Victims of the Church of Love Were Only the Lonely

updated 01/30/1989 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/30/1989 01:00AM

A cold, driving rain pelts down on Burrows, a tiny hamlet (pop. 70) in northern Indiana's farm country. Richard Martin, a 29-year-old mechanic, is out in his garage tinkering with an ancient tractor. "I love fixing things," he says softly. "That's my love right now."

Love. At the mention of it, his rich blue eyes turn downward, a forlorn look clouding his face. "You won't make fun of me, will you?" he asks anxiously. "You don't think I'm stupid, do you?"

No, just lonely—desperately lonely. That's why Martin, in 1981, answered a postcard invitation to join Col International, otherwise known as the Church of Love. How to describe the Church of Love? It was all things to all lonesome men. It was a self-help group, a lonely hearts club, but above all it was a perfumed dream—one that held the promise of a perfect future spent in the company of beautiful, caring young women.

In exchange for a $15-to-$30 "love offering," Martin could write to any one of the 13 Love Angels pictured in the Col directory and receive one reply. He wrote to Terri, Dawn, Toni, Linda, but mostly to his Love Bride, the lissome brunet Vanessa Covington. He wrote perhaps 1,500 letters over four years. He sent Vanessa pictures of his dog and his tractor and himself as a baby. The Angels wrote back, and their letters spoke of their burning need for him. "They gave me a feeling of security, that someone really cared about me," he says.

According to Col literature, the Angels were the fallen sort, wayward girls who had known sin in the past. But they were being "purified" for the Col by a young Mexican woman, "Mother Maria" Mireles, who could allegedly "revirginize" them. Indeed, the Angels were all said to be living in a rural, nunnery-like retreat in Hillsdale, Ill.—for the time being. They were raising money—a lot of it—to build a valley paradise called Chonda-Za, a sort of heaven on earth where the Angels of Love could devote themselves and their purified bodies to the men of the Church of Love.

Chonda-Za was pure fiction, of course, its Love Angels just models, most of whom had no idea what they were posing for. But the deception was the key to a multimillion-dollar mail-order scam perpetrated by Donald S. Lowry, 59. Last month, in the Peoria, Ill., federal court, Lowry and an associate, Pamala St. Charles, were convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and money laundering. "They were like medicine men in a snake-oil show," says Tate Chambers, the assistant U.S. attorney who led the prosecution. "They preyed on lonely, gullible men."

There was no shortage of them. There were an estimated 31,000 Col members across the country—men like Robert McDonald, 56, a $9-an-hour janitor at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, who contributed almost half his $20,000 life savings and named the Col as beneficiary in his will. "They said I could be the custodian at Chonda-Za. They promised me a servant girl and said they would take care of me the rest of my life. I was dumb, I guess," he says sadly. "It all sounded so nice." Another victim was Adolph Holstein, 55, a truck driver from Staten Island, N.Y., who was taken for $13,000 in cash, jewelry, dresses, lingerie and other gifts. Above all, he supported the Chonda-Za building fund. "My idea was to create a community where people helped one another," he says.

Lowry, who betrayed these dreams, is unrepentant. Free on bail until his sentencing in April, he faces up to 125 years in prison and $5.2 million in fines, but maintains his innocence and vows to appeal. "We were an unusual business that was always misunderstood," he says in the supercilious manner of an artist maligned by small-minded critics. "Our intention was to entertain people, educate, give them an escape. Whether people took the fantasies for what they were, or believed them literally, I don't see where it mattered." His rationale, he told the jury, was that "the illusion of romance was better than no romance at all."

Lowry started the Col in 1965, operating out of the farm house in Hillsdale where he lived with his Mexican-born wife, Maria Esther Mireles—Mother Maria—and their two sons. At first, the Col was little more than a newsletter of advice columns and articles peddled through the mailing lists Lowry bought from other lonely hearts clubs. Appearing under Maria's byline, but written by Lowry, the publication fell somewhere between the Playboy Advisor and Dear Abby. But Lowry's ability to plumb the depths of the lonely guy's psyche led, in 1972, to the creation of the Angels.

He gave each Angel a different background, personality and letter-writing style—like "characters in a play," he says proudly. Chonda-Za was inspired by one of his favorite novels, James Hilton's Lost Horizon, and its magical setting, Shangri-La. A col is a pass between mountains—hence Col International.

The pleas for love offerings were creative and varied: Mother Maria needed a new winter coat; Angel Audrey, who brought supplies from town, needed her car repaired. The Angels had to have garden tools to plant crops. One of Lowry's most audacious pitches capitalized on an actual automobile accident involving one of his employees, Susan Rasso, who was the model for Angel Susan Valencia. After the real Susan was injured in the accident, Lowry wrote Col members that Angel Susan had been driving back to Mexico to visit her sick grandfather when her car was struck by a drunk driver. Lowry photographed Rasso in the hospital and pleaded with Col members to pay her medical bills. For an additional love offering, Col members were told they would receive color photos of Angel Susan's nude body as it had appeared "intact" before the accident. Donations poured in. Yet Lowry conceded in court that none of the money went to pay Rasso's hospital bills; she was treated as an indigent.

From 1982 through 1985, the Col grossed more than $1 million a year. Lowry even opened his own printing company in Moline, Ill., employing 30 workers and attracting customers that included a local police department and the Catholic archdiocese. But despite the aura of legitimacy, people in Moline were suspicious. They thought it odd that the printing company should have periodic sidewalk sales of women's lingerie—sent to the Angels by Col members. Then there was the steady stream of lovesick men who came searching for the Angels' retreat in nearby Hillsdale. Seeking directions, some would wind up in the office of Lt. Kenneth Rexroth of the Moline police department. He tried to let them down gently. "These men believed so devoutly, were involved so romantically," he says, "that telling them the Angels didn't exist was like telling them there was no Jesus Christ."

By 1986 there were so many complaints that Moline police, the FBI, the IRS and the U.S. Postal Service launched the investigation that led to Lowry's conviction. Yet some victims apparently didn't care that they had been swindled. Some even testified in Lowry's behalf. "I got a lot of peace and satisfaction out of the $25,000 I gave the Col," George Kulpaca, 67, a retired budget analyst from Oxnard, Calif., told the jury. "The girls' letters were making me happy." But most were outraged. De Wayne Sumner of Pioneer, Ohio, whose 75-year-old uncle, Raymond Wisman, a retired janitor, was taken for $6,000, would like to see Lowry and St. Charles do 30 days. "Then hang them," he says.

Richard Martin is a bit more forgiving. "They don't need to be punished anymore," he says. "Just so long as they leave me alone." He had contributed $5,000 before his growing doubts finally prompted him to complain to authorities in 1986. Then he went into counseling for deep depression. Even now, he admits, "my mental attitude is not so hot. You really can't trust anyone, can you?" Martin continues to tinker with the engine he's rebuilding. "I love fixin' stuff," he says. "I can fix anything." Save, perhaps, his broken heart.

—Jack Friedman, and Bill Shaw and Civia Tamarkin in the Midwest

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