Police Seek Link Between Cult Leader, Nine Deaths
DALLAS - A prosecutor investigating the deaths of eight followers of a housewife-turned-guru over the last 12 years is trying to piece together a criminal case with a hard-to-prove premise: that beliefs can kill.
Four followers of mystical leader Terri Hoffman have committed suicide, including two of her four husbands, and two died in apparent accidents. Of those six, two told relatives they suffered from terminal illnesses, although autopsies showed they did not, and at least four bequeathed money and property to Hoffman.
Then, in November, police linked the deaths of an investment counselor and his wife to Hoffman's pastiche of philosophy, ancient mythology and metaphysics.
David and Glenda Goodman were found shot to death in their den, two handguns beside them on the floor. On a desk a few feet away lay two purple spiral-bound notebooks in which they recorded their devotion to Hoffman.
In one book, Glenda Goodman called ``the shooting'' the path to success and an escape from the sufferings of the physical world. Soon, she wrote to her husband, he would be able to come and go from the physical world at will, just as, she said, ``Terri'' can.
The journals tell more: how the Goodmans, both 48, were considering leaving their home to Hoffman. Their check registers indicated they'd already given her $110,000 over three years, police say.
In addition to the deaths of the eight devotees, a ninth person, a housekeeper, died when the car of one follower went off a Colorado cliff.
Assistant District Attorney Cecil Emerson said he's trying to determine whether ``mind control'' can be legally blamed for contributing to a death, a contention that might require breaking new legal ground.
``It's never entered anyone's mind that you could put together a case like this,'' Emerson said. ``I'm confident we can.''
Still, he conceded it would be a long time before he could put the case before a grand jury - if it even gets that far.
``The theme of this investigation is murder,'' he said. ``The reality is probably theft.''
So far, investigators have gathered mostly autopsy reports, the files of police investigations into the accidents and the financial records of some of those who died.
No criminal action has been taken against Hoffman, but two lawsuits have been filed against her.
In 1982, the brother of follower Sandra Cleaver contested her will leaving everything to Hoffman, including a $300,000 life insurance policy and a house. Six days after the case went to trial, Hoffman and Cleaver's brother agreed out of court to split the estate.
Hoffman faces a civil trial stemming from a wrongful death suit brought by the children of her fourth husband, Don Hoffman, who killed himself in September 1988.
Hoffman's attorney, Fred Time, said she is being persecuted.
``It's witch hunting,'' Time said. ``She's supposed to have all these tremendous powers - ridiculous. There's no history of that anywhere in the world.''
He said the suit and investigation would clear Hoffman, 51, who he described as a ``plain, ordinary person who gets money by counseling people.''
How does he explain the deaths among her followers?
``She listens to people who are in extremely transient stages of their life,'' Time said.
Hoffman told The Associated Press she would answer questions only in the presence of Time, who said he would not allow her to speak to reporters while an investigation was pending.
Hoffman became known in Dallas in the late 1960s and early '70s for her meditation classes, a blend of mythology and metaphysics in which ``masters'' were said to be reached.
In 1974, Hoffman founded Conscious Development of Body, Mind & Soul Inc. to sell tapes and booklets of her teachings. She sold thousands, Time said, and attracted hundreds of followers.
David Goodman became one of them in the early '70s. He met Hoffman at Dallas' Southern Methodist University, where he was a business professor and she was teaching a meditation class, Emerson said.
Hoffman counseled David Goodman during his first divorce, they became friends and, years later, made joint business investments.
When Hoffman was sued by Cleaver's brother, Goodman testified on her behalf. And when he left SMU in 1987, she helped him start an investment newsletter.
Goodman married and divorced twice more before he met his fourth wife, Glenda, also a devotee. They continued to adhere to Hoffman's teachings years after most followers abandoned them.
Hoffman's classes began to dissipate in 1977 after the suicide of her second husband, Glenn Cooley. Some followers have said they became wary as Hoffman focused less on learning than on fighting ``evil'' forces.
Cooley killed himself less than a week after the couple's divorce became final. His was the first of the nine deaths police are investigating.
In 1979, Devereaux Cleaver, the 14-year-old daughter of Sandra Cleaver, drowned in Hawaii. Two years later, Cleaver and her housekeeper, who did not follow Hoffman's teachings, died in a car that tumbled off a cliff near land in Colorado owned by some devotees.
In 1987, another follower, Robin Otstott, shot herself.
A Chicago follower of Hoffman, Mary Levinson, also killed herself in 1987. Just weeks before, she changed her will to dispose of her estate, valued at more than $125,000, in a manner that could not be traced, her parents told The Dallas Morning News. Hoffman told the newspaper she did not receive any money from Levinson.
Hoffman was a beneficiary in both her husbands' wills, as well as in Cleaver's and Otstott's, Time confirmed.
Police have not found a will for the Goodmans, but their journals indicate they considered deeding their house to Hoffman.
Goodman's father said the couple broke off contact with relatives and many friends in 1989.
The Goodmans' notebooks contain some of the strongest evidence investigators have linking them to Hoffman.
On page after page, Goodman asks Glenda about their quest to ``leave the physical.''
In one passage, Glenda Goodman, apparently writing as a god speaking to both her mortal self and her husband, said: ``Just like with the shooting. If you do that, I can make you both a success. That is, can make you yourself. Your spirit.''
In another passage, Goodman asks about suffering, and his wife responds with what appears to be a reference to Hoffman:
``Terri in the physical has also suffered. . . . Her advantage is that she is able to leave the physical, although not at any moment she chooses. In time you both as well as Terri will be able to come and go freely at will.
``She is anxious for that day as you are.''
Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.