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An article recently appeared on the progressive news website Mint Press. Based in Minneapolis, Mint Press was founded in late 2011 by Mnar Muhawesh, a 2009 St. Cloud State University grad who had spent a few years in local TV news before launching the site. It’s always been a bit of a mystery who funds the thing, a question that only comes up for me when its content — which is largely editorial, and which I generally agree with, more or less — approaches the world of unsubstantiated conspiracy theory. In 2019, the site ran a series of articles by Whitney Webb connecting Jeffrey Epstein to more or less every far-right-wing conspiracy theory out there, including the fate of Danny Casolaro. As silly as those stories were, at least they had some relevance to the contemporary world.

In June 2021, Mint Press began a series of articles by Elizabeth Vos purporting to “expose” the true story of a cult conducting mind control experiments under the employ of the CIA. The group is called The Finders, although in reality, it never came close to aligning with its satanic reputation.

I’ve come to take this story personally. Over the years, I’ve not only done some reporting on the Finders myself, I’m also producing a documentary (directed by Tyler Rabbit; it will be released sometime next year) that will go a long way to overwrite the myths that surround this harmless, and actually quite fascinating, intentional community.

I have also spoken with ex-members of The Finders, an idea that didn’t seem to have occurred to the Mint Press reporter.

In prose uncannily reminiscent of journalism, Vos begins her article in the same way that every account of the “cult” does: By describing the arrest of two Finders men in Tallahassee, Florida for suspicion of child abuse:

[A]n anonymous phone tip was called into the Tallahassee police department reporting that six children were dirty, hungry, and acting like animals in the custody of two well-dressed men in a Tallahassee, Florida park. That phone call would kick off the Finders scandal: a series of events and multiple investigations even more bizarre than the initial report.

The trail would ultimately lead to allegations of a cult involved in ritual abuse, an international child-trafficking ring, evidence of child abuse confirmed and later denied, and ties with the CIA, which was alleged to have interfered in the case. No one was ever prosecuted in the wake of the initial 1987 investigation or a 1993 inquiry into the allegations of CIA involvement: official denials were maintained, and authorities stated that no evidence of criminal activity was ever found. However, documents that have emerged over time beg significant questions as to the validity of the official narrative. (“The Finders: CIA Ties to Child Sex Cult Obscured as Coverage Goes from Sensationalism to Silence,” June 3, 2021)

The standard telling of the Finders narrative usually starts with something like this:

On February 4, 1987, when police were called to Myers Park in Tallahassee, Florida, something about the scene was “off.” Two adult men were accompanied by six children, all under the age of eight. The men were neatly dressed in business suits, while the kids ran amok, filthy and half-naked. They all appeared to be living out of a single Dodge van. The men refused to cooperate when questioned by police, so they were placed under arrest. Social services took custody of the children. During a press conference the next day, Tallahassee Police Department officials confirmed that the men were members of a Washington, D.C.-based cult called The Finders, just one node in a national network of satanic cults.

This was a national news story for about a week. All the major TV networks and the newspapers ran pictures of the children, hoping to find their mothers. The FBI, U.S. Customs Service, Tallahassee Police Department, and Washington, D.C. Metro Police Department all launched investigations, but the CIA shut them down one-by-one. The police then released the men without charge and handed the children back to the cult.

If it sounds too crazy to be true, that’s because it is. The Finders story is a conspiracy myth. Refined over subsequent re-tellings since 1987, it has the same sort of smoothed-over narrative that any successful Hollywood thriller must have. It lacks the rough edges that reality possesses.

And reality is much at odds with the legend: The Finders was a small American commune founded in the 1970s by a military veteran and self-educated philosopher named Marion D. Pettie. He believed that the world’s problems came from lousy parenting, and that by changing how we raised our children, we could change the world. He established his group as a sort of laboratory, an experimental lifestyle that could find solutions to the world’s problems. Pettie preached a matriarchal power structure, free love, the pooling of resources, and raising free-range children outdoors. He also created learning experiences for his followers that he called his “games.” Pettie was a walking contradiction, a man who wished to change the world yet be unknown to the world.

That said, parts of the above tale are true. The men were arrested, but for the “crime” of babysitting children in a public park. Law enforcement and the media did quickly accuse The Finders of satanic crimes, and Tallahassee police spokesperson Scott Hunt did say that the satanic network they’d uncovered “goes from coast to coast, and from Canada to Mexico.” After all, this was the 1980s, and the country was in the midst of the Satanic Panic, a moral panic that convinced thousands of Americans that satanic cults were everywhere, driving around the country in panel vans with the windows blacked out, roving bands of satanists preying on our children, often at the behest of the CIA

Former FBI agent/professional conspiracy troll Ted Gunderson

Former FBI agent/professional conspiracy troll Ted Gunderson

The most damning of all the so-called evidence of The Finders' satanic activities was a series of pictures that was confiscated from the group’s home during the Tallahassee investigation. According to the police, the images showed adults and children dressed in white robes committing some sort of ritual animal sacrifice. The truth, of course, is a lot less exciting: these were goats that the group had slaughtered before abandoning its farm and traveling south for the winter. And there were no white robes, although it was easy to see where that detail came from: the men in the pictures were shown wearing bedsheets to keep blood off their clothing.

As a result of all this satanic panic, the kids were placed in the foster care system as authorities struggled to figure out what exactly was going on with this mysterious group. Several law enforcement jurisdictions were involved, including the United States Customs Service and the FBI. The latter was represented by Athena Varounis, the real-life agent on whom Thomas Harris based Clarice Starling’s character in The Silence of the Lambs. Almost immediately, Varounis realized that the “Satan worshipper” angle was nonsense.

The photos of the goat slaughter were “causing a lot of attention” among law enforcement, Varounis says when interviewed by Tyler Rabbit for his documentary. “But that wasn’t evidence of anything other than killing a goat.” As an FBI Special Agent, she was familiar with images of child abuse. And she knew that whatever it was that The Finders might have been up to, they were not abusing children.

“There was no photographic evidence of child sexual exploitation, pedophilia, whatever,” she continues. “The exhaustive analysis of the documents didn’t reveal anything of kidnapping, stealing children, nothing like that.” Even though law enforcement in Florida and D.C. seemed to have it in for The Finders, they saw the same evidence as Varounis and arrived at the same conclusion. This was no satanic child trafficking operation.

The two Finders men were released from jail in March 1987 after their charges were dismissed. That same month, the court returned three of the children to their parents. The other kids remained in state custody through the summer, until they were released to their mothers. The press grew bored with the story, and it died down quickly.

Not everybody was willing to let the matter drop, however. U.S. Customs Service Special Agent Ramon Martinez had seen the same evidence as Varounis and came to a vastly different conclusion. In his report on the investigation, Martinez claimed that documents found at The Finders warehouse “revealed detailed instructions for obtaining children” through purchase, trade, and kidnapping. Also cited was a telex that “ordered the purchase of two children in Hong Kong to be arranged through a contact in the Chinese Embassy.” And according to Martinez, the investigation into these criminal acts was quashed by the CIA itself.

In other words, a federal law enforcement agent had gone on the record with claims that The Finders was a child trafficking operation with links to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Varounis couldn’t close her investigation until this was all sorted out, so she arranged a meeting with Martinez. They went through the report together, and she asked him to back up each of its statements.

“I did that with every line in which he articulated that he had seen a specific item of evidence,” Varounis says. “And at every one, I said, ‘Did you see this?’”

“No,” Martinez replied each time.

“Then why did you write this?”

“Because I thought I saw it.”

Varounis led Martinez through a full retraction of his report and filed it with the FBI. Copies went to the United States Attorney’s Office and the Customs Service.

I’ve met with Martinez, and asked him if he leaked his (now discredited) report onto the internet, which he denies. Whoever did it, however, has successfully circumvented law enforcement oversight and created an urban legend in the process.

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“I was really angry about what the media did to these people,” Varounis says. “The Finders might have been a weird group of people. They could have been Satanists; they could have worshipped Satan day and night. You know what? There’s no federal law that says you can’t worship Satan.”

During the Satanic Panic, law enforcement, educators, the courts, the media — all of our institutions became influenced by absurd conspiracy theories to some degree. Sometimes people went to prison after being falsely accused of being satanic child molesters. In this sense, The Finders were lucky. When they had their run-in with the Satanic Panic, they only sat in jail for a couple of months before the FBI and local law enforcement determined that nothing illegal happened.

You’d think Oprah would know better, but somehow she never does

You’d think Oprah would know better, but somehow she never does

The Satanic Panic was a time when conspiracy theories crossed over in the mainstream. According to social scientist Jeffrey S. Victor, this happens because, in America, “socio-economic tensions … become translated into moral-religious ideology.” What he’s saying is that widespread social change is a source of widespread stress, and in America, we tend to view this stress as having moral or religious causes. So we look for moral or religious solutions. These perceived causes and solutions are often nutty and out of proportion to the actual problem, creating a moral panic. In the 1980s, with the fallout from the Vietnam War still very much a part of people’s lives, a time when the economy took the nosedive from which it has never recovered, Americans reacted by going on a hunt for secret Satanists in their communities. The Finders were swept up in this madness.

The Satanic Panic eventually ended, as all moral panics do, when the social stresses that defined it were no longer quite so prevalent in society — but stories about secret Satanists and occult crimes never went away completely. While they were no longer featured on shows like 20/20 and Geraldo, the Satanic Panic myths were kept alive by fringe Christian sects and conspiracy researchers.

Meanwhile, The Finders carried on. Most of the female members (and their children) broke with Marion Pettie after the 1987 bust in Tallahassee, although a small core remained. The group eventually disbanded in October 2003 after Pettie’s death.

There was a brief coda to the 1987 bust, however: In 1993 an orange juice salesman and conspiracy researcher named Skip Clements brought The Finders to the attention of his congressman. This sparked a Justice Department investigation that briefly rekindled public interest in the case, but that led nowhere and soon fizzled out.

No, it isn't.

No, it isn't.

The Finders story remained obscure, popular only in the dark corners of the conspiracist internet, where people passed around a leaked copy of Ramon Martinez’s discredited report for the Customs Service. This all changed when Pizzagate went viral in March 2016. According to this strange new conspiracy theory, the Democratic Party is run by an elite cabal of Deep State child abusers who use codewords to communicate. For some reason, these codewords all involve Italian food (for instance, “cheese pizza” is supposed to mean “child pornography,” and “sauce” means “orgy”). After cracking this part of the puzzle, Pizzagate enthusiasts “discovered” the headquarters of the conspiracy at a pizza shop in the nation’s capital.

As absurd as this may sound, Pizzagate has become an enduring conspiracy myth and enthusiasts point to The Finders case as key evidence supporting this myth.

Following the election of Donald Trump, Pizzagate morphed into QAnon, a bonafide political movement. It all began in 2017 when an anonymous individual referring to himself as “Q” posted a message on a website called 4chan: “Hillary Clinton will be arrested between 7:45 AM - 8:30 AM EST on Monday - the morning on Oct 30, 2017.” In a follow-up message, Q stated that Clinton’s “extradition [is] already in motion.” To give you an example of how moronic this conspiracy theory is, a large portion of the QAnon community believes that Hillary Clinton has been living under house arrest for the last several years.

Q quickly became a postmodern oracle of the far-right, issuing quasi-poetic pronouncements like:

Over the years, Q has gone from merely posting fake news and bad poetry to building a political movement. By 2020, Q’s #TakeTheOath hashtag had gone viral, with figures like Mike Flynn, former national security advisor to Donald Trump, declaring himself one of Q’s “digital soldiers.”

After the 2020 presidential election, Q went quiet for almost a month. His last message, after which he (or she, or they) went dark permanently, was posted on December 8, 2020. It’s a link to the song "We're Not Gonna Take It" by 1980s hair metal band Twisted Sister.

That said, the political movement inspired by Q looks like it's here to stay, which is more than a little frightening. A conspiracy theory like QAnon primes the pumps for would-be authoritarian leaders, creating a ready pool of fanatics upon which they can build a mass movement. (In this way, Q serves the same purpose for the far-right that anti-Semitic propaganda films did for the Nazi Party.)

QAnon true believers are everywhere in society: In 2020 alone, there have been several violent crimes ascribed to this group, as well as an attempt to assassinate Joe Biden (the would-be assassin, Jessica Prim, streamed it live on Facebook). And thanks to QAnon, we couldn’t even get through the first week of 2021 without a deadly mob attacking the U.S. Capitol.

QAnon is currently one of the most important political forces in our country. It’s crazy, and it’s dangerous. And The Finders story, the urban legend about trafficking children for the CIA, is one of its founding myths.

...but not before I get this selfie

...but not before I get this selfie

Marion Pettie wasn’t concerned with being productive, making a profit, or keeping his followers in line. And he certainly wasn’t concerned with political power. He believed that life was one big game, itself made up of a series of lesser games. He didn’t teach his followers through sermons or holy books — he formulated games for them, secular rituals that would expand their awareness. Pettie’s raison d’etre was individual freedom. In a conformist society such as ours, it was only a matter of time before The Finders commune was shut down.

QAnon is playing a game too. If you want to understand QAnon, you need to realize that its adherents are playacting revolution, ushering in a political movement based on the same principles that Silicon Valley uses to make apps addictive. This is known as “gamification.” They look for clues on the internet, find like-minded souls on social media, and gather at large rallies where they carry assault rifles and waive signs, flags, and banners emblazoned with the letter “Q.”

While Marion Pettie endeavored to free people with his games, QAnon wishes to spark a mass movement, one that crushes the dissenting individual. And by rehashing decades-old conspiracy theories about The Finders, Mint Press is playing into this nasty current that’s left an indelible mark on American public life.

In the final story in Vos’s Finders series, published in mid-July, she finally gets to the point: hers was an effort to call into question the “rogue, untouchable nature of the CIA and its assets.” And hey, I get it — you’ll find no one more critical of the CIA (and its “rogue, untouchable” assets) than yours truly. But you can’t couch your criticism in lies and half-baked urban legends. This isn’t criticism at all: It’s conspiracism. Chaos. And it does nothing but help those who profit off of chaos.

CORRECTION (Aug 21, 2021): When this story went to press, I was called out for putting words in the author’s mouth. And I must point out: Vos was very careful not to state that Satanists were involved with the Finders, instead writing that by invoking Satanism, people were distracted by the larger issue of CIA mind control.

In reality, her work does nothing to dispute the “Satanic Panic” origins of the case, it just sort of expresses frustration that certain mind control conspiracy theorists are taking attention away from her pet mind control conspiracy theory. The Finders case, satanic or not, is still very much a hysterical conspiracy theory (as opposed to historical conspiracy fact). Of course, if you remove “Satan” from the story altogether, my point remains intact: This is a crazy, fabricated “mind control” tale. The kind of thing that both fuels the QAnon movement (the whole point of this article) and distracts people from the real mind control story, as laid out by authors like Alfred W. McCoy in A Question of Torture. (I didn’t specify this second point in the present article, but I have made it often in the past.)

Perversely (and perhaps counterintuitively), it is this kind of conspiracism that keeps us from finding out the truth about real sex crimes. (John DeCamp did more than anyone to stop us from discovering the truth about the Franklin Scandal, in my humble opinion.) This kind of pseudohistorical nonsense distorts our collective memory and leaves us unable to confront the real problems of this world, wherever they occur.

So why the importance of the Satanic Panic? The Finders’ Tallahassee bust was 34 years ago, and in the best tradition of Finders conspiracy fabulists, Elizabeth Lea Vos chose the parts of the myth that best promote her pet theory. While she may hate to admit it, the truth is that this story is inextricably bound to the Satanic Panic, which played the primary role in creating and nurturing the myth, whether she wishes to admit it or not.