Brenda Webb first learned Allen Ross was missing in April 1996. That's when she got a strange phone call from Vic Banks. He had been editing a documentary he'd shot with Ross, one of the founders of Chicago Filmmakers, the local artists' cooperative and film society. Webb, an old friend of Ross's, was now the group's director.
Banks told Webb he'd just been called by Ross's sister-in-law, Susan. "Vic said that Susan Ross had said something about Allen having disappeared, that he may have been murdered," Webb says. "It was very confused. So I got Susan's number from him and called her."
Susan Ross was distraught. "She was going a mile a minute and going in all directions." It turned out Allen had been missing since the previous November. "The holidays had passed and there was no word from him. Usually they exchange cards or phone calls. But Thanksgiving had passed. Christmas had passed." No word from Allen.
Ross's family had hired a private detective, who turned up some information about Allen's wife, Linda Greene: she had been married several times before she met Allen, in 1993, and she led a quasi-religious group called the Samaritan Foundation, which advocated a blend of holistic medicine and New Age practices. Members of the Samaritan Foundation lived together in Greene's house in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and in a rehabbed jail across the street. There had been some run-ins with the law. Susan Ross told Webb that Greene "was known to the police."
Ross's father, Laury, had recently received a phone call from one of Greene's ex-husbands, Denis Greene. He was also looking for Allen. Denis had told police that Linda Greene said Allen had been murdered and was buried under a house in Cheyenne, Wyoming, where a few members of the Samaritan Foundation had relocated. He had convinced the police to dig up the house's crawl space, but they found nothing. Susan Ross told Webb the police had given up. "They weren't all that interested."
After Webb hung up the phone, she remembered that Allen had always referred to his wife as Jennifer, not Linda.
Webb was baffled. Ross had no reason to disappear. "He wasn't depressed. He had just finished a film with [German filmmaker] Christian Bauer. He had no debt or anything like that." His bills were paid. He had money in the bank.
In desperation, Susan, her husband, Allen's twin brother Brad, and Laury Ross had even consulted a psychic. "And the psychic had told her she believed Allen was still alive and would surface in September."
For nearly three years the only word of Allen Ross has come from phone calls traded among members of Chicago's filmmaking community. The rumor mill has been running full tilt. Ross is dead. Or he's hiding out. Or he has some sort of head injury and is wandering around Texas or California or Wyoming suffering from amnesia. The stories have become more elaborate and improbable as they pass from party to party. But most of the chatter comes out of genuine concern.
Ross was an important figure, not only because he helped start Chicago Filmmakers--which rents equipment to its members and screens documentaries and experimental works that otherwise wouldn't play here--but because he set an example: he proved that someone could stay here and earn a living as a filmmaker. He loved filmmaking and made all kinds of sacrifices to remain in the business. He lived cheaply, in a seedy loft near the Maxwell Street Market. He cobbled together assignments as a cameraman on various low-budget films--slasher and exploitation movies, industrial films; some made here, some in other cities. And he earned a little extra cash teaching part-time at the School of the Art Institute. He was known for his generosity, always willing to help people make their films, often for little or no compensation. When there was no work, he drove a cab.
Growing up in Naperville, Ross was a quiet, serious kid, long and lanky from an early age. He was drawn to photography as a teenager, and his interest in film blossomed during his senior year in high school in 1971. Having satisfied all of his academic requirements for graduation, he began taking college-level courses in filmmaking at the School of the Art Institute.
Laury Ross, a retired chemist who had worked at Argonne National Laboratory, says that Allen had to fight Naperville Central for the right to study off campus. "They weren't going to let him do it because he still had a year of gym. You had to take four years of gym to graduate." Eventually the school relented, provided that Ross showed up every day for phys ed.
Allen liked the film classes so much that he decided to attend the School of the Art Institute. The school encouraged eccentricity, with its refusal to give grades and its mildly anarchistic ambience, but Ross was an eccentric among eccentrics. Joe Hoffman, a former director of Chicago Filmmakers, recalls the first time he saw Ross. He was huddled under a table during a class on film editing, holding his long legs to his chest in a fetal position, rocking gently and grinning. Hoffman was never sure if he was imitating someone in a deep personal crisis or if he really was in a deep personal crisis.
Flanagan MacKenzie, Ross's girlfriend from 1986 to '92, remembers a different Allen Ross. "He was highly refined and gentle," she says. "His sense of time to modern sensibilities was excruciatingly slow." She says he believed it was essential "to give yourself enough time to look at something--so you can really see what it's made up of." That meditative sense infuses all of Ross's work--he allows things to unfold slowly. This aesthetic was also evident in his tendency to be late for appointments. "Let's just say he was absolutely always late," MacKenzie says. "He had a different sense of time. It wasn't like he was slow."
At the Art Institute, Ross's patient eye and his craftsman's love of detail combined to make him an excellent documentary filmmaker. He won a reputation for doing whatever was necessary to get a job done. He had a knack for quickly fixing even the most recalcitrant camera or sound recorder.
In the mid-70s loft space was cheap and plentiful, and Ross and fellow film student John Van Wagner moved into a bare and dirty space off Maxwell Street. Van Wagner had previously been a carpenter, and together they set to work fixing up the space. When they were finished, it was the envy of their circle. "Our place had been a sweatshop, a clothing or tailor shop," Van Wagner says. "There was a small business office that opened out onto the space. And a rolling screen came down from the ceiling, kind of a natural area for projections. We had to do very little to convert it into a projection room."
After college, Ross remained at the School of the Art Institute to get a graduate degree, and he began to make deceptively simple documentaries. Following the model of the cinema verite filmmakers of the 1960s and '70s, he assumed the role of the passive observer. But unlike many of those documentarists, who made their names plumbing the private side of public events, Ross focused on the minutiae of everyday life, searching for profundity in the seemingly mundane.
In the first two films that make up his "Grandfather Trilogy," Ross records several visits to his maternal grandfather, who was then living a fairly rustic life in the hills of Bowling Green, South Carolina. With a detached eye, he captures the old man's daily routine as he putters around his property--feeding the chickens, talking to Ross, and reading the Bible. Each of these nearly static sequences are shot dead-on, as if Ross had screwed the camera on a tripod and left it running.
In one memorable scene, the grandfather tries to coax Ross into joining him in prayer. He refuses, but his grandfather insists. When he refuses again, his voice cracks with emotion. He tells his grandfather he can't do it, adding that he doesn't know how, though it's not clear whether Ross doesn't know the words to the prayer his grandfather is whispering or whether he literally doesn't know how to pray.
The last film of the trilogy details his grandfather's funeral and his family's muted mourning rituals, a conclusion full of understated but deeply felt emotion. The camera lingers on the casket and on the grave, and most of the shots are slightly off-kilter--all is not well. As the casket is lowered into the ground, light leaks into the camera, overexposing the film slightly. Ross loved the effect--he left these flash frames in the final cut, a reminder that even in a documentary there is more than meets the eye.
As Ross looked forward to life after film school, he quickly realized that a career in filmmaking would be a precarious one. By the mid-70s, film was an art form under siege. TV news departments had switched from 16-millimeter film to video--with most local labs closing or cutting back on processing. This in turn drove up the cost of making a film. Ross thought filmmakers needed a way to share the expenses of plying their trade. He envisioned a place where filmmakers owned their equipment. In his darker moods, he would even talk about a time when it would be necessary to make their own film stock and develop it themselves.
In 1973 a group of Art Institute students and instructors formed a small alternative film organization, the Filmgroup at N.A.M.E. gallery. Initially they were only interested in screening experimental films, but filmmakers within the organization agreed on the need for some sort of filmmaking cooperative. In 1975 Ross put an ad in the Reader looking for charter members. Joe Hoffman, too broke to finish his documentary on Durango, Colorado, answered the ad and was dismayed to find that the society consisted only of Ross, Van Wagner, and a handful of others. Nevertheless, he helped Ross and Van Wagner carve out an office, a theater, and an editing room in a large unfinished space the group had rented in what was then a gallery district on Hubbard near State. Once the space was finished, the wisdom of the plan quickly became apparent.
Soon after the group took hold, Ross landed a full-time job working as an editor on Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. The straight job slowed his filmmaking, but it didn't stop him completely. Every day at lunch he'd step out of the building at Michigan and Grand where the editing facilities were located and film people walking along Michigan Avenue. This footage remained unedited and disappeared with him.
Robert Metrick met Ross in the mid-80s, when Metrick was an undergraduate at the Art Institute and Ross was one of his instructors. To the young Metrick, "Allen seemed like a very deep thinker. So much so I was a little intimidated by him. He seemed very sharp. And a very private person. But he had a playful side to him. A wild sense of humor. And when he opened up, he was probably one of the most playful, fun people I know."
Ross showed his playful side in Metrick's performance pieces. In one, The Secret Life of Dust, the gangly Ross, wearing white tights, rode an exercise cycle continuously throughout the show. He also appeared in a postmodern version of The Honeymooners. "He was one of two or three Ed Nortons," Metrick says. "He wasn't embarrassed by anything."
When the two collaborated on a short film version of Metrick's When I Retain My Foliage, Metrick discovered that Ross was also an organized and methodical worker. "It was amazing. It was a one-day shoot, and his Art Institute students were the crew. There was no rehearsal. We probably talked about it less than an hour on the phone. He had never seen the performance before. When he worked, it was like full-throttle intensity. He was a penetrating thinker."
In 1986 Flanagan MacKenzie moved into Ross's loft, after John Van Wagner left. Unbeknownst to most of their friends, the couple started to dabble in the occult, pursuing immediate, overt answers to the metaphysical questions that were implied in Ross's "Grandfather Trilogy." Ross's interest in the supernatural had apparently grown after his mother's death from lung cancer that same year. MacKenzie lumped these practices together as "the mysteries," though she refuses to detail just what the mysteries were. "They wouldn't be mysteries if you know about them," she says.
After six years, MacKenzie and Ross broke up. Ross moved into an apartment above a bar on Division Street; MacKenzie stayed behind in the loft. "It was totally amicable," says MacKenzie. "Traumatic and all that, but amicable. We had developed a really good friendship, and that friendship stayed."
Sometime in late 1991 or early '92, MacKenzie heard about a woman from Oklahoma who conducted workshops in the use of dowsing pendulums to cure various spiritual illnesses. Around that same time, the woman, Linda Greene, led a seminar at a hotel near O'Hare Airport, which MacKenzie attended. Greene had just purchased an old jail in Guthrie, Oklahoma, with the intention of creating a religious commune. Soon after the seminar, MacKenzie went down to Guthrie to participate in a weeklong workshop, and she took up temporary residence. A few months later she was joined by Ross, who then began shuttling between Chicago, where he worked, and Oklahoma, where he studied dowsing. In 1993 he went down for a weekend, and after a few days returned north. He told some friends he had married Linda Greene.
Laury Ross lives in the same house in Naperville where he and his wife, Anne, raised their three sons--John, Allen, and Brad. Laury hasn't heard from Allen since November 1995. The disappearance makes no sense, he says. Allen has $8,000 in a downtown bank. "And it hasn't been touched since it was deposited."
A couple years back Laury read a story in the Tribune about a psychic who helped police locate the body of a boy murdered in Kankakee. He and his daughter-in-law Susan contacted this psychic and asked her about Allen. Meanwhile, he says, Flanagan MacKenzie contacted a different psychic on her own and asked the same question. "Both felt he was alive," Laury says. "Both felt he was in Texas." This made some sense to Laury; he recalled Allen once talking about a filmmakers' group in Texas. Both psychics, however, said Allen was not well.
"One said he'd had a mental breakdown," Laury Ross says. "The other said he had head trauma, or there was something with his head. He'd been hit or something. They both pointed to his head. We don't know what they meant by that.
"We don't know if he wants to be found. One psychic said he didn't want to be found right now. But the other one said it might be a good idea to put it on Unsolved Mysteries. Both psychics said he won't want to talk about it when he returns."
For now Laury remains hopeful. "Knowing Allen as I do, he'll want to work this out himself. He's always been introverted that way." Laury says that even as a child Allen was distant. "He is a person of unusual sensitivity"--the kind who doesn't easily show his feelings.
But Laury's at a loss when it comes to his son's marriage. "This woman, I guess Allen was her fifth husband." He speaks hesitantly, unsure whether to call her Linda or Jennifer or Genevieve, three of the names she has gone by. When Allen originally got married, he says, he couldn't have been more pleased. "He told me that was the happiest he had ever been. It was the best thing that he had ever done."
The marriage also caught Brenda Webb by surprise. At the time Ross was busy editing a film at Chicago Filmmakers. "He literally went away one weekend with his suitcase and came back, walked into Chicago Filmmakers, and showed me his wedding ring. He said, 'I got married. I just married someone I met three days ago.'"
At first Webb thought he was pulling her leg. "With Allen you never knew." When she asked him about his new wife, he was "very evasive, the way Allen always is. He was always very evasive about his private life. Or he would answer with some joke. Or he would just smile that smile of his. Enjoying creating a mystery." Eventually Ross told her his wife's name, Jennifer, but nothing else.
Webb thought Ross's marriage was especially odd because a few weeks earlier they'd had a conversation about marriage and children. "I had just found out I was pregnant and I was telling him and Sharon Sandusky about it." At that time, the Film Center was screening Sandusky and Ross's documentary about people who believe in UFOs and alien abductions, Ordinary Conversations About Remarkable Matters. "We were talking about babies, and he said it was unlikely he was ever going to have children because he
didn't have a mate and there was no one with whom he was serious.
"That made it all the more peculiar that he would show up married." Webb pauses, then adds, "I never actually met her. And shortly thereafter he moved permanently to Oklahoma."
Gaylon Emerzian is the cofounder of the annual Women in the Director's Chair film festival. She first met Ross at Chicago Filmmakers in 1982 and later hired him to do camera work on several of her own projects. "Allen was this stringbean, very tall, very thin, very intense. A thin that was attractive."
Ross was also, she says, a peculiar dresser, with a fondness for hats and vintage clothes. "I remember he would always wear a hooded sweatshirt wherever he was going. He always had a leather jacket, hooded sweatshirt, and a shirt underneath that. That was his standard mode of dress." One time he showed up at an awards banquet wearing a dress suit and shirt--and the hooded sweatshirt. The hood was hanging down the back of the suit jacket.
Ross got Emerzian a job at Wild Kingdom. "We were like the young rebels there," she says. They were working under primitive conditions, editing on a Moviescope with rewinds instead of a flatbed editing table, forcing them to constantly change reels. "They'd get us in these situations where we'd have to edit our way out using file footage. Most of the time what they'd do is give us the wraparounds, and we'd use stock shots. We'd get Jim [Fowler] getting out of the Jeep, walking over to some place, and we'd find stock shots to fill in the gaps." She recalls Allen emerging from the editing room, his hair standing straight up on his head. "Because he'd be, like, pulling on it."
"When Allen was working he would get so wrapped up in the work, he wouldn't talk much. Sometimes you'd want to get out of the room and kill some time."
Christian Bauer hired Ross to shoot several documentaries in the U.S. for German television. He speaks carefully, obviously perplexed by Ross's disappearance.
"The whole thing is a real mystery," he says. "I'm hopeful and I'm depressed. Sometimes I have the feeling he's still around, and other times--" His voice trails off.
Bauer was the last person to work with Ross. Several days before Ross disappeared, his production manager had spoken to Ross long-distance from Germany to coordinate a wire transfer, payment for Ross's work on a film about the Mississippi. "The money is still in his account," Bauer says.
He respected Ross's talent. "There was a special magic between him and the camera and the objects he was filming."
He first met Ross "on a very cold day in January 1988 in the lobby of the Blackstone Hotel," where Bauer was staying while researching a film he planned to make on Chicago. He had only spoken to Ross on the phone and suddenly "here he was: in a thick, old coat, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, with fogged-up glasses." Ross seemed shy and nervous. They shook hands, went downstairs to a coffee shop, and settled into a booth.
"Over a cup of boiling hot coffee I tried to explain to him what kind of film about Chicago I had in mind. As I was talking, he started grinning. I continued, but he didn't stop. I thought, maybe I am making a fool of myself--someone who comes from Munich to Chicago to make a documentary. And I asked him, 'What's wrong?'" Bauer wondered if he'd said something stupid. Ross shook his head and, says Bauer, explained, "'You're describing the film I've always wanted to make about my city.' It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship."
Every year after that they made at least one film together, except in 1993, when Ross "preferred to stay in Guthrie." Their first one was the documentary on Chicago, a tour of hole-in-the-wall bars and other spots off the beaten path. The next examined the meatpacking industry as described in Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle. Then they focused on Al Capone and jazz in the heyday of Prohibition.
Two years after they completed their first film, Ross told Bauer about picking up a pair of German tourists while driving a cab. The couple said they'd seen an excellent documentary about Chicago on television. "Allen got excited and remarked, 'I know this film. I shot it. I was the cameraman.'" The couple stopped talking. They didn't believe him. "They thought he was one of those weirdos." Ross had chuckled when he described the incident.
Their last film together was about the Mississippi River. That was in 1995. "We traveled by car from Lake Itasca [in Minnesota] to the Delta of the Mississippi," Bauer says. "It was a wonderful adventure." Along the way, they filmed scenes in Minneapolis, Saint Louis, and New Orleans. "We spent six weeks together. Of course we talked about a lot of things. It was a very long ride in the car."
At one point, Bauer remarked that in America everyone leaves a trail; no one can erase their traces. "You need a phone card. You need a credit card to make long-distance phone calls. In hotel rooms you have plastic cards to open the door, and so the hotel knows when you enter the room and when you leave."
Bauer recalls Ross posing a solution: "'Well, what you do is build up a new persona by obtaining credit cards, new phone cards. It's all possible. You build up a second or third identity, and then you lose your first identity.'
"In retrospect, it's a very interesting thing to have talked about."
But, Bauer says, Ross "never indicated any wish to disappear. And I think he was happy with the work he was doing. He enjoyed the whole thing."
Along the way, Ross's wife had shown up unexpectedly--twice--once in Saint Louis, and again, at the end of their journey, in New Orleans. "One morning Genevieve was sitting there having breakfast with Allen."
On the last day of the shoot, Bauer says, Allen and Genevieve got into a terrible fight. He remembers her saying that Ross should spend more time with her. "'You spend too much time with your work,'" he recalls her complaining. "I tried to take Allen's side in the fight. We wanted to go to a restaurant. We had arranged a farewell dinner. And I made my speech, trying to defend Allen and tell how difficult the situation was. Allen wanted to be with his wife and he wanted to do the job he had to do."
Suddenly Ross interrupted his speech, telling Bauer they would meet him later at the restaurant. They never showed up. "I saw him the next morning when we had packed our things. We hugged each other and said farewell. I think we spoke twice after that. He called me once from Cheyenne. He seemed in very good spirits." During that conversation, Bauer says, Ross told him he was "pulling stumps out of the garden, restoring the house, doing all kinds of work. I kept asking him, 'Apart from that, what are you doing?' He would not go into detail."
Bauer says Flanagan MacKenzie told him that making the documentary on the Mississippi had revived Ross's love of filmmaking. "And Jenny decided he couldn't do both. He couldn't be both a member of the group and do filmmaking."
Robert Metrick first noticed a change in Ross in the spring of 1992. Metrick was then a visiting artist at Illinois State University in Normal, and Ross stayed with him when he passed through on his way to Oklahoma. "He was just shooting the landscape, the farmscape."
Metrick hadn't seen Ross for a while, so he was surprised that Allen seemed more interested in talking to his roommate, who had a guru. "They had long esoteric discussions about these...I don't want to label something as New Age, but, you know, it seemed that way at the time. They were talking about people with spiritual powers. They were also going into a lot of language I
wasn't familiar with. I was only half paying attention. They were really out there. That was my first clue....It was more than a clue. It was a sledgehammer.
"I always thought Allen was too much of an individualist to be looking for spiritual guidance from outside. I would have thought it was too personal and private a matter for Allen to look into. In retrospect, he must have been getting increasingly lost."
The next time Metrick saw Ross was at the Film Center in 1993, during the premiere of Ordinary Conversations About Extraordinary Matters. "It was very, very Allen-style. Very reflective, meditative, abstract. Personal yet somehow distant. After the film a lot of his friends were hanging around, and they wanted to take him out to dinner. For some reason he was interested in talking to me privately. So Sharon, Allen, and I went to a bar, and I asked him--this was actually the last time I saw Allen--I mentioned to him that I had heard he was into something called dowsing. Would he mind telling me what that is? He was a little hesitant. But he did demonstrate.
"He had a little pendulum he was carrying in his pocket. He explained that dowsing was where you concentrate on a question and interpret the movement of the pendulum, the little pendulum he was swinging. I think he asked the pendulum if he was seven years old, and the pendulum did this low movement. I got the feeling they were using dowsing to guide their lives.
"The one notable thing was that he was talking about spirits and the spiritual. He kept talking about what a spiritually corrupt culture we are. The corrupt society and government. He must have used the word spiritual like 20 times, and finally I said, 'The more you use the word spiritual the less I know what you are talking about.' Allen said, 'That's because you haven't found a teacher.' Then he added, 'I have.'"
Sometime in early 1994, Ross sent Metrick a postcard. "Dear Robert," it said, "Don't know if I told you. Got married. Here's my address."
"He left an address and phone number," Metrick says. "I tried to call the number but it wasn't in service."
The card continued: "By the way, I've resigned from life. Can't explain. I highly recommend it."
Ross's old roommate John Van Wagner, now a carpenter in Brooklyn, says he hasn't heard from Allen in years. "I have had some communication with Flanagan MacKenzie," he says. "She and Allen were involved in what Allen described as a 'mystery school.' There was definitely a side to Allen that was interested in mystical questions." When Van Wagner first met him, Ross was deep into The Tibetan Book of the Dead. "It seemed to guide some of his explorations."
Van Wagner says that for Ross the filmmaking process "provided glimpses at unexpected things." Ross attributed significance to what seemed like happenstance. "He never dismissed the most minute details. One thing that comes to mind is a blue cast in a particular sequence of the film--the last segment of the film about his grandfather--and a leak in the film chamber during the filming of that. Why should that happen then? And why and how it seemed to suggest the presence of his grandfather--or of a different person--was something that he remarked on."
Van Wagner wasn't shocked by Ross's interest in the occult. "Allen had always been interested in that," he says. "He had an interest in Quakerism when he was a teenager. There is something about the style of worship which is silent. If someone feels they are moved by something of divine origin, then they get up and speak."
To Van Wagner, this attitude seemed to be very much in accord with the way Ross worked as a filmmaker. "There was a sense of waiting for reality to express itself." Still, he was surprised by Ross's devotion to the Samaritan Foundation and the "overtness" of its belief system. He was struck by the "improbableness" of much of what Ross mentioned. "They studied dowsing. They studied alien abduction, demonic possession. But it seemed to be recast in a different way.
"It seemed like some sort of millennial group. That was the tone of what he said. This was a critical period for souls. And there did seem to be a struggle between good and evil. I tried to listen to him without listening ironically. I had to give the benefit of the doubt, that there were certain things he had seen that led him to conviction."
Van Wagner remembers a phone conversation he had with Ross about the Samaritan Foundation. They spoke for an hour and a half or two hours. "And that was the first time we talked about this at all. This was before he moved out of Chicago. I think even then he mentioned there might be the possibility of having to move and sever ties because of work that this group was doing. We talked once or twice after that, I recall.
"There was one conversation we had where he declared he was moving to Oklahoma and he might not be in touch with me after that. Later someone told me he had married the high priestess."
Linda Greene's organization, the Samaritan Foundation, became notorious in Oklahoma City as the result of a child custody case. "Guthrie Link to Koresh Seen as Possibility," reads a headline in the October 16, 1993, edition of the Oklahoman, though the link to the Branch Davidians was pure speculation on the part of unnamed law enforcement officials.
The newspaper story concerned a woman named Nelli George, who had traveled to the Samaritan Foundation from Massachusetts in early September, leaving behind her husband, Jonathan, a carpenter on the TV show This Old House. She took her two small children to Guthrie, where they lived in the old jail across the street from Greene's house.
"The building was not fit to live in when it was first purchased," says reporter Ellie Sutter. "There was a hole in the roof and pigeon droppings about three feet high in places." According to Sutter, George and her kids shared the jail with at least seven other adults and two children.
Nelli George had come to the Samaritan Foundation, as Jonathan George said during the custody trial, to take advantage of "the chance of a lifetime"--a ten-day seminar taught by Linda Greene. As soon as she got to Guthrie, she cut off communications with her husband, refusing all but the briefest of phone calls between him and the children. "He had difficulty reaching her or her children by phone and could only leave messages on an answering machine belonging to Linda Greene," says the newspaper account of the trial. "He said he had spoken to the children a total of 12 minutes since they arrived in Guthrie." Nelli George had decided she did not want to return to her husband.
Jonathan George was awarded temporary custody of his children by the state of Massachusetts. He then traveled to Oklahoma to take them back. Another custody hearing was held there, at which George said his wife's behavior had become increasingly "bizarre" since she started receiving literature from the Samaritan Foundation 18 months before. He said she began swinging a pendulum over things, including the children, and she would place a circular drawing under the groceries because allegedly bar codes were evil. He said she placed the same drawing under the children's pillows.
According to a brief filed by Jonathan George, the material Nelli George received was signed with the name Linda Greene. In these writings, introduced as evidence during the trial, Greene refers to zombies, vampires, and the Antichrist. She warns people not to talk on the telephone because vampires can steal your soul through the phone lines. Direct eye contact with a vampire could "transfer a vampire seed to your vestigial tail through the vehicle of sexual prana." Greene also details several ways to eliminate spiritual "waste." One method is to "propel such waste" into celebrities, because "many movie stars are zombies" without souls who "feel nothing from the procedure." Madonna is described as being a "nephilim zombie," Bill Clinton is "an animal-mutant zombie," Hillary Clinton is a "three-virtue type zombie," and Rosanna Arquette is a "ray/octave zombie." If no movie star or celebrity is available, Greene recommends sending "stray obsessive energy" into soy milk. "It is amazing," she writes, "how many spiritual energies can be directed into soy milk and poured down the sink."
Nelli George told the court that Linda Greene was only her friend, not her teacher, and she denied being a member of the Samaritan Foundation. Yet Logan County associate district judge Penny Howard ruled that the George children were to be returned to their father because Massachusetts, the children's home state, had jurisdiction over the case. Jonathan George took custody of his kids and drove home. Someone, however, had apparently beaten them there--Nelli's car, which she'd left in the garage of the family's home, was missing when Jonathan and the kids arrived.
Guthrie police officer Rex Smith first encountered the Samaritan Foundation during the George custody battle. He's been keeping his eye on the group for years. "They have been pretty well inactive in the last two years in this area," he says. "They were active in the early 90s--'92, '93. They bought an old building here in town, an old home. There were probably 30 to 40 people staying in that location."
During the custody case, Smith became concerned about the children's well-being. "There appeared to be about 14 or 15 children staying in the building. We made an inspection, and there were several city code violations. They were making individual living areas. They had instituted some individual showers. Their power tools were unattended, which child welfare had troubles with. I also know they were forced to obtain building permits."
With the Samaritan Foundation under increased scrutiny, its members began to leave Guthrie. "The proclaimed leader of the organization disappeared," Smith says. "We had not been able to find her to serve her with a subpoena for [the George custody] case. Allegedly she was in Europe. Since then we found out she had divorced Denis Greene and married another guy who has mysteriously disappeared."
"That's him. We've talked to [his] family members. We talked to an FBI agent in California about this. We've done as much checking as we are legally allowed to do around here."
Smith last saw Ross soon after the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. "We were working with the FBI and the ATF following up the phone leads after the bombing. And a lead had been called in about a Ryder truck having been seen in Guthrie in front of the Samaritan Foundation. The agents and I were able to track down Mr. Ross and talk to him. He still had possession of the Ryder truck. There was no link at all--let me emphasize that--there was no link at all to the bombing. We always like to say that because we are very touchy about that.
"At that time, [Ross] was moving. He was loading the truck from the house and from the compound. There was no one staying in the house or in the compound at the time. We talked to Mr. Ross in front of the residence for quite a while. He explained to us he was moving to Wyoming. He was joining Linda and somebody else in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Their leaving this location--that was in May of 1995--that was the last time we saw him or had any contact with him. The first we heard of him disappearing was in mid-1996. May or June of 1996. I went ahead and did some checking on utilities and found out that Mr. Ross had paid up the utilities for six months. And when that ran out, the utilities turned the water off. That was in January of 1996. And our water department had had no contact with him in over a year.
"Until all this came up, we had no contact. We had no idea where she was or Denis Greene was. We have gotten several faxes from someone claiming to be Linda Greene Ross. She was claiming that people were out to get her and set her up for killing Allen Ross. We got that fax in the latter part of 1996....She had made accusations that Denis Greene and somebody else had killed Allen Ross. That she had nothing to do with it. That it had happened in Cheyenne, Wyoming, in November of 1995. That's where they'd find the body. It was really off the wall....
"Our hands were tied because we had no proof," Smith says. "And I talked to our district attorney. We had no way of getting into either of the locations. Because as far as we knew, they were still under the name of Allen Ross. They weren't under her name.
"We had no probable cause to draw up a search warrant. The allegations being made were that this all happened in Cheyenne, Wyoming." And as long as Ross was still presumed alive, his permission was needed to enter the house. "We were between a rock and a hard place."
Allen Ross is currently listed as a missing person with the Cheyenne Police Department. According to officer Dave Padilla, in late 1995 he was told by Denis Greene that "Allen Ross had been killed by his wife. And that Mr. Ross's body was buried in the crawl space." Padilla says he and others searched the house, "and we didn't find a thing that indicated a body."
Afterward Padilla contacted Ross's family and asked for Allen's previous addresses. He was given several, though all but one were for post office boxes. "I never met anyone who could live in a post office box," Padilla says. The only address that wasn't a post office box didn't exist.
Denis Greene is reluctant to talk at first. When he returns my call, he sounds disappointed. "I was hoping you were not truly a reporter but instead a private investigator."
Greene says that after Allen Ross vanished he talked to "the police in four states and the FBI. They just didn't pursue his disappearance with what I think was adequate vigor." Greene says he last saw Ross in October 1995. He had traveled to Cheyenne from his home outside of Loveland, Colorado, to take his son to visit Linda Greene, the boy's mother. While he was there, Denis says, he wanted to do some work on his pickup truck. Ross helped out. "He helped me fix a clutch, a job I couldn't do myself. Too darn heavy."
Did Ross seem depressed or anxious?
"No, he seemed like he was ready to move out. It's funny, he was helping me on this clutch problem and he asked me lots and lots of questions about what was the best kind of vehicle to get that would be large, like an SUV, but would give him good gas mileage. Large enough where he could carry all of his stuff, yet rugged, durable, and get good mileage. He was in a buying mode." Greene says he and Ross sat down with a couple of car magazines. "I told him the ones I thought would be the best."
A month and a half later, he says, Linda Greene suddenly appeared on his doorstep. "She just showed up....She told me a long story about their extreme marital conflicts. Why she was telling me, I don't know."
Greene had grown increasingly concerned about his ex-wife. "For quite some time, she had not been making sense to me." He thought her actions had become increasingly bizarre. He claims that she was "sending faxes all over kingdom come about alien invasions and all kinds of stuff."
While in Colorado, Linda Greene "spun what I thought was a pretty wild yarn. I dismissed it summarily....She told me that they had gotten into another marital dispute, and she was afraid of him, and that she had done something to him that would ensure that he would no longer be able to hurt her."
Nothing over the course of their ten-year marriage, from 1983 to '93, had prepared Denis Greene for this. Their first five years together had been good. "When we married, she was a delight," he says. "When I first met her she was the most altruistic, sweetest, nicest person I ever met. She was working for this hospice. And she devoted her life to helping these people who were terminally ill. I really admired that. And she just worked tirelessly--60, 80 hours a week. I thought, man, this person is really a great person. And her patients really loved her. The other volunteers really liked her....That was the person I married. I couldn't believe how much she changed."
Together Linda and Denis Greene had a son and then founded the Samaritan Foundation. "I originally created it for teaching workshops in herbal teas and stuff like that," he says.
Were you interested in herbal teas?
"No, not really. But she was."
According to Greene, he was playing the loyal husband. "I was trying to be Mr. Supportive....I was trying to be a family guy....I tried to be supportive of everything she was doing, as weird as it seemed. Now I'm not into any of it. Since she's gone away, I'm not into it."
After a while, Greene says, he lost track of what was happening at the Samaritan Foundation. "There were all kinds of things going on. All kinds of classes. Retreats and all kinds of stuff. But the main focus was dowsing....If you got an American Society of Dowsers book or brochure or magazine and just went through it, you would see some of the topics she would deal with. She had her own spin on those things. Dowsing for health. Dowsing for spiritual health. Dowsing for spiritual influence. And then it went further down the road. Then her desire to be a guru took over.
"You can understand a great deal about a person if you ask them who their heroes are. What would you think if you asked a person that question and she said Don Quixote? No joking. That is absolutely what she said. What does that tell you about their perception of reality? Dreaming the impossible dream is kind of a cute concept unless you really do it....
"I stuck it out way too long and should have initiated on my own a divorce much earlier."
Allen Ross came to the Samaritan Foundation, Denis Greene says, to study dowsing with Linda. "Within six to eight months of our divorce, he had moved to Guthrie, and they were living together," he says. "I'm not sure they even went through the legal machinations of marriage. If they did, I never knew about it." No marriage license was ever filed in Logan County.
Denis Greene claims Linda refuses to communicate with anyone except by fax. "All kinds of weird things started at Allen's disappearance. Her never staying at one address. All the false names. Her moving to different places. Never staying anywhere very long."
He says his ex-wife is currently wandering around North America with a "wealthy, single woman who is Linda's friend, traveling companion, supporter, caretaker, chauffeur." He thinks this companion "is in need of someone to follow in life. And she found that person in Linda."
Denis Greene says he has no idea where Linda is today, though he does receive faxes every once in a while from someone claiming to be Linda. The most recent came from a fax machine in Montreal.
If anyone knows where Allen Ross is, people tell me, it would be Flanagan MacKenzie, who now lives near Saint Louis. "She knows stuff, and what she knows I don't know," says Marion McCreedy, an anthropologist who hired Ross to shoot a film in Africa shortly before he disappeared. But, she adds, "Flanagan is very cagey." Filmmaker Tom Palazzolo warns that MacKenzie refuses to talk about Ross because it's a private matter. "She's always taken that approach. The fact that he hasn't been heard from doesn't bother her, I guess," he says. "Respect his privacy? Where the hell is he?"
Christian Bauer insists MacKenzie has no idea of Ross's whereabouts. "She doesn't know where Allen is. She's deeply concerned. She knows much more about the things that were going on in this group than anybody else knows."
For a time, Ross and MacKenzie were inseparable. They were the Scott and Zelda of the fringe film scene, holding parties in their loft and working together on each other's movies. Loud and magnetic, MacKenzie was Ross's opposite, yet they seemed to be a perfect match. She recalls that they met at a party in 1986, left early together, "and basically partied all night--and that was the start."
When asked now about Ross's whereabouts, MacKenzie hesitates. "I think that's more about privacy," she says. "And a person being able to be who they are and what they do. And not have people delve into it. A person has a right not to let people know where they are. He's a very private person. I think that should be respected.
"It's just, I...things that are playing on this just shouldn't be discussed. And shouldn't be disturbed. Until it's the appropriate time to disturb it. And I can't go into it. And I can't elucidate because that would invade the privacy. But there have been people who have been in touch with him and he's OK. It's definitely not open for this kind of a forum, a newspaper forum--it's just way too far." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): cover photos by Bill Stamets; Ross shooting Tom Palazzolo's "Added Lessons" in 1987; Flanagan MacKenzie holds the boom photo by Bill Stamets;.