Prisoner of a cult
Son's rescue from group leaves mom swinging between hope and despair
by Evan Moore
For almost a decade, he was the prisoner of a cult of prostitution and child pornography. Today, he's a teen-ager in police custody in Argentina, a boy whose future appears as cloudy as his past.
Shaqued Pickus, 17, is caught in a quagmire of international red tape. He's been taken from the Children of God and made a temporary ward of the state. His father is in an Argentine jail awaiting extradition to this country, and Shaqued is waiting to come home to a mother who doesn't know whether to welcome him or fear his return.
The boy's odyssey began Sept. 1, 1980, when Shaqued and his brother Christopher were kidnapped from their mother's Honolulu home by their father, Brian Pickus, and a group of hired thugs and members of a cult called the Children of God.
Shaqued was not heard from again until Nov. 4, when Pickus and 12 other members of the Children of God were arrested in Bahia Blanca, Argentina, on charges of drug trafficking and child abuse. Police also picked up 34 children in the raid.
The other adult members of the group were released, but Pickus was held on charges stemming from Shaqued's abduction, and Shaqued and 28 other minors were placed under Argentina's equivalent of child protective services. The other five children were returned to their cult -member parents.
Christopher Pickus was not found. The father's extradition and trial are mired in legal red tape, and just when and how Shaqued is to be brought from Argentina to Houston are unanswered questions.
His mother has legal custody of the boy in this country, but that is not binding in Argentina. She also does not know if she can handle the travel expense and legal fees involved in bringing the boy back and cannot gauge his willingness to come.
"I know he's been taught that I'm an emissary of Satan," said Shaqued's mother, Candy. "I'm sure they've tried to make him hate me, but I don't know if he does or not.
"I want him with me, but I know I can't just welcome him home like you would another teen-ager, and I don't know what will have to be done for him."
Candy, now a Houston housewife who has remarried and goes by a new name, still fears her ex-husband and the Children of God. For years, she avoided public exposure because of them. She has two other children from her marriage to Pickus and three from her current marriage.
"And I love my son, and I want him to come home, but I don't know what this will do to them," she said.
Candy first learned of the Children of God when she was a 19-year-old freshman at the University of Texas in Austin, a young Baptist girl from the Lake Houston area, away from home for the first time.
"That was a confusing time, 1969," she said. "We'd had Kent State, the Democratic Convention, a lot of things that frightened you. The children came down in a bus, recruiting. Their pitch was `We live naturally, in tune with God. Come out and see."'
Candy went for a weekend tour of the "Texas Soul Clinic," a 200-acre commune near Mineral Wells. She wound up staying a week, and then she couldn't leave.
"When I'd get ready to go, they'd say things like, `You're turning your back on God,' and I'd stay a little longer."
"A little longer" stretched into nine years and, during that time, she watched a strange transformation in the group.
"When I was first there they were devoted to intense Bible studies. They stressed celibacy unless you were married."
They were "Jesus freaks." The founder, David Berg, had started the group in California in 1968 with proclamations that the world would end in 1973. Berg continually postdated his Armageddon, but he continued as a doomsayer. By 1969 he had changed his name to "Moses David" and billed himself as a leader who would take his people from the yoke of the "Egyptians" to the promised land.
Few of them ever saw him. The group was led by his wife, daughter and son-in-law, and they kept a tight rein on the followers. Marriage was encouraged, but the marriages were arranged.
"I'd never even kissed Brian when we married," said Candy. "I barely knew him, and I certainly didn't love him.
"And even though they pushed you to marry, always you were reminded that the marriage was less important than your relationship to the group. The group was all-important.
"You're reminded of the need to deny yourself. They worked you until you were exhausted, then trained you intensely. You're taught to give token responses to all questions.
"Finally, they strip you of everything that's "you"."
The cult forbade birth control and encouraged large families. Candy had four children. Then, in 1974, Berg published a letter entitled "Beauty and the Beast."
"We have shown the world every other kind of love," he wrote. "Now, we're going to go so far as giving them other forms of physical love, even sexual love, to minister to one of their finest and greatest needs."
Berg proposed "Flirty Fishing," a process in which the men became "fishermen" and the women, "happy hookers for Jesus." He directed them to mix in bars at night, spot single, lonely, well-to-do men and seduce them. The "hookers" were told to get the men to give as much money for the group as they could or to find men with influence.
Berg honed this prostitution to a science, instructing the women to make detailed reports on all their sexual contacts, what acts most often were requested and what professions the "fish" were in. This information was fed into a computer and Berg formed a list of the most susceptible sort of men and what approach to take to seduce them.
Members were shunted around the world, either to work as prostitutes or simply to sell literature on street corners. Within a two-year period, Candy and her family were moved from the United States to Great Britain, Italy and Spain.
Candy asked to be taken out of the stable of "happy hookers" and was put to work in the children's commune.
"That was all right, but I just wasn't happy with the group anymore," she said. "I knew it had changed. If I'd been thinking all along, I'd have realized there was something wrong, something evil, underlying it from the first, but I hadn't been."
In 1978 she left the group with her younger children and moved in with her parents in Honolulu. The older boys - Shaqued and Christopher - remained with their father, however.
"I couldn't get them out when I left. Brian had taken another wife and left with the boys before I left Spain. After I got back to Honolulu, I filed for divorce and was granted custody of all the children."
She wrote Pickus, telling him she had found a high-paying job and wanted him to bring the boys for a visit.
Once he arrived, she took the boys. She and her mother found pornographic pictures of other children in their bags, and it became apparent the group had begun distributing the literature in Europe.
Berg had begun advocating incest, sex between children and sex between adults and children. His newsletters included graphic photographs of the acts, accompanied by jocular captions.
Despite that, Pickus was granted visitation rights to the boys. On Sept. 1, 1980, he arrived with four hired thugs and about 20 Children of God. The men beat Candy, took the boys and fled.
"We couldn't get anyone to treat it as a serious kidnapping," said Candy's mother, Gene Nastos. "The police kept saying it was domestic, and they wouldn't look for him."
Nastos traced the boys to California, where Pickus procured forged passports, and from there to Spain, but later lost track of them. Police finally filed burglary charges and a federal charge for unlawful flight to avoid prosecution against Pickus, and an international warrant was issued through Interpol.
"It should have been treated differently from the first, but it wasn't," said FBI agent George Kent of Honolulu. "By the time we got into it, he (Pickus) was long gone, and we stayed about four years behind him for a long time.
"But it won't be messed up this time. He's coming back, and he'll be tried."
Candy has little interest in what happens to her ex-husband. Most of her concern, she said, is for her sons.
"I don't blame Brian. He doesn't have a will of his own anymore anyway," she said.
"As for Christopher (her missing son), I just don't know. Brian told police he reported the boy missing two years ago in Argentina, but you can't be sure of that. Anybody in that group will lie. I hope he did run away, but he could be wandering around down there not even knowing his mother wants him back and his father's in jail.
"Shaqued is my main worry now. He'll be 18 in six months, and I just want him to give me that much time. Maybe in six months he can see there's a different way of life from the one he's had to lead.
"If he'll just give me the time."