Here and Now
November 1, 2013
A private investigator from San Francisco is being remembered for his unusual life. His obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle reads, in part:
David Sullivan dropped out of high school to manage a rock band in Mexico City and hung out on a Sioux reservation with a medicine man named Crow Dog. He built military radar in Gaddhafi’s Libya and stared down a notorious Brazilian drug lord in the slums of Rio. And he castrated bulls in Bolivia. He was perhaps more well-known as a San Francisco private investigator with an expertise in infiltrating cults.
David Sullivan died suddenly last month, just a day after a profile about him was published in Harper’s. The author of the profile, as well as a former colleague of Sullivan’s, join Here & Now’s Robin Young.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
Here is how David Sullivan's recent obituary in the San Francisco Chronicle starts: David Sullivan dropped out of high school to manage a rock band in Mexico City ,and hung out on a Sioux reservation with a medicine man named Crow Dog. He built military radar in Gadhafi's Libya, stared down a notorious Brazilian drug lord in the slums of Rio. He was perhaps more well-known as a San Francisco private investigator with an expertise in infiltrating cults.
We had contacted David Sullivan last month about a profile on him in Harper's, in which he described cult leaders he'd exposed. We wanted to learn more about the modern-day world of cults. And then he died the day after publication. Nathaniel Rich authored that article, and joins us from WWNO in New Orleans. Nathaniel, this had to be a shock.
NATHANIEL RICH: It was a big shock. I talked to him a week before he died, and I was emailing with him the day he died.
YOUNG: Well, it was reportedly a recurrence of cancer. But are there people who doubt that? He dealt with some shady characters, and he told you a lot in your article.
RICH: Well, he would be the first to say that he felt threatened by a wide array of different, nefarious groups and organizations - many of them cults. But I don't think there's any real suspicion that there was foul play. He was very sick, had been sick for a long time. He wasn't sick that moment, which is why it was such a shock; he had recovered from cancer a couple times. But I think it was something probably related to entering treatment again.
YOUNG: So you think it was probably just his health, but you say that the article, the fact that he had spoken to you about these things, much of it for the first time, it wore on him.
RICH: It did, deeply. He was very reluctant to speak publicly about any of these things because he had been threatened. He'd been in car chases, and he was dealing with some organizations that are extremely powerful. He had some especially rough dealings, I know, with scientology. He had real reason to believe that he was in physical danger, and so talking about these things was difficult from that end, too.
But he got to a point where he was past worrying about repercussions, and he wanted to make sure that the stories got out there.
YOUNG: Well, tell us more about him, raised in Boulder, Colorado, in the '60s, when the city was a hotbed of cults. You say he was deeply spiritual but not religious. We read in the comments section in Harper's a remembrance from a Catholic school friend of his. When he was six years old, David Sullivan apparently walked out of religion class because he said I don't want to belong to this religion because he had just been told that the unbaptized and family dogs would not go to heaven.
So a critical thinker, even at six. What drew him to his cult work?
RICH: He did have a real spiritual yearning, and one of the things that was most amazing to me about spending all the time with him for this piece is that it had persisted despite him having seen every single con artist and scam job over his professional career.
But he was also extremely sophisticated and savvy and understood how people can manipulate other people and take advantage of that kind of yearning for something greater, for higher knowledge. And so it infuriated him whenever he encountered a charlatan posing as a religious leader, and he made it - he took it personally.
YOUNG: Well, he worked with Margaret Singer(ph), who you describe as the doyenne of cult scholarship, and apparently learned from her how to infiltrate cults and not be taken in. What did she tell him? How did he do that?
RICH: Well, it was a lot of training. He trained with therapists. He knew exactly what types of psychological tactics are used by cult leaders, and in fact many of them, I learned in researching the piece, are taken from things like Maoist struggle sessions and certain strategies used in the military: People are broken down and then built back up, typically.
But it's still - it's easier said than done to withstand a brainwashing session, especially when you're deprived of protein, deprived of sleep, put in a locked place without windows for days at a time, and there were definitely points, one of which I write about the piece, where he reached a kind of breaking thought and thought he wouldn't be able to make it.
YOUNG: Well, let's talk about this. This involved a group of people who were facing murder charges, and they'd all gone through something called impact trainings in Salt Lake City in 2001. They split off, formed their own group. A lawyer hired David Sullivan to infiltrate the impact training so that he could get information so that he could help deprogram the lawyer's client, a woman who'd fallen in with the killers, so that she could possibly testify against them.
What happened when he got inside this impact training?
RICH: There was a man that you had to call the trainer, who led the trainings. And almost immediately he started to psychologically abuse every trainee. And he would tell them that they were responsible for all the misfortunes in their lives. If they were victims of sexual abuse, he would say, well, you seduced the person who raped you.
People with physical deformities, he said that they brought that, the deformity, onto themselves. And it was very difficult for David, who is an extremely compassionate person, to not step in and stop this abuse. But he knew that if he did, he would jeopardize his entire case because he had to be there to go through the process to enter the cult in order to know how to rescue this other woman.
But he made it through, and he ultimately, after weeks of corresponding and meeting with the woman in the trial, he was able to make her understand that her spiritual leader was not a divinity but actually was a psychopath who had made her murder a bunch of innocent people.
YOUNG: Nathaniel Rich on late cult infiltrator David Sullivan.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW, and we're speaking with writer Nathaniel Rich, who profiled cult infiltrator David Sullivan for this month's Harper's. Sullivan worked for families trying to deprogram loved ones and lawyers often risking their own reputations to go up against the powerful law firms that protect large cults.
Sullivan died just the day after publication of the profile from a recurrence of cancer, but before that he'd shared incredible insight into the new face of American cults, not just religious and self-help groups who berate new recruits and deprive them of protein so they can't think, but, say, sexual healing cults. Nathaniel, tell us about Swami Sebastian(ph). Now, people in Marin County, California, might have seen his flyers for the Mother Divine Love Foundation.
RICH: This was a guy who had set up at a juice store, and it was a kind of sex cult. he was attracting a lot of young women. And he impregnated one of the women whose family was David's client. That was a case where there was no getting the woman out of the cult, and David himself couldn't infiltrate it because he wasn't a young, nubile woman.
And so what he had to do was take down the entire cult. And the way he did that was by uncovering the swami's real name, and it turned out he was a kind of drug dealer, con man from the East Coast. He unmasked him and basically sicced a bunch of mobsters who were after him from South Carolina. David called the swami and told him they were on their way, and the swami vanished, and his client was rescued as a result.
YOUNG: Ingenious, and you read it, and you think oh, that's going to be such a great movie, you know, the story of this life. But so sad that he's not doing it anymore. What are you hearing from maybe people he saved, people who knew him? What are you hearing?
RICH: Well, it is very sad, especially because he was about to start writing his memoir. He felt like he didn't want to die without telling these stories and talking about the dangers of cults, which is I think underestimated today, and people tend to associated them with a kind of '60s fad, but they persist in different forms.
YOUNG: Yeah, beware of therapists who you contact over the phone and tell you that you will only be healed when you send them naked pictures of yourself.
RICH: Yeah, or beware therapists like the one he found in California that told her male patients that they were really women trapped in the bodies of men, and they needed to have sex-change operations, and they only realized what they had done after they had had the surgery.
YOUNG: And as you read this, you think how could they do this, how could they think that they need a sex change, how could they send the naked picture of themselves. And what was his conclusion?
RICH: That it could happen to anybody and that in fact that people who are most victimized by cults tend to be highly educated, well-off, often attractive young people. You know, you're sort of useless to a cult if you don't have something to provide to them, and the things that a cult leader is usually after is money or sex.
There are cults that he investigated that were filled with prosperous business people who felt like they needed something more in their life. It wasn't enough to be, you know, a billionaire. They wanted to find some spiritual meaning.
YOUNG: Well, in fact we talked to another cult deprogrammer, Steve Hassan, who said that this is one of the new tracks that cults are going on. They infiltrate corporations, and then corporations start sending their people to these so-called retreats, and you profile a woman who went to this impact trainings in Colorado and told David Sullivan my boss sent me here. He said I have to attend this training, and I can't take it anymore, that it's...
RICH: It's very common, yeah. You see that - he saw that a lot. And so you might worry that your career is in jeopardy if you don't go. But cults sort of mirror what's happening in the culture at any given time, and so a lot of the cults that he investigated now are not these sort of old-fashioned ones like (unintelligible) Scientology or the Moonies, they're things that take the form of, you know, green businesses or yoga studios.
YOUNG: Juice stores.
RICH: Or juice stores, yeah, or health companies.
YOUNG: That's Nathanial Rich, author of the Harper's profile of cult infiltrator David Sullivan. It's titled "The Man Who Saves You From Yourself." David Sullivan died suddenly just the day after the piece was published. He was 62. And as people are saying in their comments to you, Nathaniel, he was a one of a kind.
RICH: He was. I've never met anyone like him. He was just a vivid, intelligent, caring person.
YOUNG: Thanks so much.
RICH: Thank you.
YOUNG: And for a coda, we mentioned that David Sullivan was mentored by the doyenne of cult expertise Margaret Singer, who died in 2003. Well, David also, in turn, mentored others. A private investigator, Jennifer Stalvey, often worked with David Sullivan. She has a few thoughts. And Jennifer, you infiltrated some of the sex cults that David was investigating.
JENNIFER STALVEY: Yes, there were cults that required a female presence, and those were the cults that I would infiltrate.
YOUNG: Well this, as we've heard, can be dangerous work. What did you learn from David about allowing yourself to go into a cult without being recruited?
STALVEY: You're prepared. You learn as much about the techniques that are used before you go in. Once you understand what techniques they're going to be using, then you are prepared. We did undercover work together. Occasionally we would be a married couple. We would be a brother and sister. We would be two strangers. And we had different - two sets of eyes on the same situation.
YOUNG: In many ways you were acting with him.
STALVEY: Yes, he helped me understand Jen, you're a brilliant liar.
STALVEY: And in the private investigation world, we have a professional term for that, called pretext.
YOUNG: Did you ever see the moment when he did convince someone that they were on the wrong path?
STALVEY: No, what he helped me with, and probably the largest learning experience for myself and the most important work of going undercover, is the moment when you're leaving. You know going into it, the likelihood of being successful before your assignment is over is unlikely. However, you make a huge exit, and you plant logic and reason in someone's mind that they may be able to draw on six months or a year later.
And so we would - we spoke about that in my experiences of going undercover.
YOUNG: In other words sometimes the idea wasn't what you could do when you went in but the seeds of doubt that you could plant in someone's mind as you left.
STALVEY: Yes, we would brainstorm which five strong points are going to reach their mind the hardest and fastest. And you make it exciting, emotional and strong. And you leave, and it's very upsetting.
YOUNG: What does his death mean for families who are hoping to find their loved ones in these groups?
STALVEY: His death is a huge loss. There are very few people willing to do this work. You're not able to talk about it with your own family and friends. It's hidden. It's generally not even paid well. It's truly for a passion and a love of the work. And our work was for litigation purposes generally, so you had a handful of attorneys who were even willing to take the risk to have their own reputations ruined, and undercover work is similar. It's - there's not many people willing to do it.
YOUNG: So it's a small world.
STALVEY: Yes, a small world.
YOUNG: Well Jennifer, sorry for the major loss, the big loss in that small world of cult infiltration and investigation. And thanks for speaking to us about your former colleague David Sullivan.
STALVEY: You're welcome. We'll miss him. And hopefully with his circle of friends that are writers and filmmakers, I'm hoping the creatives who have heard many of his stories will document those, I hope.
YOUNG: OK, well, here's another story. Another cult leader David Sullivan tracked down, a psychologist, Dr. James Nivette, who was well-respected in Monterrey, California, but turned out if his own patients wouldn't have sex with him, he'd have them committed. He's now serving time. If you have stories about David Sullivan you'd like to share, please do. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.