Having children can be a great gift, but it is also downright terrifying since there’s no guarantee how your child may turn out. A parent’s worst nightmare is to end up with a troubled child despite having provided an exemplary and happy childhood.
Larry Wilcox knows the feeling all too well. Larry Wilcox is the kind of person you wish was your papa and that he’d rock you in his lap and make you feel safe in the world. He’s warm, intelligent, patient, protective and a careful man. He’s served in two wars: The Vietnam War and World War II to where he was sent to Germany. He also worked as a recruiter for the military “in the second half of his life.”
His son, Bart, joined a secretive cult called Roberts Group, also known as the Body of Christ, the Brothers and Sisters and the garbage eaters, when he was only a teenager in college at the University of Idaho. According to Mr. Wilcox, “He was really, really good kid, a straight A student. We have a very tight-knit family.” In fact, he says, “We are probably part of the great middle-class that only receives attention during election years.”
Bart disappeared after spending spring break in Seattle and has only seen his parents once in 25 years.
The cult was founded by Jim Roberts and is often described as a destructive, nomadic and bible-based cult. It consists of a few hundred members, perhaps much less now, and operates under a secrecy, and often with a paranoid worldview. The Roberts Group recruits vulnerable and young college students on select campuses. They dress peculiarly, women in long gowns sans makeup, much like the amish, and men wear tunics and have moderate and trim beards.
There are a myriad of psychological reasons why one would join a cult. It seems reasonable, however, that the Roberts Group would recruit from universities knowingly because of the vulnerabilities associated with this life event. Going away to college and leaving one’s home and friends behind is often a moment of great vulnerability to many teenagers and young adults.
Members of the Roberts Group believe in disavowing material things. They eat food collected from garbage dumpsters. Diane Sawyer featured the cult on an episode of 20/20 in April, 1999 and Mr. Wilcox explains that this is when they were labeled “the garbage eaters.” According to Mr. Wilcox, she also coined the phrase “Garbage Eaters.” His voice tinged with a bit of sadness.
The most interesting tell-sign that a young person has joined the Roberts Group comes in the form of a letter they write to their parents announcing they are disowning them. Mr. Wilcox recognized this kind of letter all too well. “The first letter they send always has the same DNA in it. I can tell within 30 minutes the letter comes from a Roberts’ cult member based on the language and the phrases that they use to blow off their mother or father to tell them they can never see them again.”
A few years ago, Mr. Wilcox and his wife tracked down Bart’s whereabouts. They finally got to sit down and share a meal with him, the first meal in 25 years. Bart heated a pizza he had dug up from a dumpster and according to Mr. Wilcox was very “cordial.” He forebode any talk of the cult or attempt to get him to come home, and the Wiloxes complied.
Since then, Mr. Wilcox has pretty much left Bart’s future in his own hands. “He’s now 45, he can do whatever he wants with his life.”
Mr. Wilcox and a few parents of cult members operate an active and highly organized family support group: “The Roberts Group Parents Network.” Over many years, they have helped and supported parents who have lost their children to the Roberts Group.
They have cult expert members and offer sophisticated books and maps of cult members’ haunts, as well as support on how to deal with children who have left the cult, which includes providing funds to a specific rehab.
The group has met all over the country for many years and have been very effective at providing the right type of resources at the right time.
“At first, all we wanted was to arrest Jim Robert and take our kids out. Specifically those who had daughters in the cult. But over time, our philosophy changed radically from “let’s find them and bring them to their knees to– let’s learn how to deal with them, understand the whys and the hows through help form cult experts, because we can’t change their minds about the cult.”
There truly aren’t many resources for parents of children 18 years old and up. The police can’t do anything if someone over 18 years old leaves their home willingly. But they have been helpful and sympathetic in many instances.
Mr. Wilcox recalls a time that he was looking for Bart. In his hand, he had Bart’s favorite pie that his mom had baked and the police “drove around with me for countless hours to show me neighborhoods he may be in.” Unfortunately, they never found him.
Recently, the cult founder Mr. Roberts died and their has been some changes within the cult. For example, cult members who previously weren’t allowed to get married are now able to.
Mr. Wilcox doesn’t have much hope of rekindling things with Bart so long as he’s in the cult, as Bart refuses to deal with his father if he continues The Parent Network.
“I can’t leave these families destitute when I know I can offer them support” he says resolutely.