Inside the alleged ‘cult’ that has been quietly operating in NY for decades

New York Post/November 11, 2019

By Anabel Sosa and Ebony Bowden

In December 1978, a bizarre theater company headed by an actress from the “Slaughterhouse-Five” film was run out of San Francisco.

Members of Sharon Gans’ so-called Theater of All Possibilities had come forward to claim they were pressured into arranged marriages, beaten if they didn’t sell tickets and had gone broke paying for classes — while Gans and her husband lived in a tony home in the posh neighborhood of Pacific Heights.

With the police asking questions and the ex-members’ claims splashed across the pages of local papers, the actress and her theater group closed up shop and seemingly disappeared from public view.

But they never really went away.

A new group sprang up in the 1980s in New York under the name Odyssey Study Group and has been operating here quietly ever since — still led by the washed-up actress, now 84, who reigns from an $8.5 million apartment at Manhattan’s Plaza Hotel that was mostly paid for by devotees, according to public records.

A dozen former members have spoken to The Post — telling stories similar to those shared more than four decades ago, including claims that they forked over huge sums to Odyssey while being emotionally abused and exploited.

“In my 30 years of working in this field, this is one of the most secretive groups I’ve encountered,” said cult expert Rick Ross, a key witness in the recent Brooklyn trial of upstate sex cult Nxivm who tried unsuccessfully to stage an intervention for a member in the early 2000s.

“After San Francisco, everything was hush-hush.”

Hot on the heels of her role in the 1972 film version of Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi novel, Gans fell in love with Alex Horn, a playwright and mystic who ran a fledgling theater in the Golden Gate City’s Mission District, and moved from New York to San Francisco, according to divorce proceedings from her first husband.

Their acolytes became known in the neighborhood for aggressive panhandling — stopping passersby and begging them to buy tickets to the shows that were mocked by local theater critics as “punishing,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported at the time.

Inside the theater, members alleged to the paper they were invited to join a class that could help them improve their lives — but were instead brainwashed, beaten and told to sell hundreds of tickets that enriched Gans and Horn.

The group denied doing anything “illegal, immoral or dangerous” — but the couple closed up shop and left town.

They eventually resurfaced in Manhattan in the 1980s, starting a new group with the Odyssey name, real estate deeds and court documents show. When Horn died in 2007 at the age of 78, Gans took the throne, former members said.

Today, Odyssey is headquartered in a fourth-floor loft space in the Garment District. There is a smaller branch in Boston, Mass., where at least another hundred members have passed through over the years, according to former devotees.

It’s unclear how many have joined Odyssey since the 1980s, but ex-students estimate the group has had up to 250 members at any given time over the past 30 years.

Members continue to recruit unwitting New Yorkers — cultivating friendships with strangers in coffee shops, supermarket lines and other public spaces before inviting them to a “philosophy group” or “acting class,” according to former students involved in the recruitment process.

Esther Friedman, 54, says she was recruited when another member struck up a conversation with her in the checkout line at a Whole Foods in Cambridge, Mass., in 2006 and invited her to “meet a group of friends.” It all seemed aboveboard.

“This is not a group where you live in a compound,” said Friedman, a mental health counselor who left Odyssey in 2011. “This is not one of those cookie-cutter images of living in a cult.”

Members meet twice a week to study the teachings of philosophers George Ivanovich Gurdjieff and his protege P.D. Ouspensky, who believe that the path to self-development involves labor and intentional suffering.

In their pursuit of enlightenment, ex-students say, they were told to recruit others — up to 50 people a week, according to one follower who quit in April this year and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Spencer Schneider, a Big Apple attorney who left the group in 2013 after nearly two decades, says Gans asked students to divulge their greatest weaknesses and insecurities to the class –– and then verbally assaulted and berated them.

Students are also forbidden from discussing their participation with anyone, including their spouses, and are warned not to use the internet, former acolytes said.

Sleep deprivation and hard labor are cornerstones of Odyssey’s teachings.

Former students recalled working on the organization’s 19-acre property in upstate Pawling in the 1990s and 2000s — staying awake for 24-hour periods to build large lodges — under the guise of doing Gurdjieff’s advanced work.

“We would pretty much work around the clock the whole weekend for 48 hours and I was probably working 100 hours a week,” said member Don Raskopf, 61, who lived on the Pawling estate as a supervisor with his wife and two children in the 1990s. “After about six months of that, I learned I had a psychotic break just from the stress.”

Each summer, the highest-ranking Odyssey members would do the same at the Gans family ranch in Montana, according to Schneider, who said students coughed up thousands of dollars to go to the property between the 1980s and 2000s.

He likened the abuse to Nxivm’s ritual of branding female members with leader Keith Raniere’s initials — a bizarre practice in the group exposed during Raniere’s trial.

“Sure, my genitals don’t have Sharon’s initials on it, but my brain, my psyche has Sharon imprinted on it,” Schneider said.

The Pawling estate was purchased by the nonprofit organization Hudson Valley Artists Foundation Inc. in 1998 and sold in 2004 for $1.4 million, according to public records.

The group thrived on wealthier devotees. A small group of deep-pocketed members poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the foundation from 1997 to 2007, according to tax filings obtained by The Post.

Members say they were also expected to pay monthly dues ranging from $100 to $400 — making the checks out to “OSG,” according to documents obtained by The Post.

Meanwhile, the money and hard work were flowing into Gans’ pockets, according to Schneider and Raskopf, who said students labored on the apartments, condos and ranches that Gans later sold for big sums.

“She’s a multimillionaire,” said Raskopf. “It comes from profit on flipping real estate built by students and from fees.”

Gans purchased a villa in Mexico City in 2004 — paying $310,000 before selling it to a student for $754,000 just four years later, according to public records.

Robert Klein — who listed himself as the manager of OSG LLC, a “study group” associated with Odyssey, on tax documents — transferred a three-bedroom West Village condo he owned to Gans in 2006, the records show.

Gans then sold the condo for $3.1 million in 2010, according to public records.

And one wealthy hedge-fund investor poured $3.2 million into Gans’ Plaza Hotel abode in 2008, according to a deposition in a 2014 upstate lawsuit he filed against another member. He said she kicked in $2 million of her own money, while Klein and two others named as followers in the Chronicle investigation paid for the rest, he said.

The sprawling, 2,100-square-foot apartment ultimately was purchased for $8.5 million, according to the deed. According to Schneider, the luxurious pad is decorated with bold colors, strewn with replicas of Renaissance art and has a stunning view of Central Park South.

But money grabbing and hard labor aren’t the most disturbing allegations leveled at Odyssey.

In a 2012 legal spat between two members, ex-member Charles Ward claimed the group had been accused of “sexual predation, child abuse, racism, anti-homosexual behavior, illegal adoption, financial chicanery, coerced labor, sustained emotional cruelty, and the systematic looting of member’s wealth” — and that he had personally witnessed some of that alleged behavior.

Ward called it a “cult.”

“I was, and the plaintiff still is, a member of a cult known as the Gans Group,” said Ward, a member from 1988 to 2009.

In 2015, Gans’ own son, David Kulko, left the group and sued his siblings in an effort to dissolve the corporation that owned the Montana ranch.

Kulko said in Montana Supreme Court papers that after he left the “cult” in 2000, his family cut him out of the business and kicked him off the ranch that they used to “support, finance, and shelter the operations of the Odyssey Study Group.”

Many former members who spoke to The Post say they experienced severe PTSD, depression or even suicidal thoughts after leaving Odyssey.

“It was like this world was opened to you and then it was suddenly ripped away,” recalls actress Betsy Winslow, 56, who fled Odyssey 29 years ago.

“For me, I think having a community is one of the biggest things,” another member of 19 years confessed. “I think it’s a part of the modern condition. We are lonely. I think we are all really lonely.”

For Friedman, part of her “recovery” is talking about the group.

“The more honest I am, the less power they have. That’s the trick of it,” she said.

Reached several times by phone, Gans said she’d never heard of Odyssey Study Group.

On one call, a woman who answered as “Sharon” later denied she was Sharon Gans and then hung up.

Repeated attempts to reach Robert Klein were unsuccessful.

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