Watch the VICE News documentary, Love Serve Surrender (VIDEO)
Sequoia says the first boy arrived at the farm sometime around 1980. He was 13 or 14. A man in a pickup truck dropped him off.
The farm, which sat on a quiet country road outside Chico, California, was actually a burgeoning commune, and Sequoia was one of the first to live there. A year before, he'd been an emaciated hippie attending the annual mind-expanding Whole Earth Festival in Davis. He was in his mid 20s and feeling restless and out of place, not content to join the ranks of the almond and olive farmers with whom he grew up. The festival offered Sequoia the chance to leave his hometown and soak in the collective grooviness of hundreds of fellow raw-food eaters and psychedelic explorers stubbornly holding on to what was left of the free love era. When Sequoia arrived at the festival, he waded into the sea of dancers and drummers and handed out wheat grass.
Then he met a man known as Wandering Eagle. In photos taken at the time, Wandering Eagle looked like an El Greco Jesus — lithe and chiseled, with dreads down his back, a thick beard, and very dark eyes. He had a group of followers, and they took Sequoia in as one of their own. Before long, they were all moving in together on the overgrown almond orchard near Sequoia’s childhood home.
They named the commune “Love, Serve and Surrender.” Wandering Eagle established himself as its leader.
“He would get real intimate with people right away,” Sequoia recalls in the first of our many long conversations. “Everyone who gets connected with [him] is in some kind of crisis.”
As he settled in on the commune, Sequoia began eating cooked food again; he finally felt at home and nourished. Sequoia, who agreed to speak to VICE News as long as we didn't use his legal name, says life at Love, Serve and Surrender was organized around a vaguely Eastern religious ethos. There was a Hindu shrine, and the people who lived there embraced asceticism and surrendered all of their possessions to the collective. Only years later did Sequoia come to believe that all this was just a pretense for Wandering Eagle to assert control over the lost souls he had collected.
“What (he) would say is, 'What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine,'” Sequoia says. “Even with people: 'They’re mine.'”
As we walk around the land that used to be Love, Serve and Surrender, Sequoia points out old olive trees, the spot where their home used to stand, a towering bamboo grove — anything to avoid discussing why we're here. Last year, several men came forward to accuse Wandering Eagle of sexually abusing them and a dozen or more other boys placed in his care by child welfare agencies and charities. The abuse allegedly went on for decades, but Wandering Eagle has never been convicted of a crime.
“I’ll be frank about it: I really had never thought it was a very big deal,” Sequoia says. He’s talking about the group masturbation sessions that included that 13-year-old boy. When Sequoia first arrived to the commune, Wandering Eagle told him the weekly jerk-offs were a mandatory ritual; Sequoia accepted it because he says he had nowhere else to go. He witnessed Wandering Eagle masturbating the boy during these sessions on several occasions.
“He was a happy 13-year-old," Sequoia says now. "He wasn’t, you know, crying or anything like that. I saw him seven years later, and he seemed fine.”
Sequoia has only recently come to terms with what he saw and the fact that he didn’t do anything about it. He was not alone in his silence.
About a year after he arrived, Sequoia had had enough and left the commune. But other lost souls, runaways, and hitchhikers began arriving en masse. They all saw Love, Serve & Surrender as a place to find companionship and spiritual guidance, and to bask in the charisma of the bearded guru who was now calling himself Jay Ram.
It was around this time that Ram applied for and was approved to be a foster father; he was soon being referred a steady stream of boys. Which begs the question: Why were social workers readily recommending boys for placement with a single man who was clearly living an extremely unconventional lifestyle?
To better understand, we asked one of the social workers — a friendly woman named Evelyn Polk who still remembers Ram well. At the time, she pegged him as someone who would be a good father figure for boys. She signed off on Ram, overlooking what she thought of as eccentricities.
"I was much younger then," she says.
There were also far more tangible red flags. In 1986, Tehama County authorities received a letter from a woman reporting that she had witnessed Ram abusing boys. Near the end of the letter (included below) was an ominous warning: “With this taking place, I can only assume there will be future victims.” The letter sparked an investigation, but for reasons that remain unclear Ram was never charged. Instead, he was referred even more foster children.
One was a 13 year old named Carlos Morales. Carlos, like many others before and after him, had been removed from his abusive birth family and saw life on Ram’s ranch as a chance for a new life.
“I remember the first time going up there,” says Carlos, now burly and bearded with a large tribal tattoo on his bald scalp. “It was on a big, dry ranch. It was really hot, and I saw all these boys, different nationalities. I said, ‘Wow! Where’s the mom?’ I wasn’t really thinking about it because I saw all these boys having fun…. They could cuss. It’s like they could do whatever they wanted there. And you know, it was cool.”
Just two weeks later, Ram abruptly moved to the Big Island of Hawaii with some of the boys. Shortly thereafter, he was approved to adopt them, and the boys became brothers. As a family, they lived together on a sprawling but secluded property nestled amongst cane fields, dramatic cliffs overlooking the deep blue Pacific, and rolling hills covered with thick rainforest. It looked like paradise. It was anything but.
Alleged victims told us Ram set up a ranking system for the boys, pitting them against one another in a competition for clothes, food, and his affection.
“You were either a ‘Snoot’ or a ‘Louse,'” explains Jared Legro, who met Ram's boys at a local surf spot and began spending time at their home. He says that Snoots got special treatment, like desserts or trips to the mall or new surfboards. They were also “rewarded” with a chance to sleep with Ram.
“As an adult, you wonder why in the world anyone would want to sleep up in the loft with Jay,” Legro says. “It was spartan accommodations at best. It was basically an old threadbare blanket laid over boards. It was uncomfortable. But what is more important to a kid is approval from the person who was meant to be your father figure, and Jay was their father figure.”
But a sadistic one. The brothers say Ram expected Snoots to exchange sex for their status. They say he would first masturbate them, and then rape them. Ram called it “humping rumps.” He would also insist that they bring home friends for him to prey on as well.
The five alleged victims we spoke to say they were all afraid to tell any adults in Hawaii about what was going on. But others did. We obtained records showing at least two boys reported allegations of abuse to authorities in 1989. But once again, Ram managed to avoid charges. And a state social worker named Roselyn Viernes continued to recommend that boys be placed in Ram’s care — at one point, he had at least 11 foster and adoptive boys in his home. When a local newspaper wrote a glowing article about how Ram was rescuing so many troubled youths, Viernes was quoted saying, “The boys have blossomed under his care. He’s a real good influence."
Today, Viernes serves as a supervisor in the child welfare department. VICE News left several messages for her before she finally responded, via email. She declined our request for an interview and said she could “neither confirm nor deny involvement with this family.”
The chase lasted about 20 minutes. At one point, we were able to drive beside Ram’s truck and confirm it was him — the long nose and sunken cheeks matched old photos we had seen.
Finally, in 1992, police intervened. A 9-year-old foster child of Ram’s named Zane Dittman Jr. had told authorities that Ram groped him. A judge issued a bench warrant for Ram and police took the boys into protective custody. But none of them spoke up about the abuse — something that still haunts them today.
“Jay coached us what to say,” Josiah Legro tells us. “’Say that you just have a good time and nothing like that ever happens.’”
The boys also portrayed Zane as an unstable liar to police, and in letters to a local newspaper. Eventually, Zane recanted and the boys were returned home. Ram sued police and the child welfare department for removing his sons, and eventually received a cash settlement. None of the boys ever heard from Zane again, but his story wasn’t over. Seven years ago, he was accused of molesting a 10-year-old, and in 2008, he blew himself up with a homemade bomb during a police standoff outside Tacoma, Washington.
All of the alleged victims with whom VICE News spoke have struggled with various personal problems: alcoholism and drug addition, depression, stints in prison.
Amazingly, it wasn’t until very recently that the brothers spoke with one another about their experience, prompted by a new opportunity to make Ram finally face justice. It’s too late for them to file criminal charges because the statute of limitations expired long ago. But two years ago, Hawaii became the latest state to allow sex-abuse victims to file civil lawsuits for a short period of time after the statute of limitations has passed. And so at the end of last year, that's what the brothers did. (The full text of their complaint is at the end of this article.)
They hired Mike Reck, a New York lawyer who has represented hundreds of victims of abuse by Catholic priests. His team launched an investigation and managed to track Ram to the island of Saipan, a US territory in the middle of the Pacific Ocean about 120 miles north of Guam.
“If I wanted to hide, that’s a good place to go,” Reck says. But when Reck sent someone to Saipan to serve Ram with the lawsuit, he learned that Ram had recently left. With the help of tipsters, Reck’s team eventually found that Ram had moved to Florida.
In January, VICE News traveled to Odessa, Florida to see if he would talk to us. There’s no way to knock on Ram’s door; his property is surrounded by a padlocked horse fence, and we weren't about to test out Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws. So we spent the first few hours in stables across the street, watching for any sign of Ram. About midday, we saw a tall man leave and get into a red Dodge Ram. Three young men followed, and together they drove off the property. We waited for them to return. When they did, they saw us and sped away. We hopped into our rental car and followed them.
The chase lasted about 20 minutes, and took us from country roads to wide commercial strips. At one point, we were able to drive beside Ram’s truck and confirm it was him — the unmistakable long nose and sunken cheeks matched old photos we had seen.
Eventually, Ram pulled into a parking lot outside a Publix Supermarket. We hoped he was finally going to speak with us — until he pulled up next to a cop car. He had reported us to the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s office. When we pulled up as well, the deputy demanded everyone remain in their vehicles.
“I’m sorry, this isn’t LA or New York or wherever — we don’t get this very often,” the deputy told us when we explained we were journalists trying to get an interview. We clarified that we weren't paparazzi and Ram isn’t a celebrity. The deputy asked why we wanted to talk to him. We suggested he google Ram’s name, since there had been some coverage in Hawaiian newspapers when the lawsuit was filed.
The deputy did so, then frisked and began questioning Ram, along with the three young men in his truck. Several other police cars arrived on the scene. But they eventually let Ram and his passengers go after asking Ram if he would talk to us. He declined.
Several weeks later, we were finally able to see the incident report. Oddly VICE News is listed the complainant, not Ram, even though it was he who called the cops. According to the report, the young men were all Ram’s foster children and had been placed in his care when they were between the ages of 8 and 13. They told police that Ram had never abused them.
After the encounter, a sheriff’s investigator conducted surveillance on Ram’s home. But he reported finding nothing unusual. The department has dropped its investigation.
Follow Andrew Glazer on Twitter.
Clarification made on April 15, 2014: Sequoia tells VICE News that he never actively participated in the group masturbation sessions at Love, Serve and Surrender.