The King of Kings was holding court by the time we arrived at his royal residence, a lived-in one story home in a partially abandoned housing development on the outskirts of a small coastal city in West Java, Indonesia. Soegihartonotonegoro, Sino or "M1" to his followers, leaned forward in his throne, an ornately carved, but well-worn leather and wood chair, and told the man to ignore the letters from the bank warning that his house was on the verge of foreclosure.
His debt had already been wiped clean, paid for by the UN Swissindo World Trust International Orbit, a global debt-relief cult that claims to be the sole possessor of vast fortune of gold and platinum weighting 78 million tonnes. Swissindo had provided the man with a "M1 Master Bond," that they claimed would wipe his debt clean. All he had to do was print the document out and hand it to the branch manager of his local bank. The rest would take care of itself.
Watch our documentary: The Cult of Debt Forgiveness
But the bank wasn't buying it and now his home was about to be repossessed, the man said. Sino lost it and began to rant while the crowd of two-dozen followers—most of them thuggish-looking men dressed in ratty paramilitary garb, homemade United Nations patches sewn onto army green fatigues, fake badges hanging from their necks—pressed in closer to his throne.
"How long have you missed your payments," Sino asked. "Well you know what? Don't trust them. What the bank said is all a lie!"
"Merdeka!" ("freedom!") his followers shouted when Sino finished his speech. We had traveled three-and-a-half hours by train from the Indonesian capital Jakarta to try to figure out what Swissindo actually was and why so many people were signing up to join this weird cult in the middle of nowhere.
The cult is based in Cirebon, a tiny city in West Java, but its reach is global, with followers in neighboring Australia and as far-flung as the United States and Latin America.
It had already made headlines in Indonesia, where it held bizarre demonstrations welcoming the "Grand Acclimation"—some kind of one-world government where Sino was the president of Earth. Their website called Sino a spiritual leader, a direct descendant of King Soloman and the latest figure in a homespun international conspiracy involving Indonesian founding father Sukarno, former US President John F. Kennedy, and an ancient treasure that could pay off the debts of every single person in the world.
Their founding mythology leaned heavily on a conspiracy theorist's attempt at revisionist history, connecting global events with invisible threads that ran through everything and placed Indonesia—and Sino—right at the center of some of the biggest moments in history. World War II, the JFK assassination, the fall of Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, all of it was just another chapter in Swissindo's never-ending struggle to regain control of this lost ancient treasure and save the world from the chains of the global banking elite.
Sino lit a clove cigarette and launched into a rambling story about a time he almost got hit by a train while walking on the tracks near his home. Right when he was sure that he was about to die, the train stopped and Sino heard a voice guiding him to a safer place.
“I felt the kind of fear that I’ve never felt before," he told me as his followers surrounded us, hanging on every word, "the kind of fear when I know I was about to die."
The rest of his story didn't really made much sense to me. There was a military general and a secret organization of men and women trying to save the world from debt, all of whom told Sino that he was destined to be the ruler of the world, a man who would usher in a "golden age" as the "King of Kings" of the "NEO United Kingdom of God Sky Earth."
The treasure he kept talking about, the gold and platinum worth "one Quintillion USD," came from the combined wealth of the great Asian kingdoms of the Majapahit era. Sino would use the fortune to save the world from itself, he said, as long as he could survive long enough.
Sukarno and JFK had tried to do the same thing, Sino explained. But then Swissindo's enemies intervened, assassinating JFK and seizing power from Sukarno. He said he couldn't show me this treasure because of the various threats on his life.
"Now, if I told you, wouldn't you put a gun to my head?" he asked.
I asked why Indonesia's financial crimes agency (OJK) was investigating the group if all of this was true. Sino's temper went hot. He pounded the table, turned and threatened the authorities with nuclear war.
"That was a huge mistake when the OJK talked about Swissindo, saying that Swissindo was illegal," Sino said. "If you don't want peace, then I will release a statement of war to the international audience."
"A statement of war?" I asked.
"Nuclear," he said. "What did we even make them for if we weren't going to use them?"
This is what it was like to talk to Sino. During the three days we spent with Sino and his followers, his story never got any clearer. He told us that it would be impossible for him to leave the safety of his home without risking an attack by his powerful enemies. Then, later, we saw him pulling into his driveway in a late-model BMW sedan after picking his wife up from work.
He spoke in rambling speeches that seemed to be more directed to his followers than us. He often veered off topic on tangents about sperm and "worms" that were living inside of us. He had a habit of bringing these speeches to some grand dramatic point that elicited applause from his crowd of followers. He would then sit back and smoke with a satisfied look on his face, visibly basking in the attention of the room.
His followers tried to fill in the gaps in Sino's stories, enthusiastically telling us how amazing Sino was, how he was the world's savior, and a man of unbelievable power. He owned the United Nations, they said. He owned the Vatican. Interpol and all the world's militaries actually answered to him. He was already the world's one true leader, and anyone who doubted him was part of the shadowy organization trying to take him down.
Few followers were as enthusiastic as Kimarie Teter, a California transplant in a loose-fitting army green jacket who told us she was Swissindo's "Prime Minister of Love for the United States." She met us outside a neighboring home that was being used as the Swissindo volunteers' residence.
A tropical thunderstorm started to break as she retraced the steps that brought her from the US to Laos and eventually the front porch of a barely furnished home on the other side of the world. Fat rain drops began to fall on the muddy front lawn as thunder rumbled in the distance. Teter explained that all of this started with a massive bill from the US tax office for $10,000 USD in back taxes.
"The IRS was bullying me," she said. "I felt literally like I was a criminal. All of the sudden, I had this gangster calling me, telling me 'you need to pay this debt.' I was like, hold on one second. I literally had no options."
Teter claimed that she settled her tax bill by taking a course and mailing her birth certificate to some government office. But the entire ordeal was life changing. She became obsessed with debt, with figuring out ways to help people who were struggling to pay back what they owed. That's when she heard about Swissindo. She started to learn more about it online, talking with followers in Indonesia, Australia, the US, and Canada. She then flew to Laos to work in a Swissindo office run out of a house that, she claimed, was owned by the Lao royal family.
By the time we met her, Teter had been living in Cirebon for a few weeks. She knew little about the country, asking us questions about Indonesian preferences for pets ("why aren't there any pet dogs?") or what food was made out of ("what is that?" she asked when we ate at a street stall, termites swarming the bare bulb above our heads).
She talked endlessly about Swissindo and Sino, who she referred to as "Papa" the entire time—an English translation of "Bapak," an Indonesian term that literally means father but is used more like "sir" or "mister" in conversation. Sino was a man with a divine mission, she explained, the one who will put an end to one of the worst inventions of modern man: debt.
"It's a human rights issue," Teter said. "Slavery, debt slavery, human trafficking—which is what they are doing when they are selling our birth certificates on the stock market. That's 'trafficking in persons.' So what we have is a remedy that's come forward and now it's time to let the people know that the remedy is there."
Local financial crimes investigators have a different word for Swissindo's sales pitch: a scam. The Cirebon office of the Financial Services Authority (OJK) told us that none of Sino's claims were even remotely true. Muhammad Luthfi, the head of the regional OJK branch, said that his office had received numerous reports of thugs who claimed to be with Swissindo trying to intimidate bank managers into forgiving people's debts.
"What is Swissindo?" Luthfi said. "It's nothing. Their money? It doesn't exist. It's all a fraud. So then how is he strong enough to be luring all these people? This power is built on desperation. The desperation of those who can't pay their debts to creditors. Then when he is trying to force someone not to pay, it looks like one of those 'jihad' movies. They all have this 'THIS IS IT' spirit."
Luthfi suggested that we head over to the suburbs of Cirebon to meet with Agus Ahdiyat, the manager of the local Bank Rakyat Indonesia, if we wanted to get a clearer picture of how Swissindo really works. Agus welcomed us into his office and showed us stacks of binders all documenting his run-ins with the cult. Local residents keep bringing in these documents that claim all their debts were paid in full. The bank then needs to break the news to them that it's actually a scam, a response that some Swissindo followers refuse to accept.
"I have mixed feelings about it all," Agus told me. "It's so ridiculous, but it's also frustrating at the same time to have to handle this case. None of the followers believe that Swissindo is illegal. I feel pity for them because a lot of people are spending their time and energy at Swissindo for nothing."
In the months since our visit, the law caught up with Sino and his followers. Enough people came forward with allegations that Swissindo was actually charging them a few million rupiah for the debt clearance document that a clearer picture of the cult started to form.
Swissindo looked an awful lot like a reinterpretation of the Nigerian Prince scam—pay this amount of money so we can send you a fortune. Like that scam, this one was wrapped up in the dressings of royalty so it elicits confidence, but it was also packed with a dramatic plot that would sound at home in a Hollywood blockbuster like National Treasure to pull people in.
The foreigners and UN insignias gave the whole thing an air of professionalism to many poorer Indonesians, people who had never seen a foreigner in their entire lives. Sino was selling a story of change to these foreigners searching for meaning, and then using their presence to bilk desperate Indonesians out of what little money they had left.
But every so often, these debt relief vouchers had to actually work. That's where all those thuggish paramilitary types Sino surrounded himself with came in. They would visit local banks and attempt to scare them enough to stop hounding select people about their debts, according to authorities and bank officials. The debts would remain, but the calls and letters would stop. And Sino would have another faithful follower out there in the community spreading word of his power.
An emergency task force was eventually set up to investigate Swissindo, prompting Sino to apologize and promise to stop issuing the debt vouchers. But the cult has continued on, posting statements online in support of a two-state solution for Palestine and Israel that imply that Swissindo is somehow involved in the peace process.
Teter is still a member. Her Facebook profile photo is a poorly photoshopped image of herself in a Swissindo military uniform. Her most-recent post is a GIF of children running through a field with the Indonesian flag. Beneath the image it reads: "UN Swissindo is the answer!"