Times-Picayune: 'Death Is A Vacation'

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'Death Is A Vacation'

Teen Family Preached Free Love

The Times-Picayune/1995-07-18

By Calvin Baker and Bruce Nolan

The white one-story house at 1133 Casa Calvo St. looks like others on the Algiers block, betraying no evidence of the tragedy that has struck the families who live there. Three dogs, two children, a recreational vehicle, and a little red wagon are scattered over the dusty yard surrounded by chain-link fence.

Monday, Stephanie Korkames stood behind that fence, interrupting for a moment preparations to go to Texas and claim the body of her daughter, 14-year-old Victoria.

Six days ago, Victoria left for a summer of camping and evangelizing with several other teens. All were members of a controversial religious group once known as the Children of God and now called the Family - a global though still tiny movement that its members say was founded on love, liberated sex and the communal values that swept the 1960s.

As Victoria, nine friends and one adult were driving into Austin, Texas, Sunday afternoon, their van broadsided a pickup.

Five teen-agers in the van died, all recent residents of the house on Casa Calvo. Five other teens and the van's sole adult passenger remained hospitalized Monday, one critically hurt. One passenger in the pickup also died in the collision.

"All children reach an age when they decide to come or go as missionaries," Korkames said from behind the fence Monday.

Victoria had reached that age, as had Katrina Oehler, 16, and Precious Oehler, 15, and according to Korkames, they had decided the Family's mission would be theirs.

Among other things, life in the Family means leading a seminomadic existence: moving from town to town evangelizing and recruiting members.

Among those who had left for Texas were the two Oehler girls, the children of Tom and Carolyn, the one adult on the trip.

And there were seven other teens, all of whom had their parents' permission to live with the two families on Casa Calvo, Louis Korkames said in an interview from Austin Monday.

They were Kristina Hope Noell, 16, of Miami, who was also killed; Nina Wickenheiser, 17, of Montreal, who was killed, and her brother, Jesse, 18, the van driver, who was critically hurt.

Other passengers were John Wickenheiser, 16, and Stephen Fisher, 17, both of Montreal; Juan Silva, 16, of Smithfield, N.C., and Penelope Itzel, 14, of Tijuana, Mexico.

Sunday afternoon they left their campsite at an Austin park and were taking their message downtown when the van hit the pickup truck, Austin police said. The Austin American-Statesman said police described it as Austin's worst auto accident in memory.

As Stephanie Korkames prepared to leave for Texas she framed her loss in Family theology: "Death is a vacation and we go and wait for our lovers to join us," she said.

The international religious group that claimed the Korkames' and Oehlers' allegiance was founded in California in the late 1960s and dedicated to peace and free love.

In the following years the group expanded to other countries. In 1978 the Children of God launched a missionary technique members called "flirty fishing" in which women in the community seduced men to win their conversion, conceiving thousands of "Jesus babies" in the process.

Group members followed their leader, David Brant Berg, who often communicated from seclusion before his death last year in England at 75, and for much of their history they fought accusations that group members routinely molested the community's children.

With 9,000 members worldwide, the group has fought child molestation charges in Europe and Latin America. But group members deny mistreating their children and there appear to be few, if any, criminal convictions, although a British court earlier this year awarded a girl more than $10,000 in damages for sexual abuse she claimed at the hands of the group.

Christie Richards, a spokeswoman for the group in Houston, said it's true that the Family's view of sex is distinctive: "Whatever is done in love, as long as it doesn't hurt anyone, is all right," she said.

But with its founding members entering late middle age, its founding fires of sexuality are more banked now, she said. And in any case, sex with minors is strictly forbidden, she said.

"Now we do work in local communities with the homeless," said Rebecca Rubey, a resident in Houston. "We sing and perform at homes for elderly and at juvenile centers."

Academics are divided on the essential character of the group.

Stephen Kent, a sociologist at the University of Alberta, sees a malignant image in his study of the Family.

Kent has interviewed former members and built a small trove of internal documents.

"The issue you keep coming back to is adult-child sexuality," he said.

Group documents strongly suggest that children were molested at least some time in the past, he said. And even if that has stopped, he believes the group has forbidden sex with minors more as a matter of practical expedience than because it recognizes the act to be fundamentally wrong.

Not all agree.

"I'm convinced they're a benign organization," said Stuart Wright, a sociologist at Lamar University in Beaumont, Texas, who has studied the Family.

Their children appear emotionally healthy and well-adjusted - more even than the typical American teen, he said, which seems to belie charges of child abuse.

Apart from their views on sexuality, members of the Family are in many ways quite conservative, he said - opposed to abortion and birth control, for instance.

"It's not uncommon to meet women in their late 30s who have 10 or 11 children," Wright said. "It's a badge of honor.

"When that first generation began the movement, we're talking about a bunch of 20-something counter-culturists. But now we're talking about people in their mid-40s with lots of children and concerns."

That was the picture Stephanie Korkames presented in her front yard Monday. Later in the day she boarded a plane for Austin.

"We live like the early church families, lovers together," she said. "Love is the most important thing. If that's against the law then I guess that we're against the law."