Seven members of a suspected religious cult who were arrested last week on allegations of abusing a corpse made their first court appearances on Wednesday in Saguache County. Their actions to venerate their deceased leader aren’t as strange as they might seem, say experts who study such groups.
It’s not surprising that the mummified remains of 45-year-old Amy Carlson, known as “Mother God” to followers of the Colorado-based “Love Has Won,” appeared to have been placed in what authorities described as a type of shrine, said Rick Alan Ross, founder and executive director of the Cult Education Institute in Trenton, N.J.
Saguache County Sheriff's Office deputies found Carlson’s mummified body last week wrapped in a sleeping bag on a bed in a home in the town of Moffat in the San Luis Valley, decorated with Christmas lights and glittery makeup around her eye sockets, according to arrest documents.
Such a memorial is common, fits the pattern of a personality-driven cult and represents the particular importance of Carlson to the group, Ross said in an interview Wednesday.
“This type of worship is the singular, most salient feature of all personality-driven groups,” he said. “This is why most personality-driven groups eventually dissemble and fade away after the leader dies.”
Authorities arrested seven suspects on the night of April 28, presumably followers of Carlson’s, some of whom allegedly transported her deceased body from California to near Crestone, where the group has been headquartered since 2018.
The suspects — Ryan Kramer, 30, Christopher Royer, 35, Sarah Rudolph, 35, Karin Raymond, 47, Jason Castillo, 45, John Robertson, 32, and Obdulia Franco Gonzales, 52 — are facing possible charges of abuse of a corpse, a class 6 felony, and misdemeanor child abuse, because two children were in the house at the time of the arrests, according to the affidavit.
They have not been linked to Carlson’s death, and the coroner’s office has not yet released the suspected cause of death.
Carlson repeatedly claimed she was dying of cancer, and she had a history of alcohol abuse, said Ross, who appeared as an expert on the Dr. Phil show last September, when Carlson was questioned about Love Has Won.
A former Love Has Won follower, Ashley, was featured on the show and asserted Carlson was “mentally manipulating” members, forcing sleep deprivation on the community and said she could remove tumors without surgery.
Carlson was a distinctive cult leader, Ross said, with characteristics of narcissism and little empathy and moral conscience. She also appeared to be mentally unstable, and dominated and controlled her followers, he said.
Carlson promoted on the group's website, which has since been removed, that this life was her 534th reincarnation and that she created the planet.
Her belief that she played a pivotal role in the end of the world and was leading her followers to a great awakening is similar to that of fatalistic cult leaders such as David Koresh, Ross said. Koresh, head of the Branch Davidians sect, was one of 76 who died in the siege of Waco, Texas, compound in 1993.
Ross, a cult deprogrammer and author of “Cults Inside Out,” said he’s been contacted in recent weeks by multiple families who have loved ones in Love Has Won, who are “very concerned about the safety and welfare of their family members who are involved.”
The Saguache County Sheriff’s Office said in the affidavit it has received "many complaints from families within the United States" about Love Has Won, including allegations of brainwashing and monetary theft.
Love Has Won has offered "spiritual intuitive ascension sessions" and sold spiritual healing products online.
The group also drew complaints when 14 members, including Carlson and Miguel Lamboy, who lives in the Moffat residence where Carlson's body was found, rented a house on Kauai, Hawaii, last August. They left a month later, after neighbors objected to their presence, the Maui Police Department said in a press release issued last September.
“During their stay on Kauai, several protests, vandalism and small fires had been reported,” Maui police said in the release. “As a result, law enforcement intervened to ensure the safety of the group. On Friday, Sept. 4, the protests escalated and the group ultimately decided to leave Kauai for their safety.”
Ross estimates Love Has Won has fewer than 100 members.
Some 5,000 groups considered to be cults exist in North America, according to the International Cultic Studies Association.
All religions, including Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism and Islam, started as fringe movements and became recognized as bona fide when they amassed enough followers, said Colorado College Professor Gail Murphy-Geiss, chair of the sociology department.
“On the outside, any religious practices might look weird to some people,” she said, even those of Catholics or Mormons, for example.
Rituals for the dead are diverse, from funeral pyres for burning bodies to putting bodies out for birds to eat, Murphy-Geiss said, and shrines for departed spiritual leaders are prolific.
“That this group (Love Has Won) would create practices that make sense to them and give them meaning but may not make sense to others isn’t unusual,” she said.