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Leader's Suicide Stuns Church : Some Niscience Foundation Members Say Minister Was Grieving Over Charges He Led a Cult and Stole Money

November 14, 1991|AMY LOUISE KAZMIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Members of an obscure Glendale-based religious group are in turmoil this week after the suicide of their spiritual leader, who had recently been accused by some former members of running a destructive cult.

Glendale police said Jonathan Murro, 64, hanged himself Saturday in his home on the grounds of the Ann Ree Colton Foundation of Niscience, which he had led since the death of Colton in 1984.

Shocked group members said Tuesday that they were devastated by the loss of their leader, but that they intended to continue to follow his teachings under the direction of the group's ministers.

One minister said Murro had been despondent over allegations brought against him by former members of the group.

In the last year, the foundation had lost at least a dozen longtime members, who had grown disillusioned with Murro's leadership and accused him of embezzling money. A spokesman for the Glendale police said there is no investigation of Murro in progress. However, several former members--including one who had sat on the board of directors--recently sent open letters to church adherents, calling Niscience an oppressive, deceptive cult, and urging members to leave. Membership reportedly numbers several hundred.

Some of the former members said this week that they are fearful that they will be blamed for Murro's suicide. One member said Murro had recently told his followers that he felt as if he were the victim of what Murro called "astral murder."

Church leaders said they did not blame the former members directly, but said Murro was under great stress as a result of the allegations against him.

Because of the dissension, Murro had suffered severe anxiety attacks, and was briefly hospitalized two weeks ago, Murro's wife, Lisa Paige Murro, 39, told police.

Before the Murros went to sleep Friday night, Jonathan Murro told his wife that "this is the absolute last day of my life," according to a police report.

The next morning, Lisa Murro discovered her husband's body hanging in a closet in their home, which is in the foundation's complex on Colorado Street, across from the Glendale Galleria. No suicide note was found, the police report said.

Members of the 38-year-old Foundation of Niscience subscribe to an amalgamation of Eastern and Western religious beliefs--including reincarnation--expounded by a charismatic Southerner named Ann Ree Colton. Murro met Colton in Florida, where she had begun a ministry in 1932. They later married, and Murro inherited the leadership when Colton died.

Church members said it is not clear who would take over leadership of the group now.

"It's so painful," Niscience minister Tayria Ward said. "He was greatly loved and admired, and respected, and he still is. He was a great teacher of spiritual principles, and he believed and lived what he taught. He had a beautiful love-nature."

But some former Niscience members paint a different picture. They describe Murro as a dictatorial leader who was obsessed with the treatment he received from group members and who screamed abusively at anyone who questioned his actions.

Former members also allege that Murro took money from church donations for his personal use, although police said they are not investigating such allegations.

Former member Chyrelle Martin said she called the Internal Revenue Service to report that she had regularly witnessed Murro taking money from the religious offerings. IRS spokeswoman Jan Gribbons said she could not comment on whether the agency is investigating the allegations.

However, Ward, who works in the Niscience office, denied that Murro embezzled funds and said he was despondent over the allegations.

"It was terrible," she said. "It was awful accusations they were making. He did not use church money, and I'll go to my grave swearing that. We've been under attack for a lot of lies."

Last month, John Goldhammer, 50, who left the church after 15 years, sent a 24-page letter to many active Niscience members, explaining how Murro's behavior had driven him to leave.

In the letter, Goldhammer said that once he broke away, he realized "how utterly programmed and controlled our thinking had become."

Goldhammer said he felt compelled to write the letter to try to help longtime friends who were still involved. "I could not leave and just walk away from something I knew to be wrong and evil and damaging to other people. My conscience would not let me walk away from it. It was like leaving a concentration camp and knowing that your friends and family were still there."

After learning of Goldhammer's letter, Ward said Murro "was very stressed and very hurt."

"Like Jesus on the cross, Jonathan was in that state where he felt that God had forsaken him," she said.

Murro's critics say he was never able to maintain the level of enthusiasm among members that had been generated by the charismatic Colton, who claimed to receive telepathic instructions from masters whose mission was to unite people with Jesus.

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