At around midnight, Sarah Green got out of bed and crept from the house. A full moon illuminated her path to the wood stack, where she’d hidden a backpack in preparation for her escape. The air was cold and smelled of the piñon pines that stretched in every direction. Rushing past the flower beds, Sarah glanced back at the shacks and scattered trailers on the compound she’d called home for the last year. Nervous sweat ran down her back as she listened for the yelp of dogs who prowled the property in search of deer — and people.
It was September 1999. At 26, Sarah had spent almost her entire life as a member of the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps, a paramilitary religious cult headquartered in the New Mexico desert. Founded by Sarah’s parents in the early 1980s, the group operated under the leadership of Sarah’s mother, who believed herself to be God’s oracle. According to her prophetic vision, “true Spirit-led Christianity is war.” The group’s several dozen members wore fatigues. During worship meetings, they battled Satan by slashing the air with invisible, demon-slaying swords. Everyone had a military rank. Sarah’s mother was the General. The youngest children were privates.
Sarah had spent years ascending the group’s ranks; she’d been a corporal, a master sergeant, and a second lieutenant. Her dreams, however, were of a life beyond this hierarchy. She wanted to go to school and to become a doula. Her mother had condemned these ambitions: You’re not going to indulge in the ways of the world. But when the group had moved to the outskirts of Fence Lake, population 58, Sarah finally decided to flee.
Crouched by the wood stack that chilly Saturday evening, Sarah waited anxiously for the young man who’d said he would join her. A visitor from abroad, he was leaving the country to renew his visa. He’d agreed to escape with Sarah on his way to Canada.
Soon he appeared. They walked quietly to a stone wall at the edge of the compound. They threw their bags over and climbed to the other side, gathering themselves among the chaparral and mesquite.
Then they ran.
Before Sarah’s mother was the General, she was Lila Carter, herself a young woman on the run.
She was born in 1947 to a working-class family in Sacramento, California. Her father was an alcoholic. Her parents divorced when she was young. As a college student, she worked at a movie theater where she ate popcorn to save money on food.
In her early 20s, her younger brother died of lung cancer; grief-stricken, she joined a “back-to-the-land” collective called the Bear Tribe. Based in the remote Sierra foothills, the group hosted a mix of hippie and Native American ideologies. Lila, who claimed Sioux heritage, threw herself into this new life, marrying another member, Jim Green of Kentucky. According to a former friend, Jim and Lila were among the group’s more radical members. They wore loincloths, participated in “blood brother” ceremonies, and howled at the moon.
By 1971, they’d moved to Montana. They were, Lila would later write on the Aggressive Christianity website, “hippie wanderers, desolate, chasing false gods, and living only for darkness.” One day, Jim brought home a man he’d met while hitchhiking. The man told him and Lila about Jesus’ message of redemption. “My heart broke,” wrote Lila. “I was such a miserable mess … sin had done me in.” The man led the couple in a prayer. With that, according to Jim, “we changed Gods.”
The Greens pursued their new faith with the same intensity they’d brought to the Bear Tribe. Following Sarah’s birth in 1972 and the birth of her younger brother, Josh, the family went on a series of harrowing mission trips to far-flung locations: Panama, Aruba, Nicaragua.
Out of money in the early ’80s, they returned to Sacramento. Lila worked nights at a hospital. Jim rested his bad back. Now age 8, Sarah finally had something like a normal childhood. She attended a local school. She made friends.
Though Sarah remembers Lila as a “good mom” in this period, her mother’s fundamentalism was ascendant. In 1981, she and Jim founded “Free Love Ministries,” a religious community based out of their Sacramento home. They attracted followers through a program they hosted on local radio and passed out evangelizing “tracts” at bus stops and on college campuses.
Lila soon began to believe she was a prophet of the apocalypse. Her and Jim’s radio messages grew more vigorous in their condemnations of homosexuality, psychoanalysis, rock and roll, and other satanic forces; eventually, the couple was kicked off the air.
The Greens relocated to an old single-family house off a noisy freeway in downtown Sacramento. They bought three adjacent homes, or “barracks,” that shared a backyard. About 50 followers ultimately moved to “Fort Freedom,” as Lila called the compound. Sarah lived with her parents in the main house, or “the Citadel.” In sixth grade, Lila pulled her from school.
These upheavals were, for Sarah, head-spinning. Her mother had no time for her anymore. When she had problems, Lila told her to “fast and pray and deal with it.” This was to say nothing of the unsettling ceremonies Lila conducted in the basement of the Citadel. There she prophesied, performed exorcisms, and led rituals where participants lay on the floor, violently “birthing” new souls into God’s army.
Within a year of the move, life had grown significantly more structured. Meetings were held daily. Members began wearing military uniforms. During the day, they worked at local frame and art shops; much of their income was folded back into the ministry. Most dramatically, members cut off contact with friends and family. “I’m doing this for Jesus,” a 13-year-old girl explained in a farewell letter to her grandmother. “I don’t think I’ll ever see you again.” Attached to the letter were items she’d bought with her allowance: Garfield folders, a Chariots of Fire tape.
To mark her status as an oracle of the divine, Lila began calling herself Deborah, after the only female judge in the Bible. She also gave the group a new name, one that better telegraphed its growing militancy. Free Love Ministries was over; in its place was born the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps.
When we think of cult leaders, we almost always think of men — and for good reason: Of the most notorious cults in American history, almost none have been run by women. From Charles Manson to Jim Jones, it is male fanatics who usually run the show. For Christian groups, the Bible has served as a helpful justification for these patriarchal structures. As 1 Timothy 2:12 commands, “I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.”
Given this context, Deborah’s leadership was all the more striking, if perversely so. Here was a woman in an authority position that history, custom, and Scripture had all conspired to deny her. But no one could deny Deborah — not even her husband. Sometimes Jim asked why he didn’t receive visions, too. “You’re not the source,” Sarah remembers Deborah responding. “You’re not the vessel.” It remained mysterious how Deborah reconciled her dominance with the Bible’s calls for female submission. But she and Jim had always interpreted Scripture to conform with their own ideas.
And what ideas they were. Jim and Deborah called for the creation of a “holy tribal nation,” a theocracy where “militant holiness” was demanded of all. Members gave their money to the group and avoided all forms of popular culture. There was a particularly intense fixation on the sins of the body: Per one group document, “We don’t pamper the flesh, for it’s never satisfied. Following Jesus’s example, we die to our desires and crucify the carnal beast within.”
Mornings at Fort Freedom started early, with a 5 a.m. service in the Citadel. After breakfast, Sarah and the group’s approximately seven other children received a few hours of homeschooling. Evening brought more services, more prayers, and more chores. Whenever she pushed back against this rigid schedule, she says, Jim would beat her with a belt or a switch. And though Sarah tried collecting antiques, the hobby didn’t last: Thinking the items idolatrous, other members chopped them to pieces. One woman still recalls hearing Sarah’s wails from the courtyard.
Sarah wasn’t the only member to anger Deborah. Maura Schmierer, an early convert in her mid-30s, found herself a frequent object of the General’s wrath. “I was always in trouble because my demons wouldn’t come out,” she told me. Other members screamed, vomited, and writhed on the floor when Deborah exorcised them, but Maura could never summon such a vigorous response. Once, when she was pregnant, she recalls her husband saying their baby would be born possessed if she didn’t let go of her demons.
Chief among Maura’s sins was her reluctance to beat her children — an act of defiance Deborah called “spiritual adultery.” At a service one evening, Deborah banished Maura to a shed in the backyard. Maura lived there for months. Deborah gave her a new name, “Forsaken,” and made her perform menial tasks like carrying rocks and cleaning garbage cans. Two other women later received the same punishment. Deborah named them “Barren” and “Despised.”
After several months, Deborah evicted Maura permanently. “God told us there’s no place for you in his army,” Maura remembers Jim explaining. In what felt like a blessing at the time, her children were permitted to stay behind with her husband.
Maura’s excommunication was to have profound and lasting consequences for the Aggressive Christianity Missions Training Corps. Though initially devastated at being cast out, Maura eventually began to recognize her treatment as abusive. In 1989, she sued the group over her punishment, ultimately winning a $1 million judgment. (She was also later reunited with her kids.) Law-enforcement officials seized Fort Freedom and prepared the property to be sold.
Deborah was furious. Rather than allow such blasphemy, she called for the compound’s destruction. According to several former followers, Sarah and other members sneaked back on Deborah’s orders, climbing over the chain-link fence near the old pomegranate tree. They mauled the house with sledgehammers, tearing up floors, severing beams, and punching through Sheetrock.
Sarah never saw the house again.
In June 1989, the group fled Sacramento, eventually settling in Klamath Falls, Oregon. The tumult of the lawsuit and subsequent itinerancy took a toll on membership, which by that September had declined to just 19 people, according to a newspaper report. Quality of life fell, too. Much of the group’s food came from dumpsters. Locals mocked the Amish-style clothes that members wore while selling goods around town. There was also the cold, and the rain, and the oppressive worry that came from running from the law. Sarah, now 16, sank into a depression. Her ambition to attend midwifery school seemed more fanciful than ever. Whenever she broached the topic with her mother, Deborah was vehement in her prohibitions: Under no circumstance was Sarah to apply.
“The only thing I saw was darkness ahead,” Sarah told me. Her despair soon became visible on her body: She later testified in court that her weight dropped to just 79 pounds. She felt trapped and angry. She hated waking up in the morning.
For about four years now, Jim and Deborah had been pressuring Sarah to marry. Underage matches were not typical of the group, but the Greens saw matrimony as a way to tame their rebellious daughter. Sarah had successfully fended off several proposals, mostly from men who saw marriage as a way to gain status with her parents.
Not long before her 18th birthday, however, Sarah finally relented. In an unofficial ceremony, she wed a group member named Peter ten years her senior. She felt nothing for her husband but worried her parents would match her with someone much older if she kept resisting. There was also the hopeful promise of motherhood; perhaps a baby might give her something to live for.
Another three years would pass before Sarah finally got pregnant. By then, the group had relocated to Berino, New Mexico, a small farming town just north of the Mexico border. Sarah gave birth in an old brick schoolhouse that ACMTC called home. The child, a boy, arrived early; to Sarah, he looked like a baby born in famine. In a rare visit to the hospital, medical staff insisted the infant was too small to leave. But following a ruckus from Deborah, an elderly pediatrician allowed Sarah to take the child back on the condition that they return for a checkup in a week’s time.
Back at the schoolhouse, Sarah found moments of reprieve on a desert plot she transformed into a teeming garden. She planted not just vegetables and herbs but plants like clematis, passion fruit, and trumpet vine. She also kept busy with work, making incense, soaps, and baked goods that members sold while seeking new recruits in neighboring cities.
The group’s profits were used to support them in Berino, and on missions to countries including India, Nigeria, and Malawi, where Deborah sought out new recruits. She also used these trips to scout for a new potential headquarters; she wanted to have options, should the legal heat ever grow too intense.
In 1997, after a mission trip through East Africa, Deborah returned home with big news: She claimed to have met a pregnant young woman who had agreed to give the group her baby. ACMTC would accept the child through what Deborah called a “closed adoption”; the handoff would involve no government agencies or official oversight. The young mother had agreed to the plan because Deborah had promised to give the child a better life in America, and because the mother worried a newborn might derail her dreams for the future — or so Deborah said. To execute the plan, Sarah was assigned to retrieve the child; she would take it to the local American Consulate and claim it as her own. Deborah selected Sarah for the job because she had recently had a second son and was still lactating. To explain how Sarah, a white woman, had given birth to a Black baby, Sarah would tell the officials the father was a local man and had already returned to America. (To protect the child’s privacy, the name of the country will go undisclosed here.)
At the time, Sarah thought she was doing the right thing. The birth mother wanted to give up the child, didn’t she? But Sarah also felt she had no choice, and that she and her boys would be punished if she disobeyed Deborah. “I was sent on a mission,” she recalls. “You do it, you do it right, or you’re fucked for life.”
Shortly before Thanksgiving in 1997, Sarah got on a plane to retrieve the newborn. Strapped to her legs was $10,000 in cash. Deborah’s scheme went exactly as planned. On accepting the baby, Sarah gave the mother $1,000, money the young woman seemed not to have expected. She secured a Consular Report of Birth Abroad declaring herself the mother. Together with the baby, she boarded a plane and headed home.
Back in Berino, Sarah raised the girl as her own. “I can’t express how much love I felt for that child,” she told me. Several months later, however, the group heard from the girl’s aunt, who was in the U.S. and wanted to visit. Deborah panicked, fearing the woman would take away the child. Compounding her distress were the still-ongoing legal problems. To avoid trouble, Deborah ordered the group’s sudden resettlement.
ACMTC members wandered in a caravan for several weeks, making their way through Utah and Colorado. When at last they landed in the desert of western New Mexico, Sarah’s despair only deepened. Before, she had enjoyed a kind of freedom, interacting with strangers in stores and around town. Now there was no one.
What would it mean to leave the group behind? The question had preoccupied Sarah for years, but now it took on new urgency. The most difficult consideration was the children. Sarah loved being a mom and wanted desperately to give her kids a better life. Outside of ACMTC, she figured, she could get them proper health care and an education. But she was also terrified of subjecting them to the kind of insecurity that would inevitably come with escape. Though she had squirreled away some money in a small box under the wood stack, she didn’t have enough to last more than a few days. There were also the practicalities of leaving: Could she really expect to escape undetected with three small children?
Then, in the summer of 1999, a young man briefly became involved with ACMTC. He was a hipster type, a wanderer from either Australia or New Zealand — Sarah wasn’t sure which. They started taking long walks together. Before long, Sarah began to have feelings for him. She soon revealed she was thinking about running away.
As fall approached, a plan began to take shape. The young man was headed to Canada to renew his visa. Sarah proposed fleeing with him. Though she would leave without her kids, she told herself she would return for them when she had established herself on the outside. She knew it was an impossible compromise, but her need to live a life that was hers — to get an education, to experience romantic love — now felt too strong to suppress.
The day before she left, Sarah packed a backpack with photos of her children, her parents, and her brother along with some granola bars, a water bottle, and a stack of evangelizing tracts. She planned to use the flyers as an alibi if she got caught. I wasn’t running away, she’d say. I was looking for new recruits.
That night, she read her kids stories and squeezed them tight. She wrote them each a letter, telling them she loved them and would return to them soon. Then she got in bed herself. She felt overcome with dread and anticipation, fear and excitement.
A desert sunrise illuminated Sarah and her companion as they walked down the highway. After hitchhiking to Los Angeles, they took a bus north to Seattle, where they camped out under a bridge.
The young man continued to Canada without Sarah. They made no plans to see each other again; despite the romantic charge of their relationship, Sarah had never seriously considered staying with him. Far more important was the new life she planned to create for herself.
Sarah was now overwhelmingly, almost inconceivably alone. She moved into a church shelter. She got a job at a coffee shop. When she had saved up a little money, she rented a room from a pair of nudists. She slept on the floor in a sleeping bag.
Though she worked constantly, Sarah was enjoying her freedom. She ate whatever she wanted. She wore whatever she wanted. She went to art galleries, and to the park, and to the library. At the grocery store, she bought processed foods like cup ramen, almond Hershey’s bars, and powdered mini-doughnuts. She saw a play called Metamorphoses.
These new experiences were exhilarating. They were also overwhelming. She missed her kids and felt tremendous guilt for leaving them behind. She worried that she had condemned herself to hell by fleeing. Everyday frustrations made her wonder if God was judging her.
Nine months after her escape, Sarah got a call from Deborah. She was shocked her mother had tracked her down, perhaps through cards she had sent her kids. After begging Sarah to return, Deborah put Sarah’s husband on the line. Peter echoed Deborah’s entreaties; Sarah demurred.
That exchange opened up a written correspondence. “Praise God, we are all glad to have had contact with you after so many months,” Deborah wrote in a June 2000 email. “You are coming back, you are going to be delivered of the demons that have held you in captivity.” Sarah had made no such promise, but she did reveal ample self-loathing for what she called “my little sinfull [sic] binge” in Seattle. “I still love you all very much no matter what a mess I’ve made of my life,” she wrote in one letter. At the end of an email to Deborah, she signed off as “your worthless daughter who is finally starting to see herself.”
The story we like to tell about transformation is one of easy binaries. I once was lost but now am found / was blind but now I see. But change is more frequently a disorienting and even painful process. Though Sarah was glad to have left ACMTC, her mother’s teachings were still within her. Sometimes Deborah mailed her religious tracts to distribute, and though Sarah discarded most of them, she also left a few around town, thinking perhaps they could help someone. It was a gesture that spoke to the mix of belief and unbelief that marked Sarah’s first year on the outside. “Many days i just wake up hating my whole existance of every thing that i have every done,” she emailed an old friend from the group in December 2000. “I turned 28 yesterday and i fell alot older than that.”
She took a few nursing classes. She met a man at the coffee shop and got pregnant. Ten months after the baby was born, she decided to fulfill the promise she had made to return to New Mexico for her kids, now ages 7, 5, and 4. She wrote letters home falsely suggesting she might rejoin the group; she knew that without such assurances, her parents would never allow her on the compound.
The letters worked. In the spring of 2002, new baby in tow, Sarah arrived back in Fence Lake. Two and a half years had passed since she had last seen her children. Her oldest son wouldn’t come near her. The younger boy was happy to see her, but it was the girl who clung to her most fiercely. “I want to take you home so bad,” Sarah whispered in her ear.
But when Sarah broached the possibility of taking the children, she and her baby were driven back to the bus stop. Believing she would never see them again, she started sobbing. This is the end, she thought. This is the end of the end.
She later learned the raincoats and books she’d brought as gifts had been burned with the trash.
Sarah’s 1999 escape had been, for Deborah, cataclysmic. “She went cuckoo,” former ACMTC member Julie Gudino told me. “I watched that lady go crazy in front of my face.” Deborah undertook ever-more ferocious fasts. She raged about Sarah’s wantonness. She allegedly subjected members to appalling punishments — no one more so than the girl Sarah had brought to America.
According to claims later made in court, in the years following Sarah’s departure, Deborah tortured the girl physically, emotionally, and sexually. She forced her to perform hard labor and beat her with a whip that a detective compared to a cat-o’-nine-tails. Denied sufficient nutrition, the girl developed rickets. Her softening bones grew visibly misshapen. There was an obviously racist bent to Deborah’s mistreatments: According to another former member, she justified them by explaining that God might want to return the girl to her home country, in which case He needed her to be strong, tough.
In 2006, the girl broke a femur in what Jim and Deborah said was a swing-set accident. The injury prompted them to finally take the girl to a nearby hospital. Suspicious about the possibility of abuse, the New Mexico Children, Youth & Families Department got involved. The girl was taken into state custody and entered foster care. CYFD conducted an investigation into the girl’s condition, but the matter was ultimately dropped.
Sarah knew almost nothing of these events. Jim and Deborah informed her they had lost custody of the girl, but she remained unclear about the broader circumstances of the removal. Sarah says she reached out to New Mexico authorities in an effort to find her, but that these efforts went nowhere. As for the boys, Sarah felt she had run out of options. Even the prospect of police involvement struck her as futile: Deborah was sure to get away, as she always did. Having tried and failed to retrieve her kids, Sarah had turned away from the past. It was too painful to consider the full extent of what she’d lost in leaving.
Sarah sent her sons emails on their birthdays but says she never received a reply. For her part, Deborah wrote Sarah to claim her older boy had “manifested some of the spirits that were trying to take control of your life. But he is very profound for his age and he readily admits when he has been tricked or duped by the devil.” Gudino said that Deborah informed the children that Sarah “was no longer a living soul, that she was just a dead person on her way to hell.” (Beyond these psychological manipulations and the regular privations of life on the compound, there was no indication the boys were abused.)
In 2003, Sarah had another baby. She moved to New York; her relationship with the children’s father ended soon after. She worked at an engineering firm, at a café, and as a movie extra while also helping with friends’ births. Years went by. When she heard from her mother, the messages scorched with judgment. “STOP BEHAVING AS A SPOILED CHILD BEFORE GOD,” Deborah wrote in a 2012 email. “REALIZE YOU ARE A SINNER AND REPENT BEFORE YOU SPEND ETERNITY IN HELL.”
Though Sarah still wondered and worried about the children she had left behind, her primary focus was on her life in New York. She got to be the kind of mom she’d wanted to be at ACMTC, where Deborah had made her parenting decisions for her. She sent her kids to school and treated them with kindness. Perhaps the most emotionally significant difference from her mother was one that had no practical impact: The children bore names that Sarah, not Deborah, had chosen for them.
Then one day in the summer of 2017, she got a call from an investigator. At first, she thought it was a prank. Then she got another call. After a third voice-mail, Sarah finally called back.
A year earlier, the local sheriff’s department had learned that a 12-year-old boy had died on the compound; allegedly denied medical treatment, he had become septic from the flu. Looking into the boy’s death, detectives began to learn of other abuses and contacted former members to ask about their experiences. That process brought investigators to Sarah. Over time, she told law-enforcement officials her story. The process was a difficult one; to her, the past was like “a tranquil lake that’s been so quiet for so long. Then all of a sudden, this storm comes and brings up all this shit from the bottom.”
In August 2017, Deborah was arrested in the middle of a Sunday-morning service. She was charged with a horror show of crimes: two counts of kidnapping, eight counts of child abuse, three counts of evidence tampering, and four counts of criminal sexual penetration of a child under 13. In a statement, ACMTC called the allegations “totally false,” adding, “We don’t know who all the accusers are, but the accusations are just re-runs of old lies that have been investigated and shown to be malicious attacks against a legitimate ministry.” Three other ACMTC members were arrested that same day, among them Sarah’s ex Peter, who was charged with 100 counts of sexual penetration of a child under 13 and another 100 counts of sexual contact of a child under 13. Jim, too, was subsequently arrested and charged with kidnapping and child abuse, among other crimes.
Former ACMTC members began contacting Sarah, unsure how she’d react to the news. But Sarah was only relieved. Finally, after all those years of running, her parents had been caught.
On Saturday, September 15, 2018, Sarah took a red-eye to Albuquerque for her mother’s trial. An undercover cop car met her at the airport and drove her to the city of Grants, 78 miles west. She spent the next several days largely confined to her hotel room, meditating and going on short walks.
State officials had assured Sarah it was Deborah they were prosecuting, not her, but she still worried. What if they held her responsible for bringing the girl to America? What if Deborah tried to pin a host of crimes on her? The prospect of being taken away from her kids in New York, ages 15 and 17, terrified her. Before leaving for the trial, she had told them, “If for some reason I am indicted and I have to take the blame for my mother’s complete fuckup, just know that I love you.” She’d had a “meltdown” in the street. She imagined going to the top of a mountain and screaming until she couldn’t scream anymore.
Walking into the courtroom on the day of her testimony, Sarah thought she might vomit. When she came to the witness stand, it took her a moment to recognize the skeletal woman before her. Deborah’s hair, once thick and vibrant brown, had turned gray and stringy. Her cat-green eyes were now vacant. She looked not at Sarah but just beyond her. She’s gone, Sarah thought. The realization steeled her.
The questioning began. In an apparent effort to undercut Sarah’s credibility, Deborah’s lawyer leaned heavily on the self-lacerating emails and letters Sarah had sent in the months following her escape. “You acknowledge that you were extremely selfish and only thinking of yourself when you abandoned your kids, correct?” he asked, according to a court transcript.
Sarah later tried explaining to the jury the confusion, guilt, and shame that had defined that period. “When you first come out of a cult, you blame yourself for everything,” she said. “It’s like when you’re in a really bad relationship, you blame yourself for everything that went wrong … and as you finally distance yourself, and you grow and you mature and you get away from it, you realize it wasn’t always your fault.” That recognition, she said, was “why I’m here. I’ve grown up.”
The next day, Sarah got in a car and headed to the airport. On the way there, she received a message from someone at the trial. The girl, age 20, had just testified against Deborah. Now she wanted to see Sarah.
Sarah was overwhelmed. She’d wondered about the girl’s involvement in the trial, but because she had been told to remain isolated from other witnesses, she’d assumed she wouldn’t see her. Now, however, they were finally going to meet. Yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes yes, Sarah responded. Give her my number. She and the girl hadn’t had any communication in 16 years.
After arriving at the airport, Sarah waited anxiously at a restaurant. She had no idea if the girl would be happy to see her or if she was angry about Sarah’s long-ago abandonment. Either way, Sarah was ecstatic at the prospect of finally having the chance to make amends and to explain why she’d left.
“We’re like 20 minutes away,” Sarah remembers the girl texting. “Please don’t leave.”
Sarah looked at the clock. Her flight was departing soon. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, she thought. I’m never going to see my child again.
Just ten minutes before Sarah had to leave, however, the girl and her adopted mother appeared, riding up an escalator. Sarah dropped her bags and ran to them. She asked the mother if she could hug the girl. The woman said yes. Crying, Sarah and the girl — now a young woman — embraced.
“Mom?” ventured the girl.
“Kinda?” said Sarah.
They were overjoyed to see each other. “You’re so beautiful,” said Sarah. “Thank you for being so brave.”
“I thought I lost you forever,” Sarah recalls the young woman saying.
Sarah promised to explain everything when she got back to New York. “I’m so sorry,” she said, preparing to leave. “I love you so fucking much.”
Sarah was at work when she heard the news: Six days after her testimony, a jury had found Deborah guilty of kidnapping, child abuse, and criminal sexual penetration of a child. At the sentencing hearing, the girl spoke to the broader toll of Deborah’s alleged crimes. “Emotionally, she broke me as a child,” she said in a slow but deliberate voice, “to the point where I still today struggle with my own self-confidence, my self-esteem, my sense of worth.” She asked the judge to give Deborah, 71 at the time, the maximum penalty: 108 years in prison. He gave her 72, effectively a life sentence.
For weeks prior, Sarah had had terrible nightmares about ACMTC. Now, at last, the dreams stopped. “I slept for the first time in years,” she told me.
Still, it was a lot to process. Since moving to New York, Sarah had taken up running; now she threw herself into the sport with renewed vigor. Marathons and ultramarathons gave her a rare sense of ownership. “It was the first thing that was mine,” she said. “It’s fucking mine.”
Following Deborah’s conviction, Jim took a ten-year plea deal, pleading no contest to charges of child abuse, evidence tampering, and accessory to birth- and death-reporting failures. (Jim’s lawyer declined to comment.) Sarah’s ex’s case is ongoing; his lawyer did not respond to a request for comment. Even those ACMTC members not implicated by the group’s legal troubles have seen their lives upended: In October 2019, a judge ordered the sale of the Fence Lake compound. Last Sarah heard, her brother Josh was living in Albuquerque. (“I’ve always loved my brother,” says Sarah. “I will never have any hatred against him. I just think he’s a moron for not growing a pair.”) According to a letter from Jim, Sarah’s sons, now ages 24 and 26, are also in Albuquerque.
Nineteen years have passed since she last saw them. Sarah suspects they want nothing to do with her because she rejected ACMTC — and, one imagines, because they resent her for leaving. When asked if this estrangement hurts, Sarah says, “Yes and no,” comparing ACMTC to a drug addiction. “There’s nothing I could possibly do to unwind that,” she explains, speaking of her sons’ indoctrination. “I mean, I could try, but they’re so deep in it. That’s all they know.” Still, her guilt around leaving them remains raw. She weeps openly when speaking about it.
As for the girl, now 23, she and Sarah have stayed in touch since the trial. Sarah helped her reconnect with her birth mother. The girl and her mother are now in frequent contact. “All my family did was try to destroy her soul, break her down, give her nothing but scars, destroy her as a human,” says Sarah. “And all these years later, it took one little email to find her mom. It’s fucking awesome.”
Still, Sarah knows she played a decisive role in the girl’s story. “She’s great now,” she says, “but she suffered tremendously, and I was a part of that puzzle.” She begins to cry with the weight of that fact. “Because I’m not bad. And I’m not evil. And the thought of hurting someone else makes me really sad inside.” She pauses, then speaks quietly, as if to herself. “All I wanted to do was be a midwife and deliver babies.”
Against all reasonable expectation, Sarah has forged a version of the very life she once dreamed of creating. She takes her dog running in the park; she makes her kids loaded nachos; she helps with the occasional baby delivery. Her present circumstances show that it really is possible to move on — that a person’s past need not define her present or her future.
And yet Sarah’s experiences also speak to an opposite, if still complementary, truth: Reinvention is at best a partial process. We may leave the compound, we may flee our parents, but they remain within us still.
When I ask Sarah if the past feels alive to her, she offers an emphatic “no.” Nevertheless, she mentions the lingering shame she feels at having failed not just to retrieve her children but also, surprisingly, in her conduct as a daughter. “Everything I did to get away, I did to save my own soul,” she says. “But you still have this” — and here she pauses, as if struggling to articulate a lifetime of longing — “Oh man.” Though she has created a life in explicit contrast to her parents, a childlike impulse to please them persists.
For her part, Deborah has spent the two and a half years since her conviction fighting for a new trial. After her sentencing, she identified several new pieces of evidence that were previously unavailable to the defense and, she claims, prove she did not sexually abuse the girl. (Deborah’s lawyers did not respond to repeated requests for comment.) Exoneration now appears increasingly within reach: In November 2020, a New Mexico judge vacated the convictions and sentence associated with the girl’s allegations of abuse, ordering a new trial on the grounds that the state unlawfully suppressed “exculpatory” evidence. Deborah, who remains in custody, will receive a new trial this summer.
After months of doubting she’d have to participate in the retrial, in mid-May Sarah was informed she’ll likely be required to testify. Getting pulled back into Deborah’s orbit is infuriating: “[She] wants us all to share her pain,” Sarah wrote in a text message.
Sarah’s relationship with her parents has continued through sporadic written correspondence. Rage and paranoia still appear in Deborah and Jim’s letters, but their messages are marked more by sadness. “I will always love you & know you will return to God,” Deborah wrote Sarah in a birthday letter. This sentiment is echoed by Jim: “You may not know it but I still love you,” he wrote from prison in July 2019. “I can still see you and Josh putting your faded suitcases in our old 1966 panel truck — going here and there in His service. I miss the good ole days before we started ACMTC.”
In another letter, Jim told Sarah a story that, he said, illustrated his and Deborah’s feelings for her. “I know mom would not want me to tell you this,” he wrote, “but I feel I must.”
According to Jim, Deborah had been so distraught after Sarah left Fence Lake that she’d performed a violent prayer lamentation on her behalf. She crawled from the highway to the garden, “bleeding, crying and praying all the way FOR YOU!” Jim joined in the spectacle halfway. “Can’t begin to describe the pain on the hands/knees, on the gravel road,” he wrote. “We prayed for your return. I won’t mention this again.”
The letter calls to mind another old card, this one from Deborah’s case files. In it, Sarah addresses her parents with little-girl handwriting. She uses hearts for O’s.
“I LOVE YOU,” she writes. “I WILL ALLWAYS LOVE YOU. I HOPE YOU WILL ALLWAYS LOVE ME.