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Most Sadistic Cults of the 20th Century

After the 1950s, the most sadistic cults emerged on the world’s stage and changed what it means to ‘drink the Kool-Aid.’

"Don't drink the Kool-Aid" doesn't sound like such an important warning, but if the People's Temple followers in Jonestown would've been given this advice, over 900 lives would have been saved. Until September 11th, the largest loss of American civilian life occurred when cult members of the People's Temple ingested fruit punch that was laced with cyanide in a mass suicide. Cults are both fascinating and terrifying. Their mystery draws the attention of the public, but the often brutal and radical ways of cults instill fear. Some of the deadliest cults since the 1950's may not be the most well known, but their attacks were brutal, and their unconventional views attracted individuals to support their dangerous causes. As a result, when the 10:00 news asks, "Do you know where your children are?" you better hope they're not joining a cult with a 16-year-old who claims to be a 500-year-old vampire. Individuals of all ages join cults for many reasons; whether it is for friendship or identity, or as a result of pressure, people are constantly joining ranks among the masses to be part of a movement that they believe in. Since the 1930's, cults have been a primary subject in sociological study. Cults are made up of people from all walks of life, and are formed all over the world. The reasons why vary—from the belief that they themselves are vampires, to the idea that children born after 1981 must be terminated because they are evil.

The Vampire Clan

Rod Ferrell was a 16-year-old boy who was obsessed with vampires. Things got scary when he declared he was a 500-year-old vampire named Vesago. While in Florida, Ferrell ran a vampire clan in Kentucky, his hometown. At his school in Florida, he met a girl named Heather Wendorf, who took a real interest in him and his clan. When Wendorf confided in Ferrell that she was miserable at home, he devised a plan to "save" the girl. In November of 1996, Ferrell and some members of his clan drove to Wendorf's house and killed her parents as Wendorf was whisked away to say goodbye to her boyfriend. Ferrell, his clan, and Wendorf fled to New Orleans and were caught when one of the clan members called a parent to ask for cash after they ran out of money. Wendorf was the only one who didn't confess to the crime, and was acquitted of any charges. Ferrell was given the death sentence and became the youngest person on death row at the time.

Black Jesus

After dropping out of Amron Bible College where he was training to become a Lutheran Minister, Papua New Guinean Stephen Tari traveled deep into the mountains to begin his own religion, claiming he was "Black Jesus." He promised his followers eternal life and prosperity, and as a result, his cult grew to about 6,000 people. Tari may be most well known for his use of "flower girls," which were specifically chosen young girls who were demanded to have sexual relations with Tari and other cult leaders, no matter their age. In 2006, 13-year-old Rita Herman was offered to Tari by her mother in exchange for gifts and wealth. After brutal acts, the girl was eventually stabbed to death. A year later, Tari was attacked and beaten by rival villagers and handed over to law enforcement. He was sentenced to time in prison, but in 2013, he escaped. That same year, he was in a small village where he killed a five-year-old and attempted to murder a teenage girl the next day, which angered villagers and led to a retaliation. On August 29, 2013, an angry mob attacked Tari, castrating him and then burying him in the jungle.

The Ripper Crew

In the early 1980's, Chicago was rocked with a series of rapes and murders. It began with the disappearance of 28-year-old Linda Sutton, whose mutilated body was found 10 days later. 18 other women would follow her unfortunate fate. Robin Gecht, a disciple of serial killer John Wayne Gacy, lead The Ripper Crew as they kidnapped prostitutes to use in disturbing rituals, dismembering their bodies for sexual gratification. In October of 1982, the gang attacked Beverly Washington and dumped her body, expecting her to die. Luckily, Washington survived the brutal attack and her description of Gecht—as well as Edward Spreitzer, Andrew Kokoraleis, and Thomas Kokoraleis—led to the arrest and sentencing of The Chicago Rippers, finally ending their brutal killing spree.

Branch Davidians

David Koresh was the founder and leader of the Branch Davidians, a cult that believed that the U.S. Government was the enemy of God. Koresh put up his followers at a compound in Waco, Texas, as they awaited the impending apocalypse. The Branch Davidians prepared by gathering firearms and weapons. Koresh saw himself as a Messiah, and believed every woman was his spiritual wife. An unwelcome spotlight on the cult led to the ATF raiding the compound. After some agents and Davidians were injured, there was a 51 day siege of the compound, which resulted in a huge fire after tear gas was released inside of the building. Over 70 Branch Davidians died that day, 20 of whom were children.

Fall River Cult

In the late 1970's, Carl Drew operated the Fall Rivers Cult out of Massachusetts. Drew was a pimp and Satanist who used his dark beliefs to keep his prostitutes in line. Claiming to be Satan himself, he had about 10 members who held various ceremonies between 1979 and 1980. The rituals took place in Freetown State Forest in an abandoned ice shack and started with sex and drugs. Eventually Drew demanded human sacrifices. The first was 19-year-old Donna Levesque, whose hands were bound and head beaten with a rock. The second was Barbara Raposa, who had been found the same way. The cult's third victim was a member of the cult itself. After being present at the murder of Raposa, Karen Marsden was so terrified that she went to the police. Her murder was brutal and vicious, but it excited prostitute and cult devotee Robin Murphy, who actually executed Marsden under Drew's command. When the cult was caught, Drew maintained his innocence, though he was found guilty and sentenced to life. Murphy testified against the rest of the cult and was offered a lighter sentence.

Heaven's Gate

Heaven's Gate was a 1970's American UFO religious Millenarian Group founded by Marshall Applewhite and Bonnie Nettles. Their belief was that a spaceship following the Hale-Bopp comet would save them if they committed suicide as it passed the Earth; they would hitch a ride on the alien spaceship to salvation. In 1996, the group purchased alien abduction insurance. On March 26, 1997, 38 cult members plus Applewhite were found in a California mansion that they had been renting. The 39 individuals ingested a mixture of Phenobarbital and applesauce, washed it down with vodka, and then tied plastic bags around their heads to induce suffocation. They were discovered lying dead in their own bunk beds, wearing identical black shirts and sweatpants. Each had a five dollar bill and three quarters in their pocket and armband patches reading "Heaven's Gate Away Team."

Superior Universal Alignment

Perhaps the most ritzy of these cults is the Superior Universal Alignment, which was headed by Valentina de Andrade, a woman from Altamira, Brazil who was in her mid-seventies. The cult also included a doctor, a successful businessman, and a policeman, all prominent members of society. Beginning in 1989, young boys—none older than 15—began to go missing in Altamira. It is estimated that 19 boys disappeared, but only six bodies were ever found; all mutilated with medical expertise and then left to die. The cult believed that children born after 1981 were evil and tainted, and it was the Superior Universal Alignment's job to eliminate them. When five boys escaped the cult, they went to the police, and in 2003, charges were brought against the cult and de Andrade. 

The Manson Family

From a young age, Charles Manson was involved in petty crimes and robberies which landed him in and out of jail until 1967, when he moved to San Francisco. It is here that he began to recruit individuals to join his "family." Manson fancied himself a revolutionary and a prophet, claiming that America would soon have a race war. This war would be won by the African Americans, but they would soon turn to whites for leadership. Charles Manson and his cult would hide out during the war, emerging afterward to lead the victors. He grew impatient when the war and his rise to leadership weren't happening quickly enough. He decided to instigate the war as he orchestrated murders to frame African Americans. In 1969, the Manson Family brutally murdered pregnant Sharon Tate and four others in her home, hoping it would accelerate the impending war. Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were killed the following day. The Family smeared messages written in blood on the walls of the homes. Manson never actually committed any murders, but rather orchestrated them like a conductor. Through the joint-responsibility rule, Manson is serving a life sentence in prison.

The Kirtland Cult

Jeffrey Lundgren was a minister with the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. However, his radical views eventually forced him out of his job. Lundgren packed up his wife and children and moved to a farm he rented in Kirtland, Ohio. Soon, his cult had up to 20 members, whom he forced to hand over their paychecks and belongings. Eventually, Lundgren listened in on members' phone calls, and even banned them from speaking to one another. Things got scary when Lundgren announced that women could achieve salvation through sexual acts, which he commanded they perform. His beliefs attracted the Avery's, a family of five, but once they packed up their children, sold their house, and arrived in Kirtland, they decided this wasn't the life for them. On April 17, 1989, Lundgren, his family, and some members of the Kirtland cult had the Avery's over for dinner. The husband, wife, and their three small children were then lured one by one out to the barn and shot. The bodies of the family weren't found until about 8 months later. The law eventually caught up with Lundgren and 13 members of the cult, who were all charged with the murders. At his trial, Lundgren told jurors he was a prophet of God and "not worth the death penalty." But Lundgren was still sentenced to death. He continued his efforts when he claimed he was too fat to be executed, but the court shot down that appeal, and on October 24, 2006, more than a decade after the Avery murders, Lundgren was executed by lethal injection.

People's Temple

Founded by Jim Jones, People's Temple got its start in San Francisco, California. His radical preaching was a concern to the United States government. Following charges of violence, abuse, and illegal activity, Jones and People's Temple fled to Guyana, where Jones established a settlement that he named Jonestown. Calls to action by families and concerned citizens led Congressman Leo Ryan to investigate Jonestown, which ended in his death by the cult. Knowing U.S. forces would soon infiltrate the commune, Jones orchestrated a mass suicide. On November 18, 1978, 918 people died at Jonestown, including 270 children, after ingesting Kool-Aid laced with cyanide.

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