A sleeping bag and Christmas lights enveloped the body, which was surrounded by a shrine. Glittery makeup encircled the eyes. Parts of the corpse were mummified, with the moisture naturally drained from the skin and bones.
That was the scene a Colorado sheriff’s officer found last month upon arriving at a low-slung blue home where a man reported that he had discovered a woman dead. Officials said they believe the woman to be Amy Carlson, leader of the obscure religious group Love Has Won, but have not yet confirmed her identity.
Seven suspected group members have been taken into custody and accused of mishandling the corpse.
The deterioration of Carlson’s body suggests she may have been dead long before she was found, said Saguache County Coroner Tom Perrin. Although an autopsy is pending, Sheriff Dan Warwick said there is no evidence of foul play.
Carlson’s family said the woman they remember as bright and popular made mistakes — including abandoning her children and drinking too much — but never should have met such a tragic end.
“Even though she wasn’t innocent in all this,” said her sister, Chelsea Renninger, “she didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”
Carlson’s death, first reported by the Guru Magazine, is the latest in a long line of cult leaders who have died prematurely. David Koresh, a self-proclaimed second Messiah who led the Branch Davidian cult, died after a 51-day standoff with law enforcement in 1993. Japanese officials executed Shoko Asahara, who ran a doomsday cult that attacked the Tokyo subway in 1995. Jim Jones led hundreds of members of the Peoples Temple in a mass suicide in 1978.
Members of Love Has Won looked to Carlson, whom they called “Mother God,” as their spiritual leader. Carlson maintained that she was a divinity who had lived 534 lives, including as Jesus Christ and Marilyn Monroe. She claimed that she could heal people of cancer and described her group as a “paradigm” for bringing peace to Earth.
The Saguache County Sheriff’s Office said it had received complaints from families across the country alleging that the group was brainwashing people and stealing from them. Law enforcement and former members have described the organization, which did not respond to an interview request, as a cult.
Carlson’s death came to light after Miguel Lamboy walked into a police station to report a corpse in his home, according to an arrest warrant. Lamboy, allegedly a member of Love Has Won, identified the dead woman to police as Lia Carlson, 45. Renninger said she believes some of Carlson’s acquaintances called her Lia.
Lamboy told police that on April 27 he returned to his home in rural Moffat, about 80 miles southeast of Colorado Springs, to find five people who said they needed a place to stay. After Lamboy left and came back to his home the next day, he said he saw Carlson’s body.
Her eyes were missing, and her teeth showed through her lips, Lamboy told police. Lamboy said he tried to take his son and leave the house, but the other people there would not let him out with the child. That’s when Lamboy drove to the Salida police station, he told officers.
Acting on a search warrant, a county sheriff’s officer went to Lamboy’s home. There, he found Lamboy’s 2-year-old son and the 13-year-old daughter of one of the people at the house, both uninjured.
The sheriff’s officer also saw a Nissan SUV, which Lamboy told police he believes the group used to transport Carlson’s body from California. The back passenger seat was laid down as if a corpse had been placed on it, the arrest warrant says.
Jason Castillo, 45, John Robertson, 32, Obdulia Franco, 52, and Ryan Kramer, 30, are charged with tampering of deceased human remains and child abuse, Warwick said Tuesday. Christopher Royer and Sarah Rudolph, both 35, face charges of abuse of a corpse and child abuse. Karin Raymond, 47, is charged with abuse of a corpse, child abuse and false imprisonment.
The county’s social services department took the 13-year-old girl into custody, and Lamboy’s son was returned to him.
Over the weekend, Love Has Won posted a statement and a video to the group’s now-deleted Facebook page acknowledging that Carlson had “ascended.” The organization’s website is no longer accessible.
Perrin, the coroner, said the body believed to be Carlson was so decomposed that he was not able to take fingerprints to make an identification. He said he hopes to use dental records but may have to resort to DNA.
The condition of the corpse made Perrin think Carlson may have been dead for a month or longer when she was found, he said. Carlson’s mother, Linda Haythorne, said a friend of her daughter had seen her alive in California on April 10.
Carlson’s family said she grew up in Dallas as a straight-A student who had a lot of friends and a beautiful singing voice. But sometime in early adulthood, Renninger said her sister started lurking in unusual corners of the internet. Periodically, she would leave home to meet someone and come back talking about outlandish concepts, such as starships.
About 13 years ago, Renninger said, Carlson left her daughter and two sons permanently. Most of her family members never saw her again, although they said they kept in touch with her and unsuccessfully tried many times to get her to seek help.
The family went on the CBS talk show “Dr. Phil” in September in a desperate attempt to reach Carlson emotionally, but she remained at the helm of Love Has Won.
The last time the sisters video chatted, Renninger said she talked with Carlson about their family and reminded her that she could always come home. Carlson started to become emotional, Renninger said, and then looked at someone outside the camera frame and changed the conversation’s direction.
Carlson’s family said although they hold her responsible for leading the cult, they also feel that its members abandoned her at the end of her life. Haythorne added that she believes her daughter was brainwashed by others long before she became a cult leader herself.
“She was a victim in the beginning,” Haythorne said. “And then it just developed over time.”