“Pettie used the term ‘pressure cooker,’” he says. “The idea was to explore your own person and discover your own true nature. You can’t do that just sitting at a desk or on a couch in a routine way. You have to have some experiences, so Pettie was good at structuring experiences from which you could learn. He called himself the ‘game caller,’ and what that meant was that he’d call a game for you to do something where you’d gain experience.”
The Finders eschewed private property, taught their kids through “hands-on” experience, and were essentially invisible to the outside world until Feb. 4, 1987. When police responded to the aforementioned 911 call, they found two men in their 20s with six kids aged two to seven, all six of whom were dirty, bug-bitten, underfed, and living in a smelly van, according to police reports. The men were identified as Michael Holwell and Douglas Ammerman, and their conduct when questioned, as described in a handwritten report, was certainly suspicious:
For Terrell, game playing ranged from working a temp accounting job in a downtown D.C. law firm to catching a flight to Japan on two hours’ notice to gather information on Japanese companies and report back to Pettie. It was a subculture built on whimsy and intrigue, undergirded by a sense of tribal affiliation.
When an officer talked to the oldest of the children, named Mary, the answers weren’t any more reassuring:
“This writer spoke to Suspect #1, who stated that he and Suspect #2 were teachers from Washington D.C., and they were enroute to Mexico with the children. Suspect #1 stated that they were going to Mexico to set up a school for brilliant children. When asked about the parents of the children, Suspect #1 became very evasive and stated that the children’s parents were in Washington D.C. Suspect #2 refused to give this writer any information, and he pretended to faint when told he was under arrest for child abuse. Suspect #2 fell face down on the ground and refused to stand up. He was carried by this writer and two other law enforcement officers and placed into a patrol vehicle.”
The timing was perfect for the national media to descend on the case. The country was in the midst of a moral panic over satanic rituals, stoked by books like the discredited bestseller Michelle Remembers, media-circus trials like the McMartin Preschool case, and completely unfounded worries that heavy bands pledged allegiance to the devil. (If you’re interested in this ridiculous chapter of American conservatism, I highly recommend this 1988 Geraldo Rivera NBC special, “Devil Worship: Exposing Satan's Underground.”)Further developments in the Finders investigation only increased the hysteria. Along with personal documents and then-uncommon computers, which featured esoteric communication between members over an early version of email, a search warrant on the Finders house in D.C. found photos of children with slaughtered goats. And in Florida, a doctor’s examination of the children did not rule out sexual abuse in two of them, but didn’t confirm it either.
A clearing approximately seventy yards behind the house and several stumps surrounding the open area. Several round stones had been gathered near the circle, this practice is sometimes used in Satanic rituals, and evidence that several persons had gathered in the clearing recently. The rear of the residence is covered from the alley by heavy bamboo growth, save a small entrance to the rear yard. In the rear yard was a small very ornate gravestone propped up against the support pillar for the porch.
Officer Hunt of the Tallahassee PD didn’t calm anyone down. He told the Miami Herald, “It is our belief these kids were not kidnapped but that their parents gave them away, because one of the rites of passage into this satanic organization is that you have to give up your rights to you children, and that the leaders of this organization can do what they want to with your children.”And he told the Tallahassee Democrat, “As far as we’re concerned, this goes from coast to coast and from Canada to Mexico … There is no doubt in our mind that this will have at least national, if not international, repercussions.”But quickly, The Finders—specifically the biological mothers of the children found in Florida, who traveled to speak with investigators—gave explanations that apparently satisfied law enforcement. According to police reports, the mothers said that in late December the men in the group took the children to Kentucky, where they would work a construction job, while the women went to California for temporary work. When the men arrived for the project, however, they found that it was at a standstill, and instead told the women that they would take the children on an “adventure” to Florida.
Mike Buchanan (of D.C.’s CBS affiliate), citing police sources, reported that the Finders had “worldwide connections,” used “sex and children to obtain power and money,” and had two bank accounts with over $100,000 in each one. The Glover Park residence was “a breeding house where women exercise great control.” The children in custody were “like shells, zombie-like.”
You can poke holes in either side of this conspiracy theory if you set your mind to it, and maybe that’s just how Marion Pettie would have liked it. With its key figure long since passed, and the FBI's dossier now available for public consumption, it's unlikely that anyone searching for a satisfying conclusion to the saga of this strange cult will ever find it.
“The Finders would love you to think they’re a CIA front, but I would say they’re really nothing,” says Minnick. “You’re going to hear a lot of bullshit on the Finders, because they lie. These are dysfunctional adults, but they’re all working their asses off. They’re constantly working on some project. If you have a cult, the best way to control people is to keep them busy, to keep their minds occupied—if you have people standing around doing nothing, then they start thinking.”