Worst cult leaders you've never heard of

Everyone's familiar with names like Jim Jones, but how about Michael Ryan? Or Rod Ferrell? Proving that there's just no end to the amount of evil that humans are capable of, there's no shortage of cult leaders who have done horrible things and forced their followers right along with them. Here are horrible cult leaders you might have missed.

Ervil LeBaron

In 2017, Ervil LeBaron's daughter, Anna, published The Polygamist's Daughter, detailing just what went on behind the closed doors of her father's cult. One of more than 50 children born to LeBaron's 13 wives, she escaped the cult when she was 13—two years before she would have been old enough for her father to marry her off as one of someone else's multiple wives.

Her father was the founder of the Church of the Lamb of God, which he created after being expelled from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints because of his unshakeable belief in polygamy. From there, he made it clear that he was the voice of God on earth, and he was not to be disobeyed. Anyone who did disobey him found their name on his hit list, and that included one of his wives and at least a couple of his children. The media called him "The Mormon Manson," and it wasn't just opposition that could get your killed—almost anything could.

The sect was founded in 1971, and by 1972, LeBaron had killed his brother, Joel, leader of a rival sect. From there, he embarked on directing a bizarre killing spree supported by the ancient idea of blood atonement, which said that it was not only absolutely cool to kill people, but that you were doing them a favor by cleansing their souls and sending them to heaven. Even as the sect's members moved constantly to stay one step ahead of authorities, LeBaron sent murder squads out to kill various targets. It's not known just how many people LeBaron had killed, but by 1992, estimates were between 25 and 30. Weird, for sure, and even weirder considering the killings continued even though he had died in 1981.

LeBaron was found dead in jail, serving a sentence for his conviction over plotting to kill another one of his brothers and the murder of yet another rival sect leader. Most notorious were the Four O'Clock Murders, a series of killings that took place in 1988 on the 144th anniversary of the death of Mormon founder Joseph Smith and included the execution of an eight-year-old girl. Those murders were a part of the execution of something else, a hit list LeBaron left behind for followers…who kept killing. The last was arrested in 2011, while others in the family have tried to get on with their lives.

Tony Alamo

Tony Alamo and wife Susan founded the Tony Alamo Christian Ministries in the 1960s, and from the beginning, it had all the hallmarks of a cult. From the surrendering of worldly possessions to an insistence that children would be provided with an education based in his approved teachings, Alamo ruled supremely…and things seemed to really start going sideways in 1982 with Susan's death. Convinced that she would ultimately be resurrected, Alamo refused to bury her and insisted that the children of the ministry pray over her body for six months. When she didn't rise, Alamo insisted that it was the children's fault, and their weakness was failing to bring Susan back from the dead. As if that wasn't bad enough, the punishment was beatings for all.

What followed was a massive list of lawsuits and accusations of child abuse and polygamy, with former church members testifying that he had married several of the girls that were under the care of the church. Whatever went on behind those closed doors went on for a shocking amount of time, and even though he served various sentences for various offenses, children were still being removed from under the umbrella of Alamo Ministries in 2008. Six more were taken from a compound in Indiana, even as Alamo was being held for his role in transporting them across state lines with "immoral" intentions that included being made to marry him. Those brides were as young as eight.

He was ultimately convicted of the sex trafficking of minors the next year, and not until 2014 were seven victims—abused as children—awarded $525 million. According to a 2016 newsletter released by Alamo, it's all slander and lies, spouted by people who don't want the mainstream church's connections with the devil to be revealed.

Rod Ferrell

In 1996, Rod Ferrell led the teenage members of his vampire cult to the little Florida bungalow of Richard and Naoma Wendorf and bludgeoned them to death with a metal bar. The Wendorfs were the parents of one of the cult members, 14-year-old Heather.

Heather was ultimately cleared of responsibility in the gruesome deaths of her parents (she wasn't there when it happened), as she had been drawn in by the allure of Ferrell's so-called vampire clan. The year before the murder, Ferrell and his clan had been under investigation for their connection to a break-in at a rescue shelter, where more than 50 animals had been attacked, with several killed and one mutilated so badly it was euthanized. According to teens and former friends who knew some of the 30-odd members of the cult, they weren't just wearing black and dyeing their hair funny colors. They were drinking blood and participating in various rituals.

Authorities were tipped off to the use of an abandoned building that the cult used for their so-called vampiric rituals, and most of the information came from Ferrell's mother. She was in custody on charges of solicitation to commit rape, and according to her, Ferrell had been initiated into the vampiric lifestyle by 19-year-old Dana Cooper. In later interviews, Ferrell testified to the "elevated" thought process that he was operating under, and after a jury was done with him, he was free to practice his elevated thinking as he served his life sentence.

Michael Ryan

It sounds a bit like the premise of a horror movie, and it's the story of a neo-Nazi, militant cult living on a hog farm in rural Rulo, Nebraska. In charge of the cult was Michael Ryan, who handed down judgment via something they called the "arm test." With a cult member holding their arm out at a 45-degree angle, Ryan would grab their wrist and shoulder while asking God a question. Answers of "yes" or "no" would be delivered by the person's arm staying up or dropping, which was, of course, Ryan's doing. The arm test dictated everything, including whether or not a woman was going to join the ranks of his wives, or if someone was going to get a beating. Along the way, they started stockpiling weapons and supplies in preparation for Armageddon, which they believed was going to start in a nearby wheat field.

The cult reached a max membership of about 25, and in 1985, the hog farm became the site of some grisly punishments and equally grisly killings that are absolutely NSFW. In brief, it included the hanging death of a five-year-old boy, and later, the torture of one cult member who had protested the previous death. After being beaten, sodomized, and having his fingers shot off, his legs were flayed, his limbs were broken, and he was killed by Ryan jumping on his chest. Believe it or not, we skipped over some of the worst of the details.

Rick Stice, the former owner of the farm and father of the five-year-old boy, finally fled to authorities after the second murder. The compound was raided, and authorities seized 150,000 rounds of ammunition along with automatic weapons, machine guns, and a massive cache of promotional materials. Ryan was convicted of first-degree murder, and spent 30 years on death row before dying in prison in 2015.

Valentina de Andrade

Valentina de Andrade first came under suspicion in 1992, when she was investigated in connection with the disappearance of a child. That investigation broke the stranglehold she had over several cult members, but those who stuck with her settled in Buenos Aires and continued following her bizarre teachings.

She believed that she was receiving messages from extraterrestrials, and that they wanted her to use all the information she received for the greater good. She first got her messages through her former husband and then directly, and it was only when former members of the Lineamiento Universal Superior (LUS, or Superior Universal Alignment) started coming forward that the world found out what kind of horror she was preaching. The UFO sect was ultimately linked to 19 victims (including six murders), chosen because of her belief that any boy born after 1981 possessed the soul of the devil. At her command, sect members drugged, castrated, and abandoned victims, and it wasn't until 2003 that sect members were finally arrested and tried for their part in the torture.

She denied that she was involved at all, and was acquitted. Her web site is still up.

Matt Hale

Matt Hale was born in 1971, and by the time he was 12, he was reading things like Hitler's Mein Kampf…which should give you a feel for where this one's going. He went on to form the World Church of the Creator—also known as The Creativity Movement—and to earn himself the title of Pontifex Maximus. Only a few days after Hale was refused the right to practice law in his home state of Illinois, cult co-creator Benjamin Smith went on a killing spree in Chicago. Far from distancing himself from Smith's actions, Hale wrote, "We do urge hatred. If you love something, you must be willing to hate that which threatens it."

According to Hale, his group isn't a hate group, it's just a group that loves white people. Really, really loves white people. More than that, they consider themselves a religion based in the idea of white supremacy and the idea that there is no God as more traditional religions believe. Instead, the white race is Hale's deity, and any non-white race (who he calls the "mud races") is the enemy. His past reads like a to-do list of someone trying to be as horrible a person as possible, so we'll just hit some highlights. He turned to the Internet to spread their creed, targeting not just adults but children, too, with their WOTC Kids! site. He claimed he's the new Fuhrer, said he's going to lead the white race on a crusade to reclaim their rightful place, and proclaimed he's going to kick-start a Thousand Year Reich. In spite of running the whole thing out of his father's house—and, more specifically, his brother's old bedroom—he got a pretty shocking amount of attention.

That is, until he was busted trying to arrange the death of a US district court judge who was overseeing a case brought against him for trademark infringement. He's supposed to be out of jail in 2037.

Credonia Mwerinde and Joseph Kibweteere

Joseph Kibweteere claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in 1984, and when reformed prostitute Credonia Mwerinde said that the Virgin had appeared to her, too, not far from Kibweteere's home, it cemented the beginning of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God.

The movement didn't so much preach of a restoration as you might think, but that the end of the world was going to come with the end of 1999, and their cult was pretty much the same as Noah's Ark. Some of the cult's activities were shut down in 1998, when the Ugandan press exposed the labor camp–like living conditions the cult's children were being kept in, but it wasn't until after the prophecy failed that Kibweteere and Mwerinde took matters into their own hands.

A whole lot is unclear about what went on in the cult, which attracted somewhere around 4,000 members. They were so terrified into not breaking any of the Ten Commandments that most of them didn't say much. By March 2000, the BBC was reporting that 900 bodies of cult members had been recovered. Some were found across several districts, while around 500 of them were pulled from the remains of the cult's Kanungu church after it had burned to the ground with members praying inside. Some believe Kibweteere survived the massacre, while others think he died in the church fire. Mwerinde was believed to have survived, too, and in 2011, she was awarded an Ig Nobel Prize for Mathematics.

"Michel"

His real name was Jaime Gomez, but he was more often called The Teacher, Michel, or Andreas, and he was at the head of a 1980s-era cult that, from the outside, looked like the best 1980s-era party ever. The cult was called Buddhafield, and the worst of what was going on was exposed by Will Allen's 2016 Sundance documentary Holy Hell. Allen had been a cult member for 22 years, and that means we have something that we don't get with a lot of cult leaders: firsthand footage behind the scenes.

On the surface, it was all spiritual enlightenment, group activities, and ballet. Michel was, by all appearances, incredibly carefree and charismatic, typically seen wearing only a Speedo and sunglasses, usually going on about how he was going to show his followers the path to enlightenment and how it was going to be a fun ride. It wasn't until 2006 that things went sideways, and members later found out about his attempts at gay porn, his attempts at acting, and the accusations of sexual assault.

Michel claimed to be able to perform certain rituals for members, including one that he called "the knowing." In 2006, former members got together to discuss what they had been expressly forbidden to talk about. Michel's manipulation went further than just demanding they worship him: he demanded sex from his male followers.

After the release of the movie, Michel moved on to a new group, naming himself Reyji, or God-King.

Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret

In 1994, 48 people were found dead at a series of houses across Switzerland. They were members of the Order of the Solar Temple sect, a cult that centered around being prepared for the end of the world. It was founded by Joseph Di Mambro and Luc Jouret, who were on opposite ends of the spectrum of cult leaders…to begin with.

Di Mambro already had a criminal record for fraud, having extorted money through his Center for the Preparation for the New Age. He claimed to be able to teach people mind-blowing meditation techniques, but instead of fortune and glory, he was forced to flee France. Jouret, on the other hand, was an honest-to-gosh doctor who had turned to first homeopathy then "ancient wisdom."

Jouret and Di Mambro teamed up to found OST and establish centers in both Quebec and Switzerland. Even as they preached that the end of the world was nigh and that only their sacred locations were safe, some cult members were getting more and more suspicious of Jouret's increasingly nutty behavior. In addition to swapping women constantly (and insisting that he needed the sex to be able to perform the order's rituals), he also installed projectors to make cult members think that they were seeing beings that he was summoning. When his tricks were discovered by one member, Di Mambro promptly declared the man's son to be the antichrist. Di Mambro ordered the ritual killing of the family, and over the next few years, at least 74 more people would die, until both Jouret and Di Mambro were found among the dead in Granges-Sur-Salvan, Switzerland.

Jeffrey Lundgren

When the bodies of the Avery family were found buried in an Ohio barn, they would become known as the Kirtland cult killings. The mastermind behind the cult was Jeffrey Lundgren, who lived next door and sat at the head of a paramilitary cult based in his own interpretation of Scripture. Police later described Lundgren as unimpressive, but when former cult members came forward in 1999, they painted a terrifying picture.

Lundgren was originally from Missouri, and when the petty thief resettled his family in Ohio, he also moved into Kirtland's religious scene. Styling himself as the voice of God, he claimed that God had told him to start a revolution in Kirtland and attracted his followers with promises that he was going to make right everything they didn't like about the church. Once he had them with promises, he made it clear that they were all beholden to his own interpretation of the Bible, and that meant there were a heck of a lot of sins. Use a lot of garlic? You sinned. You complained? You had a gun to your head. Even in retrospect, former cult members weren't sure if he was delusional, insane, or simply an incredibly good con man who could even convince his followers to help him sacrifice a family of five, saying that their ritual murders were God's will.

Arrested and put on trial for the murders, Lundgren testified that as God's prophet, he shouldn't be given the death penalty and continued to claim that he heard the voice of God. He continued to claim that right up until his execution in 2006.