchell's doctrine of faith healing. Police found the man's body the day after he died, surrounded by Mitchell's followers praying for his resurrection. No charges were brought. Mitchell and his remaining disciples pooled their money to buy a 10-acre, $135,000 ranch in Apple Valley, complete with a swimming pool; they later installed a hot tub. On taking up residence, members donated their life savings (the Dennis Websters contributed $25,000). They cut off contact with their families and, according to defector Linda Marshall, were forbidden to leave the ranch. "If you do you are told you will go to hell," she claims. Mitchell stoutly denies that members are detained. "We've had 35 people leave," he says. "It's their decision." Whatever the facts, the community has shrunk to 11 residents and is so strapped for cash that it has sold most of its possessions, including the living room furniture.
Initially, Skip Webster sought custody of his grandchildren through the courts. But upon hearing further accounts of child abuse from a ranch runaway, he decided to hire Cliff Daniels, 26, to lead the raid on the ranch. Daniels, who was himself once a member of the Light Brigade of Jesus Christ, a Southern "cult," claims to have been acquitted in two other deprogramming-kidnap cases. He believes such raids are necessary. "I call it rescuing a person from an insidious, diabolical leader," he says. "I'd compare Ed Mitchell, on a smaller level, to Jim Jones."
Meanwhile, spurred by ex-members' complaints, authorities have charged nine ministry parents—including Dennis and and his 35-year-old wife, Dori—with dozens of counts of child abuse. Last March 31 they pleaded no contest to the charges, but their lawyer claims the plea was simply a legal device to dispose of the charges quickly so that the parents can retrieve their children from the foster homes to which they were removed after Child Protective Services investigators were told of beatings and poor living conditions. The proceedings could result in the children being placed permanently in foster homes or with relatives.
Skip Webster sees the no-contest plea as a vindication. "I'm ecstatic," he says. He plans to be in court on May 6, arguing for custody of the children. Two days before that, however, Skip must stand trial on 13 kidnapping-related felony charges. He professes optimism that he can patch up relations with his son and daughter-in-law, who remain with Mitchell. "My ultimate hope," he says, "is to see them restored to what they were before he got his hands on them." His son, however, has different ideas. "My hope for my father," Dennis Webster avows, "is that he will repent for his sins, turn to Jesus Christ and ask for his forgiveness."