Cult leader seduced 20 people from town on Ore. coast in '75 Most returned, wonder what impulse drew them

March 30, 1997|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WALDPORT, Ore. -- This seaside village, a pastiche of lighthouses, tidal pools, and cedar-shingled bed and breakfasts, does not look like a source for new members in a UFO cult.

But Aaron Greenberg remembers the day when he and about 150 people -- one quarter of the town's population -- eagerly packed a motel hall to hear Marshall Herff Applewhite, who was called Bo at the time, lecture on the topic "UFOs -- why they are here, who they have come for, when they will leave."

"There was this compulsion," Greenberg recalled of the standing-room-only crowd that attended the September 1975 lecture. . "It was like Richard Dreyfuss in 'Close Encounters' when he was making that tower of mashed potatoes."

Within days after the lecture, about 20 people, including Greenberg, had left town to join the cult, going first to Grand Junction, Colo., for a gathering of more than 400 people seeking an eventual rendezvous with a UFO.

"It was a big joke to start with -- there was a picture in the paper of the mayor throwing a flying saucer," recalled Leta Haslett, a longtime resident. "Then, people started disappearing."

Locals stopped telling the joke about spotting flying saucer imprints in the beach sand.

"People became concerned -- these were our friends and acquaintances, and they left with just the clothes on their backs," said Haslett, who runs the local cable television company.

Town meetings were held, and the Oregon State Police conducted an investigation. But the police soon closed their investigation, reporting to townspeople that no laws had been broken.

Oregon police discovered then what parents and police forces across the nation have learned over the past two decades: Adults are free to give away all their possessions, cut all family ties and join a cult.

Most of the Oregon recruits drifted away from Applewhite's cult after a few months. None are believed to be among the 39 followers who committed suicide in California with him last week.

Waldport residents still wonder why their town, a sedate village that lives off the tourism of whale watchers and beachcombers, had fallen for Applewhite's siren song.

"Applewhite got something going that just ignited in Waldport," said Greenberg, who left the cult after six months. The experience so marked him that two decades later, he has written a manuscript about his time with the cult.

In the early 1970s, the hippie road for many people ended 130 miles southwest of Portland, in this fog-shrouded town of lumberjacks and crab fishermen.

"There were a lot of lost souls from the hippie period who settled here in communes," recalled Haslett, a third-generation resident. "Look at the type of people who became hippies -- they were looking for some kind of answer."

Greenberg, a Vietnam veteran, settled into a beachfront house here, fishing only enough salmon to pay the monthly rent of $90. Another New Yorker, Robert Rubin of Brooklyn, arrived here in 1971, opening a natural foods store.

Greenberg and Rubin left here in the same car with other recruits to join the UFO camp meeting in Grand Junction. "They all came here searching for something," said Haslett.

Noting the town's cultural schism of that time, she added: "Only one local went away with the cult."

To Greenberg, now a sandwich maker in a restaurant in Eugene, Applewhite was the right man at the right time when he first glued his UFO posters to telephone poles here.

"We were young longhairs escaping the madness of Vietnam, the craziness of the 1960s," he said. "The timing was just right."

A spiritual man, Greenberg keeps up with several of the 1,000 people who, he estimated, passed through the group.

"Separation of body and soul was a key teaching," he said. "If I read in the paper tomorrow that police found five people with matching shoes dead in another house -- I would not be surprised."

Pub Date: 3/30/97

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