For those of us who lack law degrees, reading judicial opinions can often be a major slog. Those who occupy the bench favor a prose style that is, to be charitable, a bit on the dry side; yarn-spinning is not their forte. Yet every once in a while, I stumble upon a ruling that crackles like the fine narrative non-fiction. This 1992 circuit-court opinion in the matter of U.S. v Lowry is an excellent case in point.
Instead of summarizing the background, how ’bout we let Judge John Louis Coffey set the scene:
In the early 1960s Donald Lowry published a book about his travels through Mexico entitled Mexico: Bachelor’s Paradise. The response to the book convinced Lowry that there were many men out there who lacked self-confidence and had trouble with relationships, and that he could help these men by establishing a mail-order lonely hearts club. He followed through on this idea and founded such a club in 1965. After running this club for a few years, Lowry incorporated his business under the name of Col International, “Col” being an acronym for “Church of Love” (hereinafter “COL”).
It is the premise of the COL that lends spice to the script. Using mailing lists acquired from men’s magazines and various lonely hearts clubs, Lowry mailed informational packets to thousands of men describing the COL and its purpose. These letters claimed that the COL was founded in Mexico in 1965 by a teenage girl, Maria Simona Mireles, who now went by the name “Mother Maria”. According to the letters Mother Maria had been called to establish a new Garden of Eden, a valley paradise to be known as “Chonda-Za”. In Chonda-Za, COL members would join with Mother Maria and an entourage of beautiful young women known as the “Angels of Love”, living the rest of their lives in utter peace and fulfillment. Neither Rome nor the Garden of Eden was built in a day, however, and at present Chonda-Za was still a shimmering dream, though progress was being made. In the meantime, the mailings revealed, Mother Maria and the Angels were living on an old farm near the western Illinois town of Hillsdale, frolicking in a bucolic encampment known as the “Retreat”. At the Retreat the Angels were purifying themselves for entry into Chonda-Za and perfecting a free and open pastoral lifestyle, uninhibited by the moral code and strictures that modern society places on male-female relationships. This would be the lifestyle enjoyed by all in Chonda-Za.
From this idea sprang perhaps the most lucrative lonely-hearts scam in American history, one that eventually raked in an estimated $31.5 million. Lowry and his chief accomplice, Pamela St. Charles, did this not only by collecting membership fees from men who wished to retire to Chonda-Za, but also by coaxing their marks into contributing to special funds for the upkeep of the fictional paradise. Coffey explained the mechanics:
The Angels, you see, had needs, and Lowry sent letters notifying the members of these needs and asking for their financial assistance. For example, the Angels needed money for “Mother Maria’s Garden Fund”, which they used to grow fruits and vegetables to tide them through the long Illinois winters. The Angels also needed funds to repair Angel Audrey’s car, because she was the only Angel allowed to travel into town to purchase supplies for the Retreat. Further, emergency funds were solicited from time to time, as when Angel Susan allegedly was in an auto accident and necessitated hospitalization. Other needs included: money to pay the taxes on the Retreat, a new motor for the water well at the Retreat, a surprise gift for Mother Maria, a new coat for Mother Maria, a vacation for the Angels, sewing machines, typewriters, and, last but not least, money to buy the property to build Chonda-Za.
The members responded generously, lest the dream of Chonda-Za be crushed by their parsimony. Between 1982 and 1985 Col International took in $4.5 million dollars. On top of that there were gifts galore–money, jewelry, stereos, food, clothing–so many that Lowry had no place to keep them and had to get rid of them by giving them to employees, holding a sidewalk sale, or selling at a store he opened called “Saver’s Haven”. Needless to say, the cash and the funds from the gifts went into Col International’s coffers; the fictional Angels never demanded their due, and Lowry and his associates kept all the money.
Needless to say, the only reason that the Seventh Circuit Court go involved is because the Chonda-Za scam was eventually busted by the Feds. (The definitive account of the Lowry’s fall can be read here.) Lowry was sentenced to 27 years in prison, though he was released in 1998. As you can see from the photo above, taken at his 80th birthday party in 2009, the Lord of Chonda-Za appears to be doing well these days—and, judging by that sombrero, still retains his deep interest in Mexican culture.
What fascinates me most about Chonda-Za is not the gullibility of the marks, but rather the effort that Lowry put into building and maintaining the illusion. Do you think it’s easy to run a fictional sex paradise? As Coffey noted, think again:
To maintain the illusion that the Angels actually existed, however, Lowry created a different background, personality, and writing style for each Angel (for example, some Angels wrote simple, All-American letters, others (like Mother Maria) used broken English, and others used improper and off-color language). He also used different stationery for different Angels and even closed each letter with a false signature from the “authoring” Angel.
Were a Lowry a young man today, he could surely do wonderful things with some fake Twitter accounts.
(Photo via Nuevo Anden, who appears to be one of Lowry’s nephews)