The Finders -- about 40 people who lived in a Glover Park house, a Northeast Washington warehouse and a farm in rural Virginia -- are what remains of a popular 1960s hippie refuge that evolved into a society dedicated to communalism and to studying the future, according to court documents, experts on cults and law enforcement officials.

A fragmentary sketch of the Finders emerged yesterday as investigators, cult experts, neighbors and social workers scrambled to figure out whether children of group members were mistreated and who the Finders are.

Wherever outsiders had contact with the Finders, they considered the group odd. There was talk of houses segregated by sex, children separated from their parents, vans that came and went, and a mysterious guru who called himself the Stroller and fancied himself a seer and a political powerhouse.

Before yesterday, police had had little contact with the group. One complaint five years ago prompted an investigation that found no evidence of criminal activity, a District police source said. And in December, District police found an ornate tombstone and round stones gathered near a circle about 70 yards behind the Glover Park house. Such designs are often used in satanic rituals, experts said. But a former resident of the W Street commune said the stones were laid in 1972 as part of a large garden.

Neighbors have complained only rarely and then simply about the noise. And some people who visited or stayed at the commune said they met intelligent, interesting people who showed no signs of odd behavior or mistreatment of children.

As long ago as 1968, hippies and peace activists in Washington often visited Pettie Farm, a 90-acre property in Madison County, Va., near Shenandoah National Park. Four people who visited The Farm, as it was known, between 1968 and 1973 said yesterday it was a place where anyone could get an organic meal without charge, without questions. They recalled a leader in his forties, a charismatic and wealthy man named Marion Pettie.

About five years ago, neighbors of The Farm said, the hippie followers of Pettie were replaced by men in business suits and women in professional clothes.

Pettie and his followers also had a house at 3920 W St. NW in Glover Park, where members of the group lived until recent weeks, neighbors said. The house consists of two attached red brick buildings, each with four apartments.

There, female members of the Finders lived with children in apartments with no locks on the doors. The group occasionally distributed fliers offering shared rooms for as little as $5 a night, according to John Mathews, who stayed with his wife at the commune for about 10 days last year while looking for an apartment.

"I noticed the children often went without clothes in the summer," said Gerald Salzman, a neighbor. "I thought it was cute and natural." Still, Salzman said he once called police to tell them about a child who was screaming for more than an hour.

Another neighbor, who asked not to be identified, said she once asked the mother of a 6- or 7-year-old child who lived in the Finders house why the girl didn't go to school. "She said that {the child} was taught at home," the neighbor said.

George Pettie, son of Marion Pettie, said that the group is like an extended family largely made up of people who have dropped out of professional careers and are under his father's sway.

"The binder is they have a father now, and they get to play fun games," said George Pettie, who owns a Northern Virginia home inspection business and said he hasn't talked to his father in two years. "They're the kids, and they're obedient. They like to do what the father says to do."

George Pettie said that he doesn't know of any group members practicing satanism or abusing children. But he said the lives of the children are unpleasant because group members rear them collectively. Frequently, Marion Pettie, now 66, would assign a follower to a "game" or "adventure" overseas or in another city, and the group member would not see his children for months.

George Pettie said the group engaged in "constant baby sitting . . . . I wouldn't want to be a child there, without a reliable day-in-day-out parent figure." He said of the children found in the van in Florida, "I bet you a buck, you'll find their biological mothers live at W Street, and if they're not there now, they're off on some adventure."

Marion Pettie continually sent his followers on what he called "adventures" to teach them about themselves, his son said. If someone had some character weakness, the leader would send him or her away to, say, Hawaii to work, then return to describe his lesson to other members.

The members support themselves in temporary office jobs in Washington, George Pettie said.

He described his father as charismatic and perceptive, having "a keen sense of what people need that they don't even know themselves."

Marion Pettie retired from the Air Force in 1956 as a master sergeant, and has done little formal work since then, his son said. In the 1960s, he was a "student of the world" who would spend the whole day in the library near the family farm, said his son. Then around 1971 he gathered his followers in the W Street house.

"That was the beginning of a new life for him," George Pettie said. "They found in their communal life style a more adventurous life."

Marion Pettie has long had a consuming interest in the future, and futurism is a major component of the group's philosophy, according to cult experts. Originally he based his teachings on Carlos Castaneda's popular 1960s chronicles of mystic self-exploration, a precursor of the New Age movement of the 1970s.

Edwin Morse, a Wisconsin psychologist who works with cult members, said he has tracked the Finders for five years, interviewing several members. He said the members are well-educated, secretive people who have "no clear parental kind of responsibility as we know it," instead sharing responsibility for the children. He said most of the children who lived with the group were born to members.

In the summer, neighbors saw as many as a dozen children at the Madison County farm. "There was always hollering and screaming going on," said Wilma Richards. "They were always hollering about Momma and Daddy. One time I heard one say 'I want milk.' Another person said, 'Shut up, you ain't gonna get it.' "

Another neighbor of the farm said he spoke to an 11-year-old boy who said the children didn't go to school because no adults told them to.

"They always talked '60s jargon, 'Do your own thing' stuff," the man said. He said members of the Finders appeared to hold jobs in computer businesses.

The group split its membership by sex some time ago, leaving the women to live in the Glover Park house while the men moved into the warehouse at 1307 Fourth St. NE, McArthur said.

Cult experts said that in the past few years they have seen increased interest among such groups in satanism and witchcraft. The circle of stones District police reported finding behind the Glover Park house in December is typical of witchcraft ceremonies, said Richard Stephens, a sociology professor at George Washington University. Staff writers John Ward Anderson, Linda Wheeler and John F. Harris contributed to this report.