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Trouble Taints a Cerebral Sanctuary

Robert Burton created Fellowship of Friends to celebrate the intellect and offer a haven from nuclear holocaust. But claims of a sex scandal have prompted many members to leave.

November 04, 1996|JENIFER WARREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

OREGON HOUSE, Calif. — Deep in the Sierra foothills, at the end of a twisting road, lies Apollo--an oasis of high culture in the outback. A mock French chateau houses a museum and library stuffed with rare art and books. A vineyard on terraced hillsides produces award-winning wines.

Apollo is the worldwide headquarters of the Fellowship of Friends, whose 2,000 cerebral members believe that keen self-awareness, a positive outlook and immersion in life's finest things--from Baccarat crystal to Johann Sebastian Bach--offer a path to higher consciousness.

They have been led on this journey for 25 years by Robert Earl Burton, a former schoolteacher who has guided everything from when his followers bear children to what sort of shoes they wear. Burton tells members he speaks with 44 angels who watch over his flock--among them Abraham Lincoln, Plato and Jesus Christ--believers say. Burton also has predicted that Apollo will be the lone surviving outpost after a global nuclear holocaust in 2006.

Disillusioned former members say the fellowship is more than just another California curiosity. A growing number of them--as well as some academics--call it a cult that entraps its mostly well-educated members with a false promise of spiritual evolution. A recently ended lawsuit and accounts from ex-members echo that claim and add another: Burton, they say, has for years seduced young males in the group.

The suit and similar allegations by other members have spurred dozens to leave the group. It was brought by a Marin County man who claims Burton first demanded sex from him at age 17. Troy Buzbee, who had asked for $5 million in damages, charged that Burton brainwashes members into a state of "absolute submission," allowing him to feed a "voracious appetite for sexual perversion."

Fellowship officials and their attorney, Abraham Goldman, did not respond to repeated requests for interviews about the group and Burton. The Buzbee suit was settled late last month. Buzbee's attorney, Ford Greene, would not comment except to say the case "is over."

Several former members, including some who held high-level positions, said the details in the suit served to confirm for them what a number of followers had come to suspect about the 57-year-old Burton.

"For years I ignored or justified a lot of things, but this I could not ignore," said Pamella Cavanna, 54, who left the fellowship last year after devoting two decades and more than $250,000 to Burton and his teachings. "A teacher should have moral standards that we aspire to. Instead, Robert has standards we are forced to overlook."

Former members, as well as court records, fellowship documents and Burton's prolific writings to the faithful, reveal much about the group and a leader who rose from humble beginnings to command a little-known $26-million empire.

To outsiders, the fellowship can have an entrancing face. Its headquarters sprawl across 1,300 acres in Yuba County about 70 miles north of Sacramento. Its Renaissance winery produces cabernets and Rieslings that have been poured for American presidents and are respected by wine experts. The Apollo Opera company recently mounted an acclaimed production of Mozart's "Don Giovanni" in nearby Grass Valley.

The fellowship also has a reputation in the art and antique world as a serious collector. The group recently liquidated its museum full of antique Chinese furniture, a collection considered among the world's preeminent holdings. The collection fetched $11.2 million at Christie's auction house in New York, where Disney chief Michael Ovitz was among the buyers, snagging a pair of elaborately carved cabinets for $607,500.

The winery, opera and antiques--along with the art, gardens, fountains, rare Persian carpets, inlaid Steinway pianos and other valuables sprinkled around the property--reflect the fellowship's guiding philosophy. A refined social and cultural milieu, writes Burton, helps a believer "awaken his higher centers" and develop an immortal soul.

"Robert always used to say, 'Beauty creates its likeness in those who pursue it,' " recalls one former member from Los Angeles who asked not to be named.

Attracting Followers

Burton commands an annual salary estimated by the group's former chief financial officer at $250,000 or more. Members serve as his bodyguards and chauffeurs, and one is often assigned to record his observations for the faithful. Rarely seen around Yuba County, Burton travels frequently in Europe, where he meets with followers and shops for collectibles for his stately Louis XVI-style home on the Apollo grounds.

Partial to silk socks, Burton at one time insisted his underwear be pressed, say ex-members. He also enjoys golf, manicures, fresh flowers, fine wine--and food. Standing more than 6 feet tall, he is slender now but at one point weighed close to 300 pounds.

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