We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
On the phone, I tell deprogrammer Galen Kelly that I’m writing an update to my story about his war against a cult called the Circle of Friends (see “Circle of Enemies,” 2/25). As I see it, Kelly’s release from prison and the end of his legal wranglings in Alexandria mark the final chapter of an extraordinarily tangled tale.
Kelly isn’t sure. “Is there a final chapter?” he asks. “I’ll have to mull that one over.”
After Kelly was convicted of kidnapping a member of the Circle of Friends’ Washington cell, he served 16 months in federal prison—only a fraction of his seven-year, three-month sentence. He was released in September after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit overturned his conviction.
That ruling cleared the way for a new trial (see “Return of the Cult Snatcher,” 9/23). In February, I’d written that Kelly, like the cult members, inhabits a world of absolutes, a universe of clear-cut good and evil with no room for shades of gray. Kelly had described himself as the cult’s “archenemy,” and he believed that the group had intentionally set him up on the kidnapping charge. He longed for vindication, and I assumed that he would continue to wage his legal battle until either his victory or loss was complete.
I was wrong. On Nov. 18, Kelly pleaded guilty to misprision, a felony that involves failure to notify authorities of a crime. (The charge is rare, and is most often applied to law officers who neglect their duties.) He was sentenced to 16 months in prison—precisely the time he’d already served—plus a year of supervised release. The plea allows Kelly his freedom, and it means that he’s not a convicted kidnapper. But it’s far from the verdict of innocence that he so desired.
“It’s an accommodation,” he says from his home in upstate New York. “I’m not happy with it. I’m not unhappy, either.” At the age of 47, he has apparently learned to live on the middle ground.
Back when deprogramming and Kelly were in their salad days, he couldn’t have conceived of a middle ground. He began battling the Circle of Friends in 1978, and proudly shanghaied members of the Circle and convinced them to leave the group. To the media, he hinted that the Circle was involved in nefarious sexual entanglements, that it deployed pretty young women to ensnare powerful government officials. The cult struck back by recovering one of the members Kelly had deprogrammed; that woman then led a media blitz decrying all deprogrammers, and Kelly in particular. Finally, in 1988, Kelly thought he’d outlasted his enemy: The cult leader and a top aide were sentenced to prison for leading a student-loan scam. The Circle, Kelly figured, would wither in their absence.
That didn’t happen. Kelly’s bout with the cult wouldn’t be over until nearly the end of this year. And the endgame would be played mostly in Alexandria’s federal courthouse.
In 1990, Kelly found out that the Circle of Friends had survived, and he soon returned a member of the Washington cell to her parents. In the wee hours of May 5, 1992, Kelly and his three-member team set out to deprogram a second member, a 44-year-old security guard named Beth Bruckert. But instead of Bruckert, Kelly and company grabbed the wrong security guard: Debra Dobkowski, Bruckert’s roommate and the leader of the Washington cell. Dobkowski pressed kidnapping charges. In court, Kelly couldn’t prove his contention that the cult had set him up, that Dobkowski had intentionally masqueraded as Bruckert by working her guard shift and driving her car. Kelly couldn’t even demonstrate that Dobkowski belonged to the Circle of Friends. He landed in federal prison.
Score: Circle of Friends 1, Kelly 0.
On May 20, 1993—only five days before Kelly’s trial was to start—the IRS raided Dobkowski’s Capitol Hill town house, the Circle’s Washington headquarters. Based in part on information from one of Kelly’s previous deprogrammees, agents searched for evidence of a cult conspiracy to commit wire fraud, bank fraud, mail fraud, and an offense dubbed “structuring”—i.e., splitting big chunks of cash into deposits of less than $10,000 so that a bank won’t report the transactions to the IRS, as the law requires. Dobkowski pleaded guilty to everything except the conspiracy charge, and is now serving a 21-month stretch in federal prison. The other three indicted Circle members fled from the law.
Score: Circle of Friends 1, Kelly 1.
Kelly continued to maintain that the cult had intentionally set him up. He said that he and his team planned a “voluntary intervention,” that Dobkowski, pretending to be Bruckert, had willingly accompanied them when they offered to take her to see her ailing mother. But this summer, two members of Kelly’s team pleaded guilty to conspiracy to kidnap, and a third pleaded guilty to misprision (see “Confessions of the Cult Snatchers,” 8/5).
Score: Circle of Friends 2, Kelly 1.
In September, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit approved Kelly’s appeal, it sharply rebuked the prosecution. The appeals court ruled that the prosecutor had knowingly allowed Dobkowski to perjure herself on the witness stand when she denied any knowledge of the Circle of Friends; and that the prosecutor had improperly withheld the IRS warrant that listed the cult’s suspected crimes.
Score: 2 all.
If a new trial had taken place, both sides would have been able to present new evidence. The prosecution could have made hay with the deprogramming team’s signed confessions; the defense could have overwhelmed the jury with evidence that Dobkowski was a crime-committing cult member, far from the bland bureaucrat she appeared. That trial could have vindicated Kelly—or it could have sent him back to prison, stripped even of the argument that he’d been unfairly judged.
That trial would have been the tie-breaker. But we are left with a tie, and a game that nobody won.
During Kelly’s year of supervised release, the court specifically requires him to “refrain from engaging in further illicit or involuntary deprogramming activity, including kidnapping and abduction,” and to provide his probation officer with proof “that he has publicized to others that kidnapping for deprogramming purposes is unlawful.”
Other than that, though, Kelly’s not sure what he’ll do with himself. Since September, he’s tinkered with writing a few anti-cult articles and books. This week, he’s busied himself with the thousand small acts of celebrating Christmas with his family; last weekend, they all picked out a tree. After his stint in prison, he particularly cherishes time with his kids. “If it’d just been my wife and I, I would’ve gone to trial,” Kelly says. “But I didn’t want to do it to the children.”
By mid-January, he’ll make a final decision about his next career move. At the moment, he leans toward continuing to research and write about cults. And maybe, he says, he and his wife will open a bed-and-breakfast in upstate New York.
That, I think, is how the story ends: not with a bang, but with a B&B.