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Project had `secret’ cult


Some Biosphere 2 project participants belonged to a commune and “secret’ organization that became cult-like, a former spokeswoman for the project testified yesterday.

In April 1994, top managers of the internationally known Biosphere project near Oracle were replaced because of runaway costs, lawyers have said.

Days later, two original crew members working as safety and technical consultants, Abigail Alling and Mark Van Thillo, broke into the 3 1/2-acre, enclosed ecosystem and deflated the system’s air pressurizer in order to warn crew members of an unsafe management takeover, their lawyers have said.

Alling and Van Thillo were fired by SBV, and are suing SBV for breach of contract and defamation.

The civil trial, in its fourth week, has focused more on the history of Biosphere 2 than on Alling and Van Thillo. Defense lawyers have been building their case on a Biosphere reputation soured by the unconventional lifestyles of the crew.

In yesterday’s testimony, Kathy Dyhr, a former SBV spokeswoman, said the project had two distinct levels. The first level was the actual Biosphere experiment of putting crew members in a closed environment. The other was the commune, she testified.

The commune started at the Synergia Ranch in New Mexico in the 1960s, with some future members of the Biosphere group as members, she said. Synergia’s mission was complete mutual cooperation.

Commune members practiced organic farming, along with regimented silent eating, breathing exercises and acting classes, Dyhr testified.

John Allen, Biosphere 2′s founder, led events on the New Mexico ranch; the “Synergists,’ including some future Biosphere participants, followed, she said.

Synergia projects were set up in France, England, Australia and at Biosphere 2, Dyhr said.

“It’s what everyone else would call a commune,’ Dyhr said. “I thought it was a really interesting lifestyle.’

Until it turned cult-like, she said.

“In 1990 and 1991, the environment became extremely oppressive and it was becoming a cult and fairly unbearable,’ Dyhr said.

Dyhr, who had been involved with the group since the ’70s, said Synergia changed from a group of free spirits to a John Allen loyalty test. She left in 1991, saying Allen’s domination was “brutal.’

Allen would publicly humiliate members of the group for hours at a time – once until 3 a.m., she said.

“It was such a brutal environment,’ Dyhr said. “I couldn’t take any more of it.’

On cross-examination, Alling’s lawyer, William Walker, tried to disassociate Alling and Van Thillo from the rest of the Allen group.

“I wouldn’t regard (Alling) as being a completely fanatic follower,’ Dyhr said.

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