LAKE ELSINORE, Calif. -- Skeptics see it as a half-baked hoax that rose like biscuits in the steady, slow heat of the town of Lake Elsinore.
Others say there is no way to disprove the claims of 15 people who, under hypnosis, said they lived past lives as family, friends and lovers in a small Virginia railroad town during the Civil War.
These are down-to-earth folks who have come to believe in reincarnation -- and that there is more to life than they see with their own eyes. They range in age from 14 to 62. Most are married, some are single and some are divorced. Only one has ever been to Virginia.
They call their experiences "Days of Our Past Lives."
The dramatic events and the book that chronicles them, "Mission to Millboro," by Marge Rieder, (Authors Unlimited, $12.95) has brought national attention to Lake Elsinore and Millboro, Va. -- two small towns on opposite sides of the country.
It started in 1985, when a newspaper reporter, her marriage in shambles, visited hypnotherapist Marge Rieder. Ms. Rieder had recently moved from Santa Ana, Calif., to Lake Elsinore, a town southeast of Los Angeles.
The woman, Maureen Williamson, then 34, was anxious and stressed.
There on the therapist's plastic-covered couch, Ms. Williamson fell into a deep trance and recalled her fifth birthday, then a molestation.
Days later, Ms. Williamson was working at home in Hemet when she inexplicably scribbled the name "John Daniel Ashford."
"I had been told that once you are hypnotized, other things come up later on from the subconscious mind," Ms. Williamson said recently. "But still, this was odd."
Eager to learn what the mysterious name meant, Ms. Williamson returned to Ms. Rieder's couch for more hypnosis. In a low,
dreamy tone, she said her name was Rebecca "Becky" Ashford. She had a husband, John. Children. And loose morals.
"Where are you?" Ms. Rieder asked her.
"Millboro," Ms. Williamson said.
'This is impossible'
During another session, Ms. Williamson described being raped, then strangled for having an affair with a Confederate spy.
As she described her own murder, Ms. Williamson paused to ask Ms. Rieder: "Why is there blood coming out of my ears?"
Later, Ms. Williamson said, she had a talk with herself: "I said, 'I am making this all up! I am! This is impossible. This is not real. Maureen, you're an Irish Catholic. You know better. Why would ** God do this to you?' "
Under hypnosis, Ms. Williamson saw other people from Millboro -- people who now lived in Lake Elsinore. She saw past-life characters who bore the faces of present-day acquaintances -- Joe Nazarowski, a local security officer, and Barbara Roberts, at that time her editor at the Valley Reporter.
It was like Dorothy awakening at the end of "The Wizard of Oz" and pointing out the farmhands as the Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion.
But this time, no one was laughing.
Mr. Nazarowski, 44, the first person Ms. Williamson spotted in Millboro, was skeptical when Ms. Williamson approached him.
"Highly skeptical," Mr. Nazarowski, of Perris, Calif., said. "I still am."
But Mr. Nazarowski, a former Anaheim resident, agreed to be hypnotized by Ms. Rieder if it could help him stop smoking.
During several hypnosis sessions, Mr. Nazarowski revealed that he was Charles E. Patterson, a West Point graduate who once put molasses in George Custer's shoes as a prank, and who was injured at Shiloh.
Ms. Rieder researched Mr. Nazarowski's character at West Point and at the Family History Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City. She confirmed that Charles E. Patterson existed, and he fit some of the details offered by Mr. Nazarowski.
"I don't think it's all nuts," Mr. Nazarowski said. "But explaining it is tough, being that I'm a very matter-of-fact type person. I don't ,, believe in the supernatural, I don't believe in ghosts or the afterlife. But the facts here are indisputable."
George Watson, a psychology professor at California State University, Fullerton, who uses hypnosis in his private practice in Newport Beach, suggested that the group's stories could have been made up.
"I have never seen evidence that would lead me to believe in [past lives]," Mr. Watson said. "I've had people think they were somebody else in their current life, but not in a past life."
But Patty Sovella, a Laguna Beach, Calif., past-lives therapist, says the case fits many elements common to past-life experiences.
"These people decided that for whatever reason -- the violence or the sex or whatever the circumstances were back then -- that they weren't complete," Ms. Sovella said. "They needed to come back and do it over again."
For example, Maureen Williamson married Ralph Williamson, who believes he, too, once lived in Millboro and had an affair with Becky Ashford.
"They have worked out their differences from the past and probably are soul mates," Ms. Sovella said.