Transcript of NBC Today Show report on Da Free John

Original Broadcast/May 9, 1985


Part I

John: Religious cults usually come and go without too many people taking notice of them, but occasionally one comes along that lasts a long time -- long enough to attract a lot of people to it -- a story that too often ends in the headlines. Boyd Maston reports this morning on a religious cult he feels people should know more about before they get involved in it. Good morning, Boyd.

Boyd Maston: Good morning, John. This is a group called the Johannine Daist Communion. It's headed by a man named Da Free John. There are about 1,000 active members, mostly in California. The church says they have another 20,000 on their mailing list, receiving church publications. The question, of course, with any cult is: Are the members just practicing religion outside the mainstream, or are they being brainwashed? Some ex-members of the JDC say Free John is brainwashing and abusing people, and many of his followers don't realize what he is doing. I should warn you, some of these stories are very graphic in their description. [singing crowd] It looks like a typical Sunday morning service, no different in tone from thousands of others. But this is a new religion, with hymns of praise for a new messiah. The followers are absolutely devoted to a guru calling himself Da Free John, the Master.

Female Follower: I see the Master as the Divine. Yes, I do.

Male Follower: He is the Divine Himself.

Another Female Follower: I can only tell you what I feel. If there is a God, Da Free John is such a one.

Maston: Da Free John, the beneficiary of these misty-eyed testimonials, is a 45-year old ex-New Yorker, named Franklin Jones. He has bookstores around the world from which he has sold hundreds of thousands of copies of his writings and tapes.

Jones [from tape]: I don't want your enthusiasm to be superficially generated by the books that I write. I want you to consider them.

Maston: That's the public image of Jones, the disciplined guru. There's another side of Master Da his church wants to hide. Many of his teachings were taken off the market, particularly after Jonestown. Listen to this recording, no longer available.

Jones [from "The Gorilla Sermon" (Dawn Horse Records)]: Everything the guru gives you is garbage, and he expects you to throw it away. But you meditate on it. [Jones laughs.] If you turn to me, I will destroy you.

Maston: Some of his followers now say he does just what he promised. They claim their lives were nearly destroyed by Jones through psychological, physical, and sexual abuse.

Jacky Estes (ex-cult member): There was only a handful of the women he hadn't taken sexually. And this involved getting them drunk, having them stand up and strip, and then taking them in the bedroom.

Mary (former member): He could do whatever he wanted with his women that way. He lined a bunch of us up, and took off all our clothes and cut all our pubic hair. You know, if he wanted to cut their hair, he cut their hair. He owned them. I mean we were owned.

John Krajewski (former member): I ended up giving up my own personal morality and adopting his morality.

Maston: Many of Free John's 1,000 loyal followers deny these stories of aberrant behavior. But then they have little direct contact with the Master. Since 1983 he's run the church from a remote Fijian island, purchased from actor Raymond Burr for 2.1 million dollars. Master Da lives there with an inner circle of 40 devotees, including a harem of nine women, one of whom is Julie Anderson, a 1976 Playboy centerfold. The lifestyle for Jones and his inner circle, according to Beverly O'Mahony, is anything but godlike.

Beverly O'Mahony (ex-cult member): He would instruct women to defecate in bed with their husbands during the sex act. I saw some of his wives urinate on him.

Maston: For eight years O'Mahony was a Jones disciple with access to the inner circle. She charges that when she decided to quit the cult last year, she was held on Fiji against her will.

Beverly O'Mahony: I was there for a week asking, "Get me a helicopter, get me a boat, get me anything. I want to go." And I was not allowed to go.

Maston: O'Mahony has filed a $5,000,000 lawsuit against Da Free John and his California-based church, the Johannine Daist Communion. Also named in the suit is her ex-husband, Brian, president of the church.

Brian O'Mahony (JDC church president): These allegations are extreme in nature and are intent on either destroying us or getting money.

Maston: JDC church leaders refuse to answer specific charges against Da Free John. They have responded with a lawsuit against their most vocal critics, including Brian's ex-wife Beverly. There is no comment from the man in charge.

Maston [with Brian O'Mahony]: Can we talk to Da Free John?

Brian O'Mahony: No. He has never spoken to a member of the press, or to a member of the public.

Maston: Can we go to Fiji?

Brian O'Mahony: Well, no, you can't. We reserve the right to privacy. We reserve the right to maintain our meditation sites as sacrosanct, sacred places.

Maston: Neither were we allowed to visit this church-owned estate in Hawaii [picture], where several women told us they were sexually molested by Free John. Pekoe Panico, who lived there while married to a member of the inner circle, added these details about the secret life of Franklin Jones.

Pekoe Panico: When he parties with people, there's a lot of money spent on alcohol and drugs, and things that he purchases for his wives.

Maston: Did you see Franklin Jones using drugs?

Panico: Yes, I did.

Maston: What drugs?

Panico: Marijuana, peyote, and also an over-the-counter drug called "Rush."

Maston: We were allowed to visit the church's 700 acre sanctuary in Northern California. This popular meditation retreat was also for many years the site of what the cult now describes as "helpful sexual teachings" by Franklin Jones.

Brian O'Mahony: There were occasions in which people were allowed to express themselves sexually in anyway they choose. We all whole-heartedly participated in that.

Maston: Da Free John participated with you?

Brian O'Mahony: On some occasions, yes.

"Mary" (ex-cult member): I got herpes from Da Free John.

Maston: Mary, who doesn't want her true identity revealed, was 22 when she joined the cult. She claims her study with the master included forced participation in a pornographic movie.

Mary: He was able to create this aura that what we were doing was for our own good. And I was psychologically completely sucked in.

Maston: Many ex-cult members echo her sentiments, saying they worshipped because they were brainwashed by the charismatic Da Free John. Jacky Estes is a former member of Jones' inner circle of wives.

Estes: I don't think I had a will to speak of because of the indoctrination, and the alcohol, and what was being done. I was 20 years old, and I believe anyone is subject to mind control at certain aspects of their life.

Maston: Susan Lesser and Franz Bakker continue to believe in the power of the Master, and travel the world spreading the gospel of to Da Free John.

Susan Lesser [church representative]: Da Free John is a hero, an American hero. It happened in America. He's not Jim Jones. He's not a bad person, a manipulating and exploiting person. That is a terrible thing to say.

Franz Bakker, M.D. (church spokesman): We are not like everybody else. Good, I don't want to be like everybody else. Give us a break. Leave us alone. Who cares, as long as I don't hurt anybody. And we're telling you, and [Susan Lesser] has been there, and I've been there, nobody has been hurt.

Panico: I feel I was seriously hurt. And I feel there were people even more seriously hurt than I am.

Mary: As far as I'm concerned, I was one of the lucky ones. I got out alive. I got out with my sanity intact.

Maston: The leadership, while admitting to some sexual experimentation over the years, says everybody was an adult and participated of their own free will. As you heard, some ex-members disagree. Tomorrow we will look at the children in the church and meet the millionaire who is bankrolling much of the operation.


Part II

Jane Pauley: Boyd Maston yesterday told us of charges leveled against [Da Free John's] cult by former members, and this morning he's back to tell us about the children in the cult. Good morning, Boyd.

Boyd Maston: Good morning, Jane. The charges that we aired yesterday included accounts of Da Free John orchestrating bizarre sexual practices, forced sex, drug use. The church admits some of those things happened, but they say it was always adults involved, and that it was of their own free will. When it comes to the will of children, of course, they choose only what they are taught. So the question is: What are they being exposed to? A couple of points to keep in mind when watching this report: Da Free John is an ex-New Yorker whose real name is Franklin Jones. He calls himself a guru, a yogi, and has set himself up as God incarnate in human form.

Jones: The true yogi is a bastard. They're mad men, absolutely mad and absolutely dangerous.

Maston: Absolutely dangerous, that's how Franklin Jones describes himself, a mad divine guru living on an isolated island in Fiji.

Jones: You must yield everything to me. You must yield yourself in your body. Your cells must yield.

Maston: Thousands have yielded to Jones in the 13 years since he created his new religion. Disciples have sacrificed money and labor to build a cult with an estimated $10,000,000 worth of property, including his Fijian island, an estate in Hawaii, and a 700-acre sanctuary in Lake County, California, all monuments to the glory of Da Free John. [pause with music] There are 300 children being raised as followers of Master Da. Some former members say the kids undergo heavy indoctrination.

Mark Miller (ex-cult member): We are taught from an early age that the guru is God, and that they should submit to him, and that they should live their life in total devotion to him.

Child [in church class]: Be overwhelmed by God. Do only what will please the Master.

Maston: Followers of Franklin Jones are encouraged to send their children to the church's school here in Hunter, NY. The children study not only the usual academics and sports, but also the teachings and works of Da Free John. Their instruction includes learning about Master Da's miracles, his supernatural power to change the weather, heal the sick. This 16-year old student believes her infant sister was saved at birth by Franklin Jones' magic touch.

Tally Hastings (age 16): She was just totally lifeless. He put his hands on my sister's stomach and on her head. A silvery white light filled the room, and she started to breathe. And everyone couldn't believe it.

Maston: The children believe these stories because adult church leaders believe miracles like this actually happen. [Talking to Franz Bakker and Susan Lesser] And Da Free John's touch brought her to life?

Susan Lesser [church representative]: Everybody who was there witnessed that, yes. She turned pink and she breathed.

Maston: To achieve Master Da's state of divine grace, the children are told they must practice his disciplines, including a strict vegetarian diet. However, in 1982 the adults who ran the school decided it would be fun to give the children 14 and over beer and wine. Drunken parties lasted three nights. The church now admits that was a mistake. But the action didn't surprise some of the former members.

Joseph Kahn (ex-cult member): We started having these drunken nude parties in Los Angeles.

Maston: Joseph Kahn joined the cult at age 14 in 1972 and became Franklin Jones' staff photographer for nine years.

Joseph Kahn: I was 15 years old, and I was essentially encouraged to drink alcohol. My sister, who was 10 at the time, was encouraged to drink alcohol.

Jessica Constantine: My first experience with him, my first encounter, was at a naked party where he told me I was to take off my clothes.

Maston: Jessica Constantine said that she was only 10 years old when Franklin Jones first told her to strip naked.

Constantine: And I said, no, and I ran out of the room. Somebody had to go get me, and I had to take off my clothes.

Kahn: I saw him on a number of occasions instruct adults to perform various sexual acts, and they were often unwilling.

Maston: Church leaders admit Jones still conducts voluntary sex experiments among his forty adult followers on Fiji. The youngsters also visit the island, and half a dozen live there permanently.

Beverly O'Mahony: I was stunned to join in drinking with those kids, who range in age from, well, when I was there, from age 4 to 9. And the children drank a hell of a lot more than I did.

Maston [to Susan Lesser]: Is Da Free John concerned about the welfare of the children?

Lesser: Oh, he's concerned about all beings.

Maston: Would he allow the children to be exposed to anything that would be harmful to them?

Lesser: Oh no, I don't believe so. No, no, he is very passionate about that.

Beverly O'Mahony: You are told when you are pregnant and giving birth that your children are not yours, that they are the Master's.

Maston: The church denies this charge. But critics point out that Jones has gathered a harem of nine so-called wives with him on Fiji, including a former Playboy centerfold. It's a particular concern to ex-members with children who are still in the cult.

"Isaac" (ex-cult member): I have a daughter from a previous marriage that's in it. I'm very concerned for her because he is interested in getting younger women in the future.

Jones [from tape]: Don't you see how you all in your immaturity work against me?

Maston: We were not allowed to talk to Da Free John. Nor were we permitted on his Fijian island. But Neal Stuart certainly has been there. He's the deputy chairman of BSR Corporation, a high-tech company with 13,000 employees. In 1982 Master Da wanted a remote hermitage. So Stuart bought and donated the $2,000,000 Fijian island. It is part of his total contribution of $3,500,000.

Neal Stuart: My trip to Fiji I was fortunate enough to get a long hug from Da Free John.

Maston: Did you talk to Da Free John on that visit at all, or did you just get a hug.

Stuart: The hug was totally sufficient. What am I going to say to him? What is he going to say to me? I mean he's been talking for years now.

Maston: Free John has been talking for years, and his message is being sold worldwide from church-owned book stores in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and even London, New Zealand, and Australia.

Andrew Parker (ex-cult member): His ambitions, as far as I can see, know no limit. He wants all of mankind to be his devotees.

Lesser: How could he fabricate 45 volumes worth of spontaneous conversation if he was a fake? Read it, take it seriously.

Maston: But critics warn that the real Franklin Jones is carefully edited out of the books and tapes sold to the public, that his messianic speeches and bizarre sexual activities are kept hidden from outsiders. Andrew Parker served on the board of directors.

Parker: He's on an isolated tropical island. The only people there are absolute fanatics. They would literally do anything that he would ask them to do. Frank Jones and Jim Jones may be more cut from the same cloth than I once thought.

Maston: Neal Stuart and many others have their only contact with Da Free John through his writings, and they believe them as real spiritual teachings. That's the concern of a lot of the ex-members, that these people do not realize where their money is going and what they are supporting.

Jane: This is not a commune?

Maston: No, not in the sense that everybody lives there. They have regular jobs, they tithe 15% of their income to support this effort.

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