There's something about Franklin Albert Jones that makes men turn over their wives, millionaires open up their bank accounts and truth-seekers bare their souls.
For 13 years he has quietly attracted a following of more than a thousand devotees, including wealthy benefactors who have bought him a California hot springs resort, a Hawaiian paradise and his own Fijian island.
This week -- as top-level defectors tell stories of drunken sex orgies and a former devotee accuses the Marin-based sect of brainwashing, sexual assault and turning her into a "household slave" -- one vital question remains unanswered: Who is Franklin Jones, now known as Da Free John, and how does he exert such power over people's lives?
"This man is tremendously charismatic and very intelligent," said a former board member of the Johannine Daist Communion, the guru's tax-exempt corporation, who asked that his name not be used.
"But he has a fatal flaw -- his own narcissism. He creates a system of attachment to him that is not spiritual. It's very temporal."
Sal Lucania, a San Francisco business consultant, knew Franklin Jones before he declared himself "the Living Truth, the Way of Salvation and the Eternal master of Men." They met at a Scientology workshop in San Francisco in 1968.
There's something about him that's hypnotic," said Lucania, who went on to become the guru's first "front man."
"He's capable of putting you in doubt about yourself."
Former members say Lucania was Jones' closest friend and confidant until they had a falling out in 1976. "You're put into a psychological and emotional box," Lucania said.
Those who know Jones only through his writing, including many reputable religious scholars, have praised his work.
"Although I do not know Franklin Jones personally," the late Alan Watts wrote in April 1973, "what he says, and says very well, is something that I have been trying to express for 35 years, but which most people seem quite reluctant to understand -- as if it were too good to be true."
Jones' harshest critics concede that his voluminous writings, published by his own Dawn Horse Press largely under the name Da Free John, reveal the workings of a brilliant mind. many are attracted by the way this 45-year-old New Yorker gleans the essential truth from esoteric religious texts, tosses aside their ritual trappings and presents spiritual truth in a form easily digested in the Western mind.
But over the years, former members say, the Johannine Daist Communion became less focused on the "perennial truth" Jones described and more concerned with building a personality cult around its guru.
"At this point, I think he really thinks he is God," Lucania said. "If you had every whim indulged for 13 years, how would you think of yourself?"
But the time Lucania met Jones in San Francisco, the future guru already had earned a bachelor's degree in philosophy from Columbia University in New York and a master's degree in English from Stanford University in 1966.
During his years at Stanford, Jones wrote in his book "The Knee of Understanding," [sic] his experimentation with LSD and other hallucinogenic drugs led him toward a "simple, direct and unqualified free awareness."
Before the 1968 Scientology workshop, Jones had just gotten back from the India ashram of the late Swami Muktananda Paramhansa. After completing the Scientology course, Lucania said, he and Jones formed a pact to continue their spiritual journey.
After another trip to India, they went to Southern California.
"We spent a year truly living an austere lifestyle," Lucania said. "We had both been experimenting with diet and fasting. We were living an experimental life -- a spiritual life that had nothing to do with our conventional references."
At this point, Lucania said, Franklin Albert Jones began to think of himself as an incarnation of God. While meditating in a small Hindu temple in Hollywood in 1970, Lucania said, Jones "went through an experience where there was no experience whatsoever."
This incident was later cited by the Johannine Daist Communion as the moment where "Master Da" was "spontaneously and permanently reawakened in the Enlightened Condition he had enjoyed at birth."
In 1972, when the guru was still calling himself Franklin Jones, Lucania said he gave Jones $8,000 so they could open the Ashram Bookstore on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. The first devotees, many of them street people, began showing up.
Within a year, Lucania said, the austere lifestyle had given way to the wild parties and wife-swapping that has given Jones his sudden notoriety as Da Free John.
According to his writings, the guru's parties were merely one step along the spiritual path. This is the explanation given in "The Four Fundamental Questions," an official summary of the guru's teaching:
"Upon return to America, he began to teach differently, involving his devotees in an experiment of intense experiencing of both worldly pleasures and spiritual joys. He gave them the opportunity within the growing community of practitioners to pursue all their obsessions about money, food, sexuality and power."
Officials within the Johannine Daist Communion say this "period of experimentation" ended in 1976. But recent top-level defectors from the sect say drunken sex orgies and luxurious lifestyles have continued secretly among the guru's inner circle in Hawaii and their Fijian island of Naitauba.
Back on the mainland, they say, the guru's tithing devotees are encouraged to live an austere life of hard work, while big donations are collected from New Age millionaires inspired by Jones' latest treatise.
Hiding the partying in their Pacific paradise was "thought of as not wanting to expose people to the wild, crazy play of The Master before they were ready," said the former communion board member.
Jones reportedly has nine wives, including a former Playboy playmate of the month. Former devotees say he takes a keen interest in the sex lives of his followers.
Amidst extraordinary drinking bouts, they say, the guru would frequently mix spiritual instruction, psychological analysis and sexual commandments.
"In the midst of exposing all their weaknesses and fears, he would command them in the area of sex," said the former board member, who didn't even join the group until the late '70s. "He would have them watch pornographic movies and engage in anal sex -- sometimes in front of him, and sometimes tell them to go to their bedrooms."
Sal Lucania: "We took peyote, psilocybin, marijuana and an unbelievable amount of alcohol. The two of us would sit down and drink two bottles of whiskey. A lot of the people who came in were young women, and he'd loosen them up with alcohol and drugs."
Franklin Jones' incarnation as the guru in the fast lane has always been a major draw, especially among truth seekers who've grown tired of sitting for endless hours in knee-aching meditation.
"In the beginning, people were attracted because he was critical of the meditation, vegetarian diets, wearing special clothes and all of that," said John Baran, founder of "Sorting it Out," a Berkeley counseling center for people leaving religious cults.
In "The Four Fundamental Questions," Da Free John wrote, "There is no technique of meditation that leads to God, and there is nothing to be believed that is the Truth."
Instead of meditative techniques, prayer or philosophical study, Free John suggested that his followers simply "surrender and speak in ecstatic identity and praise of the Living God."
But disciples unable to surrender and experience "the One Who sustains us" merely have to submit themselves to the power of the guru, according to his writings.
Enter Da Free John, who has "become spontaneous and continuous, through my lifelong practice of surrender, to the Great Process of our existence."
"All others who enter into the play of life with me experience this Radical Condition that I incarnate," he wrote.
Da Free John went on to warn against those "who come to me in a childish, dependent, passive position (and) require me to presume the conventional, cultic order of a religious and spiritual community."
But that, Baran said, is exactly what happened to many of the 50 former devotees he has counseled. "Their principal focus is devotion to him as God incarnate. It creates followers and dependent children. People lose their power. They lose their adulthood."
Lowell Streiker, director of the Freedom Counseling Center in Burlingame, has done extensive interviews with both current and former disciples of Jones/Da Free John. He has a vastly different opinion of the sect.
"Over the past six years, I have never seen people who were more honest, open, hard-working or family-oriented than the members of this group," he said.
Streiker agreed that there had been an "evolution of the leader from teacher to spiritual master," adding: "As a Christian, the idea of giving reverence to a guru as God is offensive to me...But I'm impressed with the people the guy's teaching has produced."