Skip to main content

The Finders were an intentional community that had its heyday in the 1980s. After a brief run-in with the law, a number of conspiracy theories about the group started circulating. These days, it's mostly known as a “mind control cult” and a CIA operation run amok — labels that the former members scoff at.

For more background, read From The Finders to QAnon. If you're really curious, Joseph L. Flatley’s zine The Finders: Lost and Found is available from Big Cartel.

Marion D. Pettie

Marion D. Pettie

The visionary who started it all, the founding Finder, was a man with many names: The Student, The Stroller, The Gamecaller. He was born Marion David Pettie on December 12, 1920. Pettie enlisted in the Army at the age of 15 and transferred to the Air Force in 1947. He retired in 1955, took his pension, and never worked again.

When Pettie joined the Army, the legal enlistment age was 16 years old. To leave home, he had to convince his parents to lie to the recruiter about his birthday. Pettie did this through not-too-subtle intimidation: After coming across an article in the newspaper about a boy who killed his parents, he clipped it and left it on the kitchen table. “I didn’t say anything about the article,” Pettie said. “I just cut it out of the paper and left it on the dining room table, so my father would find it.”

This tactic must have worked because Pettie’s parents acquiesced and soon he was in Panama, a lifeguard for the U.S. Army. The teenage soldier sat out by the base pool, reading books and working on his tan for three years. This created the template for how he would live his entire life — by learning as much (and working as little) as possible.

By the late sixties, Pettie was living with his wife and two sons in the Washington, D.C. area. It was around this time that he began assembling the intentional community that came to be known as The Finders.

“He was definitely anti-bureaucratic and anti-institutional,” former Finder Randolph “Rannie” Winn says of his teacher. “He did not want to set up an institutional-type of community. He always wanted to keep it flexible and experimental.”

The Finders tried to lay low and avoid rankling the powers that be. Still, conflict was inevitable. In America, the land of the individual above all else, Henry Miller’s “air-conditioned nightmare,” merely deciding to live in an intentional community is itself a political act. Marion Pettie, who wished to turn his back on society, inevitably made a lowercase-p ‘political’ statement by rejecting politics altogether.

“Pettie was a great visionary,” another ex-Finder named Robert “Tobe” Terrell says. “And he saw the decline of Western civilization. He forecast what we are living through right now. And the way that he advocated living was as preparation for a new consciousness.”

Pettie’s goal was no less than the liberation of humanity from the shackles of “progress,” the illusory pseudo-progress that comes with scientific advancement. Central to his philosophy was proper child-rearing. He believed that healing the planet began with raising healthy children.

Pettie saw his followers — not to mention the modern world in general — as supremely fucked up. A great deal of their time was spent playing “games,” psychodrama formulated by their guru with the specific goal of un-fucking people.


finders-kids

The first two Finders children were Mary, six months old when her mother joined in 1980, and Max, born to a community member in 1981. Eventually, there would be seven Finders kids total.

The word Mary uses to describe her childhood is “free.”

“There were certain times it probably was not the safest environment for kids,” she says, “but it was definitely a very free environment for exploration and learning and feeling confident, that kind of competence that comes with not having adults tell you that you can’t do something, or you’re too young to do it.”

One of Pettie’s games was the “High Field Experiment” or “Paradise.” This was organized in the spring of 1984 for Max and Mary, ages three and four, respectively. In his memoir The Gamecaller, Tobe sets the scene: The High Field, a former cow pasture, is “pristine—tall straight tulip poplars in tracts of a few acres, surrounded by open rolling hills where two streams run down from the Shenandoah National Park.”

The Finders set aside two acres of the pasture for the experiment. An area was designated for the children by erecting a wall out of tree limbs and brush. It was “low enough for [adults] to easily hop over, but high enough to be a serious obstacle to a toddler,” according to Tobe. They took care to make this look like a feature of the landscape. Inside the wall, they built a lean-to and placed bedding beneath it for the children. There was a small stream with fresh drinking water, as well as ample shade trees. The Finders called this area Paradise.

After it was all put together, the adults set the children down inside the walls. The kids, used to ignoring the odd behavior of the adults, began to play. Over the next several days, the adults stayed out of sight as the children create their own world of the imagination. They were supervised around the clock, from a distance. The adults brought food into the camp when the kids weren’t paying attention and joined them while they slept to ensure they were safe at night.

One of Pettie’s aphorisms was: “Never say anything rational to a child. They’ll become rational soon enough, but let them evolve the thinking apparatus for themselves.” The Paradise game was an opportunity to let the children be precisely who they were, at that moment in time, without any adults imposing an ordered worldview on them. It was designed to be a surreal experience, developmentally appropriate for toddlers.

“I don’t think that as much thinking goes into raising kids [in “straight” society] as went into raising us,” Max says. He’s 37 years old now. Rather than winging it, The Finders were doing their best to be thoughtful, innovative parents.

“They were all about putting the kids in charge,” Mary says, “or at least making the kids feel like they were in charge. I remember not being supervised a lot of the time. I remember having a very free childhood. I could do whatever I wanted and didn’t really have to check-in or ask if I could do something.”

The Finders children were “free-range,” even compared to the much looser standards of the 1980s. The neighbors certainly noticed, but they never thought that it rose to the level of neglect.

“We were allowed to use adult things, like Swiss Army knives,” Mary says. “I learned how to whittle a spoon with a Swiss Army knife when I was four.” Another frequent activity was fishing at an area creek. “I was like five or something. And the river was far away from the house. I don’t remember any adult following us there or watching us. And no one ever said be careful, or watch what you’re doing. We didn’t have to let anyone know that we were leaving or anything like that.”

“A lot of that was done intentionally,” Max says. “Just give the children as many opportunities, and as much space to explore, and really make our environments rich and full.”

Parenting duties were shared among the various adults in the group. Of course, there were some who were more suited for it than others. It wasn’t like Synanon, where children would be warehoused someplace while the parents lived their best lives.

“Every day was so different,” Mary says. “I’m sure they'd read a lot of those developmental theorists like Piaget and Vygotsky, who basically said that children are like little scientists and everything that children do is an experiment. And that's how they learn, by repeating things and in touching things and exploring things. And that if you tell kids not to play in the mud, they're never going to learn about mud. You know, that kind of thing.”

Recommended for You

Sounds like a good way to raise a kid, but I’m sure it would look very strange to outsiders.


Finders Doug Ammerman and Michael Holwell sit in Leon County Court during a Bond Reduction hearing.

Finders Doug Ammerman and Michael Holwell sit in Leon County Court during a Bond Reduction hearing.


Mary

On February 4, 1987, six of the Finders children were taken into custody when two of their adult caregivers were suspected of child abuse in a Tallahassee, Florida park. They were on a camping trip. All charges were eventually cleared, but that took the better part of a year. In the meantime, a conspiracy theory spread connecting the community to Satanic rituals and CIA mind control operations. This myth persists to this day.

Mary was seven years old at the time. Here, she recalls what happened on February 4. The following is edited for length and clarity.

I remember playing in the park for a long time. I think it was Michael who was [babysitting] us, and Doug had taken the van to go do errands — you know, probably laundry and grocery shopping or whatever. So we’re playing in the park until he comes back. 

We’d been playing there for God knows how many hours. I think we were probably relatively clean when we got there, but by the end of the day, we were pretty dirty. And there were no women, you know, it's just two guys with six kids. And so I can see how that would look odd to someone. 

Someone in the neighborhood apparently called CPS, and a couple of police officers showed up. The [adult Finders] did their usual thing of, you know, mum’s the word — they don't say a word, you know. The police attempted to question them, but they wouldn't say anything. The police touched them, and they went all noodly. Limp. No cooperation whatsoever, because that was what they were told to do by Pettie.

So we’re hauled into the police station, and I remember being fingerprinted. I thought it was kind of a cool thing to see my fingerprints on the paper. And this female cop was really nice. And you know, they're always asking you questions. They're showing me pictures of the guys and asking me what their names were. And I remember telling them that Michael was my dad. And I remember telling them that I was six years old because that's how old I thought I was at the time. I was actually seven. And I remember them taking us to a little house. I later learned that it was a cottage on the grounds of a mental asylum. And they had nurses around the clock, different shifts coming to take care of us.


Former Finders member Paula Arico and her children John Paul, 2, and Mary, 7, enjoy the sunshine in the backyard of their apartment in Tallahassee.

Former Finders member Paula Arico and her children John Paul, 2, and Mary, 7, enjoy the sunshine in the backyard of their apartment in Tallahassee.


Paula

Paula Arico, Mary’s mother, picks up the story from here. In addition to Mary, her son John Paul was put in state custody when the Finders men were arrested in Tallahassee. As a result of her run-in with the law, she left The Finders and moved to Tallahassee.

I was in San Francisco [at the time of the arrests], and I wasn't freaked out at first. I was concerned, but I was part of a group of people that would solve this together. You know, it's part of my wiring, cooperative living. That's really how we survived this long as a species.

So I got this call on Friday morning [February 6]. I think it happened on a Wednesday, but it was actually a couple of days before I found out about it. We had a meeting, I think on Saturday, because Pettie came up to San Francisco. Because federal charges were going to be applied for kidnapping, we needed to talk to the FBI in Washington D.C. We wound up flying back that Sunday. 

Of course, by now the press is all camped out in front of [our home on] W Street in Washington, and we're trying to sneak in and out to do stuff. And it's not working. So [Finder] Carolyn gets in a van, and drives in front of the press, and takes them on a journey. And then the rest of us all take our little day bags, our overnight bags, and run out the back door and get a different van. We drive all night and all day, taking turns driving, and get down to the Florida line. We don't cross into Florida because we don't know what's going to happen if we go into Florida. You know, we've been hearing all kinds of stuff, tons of misinformation in the press. We can't get any real information out of anybody.

We spent a day in a library and on a payphone, contacting people in Tallahassee, trying to find out what we could do, and we found a family law attorney who agreed to meet with us. I think we met with her on a Friday. Of course, we still got the press hounding us. Now the stringers for the major papers are down in Tallahassee.

I went to a Catholic church on Sunday, even though I'm pretty much a lapsed Catholic, a recovering Catholic, because that's what you do when you need help — you go to where the help is. And that set in motion finding housing for all of us, because we could not afford to stay in a hotel another night. 

In the meantime, [Finder] Tobe puts out this press release. It says "yes, we do have some bodies, they're buried over here, very near this creek" — because we've always wanted to pond over there. It's just razzmatazz, you know? Let's just see how much the news media can take a joke. Because to us, it was really much more of a joke than a reality, until the point where it looked like they were not going to give our kids back to us. And then the call came from Pettie: “Fire the attorney and just throw yourself on the mercy of the court.”

I had a two-year-old who, the minute he saw me, my blouse is up and he's nursing again. Mary, on the other hand, had a Valentine's Day card. She knew she would see me again and that she needed a Valentine's Day card for me. This is my lovely daughter, who had total faith. A true Finder, she knows everything's gonna be fine. You know, this is just the next game. It's a different group of adults, but it's always a different group of adults. [laughs]


That first visit [with my children] was maybe ten days from the arrest. Within a week, my kids were living with me. That was in February, and by the end of 1987, I had a job in Tallahassee. I had the kids in school and preschool, I was living in an okay place, and I started to make friends.


Members of the news media take part in an interview with R. Gardner "Tobe" Terrell, a member of the Finders communal group, in a warehouse owned by the group. Terrell wore a rubber mask of President Reagan on the back of his head to prevent identification.

Members of the news media take part in an interview with R. Gardner "Tobe" Terrell, a member of the Finders communal group, in a warehouse owned by the group. Terrell wore a rubber mask of President Reagan on the back of his head to prevent identification.


Max

One of the most prominent myths about The Finders is that they abuse children as part of a CIA program to create Manchurian Candidates. This is what Max says when asked point-blank if this is true: “It’s just impossible to know until I'm activated.” He laughs, then he gets serious. “Of course, I was never abused or anything like that. And as far as the intelligence community stories, there are so many things that are wrong with that hypothesis, that concept.”

Ultimately, the conspiracy theories about The Finders persist because the group itself was never really interested in setting the record straight.

The Finders were disdainful of the media perspective. Knowing that the media could be fooled kind of give them a little power trip, you know? If somebody can be so easily fooled, why would you ever care about their opinion of you? So that's one angle. And the other angle is that Marion Pettie was puckish, and playful in that kind of way. He gleefully led people astray in their assumptions. Besides, The Finders had their own social network, their own social safety net, their own financial safety net, and they were self-sufficient, so the societal perception of the community was of minor importance. These guys could support each other and support themselves. It was a tight-knit community that didn't need society's approval.

In the Netherlands they say "the wheat that stands tallest gets chopped." Society is immediately suspicious of things that are different. I see it as Darwinian. Societies that are not suspicious get overrun by other societies that are suspicious.


Four of five women who claim to be mothers of six children taken into custody nearly two weeks ago are shown in a Tallahassee law office on Saturday. From left to right, they are Kristin Knauth, Judy Evans, Paula Arico and Carolyn Said. They say they want their children back and want to put the episode behind them.

Four of five women who claim to be mothers of six children taken into custody nearly two weeks ago are shown in a Tallahassee law office on Saturday. From left to right, they are Kristin Knauth, Judy Evans, Paula Arico and Carolyn Said. They say they want their children back and want to put the episode behind them.

The Finders eventually sorted out their legal problems, the media moved on to other things, and everybody went on with their lives. But good conspiracy theories never really die, so it was perhaps inevitable that rumors of The Finders' CIA connection would find an eager audience on the internet.

This has led to decades of harassment and lies. It's no surprise that most Finders just want to be left alone at this point.

This short article hasn't come close to answering all the conspiracy theorist's questions about the children of The Finders, nor does it try to. The Finders deserve more than that. They deserve to have their story honestly told — not to "set the record straight," but because it's a damn good story.