Authorities investigating the alleged abuse of six children found with two men in a Tallahassee, Fla., park discovered materials yesterday in the Washington area that they say points to a 1960s-style commune called the Finders, described in a court document as a "cult" that allegedly conducted "brainwashing" and used children "in rituals."
D.C. police, who searched a Northeast Washington warehouse linked to the group, removed large plastic bags filled with color slides, photographs and photographic contact sheets. Some photos visible through a bag carried from the warehouse at 1307 Fourth St. NE were wallet-sized pictures of children, similar to school photos, and some were of naked children.
D.C. police sources said some of the items seized yesterday showed pictures of children engaged in what appeared to be "cult rituals." Officials of the U.S. Customs Service, called in to aid in the investigation, said that the material seized yesterday includes photos showing children involved in bloodletting ceremonies of animals and one photograph of a child in chains. Customs officials said they were looking into whether a child pornography operation was being conducted.
According to court documents, computers and software were seized from the warehouse, from a Glover Park apartment building and from a van that was recovered in Tallahassee along with the children.
Yesterday's disclosures about the mysterious group grew out of an investigation that was set in motion Wednesday by an anonymous call to Tallahassee police about two "well-dressed men" who were "supervising" six disheveled children in a neighborhood park. The men were arrested and charged with child abuse, according to Tallahassee police.
Their links to the D.C. area have led authorities into a far-reaching investigation that includes the Finders -- a group of about 40 people that court documents allege is led by a man named Marion Pettie -- and their various homes, including the duplex apartment building in Glover Park, the Northeast Washington warehouse and a 90-acre farm in rural Madison County, Va.
Tallahassee police, who arrested and charged men identified as Douglas E. Ammerman and Michael Houlihan with child abuse, contacted D.C. police Thursday in an attempt to establish the identities of the children. They learned that D.C. police had heard of the Finders group, according to Tallahassee police spokesman Scott Hunt.
No other member of the group had been located last night, police sources said.
According to U.S. District Court records in Washington, a confidential police source had previously told authorities that the Finders were "a cult" that conducted "brainwashing" techniques at the warehouse and the Glover Park duplex at 3918-20 W St. NW. This source told of being recruited by the Finders with promises of "financial reward and sexual gratification" and of being invited by one member to "explore" satanism with them, according to the documents.
According to the affidavit, the source told authorities that children were used in "rituals" by the members, and though the source had never witnessed abuse of the children, the source said the children's grandparents feared for their safety.
On Dec. 15, a D.C. police detective observed a clearing in the rear of the 3900 block of W Street NW where "several round stones had been gathered" near a circle, as well as evidence that people had gathered there, according to the document, which stated that "this practice is sometimes used in satanic rituals." Armed with that information and the report from Tallahassee police of the allegedly abused children, D.C. police sought search warrants for the Glover Park residence and the warehouse.
Meanwhile, authorities in Florida attempted to learn more about the six small children -- described by a police spokesman as "hungry and . . . pretty pathetic" -- who had set the investigation in motion.
The children, identified in a court document only by the first names of Honeybee, John, Franklin, BeeBee, Max and Mary, were described as "dirty, unkempt, hungry, disturbed and agitated." They had been living in the rear of the van for some time, the document said.
Yesterday, police spokesman Hunt said one of the children, a 6-year-old girl, "showed signs of sexual abuse," but that an examination by a local doctor showed none of the children as being ill.
Five of the children were uncommunicative, according to police, and none seemed to recognize objects such as typewriters and staplers.
However, the oldest was able to give investigators some information. She said that the two men "were their teachers," according to Hunt. She was not sure where they had been recently or where they were going. But until recently, they had been living in the District in "a house with other children and adults." They lived mainly on a diet of raw fruit and vegetables, she said.
The girl told the police that while they were in the District, the children received instruction from "a man they called a Game Caller or a Game Leader," according to Hunt.
According to the D.C. court document, a Tallahassee police investigator identified this man as Marion Pettie, who the confidential police source "also identified as the Stroller, leader of this 'cult.' "
The children have been placed in emergency shelters in Tallahassee, according to Merrill Moody of the Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services. He said officials were trying to identify them.
Neighbors of the W Street house last night identified the photographs of two of the children as residents of the house.
Before their arrests in the park, Ammerman and Houlihan had told police that they were teachers from Washington "transporting these children to Mexico and a school for brilliant children," according to Hunt. When police asked the men where the children's mothers were, "they said they were being weaned from their mothers."
Yesterday, U.S. Attorney Joseph E. diGenova said that authorities were investigating "the crime of kidnaping" but that the investigation "is not limited to that as the evidence evolves."
George Wisnowsky, spokesman for the FBI in Jacksonville, said the FBI was "checking the transportation of children across state lines for immoral purposes or kidnaping."
Authorities in Florida, who searched the van, found 20 floppy computer discs and a device Hunt said could be used to hook into a computer in another location by telephone. He said D.C. police have obtained evidence that a computer linked to the group received a call from Tallahassee late this week.
Meanwhile, authorities in Washington were busy searching the warehouse and the Glover Park residence, side-by-side brick apartment buildings that, according to neighbors, stood out in the neighborhood because of a hot tub and satellite dish on the roof. Only women and children lived there, though men visited regularly, according to neighbors.
One woman from the neighborhood said the children from the house were "easy to spot because they were so dirty," adding that adults with them "seemed not to care." She said the group from the house reminded her of "leftover hippies."
But another neighbor, college professor John Matthews, who said he had lived at 3918 W St. for a short time while looking for an apartment, said the residents were "a close-knit group" of feminists who liked to help people and were not a cult. "The neighborhood talks about them because of their life style," Matthews said.
The Fourth Street warehouse, which authorities said also was used as a residence, had windows that were boarded shut. One wall was covered with a huge map of the world, lit by floodlights. Upstairs, mattresses were flung on the floors of various rooms.Staff writers Joseph E. Bouchard, Ed Bruske, Mary Thornton, John Harris and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.