Family’s grief at death of mummified cult leader
It was late on a Wednesday night when the sheriff of Saguache County in Colorado asked Corporal Steven Hansen to investigate a report of a death.
A body, he was told, had been found at a house in a remote cul-de-sac near Moffat, a mountain-flanked town of about 100 people.
Within hours, he executed a warrant to search the house. Inside, he was disturbed by what he saw.
In one of the bedrooms, a shrine had been made for what Mr Hansen described as the mummified remains of what appeared to be a woman.
Placed on the bed, the woman’s body was cocooned in a sleeping bag adorned with Christmas lights, while glitter make-up had been applied around her eyes.
The body is believed to be that of Amy Carlson, the 45-year-old spiritual leader of Love Has Won, a religious group branded a cult by critics and police.
To confirm that, the coroner needs to check dental records, because the body was so badly decomposed, he could not recover fingerprints. He believes the woman may have been dead since March.
While there was no evidence of foul play, seven suspected members of Love Has Won were arrested at the house and charged with abusing a corpse.
“I’ve never seen a group of people be so nonchalant about a dead person,” Mr Hansen told local media.
None of this came as much of a surprise to Ms Carlson’s family, who are almost certain about the identity of the body.
“We know she’s not completely innocent in this whole situation, because she chose to join this cult,” Ms Carlson’s younger sister, Chelsea Renninger, told the BBC. “But at the same time, she doesn’t deserve what happened to her in the end. No human being deserves that.”
For years, Ms Renninger was sure her sister’s leadership of Love Has Won would end in tragedy.
Little is known about the origins of Love Has Won, which is believed to have emerged in the late 2000s under a different guise.
A follower encouraged Ms Carlson to join their movement, paving the way for her elevation to the head of Love Has Won. Its disciples do not appear to have a fixed set of beliefs. Instead, they practise and preach a fluid theology consisting of New Age philosophy, conspiracy theories, and messiah worship.
Their messiah was Ms Carlson, who was known as “Mother God”.
Her teachings were sacrosanct, and her claims were even more fantastical than her title. She was Jesus Christ in one of her 534 past lives, could cure cancer, and could speak to the spirit of the late actor Robin Williams, she would often claim.
These false claims were promoted to believers in the US and around the world in daily livestreams on YouTube. In these videos, Ms Carlson’s followers appealed for donations, flogged New Age merchandise, and doted on their leader.
On camera, followers seemed content with their bohemian lifestyle. But the testimony of former members cast the group in a darker light. In a Vice documentary, some of those former members made allegations of physical and mental abuse, which Ms Carlson’s followers denied.
In a court document, which the BBC has seen, the Saguache County Sheriff’s Office said it had “received many complaints from families within the United States saying that the group is brainwashing people and stealing their money”.
No-one from the group, whose website is not accessible, could be reached for an interview. A Facebook page affiliated with Love Has Won did not respond to a request for comment.
One of Ms Carlson’s three children, Cole Carlson, said it was the unpleasant allegations that pained him most. They were part of the reason Mr Carlson, 25, had been largely estranged from his mother for most of his life.
“My life is normal, other than the fact my mum left to join a cult,” Mr Carlson told the BBC.
He was 12 when his mother, a former McDonald’s employee from Texas, decided to pursue her divine mission. His voice cracked with emotion when he described the moment he found out.
He was supposed to spend Christmas in Houston with his mum but, shortly before the trip, his dad told him what had happened. His mum had gone, leaving her children – including a son aged two – in the care of their fathers.
Despite this painful memory, Mr Carlson said he loved his mother unconditionally.
“She wasn’t the best mother, even when she was around. But I loved her to death,” Mr Carlson, who lives and studies biology in Portland, Oregon said.
There was no shortage of love in Ms Carlson’s life, her sister Ms Renninger said. They had a “great upbringing” with loving parents in Dallas.
In school, Ms Carlson was a straight-A student and a leading choir member with an angelic voice. Only in early adulthood, when she started speaking to strangers on the internet, did her spiritual persona materialise.
When she left home to be with those strangers, many of her family members never saw or spoke to her again.
The family said they tried to help numerous times but to no avail. They even enlisted CBS talk-show host Dr Phil, who questioned Ms Carlson and her followers in an emotionally charged TV intervention last year.
Yet, nothing worked. She remained in thrall to the movement until the end.
The circumstances of her death are still under investigation. Last week, a prosecutor said he planned to file more severe body-tampering charges against the seven people arrested over Ms Carlson’s death.
The seven were staying at the home of Miguel Lamboy, a suspected member of Love Has Won, when the body was found on 28 April.
The body was in a bad condition, with grey skin, missing eyes, and teeth exposed through the lips, Mr Lamboy told police.
These grisly details have shocked Ms Carlson’s family and called to mind the fates of other messianic personalities – from Shoko Asahara and David Koresh, to Charles Manson and Jim Jones.
Their lives should serve as cautionary tales to anyone considering joining a cult, Ms Carlson’s mother, Linda Haythorne, told the BBC.
“Even though she did some terrible things, she was still human,” she said. “I want to get the word out how dangerous cults are and hopefully, we will help another mother, sister or child.”