A District police investigation begun in December into allegations of child abuse and satanic rituals involving the Finders, a group linked to six ragtag children found last week in Florida, has produced evidence that the practices of the group were odd but not criminal, D.C. Police Chief Maurice T. Turner Jr. said yesterday.
"The life style of the so-called Finders organization may differ from the societal norm, but so far the Metropolitan Police Department has not uncovered any evidence of criminal wrongdoing by members of the group," Turner said at a news conference. He added, however, that documents and records seized last week are still being reviewed.
But even as police in the District softened their statements about the Finders group, the FBI and police in Virginia and Florida widened their investigation into the activities of the Washington-based commune of 20 to 40 adults and seven children.
Two of the six children, whom police said they found dirty and hungry in a Tallahassee park with two well-dressed men, showed indications of possible sexual abuse, according to an affidavit filed in Madison County, Va., where the group has two farms.
The men, Douglas E. Ammerman, 27, and James Michael Holwell, 23, who gave police the name Michael Houlihan, were arrested and charged with six counts each of child abuse. Florida authorities said yesterday that the two men, who are in jail in lieu of $100,000 cash bond, have refused to talk with police.
Meanwhile, FBI agents in Washington yesterday interviewed Kristin Knauth, a woman associated with the group. She is said to be the mother of Benjamin Franklin Knauth, 4, one of the children found in Florida. Kristin Knauth could not be reached for comment yesterday.
Chief Turner said the D.C. investigation began in mid-December after an unnamed informant alleged that children were being physically and sexually abused at the group's house and that the group engaged in satanic activities.
He said those allegations have not been substantiated by police surveillance or by review of materials seized at the group's properties last week, nor has examination of those materials substantiated allegations of child pornography. No children have been at the Finders' residence since the investigation began, Turner said. He said that as yet police "have not assured" themselves that children in the group have not been abused.
In an interview, Robert Gardner Terrell, a key member of the group, said that the children have been traveling in Virginia, Kentucky and Florida since before Christmas with men in the group while their mothers were in San Francisco on "an earning and learning adventure." He said a seventh child, an infant, has been in Boulder, Colo.
"We've received hundreds and hundreds of calls about the children," Tallahassee police spokesman Scott Hunt said yesterday. "They're doing fine now. They're well fed and they're clothed and they're in shelter."
Virginia state police said yesterday that they found goat skins and a goat's head in their search of the Finders' rural lands over the weekend. Spokesman Charles Vaughan said police also found computer equipment and documents, but he did not comment on the significance of the material.
In an affidavit supporting the search, Virginia authorities included photographs showing three white-robed Finders men and several children dismembering two goats. The photographs were in a scrapbook titled "The Execution of Henrietta and Igor." In one picture, a crying child looked at a decapitated goat. Another photo was captioned, "Ben finds Henrietta's Womb." Three pictures showed children playing with goat fetuses.
Carl Shapley, a Washington educator who said he worked closely with Finders leader Marion Pettie during the past year, said the group's ceremonies involved the slaughter of goats, but he warned against associating such activities with satanism or pagan rites.
"They believe in games and this was just good fun, a very Alice-in-Wonderland kind of fun, dressing up in white robes or whatever," he said.
Even as Shapley and others rose to defend the Finders, calling them an odd but entirely benign group of intellectual explorers and social adventurers, former members of the group came forward to relate tales of being harassed by the Finders.
A lawyer in Culpeper, Va., said the Finders sent him profane letters and slashed his car's tires when he represented a former member in a divorce case three years ago. John Davies, the lawyer, said the harassment stopped only after he obtained a court order prohibiting members of the group from contacting him. Staff writers John F. Harris and John Mintz contributed to this report.