Investigators pin Colorado wildfire to sinister Twelve Tribes cult with dark history of child abuse
Colorado investigators are looking into a property owned by a Christian fundamentalist cult known as ‘Twelve Tribes’ as the source of the massive wildfire that destroyed nearly 1,000 homes in the suburbs around Boulder last week.
Authorities were tipped off to the location through a viral video depicting a shed set ablaze on the organization’s 4.3 acre compound that was taken by a passerby on the morning the unprecedented Marshall Fire ravaged 6,219 acres.
One member of the group who insisted on anonymity told DailyMail.com: ‘We don’t really have any comment right now. We are waiting for the investigation to be completed.
‘The allegations are that it started on our property, but it’s not even clear to us if that’s the case.’
Colorado authorities have not charged anyone in the cult in connection to the fire.
Twelve Tribes is an international religious movement that sprang out of a wayward youth Bible study group in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1972. It was founded by a former high school teacher and guidance counselor named Eugene Spriggs (who died in January 2021) and his fourth wife, Marsha.
The cult’s name reflects the belief that they are recreating the 12 ancient tribes of Israel. Their goal, is to ‘produce an army of 144,000 male virgins, who would prepare the way for Christ’s second coming.’
According to their now defunct website, the reclusive sect currently has 3,000 followers in 74 communities across the United States and countries worldwide. The Boulder, Colorado chapter opened in 2009 and has roughly 30 members.
On first impression, the organization that runs a string of popular hippie-vibed restaurants, preaches communal farm living, and derives wholesome satisfaction from folk music and Israeli circle-dances – can seem idyllic.
But a deeper investigation into Twelve Tribes reveals a sinister history of child abuse and labor violations in addition to extremist teachings on race, homosexuality and women.
Former members described how Eugene Spriggs (known to his followers as Yoneq), cultivated absolute obedience through fear and brainwashing and exerted intense control over everything from when single men should masturbate to how much toilet paper should be used in the restroom.
Twelve Tribes is a fundamentalist religious cult with over 3,000 members and 74 communities worldwide. The fringe group lives an austere life as they follow the teachings of Yahshua (Jesus) and recreating the Christian church from the first century. Their name reflects the believe that they are ‘recreating the 12 ancient tribes of Israel.’ They refer to themselves as ‘an emerging spiritual nation’ that is made up of communities that ‘live and work together like an extended family’ on rural communes
Members are cut off from the modern world. Radio, secular books, TV and the internet are strictly verboten. Acolytes instead entertain themselves with discussions, music, dancing, hiking and other wholesome activities. Joseph ‘Dayag’ Fisher, a member of the Boulder community says, ‘Sitcoms are for people who don’t have an entertaining life.’ The group often partakes in Israeli circle- dance (pictured above), which they say symbolizes their ‘unity together’
Twelve Tribes originally known as ‘Vine House’ started as a bible study group for wayward youths in 1972. It was founded by a former high school teacher named Eugene Spriggs, and his wife Marsha in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Over time, the sect became increasingly reclusive as Spriggs’ gospel got more extreme. He preached corporal discipline for children, said that blacks were destined to be slaves, homosexuals ‘deserved the death penalty,’ and women were subjugated to submissive roles
A picture of cult leader Gene Spriggs and his fourth wife Marsha, in the early years when Twelve Tribes was still called ‘Vine House.’ The sect follows a ‘make believe’ dogma in that combines fundamental Christianity, ‘Jews for Jesus’ and the Hebrew Roots
‘Willie and Rebecca are next respected leaders and grandparents’ gushes the Twelve Tribes website over their devoted members
The cult’s goal is to produce an army of ‘144,000 virginal males’ before the second coming of Jesus Christ. The group distributes whimsically-designed pamphlets that proselytize their beliefs at the businesses, farm stands, and cafes they own and operate
The fringe group refers to themselves as ‘an emerging spiritual nation.’
‘We are a confederation of twelve self-governing tribes, made up of self-governing communities,’ explains the Twelve Tribes website. ‘We mean families and single people who live together in homes and on farms.’
Twelve Tribes was founded by Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha, at the height of the Jesus Movement in the 70s in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Originally known as ‘Vine House,’ Spriggs hosted Bible studies and other meetings that attracted runaways and drug addicts. As the organization grew, they became increasingly reclusive and extremist in their beliefs.
Cult leader Eugene Spriggs founded Twelve Tribes in 1972 as a bible study group for wayward teens. He was a former high school teacher and guidance counselor who grew up as a football star in Chattanooga, Tennessee. By 1975, Spriggs was already dodging ‘cult’ accusations by local media as the group became more reclusive and fundamental in their teachings. Spriggs died in January 2021 at age 83
The Boulder outpost started in 2009 when its leader, 68-year-old Andrew ‘Sehyah’ Wolfe, a 30-year veteran of the Vermont community, moved west with his wife Deborah to establish a Twelve Tribes presence in Colorado. At first the group held meetings in their homes until they moved onto a 4.3 acre compound on the corner of State Highway 93 and Marshall Road in 2014.
According to Boulder County property tax records, the land was purchased by ‘Common Life Dwellings LLC’ for $1.4million. The lot contains five dwellings and multiple accessory buildings; including the shed which is alleged to have sparked the wildfire last week.
When asked if they were a cult, Andrew Wolfe responded: ‘If the Twelve Tribes is a cult, the Catholic Church is a cult.’
In short, the group is a monogamous, taxpaying (but non-voting) fundamentalist sect dedicated to following the teachings of Yahshua (Jesus) through prayer, song and work. They abstain from drugs, alcohol, premarital sex, and posses no firearms.
‘We just want to go back to the original pattern of what the first church was before it became an organized religion with all its various offshoots,’ explained a current member to DailyMail.com. ‘We just want to get back to a pure, simple devotion to God and to one another.’
‘Our men have beards because men were created with facial hair,’ their website reads. ‘It is priestly for a man to bind his hair at the back of the neck and keep it trimmed as indicated in Ezekiel 44:20.’
Female members keep their hair covered to ‘serve as an outward symbol of her subservience to her man,’ and wear long homespun peasant clothes out ‘of their desire to be modest.’
The website gushes of their pride in being ‘tribespeople’ who ‘live together like an extended family.’
New members are forced to give up all their of belongings and wealth once they join Twelve Tribes so that the entire community can share the resources equally.
According to their website, the tradeoff for joining is ‘new friends, a new job, a new hairstyle, a new address and, most importantly, a new Master, who will direct every aspect of your life.’
Colorado investigators are looking into a property owned by the Twelve Tribes as the source of the massive wildfire that destroyed 1,000 homes in the suburbs around Boulder last week. Eyewitnesses and video shows a burning shed on religious sect’s 4.3 acre property on the morning the fire began. Roughly 30 people live on the commune that was purchased in 2014 for $1.4million
Members of the Twelve Tribes chapter in Boulder live in shoddy dwellings on a four acre compound that they purchased in 2014 for $1.4million. Famously secretive, outsiders are strictly prohibited. When two reporters for the CU Independent were granted rare access in 2018, they remarked on the eerie feeling: ‘They seemed to speak a language with their bodies which we couldn’t understand’
The agrarian based communities are entirely self-sustaining, ‘For the most part, our farms are small-scale operations. We mainly grow food for ourselves but sometimes sell our produce at our own farm stands or farmer’s markets.’
‘We don’t work secular jobs,’ explained one member to DailyMail.com.
Followers who belong to ‘The Community’ (as they call it), live and work together in cult-owned businesses. If they’re not laboring on the commune, then members are working in one of their many companies.
The group supports itself through lucrative endeavors in ‘hospitality’ (The Yellow Delis, The Mate Factor Café, Blue Blinds Bakery) – ‘service industries’ (which includes multiple construction companies, a printing press and shoe shop) – and ‘cottage industries’ (which manufactures and distributes products for large cosmetic companies).
The sect is most famously associated with their popular chain of organic ‘Yellow Deli’ cafes. Spriggs opened the first location in 1974 as a way to support his growing flock in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Members worked for room and board. Today, the Tribes operate 21 Yellow Delis around the world from Boulder, Colorado to Kyoto Japan, and Katoomba, Australia.
‘All of the income from our various endeavors goes into a common purse, from which all our needs are met,’ explains their FAQ. Their shared earnings go to pay for property taxes, food, electricity, phone, car insurance, clothing, and health care.
Living on self-sustaining communes, ponytailed men and women in long homemade dresses till the land and tend to goats and cows while following the teachings of Jesus. ‘For the most part, our farms are small-scale operations. We mainly grow food for ourselves but, sometimes sell our produce at our own farm stands or farmer’s markets,’ reads their website. ‘All of the income from our various endeavors goes into a common purse, from which all our needs are met’
Marsha and Gene enjoy a religious meeting at their Hiddenite, North Carolina compound. Acolytes gather every morning and evening for worship and prayer. ‘We sing songs and dance Israeli-style folk dances,’ before gathering for a communal meal
Twelve Tribes runs a popular 24-hour cafe and study-spot in Boulder, Colorado known as ‘The Yellow Deli’ (above). The first Yellow Deli opened in Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1974 and today has 21 locations around the world from Kyoto Japan to Katoomba, Australia. The restaurant specializes in natural, organic food and is run by Twelve Tribes community members who cycle between working at the shop and on the commune five days per week. Profit from the Yellow Deli directly funds the expenses at the compound
Staffed mostly by modestly dressed women in long braids, harem pants, and floor-skimming dresses, the Yellow Deli serves ‘delicious homecooked meals.’ The decor features hippie-style artwork, home-sewn curtains, macramé and handmade furniture. ‘When people ask us who our interior designer is, we tell them we have the same one that Noah had,’ said Spriggs
History of Child Abuse:
Children raised in the Twelve Tribes cult are homeschooled, dressed in puritanical bonnets, and kept sheltered from the outside world. They are taught an anti-evolution curriculum with an emphasis on music and communication. They are not allowed to engage in any type of playing (like play-pretending to be an airplane) nor join sports teams or clubs. Toys, radio, secular books, TV and the internet are strictly verboten.
‘Childhood was hell,’ said Alex, an ex-member who spoke to The CU Independent. ‘That’s my only childhood milestone, to stay alive till the next day.’
Boulder County investigators narrow Marshall fire’s origin to single neighborhood
Boulder County Sheriff, Joe Pelle
Mike Zoltowski said that he stepped out of his home on Thursday morning to investigate a fire on his neighbor’s property, owned by Twelve Tribes.
As he approached, he noticed three people huddled between two cars, and a line of women and children moving from one building on the compound to another, holding hands.
‘They said, ‘One of our dwellings caught on fire.’ What was weird is they were like, ‘It’s OK.” Zoltowski told The Denver Post. ‘Then I went over to their field and their field was on fire.’
Fire Marshalls are investigating if the 100mph winds fanned the flames eastward. ‘I don’t want to speculate, it’s still under investigation, but there is no possible way the fire started from any other place,’ he said.
Boulder County Sheriff, Joe Pelle said: ‘It’s complicated and it’s under snow,’ We will sort it out. It’s an active, open deal and the outcome of that investigation is vital, there is so much at stake.’
No one has yet been charged in connection to the fire.
Alex, from the New York compound, detailed regular ‘vicious beatings’ with wooden rods for trivial infractions like not singing loud enough during religious ceremonies, opening the fridge without permission, or talking too much. ‘You talk out of line or sometimes you never even knew what the hell you did but all of a sudden you’re getting your feet beaten bloody with the rods.’
In the past, the group has defended corporal punishment as something rooted in the bible and members are quick to rattle off a list of proverbs that support their actions.
Despite never having raised a child in the group (he had one son who lived with his first wife) – Spriggs had extensive rules on child-rearing which he outlined corporal punishment in a colossal 800-page manual titled, ‘Authority Teachings.’
‘The rod must be used to correct wrong thoughts, wrong words, and wrong deeds,’ states the handbook. Parents are supposed to strike children – or inflict ‘stripes that wound’ – whenever they misbehave.
‘We know that some people consider this aspect of our life controversial, but we have seen from experience that discipline keeps a child from becoming mean-spirited and disrespectful,’ says their FAQ.
A proselytizing Twelve Tribes brochure titled, When the Spanking Stopped, All Hell Broke Loose cited Proverb 13:24 that said: ‘He who spares his rod, hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly’ to make the following conclusion: ‘If you love your child you take the rod and discipline him…. It’s not optional; it’s a command.’
‘Spriggs was fond of saying we should be proud of these wounds our children bore,’ said former member Roger Griffin to Pacific Standard Magazine. ‘If you loved your children, you were not swayed by their screams.’
Kayam Mathias told The DailyBeast that he still remembers his infant sister’s screams to this day. He was beaten up 20 to 30 times a day before he escaped at age 14.
‘The first time I used an ATM or a vending machine was when I left, I knew nothing about the world. It was all so strange and new and was like being born suddenly with an adult body, feeling like a child or an alien, but needing to act like an adult to survive.’
Samie Brosseau, the founder of a non-profit that helps people transition out of cult-like environments, grew up in a Twelve Tribes compound and fled when she was 18. She told the CU Independent how her parents held her captive until she finally escaped out the front door of an isolated Massachusetts cabin to try make her way in a modern world she had never lived in before.
In recent years, Twelve Tribes has been the subject of multiple investigations that exposed child abuse and labor exploitation. In 2018, the New York Department of Labor found multiple violations involving 12 minors who were engaged in factory work at the farm located in Cambridge, New York.
The farm produced lotions and creams for popular organic cosmetic brands like Acure and Savannah Bee which are sold at Target, Whole Foods and Walmart. In 2001, the same farm was also involved in a child labor scandal that ended their lucrative contracts with Estee Lauder and Origins.
The cult denies allegations of child labor, clarifying, that children work ‘side by side with their parents’ in household chores that instill ‘diligence, thrift, and hard work.’
Treatment of Women:
Twelve Tribes claims that women are given an equal voice in the community despite many reports indicating otherwise. They have been accused of forcing females into submissive roles as wife and child-bearer, while forbidding the use of contraceptives and drugs during childbirth. Married members are required to cover their hair as ‘symbol of her subservience to her husband’
Twelve Tribes has long dodged accusations of child abuse, stating that their controversial belief in corporal punishment comes from ‘love.’ They use thin whipping rods to instill discipline for the slightest infractions like not singing loud enough during religious ceremonies or opening the fridge without permission. ‘Childhood was hell,’ said one former member named Alex. ‘That’s my only childhood milestone, to stay alive till the next day’
‘God created woman to be a friend and a helper for man. She was created to be a wife and a mother, to raise children,’ reads a posting on the Twelve Tribes website. All marriages within the cult are arranged by the families of the bride and groom. During the ceremony, the groom does not kiss the bride — rather she kisses him, as a symbol of her submission
Twelve Tribes insists that women are encouraged to speak their minds and are ‘given an equal voice’ in the community; but they have been accused of forcing females into subservient roles as wife and child-bearer, while forbidding the use of contraceptives and drugs during childbirth.
According to Spriggs’ later teachings, women have to atone for Eve’s original sin by giving birth without painkillers.
‘God created woman to be a friend and a helper for man. She was created to be a wife and a mother, to raise children,’ reads an article titled ‘Modesty’ on their website.
‘We are not pitiful little housewives that are bossed around all day by overbearing men, but we are happy, liberated women who willingly submit ourselves to our loving husbands.’
Deborah Wolfe, who spearheaded the Colorado sect with her husband Andrew, defiantly told Boulder Weekly: ‘I would be happy to talk to any feminist women about the choices I made by having my six children.’
Another news article posted on the group’s website, explains that all marriages within the cult are arranged by the families of the bride and groom. During the ceremony, the groom does not kiss the bride — rather she kisses him, as a symbol of her submission.
Jenny Lynn Fiore, a former member told the Southern Poverty Law Center: ‘I saw very controlling, overbearing husbands treating their wives pretty badly, and there was no real recourse… they were basically kitchen slaves.’
Controversial stance on homosexuality:
The cult claims that while homosexuality is discouraged, gays are not expelled from the group.
In reality, their dogma is far more extreme. Their FAQ reads: ‘Homosexual behavior is immoral and can be mortally dangerous.’
‘We embrace what God says on this subject without regard for political correctness.’
Transcripts of Spriggs past sermons preached that ‘homosexuals deserve the death penalty’ and that ‘homosexuality is a capital offense.’
Noah Jones grew up in a remote Twelve Tribes village in Vermont called Island Pond. He recalled to Pacific Standard Magazine of a time when he and his two brothers were rappelling out of a tree when an elder’s wife told them to stop. The elder separated the siblings and locked Noah in the furnace room of an adjacent house where he slept on the cement floor for a week, used a bucket as a toilet, and was fed one meal a day.
Finally, the elder accused Noah of engaging in a homosexual encounter with his brothers. Too young to know what ‘homosexual’ meant, the leader proceeded to describe gay sex to him in graphic detail.
In recent years, Twelve Tribes has been the subject of multiple investigations that exposed child abuse and labor exploitation. In 2018, the New York Department of Labor found multiple violations involving 12 minors who were engaged in factory work at the farm located in Cambridge, New York. The farm produced lotions and creams for popular organic cosmetic brands like Acure and Savannah Bee which are sold at Target, Whole Foods and Walmart. In 2001, that same farm was also involved in a child labor scandal that ended their lucrative contracts with Estee Lauder and Origins
Early meetings in Chattanooga, Tennessee were called ‘critical mass’
Twelve Tribes leaders readily admit that they discourage interracial marriages, even though they ‘welcome’ non-white family units to join their group. ‘It should come as no surprise when you see Hispanic or black or Jewish leaders in some of our Communities,’ says their FAQ. Meanwhile a deep dive into their dogma reveals how Spriggs preached that ‘black people were destined to be slaves’
Twelve Tribes leaders readily admit that they discourage interracial marriages, even though they ‘welcome’ non-white family units to join their group. ‘It should come as no surprise when you see Hispanic or black or Jewish leaders in some of our Communities,’ says their FAQ.
A deep dive into the Twelve Tribes doctrine reveals sinister racism throughout their teachings. Spriggs preached that ‘black people were destined to be slaves’ and openly espoused his hatred for Martin Luther King Jr, stating that, ‘All manner of evil filled that man.’
He continued: ‘It is horrible that someone would rise up to abolish slavery. What a marvelous opportunity that blacks could be brought over here to be slaves so that they could be found worthy of the nations.’
Tribe leaders evangelized that, ‘Submission to [white people] is the only provision by which blacks will be saved.’
In response to outrage over their controversial teachings, an African American leader in the cult named John Stringer (or Yohannan Abraham) – penned a rebuttal titled ‘Are the Twelve Tribes Racist?’ where he that claimed that their opinions were taken completely ‘out of context.’
Former member, Sinasta Colucci, who is mixed race, says the organization’s abhorrent teachings about race are revealed slowly to converts as they’re indoctrinated.
He remembers the time John Stringer picked him up from the airport. ‘At that time, I was fully inundated, I was brainwashed,’ he tells the SLPC. ‘It was like meeting a hero. I kind of idolized him. Here’s this strong, powerful black man who’s going to bring in more black people, because we need more diversity. That’s the way I thought about it.’
Eventually Colucci became disillusioned with the cult’s theology and left the Twelve Tribes in 2021′ by ‘getting on a bus with his future wife the day after President Obama’s reelection.’
The cult exerts control over everything from when single men should masturbate – ‘Usually about every other day or every few days’. To how one should wipe when using the restroom: ‘Taking three to four squares of toilet paper, folding it to the size of one square, then wipe, fold, wipe, fold, and repeat until you have this tiny, poop-stained square that you flush’
The Twelve Tribes utilizes mobile operations and vehicles to evangelize at various events. In 2000, the group purchased and restored a tall ship named ‘the Peacemaker’ that they sail around the East Coast to evangelizes at ports. They also use two buses known as the Peacemaker I and the Peacemaker II. The coaches were custom made by Twelve Tribes members, combining a 1955 GMC Scenicruiser and a 1949 General American Aerocoach. According to the website, the bus and boat earned its moniker after Twelve Tribes created ‘peace’ during a riot that broke out at a Grateful Dead concert
The cult’s name, ‘Twelve Tribes’ derives from the belief that they are recreating the 12 ancient tribes of Israel. Each geographical area is designated a biblical name and given a coat of arms. ‘The Twelve Tribes is a confederation of twelve worldwide self-governing tribes, made up of self-governing communities,’ states the group’s website. Sometime around 1982, Spriggs insisted members take Hebrew names as well. He called himself ‘Yoneq’
Twelve Tribes places a special emphasis on music and dance. ‘We first learned about Israeli circle dancing over 30 years ago,’ explained their website. ‘Over the years, we began writing our own songs and dances, now distinctively part of our own culture’
Control, Fear and Manipulation:
Who are the Twelve Tribes?
The Twelve Tribes are a fundamentalist Christian group.
They grew out of an early 1970s youth Bible study group led by Elbert Eugene Spriggs and his wife Marsha in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
They count 3,000 people among its members and believe in Jesus, who they call Yahshua. They also strictly follow the Old and New Testaments.
The group operates the Yellow Deli in Boulder and Mate Factor Cafe in Manitou Springs.
‘Our men have beards because men were created with facial hair,’ a Google search index of the group’s website reads.
‘Our women wear the clothes they do because of their desire to be modest.’
The group has been accused of holding racist and homophobic beliefs and of child labor exploitations.
In 2001, the New York State Department of Labor found two violations involving children at its factories, which make shampoo and other products.
Sources: Southern Poverty Law Center, New York Times
The cult regulated everything from fingernail length to how married couples should engage in intercourse.
Colucci recounts in his memoir, how the group exerted control over everything from when single men should masturbate (‘Usually about every other day or every few days’) to how much toilet paper one should use in the restroom. ‘There really is a teaching about taking three to four squares of toilet paper, folding it to the size of one square, then wipe, fold, wipe, fold, and repeat until you have this tiny, poop-stained square that you flush.’
He added that masturbation is strictly intended to be a ‘mechanical release’ and that ‘you’re supposed to try not to think about anything as you’re doing it.’
‘They really begin to control your internal reality, how you process things, how you see reality,’ said Bob Pardon, who has helped many former members of the Twelve Tribes transition to normal life. ‘There’s a lot of emotion control — you feel guilty about things you shouldn’t feel guilty about, and not guilty about things you should, and the same with fear, you fear things you shouldn’t and you don’t fear things that you probably should.’
Twelve Tribes instills the fear of ‘second death’ which is described in their teachings as a spiritual death where people suffer in ‘The Lake of Fire’ or Hell. Former member Sami Brosseau said the cult uses the concept of second death ‘to cultivate obedience in the community.’
An ex-member of Vermont’s Island Pond community named Hannah said, ‘The cult would say if you were sick it was because God was punishing you for being evil.’
Mary Wiseman, the wife of Spriggs’ right-hand-man once balked at the severity of the cult’s teachings and threatened to leave the community when Spriggs paddled her six-year-old daughter. She didn’t leave, but when she died of cervical cancer at 39, Spriggs claimed that her ‘unconfessed sin’—criticizing his authority—had killed her. ‘Guilt and unconfessed sin is how you get sick,’ he wrote in a teaching on the immune system. ‘This is why people die young.’
Rejection of modern medicine:
‘They do not go to the doctor ever, unless there’s some sort of catastrophic injury,’ said one former member.
A Boston Herald story from 2001 cited multiple instances of stillbirth, with mothers allegedly being refused medical treatment during labor. ‘In fact, stillbirths are so common that the cult’s private burial ground in Island Pond, Vermont, includes several unmarked graves of dead children.’
‘We are very concerned about our health,’ reads the FAQ. ‘This is why we place so much emphasis on a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, fresh air, and rest. When we need the services of dentists, doctors, or hospitals, we seek them out.’ Though testimony from former members says otherwise.
When Bruce Whittenburg’s 15-month-old daughter became with whooping-cough in the 1980s, elders told him: ‘If God wants her to live, He’ll save her.’ She died a few hours later. ‘It was the worst thing that happened to us,’ he said to Pacific Standard Magazine. Whittenburg left the Tribes in 2001.
‘Medical care is a matter of personal choice based on each person’s faith and conviction. While we as a people prefer the simplest and most natural means of healing possible, we do not restrict people’s access to medical care, nor do we presume to know just how their healing will come,’ explains the Twelve Tribes website.
Boulder investigators have narrowed the Colorado wildfire origin to the Twelve Tribes commune, after a shed was seen ablaze the morning the fire started. ‘We’re looking forward to the final determination about things just as much as anybody else,’ said one member to DailyMail.com
The Colorado blaze consumed 1,000 homes, forced 34,000 to evacuate and two are still missing but presumed dead