Former followers of Marion Pettie say they called him "The Student," "The Stroller," "The Game Caller" or "The Pathfinder" and believed that when Pettie lectured them at their Glover Park house about "the New Age way of living" and Eastern mysticism, he could peer into their souls almost as if he had X-ray vision.
The group believed that women, never men, should initiate sexual relationships, because Pettie told them so, and that children should be raised like Indians on the Plains, strong and tough.
Interviews with former members and associates of the Washington-based group of 40 or so followers, known as the Finders, describe an organization completely dominated by the 66-year-old Pettie and driven by a complex belief system confounding to outsiders.
Now it is the police who are perplexed as they sift through mounds of documents and computer tapes seized in raids on the group's headquarters in the District and Virginia in the past three days. Authorities in Florida say they soon will seek to interview six young children who were found dirty and hungry by Tallahassee police Thursday in the company of two men identified by police as members of the Finders.
The commune evolved with the human potential movement of the 1970s, with a heavy emphasis on shedding inhibitions and delusions, said former associates, most of whom did not want to be identified out of embarrassment for having been in the group, or out of fear of current associates.
"It was a 24-hour, 365-day-a-year training group for games," said a man who said he has known group members for 15 years. "It was like people who go to an institute for a weekend, but this was for a year or a lifetime . . . . And the games were always changing."
Former members of the Finders said that the six children found in Tallahassee are sons and daughters of group members, the result of a deliberate binge of child-bearing among group women in the past few years, after about 10 years of freewheeling relationships in which they deliberately avoided having children, former associates said.
A number of the older members of the Finders, people in their forties or fifties, had careers or families before but left them behind to take part in the group. Looking back, most of them regarded their old lives as uninteresting and their children and former spouses as too conventional, according to former group associates and relatives of current members.
Pettie and his followers agreed about 1980 that they should start a new generation of children and raise them in an experimental way, the sources said. The biological parents would not raise them; the group would.
But in reality the children were largely ignored by the members, with responsibility for their care considered drudgery, former members said.
"It was an undesirable job in the group," said a person who quit several years ago. "They were trying to keep the kids out of their hair . . . . The theory was the children should have a lot of abundance . . . . But they were terrible at putting it into practice."
In a telephone interview last night, a man who identified himself as Robert Gardner Terrell, 50, the owner of two Washington buildings used by the Finders, said the group included 20 adults and six children, and tried to provide children with "the richest life they could have.
"Children always come first in our organization," he said.
"We're trying to create a model that could be followed by other persons who want to raise free children . . . . "
The commune children were so dirty and full of sores on their bodies that they were not allowed to play with other children on the playground at Stoddert School near the W Street residence, former associates said. Group members had taken the children there to encourage them to play with nongroup youngsters, but the two groups did not mix because the Finders' children could hardly communicate with the others, one ex-associate said.
All the commune's former participants who were interviewed agreed that they knew nothing about child abuse in the organization, though members may sometimes have ignored the children or even mistreated them.
Most knowledgeable sources said they knew nothing about the kind of satanism in the group referred to in a D.C. police detective's affidavit in support of a search warrant. But one former associate said he believes that members have dabbled in satanic-type or pagan rituals only in the past few months, as the group's latest "game."
"Games" played a central role inside the Finders, and it was often difficult to know when the members were playing out some fantasy and when they were not, ex-associates said. The Finders' tendency to abandon jobs and homes at a moment's notice could complicate law enforcement efforts to find the group's members, who were gone from their Washington bases when police arrived Thursday, sources said.
Sometimes they approached businesses -- from a major Washington law firm to a leftist think tank -- and offered their expertise in computer programming and other services, sources said. Other times the group went through the motions of setting up a business, sometimes printing up phony business cards. Some members used up to 20 aliases, ex-associates said.
Terrell called Finders' leader Marion Pettie "my entertainer. He provides me with a model of somebody who is never satisfied with the status quo and he inspires me upward and he keeps me laughing as I go."
Pettie, an Air Force master sergeant who retired in 1956 and bought extensive woodland property in rural Madison County, Va., started the Finders in the late 1960s as a communal experiment characteristic of the period. He sought intelligent, well-educated people who could discuss the latest thought in philosophy, psychology and human development.
The Finders eschewed counterculture music and drugs, former associates said. While they maintained an open-door policy at their Washington house and Virginia farms, many of the drifters and hippies who came for free food quickly left because of the emphasis on serious conversation and work.
"It used to be an organization of dropout professionals who didn't know what to do with their lives," said one former associate. "But it took a bad turn."
In the early 1980s, Pettie's close friend and second-in-command, known by the group as Barbara Sylvester, who was in her forties, died at the Finders' W Street house after she did not receive medical help for appendicitis.
The death apparently placed Pettie into a gloomy mood and led to a shift in the group's tone. The Finders became increasingly secretive, hostile and arrogant toward nonmembers, former associates said. Members engaged in long self-criticism sessions, exposing painful emotional inadequacies to the group. Members stopped seeing relatives and friends who were not in the group; former associates found themselves shunned or treated brusquely.
It was amid this blend of surliness and somber planning for the future that the community began to raise its new generation, children who were shared by numerous parents yet nurtured by no one in particular, ex-associates said.
Staff writers Victoria Churchville and Linda Wheeler contributed to this report.