40 Greatest Stories

The Rise and Fall of a North Dallas Cult

True believers in 'Conscious Development' suffer untimely deaths.

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.

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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…”