Undercover Operatives, Aerial Photography and an Apocalyptic Church

The Exponent’s Controversial 1988 Investigation of the Church Universal and Triumphant

An aerial photograph taken by then-Editor-in-Chief Chet Uber, showing the construction of fallout shelters made by burying two Burlington Northern rail cars. From the March 3, 1988 edition.

An aerial photograph taken by then-Editor-in-Chief Chet Uber, showing the construction of fallout shelters made by burying two Burlington Northern rail cars on their land near Corwin Springs, Mont. From the March 3, 1988 edition of the Exponent.

By Brent Zundel
For the MSU Exponent
April 15, 2010

Author’s Note: This article, originally published as the feature of the April 15, 2010, edition of the Exponent, was the first in a two-part series that examined the controversy surrounding the Exponent’s reporting on the Church Universal and Triumphant during spring 1988.

With the spring semester ending, the Exponent is taking a hard, introspective look at, arguably, one of the most controversial periods of its 115-year history. The year was 1988. The Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) had been in Montana for nearly three years, and Chet Uber was the editor-in-chief of the Exponent. The church and the Exponent were about to clash in a way that would leave a lasting impact on both.

Reacting initially to what he believed was an attempt to recruit Montana State University students, Uber began an extensive investigation of the church that included secret attempts to infiltrate them, aerial photographs of the CUT compound, and subsequent censorship by the ASMSU Senate. As a result of purchases Uber made to support this and other investigations, the issue also raised controversy over the Exponent’s budget.

The Church Universal and Triumphant

Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Image from tsl.org

Elizabeth Clare Prophet. Image courtesy tsl.org

CUT is a New Age religious movement, founded originally as the Summit Lighthouse, by Mark Prophet, a traveling salesman from Wisconsin. Prophet met Elizabeth Clare Wulf in 1961. They had, she claimed, met before — in an earlier incarnation — in King Arthur’s Camelot: She was Guinevere, and he was Lancelot. Shortly after the 1961 meeting, they each left their spouses and married.

When Mark Prophet died, or “ascended,” as followers believe, in 1975, Elizabeth Prophet assumed control of the organization and renamed it the Church Universal and Triumphant. In 1981, Prophet married Ed Francis.

After stays in Colorado and later California, CUT purchased Malcolm Forbes’s 12,000-acre ranch in Paradise Valley in 1981. The organization sold its property in California and moved to Montana in 1986.

Apocalypse Now

Rumors and controversy have followed CUT everywhere it has moved, but at the time many Montanans were particularly leery of the organization. Elizabeth Prophet began to predict a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States, because of “accelerated negative karma.”

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An aerial photograph taken by then-Editor-in-Chief Chet Uber of one of the fallout shelters being constructed by burying a Burlington Northern rail car. From the March 3, 1988, edition of the Exponent.

In order to survive the impending nuclear apocalypse, the group began constructing a number of underground bomb shelters and stocking them with food and survival equipment on its ranch near Corwin Springs, which they named Glastonbury. After the nuclear exchange did not occur, Prophet claimed that group members’ prayers had averted disaster.

In 1989, Francis, Prophet’s husband, pleaded guilty to conspiring with fellow CUT member Vernon Hamilton to purchase $130,000 worth of weapons, including armor-piercing assault rifles, and 120,000 rounds of ammunition. They were arrested for using false identification to buy the arsenal.

At the time, both denied that Prophet knew about the transaction. However, Prophet’s daughter Erin alleges in her memoir, “Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant,” that her mother was aware of the action throughout its planning and implementation.

The men had purportedly attempted to purchase the weapons so that the organization could defend itself in a crisis. The Justice Department and the Internal Revenue Service conducted an investigation and determined that they had been secretly purchasing weapons for years. The IRS revoked their tax-exempt status as a religious organization, but it was later restored.

The Exponent Gets Involved

This controversy attracted national attention and was eventually picked up by the major news carriers. However, the Exponent, with Chet Uber at the helm, got there first. But the paper didn’t pick up the story without some controversy of its own.

After 22 years, Uber agreed to be interviewed for this article, and the following information comes from his many e-mails and the articles themselves that were published in the spring of 1988.

In his Feb. 10, 1988, front-page article, Uber alleged that CUT had been using student organizations at MSU to further the organization’s goals. He presented evidence that two students, belonging to the campus group The Freedom Forge were associated with CUT and had attempted to bring in Prophet to speak to students as part of a lecture series. According to the article, the address and phone number of the organization — as well as those of all its officers — was the same as CUT’s North Ranch south of Livingston.

Additionally, the mother of an MSU student called the Exponent in May 1987, requesting information on CUT. She went on to say that her son, who wished to remain anonymous, was considering quitting school and joining the organization.

Her son eventually renounced CUT, and instead returned to MSU, but not before joining the Keeper of the Flame Fraternity, an organization associated with the church. He presented the Exponent with church documents that, according to the Feb. 10, 1988, article, he received after attending a Freedom Forge meeting.

The rub, alleged Uber, was that the Freedom Forge, an MSU organization, was recruiting students. Uber compiled a file cabinet full of similar information. In his recent email, he alleged that CUT was “clearly a threat to students with low self-esteem,” because such students were being targeted for recruitment.

Church officials deny any sort of recruitment activity, regardless of self-esteem levels, ever taking place on the MSU campus. In a Feb. 10, 1988, article, Ed Francis said, “The students involved have decided to do it on their own, it was not sanctioned by the church.”

When interviewed for this article, Neroli Duffy, a former president of the church, explained that individual people might have shared their beliefs at the time, but that the church does not actively recruit new members. She did, however, mention that a number of presentations occurred at MSU, saying, “I remember being at one myself.”

New Equipment

According to Uber, the Exponent “lacked basic tools needed to do ‘undercover’ articles.” He cited a number of articles, specifically those about the near closure of MSU’s School of Architecture and the alleged use of steroids by student-athletes, that would have been improved by the use of recording equipment. With his managing editor, several section editors and a number of reporters, he decided to purchase surveillance equipment.

Uber’s recollection of the purchase timeline has blurred after 22 years, but according to an article publish in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle on Feb. 5, 1988, he had purchased “hundreds of dollars worth of walkie talkies and other electronic equipment.” The article cited a bill for $700 from Radio Shack for “electronic equipment, including microphones and walkie-talkies.” All these had been purchased by the time of the Exponent’s CUT investigation.

Uber maintains that all the equipment was not purchased solely for the CUT investigation. Rather he considered it “essential missing equipment from a credible newspaper.”

Investigative Journalism

Uber also chartered an airplane to fly over CUT’s ranch and printed aerial photographs on the front page of the March 3, 1988, edition of the Exponent with the title “Preparations for Armageddon?” The photos show construction progressing in the church’s Glastonbury community. Two Burlington Northern boxcars are clearly visible and in the process of being buried — presumably to serve as fallout shelters.

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The second of the Burlington Northern rail cars being buried to serve as a fallout shelter. Aerial photograph originally taken by then-Editor-in-Chief Chet Uber. From the March 3, 1988, edition of the Exponent.

Additionally, Uber sent two sets of undercover operatives into CUT in order to investigate. He said in an e-mail that the first pair consisted of a young couple who were obviously deeply in love. The second was a single male who pretended to have low self-esteem.

Uber would not divulge specifics, in order to maintain the operatives’ secrecy and, as he claimed, “protect their lives.” According to his e-mail, there were allegations at the time that CUT was separating couples and controlling when they could see each other and their “ability to have sexual congress.” He stated, “This was all proven to be true.”

When asked about this, Duffy responded that “their [members’] personal lives are their personal lives.” She did state that staff was held to a higher standard, but that people wandering around the area “couldn’t just join” the staff. She also mentioned that the church has a code of conduct and expected people to abide by “moral, ethical principles.”

While performing additional reconnaissance in an area he said was not signed against trespassing, Uber alleges that, without warning, CUT members began firing on him with a hunting rifle and an assault rifle.

… Uber alleges that, without warning, CUT members began firing on him with a hunting rifle and an assault rifle.

Duffy denied that the alleged shootings ever took place. She continued to state that such actions were contrary to the church’s beliefs and that no one currently working at the ranch had even heard those allegations before.

No report of such a shooting exists anywhere, either in police records or in a published article. Uber said that he did not report it to the Park County Sheriff’s Department because he was unsure if the police had been “infiltrated” by CUT, and he was not sure whether he had been trespassing at the time.

The Upshot

While the interactions between the church and the Exponent remain controversial and muddled after 22 years, they have left a certain legacy. Phyllis Bock, ASMSU’s attorney, was working at MSU at the time. She said her main memory was that the Exponent should be proud, because it broke the CUT story before the national media did.

There had been rumors circulating about the church for some time, but the Exponent provided the first concrete evidence of the apocalyptic preparations CUT was making at the time.

The Exponent provided the first concrete evidence of the apocalyptic preparations CUT was making at the time.

Uber also remembered scooping the national publications. He mentioned that his goal had been to “turn around a staid newspaper” and produce “hard-hitting investigative news.” His methods, and especially his financial decisions, raised a fair amount of controversy, but in the end, the Exponent got there first.

The next time you’re looking for a good, old-fashioned spy thriller, complete with controversial decisions made by high-ranking officials (on both sides), spy gear that would make Timothy Dalton jealous and an apocalyptic church, look no further than the history-laden Exponent in your hands.

Author’s Note: In the subsequent edition, on April 11, 2010, the Exponent investigated the repercussions of the 1988 reporting, including addressing the financial controversy surrounding Uber’s purchases, the school’s censorship of the final three articles in his 1988 series, and the legacy left by this reporting.

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