A man identifying himself as a member of the group that includes the two men arrested in Florida last week on child abuse charges came forward last night to identify the children with whom the men were found and to defend the men against the charges.
In a printed statement and a telephone interview, Robert Gardner Terrell, 50, who said he owned the Washington house said to be a base for the Finders, the group to which the two belong, gave detailed explanations for the group's practices and activities, which have been characterized as unusual or bizarre.
Asserting that the six children found in Tallahassee with the men had been formally placed in the care of at least one of the men by the children's mothers, he denied that the children had been abused or neglected. Tallahassee police said six disheveled and hungry children were found in a downtown park with the men.
Affidavits filed in U.S. District Court here in support of search warrants executed last week at a Northwest duplex and a Northeast warehouse owned by Terrell described "satanism" and "rituals" associated with the "cult."
"We are all in a state right now where we are afraid. We've been made almost dysfunctional by the reports," Terrell said in a lengthy telephone interview last night. He said he released the statement to police and news organizations "to establish some kind of credibility that we are rational people, not devil worshipers or child molesters."
"Certainly anything we've done is based on the desire for the children to have the richest life they could have," Terrell continued. "Children always come first in our organization."
Terrell's statement was delivered last night to The Washington Post only hours after police seized materials at five rural Virginia locations as part of an expanding investigation touched off by the arrests of the two men in Tallahassee on Wednesday.
In addition, authorities were searching throughout the Southeast yesterday for a van believed to be carrying associates of the two men. Law enforcement officials were also sifting through mountains of materials previously seized in raids on Washington locations linked to the group.
In his typed statement, Terrell, a private accountant and former employe of the Internal Revenue Service, said two men and six children from the group left Washington early last month for Berea, Ky., where they were to work on a retirement community. After finding that the site was not ready for groundbreaking, the men took the children on a vacation and camping trip to Florida with the children's mothers' approval, he said.
Other men went to Florida to help care for the children, and three had left for the day to look for accommodations when two of the men were arrested, the statement said.
"I consider that the authorities have mistakenly incarcerated these men and children," Terrell said in the statement, which he said he circulated last night "in the hope that it will clear up some misunderstanding . . . . "
Of the six children taken into custody by authorities Wednesday, when the investigation began, one showed signs of sexual abuse, Tallahassee police said, but none provided a full account of what was believed to be their journey from Washington to Florida.
In response to the suggestion of sexual abuse, the man who identified himself as Terrell said last night that it might have occurred after the children were taken from those assigned to care for them. It "might have happened after she was out of our control," he said. He said the children were healthy and well nourished.
Police said they received several calls from grandparents and other relatives claiming some of the children. One Washington area man told the FBI he was on his way to Tallahassee to claim his grandson. But police said they will not release any of the children without a court order.
The discovery of the children and the arrest of the two men led D.C. authorities to search a Northeast Washington warehouse and a Glover Park apartment building where several Finders members lived. D.C. police yesterday sifted through extensive computer records and color slides and photographic contact sheets removed by authorities.
U.S. Customs agents who saw some of the photos Friday said they appeared to involve sexual activities between adults and children, according to Customs spokesman David Hoover. "We're not saying that it's pornography, but it has all the earmarks," Hoover said.
However, D.C. police sources characterized the pictures as "ritualistic" and not pornographic. One police source said that the photos were "no more pornographic than what you find in the average home." They said the pictures of naked children were innocent, but there were some showing children in "ritualistic" ceremonies including the bloodletting of animals.
In the telephone interview late last night, Terrell described the so-called bloodletting as the slaughter of two goats kept on a farm in Virginia "for the kids to play with." At the end of the summer, he said, group members decided it would be more humane to slaughter and eat the animals rather than to let them starve in their pen.
He said the slaughter was intended as an educational experience. "I don't see why it's so bizarre," he added, "but it's been seized on by the authorities."
Based on interviews and on items seized in the raids, law enforcement sources said that the group does not appear to be engaged in the child pornography industry or in kidnaping and said they do not fully understand the group.
"These people are not into hurting the children physically," said one law enforcement source. "They're into molding them mentally."
Among the items seized in the Friday raids were computerized messages concerning what the group called the proper "programming" of the children, and how they are "demagnetized," the law enforcement source said.
Other items seized included financial records indicating that the group has substantial assets, including bank accounts, the source said.
Other seized documents include files showing the organization has researched numerous industries, such as the fast food industry, and papers suggesting that the group operates a wide network of corporations, the source said.
Other files seized showed that some members of the group have worked in low-level jobs in the federal and District governments, the source said.
In Etlan, Va., about 100 miles southwest of Washington, state police said they found "several items of evidentiary nature" after yesterday's 2:30 a.m. search of properties reportedly owned by Marion Pettie, leader of the Finders.
Virginia and Madison County authorities would not describe what they found at two farms, one near Etlan and the other a few miles away in a hamlet called Nethers. A house and at least three cabins on the land were unoccupied, and police said much of the property appeared not to have been inhabited for some time.
The door of one cabin was open yesterday, revealing large amounts of food, clothing, sleeping bags, books and pamphlets from groups such as the World Future Society. A plastic bag containing hundreds of neckties and several pairs of panty hose were on the floor, along with boxes of diapers.
In the woods outside the cabin, badly weathered tents and sleeping bags were scattered on the ground next to a swing set made of rope and milk cases. Neighbors in the remote farming community have said they routinely saw as many as several dozen people, including large groups of children, riding to the farms and hiking and camping in the nude during the summer. Some neighbors spoke highly of Pettie, saying he traveled often and was often helpful to local residents.
Meanwhile, the FBI and Tallahassee police continued yesterday to seek leads on a white van that witnesses said was with the blue van that police seized Wednesday. Police said the two vans may have been in radio contact. Witnesses told police that the white van was occupied by two well-dressed men and two children. It has not been seen since.
Law enforcement agencies throughout the Southeast United States were asked yesterday to look for the white van, and Tallahassee police said they were examining leads reported by Miami and Gainesville, Fla., police.
Miami police searching computer intelligence files reported two vehicles, a white 1985 Dodge with Virginia tags and a white 1982 Dodge van with Virginia tags. Gainesville police reported a sighting two days ago of an older model -- late '60s or '70s -- green Chevy Suburban or Chevy International van occupied by several well dressed men and several children. Hunt would not comment further on the sightings.
Hunt said police do not know when the two men and six children in the blue van left the Washington area or how long they had been on the road. One of the youngsters told police that the children last saw their parents in Washington around Christmas and that while traveling they had been camping out in tents at campgrounds. Police said they found no bedding or camping equipment in the van. The van was heavy with the smell of unwashed clothes and rotting fruit and vegetables, police said.
The two men arrested Wednesday, identified as Douglas Ammerman, 27, and James Michael Holwell or Michael Houlihan, 23, have been charged with aggravated child abuse and resisting arrest without violence, both misdemeanors in Florida. They were each being held in lieu of $100,000 bond.
Houlihan is the father of one of the children and stepfather of another, according to police and former members of the Finders. Houlihan told police late Friday that he wanted to talk to a detective, but when police sent an investigator, Houlihan had changed his mind, police said. Police said that this could be another of the games that the Finders are said to play.
Authorities said they have not interviewed the children since they were found Wednesday. Lt. Michael Langston said last night that social workers are awaiting the arrival of counselors from the FBI. No timetable has been set for the interview, which will be videotaped.
Meanwhile, District police theorize that members of the commune were tipped off to the impending raid on their Washington bases when Tallahassee police called the W Street house sometime Wednesday, seeking information about the children. "That alerted them to what was going on," a District police source said. "That's why we didn't find anything anywhere."
Former members of the group said the Finders routinely practiced leaving their house on short notice.
In his printed statement, Terrell said that Ammerman was one of the two men who originally left Washington with the six children. He listed in the statement names for all six children, and identified their mothers. At least five of the women have been identified by other sources as members of the Finders.
Terrell said that Ammerman and another man took the children to Florida and that afterward, Michael Holwell, also known as Michael Houlihan, and four other men, including Terrell himself, went to Florida to care for the children.
Terrell said that he and another man left Florida after being satisfied that the children were well cared for.
He said the children's mothers are in San Francisco, "working in business offices" to earn money to help pay for the Kentucky project.
Identifying himself as the owner of both the Glover Park apartment building and the Northeast Washington warehouse used by the Finders, Terrell said he could not return home because he feared that based on news reports "the police would arrest me."
Staff writers John Ward Anderson, Ed Bruske, Marc Fisher, John F. Harris, John Mintz and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.