Dallas spiritual guide has following in Chicago

Woman’s death is 10th among followers

Dallas Morning News/January 28, 1990
By Lori Stahl

Indianapolis -- Among those offering condolences the week after Mary Levinson killed herself was a woman her mother had often heard of but never met.

Trying to get the caller off the phone at her Indianapolis home, Winifred Levinson wrote down the name and number with the hollow promise to keep in touch. Terri Hoffman of Dallas.

As far was she was concerned, this "Terri" woman had played far too prominent a role in her troubled daughter’s final year in Chicago.

Mrs. Levinson said she had seen a photograph of the pair at a retreat where they met. In time, their weekly Chicago-to-Dallas phone consultations grew so important to Mary – and so cloaked in secrecy –

That Mary once asked her mother to wait in the lobby of her apartment building for an hour while she talked long-distance to Ms. Hoffman.

"Mary paid a lot of money to these people," Mrs., Levinson said. "When I'd cross her on this, she would get very belligerent, like this person (Ms. Hoffman) was the highest thing around."

Now, Mary Levinson’s parents wonder whether their daughter's involvement with Ms. Hoffman bears any relationship to the disappearance of her estate - in excess of $125,000 – and her sudden decision to change the beneficiary of her life insurance policy.

They found some clues on a taped message left for them in the suburban Chicago motel room where their 33-year-old daughter took a drug overdose Nov. 30, 1987

Suspicious that money was at the root of her daughter’s relationship with the Dallas counselor were heightened, Mrs. Levinson said during the brief phone call from Ms. Hoffman.

"She said, ‘What happened?’ and I said, "She took her own life," Mrs. Levinson recounted. She said Ms. Hoffman replied, "Oh, she shouldn’t have done that. That’s the worst thing she could have done."

The, according to Mrs. Levinson, Ms. Hoffman said she had received $6,000 from Mary Levinson.

"It sounded pretty weird to me," Mrs. Levinson said.

Ms. Hoffman said in an interview last week that she did not receive any of the missing money.

Asked whether the money went to her or her organization – Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul, Inc. – she replied, "No it did not." She would not elaborate on the advice of her attorney.

Mary Levinson's family said they grieved in an emotional vacuum until they learned that Ms. Hoffman recently became the subject of a Dallas investigation in connection with the suicides and accidental deaths of nine followers and acquaintances. That inquiry was launched earlier this month by the Dallas County district attorney's office.

Ms. Hoffman also is named in two pending civil suits filed by relatives of a Dallas suicide victim who contend that she used mind control and hypnosis to bring about deaths and influence victims to name her in their wills.

Like the suicide victim whose relatives filed the lawsuits in Dallas, Mary Levinson left behind a taped message of her thoughts just before her death.

In the tape, she claimed to have used a divorce settlement she received 10 days before her death to pay off minor debts and make contributions to animal welfare societies.

" …. I also donated money to institutions - charitable institutions - which I will not name," Mary Levinson said in the taped message for her parents. "I don't want any hassle, any trace, any way for you to try and retrieve that money that has been given out of love to them, to people that really need it."

"That was my money to do with as 1 pleased and that was what I chose to do."

Members of Ms. Levinson's prominent Indiana family are puzzled about why she took such extraordinary measures to prevent them from knowing exactly how she disposed of her estate.

They said that in the weeks before her death, Ms. Levinson sold most of her antique furniture and family heirlooms, including jewelry and artwork. At the time, her mother sent Ms. Levinson a check for $1,000, assuming that her daughter needed money for expenses while awaiting a divorce settlement.

After her death, family members discovered that while Ms. Levinson was selling off her belongings, she was using her mother's charge card to buy more than $3,200 worth of fine jewelry. No trace of it was found among her belongings after her death.

Other troubling questions emerged: Why did Ms. Levinson remove her youngest brother, Paul, as beneficiary of her life insurance policy less than two weeks before she died? Although she spoke warmly and fondly of her brother in the taped message to her parents, the family said she named a new beneficiary: Dr. Larry Keyes, a former boyfriend whom she met at a retreat with Ms. Hoffman. And what became of the $125,000 divorce settlement she received days before she was found dead? According to her attorney, she with drew the entire sum in cash.

Finally, family members said they wondered why Ms. Levinson apparently disposed of the estate herself. They assumed she believed they would contest her will if they had a chance.

Her parents said their daughter's Chicago attorney, Joel Monarch, showed them a letter after her death.

"It said that she'd given him $1,000 - and it was there in $100 hills - to settle the estate, and we weren't to be involved in it at all," Mrs. Levinson said, "She said she fixed it so we wouldn't be able to know.

"He had a handwritten something that he wouldn’t let us read—he just let us read the letter," Mrs. Levinson said, "You’d think that you'd have some recourse, and you just have none."

Mr. Monarch said Ms. Levinson sent a handwritten document that she wanted filed as her will. It was not filed, Mr. Monarch said, because it was not signed by witnesses and did not meet Illinois probate court standards, he said.

Furthermore, the document referred only to a few possessions, her attorney said.

"She wrote in her letter to me that she disposed of her money to non-profits ... 'not-for-profit organizations which will remain nameless,' " Mr. Monarch recalled. "A lot of people don't make wills. However, it was clear to me that she'd really thought about what she wanted to do with her money."

The lawyer, who handled part of Ms. Levinson's divorce case and was a casual friend, said that his client talked often of Ms. Hoffman's teachings.

"I would say that it was probably the most important thing in her life during the time that I knew her," he said.

After Ms. Levinson’s death, Mr. Monarch said, he was contacted several times by Ms. Hoffman's Chicago followers, although he had never expressed an interest in metaphysics.

"I received several calls from Terri's organization - two or three tines since Mary's death - from someone saying Terri's going to be town, and if you're interested come to this address," Mr. Monarch said.

One mailer invited the lawyer to two events Ms. Hoffman attended last June: a party at Chicago's Loyola University campus and a "potluck and meditation" at the Unitarian Church of Evanston, an affluent suburb north of the city.

Thc suicide was not unforeseen. By all accounts, including her own, Mary Levinson had led a deeply troubled life.

Her family name evokes immediate recognition in parts of Indiana for a chain of 13 men's clothing stores founded by her grandfather.

The second of four children, family members said, she never shared her three brothers' interest in business but was a talented artist and animal lover.

Relatives said Ms. Levinson sometimes felt unduly deprived of the attention given to her brothers.

Physically, she suffered chronic pain from a knee problem that went untreated until her early 20s. One brother, Carl, said she may have delayed treatment because she was influenced by her mother's Christian Science faith, which spurns traditional medical treatment.

Depression and anxiety haunted her. By the time she got to De Pauw University in Greencastle, Ind., she made the first of more than a half dozen suicide attempts by downing pills, family members said.

She was hospitalized and regularly saw a psychiatrist in hometown Indianapolis and eventually in Chicago, where she moved with her second husband, Dr. Roger Schrock, in 1984.

"Something was raging inside of her, and she just wanted to be calmed down," said Dr. Schrock. The couple separated two years later.

At a divorce proceeding in October 1986, a Chicago psychiatrist who had treated her for more than a year testified that Ms. Levinson was in therapy two to three times a week and that she was virtually immobilized by anxiety and tension. Because of her knee problems and stress, most of the sessions were conducted by phone, the psychiatrist testified.

Family members took her suicide attempts seriously, often setting rescue efforts in motion after receiving a last-ditch phone call from Ms. Levinson.

But the family got no such call the last time.

"This time was real deliberate," said her brother Carl. "This time she really checked herself out."

Like most of the associates of Ms. Hoffman who have committed suicide or died accidentally, Ms. Levinson withdrew from family and friends in the months before her death.

"We really were mystified when this happened," Carl Levinson said. "She just started talking weird real suddenly.'"

"She would say things like 'The whole world is changing ... " and It was like there was somebody out there who was making it happen," he said.

She talked about the powers and energies produced by colors and rocks, relatives said, and assiduously studied Ms. Hoffman's copyright writings on themes such as "The Way of Balance." The writings are among a number of teaching aids available through Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul Inc., which is registered as a not-for-profit corporation in Illinois.

The Illinois company, which was incorporated in 1988, lists no officers' names. Ms. Hoffman founded a company by the same name in Texas and uses it as a teaching organization to disseminate information and spiritual aids.

Although her psychiatrist declined to be interviewed, citing doctor-patient confidentiality, Ms. Levinson's ex-husband said that after her suicide, the physician told him he had been concerned about Ms. Hoffman's influence.

"He said the type of group that doesn't define between life and death isn't good for Mary," Dr. Schrock said. "They made it so that it was no big deal to step into that other room.

The call came the Monday after Thanksgiving. A maintenance man at the Hillside Holiday Inn in suburban Chicago noticed that the door of Room 114 was double-bolted.

Shortly before 7 p.m., police broke into the first·floor room and found Mary Levinson lying in a "semi·fetal" position on the floor between two beds, according to police reports.

She was wearing a pink sweatshirt, green sweat pants, pink shoes and blue·and-pink socks. On the nearby night table was a partially smoked pack of cigarettes, a motel room key, a pen and blank notepad, a glass of Sprite and almost 100 pills.

Empty or open boxes of Benadryl surrounded her on the floor. All told. police recovered more than 90 Benadryl tablets and capsules and seven other pills.

An autopsy noted a small needle puncture mark on her left wrist and determined that she overdosed on two types of prescription sleeping pills.

A briefcase on one of the beds held her driver's license, a cut-up Visa card and $119. Inside an unsealed manila envelope, police found the tape she left for her parents.

She had gained weight in the months since the family last saw her. An autopsy noted that with precision - 164 pounds on the 5-foot, 5-inch frame - as well as another odd surprise: tattoos.

She had two crosses emblazoned on her left arm. On the back of her right leg was the word "Kalene." Family members said they have no idea what it means.

The family last saw Mary -- minus tattoos - four month before her death during a July 4th vacation at Lake Wawasee, two hours north of the family home in Indianapolis.

"We didn't know where she was, for a long time," her mother said ."

The vacation was their first introduction to Mary’s new boyfriend, Dr. Keyes, a podiatrist from suburban Chicago. Mary said they had met at a retreat given by Ms. Hoffman, and she displayed a photograph of the group at a campsite, her mother recalled.

At first, the vacation with the Levinson family was harmonious.

But Mary and Dr. Keyes left abruptly after Mrs. Levinson rebuked her daughter for trying to interest her brother in Ms. Hoffman's, teachings, family members said.

Contact with the family was erratic after that. She lived with Dr. Keyes for a while, relatives said, and discussed buying a house with him.

Dr. Keyes did not return phone calls to his office last week.

She moved almost half a dozen: times In the two years before her death, sometimes surfacing to ask her parents for loans while waiting to receive her divorce settlement.

At one point, she asked for a $10,000 loan to put a down payment on a Dallas house near Ms, Hoffman.

"I even offered to go with her in a car (to Dallas) to see the house together because I wanted to see if it was worth the money or it was just; a way for her (Ms. Hoffman) to get; $10,000," Mrs. Levinson said.

Her parents declined to make the, loan, and Ms. Levinson continued moving around Chicago, apparently convinced that she was in physical danger.

"She claimed - at least on the tape that the psychiatrist got - that I was on her trail and that 1 was trying to kill her," Dr. Schrock said. Ms. Levinson told another acquaintance that she required bodyguards for safety.

In the final months, friends and. relatives said she stopped seeing her psychiatrist and had only sporadic contact with her family. She sold and gave away her possessions. Her attorney, Mr. Monarch, said he'd bought a piece of furniture from her for $500 after she told him she "just wanted to travel lighter."

In the half-hour message Ms. Levinson made at the motel, she said she was "at peace" with her decision to end her life.

"I want you to understand that I am fully rational and I have come to this decision after a long time of thinking," she sold. "I am actually looking forward to it."

"I am In a great deal of physical, pain and emotional pain and have been for about six months now,"'. Ms. Levinson said In slow, measured tones.

Through sniffles and a cracking voice, these. were her final words on the tape:

"Obviously, with my past work. with animals, I believe in euthanasia for those who were suffering horribly."

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