As a child, picking cotton in the stifling heat of a Fort Stockton summer, she could not have dreamed that she was to become Dallas’ premier metaphysical guru. But she knew she was special. God told her so, in the visions. When she was 4 years old, relaxing under a shade tree, three men in splendid robes appeared and told her that she could do or be anything she wanted, if she wanted it badly enough. They told her that when she was troubled, she should think about God. And they warned her that they could not be seen by many other people. Not the boys and girls who ridiculed her. Or the adults who looked down on her wrong-side-of-the-tracks family. Or her alcoholic father. She thought about God.
She’s 44 now, and she still thinks about God. But now she does it for a living. Terri Lee Benson Wilder Cooley Johnson Hoffman, once adopted and four times married, grew up to lead what in the early ’70s was Dallas’ foremost metaphysical study group. Perhaps thousands of followers nationwide bought her correspondence courses. She taught hundreds of Dallasites face-to-face, imparting a home-brew mix of Eastern and Western philosophies with a common-sensical emphasis on balance, perspective, and freedom from drugs — a freedom she could not gain for herself.
Her fame spread because of what she could do — she had a sweet smile and splendid intuition — and what she said she could do: see the past and the future, travel outside her body, communicate with the dead, and protect her followers even from auto accidents and cancer.
Yet four of her closest associates died unexpected deaths, after each had willed an estate to her. Their deaths made her at least $500,000 richer and led to one of the longest and strangest probate court trials in Dallas County history.
But that was something the child could not have foreseen as she watched tuberculosis slowly killing her mother and thought of God. Why did God take her stillborn sister? Why didn’t God give her family enough clothes or food or money? Why did God let the other children act so cruelly and get away with it?
The visions returned after the child, now 9 years old, entered a Lutheran orphanage in Round Rock. Whenever you are despondent, the three men told her, think about God. They taught her to pray, and she had a vision of Christ. She remembers a “Lutheran nun,” a German woman who told her about the elements: fire, water, earth, air, and ether. And about the Akashic Records, which existed only in the spiritual realm. The child could reach them through meditation, and they would show her the past, present and future, laid out like farm land through an airplane window. The sister also taught her about reincarnation, which seemed like a logical idea. God had not cheated her stillborn sister, who would have another chance at a happier life. Her tormentors at the orphanage — many of them the victims of German or Russian depredations in Eastern Europe — would have to suffer through several more lives on Earth.
The child later would recall that she became convinced at the orphanage that she herself was the reincarnation of St. Theresa of Avila, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most famous mystics.
After two years at Round Rock, the child was adopted by a Dallas couple who had lost their natural daughter to tuberculosis. They gave the child a new name — Terri Lee Benson — and the first normal home she had known since her birth in 1938. She was in junior high school when she met a young truck driver named John Wilder. He was 18, 6-foot-1-inch, and a high school dropout earning 85 cents an hour. Her new mother called him a “thug,” not good enough for her raven-haired daughter. But Terri felt smothered by her adoptive mother’s attentions. She married John Wilder on May 2, 1953, in Durant, Oklahoma, which was the closest place to Dallas that a 15-year-old could get married. Terri had been 15 for just over a month.
Their first child, Cathy, was born 18 months later. Kenneth, a son, was born in 1958, and Virginia, their second daughter, in 1963. Terri occupied herself with her children and her gardening — she could boast of grafting several varieties of apples to the same tree trunk. The couple had a farm near Red Bird Airport, and those were quiet years. Terri never finished high school, but she yearned to be more than a housewife. Around 1954, she says, she started meeting with a group of like-minded friends, meditating and discussing metaphysics — the origin and structure of the universe, the nature of truth, the meaning of existence.
As time passed, Terri became more engrossed in the occult. The Wilders moved to a modest three-bedroom house in Farmers Branch, and their life began to fall apart. John Wilder cannot decide what went wrong. Perhaps it began when he paid $1.98 for a mail-order book on hypnotism. Perhaps it was Terri’s infatuation with the writings of Edgar Cayce or her involvement with power-of-positive-thinking groups such as Silva Mind Control Inc. Or maybe it was merely her exposure to the wealthy, bored women who met at the Brookhaven Country Club and discussed mystic matters. Terri began to attract a devout circle of admirers within that group. To them, she was far more than a housewife; she was a messenger of God.
To some of their children, she was almost a goddess in her own right. Terri recalls that during the late ’60s she helped a young man end his drug habit through meditation and prayer. He begged her to share her power with his friends, she says, so she held weekly evening meditation sessions attended by roughly 20 high school students at a time. Those students got two things that all sensitive adolescents crave: an absolute explanation of how the world works and uncritical, apparently loving, acceptance. Terri charged them nothing for the meditation sessions and steered many of them away from drugs or dangerous “macrobiotic” diets.
In a time of shifting morality and waning religious beliefs, Terri offered them an exotic and all-embracing credo. Balance and perspective were important. The archangels — Michael in charge of the fire element, Raphael in charge of air, Gabriel of water and Ariel of earth — could offer strength and protection. Death, her printed lessons said, was nothing: “The result of noble death is rebirth.” The world worked according to the Law of Karma, which held that ugliness begets ugliness and beauty begets beauty. One who lived a good life would be able to choose the body and environment in which he would be reincarnated. Those who led unhappy lives were paying a Karmic debt for past deeds. “We can be sure that the people who have been killed in volcanic eruptions and dire catastrophes have deserved these violent deaths and that they have been reborn in those places to fulfill their destiny. They reaped as they sowed in past lives…”
If the dogma sounded strange, it was harmless enough, as was her advice. “We’d come in and talk about parents, and she’d say innocuous things like, ’Well, they have their karmas to work out, too,’” a former Hillcrest High School student recalls.
One young man who joined the sessions in 1970 recalls that students would bring special meditation mats, usually bathmats or scraps of carpet, to Terri’s home in Farmers Branch. Terri would lead them into meditation — a state much like a hypnotic trance — and tell them they were entering a higher plateau of spiritual development where they could find the temples of the world’s spiritual masters. Christ was a master; so were Buddha, Lao Tzu, Mohammed and Bahá’u’lláh.
During the meeting, Terri would lead the students on a tour of the temples of the higher realms — astral for the emotions, mental for logic, and ether for the highest realm, where the soul itself resided. She would describe the temples as a Washington tour guide might aid a busload of blind tourists, and the students would add descriptive touches as if they, too, were looking at a brick and mortar building — which they often thought they were. Whatever they said about the temple they were touring, Terri would agree.Acceptance and love were her bywords, and she blessed her followers like a Pope. To one girl who spent 1969 and 1970 in her high school group, Terri autographed a wallet-sized photo of herself:
To a sweet and dear friend … May the love, wisdom and power of God be with you 10 lead you and guide you all your life bringing to yourself and others true blessings. Always be an example. Keep god in your heart, bring him to your mind and then live god all day. I send you peace, joy love, light and harmony. Love always, Terri.
Terri instructed her students on the Akashic Records, as she said the Lutheran church woman had instructed her. The records, she told her students, gave her knowledge of their past and future lives, and of their love lives. If asked (and who could resist asking?), she would look into the records to see whether her students had found their “soul mates.” Usually they had, but one young couple was devastated to hear that their souls were not right for each other. “We took that very seriously. We would sit around and talk about it — ’Well, we love each other but we’re not soul mates,’” says one girl.
Without seeming to brag outright, Terri told her students of her powers. “She claimed that she levitated her body in bed one night,” a former student recalls. “Her husband woke up one night, ’and there she was floating above the bed! He didn’t know what to do.’”
She said she could heal the sick; when her son, Kenneth, who was on a picnic with one group, dislocated his thumb so painfully that her students could see the bone straining against the skin, Terri said she didn’t want the boy to see a doctor. She wanted to heal him through meditation.
She claimed that she could protect her students from harm; one evening she told a Hillcrest High School student that his girlfriend was due to die in a car accident. Only an emergency meditation session could save her. After the session, Terri smiled serenely. The accident had been averted.
Even death did not render Terri powerless. After Jimi Hendrix’s demise, she told the group that his soul needed a boost to reach a higher plane. Jimi’s drug use had brought him bad karma, but he deserved better because he had made beautiful music. The group meditated, and a beatific look swept over Terri’s face. “Jimi’s in the room!” she said. “Can’t you hear him?”
Nor, thanks to the Akashic Records, was Terri fazed by deaths occurring centuries ago. She would turn off the room lights and have a student hold a piece of tinted plastic in front of his face. Then she would shine a flashlight on his features. There! Now everyone can see that Billy (or Allen or Jimmy or Cindy or Suzy) was a Chinese wiseman!
Gradually, those episodes plus Terri’s incongruous interest in material goods — Have you seen our new boat? Isn’t it wonderful! — turned her students into skeptics. Some would leave, but others would take their places. John Wilder, who never believed in her “powers” in the first place, says her behavior also led to the dissolution of the Wilder household.
Wilder says he couldn’t go along with the idea of breaking up teenage romances “because they weren’t soul mates.” And Terri’s work with adults was becoming a point of contention. She was selling “lessons” in spiritual development — mostly borrowed from established religions and from other authors, Wilder thought. By the late ’60s, she had started a group called Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul, and she was accepting “love offerings” for the lessons and her private “consultations.” Sometimes the love offerings would amount to $50 or $100. “It was a little hard to take,” Wilder would say later. “I was making $101 a week.”
Equally hard to stomach were some of Terri’s disciples, who followed her like puppies. Sandra Cleaver was one. Wilder remembers Sandy telling him that she thought of Terri “as Jesus.” He also remembers Sandy giving Terri “a tremendous amount of jewelry … a necklace, a bracelet, rings.” He told Sandy to take the jewelry back, “and she got on her knees and begged me to let her [Terri] have it.”
And there was Glenn Cooley, a student at North Texas State University, who always tried to sit next to Terri at the meetings, so he could hold her hand during meditation sessions. Terri says her husband’s unfounded jealousy of Glenn drove him to distraction and her to court.
Terri filed for divorce on December 28, 1970. Soon she was taken by sheriff’s deputies to Parkland Hospital for a psychiatric evaluation. Wilder and her mother had signed the committal papers. She was released and insists that her doctor at Parkland “decided I was fine.” But in the subsequent divorce, she lost custody of her young son and daughter. Under the divorce decree, granted on March 23, 1971, Terri gained custody of her teenage daughter, her 1968 Mustang, an assortment of stocks, a shotgun, a rifle and a pistol. John Wilder kept the house, the two youngest children, the furniture, and the family bank accounts.
Within months, Terri, then 33, had married Glenn Cooley, who had just turned 20. They went to New Mexico for the ceremony, accompanied by Sandy Cleaver. Then they returned to Dallas, bought a house at 4163 Dunhaven Drive, and began revising and expanding the Conscious Development literature. Terri, like any missionary, wanted the world to know that she had the answers.
Sandra Cleaver had the questions.
Sandy was in many ways Terri’s mirror image. Terri was plump while Sandy was slender. Terri grew up poor; Sandy, through a skip-generation trust, benefited from the inherited wealth of the Beatty and Roden families of Alabama. Terri never graduated from high school but grew up streetwise; Sandy grew up naive, but attended an exclusive girls’ school in Birmingham and graduated in three and a half years from DePauw University in Indiana. She took a double major and earned nothing but As and Bs.
And yet the women had much in common. Terri’s mother died of tuberculosis; Sandy’s was in a mental hospital by 1951, when Sandy was 12. One of Terri’s sisters died at birth; Sandy’s sister, Susan Devereaux Beatty, died in an auto accident in 1961, at the age of 17. Both were interested in the mystical powers of jewelry and in all things metaphysical. Terri’s marriage with John Wilder was on the rocks; so was Sandy’s life with Chuck Cleaver.
Sandy had met Chuck Cleaver at DePauw. Chuck was hard not to notice: He played center for the school basketball team. He and Sandy were a good match — both thin, good-looking, quiet, serious, and intelligent. Sandy’s fervent intensity played well against Chuck’s easygoing manner. They married fresh out of college in 1960 and settled in Dallas at 4434 Manning Lane. Neighbors talked about dinners at the Cleavers, where they were less likely to discuss sports or the weather than to analyze a popular book or song. “I remember one night we were over there and we talked about the song ‘Look What They’ve Done to My Song,’” says one neighbor. “Looking back, that’s pretty poignant.”
In 1964 they had a daughter, whom they named Susan Devereaux Cleaver in memory of Sandy’s sister. They were spending a good bit of Sandy’s money — it would be years before Chuck got the kind of high-power job that his neighbors felt his abilities merited — but Sandy had money to spare. She also had excess energy, which she burned off on community and church projects.
But in 1966, Sandy’s father died. He had retired from an engineering professorship at Purdue University and was piloting a single-engine Beechcraft on its final landing approach when the engine failed. Sandy told Chuck she wished she could have spoken with her father one last time. There were so many loose ends.
Over the next few years, Sandy became a student of the supernatural. She was restless and no longer content to be merely “Mrs. Chuck Cleaver.” Having had no mother except her maid, Louise Watson (to whom she sent flowers on Mother’s Day), she was insecure about her ability to mother Devereaux. Troubled by the deaths of her loved ones, she was not comforted by the traditional church.
Sandy embarked on her spiritual search in the midst of the Age of Aquarius. Mysticism was to the late ’60s what jogging was to the late ’70s, and Sandy was captivated by most of the fads. She read Edgar Cayce’s The Sleeping Prophet; she read An Autobiography of a Yogi; she began to attend meditation and treatment sessions hosted by a plumber of Oriental extraction. She took up Silva Mind Control, vegetarianism and homeopathic medicine. She believed that certain jewels possessed healing properties and, fearful of letting herself go unshielded by her gems, would wear several bracelets and necklaces plus roughly 14 rings, even in the shower.
Sandy’s mystic friends were seeing a “homeopathic doctor” who, from the legal haven of Mexico, would diagnose their illnesses over the cosmic airwaves and prescribe homeopathic pills to cure them. The pills, shipped to Sandy via Greyhound bus (to avoid possible conflicts with U.S. Postal Service regulations) filled an entire kitchen cabinet. Sandy would take 20 of them a day, which worried Chuck. Then she began to talk about the doctor’s prescriptions for 6-year-old Devereaux, which terrified him.
He took the pills to a medical doctor, who found them to be mere placebos. “It’s not what’s in the pills that you need to be concerned about,” the doctor told him. “What you need to be concerned about is a young, impressionable girl and the psychological implication that, first, there is something seriously wrong with her, and, second, that you solve it by popping pills.”
One afternoon Chuck came home to find Sandy and Devereaux heading out of the house, suitcases packed. Sandy was holding two plane tickets to San Diego. She wanted to take Devereaux to her homeopath so he could put her in a special machine that tuned out all the world’s “bad vibrations.” Chuck grabbed Sandy by her shoulders and shook her. No! Absolutely not! Over my dead body! It was as close as he ever came to physical violence.
He didn’t think Sandy was trying to hurt Devereaux. Throughout her life, she seemed to want whatever was best for her family and friends. But now Sandy believed conventional medical doctors were quacks, unable to cure what really ailed Devereaux.One night Chuck found Devereaux’s bedsheets damp with her own sweat. She was hot to the touch and florid. Chuck wanted to take her to a pediatrician. Sandy wanted to treat her with meditation, incantations and incense. Chuck insisted. Over my dead body! Sandy replied, I’m not taking her to doctors anymore! Chuck lay awake until 5 a.m., scooped Devereaux out of the bed and quietly bundled her into the back seat of his car. They drove around North Dallas for two hours, until he woke Devereaux’s pediatrician. She had scarlet fever.
From that morning, Chuck knew that he was staying at home purely to be near Devereaux, who became something to fight over. During one argument, Sandy waved a butcher knife around the kitchen and said, “Sometimes I think Devereaux would be better off in heaven.”
Devereaux was not the only thing that drove them apart. There was Sandy’s new friend, Terri. Chuck thought she was a phony. He didn’t want Devereaux visiting her house. Terri and John Wilder sometimes argued violently, and they had a large gun collection. Chuck begged Sandy not to get herself or Devereaux into Conscious Development. “I really have to help Devereaux overcome all the problems that are caused by your bad vibrations, your bad feelings about Terri,” she replied.
Sandy had only good feelings about Terri. She told Chuck that her new friend was St. Theresa reincarnated, that Terri could diagnose illnesses over great distances, that with the proper jewelry — which Sandy could supply — Terri could help cure even cancer. Terri could put a protective shield around Devereaux, Sandy said — a shield Terri had promised would be strong enough to save her from anything “except the negative vibrations from your husband, which are very powerful.” When Chuck complained about Devereaux’s welfare, Sandy told him all their problems stemmed from his negative thoughts. Thoughts that strong, she said, could actually produce bacteria and viruses that would infect her daughter.
Sandy wrote Terri a check for $3,000, and Chuck complained, but he didn’t leave the house. Sandy, attending a dinner party, announced that she would turn the wine back into grape juice. Chuck didn’t even complain. He held his tongue when Sandy announced that she was a former high priestess of Atlantis and when she told a family friend that they were compatible because in a previous life they’d been married. The stranger Sandy got, the closer Chuck stayed to home.
In December of 1970, Sandy told Chuck that Terri was divorcing her husband “because he was impeding her spiritual growth.” On April 22, 1971, Sandy told Chuck that she had filed for divorce: “You are impeding my spiritual growth.”
Their breakup was not tidy. Devereaux became the object of a bitter custody fight, with Sandy begging neighbors to write letters saying she was a competent mother and giving them detailed accounts of what she said were flaws in Chuck’s character. Chuck, meanwhile, was compiling a list of Sandy’s forays into the metaphysical. It ran from astral projection to witchcraft. And he was telling his lawyers about the late-evening calls from neighbors puzzled that Sandy, who had dropped Devereaux off at their house before a Conscious Development meeting, had never returned to pick the child up.
It is customary for the county juvenile welfare office to investigate the parents in child-custody cases and to make a recommendation to the divorce judge. Parents are not allowed to see that report, but their lawyers are. Chuck says that before the scheduled custody trial, he met with his lawyer and with Sandy’s lawyer. Both men, he recalls, told him that he stood an excellent chance of winning but that if he got custody, Sandy might well kill Devereaux. The two lawyers — Sandy was not at the meeting — advised him to settle for visitation privileges. Chuck agreed, then went to the home of his friend Gene Coker and drank.
Though Terri later would claim that Chuck was after Sandy’s money, lawyers for both sides say money was the last thing on Chuck’s mind. Under the divorce agreement, all Chuck kept of the marital estate was a 1971 Mercedes and his personal property. One thing he insisted upon was a provision in the divorce settlement saying that Sandra would have Devereaux treated only by “recognized physicians admitted to practice in Texas.”
While the divorce was pending, Sandy paid for a Hawaiian honeymoon trip for Terri and Glenn Cooley. She went with them, taking Devereaux along for the ride despite a court order not to remove her from the state. After the divorce, Sandy and Terri became practically inseparable. Sandy helped Terri and Glenn make the jewelry that supported them. Her kitchen table was covered with jewelry-making tools. Terri would sell some of their wares to Conscious Development members — I think this ring is just right for your energies — but their work was good enough to sell at craft fairs throughout the state. Often Sandy went on those trips, leaving Devereaux in the care of Louise Watson, known to friends as “Weasie.”
Sandy would meditate for hours with Terri and helped write the lessons Terri was selling under the Conscious Development name. She bought the group a printing press, which she installed in her home. She was far more than Mrs. Chuck Cleaver now; she was founding a new religious movement.
Conscious Development was the hottest thing in the Dallas metaphysical community, maybe even in the Southwest. It was attracting serious, good-hearted people who wanted to become better in some way — who wanted to explore the aspects of their world and themselves — which the physical sciences could not explain. Some joined purely because of Terri’s charisma and knack of knowing what was important to people. But many had a crying need for something: balm for the pain of losing a loved one, help in dealing with a crippled body, or merely the warmth and loyalty of a tight-knit group.
Janine Schneider was attracted by Terri’s reputation and obvious intuitive gifts. She joined Conscious Development in 1974, when there were 110 local students attending weekly meetings, plus perhaps thousands receiving correspondence courses. Janine was educated, sensitive and hard-working, and quickly rose to become “executive director” of Conscious Development. Almost as quickly, she became disillusioned with Terri, whom she saw as a person with great gifts and talents but without the psychological roots to use them properly.
For one thing, Terri saw no distinction between Conscious Development’s funds and her own. Donations, fees for lessons and, later, the proceeds from the estates of some of her followers all would go into her personal bank accounts.
For another thing, Janine had read enough philosophy to know that some of Terri’s mystic revelations sounded much like the work of various (mortal) writers. Sometimes Terri would tell people that in their past lives they had been a great spiritual leader and then quote them a biography straight from a well-known book. Sometimes Terri would give the same illustrious past life to two or more of her followers.
And there was Terri’s insistence on being the star — the highest master of Conscious Development, perhaps even the “revelator” of her generation, as Christ and Buddha had been for theirs. By 1977, Janine Schneider saw Conscious Development assuming some of the more disturbing aspects of Terri’s personality. Conscious Development, she thought, was on the road from study group to cult. Its members were sworn to secrecy and induced to feel extravagant admiration for Terri, who increasingly played on their feelings of guilt and anxiety. Terri was changing from guide to guru.
Joyce Tepley, a Dallas psychotherapist who has since quit Conscious Development, was in the elite “teachers’ group” at the time. Members were handpicked by Terri and were told that they were spiritual masters, put on the Earth to help their fellow men. Even death should not scare them because it would only allow them to move to a higher plane of existence. The Earth, Terri said, was the 17th-lowest planet in the universe, in terms of the “vibratory energy” that determined the peace and happiness available on a planet.
The 40 men and women in the teachers’ group formed the nucleus of Conscious Development. In 1977, Joyce and several other former members contend (despite Terri’s denials), Terri told them that she had been meditating and had been informed by the spiritual masters that she and her friends had to do more than just study. They had to fight. There were two forces in the world – positive and negative, good and evil. They must help the good.
The evil forces, Terri announced, were called black lords. They traveled in lodges and could be fought only in the spiritual realms, not the physical world. The teachers’ group had been selected as worthy of carrying on the battle. It would be a dangerous fight, but she could guide them through it.
Gradually, Conscious Development teachers’ meetings turned into frantic battles. Teachers would bring to the sessions their magic circles, cloth circles containing a cloth triangle. They would sit inside the magic circle for safety and perform a “protection ritual” in preparation for battle. Each, according to what Terri told them about her meditations, would bring to the meeting a cup, a robe, a fan, a sword, and a rod. Except for the robe and the magic circle, the objects did not have to be full-size. Some used cocktail swizzle sticks for swords and car antennae for rods. The cup was a totem representing Gabriel. The fan served as a shield, representing Ariel. The rod and staff represented the archangel Michael. All except the rod were essentially defensive. Terri says they helped members “attune” themselves to the protective archangels.
But former members say the rod was an offensive weapon, used at the direction of Terri or whoever was leading the group. “We were taught to use these weapons to kill the black lords,” Joyce Tepley recalls. Members would make a series of gestures with their swords — north, south, east, west, protect us all around — and then would touch the rod to their shoulders, which they believed to be a “power center” for the body. “And then you’d project it [the rod] outward and with your thought along with it, and know that you were eliminating black lords. That you really were in a battle.”
Members knew this because Terri, or her designated group leader, told them. Every week — the battles were scheduled, like football games — the group leader would give a body count: We got so many black lords last week. Regardless of how the battles went, the war got grimmer. Emergency battles were called; Conscious Development’s teachers were up against increasingly evil spirits. They were encircled, alone…
During the battle, the leader — and sometimes other group members — often would indicate that a particular spirit was in the room with the teachers, ready to work mischief. The teachers would swing around in unison, touch their rods to their shoulders, and aim the rods toward the corner where the evil spirit lurked. Frequently the attacker was someone out of favor with the group. Former members often were cited as conduits for the black lords. So was Devereaux Cleaver.
It was after one of the early battles that the group learned that Glenn Cooley had committed suicide. Alice Hoffman, one of the teachers, made the announcement. Alice and her husband Don had joined the group after their 3-year-old son drowned in their backyard swimming pool in 1973. They became rather close friends with Terri and Glenn — later, Don would marry Terri. Alice says she knew Glenn was upset about his recent divorce from Terri, but thought he had gotten over it.
Glenn Cooley’s family had never approved of his marriage to Terri, who was almost twice his age and, from their perspective, even stranger than their drug-consuming son. But Glenn was an unconventional boy; a gentle, creative type who never really fit the mold his parents cut out for him. He and his father would argue about practically anything, until both were blue in the face. He violated curfews and saw friends his parents tried to ban. “Glenn was searching for something — acceptance as he was, not as someone else wanted him to be,” his brother Wayne recalls. Terri seemed to offer him that, plus security. She claims that she helped him quit using drugs. And once, Wayne says, Terri told Glenn that a girlfriend of his was headed for a car wreck that Terri prevented through meditation.
After Glenn’s wedding, his mother and father felt that Terri kept him on too tight a leash. If Glenn was at his mother’s house for half an hour, Terri would be on the phone telling him to come home or out in their driveway honking her car horn. Glenn occasionally complained that he was having difficulties shedding his religious background: “You don’t realize how strongly these things are ingrained in you when you’re young.”
In late 1976, Glenn’s mother later would testify, Glenn said he wanted out of Conscious Development and his marriage to Terri. On November 24, 1976, Terri filed for what she calls a completely amicable divorce from Glenn. Five days later, he filed a waiver allowing for a speedy processing of the divorce, which was granted on January 27, 1977. Six days later, he was dead.
Terri told investigators that she found a note in her safe on February 2, apparently left there by Glenn the day before. It read:
I, Glenn Cooley, give to Terri Cooley all of my property, both personal and real. This includes two boats, a 1972 Buick Limited, all jewelry and equipment for its making, all furnishings for the house on Dunhaven Road [Glenn had given Terri clear title to the house two weeks earlier], and all cash.
I ask that this Last Will of mine not be contested by anyone in any way for any reason.
Last, but not least, I give all my love to all my family and friends.
As explanation for all this, I can’t really say what it is because of, but I can say what it is not because of: It is not because of divorce with Terri, past drug experiences, inability to cope, etc.
What it is — I myself know, but don’t have the words for.
The investigating judge’s report said that Terri had called Alice Hoffman when she found Glenn’s note and that they, along with group member Ben Johnson, traveled to a cabin Glenn’s parents owned on Lake Grapevine.
There they found Glenn’s body, fully clothed and in bed. There was a foamy substance oozing from his mouth and a half-empty can of Coors beer on the dresser next to the bed. Two pills were discovered under the body. Traces of Librium and Valium were discovered in Glenn’s blood. Death was attributed to a drug overdose.The final account of Glenn’s estate filed in Dallas County Probate Court listed only $2,565 in assets, including $1,000 in jewelry. That figure puzzled Glenn’s family. In the divorce, he had been awarded “all proceeds arriving from the jewelry business,” and they understood him to have $85,000 worth of gems and metals in his house. After his funeral, Terri invited his parents over to her house and let them select some of his handiwork for themselves. There were three display suitcases full of rings to choose from.
Glenn’s mother also was puzzled by Terri’s behavior at his funeral. She might have been prejudiced, she admits, but it seemed to her that Terri was “crying and talking and then she would stop and look up at me to see my reaction. I didn’t understand it.”
“Well,” Terri’s lawyer would ask her at a later inquisition, “did it appear that she was grieving for Glenn?”
“I think this is what struck me,” Mrs. Cooley replied. “It didn’t seem so.”
Terri says she was deeply wounded by Glenn’s death. “For them to blame me for Glenn’s death is just totally awful,” she says, “because I did nothing but love that man. I tried to help him as long as we were married; I tried to help him after we were divorced.” She and Don Hoffman, her current husband, say they tried to talk him out of staying at the cabin by himself.
But Terri was not kind to Glenn Cooley’s memory. When she heard that Glenn’s mother might testify against her in probate court, she called Glenn’s sister and warned that any inquisition was liable to turn into a mudslinging event and that Glenn’s history of drug use was likely to come up in court.
Glenn’s death, which some people blamed on the black lords, shook the faith of some Conscious Development teachers. What came next drove many out of the group. “We were told that our blood was being poisoned” by the black lords, says Joyce Tepley. “We needed to have our blood — bloodletting — taken out of ourselves to drain the poison out.” Her recollection, backed by that of several other former members, was that “Sandy got several syringes and just sterilized them and … took blood out of whoever felt they needed to have their blood let. A little vial, as much as if you went to a doctor to get your blood tested.” Terri says the bloodletting was not her idea, but Janine Schneider says that Terri “would call people on the phone and tell them that they had been poisoned and needed to have blood taken.”
By mid-1978 Joyce Tepley and several of her friends were leaving Conscious Development. “I was relying on someone else’s judgment of me instead of my own judgment of what’s right and wrong, and using Terri as the ultimate authority of my life, rather than me as the ultimate authority,” Ms. Tepley explains. “Once you give up your own decision-making process to someone else, however wonderful they may be, you’ve lost your integrity.” At the probate trial, she summed her feelings up by saying that she believed that if she had stayed with the group she could have lost control of her life or her property.
As other members of the group defected, Sandy Cleaver grew more loyal to Terri. Terri said Devereaux had been taken over, that she was “a great powerful negative being” who was attacking her, Janine Schneider recalls. Joyce Tepley — who noted that her colleagues thought Devereaux deserved prayers, not punishment, because the evil spirits weren’t her fault — said Sandy told her that Devereaux “was trying to get her, do some nasty things to her, deviate the energy.” Sandy put two Egyptian totems under Devereaux’s bed: a crook and a flail, both symbols of protection.
Other members of the group balked at the notion that Terri was undergoing what she called “pain and agony” at the hands of the black lords, ostensibly taking on punishment for her students, who would not be able to bear the pain. But Sandy believed it. Thinking that Terri would be helped by powerful jewelry — a gem’s power was proportionate to its value — she gave Terri pieces from her fine collection. One exotic piece, Chuck Cleaver recalls, included several diamonds. Terri kept it for some time, he says, and returned it telling Sandy that the stones in it were worthless. Sandy sued the jeweler who had set the diamonds, charging him with making a substitution. She never even thought that Terri might have made a switch. Indeed, she asked a neighbor if she could rent a dazzling ruby bracelet for Terri, saying that Terri needed the power of the stones for “psychosurgery.” The neighbor declined to help with the operation.
And while other members quit the group, Sandy signed up for life. In August 1978, she wrote a will leaving everything to Terri — her house, her antiques, her valuable Audubon prints and her inheritance, which was providing her with a steady income of about $20,000 a year. Devereaux was not even mentioned in the will, though she was alive and living with Sandy. Of course, Devereaux had a trust fund of her own, amounting to about $125,000. Four days after Sandy wrote her new will, Devereaux did likewise. Her money, too, was to go to Conscious Development.
In fact, Devereaux prepared two wills dated August 18, 1978. The first was addressed to Terri and Ben Johnson, whom Terri had married five months after Glenn Cooley’s death. It was a rather schoolgirl-ish document, though 13-year-olds seldom write wills. Devereaux left her rock collection to the Greenhill School science department, her paperback books to the school library, her National Geographics to Conscious Development and her money “to go to build a school for Conscious Development of Body, Mind and Soul Inc.” To her mother, Devereaux left her art portfolio and a message: “Mom — friends forever, I love you a very great deal!” To her father, she left her basketball, her reading award and her antique whistles, with the postscript “You’re the best dad in the world, I love you a ton.” To Terri she left “all my jewelry.”
The second will read like it was copied from a legal form book: “I give, devise and bequeath all of my property, including all rights, titles and interests of whatever character I may own in and to any property, real, personal or mixed, wherever situated, to Terri Johnson, who has been to me like a second mother…” Under the second will, in other words, Terri could use the money for a school or for a world cruise. It was up to her. And, like Glenn Cooley and Sandy, Devereaux wrote that the will was not to be contested. Terri later would claim that she knew nothing of the second will for several years. But it was witnessed by Thomas M. Welch and Virginia Rawlings, two Conscious Development teachers, and notarized by Alice Hoffman.
News of Devereaux’s will would have stunned her school friends and her father. Minors cannot write wills in Texas. And far from being a devotee of Conscious Development, Devereaux appeared to be a normal, gifted young girl. She detested racial prejudice and never lost her temper. She was crazy about the band Aerosmith. She wanted to date the cutest boy in her class, who alternately led her on and rejected her. She would go to Valley View Mall and flirt with boys. Because of her lithe 5-foot-10-inch frame and her sunny blonde hair, they often mistook her for a 19-year-old; she would introduce her eighth-grade classmates as little sisters. She wrote poetry, often dealing with death and water. Free Bird is an example:
I soar among waves of blue and white.
The feathers on my back ripple softly as the wind rushes.
I dip and turn.
I am light and free.
I am a bird on the wings of time;
And as the sun climbs higher,
It flashes beams of gold everywhere.
I’m alone, a single shadow in a world of life.
Terri says Devereaux never could bring herself to tell Chuck Cleaver that she liked Terri and regarded her, as she said in her will, as a “second mother.” But Devereaux’s school friends disagree. “That’s bull****,” says one girl, who requested anonymity. Another of Devereaux’s classmates at the Greenhill School said that at age 13 Devereaux said her mother’s Conscious Development friends “were all weird.” Because of Sandy’s work with Conscious Development, that friend said, Devereaux sometimes was left alone in her house overnight. Devereaux did not participate in Conscious Development activities; she seemed embarrassed by them. Before inviting one girl over to spend the night, She said, “Don’t be too weirded out.”
One evening Devereaux had a severe headache, which her mother offered to treat. Devereaux asked a visiting girlfriend to stay in the bedroom; she and her mother went to the living room, from which Devereaux ordinarily was barred. After half an hour, Devereaux’s friend got bored and walked back to the living room. By the light of a single candle, through a film of incense, she could see Sandy massaging Devereaux’s head, murmuring incantations. Devereaux jumped up, flustered, and led her friend away. “I only do this to make my mother happy,” she said.
Devereaux seemed to fight with her mother constantly. She sent a letter to one of her friends on November 22, 1978:
Sorry I couldn’t talk to you last night but my mom had a fit at me. She was bitching me out when you called the first time. And I yelled “My mom is sick,” and that did it. She got up and tried to slap me, but it was hilarious because I’m bigger than she is and I wouldn’t let her…
• • •
Up until a few weeks before her untimely death, Devereaux had wanted nothing more than to live with her father, her best friend says. Devereaux regarded Chuck Cleaver as “perfect” and “always there for her,” she said. Chuck says that his daughter’s biggest frustration with Sandy was that they could not talk as mother and daughter, at least not until the winter of 1978. Devereaux, he said, was willing to try just about anything to get her mother’s approval.
Certainly, the dawn of a healthy mother-daughter relationship was big news as of December — which, not coincidentally, was the month after Devereaux turned 14 and could live with whichever parent she chose. “Mom and I are on really good terms,” Devereaux wrote a friend on December 21, 1978. “She is so sweet and considerate and I really like her. And I am not joking, although you are probably thinking I am wacky…” She said something similar to Chuck after returning from a weekend encounter session with Sandy. “Dad! Mom and I actually sat down on the edge of the bed and had a mother-daughter talk!” Sandy was equally excited when she talked to Chuck about the weekend. I’ve figured it out! She had discovered something that put her life in perspective. She knew why she had cringed every time Chuck hugged their daughter. Why she had caused so much unnecessary heartache: I discovered that my father molested me as a child.
Sandy’s brother found that notion absurd, and Chuck never knew whether to believe it or not. But he thought that Sandy certainly believed it and that the belief seemed to help her. Sandy was happy. Devereaux was happy. He was happy. The storm clouds were clearing.
It was with great eagerness that Devereaux accompanied Sandy and her fiance, Conscious Development teacher Lynn Fairchild, for a prewedding Hawaiian honeymoon. Her mother, who previously had refused to take her shopping or to watch her play on the Greenhill basketball team, was bringing her into her life in a big way.
On February 25, 1979, Devereaux and Sandy took a blue inflatable raft and waded into the waters of a mud-flat lagoon near the Wailupe Peninsula. The lagoon, which Terri had visited on a previous trip to Hawaii, was 20 miles from their Honolulu hotel and was a better place for catching crabs than for swimming. There was essentially no beach, and the water was shallow and calm for 400 yards, until the waves broke viciously over a razor-sharp coral reef. While Lynn Fairchild slept off the effects of some luncheon champagne, Sandy and Devereaux waded to the reef.
They were over the reef when a wave knocked them off the raft. Sandy later told Chuck that Devereaux, a strong swimmer, said, “I’m scared, Mommy.”
“Hold onto my hand, and we’ll get out of this,” Sandy replied. But another wave knocked them apart, and Sandy later said that she remembered diving underwater, looking for Devereaux. She remembered awakening atop the reef, calling for help and unable to see her daughter.
Lynn Fairchild heard her calls and summoned the fire department. Sandy was rescued — cut, bruised, and in shock. Devereaux could not be found. Chuck Cleaver got a call from Terri at 1 a.m., Dallas time, saying that Sandy was in the hospital and Devereaux was missing. He and Gene Coker took a plane to Honolulu that afternoon; they learned of Devereaux’s death while at D/FW airport. While they were airborne, a follower of Terri’s called Chuck’s house, saying that “they had a document she was supposed to let them [Chuck’s family] see.” It was Devereaux’s will.
Chuck visited Sandy in the hospital. “When we first got there, she was acting like a normal human being,” he said. “She cried, she said she was sorry about Devereaux, she thanked me for coming to see her.” Then, he says, Terri walked into the room and Sandy stopped crying and began saying things such as, “Devereaux will be happier in heaven.”
“It was almost like something happened instantly,” Coker says. “A glaze came over Sandy’s eyes, and she became very distant.”An autopsy showed no signs of foul play and no traces of drugs or alcohol in Devereaux’s body. But Coker thought the whole affair was strange. His doubts were not allayed by the plane trip home, with Devereaux’s body in the cargo hold. Coker was telling Sandy to exercise her legs so she would be able to walk when she got off the plane. Ben Johnson had been listening intently to their conversation. He leaned over the seat and said, “Gene, you can really help Sandy. Take all the hurt and pain, receive it through your right hand, take it through your body, and fling it out to the universe through your left hand. You can do that.”
Nobody could take the hurt and pain from Sandy. She called off her wedding plans. Her checkbook records, formerly so precise, became jumbled and sometimes illegible. She rejected her brother’s advice to back away from Terri and became obsessed with the idea that he would fight her efforts to leave Terri her estate. Where once she had told Chuck that she consulted Terri about “everything,” now she had virtually no one else to turn to. Terri had told her that she could communicate with the dead, including Terri’s own son, Glenn, and Devereaux. That belief seemed to sustain Sandy.
One of Devereaux’s closest friends looked in on Sandy months after the drowning. Sandy told her “that if I ever wanted to come see Devereaux [I should] come over to the house for sort of a meditation with her … And she would talk to Jesus and ask if we could see Devereaux … ’and she’ll come. And if she’s all messed up with blood and stuff, that’s just because she was in a hurry to see you, and he [Jesus] didn’t have enough time to clean her up and fix her up and put a dress on her.’”
Within two months after Devereaux’s death, Sandy took out a $300,000 life insurance policy — double the amount recommended by her insurance agent. It was payable to Terri.
By the December after Devereaux’s death, Sandy had given Terri a gift of all her worldly goods, including her house, and her valuable artwork and silver, which she continued to hold. The gift was to become effective when Sandy died.
In February, she wrote Terri that after her death she wanted all of her goods “to be used, either directly or indirectly, for the benefit of Conscious Development.”
That June, Sandy helped incorporate Conscious Development, with Terri as the sole member of its board of directors. In July, Sandy and Terri signed an addition to Sandy’s February letter, noting that Terri had divorced Ben Johnson and married Don Hoffman.
On June 12, 1981, Sandy wrote a new will, again leaving everything to Terri. Weasie Watson, then 78, wrote a will of her own that day, naming Sandy as the executrix of her meager estate, with Terri as the alternate executrix. Weasie’s friends later would question, according to court filings, why Weasie would feel it necessary to write a will and why she would name as her alternate executrix a woman who she felt totally dominated Sandy. But Sandy’s brother, Croom Beatty IV, an assistant to the president at Duke University, believes that Weasie was so loyal to Sandy she would have done anything Sandy asked.
On August 24, Sandy wrote Croom an odd letter. It was 13 pages long, typed and single-spaced, and it read like an autobiography, with heavy emphasis on Terri — “She has not only been a close friend, she has been like the closest of sisters to me … She is one of the few truly humble, egoless people I have ever met.” Croom did not realize that his sister, with whom he had had longstanding financial disagreements, had been keeping meticulous notes on her phone conversations with him — notes that Terri later would use to keep him from wresting Sandy’s estate from her. But he couldn’t help noticing that the letter seemed to be written for an audience. Why did Sandy feel it necessary to remind him that “Nanny and Brickdaddy” were his maternal grandparents and were in their 80s? Why did she feel it necessary to justify Devereaux’s writing a will?
Sandy ended her letter by saying she planned “a trip to the Colorado Springs area in Colorado to see some land Terri and Don just bought in the mountains. We may eventually build a retreat there … Since Weasie enjoyed going along on my vacation just last year to the Human Unity Conference, I may ask her if she wants to go along on this trip.”
Croom Beatty read the letter and told his wife, “She won’t be around long.”
Sandra went out of town frequently and normally left a key to her house with her neighbors the Hannays. The Hannay boys would feed her cat and mow her lawn. But before September 8, when she left for Colorado, she had the locks to her house changed and did not ask the Hannays for help. She did take Louise Watson along, though documents introduced later in court claimed that Weasie “did not want to go on the trip with Sandra. She had not been well, and Sandra forced her to go.”
Sandy and Weasie spent their first night in Colorado at the home of Terri’s sister in Colorado Springs. On September 9, they left to make the inspection trip to the Conscious Development land near Cripple Creek. The next day, an Air Force Academy paramedic happened to spot their Mercury Lynx at the base of a 450-foot cliff below tortuous Gold Camp Road. Both Sandra and Weasie had been thrown from the car and killed. The local medical examiner fixed their time of death at around noon. There were no skid marks — no tire tracks at all — on the red clay and granite road. There were no clues to what might have caused them to drive over the cliff.
Croom Beatty wanted some answers. On November 10, at his request, Dallas attorney Jim Barklow filed papers contesting Sandra’s will.
Barklow charged in the suit that Sandy’s will was invalid because “she lacked the ability to exercise freely independent thoughts.” The will, he submitted, was “executed as a result of undue influence exerted over the deceased” by Terri; Sandy “was controlled by [Terri’s] use of hypnosis, Pavlovian conditioning and psychotherapy.”
Furthermore, Croom Beatty’s petition charged, Sandra Beatty Cleaver was “but one of several persons” whose wills were written or changed “pursuant to the direct influence, suggestion and psychological control” of Terri.
Terri’s attorney, D. Ronald Reneker, wanted to stop short any attempt to tie Terri, even indirectly, to the deaths of Glenn Cooley, Devereaux Cleaver, Sandra Cleaver, and Louise Watson. He won trial judge Robert C. Topper’s approval of a motion to prevent any discussion, beyond the dates of death, for all the cases but Sandra’s.
But Barklow’s position as the trial began last June was not hopeless. Terri, for instance, was a terrible witness.
During her pretrial deposition, she admitted that she used tranquilizers and that the money from Sandy’s insurance policy was in her personal bank account, not in any Conscious Development account. She said there were not yet any drawings for the school or the retreat center that Sandy and Devereaux had wished to support. She admitted trying to influence several witnesses. And she denied any knowledge of some key points in Conscious Development’s convoluted dogma. What were the four liberations of Conscious Development? She didn’t know. What were the five modes of destructive mental activity? She didn’t remember.
Sometimes she remembered things wrong. One Conscious Development lesson, titled “Morality,” says that wives, children, and other responsibilities — “attachments” — are “the most insidious and deceitful of the destructive passions.” Those attachments are necessary and proper, but dangerous when one becomes “so absorbed in these that there is no time for self-improvement; no time for spiritual devotions … Remember that the liberation of your own soul is the one thing for which you are in this world. Nothing else counts.”
Barklow read the final two sentences to Terri and asked if they were part of Conscious Development teaching.
“No, that is not.”
“Has it ever been?
Finally, Barklow was able to introduce expert testimony on hypnosis from a local “psychotherapist hypnotherapist” named Mary Ellen Grundman. She told the jury that hypnosis could be performed on someone with or without his consent and knowledge; that it would be very easy to hypnotize someone who trusted you completely; and that it would be simple to trick him into committing self-destructive acts, “at a future time, in another location, without the presence of the person who planted the suggestion.” A third-grader could do it, if he wanted to badly enough.
Several of Terri’s followers testified that Sandy was independent, strong-willed and under her own control, but Terri apparently worried that the jury would not reach the same conclusion. On the morning of the sixth day of the trial, both sides announced a settlement. Terri and Don Hoffman would make an immediate $50,000 payment to Croom Beatty; they would pay another $62,500 on Halloween; Sandy’s house would be sold, with Croom getting 40 percent of the proceeds and the rest going to Terri and Don. The rest of Sandy’s estate would be divided equally.
Terri no longer gives classes in Conscious Development, though for $35 she will give an “acupressure” massage or a consultation on virtually any subject. She can see an “aura” of color around people, she says, and from that aura she can read their psyches.
Attendance at the teachers’ classes dwindled to a dozen or fewer after the bloodletting began. Terry says classes later were canceled so she could rewrite the correspondence course. She hopes to finish it in 18 months. Meanwhile, she and Don sell the old courses. As of November, they were talking about dedicating the Colorado center to Sandy and Devereaux, but they had not shown the site to an architect.
Terri says the losses of Glenn Cooley, Devereaux and Sandy have been very hard on her. The question raised by things such as Croom Beatty’s lawsuit, she says, is whether people should be “crucified” for unconventional beliefs.
Jim Barklow and Croom Beatty are not totally happy with the trial results; they had hoped for a thorough look at all four deaths or at least a fuller exploration of the wills. Barklow took Terri’s deposition. During a break in the action, he heard Terri shrieking in the hallway.
Barklow, curious, walked to where she was standing and found that Terri, who could commune with Plato and Buddha, and who had attained perhaps the highest level of spiritual development on Earth, was a nervous wreck. It seemed that someone had taken her pocketbook.