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The Witch Who Switched Back

[whitespace] Eric Pryor Double Vision?: Christian-minister-turned-Satanist says he sees it all more clearly now.

Christopher Gardner

A Halloween visit with a man who is either a New Age Christian healer, a Satan-worshipping hedonist or an ordinary drunken charlatan, depending on whom you talk to

By Traci Hukill

IN RETROSPECT, the Sine-Off was probably a bad idea. Not to knock a good sinus medication; on a sleepless night it can be a godsend. But en route to an interview with a Satanic high priest turned Christian evangelist with a weakness for backsliding? It might have been a good idea to remain alert.

But I had a sinus headache, and nothing was going to stop me from pulling into a gas station off Highway 17, paying way too much for that pretty red box and popping a couple. Back in my wheezing automobile heading south, I recalled my first-ever conversation with Eric Pryor a year and a half ago.

He was then still at San Jose's Jubilee Christian Center, saving souls for the Lord and passing around the collection bucket. Not plate. Bucket. He had been so open as we talked about his sordid past presiding over a sadistic Satanic sect in New York, so calm and pleasant as he revealed how he and his minions had lured unsuspecting clubgoers back to their basement temple to get their late-night jollies torturing and beating the poor fools half to death.

I marveled at his composure as he related these tales. How did a person forgive himself such atrocities, especially one who was so moved by the Holy Spirit that he joined the ministry?

The subject of a 1995 Metro story headlined "The Witch Who Switched," Pryor had first jumped teams in 1990 after a "public cursing" he had organized in San Francisco to counter a visit by Texas televangelist Larry Lea, who was crusading against devilish stuff like homosexuality and paganism. But after Lea's effigy had been burned and the smoke had cleared, Pryor met with his churchgoing rivals.

He and Dick Bernal, head of Jubilee, had a coffee klatsch, and Pryor decided to go to bat for the forces of good.

He went on to make a career out of preaching at Jubilee and using his vast knowledge of Satanic practices to help conduct "investigations," complete with vials and baggies, into devilish activity around the country.

But the Eric Pryor who'd called me two weeks before Halloween reported that his life was taking a turn again. He had walked away from Jubilee last November because of its "money-grubbing ways and hypocrisy." He was now in hiding, he explained, training a company of shamanic prophets to heal young people of sickness in body or spirit, including drug addiction. And I was invited to visit his new work environment.

Drugged Warrior

MEMBERS OF THE Serene Foundation, located in the Santa Cruz Mountains on Branciforte Road, employ a blend of Christianity, Satanism and natural healing, Pryor had explained in our telephone conversation.

"We'll do laying on of hands, prayer rituals, whatever," he said.

As a seasonal bonus, the Serene Foundation makes its home in the 38-room mansion once inhabited by Elizabeth Montgomery, star of the late-'60s sitcom Bewitched.

Ever helpful, Pryor had already thought of a headline when he called.

"The Witch Who Switched Is Switching Back," he announced with glee, "and Lives in the House of Bewitched!"

But there was more. The Serene Foundation, he told me, was opening its doors to the public on Halloween night. Teens would be allowed to participate in a healing circle to address the pain in their lives.

"All that negative energy that goes along with Halloween," he said, "we're going to take it and turn it for good. It's biblical! The ministers of light fighting the ministers of darkness."

He still sounded like a man of the cloth. As a Jubilee preacher, Pryor was living proof that even the most debauched life--which in his case had included prostitution and heavy drug use, as he told it--could be reformed. He grew to be marvelously successful at his new job, "slaying souls," which meant touching people and having them faint, and touring the country for what he claimed were fat fees of up to $20,000 per appearance.

Trouble is, preaching didn't cure Pryor of all his bad habits. In 1994 he was arrested in his Mountain View home for spousal abuse and assault with a deadly weapon--an 8-inch knife. He served eight months in jail for this indiscretion, and his marriage to Shelly Kolt dissolved.

As for the riches Pryor earned on his lecture tours, they're nowhere in evidence. This past March, four months after leaving Jubilee, Pryor was arrested for possession of cocaine in his tiny studio apartment on 11th Street in San Jose. The charges were dropped in April due to an illegal-search-and-seizure ruling on the case.

This summer, Pryor made his way to Happy Valley Estates. And started hatching his latest scheme to get rich--or at least get noticed.

Junk Bond

WITH TREPIDATION I wind down Vine Hill Road and pull into the parking lot at Happy Valley Estates, noting the junk everywhere. A manager's decrepit office rises from a collection of buckets, old paint cans, used furniture, tools, car parts and geraniums. I wait anxiously in the driveway while someone fetches Pryor from the main building.

Within a few minutes he emerges outfitted in his trademark all-black attire--complete with pointy-toed cowboy boots. Today he wears a scarlet vestment embroidered with a gold cross around his shoulders. He pauses to light a cigarette and comes toward me, holding his arms out. "Traci! Give us a hug!" he booms--all sandy blond hair, angular face, blue eyes and cheap cologne.

"Would you like to see the Healing Table? Would you like to see the Inner Chamber?" he queries with utmost courtesy. "Come on. It's a very psychedelic experience. Just act like you're my friend. You are my friend, aren't you?"

After we pick our way down a wooded embankment to a small clearing near the creek, Pryor pulls a dirty canvas off a concrete table covered in chicken wire, holding the cigarette in his mouth.

"This is our healing table," he says. "Mmm-hmm. People come here to get healed. Just a few nights ago we had 28 people up. All cured."

"What was the ailment?" I ask.

"Cancer," he answers quickly. "Well, we can't exactly verify that. It's like--what's that when a doctor doesn't know what's wrong?--a misdiagnosis."

Just then we emerge out of the trees and into view of a two-story Mediterranean-style mansion. Pryor pauses to admire the scene. "This all belongs to me," he says expansively. "I bought it. Three million dollars."

"That's one of our security guards," he says, nodding toward a small, fierce-looking white-haired woman in a mini-skirt. "Barbara," he says cordially. Barbara, who is climbing into a car, glowers back.

Eric Pryor
Christopher Gardner

Robe Warrior: Eric Pryor stands at the entrance to the Serene Foundation, his new base.

Idol Threat

INSIDE THE HOUSE, trash bins overflow in the hallway. We pass a kitchen with two refrigerators and no stove. We knock on a door and enter a tiny, cluttered room which is dark except for the blue light of a TV. A teenage girl stands on an unmade futon in the middle of the room holding a remote control.

In the dim light I can see a rash of some kind on her face. Pryor introduces her as his daughter, but I wonder who in her right mind would give custody of a child to this man, in this situation. My suspicions bloom like algae.

Pryor retrieves a walking stick hung with feathers from a pile of clothes in the corner. "This is a Lakota healing stick," he says, caressing a menacing piece of bone from what appears to be a dog's jaw. "The only one of its kind."

Upstairs Pryor raps on a door, and a pretty dark-haired woman in a leopard-print shirt answers. "This is Marcia," he says. "She's a high priestess. This is a very powerful woman." Marcia offers an enigmatic smile as she floats back into another tiny room.

"I'm sorry, I've been up for two days," she beams.

Like the rest of the place, the Inner Chamber is a fetid mess. Dirty clothes and dishes are strewn everywhere, and the smell makes my eyes sting. But the piles of garbage are punctuated by lovely vases full of fresh flowers.

"This is one of our high priests," Pryor says, motioning toward a catatonic figure collapsed in an armchair. "He's on a vision quest. Mescaline."

The questing high priest, who appears to be about 25, stares through dark-ringed, half-closed eyes at a point far away. His hands lie limp on the chair's arm, the fingernails bitten to the quick.

"Shannon," says Pryor firmly, shaking the guy's arm. "Talk to the press, Shannon." Shannon's eyelids flutter briefly. Pryor turns his hands up apologetically and changes the subject.

"We make our own wine here," he says. "Would you like to try some?"

When he hands me the glass, poured from a Fetzer bottle, I have my own momentary vision of Pryor dosing my wine with God knows what and keeping me locked in a room, telling uncertain visitors I am on a "vision quest." So I only pretend to take a sip. Immensely pleased with my own cleverness, I relax a little.

"Oh, here comes the Queen Bee," Pryor says. "She's the center of the whole thing." A heavy woman of about 60 emerges from another side room, a slack, dopey smile on her face.

She sways a little. "I'm sleeping," she announces giddily, and shuffles back to her room.

"She's dream-napping," Pryor whispers. "She took mushrooms and now she's sleeping. She'll have a vision." He holds up his own glass of wine, poured from the same bottle as the one he just gave me. "There's liquid psilocybin in here," he says. "Yep, I'm probably going to be on mushrooms for the rest of my life." He toasts the air and takes a deep drink.

That's about all I need to know for today. I make some hasty excuses and get the hell out of there--but not before Pryor delivers a final message.

"Remember, I'm still a Satanist," he smirks. "The meanest of the bunch. I can take out this whole valley. And I'm gonna show you how--because you're my friend."

The Bad Father

THE NEXT MORNING I return, clearheaded and skeptical, and spend some time with Arlen Haffner, the hale 65-year-old who says he owns Happy Valley Estates. The listed owner of Happy Valley Estates is Casa de Montgomery, a corporation of which he is a principal. The "Montgomery," he says, refers to one-time owner and downtown San Jose hotel tycoon T.S. Montgomery (who Haffner claims was actress Elizabeth Montgomery's uncle).

Haffner is surprised by his colorful tenant's claim of ownership.

"I think he would like to own it," he says mildly, seated outside his ramshackle cabin. A former Methodist, Haffner says he started cultivating the Serene Foundation when he had a vision two years ago about a miraculous girl-child who would save humanity. She was supposed to have been born in Santa Cruz this past spring, he says.

Pryor seems to have latched on to Haffner's vision for the Serene Foundation and the proposed clean-and-sober living environment for teens just up the road. The pair take turns calling each other "Bishop" and "Father." But Haffner doesn't seem to know Pryor's methods of reaching enlightenment. Informed of the activity in the Inner Chamber, he frowns. "No, I didn't know about that," he says gravely. "I don't approve."

This morning Pryor is a wreck, gadding about in his bare feet and a velour leopard-print robe, last night's wine--or this morning's vodka--strong on his breath.

"Yep, we're starting a whole new order," he says with satisfaction, sprawling in a sunny spot. "I'm going to call it 'Eric-ism.' " Asked how he expects to run a clean-and-sober facility for teens--under renovation now--since he's also going to be on mushrooms for the rest of his life, he answers, "I don't know. We haven't figured that out. Yet."

If I have any lingering doubts about the illusory nature of Pryor's "power," his stepdaughter--and it turns out that she really is--clears them up. He has brought me to her door for words of wisdom, telling me she's the high priestess. "Come out and talk to the press," he cajoles.

"Go to hell, Eric," she snarls from behind the closed door. "I don't want to talk to your fucking press!"

He turns and shrugs helplessly, as if to say, "Well, what do you want? I'm doing the best I can."

And for a split second, I feel sorry for Eric Pryor. In fact, I almost like him. Because when you take away the fancy feathered sticks and costumes and elaborately constructed lies, we're all right there with him, just doing the best we can. If Eric Pryor can't find his place in the sun, he'll try to find it in the dark. And if that doesn't work, he can always switch back again.

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From the October 29-November 4, 1998 issue of Metro.

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